Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1:
Who doesn't know what I'm talking about
Who's never left home, who's never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone?
I'll have you know that I don't usually drink in semiprofessional situations. But seeing as this pig pickin' is being held in my honor, and a handsome man in a seersucker suit is eyeing me intently as he pours me a tasty mint julep from an icy pitcher, I've decided to leave my newspaper ethics at home.
I notice how pleasing his muscles look in his suit. And I'm sure he notices how stunning I look in my buttercup brown cowboy boots and my powder pink hat—the size of a Frisbee—which hangs over my head in a slightly funky, slightly elegant way.
I'm feeling rather relaxed as I gaze up from my cushioned lawn chair at this giant Italianate mansion in front of me. Green sheets of Japanese kudzu are dripping down the walls by the columned front steps, and two hundred purple rhododendrons line the brick walkway.
I'm nibbling delicately on a heaping plate of food: crackling, crisp pieces of pig, baked beans dripping with molasses, and pieces of fried okra that are soft in the middle and crunchy on the outside.
Meanwhile, all around me on the lawn, violas and snapdragons reach up out of the earth, and the fragrance of the hickory wood coals from the pig pit mixes with the minty smell of late afternoon. The scents wrap around me like a summer shawl, and a few feet away from me my new editor is telling everyone I'm the most exciting thing that has arrived in North Carolina since General Sherman.
Fortunately, I've been too busy to pay attention to this cornucopia of compliments—which I find rather embarrassing, considering that I'm really quite new at this. For a while, I was playing putt-putt with Michael Jordan—on the tarmac by the garage. He flew in last night to welcome me to his hometown state. Then I was chatting with the North Carolina Young Heifer Star of the Year. A few minutes ago, she ceremoniously threw off her jean jacket and tossed it my way—in case I got chilly. I blew her a few kisses and agreed to add the jacketwhich happens to have a wonderful sequence of rhinestone inlay—to my collection of preferred outerwear.
I'm delighted to be here, but I must confess I have a bit of a hangover. The truth is, I haven't stopped partying since I crossed the state line. First, there was a cocktail party with Jesse and Dot Helms—who have put aside their general ire at the North to welcome me. Then last night, the raucous race car wanna-be Buckshot Jones dropped by my hotel room for a nightcap. We had a few whiskeys, then slid into his $200,000 Dodge and whizzed over to a racetrack in Durham to do some laps. My limbs would be aching a lot less if we hadn't stopped at the Have a Nice Day Cafe to gulp down these fruity alcoholic beverages from plastic cups in the shape of the state of North Carolina. I guess my insistence that Buckshot teach me the shag may also have something to do with it. At one point, I seem to remember I was air-bound on the dance floor.
Anyhow, I think Buckshot has a thing for me. But I told him that he didn't have a chance, seeing as I just moved to North Carolina and wanted to launch any new romantic liaisons slowly. He said he understood and gave me his red Winston Cup baseball cap as a welcoming gift—even though I refused to let him slip his hand down my blouse on the ride home.
Anyway, this is all to explain why I'm resting on this lawn chair rather than getting down with the bluegrass band by the pool.
Oh, look. There's Tammy Faye. You know—the former wife of that mischievous Charlotte preacher Jim Bakker. Tammy's famed for her mascara-drenched eyelashes—but that's old news. It's a little-known secret that Tammy has a fabulous shoe collection. The woman makes Imelda Marcos's shoe closet look like a used clothing store.
Since my arrival, Tammy and I have talked several times on the phone—and once in person. I chose to make contact with her as a means of gathering information about the state before I came on as a metro reporter at the Raleigh daily, where I am scheduled to start working in a few days. She's a great listener. And in addition to giving me historical background on North Carolina, she's been grilling me about my foibled upbringing in lower Manhattan. She loves the stuff.
"Not everyone grew up with a backyard and a car," I yell across the lawn, repeating a comment I made to her a few days before at the Hayes Barton Grill, where we were downing Bloody Marys. It made her cackle so hard she nearly fell off her chair.
She bumbles over and wraps her arms—lined with bangle braceletsaround me.
"Tammy, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to elicit sympathy," I mumble, my head buried in her chest. "But I wouldn't mind some understanding—now that I've moved ten hours from home. And I have no family to speak of within six states."
"Darlin'? Tammy coos, "in that fabulous getup you've got on, you couldn't elicit sympathy if you wanted to."
We both chuckle and the mayor, a Bobby Brady look-alike sporting a patterned sweater with several yellow geese on it, overhears this. He pats me gently on the back and says: "We're going to take care of you, don't worry."
I smile at the mayor. And now that I have his ear, I decide to fill it with info about what attracted me to the South.
"Mayor," I begin, recalling the speech I wrote a few weeks before to use on occasions like this. "I've never interviewed a sheriff, kissed a man in a Stetson, or owned a pair of hiking boots, let alone worn a dress that wasn't black." I take a sip of my julep and bolt out of my lawn chair. Then I make a broad stroke in the air with one of my manicured hands and prepare for the grand finale of my speech. "But here I am ready to explore. Some people go to Europe to find adventure, take safaris in Africa or visit ashrams in India. For me, adventure has always meant the sticks."
Cheers erupt, even though I think a few people were slightly offended by the reference to 'the sticks.' And I realize that the entire picnic has been listening to my conversation. Several well-wishers rush to embrace me. I feel a wave of calm sweep over me as James Taylor grabs my hand and begins to whisper the lyrics to his hit "Carolina in My Mind" into my left ear. He and I slip into the Italianate mansion—together—to have a little private chat. And before you know it, we're kissing up a Carolina storm while Buckshot is outside tapping against the drawing room windowpane. "What the hell are you . . ."
"Are you doing?" my best friend Mark hollered as he banged his fist against the bathroom door. I stuck my tongue out and stared at myself in the mirror, did a clean-teeth, smudge check, and jammed my lipstick back into my pocket. I wasn't wearing a straw hat or a pair of cowboy boots. I had on my black leather pants, my Doc Martens, and the suede coat I bought in Spain with the fuzzy collar. I was in New York City, in the women's bathroom at Odeon, my foot on the garbage can, applying lipstick and talking to myself.
Mark had chosen the venue for my two-person farewell party. I guess he figured they didn't have brasseries—or anything else a girl from New York would want—in North Carolina. It was a ploy. And, frankly, it wasn't working.
"The whole idea of moving to North Carolina is making you sick to your stomach, isn't it?" Mark inquired, when I flung open the door and exited the bathroom. "Moving so far away from New York City—any city, I mean."
Mark—who was still living on the Manhattan block where he had learned to ride a two-wheeler—was having trouble coming to terms with my plan to take a reporting job in Raleigh. He had taken to pronouncing Raleigh as if he were saying "war-torn Bosnia." That's when he wasn't referring to it as "down there."
"You know you don't have to go down there?" he said. "You can always stay in one of my parents' apartments and freelance. In case you're worried about that."
"Worried? What are you talking about?" We were back at our table. I took a sip of my now warm beer. "When was the last time you had the opportunity to stick your tongue down James Taylor's throat?"
I raised a brow. "Just forget it."
Mark and I have been best friends since we were fourteen. And he purports to know me well: the overdeveloped fantasy life, the way I tend to optimistically assume every man I meet is going to marry me, the way I embellish events for the sake of the story. These are the parts of my personality he finds most entertaining. He laughed for weeks in high school when I told him Darryl Strawberry was going to take me to the prom. I didn't think it was very funny, particularly since I ended up going with a kid from my AP history class who had failed gym—twice.
When Mark and I first met, I was not the semiadjusted person I am today. I wore black lipstick and yelled a lot. I don't remember why. But Mark says I was enormously angry with my parents. As for Mark, he was not the model of stability, either. He wore the same Hanes T-shirt every day and nibbled on little balled-up pieces of loose-leaf paper. Anxious is the word I would use to describe his general teenage mood. We've matured a lot since then. Now, when I get upset I try to "center myself" and "find my breath." When he gets worked up, I tell him: "You're not your thoughts. Let it go." Or sometimes I just tell him: "Don't worry. Girls think you're hot." He loves that last part. As for making me feel better, Mark says if I'm thirty-eight and still unwed, he'll marry me. Mark is my insurance policy. And I'm his.
Mark put his beer down and suddenly got somber. "Kyle, I think this North Carolina stuff is a pretense."
I furrowed my brow. "For what?"
"Maturing. I think you're trying to move on with your life, figure out what you want."
"So, what if I am?"
Mark threw his hands up in the air. "Then I have to do it too, numbnuts. Or else you're going to leave me behind. And the only woman in my life will be my sister. And she doesn't even know when my birthday is."
I looked at him intently. Jane Goodall, ready for another journey to Tanzania. "Mark, you've got to set me free! I'm a journalist! I'm supposed to be exploring foreign lands. That's my job."
Mark was silent for a second. He took a sip of his drink—then launched into a rendition of the Simple Minds tune from the movie The Breakfast Club: "Don't you forget about me."
Walk my way
Don't walk on by
Rain keeps falling,
Rain keeps falling down, down, down, down,
Don't you forget about me.
After three minutes of hellish singing, I jumped up. "Listen, I gotta go finish packing. I'll call you when I get there."
I grabbed my things, gulped down my drink, and flew out of there—leaving Mark gawking at some woman at the table next to us. I wasn't too worried about my best friend. He just had a little trouble with good-byes. But he'd figure things out on his own. I knew that. As for me, I was feeling so brave. So together. So girl-on-the-move. . . . But frankly, I was also feeling scared. What I hadn't told Mark—or anyone else, for that matter—but I can tell you, is this: Moving to North Carolina wasn't just an adventure, it was also an escape.
If you feel like you entered this story through the back door, don't worry. You have. Let me fill you in. My name is Kyle Spencer. I'm twenty-seven, and dysfunctional would be a kind way to describe my family. I was raised in a loft in lower Manhattan by my father, a frustrated investment banker who worshiped Pablo Picasso, and my stepmother, Shelby, a bleached-blond underground theater actress whose stage name was Stardust.
In my world, avant-garde was a household word. Andy Warhol was a hero. And putting anything with artificial ingredients in your mouth was a sin. My childhood was populated by artists, drag queens, and intellectuals threatening to move to Cuba.
"That's it," my parents—philosopher-plumber friend Kevin would shout every time another Republican was elected to office, slapping his half-finished manuscript against our dining room table and waving his fork in the air. "I'm getting out of here!" As a recovering bank robber who had spent ten years behind bars, Kevin was lucky to be going anywhere. But since his troubled youth, he had matured. In prison, he started a world-renowned theater group that later became the focus of a feature-length film.
All I wanted was to be surrounded by manicured lawns, tree houses, and normal adult role models—like doctors, teachers, and policemen. I was not so lucky. Our neighbors were temperamental artists, people who experimented with mediums and musicians who gave us contact highs when their pot smoke drifted down the air shaft and slipped into my parents bedroom on Saturday nights, while we watched The Love Boat. Our dinner guests were people like Sur Rodney Sur, the artist who showed his works in his bathroom and wore a telephone cord around his neck as a piece of mobile art.
While this eccentricity might have appealed to other young people, it did nothing but disappoint me. Perhaps I would have felt differently about the nonconformity my parents found so appealing if it hadn't been coupled with a marriage that entailed a great deal of high-energy hysteria. There were few things my parents found more satisfying than a good knock-down-drag-out fight. You know. Beams out the window. Milk cartons across the room. Police bumbling into our house to talk about why plates were crashing against walls.
While other people celebrated birthdays and graduations, we hosted annual Divorce Week. The time once a year when my father, bleary-eyed and bloated, would announce from his spot on the guest bedroom bed that he couldn't hold on any longer to the abysmal relationship he had with "the histrionic shrew he had married." Or my stepmother would drag us to a friend's house, and announce along the way that she had made a terrible mistake marrying my father, a "passive-aggressive misogynist."
I tell you all this because I maintain a great deal of ire against the people I hold responsible for my miserable upbringing, ire which perhaps I should have unloaded by now. But I haven't. And this story is partially about that.
Here's a family Who's Who (a.k.a. "My Sob Chart"), in case you need help sorting out the kooks in my life.
1. Meet my father, George, a handsome WASP from Rochester, who left my mother and our Upper East Side apartment when I was three to join my stepmother—a bohemian from the West Village—because it was 1973 and he needed to be "free."
2. Say hello to my mother, a pretty WASP from Connecticut who fell apart when my father unexpectedly left. To cope, she joined the Upper East Side cocktail circuit, and almost forgot she had three kids. Having garnered a strong and unfounded sense of entitlement at an early age, I considered the level of attention I was receiving unacceptable. And at my father's prodding I left my mother's house at age eight and moved downtown.
3. In walks my stepmother, Shelby, a tall loquacious left-wing brunette, famed for her killer red lipstick, fake eyelashes, and six-inch heels. Shelby saved my neglected young soul by showering me with attention, French films, and chocolate-covered raisins. Among other things, she taught me to read, signed me up for my first writing class, and introduced me to "well-made" children's clothing—which was all she said a stepdaughter of hers should be wearing.
4. Welcome my half brother, Phillip, born when I was nine and rumored to have been a last-ditch effort to save my father and Shelby's failing relationship. Throughout his childhood, he paid back the favor by maintaining a level of low-grade anger toward everyone in the family and assumed the role of "problem child"—even though his IQ is probably double all of ours combined. He has since taken a great interest in the American military and harbors political beliefs that are perilously close to those held by members of the Christian Coalition.
5. Also in the picture is my older brother, George, who shares my father's name. He is six years my senior, and my mother's only son. George stayed with my mother when I went to live with my father, visiting my father only on weekends. Today, he is an artist who paints bloody-faced boxers and moonlights as a real estate mogul who buys dilapidated buildings in Brooklyn ghettos and fixes them up.
6. On the sidelines is my older sister, Elizabeth, seven years my senior. She escaped us all by practically moving in with her best friend, Gretchen, when my father first left—and never really returning.
A note: My mother doesn't figure in this story. When I told her I was writing an "exaggerated memoir," she begged to be left out. "Listen, Kyle, I know I was not the best mother to you when you were young. But it was the seventies. All the professionals were telling us how resilient you kids were. If I'm in that book, I know you're going to make me a whore or something."
Nor does Elizabeth. She works at Talbots and lives on Cape Cod with her husband and dog. She's so normal that basically she skews the whole story. So, I let her off the hook, too.
A day after my talk with Mark, I sped into downtown Raleigh, almost out of gas, and parked my car in front of a large, picturesque town square. Curious but tired, I peered sheepishly out of my window. Above the square—and a little to the left—was the Raleigh skyline. Nothing towering or monumental, just a few gleaming office complexes and a cylinder-shaped Holiday Inn reaching toward the heavens. Lining the square were sidewalks—clean, wide, and roomy. And in the distance I spotted a snake-shaped railroad track that looped around the city. Raleigh would never be a beautiful city. But it had a slow, meandering pace that appealed to me.
I cracked open my window. The scent of lemons and lavender filtered through the afternoon air. It was so much fresher and cleaner than New York City air. I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled out a cigarette. Here, I thought, unbuckling my seat belt and throwing my safety club in the backseat, you could actually stroll down the sidewalk without bumping into one of those frenzied New York pedestrians ready and will- ing to ram her purse into your groin. I was looking forward to leaving behind those superdriven New Yorkers—so beautiful and so brilliant and so brutally ambitious they'd sacrifice their firstborn (and your life) for a walk-on in an afternoon soap opera. Not to mention the last container of milk at the grocery store.
With these thoughts floating through my head, I crushed my cigarette out and drove to the nearest gas station. Then I tanked up and headed out of town. I passed a Hardee's and an IHOP, and then a row of large, cube-shaped suburban homes showcasing faux Greek columns and Federalist porches. Eventually, I fell onto a rural road with long stretches of tobacco fields and potato patches that seemed to go on forever. I pictured myself, straw in mouth—frolicking through the pastures, making cheese or maybe milking cows, finding solace and serenity. I would be cool, collected. I would adopt a happy, slow-paced life in which I would read self-help books and do things like think about my inner self and achieve a permanent state of well-being.
Back in the city, I spotted the block-letter sign for my hotel. I pulled out my duffel bag and clicked back to reality. The hotel lobby had tangerine carpeting and a nightly happy hour and dance party in the bar, which was named Bowties. I resisted the urge to partake in the Bowtie happy hour and headed to my room. I inserted my card into the door slot and pulled open the curtains.
Here before me was the city where I would be living for the next two and a half years. The Raleigh Plastic Surgery Center and a Christian chain bookstore were staring up at me. I switched the lights off and noticed a twinkling from the Denny's below.
I centered my gaze on the glow from downstairs and thought of the chaos back in New York, the tension between Shelby and my father, the silent anger that oozed through our house, the way Phillip was growing tattoos on his arm and had just announced he wanted to spend the summer at a military camp in Texas.
It was during a family dinner—minus Phillip—a few weeks before in a crimson-walled Indian restaurant in the East Village that I realized how utterly unbearable the heaviness had become. We'd walked there together—the three of us. Me in the middle, because Shelby and my father could no longer bear to stand next to each other. My head snapped back and forth during the entire walk, and my mind juggled two separate thoughts and ideas as I tried to carry on two conversations at once while staving off whiplash. The two warring factions weren't just refusing to talk, they were refusing to acknowledge each other's existence.
Back in Raleigh, my hotel room felt peaceful and calm. Free of worry and stress. Safe. It buzzed with the hum of the air conditioner and the tap-tap sound of water in the bathroom sink.
"I'm home," I said to the highway that stretched before me. Then I slipped under the crisp hotel sheets of my king-size bed and fell into a restful sleep.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:
Bug Music: Excerpt from "Wide Open Spaces" by Susan Gibson, copyright © 1999 by Pie Eyed Groobee Music (BMI). Administered by Bug. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Bug Music.
Universal Music Publishing Group: Excerpt from "Don't You Forget About Me" by Steve Schiff and Keith Forsey, copyright © 1985 by Universal-MCA Music Publishing, a division of Universal Studios, Inc., Songs of Universal, Inc. (ASCAP/BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted by permission of Universal Music Publishing Group.