I sat on my tall stool behind the counter in my parents’ music store, looking past my open history textbook to the dirty snow and paper trash blowing down the street in the darkening afternoon. A lone figure shuffled down the opposite sidewalk, past the jewelry store, and stopped on the corner in front of the drug store at the stoplight, his helmeted head cast down, waiting for the traffic light to turn. I scanned a few more paragraphs in my textbook until he entered, heralded by a chorus of automated door chimes and blown in by a gust of frozen air.
As a child, I believed my 16-year-old babysitter, at the peak of adulthood, had all of the answers one could have. She had hip kicks, cool hair, and was in high school, which I assumed to be the height of “getting it.” She was old enough to understand the complexities of the universe (for me, at the time, that meant she could make mac and cheese from a blue box), yet not old enough to be out of touch with youth culture. I could not wait to become a teenager and to be as cool as she and the other teens I saw on TV, like Kelly Kapowski, Shawn Hunter, and Clarissa Darling. When I reached that threshold, I learned I was drastically wrong and shifted my gaze to 18 . . . and then at 18 to 21, 21 to 30. Now I’m just waiting for the comfort of the void. More… “Good Graces”
My youth was filled with warnings. “Just Say No,” “This is Your Brain on Drugs,” and “No Means No” pervaded the cultural ether in the early ’90s. The advice came from our teachers, police officers who came to our classrooms, and my parents. My mother was particularly good at training me to recognize and avoid stranger danger. As a kindergartner, I learned adults never ask for help from children (which now as an adult myself, I can confirm; they are useless at directions). If a stranger attempted to pick me up, I was to yell “NOT MY PARENT” as I melted into dead weight, rendering me nearly impossible to transport into a vehicle. And if a family friend came to pick me up from school, my parents and I had a secret code to ensure they were legit messengers vetted and verified (PocahontasDaisy, if I recall correctly). As far as I can tell, no attempts were ever made, but I was (and continue to be) on the lookout for shenanigans. My friends have similar stories regarding the ways in which they were warned against becoming victims — with similar threads — stranger dangers, candy vans, and codes. Our parents clearly survived their youths in order to pass down these lessons, which made it all the stranger that they were so afraid we wouldn’t survive ours.
By my birth in 1985, there had been two world wars that affected generations of our families. Men came home traumatized, women shifted their priorities, children adjusted until they inevitably feared Russians and nuclear war. As if Charles Manson’s destruction of the ’60s had been a battle cry, the 1970s and ’80s saw the proliferation of high-profile serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Robert Hansen, Richard Ramirez, and the Zodiac Killer (and that’s just a handful) invading the public’s conscience. They were the “everyman” who lived in any town next to any person. Bundy was a charmer who volunteered at suicide hotlines. Gacy and Hansen were pillars of their community. And the nameless — like Zodiac — were so adept at blending in they were never caught. More… “Girl Afraid”
For his 2007 translation of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Robin Buss chooses to render the title as The Lost Estate, followed by Le Grand Meaulnes in parentheses. However, since reading it, I refer to it solely as Le Grand Meaulnes, because Buss’s note on the translation describes the French title as nearly untranslatable: “There are, in fact, more titles of this book in English than there are translations of it”! (Even the author’s name is not consistently “translated.” A pseudonym — he was born Henri-Alban Fournier — it appears on some editions as “Henri Alain-Fournier” and on others simply as “Alain-Fournier.”)
The novel, considered a coming-of-age classic in France on par with our The Catcher in the Rye, tells the story of Augustin Meaulnes, known as grand at school for both his height and his charisma, a dashing boy who escapes one day on an adventure. It’s a few days before Christmas, and one of his classmates has been chosen for the important task of picking up the schoolmaster’s parents at a nearby train station. In a fit of competitive jealousy, Meaulnes steals a horse and carriage and races off to beat him to the station, but he takes a wrong turn and gets lost. He stops to sleep and the horse runs away. Eventually, cold and exhausted, he stumbles upon a secluded estate where some kind of celebration — “a strange fête” — is taking place: There are children in costume, dancing, a great feast. (You can picture it, can’t you? Stone walls? Fairy lights in the trees?) It’s a wedding, and Meaulnes crashes it. He is assumed to be a guest, and when everyone leaves at the end of the weekend, he catches a ride back in the direction of his town. By the time he returns he has been missing several days and, when the horse turned up with an empty trap, feared dead. More… “Impossible Time”
I was 16 years old when I ran away from home on a December night in Ottawa, Canada where the typical monthly temperatures range from ten to 21 degrees Fahrenheit at night. I had no choice. My mother was an alcoholic and I was the only family member left on whom she could vent an increasingly dangerous rage. More… “Try a Little Tenderness”
I woke up angry on the day before my 21st birthday. I lay in the bed of a Copacabana hostel in Rio de Janeiro, shivering next to Ayal — my Israeli travel-friend-with-benefits — as he slept soundly. After the initial 20 minutes of our reconvening in Rio, nothing had been remotely ideal. We argued. I was jealous and paranoid. I wanted all of his attention. I wanted to know his feelings, but I also didn’t want to have to ask. I was afraid of him, and afraid of myself, too, because I was in unfamiliar territory. I had no control. I hated this but also knew that if I had control, things wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing.
And so I was simply angry. Angry I had barely slept, angry my eyes were stinging from tears. I thought about heading… More…