There are two things I genuinely appreciate about the UK medical system. The first is the fact that medical staff are extremely polite, and appear to care about their patients. They even have the decency to look sad when they deliver bad news.
The second is a related point: when you are obligated to have tests like, say, a pelvic ultrasound, the raw data is delivered immediately. There is no delay while assorted professionals evaluate information.
The nice woman wielding the wand of doom yesterday afternoon pointed to the image of my right ovary on the monitor and said I’ve never seen anything like this before with a puzzled and concerned expression.
Of course not. It is, after all, my body.
My annual Big Cancer Scare is generally not very interesting. It happens too often and I usually just feel annoyed. But since I recently decided to possess and exercise appropriate (some would say normal) emotions, I spent all of yesterday feeling a sort of mild terror.
Or at least observing myself attempting to feel scared; I’m still learning, after all. It is sufficiently difficult to remember that any of it is true.
Byron (along with many of my friends) takes the position that I am like a cockroach and can’t be killed; a brief consultation with him yielded the further wisdom that if I have a new and lethal cancer, at least I’ve had fun along the way.
I’m not a big fan of sympathy so I didn’t bother to mention the matter to anyone else, aside from involving Gabriel in a quest to find the phone number of my stateside oncologist as I have conveniently forgotten the name of not only the doctor but also the hospital.
I shed a few self-pitying tears, berated myself for crying, and went out to dinner. Then I watched that double episode of Wonder Woman featuring Debra Winger as Diana’s ditzy younger sister.
I walked into the appointment this morning fully prepared to hear bad news. Imagine my surprise then to hear a doctor informing me that the thing described by the technician is no cause for worry. In fact, piecing together the facts, it is probably a scar.
The growth that was under surveillance three years ago has vanished.
How do you recognize someone you haven’t seen in eighteen years?
Particularly if, aside from growing up, you have also created a new life far away from all that is familiar and dear? Surely we had both changed so much it would be impossible to find each other in a crowd.
These were the questions tumbling through my brain as I walked toward a Clerkenwell pub to meet David, who I haven’t spoken to since 1988.
When I found out that he lived in England I elected not to get in touch for a long time. I figured that he had remained lost for all those years because he didn’t want any of us to find him; I know very few people from my youth, and prefer to keep it that way.
Why, then, get in touch?
Because he left in a clean and subtle way, without getting tangled in the drama that destroyed the group. Because I remember that he always made me laugh, and that he enjoyed the macabre excesses of my humor. Because we ended up in the same place after all this time.
The answer of how to spot him was quickly revealed: we both, for some inexplicable reason, look the same.
My hair is long and tangled and of indeterminate color; as always, I wear weird spectacles and inappropriate clothing; the only real difference in my public persona is that I laugh without covering my mouth.
David still has short dark hair and sharp garbed demeanor and burning wit. The main difference in his manner is the acquisition, after an adult life away from home, of a hybrid accent. He no longer pronounces Olalla the way we would have back in the day – and since my own grasp of rural colloquial phrasing is draining away after only two years in this country, it was fascinating to listen to him talk.
It was a shocking thrill to find that the particular aspects of our personalities that were dark and hidden are now the most visible and pure portions of our identities. What we could smell on each other back in 1984, those profound needs that would create our small community and later drive us away from home and out into the world, are no longer secret.
We grew up and out and into new lives, and that is a dangerous thing, because it requires shedding the old life along the way. But we are still fundamentally just an inverted form of who we were all those years ago.
Meeting again was a risky proposition, and could have been a tedious exercise. I’m sure that he felt the same – what a potential bore to offer up your Friday evening to someone you knew, briefly, as an eccentric teenager in a poor mean town, particularly if you currently have a brilliant cosmopolitan lifestyle.
But we had drinks, then dinner, and then he showed me around his amazing flat, featuring many of the objects I am most obsessed with. I offered up a few morsels of breathtaking gossip about those who have gone astray, but mostly we talked about the years we haven’t known each other. We talked about living in Europe, and the experience of leaving home.
There is something tremendously valuable in knowing a person who remembers the same stories, and has a similar perspective on that beautiful wretched town, without needing to talk about what happened.
The most important thing is that we left.
When people ask me what I do now I try to change the subject. Failing that I give an addled and incomplete version that is often willfully deceptive. When someone else seizes control and tells the full truth I feel a flush of embarrassment and my ears turn red.
But since I live in a place where many people assign high value to professional credentials, the question comes up all the time. I’m not getting better with the answers.
But, delightfully, people often inquire about your educational background, and last weekend someone asked about my thesis.
Now, remember, I finished graduate school twelve long years ago. But I did not have to pause or think before I replied I used a participatory research methodology to examine the implementation of federal civil rights laws at the state and local level.
I do not miss that career. Though it was easier to explain.
Recently someone asked me, with some degree of puzzlement, if I have ever experienced unrequited love.
I laughed and replied of course not.
Nothing is impossible, but I doubt that I ever will. Doing so would not be efficient.
Another night I was talking to a different person about similar topics (conversations with me veer around a bit, but can generally be described as investigative journalism) and I flourished one of my favorite old talking points, never once disputed: that nobody has ever had a crush on me, because (goes my logic) nobody has ever confessed such a thing. Much to my surprise the person I was talking to looked mildly dismayed and said But I have a crush on you, Bee. A friend crush.
I furrowed my brow and demanded to know why this would be so. In detail. Which of course I failed to remember, but the larger point did stick in my mind. Perhaps I think that I’ve never had a crush on anyone because my definition is flawed.
Because, if a crush is defined as a flush of raw energy and instant attraction, I experience it routinely. That is the zap I often get from friendship, which for me is a very cerebral and endlessly entertaining experience. And, although my friends are often crazy, dangerous, needy, broken, or sinister, I love them. In fact, if I am being honest, my friends have broken my heart — and I expect they will continue to do so. Friendship is an imperfect vessel for intimacy.
The other kind of crush still strikes me as perplexing, and will require further pondering.
I suppose that I would be a happier person if I had figured all this out in my murky youth. But then again, maybe not.
In the continuing dreary saga of my genetic disorder there is one appointment that I detest more than others, and today was the big day.
I literally will not go to gynecological oncology unless a minder drags me to the hospital. Thirty minutes before I was supposed to be at Addenbrooke’s I was meandering about the city muttering that I would just skip the whole thing. But in the end, Byron forced to go and sit for hours in a waiting room chock full of people waiting for a death sentence.
When I was finally called in to see the doctor (aka the leading expert in the country) he shook my hand, opened my chart, and said Oh I do apologize. You should have had your scan before this appointment.
He asked the basic questions and I gave cursory responses followed by the comment that I’ve been waiting eighteen months for the appointment. This led to another apology and a scramble to sort out urgent testing and consultation appointments, unfortunately spread over two days next week.
I always jump to the front of the queue when the specialists see my file.
But this means that I’m losing three work days (and imposing on a friend to take the time off to supervise my behavior) for a loathsome test that everyone agrees should have been done two years ago.
The results had better not upset me. I am too busy for surgery at the moment.
When I moved here I was bemused to find that the first question people ask is How long are you staying?
The answer matters because people move in and out of this town all the time, and some of the folks who stay grow weary of the fact that their friends move away.
At first I didn’t mind; I think that it is useful to know people all over the world. It is also true that most of my friends here are either faculty or work in research labs, so they’re relatively permanent fixtures.
But the moment has arrived – one of my favorite people is finishing her PhD and leaving to assume an academic post in another country. Oh no! Whatever will we do without Rachel’s sunny presence?
To compensate for the imminent loss I spent the better part of the weekend with Rachel and her peers and learned many interesting things about academic life. When I was actually young I was neither friendly nor decadent, so the last few days have been rather novel and amusing.
I’ll definitely have to visit Montreal now.
During my recent travels I met an astonishing number of people who had major visual disorders as children.
We who grew up with fractured vision are an interesting small minority, unable to play sports or accurately judge whether a cupboard is about to smash into our faces. But most of us learned an early shame over the fact of our strabismus, and until now it has been rare for me to find anyone to chat with about the subject.
For most people, growing up without depth perception is complicated but not intolerable; the mind adapts to the challenge. Mine certainly did – it was the corrective surgery at age fourteen that disrupted my ability to track and organize visual cues.
Though I did gradually develop from partial to full stereoscopic vision, it was disconcerting to say the least, and while I can pass simple 3-D eye tests there are many other things I can’t do. Over the last twenty years I have often chosen to view the world with one eye closed, and it has not escaped my notice that this is symbolic.
But tell that to a person with ordinary vision and you are met with dismay or embarrassment. Between my vision, the cancer, and the genetic disorder, not to mention the oddity of my career and lifestyle, there is very little I can say in the course of an average conversation that does not at least glance at a controversial or alarming topic.
I find it shocking that over the last few months I have ceased to care about such things. My reticence has fallen away without warning.
Tonight I was talking to someone at a party and mentioned my childhood cancer as it was pertinent to whatever topic we were trundling through.
He stopped, looked pensive, and said I’m sorry.
I laughed at him and said No you’re not. That is just a platitude.
He thought for a second and then agreed.
Our conversation proceeded to veer about in a perfectly pleasant fashion. It is so refreshing to meet people who are honest about these things.
The UK publisher asked for a selection of images spanning my entire life. This required opening the archives – oh my! I tend to keep everything… but also occasionally hack up stuff that makes me unhappy.
Why are there big holes in my graduation photographs? Hmmm. I don’t even remember the names at this point…..
If you knew me back in the day and are reading this, rest assured I do not plan to let the publisher see any of the pics of us frolicking about as teenagers. Though we were all so cute! I didn’t know at the time.
This is from James’ juvenilia, all of which he burned shortly thereafter. Good thing I grabbed a print or two.
Me in 1990 (age 19):
If you know a writer, you know someone who has a major grudge with the publishing industry.
Our complaints are exhaustive; we are an articulate and grievous crew. We are in fact upset about too many things to bother documenting the sundry details. When we meet, we often trade bitter anecdotes that are interesting only to those who suffer the same indignities.
People who have never published books do not understand our pain.
From what I can gather, the issue that causes the most distress is the inevitably disastrous book cover. I can say with some confidence that I do not know anyone who has been satisfied with the way their books look.
Why? Again, the reasons are too numerous to count. Sometimes the grievance is legitimate – lots of ugly book jackets are published every year. Others are more subtle. Fundamentally it often boils down to the simple fact that someone else controls the manner by which your creative work is represented.
Even if you have some measure of sway in the decisions the process is not easy. I hated the cover of my first anthology because I thought the imagery had poor symbolic value. That experience persuaded me that I needed creative control over other books. But the second anthology caused great distress because the idea and artwork executed by a fantastic designer (and close friend) was changed by the publisher.
I was able to suggest and use the work of a friend (who also shows up as a character in the first chapter) for the memoir, and liked the results very much. But each time the book is published in another country the whole matter of the cover comes up again – and the new publisher has to make decisions about what will help sales, and they are obviously more conversant with their own culture than I could ever be.
The Swedish edition of the book had the same cover, but a translated title. The U.K. edition will have the original title but a different cover.
Wednesday evening I had a peek at the draft of the new jacket, and I have no idea how I feel about it. I furrowed my brow and consulted with my agent, and various writer and artist friends. Then I went on an odyssey through the bookshops of Muswell Hill and Crouch End, looking at covers and taking notes.
Iain very patiently joined me as I scanned shelves to find books published by the same company to compare with the cover they propose to put on mine.
It is nice to have friends who indulge my paranoia.
The madness of a summer in this place could not be exaggerated. Heat and sun bring people out of their homes in droves; the parks fill up with sport and play. At night the streets of Cambridge are swarmed with hoards of drinkers. And because this is a university town the parties, particularly after exams end, are a nonstop cacophony, featuring fireworks and finery.
There are swarms of drunk people in tuxedos and ballgowns literally everywhere you look, all day and night.
For the last week I’ve been trying to catch up on work but the temptations are endless. I’ve lost whole days to entertaining frippery and found myself scribbling overdue essays on scraps of paper while riding the train back and forth to London.
Can I call my current state of exhaustion jetlag when I flew out of NY still suffering the side-effects of a hugely entertaining party that lasted an entire weekend without much time for rest and contemplation? Probably not.
There is no time to catch up on sleep; mad deadlines loom and there isn’t even room to do the sundry boat maintenance tasks that I have been putting off all spring. Though I do have to clean up a bit as someone apparently infringed on my hospitality; there are empty Stella bottles littering the top of the boat. I presume this happened during the Strawberry Fair, as other boaters reported some skirmishes with people camping on the common.
Two weeks away from my normal routine offered a necessary respite and too many interesting adventures to describe. Stella and Al were coincidentally visiting the city at the same time, and they threw a lovely dinner party with Tae in Harlem. Later KTS and I went to see Al perform at the Sidewalk Cafe, and hung around outside the club with Stella and other folks, catching up.
It was somewhat eerie to be surrounded by people I intentionally did not know in college (including but not limited to KTS), listening to a performer I never would have imagined would end up a dear friend.
I cannot adequately describe this disjunction of past and present; I loathed the Olympia scene and it is a neverending source of wonder that so much of my current social life revolves around people who were there at the same time.
I’m not one to regret past failures. There is no point wondering if my life would have been better if I’d had friends in college. I was too angry, and too busy, to have been part of the culture of that town and school, and it is sufficient to realize that the problem was me, not the place.
Besides, would I have wanted all of my best memories and most genius experiences to have happened before I turned twenty-five? No. I’m having fun now, and that is not something that a lot of grown-ups can claim.
On the last night in the city I met Ayun and her kids at the Issue Project Room to attend a benefit for the Hungry March Band European tour. I felt a slight undercurrent of sadness at first because I miss singing with the Chorus and all of the madcap Portland excursions, but that sentiment was washed away by the booming beat of the marching band.
The intensity of the performance and the crazed response of the crowd filled me up with joy and Ayun grabbed me and made me dance.
The NY trip was arranged to allow plenty of time for work and visiting friends, but the primary purpose of the journey was to attend a wedding.
I met the prospective groom in 1988, when we both attended a summer leadership institute as idealistic seventeen-year-olds. One day early in the program we were all sent to do volunteer work in the Emergency Housing section of the CD, which at the time was a brutally scary place for our middle class peers to hang out. It only took about ten minutes before we lost a naive girl from a ranch on the eastern side of the state.
When the others scattered to search for her, Karl and I sat down on a boulder and stared at our feet. We hadn’t talked before then. After a long pause he asked What do you think happened to her?
I replied I reckon she’s dead.
He responded My best friend just committed suicide.
Of course, I laughed.
One day during media training we were taught how to shake hands and state our names in a persuasive way, and he insisted on using and emphasizing his middle initial. This led to everyone (or maybe just me) mocking him by referring to him as Karl T Steel throughout the summer and, as far as I could cultivate it, for years to come.
A few days after the institute ended I went on a catastrophic road trip that nearly killed three of my best friends. KTS was supposed to be in the car that day, but at the last minute I didn’t pick him up. If he had been the fifth passenger he would surely have died. The velocity of his body slamming through the vehicle might have killed the rest of us.
He doesn’t remember it, but he came to the hospital and sat with me in intensive care, listening to me talk fast against the pain of a broken face. My jaw was dislocated and I’m sure that I made no sense at all, rattling through one macabre anecdote after another. He sat next to the bed all day, patiently listening, not showing any horror over the spectacle of my smashed body. Karl T Steel won my deep and abiding loyalty that day.
With my education, friendships, and body wrecked beyond repair, I became a zealot in service to the youth empowerment movement. Over the course of the next year I traveled through the state checking on the progress of various projects, recruited for the institute, speaking to civic groups, fundraising working the media, lobbying, working ceaselessly to build something called the Youth Initiative.
KTS quite likely had more entertaining things to do but he allowed himself to be washed along in these plans. At my bidding he gave speeches to the Rotary Club (in which he falsely claimed that he had been a homeless drug addict until the institute saved him), attended countless meetings, helped run events, went to rallies, and even joined the Sea Scouts as part of my scheme to take over a warehouse on the waterfront.
Later we went to the same alternative liberal arts college, but we stopped talking because KTS got hip and I got pregnant.
I married someone KTS still claims is the scariest person he has ever met. Karl immersed himself in the Olympia scene and was a DJ at Thekla. I wandered around wearing a shirt that said One Shot, One Kill. We loathed each other on principle, ostensibly for lifestyle choices but more realistically because we were trying to grow up and needed to shed the past.
When friendships die my tendency is to quietly fade away. I do not participate in fights and confrontations. If I insult someone it is generally an accident. But whenever KTS and I met we verbally eviscerated each other: our altercations were legendary. Strangers in cafes would stare in shock.
These conversations were not even benign at the first point of contact. I would start with something like Why are you wasting your life?
He would reply with Why are you so straight?
I would counter Define your terms. Or are you linguistically lazy on top of everything else?
To be fair, although we meant everything we said, we were also laughing. KTS has a scathing wit and an absolute genius for high sarcasm. I never felt insulted by his observations; he was correct in his estimation that all my life choices were contrary and provocative. I was right to perceive that he was not doing the work that he ought to.
When we both moved to different cities and I no longer had an equal and scathing sparring partner… I found that I missed him.
When I started to write Lessons in Taxidermy I remembered the kindness of that boy who sat with me in the hospital and tracked him down. We started corresponding and the first thing he wrote was an apology for being a jerk.
I demurred and pointed out that I was just as much of an idiot (and that he did my statistics homework at the height of our supposed feud). Eventually we started visiting each other, and our friendship now is something I truly value, perhaps even more because we went through so much to get to this point.
I travelled to New Jersey to watch Karl (currently a medievalist finishing a PhD at Columbia) marry his sweetheart, a woman named Alison (a novelist). I caught a ride to the wedding with Matt, who is married to my former editor at Seal Press. I went to college with Matt, and the fourth passenger, but didn’t know them at the time – along with a whole bunch of other people I would meet later that day, thus continuing the all-Olympia-all-the-time theme of my trip.
Though to be fair, there were also a couple of people who live in my former Seattle and Portland neighborhoods, and others who know my NW friends who live in NYC. The Pacific Northwest thing functions as a sort of alternative secret society.
The groom wore the suit his father-in-law was married in forty years ago; the bride supervised an astonishing amount of the work that went into the day, including making all of the flowers on the cake by hand. Alison’s parents generously offered their home for the ceremony and then excused themselves from the ensuing debauchery. What else can be said about a wedding? The vows and toasts were both hilarious and extraordinary.
The guests, after a few rounds of drinks, split into three groups. There were family and friends of the family, all of them lovely and kind. There were the friends of the bride (and latterly the groom of course), who all appeared to have impeccable manners and interesting jobs.
Then there were the friends from the groom’s past, starting with me as the oldest vintage and unspooling outward through college (JJ, Joey, Matt) and his life in NY (Ana Erotica, Josh, Margaret). This contingent was later described by Matt as the Bad Kids.
Normally I think that I would gravitate toward the middle group; Gabriel mostly hung out with them and had a great time. But for some unknown reason I found myself claimed by the third group, troublemakers all, though a few might not see themselves that way.
Everyone in the third group had funny Bad Karl stories, but I was unique in that I could produce copies of his juvenile poetry. Also his high school graduation photograph, in which he is wearing jeans decorated with anarchy symbols and Smiths lyrics. It might be harder to locate but there is also video footage of a certain lip-synching contest many people would like to forget. Not that I would put these on display – I may be occasionally naughty but I’m not wicked.
Perhaps because I do not karaoke, I ended up hanging out with the crew who were determined to finish all three kegs, at whatever cost; the people who went on an illicit skinnydipping raid of a neighbors pool; and the couples who may or may not have hooked up somewhere on the premises.
It was my naive question that kicked off the kegstand tournament (though I refused to participate, especially when the boys offered to pay me and promised to hold my dress together).
I ran around most of the evening with the squad competing to win the Most Drunk contest, and it was our persuasive charms that convinced someone to karaoke naked to This Old Man. Somewhere in the middle of the night everyone was screaming the lyrics to Too Drunk to Fuck, which was probably an accurate assessment of their state.
At the end one of the Bad Kids tried to persuade me to get in a car with an open Tupperware mixing bowl full of alcohol. When I said no they tried to woo me with promises of cocaine back at the hotel, but Ana Erotica defended my honor. Stop! Bee doesn’t… do that.
In other words, it was a brilliant weekend, and the best wedding I’ve ever attended.
Gabriel & me having fun:
I always have to take a date to weddings for fear of, I don’t know, contamination – but on this occasion Gabriel’s presence was my gift to the couple. He filled a book with drawings of the event:
Alison and Karl changed their clothes seconds after they exchanged vows – a good thing since we churned the backyard into a muddy mess posthaste:
There was a pinata for the youngsters; Ana qualified!
Everything went a bit fuzzy as the evening progressed; Naked Karaoke was one result:
But most people kept their clothes on. And Karl was happier than I’ve ever seen him (and it wasn’t because he was drinking straight from the pitcher):
When I arrived in New York I was sick, and then the place I had planned to stay fell through, but I was rescued by friends old and new. I was astonished once again that people can be so generous – particularly those who let me crash in their precious private space.
Jess and Brian have my sincere and lasting appreciation. The folks who called in favors to get me sorted medically know that they can call on me for help whenever they like. I am of course humbled to discover that so many people will offer advice and solace: thank you.
Once I had rested enough to enjoy the city I had a predictably fabulous time, much of it based around …. shopping! Life in the UK offers many pleasures, but not necessarily all the consumer goods I feel compelled to acquire.
Brisk effort quickly procured moisturizer, sunblock, new shoes, a dress with buttons on the sleeve, and of course, new spectacles. What would a trip to NYC be without a visit to Fabulous Fanny’s? The proprietor has style to spare but, unusually, is totally honest about which frames look good on my face. And, this time, the shop had expanded – he showed me some special things in a back cupboard!
I visited with too many people to list, but aside from those noted above had an opportunity to see Ayun a couple of times. One humid Saturday I stood laughing in her kitchen all afternoon, watching her make food from a crumpled up twenty-five year old recipe that had been through the wash.
She pieced the paper together like a puzzle but pieces kept blowing away, and she wasn’t really sure of how much flour or sugar to put in the cupcakes, but the end result was of course delightful. Then she took me to a picnic in Central Park, where I finally got to meet Spencer, and hang out with charming denizens of the stage and screen. My favorite guest (held aloft by Ayun):
Other features of the trip included watching a lightning storm from the Q train as it crossed the river; eating vegetarian dim sum with Gabriel in Chinatown; and winning a small green accordion at a spelling bee (even though it was a consolation prize).
I started this journal four years ago to document the process of dismantling my settled, lovely, and rather boring life in Portland. Since then I’ve lived in and abandoned Seattle, emigrated to England, and travelled so extensively I can’t even remember which country I’m in half the time. Not to mention all the strange and secret developments along the way.
There has been hilarity and heartbreak in equal measure, and it would have been far easier to stay home, but I’m glad that I made the effort.