Sara-Jessika reunion 2013
Thursday, July 11 2013
location: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, New York
This morning at around 8:30am, the phone woke me out of a deep sleep and it was my mother (Hoagie) on the other end. I'd told her that July 11th was when my trip to Virginia would begin, and it seemed the call was provoked by the arrival of something of a deadline. She announced that I could stay at a hotel and she would (and at this point, she added the intonation of unwarranted generosity to her voice) pay for it, but that no, she didn't want me coming out to the place because she has "trust issues." She thinks I stole some field guides including "a book about turtles" and "a book about mushrooms," and because of this I can no longer sleep at my childhood home. I tried to argue with her about this, but it was hopeless. There is nobody who is as resistant to argument (or logic, or change of circumstances) as my mother once she has made a decision. Growing up, I never really understood how her boneheaded inflexibility limited her social world and made her an unpleasant neighbor or colleague, but now that I'm a part of "the other" that she has to be a hermit in response to, it's all very clear. In response to several things I said, she brought up instances in ancient history when I borrowed her videocamera (which she never used) or a handgun (admittedly that last one was kind of stupid). As crazy as she sounded, I half-expected her to take me to task for glomming on to the mattress of my childhood bed. An additional reason for her not wanting me to come out to the place was her poor housekeeping, something I probably need to see just as part of the psychological monitoring a responsible child needs to be doing of an aging parent. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, I ended the call by telling my own mother, "Later, bitch, have a nice life."
Gretchen was nearby in the bed and had heard my part of the conversation. As always, she was sympathetic to me and thought my mother a monster, or, more accurately, a woman with severe mental problems. We talked a little about it and my rage gradually recrystallized into purpose, so I called my mother back.
My tact this time was different. In the course of repeated (though successful) pleas to my mother to hear me out, I told her that to deny me a return to my childhood home was heartless and cruel and that it wasn't what my late father (her late husband) would have wanted. (To this, Hoagie tried to interject something about how I'd said my father had never said he loved me, but that was beside-the-point.) I said that I missed my father and missed my childhood (as we all miss our childhoods), and though we can never go back, we can still at least return home. I told Hoagie that I love nature and Dad loved nature and he would have wanted me to be able to come home again and experience nature there at "the farm." I then went on to define nostalgia as "a longing for home." Cutting someone off from the thing they long for is indescribably cruel. In conclusion, I told my mother that I loved her and that if she ever could get past her hangup about my perceived thefts, I'd be happy to visit her, but there was no way I'd be visiting her at some hotel on the check-cashing-place-heavy edge of Staunton. I also told her (yet again) that if there was something she thought I stole, I would buy her not one but two copies of it, that I have lots of money and no time for such ridiculousness. It would have been a pretty convincing argument for most people, but my mother continued her coldness, ending the call with a ridiculously-inappropriate "cheerio."
Gretchen had been listening on another handset and she couldn't believe what she'd heard, and was understandably sympathetic. She wondered if I still even wanted to drive to Virginia. I did, but only because the planned reunion with Sara Poiron seemed so important. I'd be seeing her for the first time since 1997. And she'd be seeing Jessika for the first time since 2002 (or so). Now, obviously, the first and perhaps only destination of today's road trip would be Charlottesville, Virginia.
I hit the road after Gretchen got back from walking the dogs. It all happened in real time on Facebook, where Sara Poiron asked if I was really coming, and I insisted that I was.
I took the Honda Civic Hybrid, which meant I could listen to card-resident MP3s so long as the cards were 2 gigabytes or smaller. Originally I'd thought I'd be driving the Subaru down the Thruway, so I'd filled a separate MP3 player with tunes and podcasts, but somewhere near Newburgh, I discovered my MP3 player wasn't working, perhaps because of a single problematic file. So I listened instead to the podcasts Gretchen had prepared. Podcasts didn't used to be anything but a drain on a website's financial resources, but their advertising content steadily increases. I don't know if it's a problem with some of the files, but a bunch of the podcasts on the card I listened to today seemed to consist of nothing but the advertising preambles to podcasts. Fast forwarding through that shit sounds like what I imagine a bad acid trip would feel like.
I had Gretchen's Droid, which provided the navigation I needed to get to Sara's place northwest of Philadelphia. I took I-287 from the Thruway to US 202 which, some time after it crossed the Delaware, led to Route 263. Sara's apartment complex (which she referred to as "Stalinesque" but which is actually more Brezhnevian). They're a complex of three-story brick buildings featuring accents in (I kid you not) glass blocks. There are pools and ample parking, and, according to Sara, most of the residents receive Section 8 Housing Assistance. Not knowing where exactly to go, I called her cellphone but instead got Dennis, the guy who lives with her and who serves as the de facto father for her son Joey.
It turned out that Sara was talking at the time on a different cellphone to another Dennis, the one mentioned in the Big Fun Glossary as being part of a band called 2.5 Children. She was out in the yard and I actually saw her in the distance as I walked towards her apartment. She looked a little different from the scrawny 98 pound flailer with sharp elbows I wrote about in the Big Fun Glossary; 17 years later she now had actual childbearing hips, the kind of structure a gentleman might request that she "back up" "in da club." She now also had incredibly long hair. After the always-odd cognitive transition from fumbled cellphones to the realization that I was there in actual space, she was delighted and a bit surprised that I'd actually done what I'd told her I would.
Sara led me back into her basement apartment despite her live-in Dennis' reservations about having anyone ever enter it. Owing to the strong smell of cigarettes and the haphazard (though certainly not hoarderly) clutter, it was a fairly dreary setup.
The scariest room in the apartment was definitely the bathroom. It wasn't as bad as two of the bathrooms back at my childhood home, but there are issues with the landlord that have put it into contention for the scariest non-public bathroom I've used outside of Augusta County, Virginia.
With my bladder drained, Sara put me in front of her computer and told me to view Facebook through the eyes of her account while she went off to apply eyeliner. Instead, I installed Google Chrome and logged in with my brother's account (which he doesn't even know exists).
At some point I was introduced to Sara's kid Joey, who was sleeping in front of SpongeBob playing on his own enormous television when I arrived. Eventually Joey got up and, at 57 pounds, he had to be the skinniest kid I'd seen outside of an advertisement for Christian ministry in Africa. I made the mistake of observing that he had the smallest nipples I'd ever seen, which isn't really the right thing to say to a shy kid with ADHD.
The live-in Dennis would be taking care of Joey during Sara's time in Virginia. The kid really seemed to like his de facto father and was surprisingly accepting of the imminent temporary absence of his mother for what would be their longest separation ever. That might have been because a trip to see an all-star game had been promised.
Once on the road, Sara let out a huge sigh and announced that finally she was free. But initially we didn't go far; I thought maybe I could fix my MP3 player if only I had an SD card, and Sara's neighborhood of Brezhnevian apartment buildings, cramped single-family houses, and sprawling shopping areas was chock full of drug stores and other places where one could might buy such things. But at CVS such cards (available online for $5) were $30 at the cheapest. So we went to a Radio Shack, which (surprisingly) had much better prices. I bought a 4 gig model for $7, though that meant I wouldn't be able to use it in the car's built-in MP3 player (which requires 2 gig cards or smaller, and those are increasingly hard to find).
Out in the parking lot, I hooked up my computer and copied all the MP3s off my player to the SD card while Sara did what she always does. She's a talker and there's no stopping her. She doesn't pay close attention to whether or not anyone is listening, just so long as there is someone who might be listening. That someone was me.
Sara's monologues have several modes. There's the good-nostalgic mode, the one where she recollects the good old days such as back at Big Fun or her education experience at Upattinas (the alternative school she, Jessika, and Peggy attended). It's full of stylized catch-phrases that she has single-handedly forged into conversational shorthand, a style of talking that was one of the reasons the Big Fun Glossary had to be made.
Another mode is her catalog-of-horrors mode, a mode I've only experienced via Facebook chat. It's a history of the long heroin-lubricated slide down from Big Fun. As with Les Miserables, just when you think the tragedy can't get any worse, something new and unspeakably horrible happens. There's the boyfriend who violently smashes her face into a brick wall, causing such severe abscesses that all her teeth need to be extracted. There are the dentists who mock her, mistakenly thinking her unconscious while extracting those teeth. There is her relief at finding out that the abusive face-smashing boyfriend is not the father of her child[REDACTED]. There is the new boyfriend who knowingly infects her with Hepatitis C. And so on. Occasionally there are moments of humor in these tales, but they are few and far between. In one of these, she is hanging out with a bunch of friends when her Puerto Rican boyfriend (not any of those mentioned up until now) knocks on the door. Her friends see who it is and are terrified, because her boyfriend is, as they say in Breaking Bad, "the one who knocks." An enforcer. But in this case, he's only there to pick up Sara.
For me, a major problem with Sara is in this mode is that she does a poor job of introducing the various characters or making sure I understand who she is spending several pages' worth of monologue going on about. A hyperlinked glossary would be a godsend.
Another more familiar of Sara's modes is one where she teases the listener with perfectly-remembered details of long-ago events. While it's possible for a normal person's memories (even the painful ones) to fade, Sara seems to remember absolutely everything, something she credits to her general lack of alcohol consumption. And she will talk about those things at length, at times with excruciating detail. Whether or not you want to be reminded is of little concern to her. When Sara is in this mode with me, she has an unusual assist: the millions of words that I have written and published online over the years. Sometimes this has merely jogged her memory and allowed her to remember even greater detail than her exceptional memory system would normally permit. Other times it allows her to comment on and celebrate (is that really the word?) parts of my life she wasn't direct witness to.
The last of Sara's conversational modes is the one focused on trolling Facebook. I have never met another human being who quite gets trolling the way I get it. Sara has an intuitive grasp of what one should say to someone with disagreeable views or other annoying personality traits in order to make their head explode. As with all liberal Facebook trolls, her favorite trolling watering holes is Christians for Michele Bachmann (which she calls "C4MB!" — always with the exclamation mark).
Before leaving Sara's neighborhood, we went to a water ice place, which sells a product similar to shaved ice but uniquely Philadelphian. I'm no connoisseur of such things, so I had no useful way to judge the flavor, but my lemonade seemed refreshing on this increasingly sweltering day.
I drove us south down I-95, catching up with the well-worn road to Silver Spring in northern Delaware. Initially I'd thought I'd be needing podcasts for this drive, but I hadn't counted on the power and endurance of Sara's language production system or the bottomless well of her things to talk about. Not all of it was that interesting, but even when it wasn't, there was always a chance that the topic would move from an arcane story of rivalries among people I didn't know in a blood-spattered smack-addled drug den to musings on what it was that made Matthew Hart decide Big Fun represented a more promising future than his expensive hippie private school.
It's always good to have something on the radio when one is driving, so I played just whatever radio station was easy to find pretty much regardless of genre. In the Washington DC area that was hip-hop-inflected dance music, most of which concerned matters of "shawties," "da club," and the act of "backing dat up" (and we're not talking about hard drives here). I don't know if "da club" was part of Sara Poiron's jargon before today, but she said it like she'd been using it as an absurdist catch phrase for years.
As we crossed the Potomac into Virginia, I said there should be a sign welcoming us to the "land of the vaginal probe." Just about that time, our station playing tunes about backing dat up in da club faded out and I switched to a country music station. From then nearly to the outskirts of Charlottesville, the songs all seemed to have to reference a "truck," though there was one that also mentioned a girl with "a little bit of devil in her angel eyes." It wasn't ideal music, but it seemed like a fitting soundtrack for US 29, which Sara remembered correctly as being essentially endless.
As we entered Charlottesville, it began to rain. I don't have much experience with entering Charlottesville from the north, so I took the 29 Bypass down to I-64 to approach via 5th Street. The rain came down so hard on the bypass that traffic speeds slowed to a crawl, and the rain continued until the moment we parked in front of Jessika's place. I hadn't been there in two years and had only really visited it once, so I had to drive slowly until we came to the house that was obviously Jessika's. Unlike her old place, there are no obvious doll heads and skulls hanging in the shrubbery. I think it was the light blue front door that tipped us off.
Jessika and Aaron had married since the last time I saw them, and (according to Sara), Aaron had been somewhat dubious about whether or not Sara actually existed. But here we were, and there was Sara! Jessika had made us something vegan involving lentils and Isræli couscous, but it was late and all I really wanted to do was drink beer.
Last time I'd visited, the house was still sort of new and in process. But now the back deck is complete, the walls all decorated with masks and meticulously-curated objects and art (much of it laid away back when Jessika worked at the transfer station). It has a perfection and order about it that is hard for most people, distracted as they are by life, to arrive at.
I should mention that both Sara and Aaron are smokers who have made a partial to full transition to using modern electronic cigarettes, which I first encountered only a week or so ago when Robert came to visit. Sara's transition is partial at best; she still smokes regular cigarettes at home and in places where they are allowed, though she relies on electronic cigarettes for smoking in people's cars or houses. Electronic cigarettes are expensive and it would be hard for her to budget the number of e-cigarettes she would need to satisfy her two-or-three-pack-a-day habit. It's amazing how much the technology has advanced since the last time I saw it in use, back in 2006 when I visited my friend and colleague Michæl, who smoked an early version that produced a strangely cloying fragrance. Today's e-cigarettes are completely odorless. Supposedly e-cigarettes have recently introduced features originally developed by people trying to smoke marijuana on the sly, such as the Volcano (which I can now say I've tried). (While the Volcano is not completely odorless, it is very close to it.)
The sudden ubiquity of odorless e-cigarettes demonstrates showcases how completely short-sighted the tobacco industry was as they fought tooth-and-nail against indoor smoking bans. Had they just accepted the emerging new reality and pumped research & development into e-cigarettes, they might have been able to leverage their once-considerably lobbying power to exclude e-cigarettes from indoor smoking bans. But they acted too slowly and now e-cigarettes are the same as classic cigarettes in the eyes of the law.
At some point a surge caused a transformer to fail nearby on 5th Street. There was a loud pop, a half second of 60 Hz hum, and then the lights went dark. A minute later, there was another pop followed by a hum during which the lights came up for a moment and then went out again. We lit candles and wondered how many days the power would be out. Sara said that when this had happened in her neighborhood it had taken three days to get fixed. Occasionally there would be the sound of another pop and a brief instant of power and illumination accompanied by a loud hum. But then darkness would return. I have a general sense of how power grids work, but none of this behavior made sense to me. Why would transformers continue to fail after a surge? And why would there be a brief pulse of usable power on the grid each time they did so? Or were the pop and hum sounds something other than transformer failures? In any case, whatever was wrong was apparently easy to fix; the power outage lasted only about an hour.
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