Slumming it for Sexual Chocolate

This is the story of how I slept in a parking lot for beer.

About a month ago, a guy named Ray Goodrich called and asked me to blog about the Foothills Brewing Sexual Chocolate 2014 release party.

“Sure,” I said. “What’s a Sexual Chocolate release party?”

Ray explained.

“Oh,” I said, when he finished. “So this is an event for insane people.”

Sexual Chocolate, I learned, is a much-prized commodity in the North Carolina craft beer community. This is largely because it’s a goddamn delicious beer: a full-bodied imperial stout that looks like black walnut and pours like heavy cream, flush with layers of savory cocoa and coffee. It’s like eating a piece of dark baking chocolate, except it also gets you drunk.

But Foothills only releases it twice a year. And if you want to be guaranteed your allotted four bombers, you have to wait in line.

All night.

I’ve camped out in the woods. I’ve pooped in holes I dug myself, I’ve made pudding in Ziploc bags, I’ve slept in tents in thrashing thunderstorms. But I’ve never camped out for a THING. A thing like concert tickets or a phone or a console or a book about morose teenage vampires. That seemed stupid. That is the domain of Schadenfreude. It’s harder to laugh at the suckers in the line when you’re one of the suckers in the line.

But, I mean, beer. Right? Beer. Let’s all agree on that. Beer.


Beer.

Here’s how it would go down:

On the night of January 31, Foothills Brewing would host a bottle swap, in which craft brewers would circulate through a room pouring various fermented nectars down one another’s eager gullets. Foothills would put Sexual Chocolate on tap to sample, and everyone would socialize and talk about how terrific beer is.

At around 2 a.m., Foothills would turn off the lights and lock all the doors, at which time a few dozen very committed, deeply disturbed individuals would queue up on the street and adjacent parking lot, where they would cheerfully strive not to freeze to death. At 8 a.m., they and whatever limbs remained to them would all be let back into the brewery. Each of these certifiable headcases would be issued a numbered wristband, and starting at 10 a.m. would be called up in groups of 50 to buy no more than 4 bombers—22 oz. bottles—of the sweet stuff. Then they would go home and sleep until 2068.

I’d come to Ray’s attention after a little Twitter mix-up with Wil Wheaton. Back in October, I gave Wil some beer. North Carolina has a respectable, rapidly growing craft beer culture that deserves to be shared, and as Wil is a home brewer, I decided to drop some Cackalacky knowledge on his Hollywood ass when I caught him at a tour stop in Virginia. I stopped into Raleigh’s Bottle Revolution, loaded up a DIY 6-pack with selections from Big Boss, Highland, Duck Rabbit, and Foothills, and gave the booze to the Wheatons. This seemed to satisfy everyone.

Then, at the end of December, this conversation happened:

me_wil_foothills_twitter

Ray, whose officially official Foothills title is “Marketing Guy,” had been hunting around for an observant master of the English lexicon to describe the experience of the event. Failing that, he’d settle for any vulgar, self-loathing jackass on Twitter. When all of them turned him down, he went with me.

“I don’t know anything about beer,” I warned him. “Just that I like to drink it.”

“That’s fine,” he assured me. “I’d actually prefer someone from outside the craft brewing community. Someone with the kind of innate, powerful-yet-refined sexual magnetism only an unwashed junior ad copywriter can possess.”

“Just as long as I get fucked up, man,” I said, sucking at an old chili stain on my shirt.

I explained the situation to my boyfriend, Dustin, who a month and a half in still has that unmistakable new OKCupid smell (turns out you can get it in aerosol cans), and asked if he’d like to come along. He didn’t bat an eye.

“Just as long as I get fucked up, man,” he said.

“That’s what I said!” I cried. We high-fived.

Wil, for reasons pertaining to both distance and, I assume, dignity, could not attend. Luckily, I had a surrogate.

...dude, did you just have that thing READY?


I told him we were going to be blogging a beer event and this thing just APPEARED.

On Friday night, in anticipation of copious potables, Dustin made us a badass steak dinner. Then we piled ourselves, Lil’ Wil, and a bunch of camping gear into my janky old Focus hatchback and made for Winston-Salem.

We arrived around 9, by which time the event was in full swing. Ray—who I wouldn’t describe as “unreasonably tall,” but whose skull has probably had its share of altercations with low door frames—set us up with a couple of glasses of Sexual Chocolate before ushering us to the rear of the brewery, where most of the action was happening.

What’s the collective noun for a group of microbrew enthusiasts? A fermentation? There was one yeasty fermentation of beer nerds packed into the back of Foothills Brewery. And the booze flowed. There were stouts and porters and blondes and hefeweizens and pale ales aplenty, with a smattering of fruity ciders and sweet meads to round out the palate. Our little glasses were kept full by one enthusiastic, bearded pourer after another.

SO MUCH FACIAL HAIR


SO MUCH FACIAL HAIR.

Near the back of the room, Foothills was pouring samples of its Jade IPA and seasonal Cottonwood Frostbite Black IPA. I’m generally a stout/porter kind of girl, and tend to resist a lot of hops, but both of these were refreshingly fruity, eminently drinkable beers. On the opposite wall was the craft brewers’ setup: a few kegs, a few coolers, and a table littered with with evening’s offerings. All of it had been pretty well picked over by the time we arrived, but Lil’ Wil plunged in with gusto.

Dude, seriously? It's only 9:30.


Dude, seriously? It’s only 9:30.

We also got a look at Foothills’ actual brewing operation—or, at least, the smaller iteration they keep at their store, which they reserve for experimentation and small-batch brews. We were very professional about the tour.

Sorry, Foothills enthusiasts. Your beer may taste a little more confusing for a while.


Sorry, Foothills enthusiasts. Your beer may taste a little more confusing for a while.

Ray gave us an overview before leaving us in the hands of a staff brewer named Matt, whose casual knowledge of the beer-making process vastly outstrips the skillset required to perform complex neurosurgery. I was doing an okay job keeping up with him until I made the mistake of comparing his job—brewing alcohol—to Dustin’s, which is brewing parts of people (specifically, vascular grafts). I said it as a joke. But when their eyes met, I knew the broment for what it was.

#science


Literally how it happened.

The conversation took a turn for the esoteric, with each man unpacking his encyclopedic knowledge of microorganisms: their habits, byproducts, and the best things to feed them to make sure they don’t die. My scientific vocabulary is not insubstantial, but I could feel my eyes glazing over. Let it suffice to say that Foothills appears to be in capable hands.

The next few hours: drinking, drinking, quesadillas, drinking, falling asleep on a couch upstairs, and being rudely awakened at 1:30am by a humorless staffer who was not happy to find us there.

“Sorry,” I said, serving up my most charming, most crooked rueful smile. “We were just waiting until it was time for everyone to get kicked out.”

“Well,” he replied, impervious, “I’m kicking you out.”

I hope his entirely unpaved bed was everything he so obviously longed for.

The line had formed some time while we were dozing, and had already begun to spill from the main street into the side parking lot. At 1:30 in the morning it was barely 30 degrees, and we were groggy and surly from our accidental nap. The line was capped by a group of gregarious young gentlemen who, undaunted by the nipple-pinching chill, were occasionally given to fits of whooping, cat-calling, or cheering at nothing in particular. For five agonizing minutes, they engaged with a trio of passing young ladies who were not suitably attired for the cold.

We decided to let the line grow a little before we pitched our tent.

Tetrising ourselves into the back seat of my car, we dozed fitfully until somewhere around 3 a.m. By then, the line had moved up such that the obnoxious brodudes were now around the front of the building. A few tents had sprung up, but most people had just brought collapsible beach chairs (with cup holders, obviously); some groups huddled around portable stoves, talking in low voices over mugs of steaming coffee or, yes, bottles of beer.

We hauled our asses out into the night, where it was now in the mid to upper 20s, and got our tent pitched as quickly as possible. We filled it with approximately 37″ of blanket and comforter. We zipped our sleeping bags together, crawled in with whatever we were wearing, and tried to get some sleep. Our prior talk of clandestine semi-public parking lot tent sex evaporated with our breath.

Dustin sleeps like a brick no matter where he is, but I had a little more trouble. We seemed to be bracketed between the only two groups of people really committed to talking and laughing all night long. I would drift off for a while, then be startled by a burst of laughter or the vibrations of a passing car’s subwoofer.

I used the latrine in the back. Twice. It was cold. Let’s not talk about it.

At around 5:30, I was awakened by the chill seeping in from the ground.

I crammed on a few more layers, then lay in the dark eavesdropping. My attempts to sleep were at last derailed by the sound and smell of our neighbors cooking sausage and hash browns and, by the sound of it, passing around bourbon and sherry. Their discussion revealed they were seasoned pros, having done this every year for who the hell knows how many years now. I could hear more voices now, too, and realized the line was again beginning to grow. I figured I’d better emerge and take some pictures.

Here’s what things looked like at about 6:45 in the morning:


Standing outside our tent, facing the back of the line.


Just around the front of the building. The blankets contain actual people.


Nearer the front of the line.

???


???

As 7 a.m. approached, I figured I’d better rouse Dustin from cryostasis. He wasn’t too happy about it. I was sympathetic, but unmoved. Like, come on, this wasn’t a picnic for anybody. Who the hell knew when our nipples would regain feeling?

SEND HELP/COFFEE/NIPPLE WARMERS


SEND HELP/COFFEE/WARMER NIPPLES

Luckily, Lil’ Wil finally pulled his tiny, tiny weight.


Hey. Hey there. Wake up.


Maybe some gentle earhole diddling?


UNWELCOME ADVANCES.

...but Dustin will try anything once.


…but Dustin will try anything once.

At a few minutes past 7, we were prompted to present our IDs to wristband-wielding Foothills staff members. Dustin and I were assigned the mid-70s, which must have meant that there were at least 200 people behind us; the line now stretched to the rear of the parking lot and back again, curving around so that we faced the end of it when we emerged from our nylon cave. We broke down the tent, unceremoniously crammed it and the rest of our shit into the back of my car, then took our place in line.


The line. Most of it. Not shown: a whole bunch of the rest of the line.

For a bunch of uncaffeinated people who slept—or didn’t—in a cold-ass parking lot for six or seven hours, the atmosphere was convivial, almost celebratory. A guy in front of us played dance music from a speaker foisted onto his shoulder 1980s style. Most of the talk was about how fucking cold it was and how stoked we all were to get back inside and buy some beer already. But there was no malice in it. We’d weathered a night of discomfort together, a motley drunken tribe, and soon we would be rewarded for our fealty. It had sucked. But the suckage was fundamental to our victory.

As promised, the doors opened just after 8 a.m. The line moved fast, and Dustin and I found seats in the same booth we’d dined in the night before. Waitstaff circulated with huge trays of sausage biscuits; our waitress pointed the way to the coffee table, and confirmed that we would, in fact, like some Sexual Chocolate with our breakfast. Soon, everyone in the place had a spread like this:

Beer: part of a complete breakfast.


Beer: part of a complete breakfast.

I have the gastrointestinal system of an 80-year-old man, but I stuffed enough biscuit, sausage, coffee, and beer down my gullet to cripple the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. For the next hour and a half, we ate, stretched, snuggled, awakened, and indulged in some marathon people-watching. The home brewers had their wares out again, and had gathered around a table to partake and discuss. At a table adjacent to ours, a group of half a dozen guys raised their glasses in a weary toast to perseverance. Slowly but surely, coats, sweatshirts, hats, and gloves took their places on benches and empty chairs. Seeing the crowd thaw out made me feel warmer, too.

Note how the hat-to-beard ratio is about 1:1.


Note how the hat-to-beard ratio is about 1:1.

Eventually, as promised, a voice from a loudspeaker began calling us up in groups of fifty. We thought. It was hard to tell over the noise of the room. We saw the 1-50 group line up, and heard instructions for the 50-100 group to queue up… somewhere?… in anticipation of being called. We paid our check, gathered our stuff, propped ourselves against a wall, and waited.

And waited. And waited. And waited.

We began to perceive that we had missed something.

My only real criticism of the event is the way the buying line was handled. Instructions were very difficult to hear, and when we wanted clarification, there didn’t seem to be anyone to ask. There were two different lines on two different sides of the restaurant, and it wasn’t obvious which one was for which purpose. There were no staff members directing traffic or even verifying wristband numbers to ensure no one was sneaking in prematurely—and if I’ve slept in a parking lot just to be cut off by some smarmy fratbro who swaggered in at 8:23 a.m., you bet your sweet saccharides that someone’s getting his grains mashed.

Questioning members of the line, we discovered that no one really seemed to know quite what was going on, and that the 50-100s had just sort of randomly merged in at some point. We jumped in at the end, still feeling vaguely abashed and confused, but at least we didn’t have to wait very long; the two women taking orders were brutally efficient. We paid for four beers, then made our way to the rear of the brewery, where we were to present our receipt and collect our hard-won prize.

Ray, who was working the brewsky package assembly line, was so excited to pose Lil Wil’ for pictures that, in one arm-jerking moment of enthusiasm, he nearly swept our beers AND our commemorative glass to the floor. I would have laughed, Ray. I would have laughed a lot.

That catastrophe averted, we gathered our goods, thanked Ray and his staff, and stepped through the back door into the mid-morning daylight. The temperature was arrowing towards the low 50s, and we stripped off our jackets as we walked to the car, grateful for the experience but eager to get our drive home underway.

When we arrived, we stood back and admired our take. I took some fancy pictures of it.

IMG_6057Then we slept until 2068.

Last Thursday, I got a phone call from Ray. “Hey,” he said, “what are you doing tomorrow night?”

Nothing, I said. Why?

“Do you want to be a judge for the first annual Miss Sexual Chocolate Beauty Pageant?”

“Sure,” I said. “What’s a Miss Sexual Chocolate Beauty Pageant?”

Ray explained.

“Oh,” I said, when he finished. “So this is an event for insane people.”

My year of things

So the other day I did that Facebook Year in Review thing. If you’re on Facebook, you can do it, too. Log in, go to your profile, and you’ll see this “See Your 2013 Year in Review” banner on the left-hand side. Click it.


Go on. I’ll wait.

…okay, that was A BIG SACK O’SMEGMA, am I right?

I don’t know what algorithm Facebook is using—probably some combination of likes, exclamation points used, and potential for personal embarrassment—but here’s what Big Brother Zuckerberg thinks were my top 20 moments. ACTUAL big moments are in bold.

  1. I discover my name on Amazon’s page for Dragonwriter. Like, I just see my name on the website. Months before the book actually comes out. I make a huge deal out of this for no discernible reason; it’s not like I didn’t already know I was being included.
  2. I enter a poetry contest. I do not win.
  3. I see the final cover for Dragonwriter, contributor Michael Whelan’s “Dragon Aboard.” Admittedly, it is pretty impressive.

     Admittedly, it is pretty fucking impressive.


    Draaaaagons iiiiiiin spaaaaaaaaace!

  4. My brother does a whirlwind tour of U.S. barbecue before moving to fucking Australia. He stops in Raleigh because our barbecue makes your barbecue’s butthole bleed. Also he stops in Raleigh because my sister and I live here. We eat approximately 146 pigs. Then he moves to fucking Australia.

     DON'T LET HIM LEAVE THOSE PEOPLE DON'T EVEN FLUSH THEIR TOILETS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION


    DON’T LET HIM LEAVE
    THOSE PEOPLE DON’T EVEN FLUSH THEIR TOILETS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

  5. I suggest we all love each other and be nice to each other. Revolutionary.
  6. I am included in a company-wide picture with my coworkers, even though I am still just freelancing.
  7. I acquire a House Targaryen t-shirt. I take a selfie in it.
  8. My sister gets engaged to a guy who rules so hard you don’t even notice his disability, which is that he does math for a living.

     Do not trust this man. He thinks numbers are letters.


    Do not trust this man. He thinks letters are numbers.

  9. My parents celebrate their 42nd wedding anniversary. This is terrific and warms my heart but, aside from correlating to the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, it’s not really red-letter per se.
  10. “Holy shit, I survived to 30.”
  11. I put on an ENORMOUS airbrushed t-shirt I bought in ~1996. Brian takes a picture.

     Magnificent.


    Magnificent.

  12. As a birthday present, Brian asks my multi-talented friend Em to crochet me a fucking adorable little dragon guy. I name him Clarence, after a dragon doodle I invented in 10th grade math class. I take a selfie with him.

     HE JUST WANTS A HUG.


    HE JUST WANTS A HUG.

  13. Dragonwriter hits the stands. I am a published writer. Panties and marriage proposals begin to amass on my doorstep.
  14. A cashier at Yankee Candle likes my tattoos. TOP. TWENTY. MOMENT.
  15. My friend and Fantasy Literature staff minion Hisham takes pictures of me at Dragon Con. Mostly just kind of sitting at tables and stuff.
  16. I watch my sister’s dog jump. My dad takes a picture.

     Olympic poingage.


    One for the history books.

  17. I get asked to do my dream job full-time. I have health insurance for the first time in two years.
  18. I go to a Halloween party as Daenerys Targaryen. A coworker goes as Walter White. He is in his underwear. Someone takes our picture.
  19. Video evidence that my new neighbors are noisy assholes.
  20. On the show’s 50th anniversary, Wil Wheaton is reminded I don’t watch Doctor Who. He refuses to speak to me for 24 hours.

     His heart is smaller on the inside.


    His heart is smaller on the inside.

Now, some of those, like my sister’s dog jumping and the Yankee Candle employee and the enormous t-shirt-wearing, are actually very important. In fact, this was a banner year for Charlotte’s nerdy t-shirt collection, which grew substantially. Like, I have this one of Felicia Day’s character from Supernatural, Charlie Bradbury, because I mean basically Felicia and/or Charlie are me (Wil, please tell Felicia, she keeps not coming to my sleepover parties and this hair isn’t going to braid itself), and also I got ANOTHER Supernatural shirt of Castiel as Totoro and like Sam and Dean are holding on to him and Dean is crying and—

…anyway, it was a good year for t-shirts and underwear-donning coworkers but other important things happened, too. Here is the correct order, given chronologically:

  1. I become the director for the new Fantasy Literature track at Dragon Con. I realize there are approximately 10,000 cromulent fantasy books I haven’t read, most of them by Robert Jordan. I am completely screwed.
  2. I attend an inaugural ball hosted by the Democratic Party of Virginia. I meet some Ukranian-American kids my own age and befriend them over a mutual love of tattoos and Gogol Bordello.
  3. My brother visits my sister and me. We lay waste to droves of pork. Then he moves to fucking Australia.
  4. I drop my cell phone on the floor by a public toilet and forget to clean it off before using it. 24 hours later, still uninsured, I am hospitalized. It is the first time in my adult life I actually shit myself.


    Applesauce in a juice box. Truly, we live in The Future.

  5. I get the advance check for Dragonwriter. I look at it for a few days because I’m sentimental, but then I deposit that shit because, I mean, seriously, I need the money, I have almost $2,000 in hospital bills to pay. I resolve that from now on, I’m shitting myself for free.
  6. I send my Canadian artist friend Micah on an important mission to Calgary Expo, where he is to instruct Misha Collins to return my brain to Dragon Con where he found it in 2011. Misha mostly just smirks at him. I become pregnant.


    BOOM. PREGNANT.

  7. I attend my first Moral Monday. The 1,000+ people in attendence are some of the happiest pissed-off people I’ve ever seen.
  8. My sister gets engaged. My biggest takeaway is that I am the only bridesmaid and I don’t even have to DO anything because she and I agree that bachelorette parties and bridal showers are kind of fucking awkward and we’d just sort of rather not, thank you.
  9. My friends Kelly and Matt marry each other at the Outer Banks; like ten of us crash in an amazeballs beach house for five days and do everything fun and good in the world.
  10. Neil Gaiman is very kind to me and signs my arm. I get it inked. Life makes sense.

  11. I complete 30 orbits of the Sun. In celebration, I steam an entire bushel of live blue crabs for my friends and family. At least five of them—the crabs, not my friends and family—spit on me. One of the little shitheads tries to take a fingertip into the double boiler.
  12. I don a pink corset to spend several hours glowering at Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly as they attempt to combine my vagina with a motorcycle in a very unpleasant way.
  13. Dragonwriter is released into the wild—and with it, my essay “The Twithead with the Dragon Tattoo.” I am officially a published writer.


    FAMOUS.

  14. I join Team Hedone for the third annual GISHWHES. We are amazing. We play the Nerdist theme song on wine glasses, party in a dumpster, feed the homeless, die by chocolate, put a wolf in a shirt, wear helium pants, and hug a small country’s worth of people, among other things. A video of me in a leotard eating whipped cream from a bike blender comes into existence.

     What is it? It's GISHWHIP!


    Confusion? NO.

  15. I direct the first Fantasy Literature track at Dragon Con and nobody under my purview dies or is arrested or caught balls-deep in a slinky or something. Rebecca Watson and I run a standing-room-only panel about the women of Westeros. I meet Peter S. Beagle and Larry Niven and ask them questions in front of audiences. Lev Grossman thinks I’m a pretty unbad moderator. The weekend is only somewhat marred by my car getting broken into.


    Notice how my entire staff clusters at a safe distance from me.
    They know what’s what.

  16. Brian helps me make a heartfelt PSA for the Walk for Hope, whose cause is near and dear to me. With help from my friends, Team Epic Dragon raises over $2,100. My heart grows three sizes.

    The dragon is small, but that just makes its epicness more compact.


    The dragon is small, but that just makes its epicness more compact.

  17. Anne Wheaton, in an unprecedented and possibly illegal show of generosity, asks my friend Jessica and me to join her table during the Alexandria, Virginia tour stop of Wil Wheaton vs. Paul & Storm. The show is exceptional and I laugh for a solid four hours. Anne vandaleyes-es my “Make Good Art” tattoo. One of my tablemates is this guy and he’s MAYBE only 2% dickwad in real life. We all hang out in the Birchmere green room later. I see the horse mask in person. Wil’s ability to eat an entire drum of ice cream makes me nervous and a little aroused. Anne and I make a Vine to taunt our friends Jeff and Alyssa. I come down with a fever and become convinced that I have infected and killed the Wheatons.
  18. My friend Katie gets married to the love of her life in a super-sweet castle-type-place in the middle of a field in North Carolina, which seems like kind of an unlikely place for a castle, but no one really questions it. At the reception, I convince a bunch of drunk people to do the Gangnam Style horse dance across the top of a grand staircase. For close to three minutes, we are a sensation.
  19. Emerging from the clear blue sky astride a mighty winged stallion, Wil Wheaton follows me on Twitter. My colon throws its badge and gun on the desk and storms out.

    AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH


    AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

  20. I get to do my dream job full-time, ending two years of dogged, insuranceless freelancing. My official, self-chosen title is “Mage.” I literally tackle my boss when he gives me the offer letter, which he immediately rescinds.

And it’s not over yet, people. There’s still time for this whole thing to be a complete wash.

Requiem for an empty locker.

This is not like it is in the movies, I think, absurdly, as Sara Mohamadeian tests whether I will fit inside my own locker. I don’t; I am skinny but not quite locker-skinny. I am saved by bony shoulders, bony elbows. My bony heel finds the place where her balls would be if she had any. I remember her stumbling body intersecting the disinterested passing crowd, the surprised look on her smooth olive-skinned face.

I am emerging from Tech Ed, squirreled away in a back hall where no one will give much thought to the omnipresent scents of scorched wood and acrylic. A small boy bolts by me, left to right, and as I look left I see his broad-shouldered pursuer closing the distance. My foot seems to find its own way into his path, and though he nearly takes me with him, it is so funny to watch him kiss the floor, potatoes tumbling free of the sack. “Thanks!” pipes the elfin boy, and is gone. The bully is faster on his feet than seems fair for a kid his size, but though I lead him by precious seconds, neither one of us is too swift for the wall of Mr. Paradise, whose unerring hands find our collars with frightening precision. Where the principal lets my would-be aggressor off with a warning, I am given three days’ in-school suspension. “You could have broken his neck when he fell.” No good deed goes unpunished.

Mrs. Covington is making each of us stand up and tell our geometry classmates our names and one thing we like and one thing we dislike. When it’s my turn, it never occurs to me to lie as I get to my feet and say (projecting, but not yelling, like my parents and theater teachers have always urged), “My name is Charlotte, and I like reading in the bath. I do not like boys.” For the rest of the year, I am branded a lesbian. A weird lesbian. A few months later, I discover I do like one boy. He is in my geometry class.

I don’t curse and I tell other people they shouldn’t, either. I correct others’ grammar. I’m just trying to be helpful. The bathroom walls let me know that I will not be thanked for my efforts.

I fake sick as much as possible. My mother’s policy is to refuse to keep us—me, my brother, and my young sister—home unless we are A) vomiting, B) running a fever over 100 degrees, and/or C) bleeding from a massive head wound. The school nurse, however, is more easily manipulated into giving me brief reprieves from pains imagined and real (the constant knot in my stomach is very real indeed, and I am often pallid or watery eyed). Soon the clinic bed is among my only reliable friends.

Not a single boy asks me on a date.

At a mandatory school dance, a cluster of girls takes pity on me, drawing me away from the wall. I stare at the orbits their broad hips circumscribe. “I can’t do that,” I confess.

Cue the encouraging chorus of Sure you can! Come on!

“No, I—I think I was born without some vertebrae or something.”

…what?

I demonstrate. My underdeveloped midsection can only rock side-to-side or back-and-forth, a fused unit without grace or autonomy. The others laugh, delighted, and I flush brightly enough to attract small moths. One girl sidles up and puts her manicured hands on my hips. “Loosen your spine. Like this.” Like… this? “Wow, okay. Maybe you really are stuck.” Maybe I really am.

The thing that most eludes me is the art of initiating conversation with another human. I plummet headlong into passionate soliloquys about some facet of natural history or meteorology or astronomy, and look up to find the sea of glazed eyes are now meeting one another with baffled, unsubtle mockery. This happens often enough that eventually I learn not to speak to my peers or, if possible, to anyone.

I bury myself in literature. I wonder how people get to be authors or actors or artists or politicians. I wonder how a person gets anyone else to listen at all.

Private school helps. Eye contact and attentive, patient smiles are more common there. I act in two school plays a year. I take voice lessons, for whatever those end up being worth. I join clubs and learn to manage more than two friends at a time. I come to crave the rush I feel when an audience approves of me; I begin to seek audiences whether or not there’s a stage.

The internet helps. The internet goddamn saves me. I use bulletin boards and roleplaying games as focus groups for facets of my personality. I practice being clever, until eventually I start to actually be clever. I am perfectly at home in this vast world without faces or status, where anonymity and intimacy are one and the same. From the earliest days of screeching modems, I am amazed to find that I am not alone, and I see how much we need each other.

I realize that everyone is scared as shitless as I am, and just like that, the world sheds its mystery.

One year at Dragon Con, I gather enough courage to approach Todd McCaffrey, Anne’s son, after a panel. I ask him to sign my badge, and as he obliges, I ask about whether there might ever be hope for a book of fan stories about Pern. He likes the idea but thinks the legal logistics would make it nearly impossible; he hands my badge back to me with a smile, and I walk away in a daze. Oh my god, I think, I just had a conversation with Todd McCaffrey. He writes actual books that actual people actually read.

Nearly ten years later, after Todd makes a good-natured quip at my expense during a panel, I scoop sand from our painted wooden “firelizard clutch” in a casual pass behind the panelists’ table. In moments, applause and hoots of laughter follow me from the room as Todd sits in a comical stupor, sand falling free of his head and clothes, calling “Thank you, Charlotte!” at my corseted back. In Dragonwriter he’ll describe me as “a force of nature,” and gawking at the words I’ll wonder if there’s sand in my hair.

In the last two years, I have thought often of the day I was pushed into my locker. I thought about it when a video I wrote hit 100,000 views, the Huffington Post, and Dan Savage’s Twitter feed.  I thought about it when I got on stage in front of hundreds of people—twice—to explain why nerdgirls are awesome and writers are (lovable) assholes. I thought about it when I marched against Amendment One. I thought about it when the advance check came for my first published piece of writing. I think about it every time any artist I admire pays me a compliment or, miracle of miracles, becomes an unlikely new friend. Most recently, I thought about it when I inked my name into the offer letter promising me my dream job.

Every time. Bang. Bang. Bang. I look back on it now and think, When did I pop the fuck out of that locker? I am still me, I have always been me. Who is this woman with the firm handshake, with laugh lines beginning to show? How did she possibly grow up without noticing? Is she worthy of these people? Did this shit really just happen?

My 17-year-old cousin, a talented artist and member of her homecoming court, the kind of windows-down, speakers-up girl my inner 14-year-old still regards with awe, recently tweeted, “I wonder if freshmen look at me like I looked at seniors when I was a freshman. I thought they all looked so old. But I don’t feel like I do.”

It’s rare to glimpse an opportunity for wisdom and know that moment for what it is. It’s rare to know exactly what to say. My fingers wasted no time finding the keyboard:

“You should probably get comfortable with that feeling.”

In which I am a pain in the ass about mental illness, which is a pain in the ass

I was in the emergency room and a man was fingering my asshole while my boyfriend watched.

“Does that hurt?” the man asked. It didn’t. He’d used plenty of lubrication. But at 1 a.m. on a work night, I was beginning to reconsider this particular life choice.

I was here because, halfway through a date night at the movies, I’d gone to take a dump and discovered, upon mopping up, a smear of crimson where there ought to be none. And it was not my womanparts throwing a reality-show-level hissy fit because, once again, I’d refused to give them a baby.

My then-boyfriend, who had patiently endured dozens of small-trigger meltdowns and who had no doubt assumed he’d seen them all, poor bastard, tried not to look stricken when I slid back into my seat and hissed something vague about my bloody butthole. He attempted, calmly at first and then with an edge of desperation, to assure me that this was probably nothing and could we please just finish the movie?

But I’d already gone full Hertzfeldt. My anus is bleeding! I knew that if we did not get to a hospital right away, my rectum would prolapse and all of my organs would fall out and damn it, I was not going to subject my parents to answering those questions at the world’s most awkward funeral reception.


NEVER GO FULL HERTZFELDT.

The dedicated, begloved individuals at Rex Hospital were unable to reproduce the results of my butt’s experiment. “Probably just a burst blood vessel,” they assured me, handing me a bill for a number that is typically measured in degrees Kelvin. “Nothing to worry about.”

I have a panic disorder. Everything is something to worry about, including nothing at all. I wasn’t subjecting myself to the embarrassment and expense of an examination because there was something wrong with my plumbing. I was there because there was something wrong with my wiring.

I had my first panic attack (that I remember, in any case) at 12 years old, at my own slumber party, once everyone was already asleep. I lay in my sleeping bag on my own living room floor, surrounded by friends and people I really really really wanted to be my friends or at least not make quite so much fun of me anymore, trembling and tooth-chattering as if I was either freezing or febrile. I was neither. My mother suspected I might be dehydrated, so we pumped me full of water, and that seemed to solve the problem.

So, for the next ten years, I would drink a shit-ton of water every time I had an episode. Sometimes it would work, but more and more often, it wouldn’t. It would be years before anyone realized water was just a placebo.

Throughout my teens, I saw a number of therapists and was prescribed pills for suspected maladies ranging from ADHD to depression: Ritalin, Wellbutrin, Adderall, Prozac, you name it. Some worked better than others, but if one problem was solved, another took its place. Mostly, I think, this is because my well-meaning doctors were attempting to medicate me for being an intelligent teenager, which is a disease you live with, not one you die from. Usually. But maybe they played a role in suppressing my anxiety; I honestly don’t know. In any case, eventually I refused to swallow one more fucking pill.*

There came a day, somewhere in my mid-20s, that I approached the end of my 12-mile commute to my dead-end job and realized I didn’t remember any of it, which is when I frantically veered into a Wendy’s parking lot to call my mother and ask her whether she thought I might be dying. I drank a lot of water that day.

Cue two or three years of hypochondria, insomnia, nightmares, paresthesia, on-the-job hysterics, and roadside 911 calls that I would cancel after two shameful minutes with the baffled but gentle dispatcher. Ulcers and Helicobacter pylori were ruled out as the sources of my ongoing stomach pain, but only after painful courses of antibiotics and a $2,000 endoscopy performed by a very cute Indian doctor to whom I may or may not have expressed some anaesthesia-induced admiration. The worst was the constant depersonalization: the fog I lived in, the feeling that my body did not belong to me, that all of my actions were being performed by someone else as I remained trapped inside, rooted down, unable to act or come fully awake. My life was ruled by a cycle of fog, fear, panic, and exhaustion.

My family’s lineage is full of this garbage. Anxiety, depression, and alcoholism are our favorite flavors, with the spicy notes of agoraphobia, claustrophobia, ADHD, and anger management sprinkled on for funsies. We’ve all been medicated and/or headshrunk for something. Mental illness isn’t one of those things that rears its head and controls every waking moment of my life; I’m grateful that no one in my family suffers from anything as severe as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or DID. But it’s always there, the white noise fizzle of television snow.

And ALL of that is to explain why I do the Walk for Hope, a Raleigh-based charitable organization that raised millions of dollars for the research and treatment of mental illness.

The 10K walk happens this coming Sunday, October 13. It would mean a lot to me, dear reader, if you might be convinced to donate a few bucks to Team Epic Dragon—even ten, even five, even one—and then tell everyone you know to do the same. My boyfriend and I made a simple, short, but heartfelt video PSA you can share:

Your mom will probably love it. Moms fucking love PSAs.

My meltdowns are largely under control these days, thanks to a long-haired, big-smiled, barefooted therapist named Elaine who helped me understand that panic attacks are scary and uncomfortable, but not dangerous; that fighting them only acknowledges and exacerbates them; that when they happen I should go to a quiet place and just wait for them to blow over.

Now they mostly just happen when I’m about to get on an airplane, or when it’s a week off Dragon Con and I’m just not fucking ready and I am 150% convinced that everybody hates me and will laugh me out of Atlanta forever, or when I’m stuck in a hot car for five hours to see a favorite author and I forgot to do things like eat. They don’t happen because I did something stupid like wake up in the morning, or because I have a headache I can’t explain.

There are so many people who have it way worse than I ever did. 1 in 4 Americans suffers from (or, if you prefer, lives with) some kind of mental disorder. It’s ridiculous. We ALL know someone who’s been affected, even if they’ve mastered the art of keeping it to themselves. I would be grateful for any and all forms of help—even just a share or a shout-out or a like.

 

tl;dr: I live with anxiety that once got so bad I thought my butt was going to fall out and that is why I would really like you to support the Walk for Hope.

 

* I am not one of those homeopathic hippie headcases who eschews all forms of mass-produced chemical assistance. The right combination of therapy and medication can be essential to managing mental illness. But I don’t think I was ever prescribed the right medication, and I got sick of the way drugs were making me feel (or not feel).

To the drug addict who broke into my car at Dragon Con

You don’t know me. And you will never see this. I don’t know if you can see this. I don’t know if you can even read very well; close to a million of your fellows can’t.

My boyfriend and I stepped around a used needle on our way to the Hyatt the other day. Old needle, empty. We passed the stone doorways made into ragged nests. The old man staring through his cataracts. The latticework gates encasing the liquor stores.

I thought of this as I tried to piece together my broken window. I wondered which one you were. What the drug was that you needed so much, to ignore the CDs and the iPhone charger and the official documents and even the warm blankets in the back seat, favoring instead a fast rummage through the broken armrest, your rapid hands clutching at fistfuls of sticky pennies and dimes. I think there were some video game tokens in there. You won’t be able to use those. I’m sorry.

I was calm on the phone with Brian, checking out of the W just across the street, waiting for me to come back with the car so we could load the things we had bought, the things I had labored to make. I was calm with the 911 dispatcher. Calm as I carefully gathered the green safety glass into bags with the strewn receipts, orphaned pen caps, a tampon or two.

It must have been half an hour in the wet Atlanta heat that finally broke me. Or five days without more than four hours’ sleep in any one night. Nearly 400 miles of travel. Months of planning. A chaotic weekend in which I was glad to exchange my own freedom for the fun and fulfillment of others who had traveled further still. Maybe it was the residual exhaustion from the night before, when I wept for an empty city suddenly bereft of magic. I think it was when I realized I wouldn’t make it to my old college town in time to hand a favorite professor a copy of the first book I’ve been published in. I wanted to see his face. I wanted to have that moment.

Whatever it was, I eventually broke down. “I’m sorry,” I said to the police officer. “I’m crying all over your car.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “Don’t cry.” I cried harder.

Did you wonder why there were no quarters in the armrest? I’d given them to a beggar outside Goodwill the week before. I wondered whether that would make a difference to you. Whether you would care about the charities I give to every year. The clothes and goods I donate. The thousands of dollars I’ve raised to fight mental illness. Probably not. Maybe you’re right. Some privileged white girl gives her shit away so she can buy better shit? Fuck her. She can spare a few pennies from the car her daddy bought her for college.

I want you to know I’m not angry. I would have been if you’d broken all the windows, if you’d slashed my tires, if you’d written BITCH or CUNT across the doors. But you weren’t some vindictive teenager acting out of malice. What you did was abhorrent. You destroyed my property, you violated my space, you cost me hundreds of dollars, you upset the balance of my emotional well-being. But you did it for a handful of change.

You did it for a handful of change.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? You are so consumed by your addiction that you cannot even conceive of the effect your actions have on another person. It’s not that you don’t want to care. You literally can’t care. You don’t have object permanence. If you don’t see me, I’m not there. How can I blame you when the rest of us live the same way?

I thought about what it would take to make me so desperate, I’d give up basic human empathy—how dire my circumstances would have to be for me to pick up a chunk of concrete and smash it through a window. You’re not some alien creature, some inconceivable animal. We belong to the same species. You and I were born naked and unknowing, eager to touch and absorb and expand. What happened to you could happen to me. That is the heart of the horror. What would it take to turn me into you?

I thought about it. And then I tried not to think about it anymore.

I would have given you the money, if you had asked.

“What’s wrong with your face?”

A couch made me its bitch last Thursday.

My boyfriend inherited an old couch from his workplace. To make space for it, he moved a bunch of shit around, including a big stack of boxes that had sat gathering dust and cockroaches like a cardboard Detroit. I offered to take the ones he didn’t want out to the neighborhood dumpster, to which he readily assented.

I was 50 feet from the dumpster, arms loaded, when I noticed the interloper: a raccoon, in broad daylight, ears-deep in a cluster of scattered refuse. Sensing my approach, it turned and glowered at me. I put the boxes down and stared back at it. My inner Disney princess began to compose a song. That bitch is going to get us killed one day.

All right, I thought. I can handle this punkass procynid. You rabid? Come at me, bro. Come. At me. I’ll shut your ass down with a cavalcade of cardboard.

I turned to pick up the stack of boxes.

PAIN. PAIN IN THE ELBOW. WHY PAIN. ELBOW WHY. ELBOW YOU ARE A SOURCE OF CONFUSION AND DISCORD.

I looked at my elbow, fully expecting to see the stinger of a fire ant buried in my joint. A flash of yellow told me I had the wrong Hymenopteran: a vicious asshole of a yellow jacket decided she’d had enough of me doing LITERALLY NOTHING AT ALL I WAS JUST FUCKING STANDING THERE SO WHAT IS YOUR DEAL and she was going to punish me by busting her buttnutt into my flesh.

I hollered and jumped back, furiously swatting at the air.

About this time, Brian was emerging from his car, which he had just moved a spot over to accommodate his neighbors. The yellow jacket appeared to have vanished for the moment, and the raccoon had given away the last of his fucks and resumed his Templetonesque slopping. I waved Brian over.

“Hey,” I said as he approached, “two things. One—”

“There’s a raccoon?” Astute, this one.

“Yes, there’s a raccoon. And two, I just got stung by a YELLOW JACKET HOLY FUCK IT’S BACK.”

I jumped back a distance that might earn me medals in the right Olympic event. Bronze, maybe. Not gold. Silver, ambitiously.

“What did you do?” Oh, right, because you have to do something to earn the ire of these flying sacks of hate.

“Nothing!” I wailed. As the little menace was temporarily preoccupied with assaulting an innocent No Parking sign, I decided to grab the boxes and make a run for it. I made it five steps before a streak of yellow slashed across my peripheral vision. My fully loaded arms jerked upwards to put space between me and my attacker, which is how the razor-sharp edge of a wayward box flap sliced squarely across my beautiful beautiful nose. I divested myself of my cargo with a balletic flail. I heard the titter of a raccoon laughing through mouthfuls of garbage.

In his dismay, Brian’s almond-shaped eyes had achieved extra-Caucasian roundness. “IT’S STILL OVER YOU. RUN.” I ran. Behind me, Brian seized the stack of boxes and sprinted for the dumpster, which the raccoon—having better sense than all of us—had now abandoned. Probably to call the police.

As I fled, I passed Brian’s new neighbor, a bemused older gentleman named Jim. Jim’s expression told me that he was passing no judgment, which was itself judgment of the most humiliating kind. I paused to give this succinct explanation:

“I was taking boxes to the dumpster and I just wanted to look at the raccoon and then a yellow jacket stung me.”

“Of course,” Jim said, sage. “Those yellow jackets, they’re pests.”

I opened my mouth to explain to Jim that yellow jackets aren’t pests, they’re terrorists, but at that moment Brian pelted up and told me to keep moving. We did not stop until we were safely in his living room, the front door closed and locked.

My fingers came away from my nose warm and red. I was incredulous. A box. Bitten by a motherfucking BOX.


From Instagram: “The story involves a cardboard box, a raccoon, and a yellow jacket. I mean I CUT A HO.” No favorites. No comments. Everyone probably thought the setup was a bit of a stretch.

Later, as we sat on the stupid couch waiting for the stupid slipcover to stupid dry, I stopped dabbing at my oozing facewound long enough to peer at Brian.

“You know,” I said, “people are going to think you hit me.”

“Yes,” he replied, not looking up from his laptop, “but the thing about that is that I didn’t.”

“No, you didn’t. But when they ask, all I’ll have is this ridiculous story about boxes and a raccoon and a yellow jacket.”

That’s when he started to laugh.

I’m going to pee on that couch.

Motorcycle vaginas and godless murder sponges

I typically don’t go around blowing my lady wad all over people’s faces. It’s rude and most of the time they don’t have tissues handy.

I also don’t make a lot of videos pontificating about, frankly, any subject at all, because I don’t watch that shit and you don’t watch that shit and the only time anyone does watch that shit is when the video features someone incredibly famous and/or incredibly drunk and, unfortunately, I was neither when I made this.

But right now, The United States of America is that friend you love because she’s weird and hilarious and always has your back when some skeevy clubbro is getting a little too interested in your workout routine, like, “I love a woman who takes care of herself. And your core is so important, you know, and I can tell you know that. I bet you even do those Kegel things, right? Yeah, you do. I can tell you do. Why don’t you show me YO MAKE YOUR FRIEND STOP PUNCHING MY NECK I HAVE A CONDITION MY CAROTID IS VERY SENSITIVE TO PERFORATION,” but lately your awesome friend has been hanging out with some pretty uncool people. And because you’re a better friend than they are, you need to tell her that she is, in fact, going to regret getting her eyeliner permanently tattooed. No, it doesn’t look good. No, it doesn’t. No, I don’t hate you. Yes, of course I support you. No, this isn’t about— it’s not— LOOK IT’S NOT ABOUT ALEX OKAY I DON’T CARE ABOUT THAT ANYMORE, CAN WE PLEASE JUST FOCUS ON HOW YOU’LL BE 80 AND LOOKING LIKE YOUR EYELIDS GOT IN A DRUNKEN STREET BRAWL WITH A SHARPIE.

NOT GOOD, SHELLEY. NOT GOOD.


NOT GOOD, SHELLEY. NOT GOOD.

Long story short: on Thursday, the North Carolina House passed a bill imposing new restrictions on women’s health clinics throughout the state—restrictions that could make it very difficult for some of these clinics to remain operational at all. The language was hastily inserted into the Motorcycle Safety Act, SB353, after our (Republican) governor threatened to veto the PREVIOUSLY gutted bill, some piece on Sharia Law, because THAT didn’t do enough to protect women. Which is basically his way of saying, “I like this, but can it be slightly more devious?”

Thus, motorcycle vagina. Obviously.

Here’s my stupid video, recorded yesterday, July 12. I cut out/didn’t even record about 40% of what I originally planned to say, and this shit is still too damn long.

MEANWHILE, IN TEXAS…

As I was recording my video, I learned of Tampongate, in which women protesting HB2 (SB353′s obese, ten-gallon-hat-wearing cousin) at the Texas Capitol were having their tampons confiscated while guns continued to be allowed—nay, welcomed—into the building.

I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t motherfucking know.

But I do tweet.

And I do Vine.



Poetry? Scathing oratorical fireworks unseen in a generation?

I’ll let history decide.

July 3, 2013.

Today I have lived 30 years.

Preface. A forensic reconstruction of things forgotten:

Coalescence, germination, fruition. 21 hours syncopated labor, the two of us, the artist and the wet red clay on the wheel, peristalsis and pressure and the novel miracles of light and air. Blind mouth to breast, and the first slumber. A moment’s lucidity, identification of you: mother and you: father, kitten-grey eyes straining in the sterile yellow light, we are a family, this is my gift to you, your gift to me.

Caretakers and primary colors and lullabies and murmured promises. First steps. First words. The halting trial phase of being human. Do I remember the first blade of grass? The first bird? Were the cicadas singing the day you brought me home?

Then: the other one, the second and penultimate piece, like me but not me, already stout and silent and aware. He is born without a name, but he is brother still (my father tries to name him for Orion, but he is overruled), and ours.

Chapters one through 30. Everything.

Amanda, our gentle black lab/border collie mix, no longer skeptical of me but a companion and confidante, soft and strong and knowing. Birthday parties, mine and others’, ruined by my tantrums, and I cannot explain why the noise and crowds scare me but they do, and yet the parties never stop, and that is how I learn about dread and obligation. Bickering. Weeping. He started it. She hit me.

The first words my eyes understand. So long ago, so impossible, I remember them as well as learning to sing and leap and kiss, which is to say not at all.

Daddy: what is lightning? How do airplanes fly? How do lightning bugs glow? Why are there seasons? What are stars? Will you play your guitar? I’m not tired yet.

Mommy: why do boys and girls look different? Why do flowers need water? Do you like what I made? Will you sing me a song? When will the baby be here? When will I see my sister?

Then I am peering into her sleeping newmade face, shy and wondering and maybe a little jealous, afraid to touch, afraid to look away, barely comprehending that though we will grow into women together, she will never be so beautiful as she is now, in our mother’s arms.

The entire world at eye-level. Streams and spider webs and snails and freshly mown grass and mud puddles and the crashing tide. Easels. Countertops, if I stand tiptoe, and something good cooking. Thickets and hidey-holes and trees to climb, hamster fur and dog noses and severe praying mantis eyes. Everything is to be touched, tasted, studied, resampled, processed, internalized, loved, reviled. There are kites to fly and holes to dig and dams to build in the gutters, the gathered rain flowing over our hands as the neighbors look on and say, “She should put some shoes on those children.”

My first bike, on a rain-washed sixth birthday. I want to know where the training wheels are. “You don’t need them,” my father insists, and twenty minutes, five minutes, an hour, a flash later his cheers fade behind me, my heart and thin legs a wild pumping blur.

Girl Scouts and piano lessons and little league and dance recitals. Plaid jumpers and Christmas pageants. Boys smiling, boys mocking, boys laughing. Wanna race? Bet you can’t catch me.

Where do babies come from? Mommy finds a pad of lined paper and draws our insides as she explains. A uterus looks like a pear. She gives me Lennart Nilsson’s A Child is Born. For hours I stare at the full-color pictures of where life comes from, parsing words like “Fallopian” and “ovulation” and “breech,” and at six I am convinced that I know everything and nothing at all.

Eight. A bad year. There is an election and Daddy does not have a job anymore. Auntie Barbara has cancer again, and soon she dies, and no one sees Mommy for three days, though we can hear her crying in her room. Someone breaks into our house with all of us there, shuts the poor old deaf dog in the bathroom while she sleeps, and I wake up in my parents’ bed with the others and Mommy is on the phone with 911.

Then there is the day I hop off the bus and Daddy is home to hug me. I am happy to see him but where is Mommy?

She is hardly recognizable in the vast tangle of tubes and wires, the needles buried in her arms, the dull machines keeping score. It smells sterile and medicinal and caustic. She is sleeping, and the look on my father’s face says it was a mistake to bring me here. I am amazed, overwhelmed, to learn Mommy is mortal, Mommy whose own mommy and daddy died before I was born. The doctors spirit me away and I don’t know if I will see her again. Blood clot. Blood clot. What is a blood clot? I am angry and weeping while my teacher rocks me, and for once the other kids are quiet.

She walks again, slowly, with help from a machine we call Grover, and for a year she has to wear her “ugly stockings.” We buy her a fluffy stuffed poodle named Fifi LaFemme. From now on she needs rat poison to stay alive. From now on my heart will stop whenever my legs begin to ache.

Spring comes, and another spring, and we recover, but we are changed.

Fast-forward, now, let’s get to the good parts, which include the bad parts:

Lanky and vertical and unbrushed, awkward and ostracized, the tears on the bus go round and round. Word-devourer, dolphin drawer, loner and poet and lucid dreamer. Telepathic dragons. Sunshine and bike rides and prank phone calls and Dad drumming on the steering wheel. Blizzards and art shows, mountain hikes and sledding and the first time I catch a wiggling salamander. Buckets of cicada shells. Fistfuls of four-leaf clovers. Accidents, gashes, stitches, bruises, dirty fingernails. Skeptical looks from the willowy blossoming girls who want to know why I’m not wearing a bra, as if my unbudded chest could possibly need one. Take a shower. Wash your hair. Are you preparing for a flood in those jeans? Are you a lesbian? Don’t talk to me. Sit over there. Ugly. Geek. Loser. Freak. Get away.

Insomnia and anxiety and fidgeting and therapy and pills. Homework forgotten or neglected or shunned. Grades in the shitter, parent-teacher conferences that do not go well. Blood between my legs at a week past thirteen. Fourteen and fumbling behind the swimming pool, my first taste of tongue, my first taste of many things, and while my midsection is narrow my hips grow wide and strong and agile. A furtive trip to Planned Parenthood, which needs more and not less of our money, by the way, and after that I am more careful but not careful enough, not so careful that my mother does not wake me to put the Depo-Provera calendar on my 16-year-old lap and ask for an explanation. I bawl but am not sorry.

Too many boys to love, but I try, we all try, don’t we? I loved you all, still love you, though I broke your hearts, though you broke mine. Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.

Glorious boarding school, all-girls, where a 14-year-old New York ex-pat teaches me about confidence and cursing and stand-up comedy, until I fuck that up and try again in uniform. I play Abigail Williams screaming at nothing. I learn to stand perfectly still for hours. I finish my preflight checklist, I ease back on the yoke and break free.

Mom and I fight over colleges, but finally we are all satisfied with the little liberal arts institution in North Carolina, where I go to class barefoot and learn about fatalism and Freud and Frankenstein, where my fingers first strum a guitar, where I fall in love with everyone, including two boys—one of whom will break my heart and one whose heart I will break—and a fierce woman-poet whose lips I taste in a fumbling drunken stupor.

Pillow fights and anime nights and afternoons gathered on the benches, we exchange partners and touch often. My right ovary is subsumed in a tumor and must be cut free of my body. I spend a month in Costa Rica, where I listen to a volcano’s indrawn breath like a bellows, where a small rainforest doe licks the salt from my cheeks. They will be wet again when I graduate and drive to Raleigh, disconsolate, embracing the ugly cry, until we arrive at our new apartment and the key doesn’t work, so Loren’s dad climbs in through the front window and we laugh ourselves sick to see his long limbs disappear.

The next seven years:

New apartment new job new friends new coffee new bills new anxieties new failures, hopeless artist searching flailing fighting crying hiding sleeping, I love you but I don’t think I want children, please marry me, please leave me, don’t look at me, take the bed when you go, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry. Intermittent lovers, an interlude, a wait-and-see. Screw it, I’m a redhead now. A lost boy from a lost family, almond-shaped eyes and catharsis and old wounds slowly closing. Four coworkers who become four friends who become four brothers. A string of jobs I hate, and they hate me right back and drop me one by one: a balding, small-eyed Southerner tells me I’m crazy and no one will miss me; a temp agent calls me on a Friday night and tells me not to come in on Monday; a poser in a black muscle shirt suggests I go do something more meaningful, you know what I mean?—and it takes everything I have not to spit back YES, I know what you fucking mean, we all know what you mean you money-grubbing hack, you prison warden, thank you for acknowledging that what we do here is fucking worthless—but instead I nod politely and say thank you and flee home in weeping shame.

After that I am done with full-time jobs. I stay home and make things and am happy. I freelance. I am broke. I ask for work and suddenly there is a meeting over coffee, a level-eyed leap of faith, show me the favorite sentence you’ve ever written, this is not a test, you are welcome here, do not let anyone tell you you are less-than, you are worthy, you belong. Ink in my shoulder and my arm, the ever-dragon, Make Good Art. A contract with the word “royalties.” I stand in the Atlantic, bare-breasted under Cygnus, and the lost boy’s kiss is warm and I believe in it. The fluorescing sun crests the sea.

Today I am 30. Tomorrow I will be 60, and the day after that I will sleep where they scatter me (I haven’t yet decided). You will all be there, because you are the pieces of my life, you are what makes a life, you are the phonetics and the syntax and vocabulary. There is no one like me because there is no one like you.

Thank you for making me.

On anxiety and tattoos and Neil Gaiman.

Huddled in the dim, carpeted corner between wall and water fountain, I forced myself to take another bite of my chocolate and peanut butter granola bar and wondered how I got to be so fucked up. I wondered if I would pass out. I hoped not. I had driven a long way, across state lines, in a car without air conditioning, just to pass out now.

I pulled out my phone. My security blanket. My link to humanity. My shaking fingers tapped out a tweet.

ImageI corked the bottle and threw it out to sea. I took another bite of my granola bar.

I was an anxious child and I am an anxious adult. My anxiety happens in phases, in episodes, in an impact chain like Shoemaker-Levy plowing into Jupiter: bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, blackening the cloudtops, visible through even small ground-based telescopes. Then long periods of relative normalcy, even outright bravery. I was at my worst in 2007, 2008, a debilitated, frightened hypochondriac with stratospheric hospital bills for maladies both imagined and real. A job lost. My relationship threatened. You’ve heard this story before.

A very good therapist helped me get my shit more or less under control, and for the last several years I have been, while perhaps not a model of psychological stability, much, much better. I can’t always control when panic attacks hit, but I’ve learned how to keep them from feeding themselves, from spawning new and ravenous little brain-eating panicklings. Which is good. Pretty much I feel good. Even when I’m feeling afraid, fear itself is not sufficient to deter me from doing whatever the hell it was I’d planned on doing. I’ve basically demoted fear to the level of really bad gas: painful and inconvenient, but usually not fatal.

The last week, I’ve been farting. A lot. And it’s not even like I’ve been gorging on beans and broccoli.

The first cracks showed on the penultimate day of a beach trip that had gone without a hitch. A complete anomaly. An orphaned hiccup. The second, somewhat more dramatic break was at work. That merited an apologetic Facebook post to all concerned, and all concerned were so ubiquitously supportive that I was left feeling foolish and a little guilty. Everything was obviously fine. Should have been fine.

But my structural integrity had been compromised. Metal fatigue. Invisible fissures spiderwebbing over my fuselage. The teakettle hiss of escaping air.

On Friday morning I jumped into my Focus hatchback—it’s older than most of my friends’ children, but mostly roadworthy—and began the trek from Raleigh to Washington, D.C. It’s a four and a half hour drive, optimistically; add an hour if traffic starts to suck. Around Quantico, traffic started to suck. And that would have been okay if I hadn’t needed to keep moving to stay cool. But my air conditioning hasn’t behaved for three summers running, which is one thing when you’re tooling around inside the same pocket-sized city for months on end, skipping over highways like a flat stone. In June, in Virginia, in a hurry, it’s misery. My fuselage groaned.

But I arrived without incident and, as planned, sold my extra ticket to Michelle, a perfect stranger whose own plight—she had accidentally bought a ticket for the event in San Francisco, and needed not only to sell her ticket but buy one for the right city and timezone—Neil had broadcast across the Twitterverse. I rescued Michelle, petite and dark-haired and in a green dress, and envied her standard-issue nervous energy. A fangirl about to meet her hero, friend in tow, excited and unsure of what to expect, but knowing beyond a doubt that the wait will be worth it.

I led Michelle and her friend to the will call line, and hoped they didn’t notice the ghost of a swoon that shook me as I gave my name, took my book and tickets. We parted amiably, and I drifted to a seat in the already crowded auditorium. My head began to pound. I floated.

A phobia is an irrational fear of some specific thing, situation, or stimulus. Most phobics know their fear to be irrational, but at least have the benefit of knowing what it is that scares them: spiders, clowns, the number thirteen. Many phobics are anxious, but not all of us with anxiety are phobic.

Anxiety is the exact opposite of a phobia. It deliberately does not give two shits what you are or should be afraid of. It shows up when it wants to. Anxiety is a semi-literate old roommate you only just tolerate, who keeps showing up to your parties even when you don’t remember inviting him. It arrives first and is the last to leave. It brings shitty, watered-down beer and one friend, a person you’ve never seen before and will never see again. It shows up goddamn everywhere. The grocery store. Your favorite cafe. Sitting in traffic. It ruins places you had previously enjoyed. And it’s like it has no fucking clue it’s having this effect on you. Your anxiety is just here to party, man. No matter how much of a dick you are to it, your anxiety is always super-stoked to see you.

So it’s not like I had the benefit of a trigger. I wasn’t freaked to meet Neil Gaiman. I am not, in general, intimidated to meet other people, even famous ones, because I, too, am a person. I like people, most of the time. I like to meet new ones.

That was not why I was freaked. I was freaked because I was hot and tired and hungry and in a new place, and I was freaked because I didn’t know if being freaked was going to make me lose control of my body in some way.

So I hid by a water fountain and ate a granola bar and waited for it to pass. I stared into the middle distance while two long minutes went by.

A cheery notification bubble informed me I had a Twitter mention. I knew before I tapped it what I would see:

ImageRelief and embarrassment crashed in my chest. My thumbs flew over the little screen.

ImageSilence greeted me. That was okay. I had expected that. I sat a few more minutes, collecting my thoughts, and then made my way back to the auditorium.

I listened to Neil read, and I closed my eyes and pretended it was a bedtime story. He answered audience questions and made us all laugh. He read some more. It was a fast hour. My heart slowed, though the headache persisted, though I felt weary and ready for home.

My signing number was 734, out of maybe 1500. They called us up in groups of 50. I tried to read the book while I waited, but it’s a book about doubt and frayed realities and childhood fears that are not just fears, but real, and hungry, and older and bigger than you are. It’s a beautiful book (I have since finished it, and wept as I read), but it was not comforting.

I thought about the night before. My friend Megan had overnighted at my apartment on her way to Delaware, where friends were waiting to whisk her off to the beach and the Firefly Music Festival. Megan is dimpled, brown-eyed, and freckled, with soft, waist-long golden red hair I have paid thousands of dollars to emulate. A friend of Neil’s through his daughter, she is also a fan and admirer. I haven’t seen her in five—no, six—years, not since New Year’s Eve 2006/7, when I brought a pizza home for the party and then had a panic attack on my living room floor. Happy New Year.

Sitting cross-legged on my bed, a few minutes to 1 a.m., Megan told me stories about Neil, occasionally slipping into the round-edged, Americanized softness of his British accent. I asked her if I should say hello on her behalf. “Yes,” she said, “but he probably won’t recognize my name. He calls me Sky. Or Little Sky.”

“You,” I said, “are now my coolest friend.”

The line in the auditorium shortened faster than I think any of us were quite prepared for. And yet, as the nervous energy built around me, my own began to ebb. Faced with inevitability, anxiety diminishes. There are no more what-ifs. Even a scary certainty is preferable to the alternative. I passed my phone off to the woman behind me, gave her a quick lesson on how to use the camera. I slid my open book in front of Neil.

“Hullo,” he said.

“Hello. Holly’s friend Sky sends her love.”

He looked up. “Oh! Yes! How do you know Sky? And why isn’t she here?”

“She’s a friend. She crashed at my place last night. She’s on her way to Delaware, not seeing Amanda.” Amanda Palmer, Neil’s wife, played Firefly on Sunday night, but Megan—Sky—would have to skip town just before the performance. Later, I would wonder if my remark sounded flippant, as if I were suggesting Megan was deliberately avoiding the show. Neil didn’t seem to notice. He finished signing and, not seeing a second book to be autographed, looked at me with an expectant smile, as if this was the end of our interaction. I took a breath.

“My second item,” I said, “is me.” I held out my right forearm, knowing full well that another girl had beaten me to the punch at the New York signing. I didn’t care. I had made my decision before I knew she existed.

Neil, perfectly amenable to this, readied his Sharpie. We maneuvered my arm sideways, so that the text would stack towards my elbow, a scrawled Note to Self. He paused, and I knew the prompt for what it was.

“‘Make good art‘?”

There were hundreds of people waiting. But Neil Gaiman was patient as he printed each letter, with A-R-T in emphatic caps. I heard fans down the line murmuring appreciatively, and one person said, “Of course ART has to be in capital letters.”

Real writers don't have clean hands.

I looked at my wrist under his fingers, warm and ink-peppered. My fingers, jogged into a strange angle, trembled, and I hoped he didn’t notice or think it was because I was scared. I wasn’t. Our bowed heads were close, and into that space I murmured, “Thank you for tweeting about my anxiety earlier.”

He stopped writing. He looked at me, and his voice was warm with sympathy as he said, “That was was you?” Four hours and hundreds of fans, thousands of words later, he remembered. “How are you feeling now?”

“Much better, thank you. I didn’t throw up or pass out at your reading. So that’s good.”

He bracketed his signature with a few flourishes. “Thank you,” I said again. For the signing. For the kindness. For all of it. “This is perfect. Thank you so much.”

The woman behind me handed me my phone. “I took lots of pictures,” she said, and she had, and they were wonderful. “I wanted to make sure you got it all.” Kindness on kindness. I cradled my arm, perfectly focused, perfectly awake.

The journey back to Raleigh the next day was even harder than the journey north. D.C. traffic did not want to let me leave, and as I roasted on the highway, unmoving, I poured bottled water onto my jeans, face, and throat. I gulped Gatorade. Heart pounding, I watched the shadows shrink from the high June sun, and I tried not to sweat my prize out of existence.

Later, a jovial, stalwart, gloriously bearded man named Rob pulled on his blue latex gloves, took my upturned wrist in one paw. I got my first tattoo in October, a back piece that took two and a half hours of painstaking, three-needle etching, and I knew this would be a breeze by comparison. The apparatus buzzed its high, enthusiastic whine, and as the needle sank into my arm I closed my eyes. I felt myself smile, full of triumph as the pain sang in my arm, persistent and intimate and very very real, and there at the end of my journey, I knew I had nothing to fear.

The tattoo at the end of the road trip.

Obama! my bama!

Challenge accepted.

Challenge accepted.

OBAMA! my Bama! swiftly lay your plans;
T’was ne’er a foe so cunning as the sly Republicans;
Your health care’s passed, and now at last we plunge into the fray,
All fists a-swing as Fox News sings, “He wasn’t born here anyway”;
    But O POTUS! POTUS! POTUS!
      You must avert your eyes;
        For cable news is full of dreck,
          And everybody lies.

Obama! my bama! our nation writhes in pain;
We do not love our neighbors, we do not know our names;
We cast stones with impunity, the blood we spill our own,
And stare with eyes unseeing through the glass walls of our homes;
    Obama! Where are you?
      Our leaders are not wise,
        And every day is more bad news
          Of how everybody lies.

Obama! my bama! we yearn to change our fate;
The future now is yesterday, the hour’s ever growing late;
Yet still we must not be downcast, our hopes must stay alive;
We long to see the world you dreamed, where evil does not thrive;
    America! Awake and see!
      We are our own demise!
        How can we stand to watch the news
          When everybody lies?

With profound apologies to Walt Whitman.

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