May 2008, in Denton, Texas, for my brother’s long-awaited college graduation. I bought cowboy hats—one for me, one for B. (he’d asked)—at the western-wear store at the edge of town. “It’s the best place to go,” my brother told me during one of the few times I saw him that weekend. My mother was staying at his place. And, well, that makes a house crowded even under the best of circumstances, much less after years of estrangement.
Growing up in Texas, I was never the cowboy hat kind of gal. My father. My father: he was the one who was all about the hats. I sat on a $500 Stetson once and didn’t sit for a few days after. He collects hats like other fathers collect ties. One for every occasion, sometimes three. Me. Me: I don’t know cowboy hats from fertilizer. A $500 hat is as improbable as a $500 pillowcase.
Boots? Boots I could understand—we lived in the country, the sort of country that wouldn’t ever be cool. Running with stray dogs, shooting rattlesnakes, picking berries for jelly, scrambling away from fire ant hills, sneaking out with boys at 1am—all in knee-high brush and brambles that leave marks when marks may be evidence. My boots—Christmas, 1986—were teal Justin Ropers, and they came with me to Illinois when I left Texas more than two decades ago. I cannot, though, remember what ever happened to them.
I’m not sure why I bought the hat. Probably I had romantic ideas of wearing it at music festivals—I’ve seen a few scattered among the crowds—or while I enjoyed a picnic lunch at Foster Beach or while riding my bicycle along the lakefront. It probably didn’t occur to me that I’d had many romantic ideas of a future life as a different person, nor how well any of those ideas tend to pan out. Truth be told, it wouldn’t have mattered. I’m a sucker for the experience, for the story I can tell later. A thousand missteps become a thousand and one stories. Even in sobriety, it’s true, except that I now find safer places to fall. A bad thunderstorm instead of a hurricane, I said recently.
I have a difficult time letting go of things. A no-parking sign I bought (legally, just like the used bowling shoes I bought in 7th grade but told everyone I’d stolen), red shoes that no longer fit, pretty dresses and random jewelry. I have enough office supplies to outfit a secretarial pool, piles of lingerie, artwork I’ll never have walls upon which to hang, more music than I could listen to if I tried. And books. Oh, books. I could read from now until retirement and probably not be done. I’ve been selling a lot. A lot of all of the above. Don’t call it purging. It’s more like a distillation. What’s left is the good stuff. The stuff that matters, that means something, that says something. The stuff I’d wake up in a cold sweat about if I realized it were gone.
Why, then, the cowboy hat?
Denton, Texas, May 2008. Mother’s Day weekend without my children, to be there for my brother. My brother, whom I barely saw the entire stay. Because of my mother at his house, my brother had me staying with a good friend of his—the lead singer for a fairly famous band—and his wife and their dog. Spend five days in a rock-star’s house and see if your life doesn’t change. Talk to him and his wife and play darts and see movies and eat picnics on Texas lakeshores and sit in on a recording session or two—all because your family’s too busy or too crazy to see you or for you to want to see them—and things are different. Maybe the life I’d imagined impossible in Texas was alive those few days. Maybe it was a mirage. Maybe it’s just another story. This one.
When I smell sandalwood, I think of that man, his wife, that house, that dog. They burned incense and it lived in the walls. Sandalwood lives in my home, in the shape of a bar of soap I bought in Chinatown, on one of my many trips to NYC. This trip was one taken to spend with my Brooklyn lover, a man I should have treated better, who could have been something more if I had been stronger, better, something. He took me for pulled noodles in a tiny shop near City Hall where Chinese men sucked marrow out of hooves while I slurped vegetarian broth, noodles and all, and then we wandered. Before I left on that visit, he gave me a copy of The Time-Traveler’s Wife, with a bookmark fashioned out of a piece of mail with his name and address still on it. I’ve kept the book and the address label. Just because. It was a moment, a time, something I could have done better. But without him, I wouldn’t know where to find pulled noodles, the best bagels, vegan pizza. I’d never have known Fire Island or seen Wilco in the McCarren Park Pool or gone on a boat cruise around Manhattan on the exact day I turned 35. Or maybe I would have. It would just be a different story.
The soap, though. I bought four bars, and I’m on the last one just now. I’m 37 days away from living in NYC. He’s a year into living with the woman he loves now, on the Williamsburg waterfront. We last saw each other when I was in the city for the hurricane and dog-sitting, 2011. I’d gone to see David Kilgour at an in-store performance after I’d bought a piece of art from his brother, Hamish, the night of the hurricane. He was there to see David as part of a book he’s writing about a band he loves. NYC is random like that. Texas? I don’t remember it being as much so.
When I first moved north, I didn’t know anything about living in a city. There wasn’t any way in or out of the town where I grew up other than a car, and I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 18. Before I left Texas, my mother tried to teach me how to drive, once, but I ran over her boyfriend (accidentally on purpose) and that was the end of that. He was a jerk, and I was 15. I still thought adults could make good choices if they wanted to hard enough. I still do think that. It’s just that “hard enough” is a relative term. Sometimes “enough” isn’t really.
Soon after starting college, I entered vastly different circles than the ones I’d expected. Instead of pledging a sorority—which never would have been “me” anyhow—I was part of the crowd that included older people who’d already graduated but kept hanging around. People in their late 20s and early 30s. It seemed just as cool then as it seems weird now. I dated a college junior for a while, then broke up with him to date his best friend—we even borrowed the junior’s car the night I broke up with him, driving into the city to drink Mountain Dew and eat powdered-sugar donuts. The best friend was my first husband. Funny how those things go.
Part of the crowd was a man in his early 30s, an artist, who lived in his parents’ basement in Lombard, where he made acid and drew artwork on the walls and produced all sorts of weird creative stuff. If he’d been in NYC in the 70s and early 80s, it would have been magic. But Lombard isn’t NYC and the only magic that came from that basement was my first acid trip, which included wandering upstairs to see his father in boxer shorts, mowing the lawn, smoking a pipe. Or so I remember.
The basement was also the start of the ill-fated affair I had with this artist-man, during a separation from my first husband. Oh, the romantic ideas I had (see above). Even when he told me that having illicit sex with me wasn’t any more pleasurable than masturbating, I took it as something. He was the closest thing I knew to what I wanted in life—which, then, I would have described simply as “away from Texas.” And being a young woman—a girl, really—in the late 80s and early 90s, dropped out of college and separated from her also-too-young husband, there wasn’t a lot hang onto.
One of the better things to come out of that twisted affair was a few pieces of artwork, most of which were traded for a pack or two of cigarettes. Some stayed with my exhusband—he, too, remained friends with the artist, an indication that our group was a bit more like the artsy crowds I’d dreamed inhabited NYC—but two I’ve carried with me over the years. One is a mock illustration of a comic book the artist had done; the other is dozens of strands of beads—hanging on a nail on a black plank of wood—that he’d strung while on a bad acid trip in the basement.
Denton, May 2008. I hadn’t seen either one of my parents in years. Both for good reason: self-protection, anger, determination to be a better person, an inner grief that they didn’t have the tools to give me a better—or normal—childhood. Not many people leave home at 16 on purpose, happily. I think differently now. I know better. Maybe my mother was right when she said I’d understand better when I had children of my own. I’ve forgiven much of what’s been done. It’s still hard knowing how to move forward, though. Reconciling with people you’ve always wanted to love but have preferred to render irrelevant isn’t the easiest thing. Like going on a blind date with someone you know you’re supposed to like but suspect you’ll find boring.
My father was at my brother’s graduation party, standing there looking older than I’d ever imagined possible: grey hair, a goatee in place of the beard I’d known, a shuffle to his step, worn work boots, a cowboy hat. Probably a $500 one, though who can tell? And I can’t say what made it happen, but I walked up to him—in what he’d later call my “city clothes”—and apologized for everything I’d done. He apologized back; we said our “I love you”s; we went our separate ways. At the time, such a simple thing. Years later, now, everything. Two weeks later he was visiting Chicago and I picked him up at the Metra station. My grandfather is a cowboy? my then-five-year-old son asked, never having seen the man wearing the hat before.
My father. I get calls now—calls I never even got, before the estrangement—on my birthday and gifts for Christmas. I get calls offering advice on jobs—sometimes at 2am, fueled by too much whiskey—and calls just to say he was thinking about me. A few minutes of putting things away, and I had a father again. My father who, the day after my brother’s graduation party, would drive me to get that cowboy hat. The cowboy hat I’ve never worn but can’t give away. Yes, that one.
I carry so much around in me—as everyone does: anger and joy and the capacity for love and deep memories and an idea of what life is meant to be. Along the way I’ve gathered so much: artwork and hats and dresses and stories of lovers long past. Also grief and missing Jack and wishing he could come along, really come along, not just as a thought in my head of a dead man I was supposed to marry. Remembered conversations with interesting people, some who are now famous and others who would rather not be and still others who are dead or missing or otherwise unavailable. And books I’ve kept since childhood (my name scrawled on title pages), the first CDs I ever bought, journals from time in Charleston and Texas and Albuquerque and New York, memories of good loves and heartaches from less-good ones, wishes to be better or at least different, a yearning best described as a hard-on for life. It’s all here, and it isn’t easy to separate out what’s needed, what isn’t.
The north-east wall of my bedroom is my idea of an installation piece that changes by the day. Some days—laundry—it’s messy and embarrassing and I hope I won’t die in my sleep lest someone see my life like that. Others, it’s a semi-organized jumble of past and present, things I’ll wear tomorrow or wore last week, jewelry strewn on hooks because I saw something like that in a Godard film (Breathless, maybe?), artwork lining the floorboards because I’ve no more wall space. Jack called my style “layered clutter,” and I suppose that’s true. It’s also true of my life, my stories, my history. Some things don’t mutate.
But. In a few short weeks this will change. My rooms will be empty, scattered into storage spaces and strewn into luggage heading east, me in tow. My installation piece will cease to exist. My Chicago life will be dismantled, much as my Texas one was 22 years ago. You can always come back, people say. You’ll be back every other weekend to see the boys. I know. But that isn’t the point. The point is in the going and in the bringing “yourself” with you, possibly in pieces for purposes of reinvention but maybe, too, because without the concrete memories, the stories wouldn’t be as easy to remember. To tell. This story.
In all of this: you may see an unworn cowboy hat, beads strung on a plank painted black, dime-store jewelry hung on dollar-store hooks, Trixie Belden paperbacks, a dozen dresses, a thousand books, Depression glass, random artwork, boxes of pens and paper and journals yet-written. Maybe it makes little sense (not knowing me) or is perfectly clear (if you do). Maybe it doesn’t matter. They’re my stories, not yours. I get to choose which ones make the journey.
On this one, the hat’s coming with me.