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I used to have this rather disturbing habit of dreaming about ex-boyfriends while lying beside current ones.  The dreams were sometimes a little bit sexual, but more uncomfortable than nightly dream-state visions of my legs wrapped around the waist of someone from my past was the undeniable fact that the dreams were always rather pleasant.  On those dark evenings as I slumbered beside someone I really cared for, my psyche seemed to want to entertain all of those yesterdays – and only concentrate on the joy of those former lifetimes. 

I never told the unsuspecting men over coffee and egg whites the next morning about what exactly had raced through my mind the night before.  To do so seemed cruel to them – and patently unfair to me. It wasn’t like I’d wanted those dreams to happen.  But I’d look up and see someone smile as he handed me a steaming cup of coffee and I’d feel a tightness in the corners of my mouth when I’d smile back because I knew I was hiding something and my thoughts would begin to race as I’d try to analyze myself right there on the spot to figure out why that other guy had made a starring role in my dream and what it could all mean and then I’d feel a drop happen in my stomach that would stop me short for just a second because I’d know right then and there that this current man probably had some dreams as well and they couldn’t possibly have all included me.

Last night, however, I did not dream about another man.  Last night I dreamed about McDonald’s French Fries.  I was able to recall, even after I woke up and took a shower, just how yellow they were and how they tasted just the perfect amount of salty and I knew, even in my dream, that it was a little strange that they were being served out of a navy blue paper container instead of the conventional red one.  I think the navy part must have come into play because I picked out what I’d be wearing for work right before I went to sleep last night and I chose a flippy navy-colored dress and I looked at it hanging on the hook on the back of my door right before I closed my eyes for the night. 

I haven’t had a McDonald’s French Fry in a very long time, though I’ll happily wager that I could probably find a petrified piece of one should I ever decide to clean out my car.  Like Twinkies, cockroaches, and Vicki Gunvalson, my guess is that McDonald’s French Fries will be part of the collection of relics left behind once we all sufficiently destroy this civilization.  I take only a bit of comfort in the idea that future explorers will surely deduce that we ate an enormous amount of crap in our time here on Earth, but I also hope they’ll realize that the stuff was yummy as hell. In fact, I pray a distant future scholar will one day write a full dissertation comparing all things Hostess to the lure of those Sirens that Odysseus had to combat.  I also pray it’ll be titled The Last Temptation of the Hostess Snoball.  





There was this creepy movie that came out a few years ago in the United Kingdom before an American studio bought it and distributed it here. The version released on our shores was almost identical to the original cut, but the film was given a brand new ending that basically served to create the possibility of a sequel (or five) because, if there’s one thing our country knows how to export, it’s action and horror franchises. The Descent’s plot involved a bunch of women willingly shimmying themselves down into the deep and narrow crevices of caves where they promptly lost their way and, just when it seemed like it couldn’t possibly become any more horrific or traumatizing, it all somehow got even worse.  See, the caves were also home to wiry creatures that looked like the alien fetus who popped out of the guy’s tummy in Alien and the backwoods inbred folks from Wrong Turn had a baby – and then ate that baby and then vomited the baby up and decided to go and raise it deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

The cave-dwelling creature (so deadly white and blessed with a mouth crammed full of sharp teeth, all the better to eat you with, my dear) was visually alarming for sure and the filmmakers revealed him perfectly.  There he stood, lurking in the back corner of the frame.  The light was dim and he slowly came into focus. It was a powerful moment, the kind only an art form like cinema – one that is capable of manipulating time and space and lighting and sound – can truly create. But the bulimic-looking monster who appeared to relish binging on human flesh isn’t what haunted me.  No, it was the topographical nature of the caves and the winding mini trails that led to nowhere and the sharp rocks that jutted out menacingly and the certain knowledge that being trapped is perhaps the very worst thing one can be.



Life throws you curveballs, my dear.  

This is a sentence someone I’ve known for a very long time whispered into my ear late last night and the whisperer of this nugget of truth knows precisely what she’s talking about.  She’s dealing with her own screwy pitches right about now – we all are – and I felt in her hug and her whisper a bolt of blatant empathy that I found rather comforting.  Maybe others might have felt put on the spot by what she said or become offended by being included in her mass of a mess, but I took only kindness and compassion away from her words.  Sometimes, I guess, it’s hard to know exactly how you’re supposed to feel or which action you should be taking.  Sometimes it’s difficult to delineate when you should just sit still and do absolutely nothing at all.  Sometimes it’s really hard to sit still, even while the world around you is spinning and you feel like you’re losing your grip on everything, including gravity.

The thing about life and family and a lifetime spent with family is that it changes – and I’m okay with that, I suppose, as long as the changes can be tracked.  Far too logical for my own good, I’m weirded out by shocks and surprises, the ones caused when there’s been little or no preamble to a massive and seismic shift in the family unit.  I know it’s a real flaw of mine that I look to find the linear genesis of the journey that got us all here rather than just hopping on the bumpy trip right then and there and allowing myself to be careened forward.  No, I look backwards – and it makes me feel dizzy every time. 



For a very long time, I knew the first and the last lines of the book Less Than Zero by heart. I think that if I sat down to think about it for more than twelve seconds – my maximum attention span of late – I bet I could still recite those words that once felt branded on my soul and in my mind in the ways a suburban girl from the east coast who has never gone through a real drug phase shouldn't actually be able to remember. There was something about being afraid to merge on freeways in the beginning and the last line of the book included the words "after I left." I might not remember the cheekbones of a guy I kissed three months ago, but words?  Those tend to stay with me.



Hospital waiting rooms are the opposite of comforting.  

The chairs are pushed far too closely together.  It’s not that I’m so big and that I need the physical space to sprawl out; it’s that my worries and my concerns are bumping up against those of my family and those of the strangers that surround me as we all sit in a room with old magazines and coffee that is cooling too quickly while our minds race to the corners we often don’t allow them to venture.



I'm gonna start by saying that this entire story is true – and that it's something I've never told before. Suffice it to say, the reason for the secret cover will become clear with each flicker of an orange candle and each breath into a napkin.

Doesn't make sense? Hop on board and try to go with it. But do so knowing that it all won't make sense by the end of the story either.



I think I was twenty-five years old, but it’s hard to remember for sure.  I tend to block some of the truly scarring moments from my comprehensive memory, though shards of the experiences always remain, the edges still sharpened and capable of chipping away at the protective layers that shroud what really happened.

What I just wrote above is a rather dramatic way to embark on the story of my encounter with a rat, but this I tell you:  the moment was terrifying, and I want you to understand my almost catatonic reaction.  Also, please know that I genuinely pray that neither you nor I ever will have a moment similar to it ever again, not even in the afterlife, if that’s something you happen to believe in.



Time: it might be the most difficult thing for me to fully comprehend.

Time is, by essence, logical. It can be measured. It can be graphed and charted.

It can be traced.

But time is also complicated by the other swirling elements that are as central to the truth as time. The emotion you feel at a time can make the empirical nature of what really is or was shift. You no longer see purely the moment of the time; you feel yourself while you're in it -- and afterwards.



My niece is eleven years old. My nephew is fourteen -- that one seems crazy since, in my mind, he's still only a few months old, rocking a yellow terry-cloth onesie with duckies on it. But they're grown now. And yesterday was Visiting Day at their sleepaway camp and, for the first time, I got to go.

I think you're just innately a camp person or you're not. My family -- we are camp people. We see it as the perfect summer setting, a place where you are fortunate to get to sleep in a wooden bunk that smells like a special thread of mildew, to get to shower wearing shoes, filing into those tiny showers according to an order designated by a chart a counselor created earlier in the week. 

Obviously showering in the first wave is best. You get the hottest water, and you get a chance to spend the most time doing your hair afterwards. It was actually in camp when I was a counselor when one of my campers, Brooke, straightened my hair for the first time with some hair dryer thing that had a brush attached to the end of it. She was ten. I was eighteen, and I had never had straight hair before. 

And: Oh. My. God. 

I think the moment is right up there with the most illuminating events I've ever experienced, along with deciding to teach, embracing the goal to write, cutting a lunatic out of my life, and forgiving my parents for their divorce, realizing that maybe doing so would allow me to move forward in a healthy way while allowing them to forgive themselves in the process. 

But altruism aside, the straight hair might trump all of that.

I ran out of my bunk that night during Shower Hour -- yes, every moment of camp time has a name -- booking at full-speed towards my friend's bunk, just a few down from mine.

"Carley!" I bellowed. "Come outside!"

She was never the most effusive of people, but she stared in disbelief and then pet my head in the way a true friend would.

For years I couldn't straighten my hair myself. I didn't have the skill -- or the patience. (And really, it was way more about not having the patience.) During college, my friend Nicole would do it for me, and I have really long, really thick hair. If she'd had a minor in Philosophy, she would have had to drop it to have the necessary time to get my hair done right. We'd put on Dave Matthews or Alanis Morissette and she'd pull and straighten and divide my hair into sections to do it perfectly. 

I miss those days.

But back to Visiting Day, something that should be capitalized like it's as important as Halloween or Kwanza or Ryan Gosling. 

The kids go to a camp in the middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, and it turns out it's on the very same road as the camp where I was a counselor for four years in the 90s. The camp my niece and nephew attend now didn't exist back then. The land where there's now a trapeze set up that they swing from daily was just farmland then, where we all figured the spawn of the children of the corn lived, plotting to murder the rest of us who lived down the road for eight summer weeks, figuring they'd get extra kill points for bludgeoning victims from the Westchester/Long Island/suburban New Jersey area -- or really any place that had a Nordstrom within driving distance. That we weren't murdered actually surprised me every year, but it never stopped me from going back.

On our drive there yesterday, once the GPS had finally given up due to ending up on roads with no names, we made the wrong turn as we bounced along a gravel road. My mother saw a pickup in the distance and pulled her Lexus up along the side, rolling down her window.

"Can you tell me where the camp is?" she asked.

They explained that we'd missed the turn near the guard rail, but my mother's confused expression lead to them offering for us to follow them. 

They'd show us personally where it was.

As she turned around to follow the truck, I looked at her, stunned.

"Have you never seen I Spit On Your Grave?" I asked with puzzlement. "Cause we've just met the people who are going to kill us. And you're way nicer than I am. At least you'll get to live and enjoy Final Girl status. But I'm wearing a short skirt. I'm going down. Ah well. I've had a decent life."

"Don't be silly," my mother answered, following closely behind the mountain men as I tried to come to terms with my demise, trying to find a peace in the fact that it was going to happen in a setting that had meant something true to me and not at a DSW where I always figured it might after being trampled during a sale -- or at hot yoga, where I swear I had once really seen that white light, but that was probably just me almost blacking out from mass dehydration.

My mother's "it's nothing" response to the clear danger we were in? That's what horror characters always say before one of them is sawed in three. It's not, though, what the character who lives says. That character has the gaze and recognizes the danger. I started looking through the car for potential weapons. Had we been in my car, there would have been sequin dresses to try to blind the men with, sharp skirt hangers to heave their way, and Tina Fey's hardcover book to try to stop the blow of a chainsaw blade. 

My mother's car is spotless. And this is why it's just way better to live like a slob.

Last questions in my mind before what I was sure would be certain death: Had my mommy also never seen Deliverance?  Had one of those guys been holding a banjo, or had my terrified mind merely constructed the image?

Turns out, the men didn't slaughter us. That was quite kind of them. They drove to the turn we'd missed and waved for us to turn left. We thanked them profusely, and I tried to memorize their features in case I ever needed to identify them in a line-up.

(It might be time for me to start teaching more romantic comedies instead of focusing my efforts on slashers, possession films, rape-revenge films, and watching every episode of Dateline MysteriesI can find.)

I said "might."  Let's not get crazy.

At the entrance to the camp, the snacks we'd brought the kids were examined by women at an official-looking table. Nothing that included a nut, had ever lived near a nut, or had once made friends with a nut in an nut-adjacent factory was allowed onto the premises. Nuts are now feared like mountain men used to be. The kit kats we'd brought were confiscated, but the One Direction perfume I'd brought my niece and the Drake CD with the "explicit" label were sanctioned. 

Thank goodness neither had been created in a factory near a pecan.

My sister has been working at the camp this summer, so Visiting Day meant something different to the kids this year.

(Letter from Jadyn: "Dear Aunt Nell, camp is great even though my mom's here." That note is on my fridge now, along with her letter from last year that told me, "I made you a bowl in Arts and Crafts because I didn't want to catch you a lizard newt as a pet like you asked." My response to her: "Dear Jadyn: why can my newt -- whom I've already named Harrison and grown to love -- not live in the bowl you made me? You've got to start thinking things through!")

Never got the newt. May Harrison live and prosper in the countryside always before he's sacrificed in the way we humans were spared.

At ten on the dot, we were allowed in. I saw my niece and nephew and ran towards them, and I got teary doing so in a way I didn't expect. They looked happy, taller, and very proud to show us their camp. 

Both kids have top bunks. I used to as well. The bunks were cleaner than they had been all summer, and I knew that neatness would last until -- latest -- this morning. We met the kids' friends and their counselors and we walked the grounds and it was fucking freezing. I'd shown up hoping for a good tan: strappy tank, short skirt, low wedge flip flops -- totally appropriate camp-wear for me. But it was so cold, I ended up buying a pair of camp pajama bottoms, and I threw them under my skirt and then just shimmied that skirt off. Peeing in poison ivy, learning archery, and changing modestly in public are just skills you learn at camp. (According to my friend Becky, so are blowjobs, which is why she swears her daughter will never go to camp. But that's a blog for another time.)

We watched a gymnastics show and a trapeze exhibition and we ate a nice lunch and then we walked all around and, I swear, it was all uphill. But then I saw the ropes course in the farthest of the distance, and I saw it was open for parents, so I guessed that meant aunts could go too.

Back when I had been a camper, a huge ropes course was constructed, really high up in the trees. I had no fear then. I completed the course quickly and then I did it backwards. At one point, I was part of an exhibition on Visiting Day where I did the course blindfolded. (My poor mother.)

But then there was one time when I was eleven when I had gotten through the whole thing as usual but then something weird happened and I balked and couldn't make myself do the zipline at the end. I'd done that zipline a hundred times before, but something stopped me that time. 

I almost did it. 

I told myself I had done it before, dozens of times.

I told myself the fear I suddenly had was silly and that I was bigger than that fear.

And still, I was stuck with a momentary mental paralysis and the instructor, after over an hour of encouragement and cajoling, finally had to climb up and carry me down. 

I've never gotten over that moment -- because I never understood it.

And so yesterday, I saw in those trees my potential for redemption. Plus, I'm into living a little more dangerously these days, so I was definitely in. 

My outfit was a problem. I had to keep the pajama pants on, put on my nephew's too-big (!!!!!) sneakers, threw my hair into first a hair net (yikes) and then into a helmet, and then pulled on a harness hooked up by adorable men from New Zealand who worked the ropes course. I'd maybe never looked worse, including that day after my 21st birthday when I legitimately suffered from alcohol poisoning during a blizzard and had turned the most bile shade of pea green that had ever existed outside of a Crayola box or a hospital.

I had to climb a pole to get to a tiny platform where another guy hooked me up to something he swore would stop me from crashing head first into a tree -- a good thing, because I refuse to be eulogized while wearing a hair net. Then he told me to slide down to a kind of seated position on the platform and just let go.

And I did.

I didn't hesitate, not for one single second.

I kept my eyes closed for a brief moment and then I opened them up and I flew through the clean Pennsylvania air faster than I'd expected I would and then I suddenly stopped and a new set of boys were there to unhook me.

That harness at the end was hurting like a motherfucker. I was sure I had only half of an ovary left, so crushing it had become. 

"How do men do this?" I asked as they reached towards my crotch and unhooked me.

"Painfully," they answered with a smile.

I walked back to my nephew who had stood waiting for me.

"I did it, Michael!" I exclaimed. "Want to go next?"

"Nah. Can I get my sneakers back?"

We exchanged them right there, him putting his kicks back on, me sliding into my flip flops, and we walked down the hill to find the rest of the family where my mother and I soon said goodbye, hugging the kids tightly, and then drove back to a land without a gymnastics pavilion, without chore wheels, but to rooms with beds large enough to hold at least six fluffy pillows.

And I'd give them all up -- every last one of those pillows -- in a single second for just one more night of freedom spent on a wooden top bunk.