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gina frangello

Binders, Dear Life., Guest Posts, Relationships

Dear Life: How Do I Get To a Place Where I Can Trust Myself in Relationships?

June 14, 2015

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Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column.

Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer (and please keep sending because I have like 567 writers that want to answer your burning questions. Click here to  Email dearlife@jenniferpastiloff.com to submit a letter. Please make it as detailed as possible) Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by author Gina Frangello, my dear friend.

Send us your questions because there loads of crazy authors waiting to answer ‘em. Just kidding, they aren’t crazy. 

Well okay, maybe a little. Aren’t we all? xo, Jen Pastiloff, Crazy Beauty Hunter xo

 

Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff.

Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff.

Dear Life,

I’m a somewhat successful college student, a writer, daughter, sister and friend. Being in college is like being in a fish bowl. I am surrounded by like-minded people studying the same things that I am, with similar dreams, goals and passions. I am being encouraged each day to learn, grow and thrive in my environment. But I have a problem.

When I was growing up, I was sexually abused. I hate even using that term, because it makes it sound like I was powerless and weak. In some way, I knew what was happening. I knew it got me attention, and made me feel valuable in some way. Over the next few years I had a string of toxic relationships (some physically and emotionally abusive, some just plain negative). I battled depression, anorexia, and various forms of self-injury.

I’m currently at a state in my life where I want to have a healthy, positive relationship. I’m thinking about marriage, ready to move forward in life and stop repeating the same negative cycle I was taught in my early years.

The problem is, I don’t know how. I’m working on healing myself, I’ve been working on my issues and I finally feel like I’m in a place where I could sustain a relationship. I’m ready to work and have that be a part of my life. But whenever I get into a relationship where there’s any real chance of commitment, I freeze. I self-destruct and sabotage the entire relationship.

I don’t know how to move past this response, or why I keep repeating the same cycle. I feel progress in so many other areas of my life, and I don’t understand why I am so stuck in this one area.

How do I get to a place where I can trust myself in relationships?

—A

Continue Reading…

Interview, The Converse-Station

The Converse-Station on The Manifest-Station: Elissa Wald Interviews Gina Frangello.

May 21, 2014

Welcome to the newest installment on The Manifest-Station! The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. (Thanks Elissa Wald for coming up with that name.) I am so excited by the idea of this series. The readership on the site is so high that I figured it was time for something like this. Today’s interview is between authors Elissa Wald and Gina Frangello, two women I adore. Elissa can be found here and her latest book, The Secret Lives of Married Women, can be ordered here. This is a huge honor and I can think of no better way to launch this series. Now, go enjoy Seven Questions With Gina Frangello and buy her book! (It’s really, really good.)

Elissa Wald

Elissa Wald

Gina Frangello

Gina Frangello

By Elissa Wald:

I loved Gina Frangello’s first two books. I was deeply intrigued by the exploration of dominance and submission in her debut novel, My Sister’s Continent. I admired the smart, assured and fascinating stories in her collection of short fiction, Slut Lullabies.

And yet. Her most recent novel, A Life In Men, is something else again. Simply put, it is an astonishing feat: of story and structure and characterization and cultural commentary and worldly detail and setting and relentless tension. It takes place over more than a decade, in at least half a dozen countries, and it renders a tangled web of intimacies and liaisons and betrayals and loyalties without ever leaving a loose thread. It’s about the immediate and long-term repercussions of sexual violence. It’s also about marriage and female friendship and terminal illness and the many forms of familial intimacy and the fraught relationship of the American traveler to other cultures. It’s about self-destruction and entitlement and privilege. It’s about terrorism and death and redemption. You would think it could not possibly be about all of these things without meandering, becoming muddled, spreading itself too thin and/or succumbing to an identity crisis. But you would be mistaken. You would be underestimating Gina Frangello.

Gina’s schedule is especially hectic these days: besides being an acclaimed author and devoted mom, she is the Sunday Editor for The Rumpus and the Fiction Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. So I was very grateful that she made time to talk with me about her novel’s evolution as well as its formidable and fully realized ambitions.

order the book by clicking the book.

order the book by clicking the “BUY NOW” on the cover.

Elissa Wald: A Life In Men is such a structural, logistical and emotional feat. There are so many characters, jumps in time, and layers of revelation. How long did it take you to write, and can you say something about how that structure emerged?

Gina Frangello: Well, my official answer is that the novel took three and a half years to write. But the behind the scenes answer is that the earliest kernels of what made it into A Life in Men come from work I had started between 1989-1991, when I was living in London and then had just returned to the States, and I began trying to write short fiction about very autobiographical experiences I’d had there, such as living in Arthog House in London in 1990, the same house that appears in the novel’s second chapter, “The House of Reinvention,” and about traveling in Greece with my friend Amy in 1989 and being quasi-kidnapped (I talk about that on BuzzFeed, here) by a couple of psycho pilots. These were two separate stories and both were abandoned long before I ever “decided to be a writer” and began grad school in 1994, and they were forgotten for many years. But later, in 2007 or so, I was playing with the London short story hoping to turn it into something I could send out for publication, and I suddenly broke from the autobiographical mode the piece had been in and gave my protagonist cystic fibrosis, and the story cracked wide open for me—so wide that I fell so far into it I knew I wouldn’t be able to climb out without a novel. Then, in 2010, after the entire novel was written and my then-agent was beginning to shop it, I spent a month in Kenya and came home and rewrote the entire 400+ page monster in a couple of months, changing almost everything about the structure. I broke up what had been one long Greece chapter into an episodic parallel narrative. I added Kenya to the early parts of the novel and then changed everything that came after it. I think the only real answer to your question is that it took a damn long time to write and the structure emerged…slowly.
 
Elissa Wald: Something I thought the novel illuminated beautifully: I think for people who are very conscious of life’s brevity and their own mortality, there’s a tension between the drive to experience as much adventure and pleasure as possible, and the desire to make some kind of serious contribution, leave a mark. Often these impulses are in direct opposition to each other: to get great at something, execute a vision, usually requires a huge sacrifice of time, something in short supply for Mary and others in her situation. At one point in the book, she runs through a dazzling checklist of all she’s experienced, and at another point she says: “I should have done something… I haven’t made any impact. I drink mint tea and buy carpets. It’s all been meaningless and now it’s all going to be over.” I was trying to understand what drew her to Kenneth and thought part of it might be this shared pursuit of instant gratification at the expense of any long-term investments. Do you think there’s anything to that?

Gina Frangello: I do think there’s something to it, though I also think Mary has a lot more traditional long-term investments than she gives herself credit for. Not everyone can go launch a school for girls in Afghanistan, but Mary isn’t…well, she isn’t really the way she describes herself, either—she isn’t always a reliable reporter of her own identity, which I think is true for so many people. In truth, she is a character who manages to get a graduate degree in education despite having a time-consuming and very serious illness, and she has a teaching career from her mid-20s through her early 30s, at both the university and high school level. She writes and receives a grant to aid her Somali students; she teaches high school English for years; she also has a marriage that, while not 100% honest, lasts until her death. Her life is extremely different from Kenneth’s, and that’s as much a part of what draws her to him as anything else. She also longs, for much of the novel, to have a child, but is prevented by various obstacles, initially not to do with her CF but then later because of her worsening condition, and in this way she is also denied an opportunity to…well, perhaps to have the most common “long term investment” sought by human beings, which is the investment in that continuing cycle of life through family. So I think the answer is yes and no. Mary is very drawn to living as large a life as humanly possible within her constraints of both physical ability and time…and that desire, to cram an entire lifetime of experience in to essentially just over ten years of adulthood…is at odds, yes, with the idea of long term investment and the nurturing of time and energy and focus it takes to leave a mark outside oneself. She behaves in ways that can be selfish and dishonest in the pursuit of her own large canvas, and she uses her illness and limited time as an “excuse” at times for not having to heed the feelings of others or the standards others might set for their own integrity. And I think Kenneth understands this, and sees and recognizes it, and doesn’t judge it and isn’t repelled by it, and she is able to show him that face. She’s able to find honesty even when she’s unpalatable, and she is trusted to make her own decisions even when they aren’t according to conventional wisdom or safety. There is something deeply unconditional in their bond that can be truly hard for adults—even ones who lead much more “typical” lives than Mary and Kenneth—to find. But I think Mary is wrong that she doesn’t make a mark. She leaves a mark on many people, such as Leo and Sandor, and while that’s on a smaller scale I don’t hold that to be remotely without value. Most of us do not choose to “save the world.” Even if we aren’t dying young or we aren’t junkies. For most of us, our human relationships are what will ultimately define our mark, and in that way I think Mary ultimately realizes her life has been richer than she gave it credit for being.

EW: Mary’s final emails to Geoff seemed to me a kind of parallel to the ones Nix sent to Mary after Mykonos: insistently superficial, evasive, generic, maddening. There’s this love for the recipient but a secret so huge (in Mary’s case: Kenneth and her intention to die away from home) it completely removes the possibility of intimacy. Was this a deliberate reprise?
GF: Not exactly—I mean—wow, I love this. You’re right! It was intentional in the sense that yes, Mary’s emails were supposed to be…evasive and superficial and fundamentally dishonest, yes! But I had never realized until this moment that she was writing these letters leading up to her death, full of lies, just the same way Nix had been to her. I can’t believe I didn’t see that, but it’s true. The parallel was wholly unintentional. God—I love hearing something new about my own novel this way! Thank you.

EW: Another theme I thought A Life explored very poignantly is this notion that your relationship with another person doesn’t end with their death. In the above-mentioned missives, there’s something so bittersweet about the writers’ desire to protect their loved ones. This impulse forecloses the possibility of real intimacy in the moment, but the luxury of life’s continuous unfolding can (and does, for Mary at least) ultimately yield a sense of deferred and deepened intimacy, experienced by the survivor. Can this one-sided evolution rightly be called a relationship?

GF: Yes…I mean…one of the things I was most intent on exploring in the novel is the ways in which “protection” precludes real intimacy. I’m fascinated by that. I’m fascinated by the way that the most altruistic kinds of love often distance us from the beloved, and prohibit us from being truly known and understood. I think for example that this is the case in many parent/child relationships, where the parent’s desire to protect the child also makes the parent in some way a fundamentally unknowable shell, loving and protective but artificial and somehow distant. And many kids—and adult children—have a lifelong journey of “discovering” who their parents “really were,” including after their parents’ deaths, that isn’t in some ways different from what happens with Mary and Nix, even though they’re peers and their situation—the necessity of protection and dishonesty—is more dramatic and rare than a more typical parent/child dynamic. But I think this dynamic can carry over into many types of relationships, between siblings or friends or lovers. There is a ruthlessness implicit in really hardcore intimacy. There is almost an unwillingness to protect, or a sacrifice of protection for the sake of being fully seen and known. How do we walk that line, you know? How can we be fully known and yet still protective? Where is the balance? For some people, such as Mary, that has to involve two different men. For Nix, it has to involve lying to Mary about their largest shared experience. But yes, I think relationships quite often continue beyond the death of one party. I don’t have any sort of faith in life after death, so I suppose “relationship” may not be the exact word, as only one party can continue to grow and understand and change…yet maybe a relationship itself continues to evolve, as long as either party is there to perceive it and rework it.

EW: Part of what made Mary brilliant as a character is that she is both survivor and someone who is survived. To me, she’s a reflection of all of us: while we’re living, we’re dying, and even those among us who are the most visibly dying are also living. Mary survives Nix and she is survived by her loved ones. Was this pretty-much-universal duality a conscious theme for you as you were writing the book?

GF: Yes. It was extremely important to me that Mary not be somehow a cipher for Tragedy in the novel, if that makes sense. Tragedy is cheap, even as it is unspeakably potent in individual lives. Dying young women still outlive millions of other people on the planet, who die in acts of violence, natural disasters, starvation, you name it. A Life in Men isn’t an overtly political novel—Mary and Nix are not political characters—but I didn’t want a sense of insularity to Mary’s looming expiration date, or a sense of her somehow being singularly tragic and important or something. I wanted her to survive and be survived by, and for a sense of that cycle—interpersonally and globally—to exist. People are not either Tragic or Normal, and we don’t either Live or Die. We are all dying, of course. We all also are (or most of us are—most people who are buying and reading a novel, let’s say) lucky compared to someone else. It’s all a chaotic continuum. Partially that can be measured in time/years, but it’s also about various ways we quantify the impact of a life, which is partially quantified in terms of what we experience, and partially quantified in terms of how others experience us. I wanted Mary to be part of a system, absolutely, not some focal point…you know…like, get the tissues, here is the tragic damsel who has it so much worse than everyone else, or to buy into the concept that some bad dose of luck makes a character noble, either.

EW: Yet another aspect of the novel I deeply appreciated was this thread of American exploitation that seemed to run through the book: American entitlement, American appropriation of other cultures, the foreign experience as a trophy on the American mantle. And something I saw as incredibly brave of you as the author was the juxtaposition of this attitude on the part of Nix with the assault she suffers as a direct result. She enters the bar with the explicit intent to use these men for Mary’s benefit. If it weren’t these two men, it would have been another pair or yet another: there’s the implication that they’re interchangeable. She ponders whether she’ll “take” the hotter of the two men and decides to “give” him to Mary. She thinks nothing of stringing the sidekick along; she holds up her glass peremptorily in the expectation that he’ll pay for her ongoing drinks; she seems to have no doubt that she’s in control of the situation. When it backfires so terribly, there’s this feeling that it’s a kind of cautionary tale, and to me that felt risky. Did it feel risky to you?

GF: I think it’s always risky to depict violence against women in any situation wherein it has been acknowledged that the woman was not a “saint,” because our culture (by which I mean human culture) has a deeply ingrained desire to believe that somehow only certain “types” of women will be targets of violence and that, if we can suppose this is true, those women also somehow court or deserve it, as though violence is the natural outcome of being stupid or being adventurous or being careless or being promiscuous (whatever that means in a given slice of our human culture) or even being an asshole. We tell ourselves stories in which people earn violence. In which violence is the logical outcome, which I think is fundamentally a false paradigm that always favors the violent, and somehow casts them in the role of the oppressed. So that’s one thing. And yet I think most writers—certainly of books I want to read—are also not interested in portraying saints or hapless victims, even if that person is raped or abused or something. Agency is important to a character and to the complexity of a story and to the reader being able to contribute to a story and interpret it, rather than just being hammered over the head with a message or a point. So I think the answer to this exists in a couple of parts for me. The first is that yes, like many people who have traveled, I am in fact quite interested in American entitlement, exploitation and appropriation, of which I am very much—as an American and a traveler and someone who has spent money in cultures where most people have far less money—a part, while also being creeped out by that, which is of course not mutually exclusive and often feels…icky and hopeless, because—well, there is no clean answer or way to extricate oneself. American privilege is such a deep thing that even sometimes those people who selflessly try to “do good” can never fully understand the culture they seek to “help” and are presuming some level of superiority or some greater wisdom or preferable lifestyle to impart, and may do more harm than good, so even the most generous and selfless among us are on sticky, shifting ground—nobody knows what the fuck to think or do. If we scream about how wrong it is to cut off the clits of nine year old girls in some village on another continent, we will be accused of one thing, and if we excuse such things in the name of culture or religion, we will be accused of yet another thing, and if we simply ignore the whole damn thing and go on safari and take pictures of animals, we are of course guilty of some whole other thing entirely. And Nix is part of that. She wants pleasure and experience and thinks very much that it is all hers for the taking. Yet I do want to back up. Because while I don’t disagree with you on any of that, I think Nix’s entitlement is also about youth and the culture of female beauty and sexuality that has been shoved down her throat. Zorg and Titus aren’t exactly some underprivileged victims of American entitlement in any clean way either. They are older than Nix; they are educated and have access to cars and beautiful villas and are presumably employed as airline pilots and go all over the world. So while those topics all interest me, I absolutely did not in any way intend for Nix to represent American decadence and for Zorg and Titus to be the cautionary tale of what it reaps when you cross those you oppress or something. Western entitlement and the entitlement of affluence also play complex roles that aren’t mutually exclusive from American exploitation. Gender is also our first and primal binary. I intended Nix to have greatly misread her power, yes. To have mistaken a global obsession with female beauty, with youth, and perhaps even with Americanism, with the dubious fact that because one individual is in possession of those things, it makes that person powerful, and means she holds any cards. Almost every young woman on the planet who lives in a culture where young women are let out of the house without chaperones has, in some manner, played with the fire of the myth of female power at some point or other, and most—luckily and because most men are not in fact violent or sociopathic—escape this experimentation relatively unscathed. Some don’t. This is not just true for American women, clearly, nor is it only true for American women hoping to “use” foreign men. Men and women who live in and hail from the same cities, towns, nations, attempt to use one another everyday and try to jockey with one another for power. So while I think the issue of American entitlement is a deeply fascinating one and one I sought to explore in some ways in the novel, I did not intend Nix to in any way embody that entire system, especially as if she did, she would simultaneously also embody so many other systems of power and exploitation that are about more than the United States.

EW: Thank you so much for talking with me in such depth about A Life In Men. I hope any readers who haven’t yet read it will not deprive themselves any longer. In the meantime, is anything new in the works? What’s ahead for you?

GF: I’m currently most of the way through a draft of a new novel, called Every Kind of Wanting, which explores the dynamics, relationships and unexpected dramas surrounding longtime couple, Chad and Miguel’s, efforts to have a baby through a gestational surrogacy. Though the novel is framed by the nine months of the pregnancy, it also reaches back 30 years, to Miguel’s childhood in Venezuela and the unsolved murder of his father and mysteries surrounding the birth of his younger sister. I’m hoping to be completely ready to turn this thing over to my agent by September, but in the meanwhile I still have a lot of travel on my plate this summer, including Queretaro, Mexico, which as you know figures in A Life in Men, and which happens to be the location of an intimate, spectacular little writing program I run every year (www.othervoicesqueretaro.com). We kick off June 27, so if you want to come, hurry up!

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Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane and the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. She’s currently finishing her first book Beauty Hunting. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor and another writing retreat to Vermont with bestselling author Emily Rapp. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Los AngelesSeattleLondon, Atlanta, South Dakota, Dallas. Find her on twitter at @jenpastiloff.

 

 

 

Book Excerpts, Guest Posts

Excerpt of “A Life In Men.” A New Novel By The Incomparable Gina Frangello.

January 28, 2014

Excerpt of A Life in Men By Gina Frangello.

Three Honeymoons

(CANARY ISLANDS: GEOFF)

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open. —Muriel Rukeyser, “Käthe Kollwitz”

On New Year’s Eve, 1994, she didn’t think she’d make it to ’95, but here it is almost spring, and she is not only still kicking but feeling inconceivably fresh off another overseas plane ride and holding a fruity welcome drink in the main house of the most luxurious resort she’s ever seen. Its architecture resembles that of a turn–of–the–century village, as envisioned by a partnership of Travel and Leisure and Gaudí. Instead of one big hotel, approximately twenty “villas” dot the elaborately landscaped gardens like mini fairy–tale castles, all squat turrets and shiny tiles and pastel shutters. Instead of outhouses or vermin carrying bubonic plague, the place is so clean that Mary would feel perfectly comfortable licking the floors.

“This looks like someplace Snow White would hang out if she had a price on her head,” she whispers, and she and Geoff laugh into their drinks, intoxicated by their shared delight at the absolute lack of authenticity. They will be on Tenerife for a week, and their covert plan is to never leave the premises of the resort. In their first few days, they stroll the gardens, eat gourmet meals or quick snacks at their choice of restaurants, read novels and drink on the private beach, and then go back to their villa to make love until they are exhausted enough to sleep, only to wake and do it all again.

Geoff calls this a “no stress” vacation. No backpacks, no flooding bathrooms, no hitchhiking. “I don’t want to see you while I’m at work,” he tells Mary, meaning at the hospital. Over their first shared paella he informs her, “I’m going to fatten you up.”

Imagine a man saying he wants his woman fat! Envisioning a fuller swell in her breasts, her thighs brushing one another when she walks, Mary orders a third margarita — plus crème brûlée.

“No more slumming in the third world for you,” Geoff says later, as they float aimlessly in their personal Jacuzzi, sprinkled with fuchsia flower petals, the aroma deepened by steam, so that the air is thick and perfumed like an opium den. “I’m going to make you take it easy if it kills you.”

Then he grimaces.

Places to make love at the resort abound. The hammock on the hill, late at night when no one is around. Their Jacuzzi, Mary lying on her back outside the tub, droplets chilling on her body, while Geoff, standing inside the water like a statue of a Greek god, thrusts his hips, her legs slung over his shoulders. The crevices of the garden, on all fours behind bushes, peacocks gazing on. Mary and Geoff sneak around like children, looking for new places to copulate. A deserted chaise longue at sunset, while the rest of the guests are at the dinner seating. “This is what I wanted to do to you on that chair in Plati Yialos,” Geoff says, diving between her legs. For a moment the ghost of Plati Yialos — of Nix’s nude body hurling itself into the surf — hovers, but then Geoff’s tongue sets to work, sun looming above the water before dropping under, a giant yolk falling into a bowl, and Mary’s back arches and her thighs grip Geoff’s head and muffled voices in the distance only spur them on.

If happy families are all alike, the only thing more homogeneous still is a happy couple. See Mary and Geoff lying poolside with the other young men and women, all paired off like animals marching onto Noah’s ark. Pretty, tanned twentysomethings chatting around the bar, swapping meet–cute stories (Mary and Geoff’s always wins) in their various German, English, American accents. If Mary coughs now and then, even pulls out an inhaler, nobody seems to notice. If she disappears into the villa for a stretch of time to do her PT, surely everyone only assumes she and Geoff are in there swinging from the proverbial coital rafters.

Or maybe that is too simple. Mary’s lungs are still suffering the aftershocks of her Mexican infection; her daily life continues to revolve around time–consuming physiotherapies; now that she lives with a pulmonary specialist, she is less able than ever to forget about her illness. Geoff even does bizarre things like invite his supervisor, her longtime physician Dr. Narayan, over to their house for dinner, and insists on calling him by his first name, Laxmi, though Mary blushes every time, and lives in perpetual fear that the elderly man who has handled her lungs since she was seventeen will now accidentally encounter a pair of her thong underpants or, say, her vibrator while visiting.

She knows that her current bliss cannot be explained away as her feeling “exactly like everybody else” suddenly, but precisely the reverse. To be in such normal love, while simultaneously cognizant of her own difference, makes it seem that the bond she and Geoff share must be deeper, more profound or extraordinary, than bonds shared by the other, regular couples at the resort. Yes, for the first time since high school, Mary has been granted entry to the Normalcy Club, but this time undercover. She and Geoff are complicit in their pretense, so that the average itself has become exotic: every ordinary moment carries an electrical thrill.

Is this finally “happiness”? she wonders. Is this what she always craved? And if so, how long will it last?

On the fifth day, guilt–tripped by the other couples who rave about the casinos and discos in the touristy Playa de las Américas section of the island, Mary and Geoff venture outside the walls of their resort and head for the beachy boardwalk. But despite a dearth of American tourists in the Canary Islands (mainly because most Americans have never heard of them), it turns out that Germans and Brits are just as adept as any ugly American at co–opting a place until it becomes a Fort Lauderdale – like strip mall, complete with fish–and–chips joints, bratwursts, and endless pints of beer, with neon signs and fat senior citizens in sensible shoes. Bombarded by gaudiness, Mary and Geoff scurry past the casino, the dance clubs with wildly pulsating 1980s tunes shaking the sidewalk, the bars in the big, glitzy chain hotels, bypassing the crowds. They amble along the rocks
that line the beachfront, until they once again reach seclusion. Mary takes off her clothes and Geoff looks around nervously but then removes his, too, and they do it up against some rocks that poke and scrape their skin but provide good foot leverage for Mary, since usually she is too short for them to have sex successfully standing up.

Mission accomplished, they hurry back to the idyllic world of their resort.

This, then, is love. That elusive bird that managed to fly forever out of Mary’s reach even in the great cities of Europe and the African bush. That state of being or beast or concept, impossible to pin down, that had started to seem to her a great, mythic hoax — or if not that, then some salve for the simpleminded, not worth its hype. But how underrated, joy. How incompatible with everything she thought she knew of life. In real life your boyfriend ditches you the moment you get sick; in real life planes explode in the sky; in real life your long–lost father is a polygamist shaman. Now, only two months in, Mary is a zealous convert to love and its attendant happiness: an optimism junkie.

She never wants to go back.

On their last night at the fairy–tale resort, they dine in its five–star restaurant. There is only one seating per each evening’s three–hour affair, and you have to dress for dinner. Mary and Geoff wait in the cigar lounge for the seating, sipping cognacs. Geoff has put on what Mary’s father would call a sports coat, and he looks so handsome her brain hurts. At twenty–eight, he is less muscular than the boy she met years ago in Greece (he says he was on crew back then), but his new spindliness becomes him, has taken the macho edge she distrusted in Mykonos off his appearance. He looks kinder now, more vulnerable in his beauty. Sometimes Mary thinks Geoff looks like an actor cast to play the role of himself in a film; his face is too pretty to make sense in the context of a Cincinnati hospital and seems more Hollywood’s idea of what a “good–catch doctor” would look like. His dark hair falls softly in a curve over his eye, making him look like a boy in a 1980s band, sans the eyeliner and with his square jaw for a dose of masculinity. Mary is pretty sure every woman he encounters would like to fuck him, though Geoff says this is ridiculous; he has slept with fewer than ten women, her included. Still, she sits in her strappy black dress next to him, euphoric. This is my boyfriend. This is my life.

At dinner, they order the catch of the day, filleted tableside. They drink a sauvignon blanc from South Africa, which Mary is relieved is dry. She doesn’t know much about wine but recalls having had a sauvignon blanc with Geoff before and its being distastefully sweet. Geoff explained that this has to do with where the grapes come from and in what region the wine is made, but sauvignon blancs seem to come from all over the place, and she cannot keep it straight. He claims it’s his favorite white wine, although Mary finds this perplexing, since it never tastes the same. However, she likes that Geoff knows about wine. It seems a grown–up thing to know about. It makes him seem the antithesis of Joshua or of Mary’s parents. It seems an obscene, glorious luxury to be genuinely invested in the idiosyncratic taste of a grape and to have protracted discussions on this topic without the slightest tinge of irony.

“Look.” Geoff points toward the entrance of the restaurant. “There’s Olivier.”

Mary turns her head. Olivier is what they call the Frenchman who wears a skimpy black Speedo at the pool, his penis coiled like an enormous snake inside. They do not know his actual name, the penis being too terrifying to permit small talk, but Mary, Geoff, and all the other couples have been laughing about him for days. What is he doing here all alone? What is his story? Is his penile bulge fake? Mary watches him enter the restaurant in a loose–cut suit, no woman on his arm. It seems entirely reasonable to suppose that perhaps Olivier exists only for their amusement.

“We should have toasted,” Geoff says, and Mary has to turn away from Olivier’s grand entrance to look at him again. “To our last night in Tenerife.” He raises his glass.

She picks up her own to clink and drink. And there it is.

The reasonable conclusion to all her happiness.

When Mary sees the ring, she does not feel shock. She and Geoff have been together only since the New Year, but still Mary finds she expected this, not only in general but tonight. She thinks maybe she should gasp and clap her hands to her mouth or offer another dramatic gesture of surprise, but all she can do is smile.

“I should have gotten your number at home before you got on that ferry,” Geoff says, not for the first time. “I knew I’d never forget you — I was already in love with you.”

“I want to have a baby,” Mary blurts out. She knows she should be worried that this admission, or at least her timing, will make her sound some combination of unhinged, pushy, and desperate. But she is not worried. It feels perfectly reasonable to conclude that worry has been banished now, too, along with shock and loneliness.

Geoff beams. “Of course! I want that, too!”

“But,” she begins, unsure why she is suddenly compelled to play devil’s advocate to her own desire, “pregnancy could make my health decline. What if I were to leave you with a young child? You’d be saddled for the rest of your life, and I wouldn’t be there to help. It might make it harder to have a full career and to, like, find another
wife.”

Geoff gapes at her. “Another wife? Are you nuts?”

“Well,” she stammers, “I mean . . .”

The ring is at the bottom of the glass. Geoff glances at it nervously, as if he has suddenly realized that maybe it wasn’t the best idea, chucking it in there while she was scoping out Olivier. All at once he picks up the glass and drains it in one gulp, sticking his man -fingers into the delicate bowl of it and fishing out the ring, thrusting it forward at Mary. “I want you to listen to me,” he says, sliding the wet diamond onto her finger. “Your FEV values are amazing for your age, you have a milder gene mutation — I think you’re going to live for a long, long time, Mary. And as far as a baby goes, I’d never want you to do anything you weren’t comfortable with, but studies are showing that women with good pulmonary function don’t usually decline from pregnancy — some show that women who have children actually live longer. Plus, when the pancreas isn’t affected, as in your case, a transplant could someday offer an entirely new lease on life, where you’re not sick anymore at all.” He gets out of his chair and comes over to her side of the table. For a moment Mary thinks he will get down on one knee, but he is too dignified for that, too full of midwestern reserve, and merely crouches next to her chair. “Look, I’m not kidding myself — I know there are no guarantees. But if I were ever to lose you, the only thing that could make it even slightly bearable would be if I were raising our child and still had a part of you in my life.”

If they were in a movie, this is the part where Mary would begin to cry — where she would fling her arms around him and shout, Yes! to the cheers of the other restaurant patrons. But she is too numb with relief to even speak. She cannot cry. She cannot even feel, precisely, except for an enormous wave of letting go, of surrender. She looks down at her ringed finger and nods, unable to meet Geoff’s eyes. He hugs her tightly, and she wraps her arms around him and hangs on, thinking of the first day he brought her back from the hospital to his condo, and the way she wondered at her lack of nervousness or even, precisely, lust, when they fell together onto his bed. She felt, in contrast, as though they had already been making love for years and had returned to each other after an involuntary absence. For the first time, nakedness seemed neither a costume nor an escape route. Above Geoff’s bed was a framed Nagel print, and abruptly Mary cackled and said, I didn’t realize we were back in 1986, so Geoff, naked with his hard–on bobbing up and down, had stood on the bed, taken the picture from the wall, and put it inside his closet. “I guess since my decorating skills are so awful, you’re just going to have to move in and save me from myself,” he said, and although he had not even been inside her yet, the deal was done. She had already resigned from her job in Columbus and was unlikely to find a new teaching job before the fall, but the very next day Mary took the art she’d acquired in France, Japan, Kenya, and Mexico and, clutching the emptied travel tubes to her chest, spent five hundred dollars having it all framed.

“Hey,” Geoff says, standing quickly, discreetly, before the other restaurant patrons start to stare, “maybe we should come here again on our honeymoon.”

“I can’t believe it,” Mary whispers. “I was just thinking that.”

Click picture of book to purchase.

Click picture of book to purchase.

Gina Frangello is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010) and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006).  She is the Sunday editor for The Rumpus and the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown, and is on faculty at the University of CA-Riverside’s low residency MFA program.  The longtime Executive Editor of Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, she now runs Other Voices Queretaro (www.othervoicesqueretaro.com), an international writing program.  She can be found at www.ginafrangello.com.

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Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen is a writer and retreat leader based in Los Angeles. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Jen and author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing & yoga retreat to Vermont in October. 

And So It Is, Eating Disorders/Healing, Guest Posts

Penance.

January 5, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-blackBy Gina Frangello.

The second semester of my senior year of college, I developed a phobia of unopened packages of food.  Unless someone else had eaten from the package already, I suspected it would be poisoned, like the Tylenol tamperings of my youth.  The only item I remember being exempt from this phobia during that period of time were the Snickers bars I ate for lunch in the psychology building two or three days a week.  Clearly, the candy bar dropped out of the vending machine wrapped, and yet not only did I consume it, I don’t think it ever actually occurred to me that it might be poisoned.  I had no anxiety about my Snickers bars, which is even stranger since I was also suffering from a functional eating disorder that had me hovering constantly at just under 100 pounds, and calories were a major preoccupation of mine.  I suppose I ate so little otherwise that the Snickers bar was no cause for anxiety.  It was accompanied by a Diet Pepsi and was very likely the only solid food I took in on those days.  Although I was a borderline anorexic, I took cream in my coffee and (at that time, which mystifies me now) preferred revoltingly sweet drinks like white Russians and pina coladas and Malibu and pineapple juice.  Since I drank eleven cups of coffee a day, so that my hands always had a slight tremor and I had to balance books on my lap while reading or they would vibrate around, and my friends and I went to the Madison bars at least four nights per week, I suppose my calorie needs were being met; I never dipped below 98 pounds, even though I vaguely wanted to.  I wasn’t quite 5’2” and I was definitely “skinny,” but not to the point of a clinical anorexia diagnosis.  Not, unlike my sorority friend, Trish, to the point of getting into Disney World at the “under 12” price or ending up hospitalized.  My body was essentially the same shape it is now, just a more narrow version; I still had curves in my tiny black skirts.  When my roommate Deb tried to express concern over my weight, I assumed she was just jealous (the absurdity to this is evident to me now, given that Deb had an astonishingly good, healthy figure, and that she could no doubt see on a daily basis what a wreck I was), so I asked her kind-of-boyfriend if he thought I was too skinny, just to hear him say no right in front of her.  What he actually did was ask me to turn around so he could look at my body more carefully, and what I actually did was get up on the table of our booth at the Kollege Klub, our usual hangout, and turn in a slow circle.  Then he said no, and Deb sulked, and I was what passed, back then, for “happy,” which all too frequently seemed to involve making someone else feel crappy so that I could, for an instant, feel good.

My fear of unopened packages of food was a narcissistic fear, of course.  It wasn’t as if, if I saw my roommates about to eat the first bagel of a package, I would jump up yelping with anxiety, fearing they were about to drop dead on the floor.  It wasn’t that the prospect of other people’s death-by-poisoning was of no concern to me—I loved my friends with the intensity many only-children do, despite whatever bitchy antics I may have committed vis-à-vis turning around on bar tables for the approval of their boyfriends.  Rather, it was that it seemed self-evident to me that this fear of contaminated food was wholly unreasonable unless I was the one about to put it in my mouth.  I believed, on some level, that the food would only be contaminated if I were the one to consume it.  That I understood how preposterous this was did little to allay my fears, similarly to the way I would believe—maybe still believe in my weaker moments—that airplanes are only destined to crash if I am aboard them.  This phenomenon is what some of my addict friends would later describe to me as “believing you are the piece of shit at the center of the universe.”  The belief that you are special, even if in a perverted, self-loathing and warped way.  That God or the fates or other people are somehow focused enough on your existence and on your self-perceived shortcomings or sins, that the very laws of the universe and world events will be altered just to punish you or teach you a lesson.  My boarding the plane will cause it to go down.  My eating the first bagel in the bag will cause it to be poisoned, but if Amy or Deb chows down on the bagel, of course it will be fine.  I have spent more than twenty years trying to understand this belief, yet still its finer points elude me.  Did I believe that my actions literally caused a shift in the linearity of Time, and an altering of past events (i.e. crazy psychopathic criminal bursts into bagel factory and sprinkles arsenic on this particular package…but this only happened if I actually take a bite)?  My brain cells were consumed by counting calories and worrying that God would send me to Hell for being a slut, even though I didn’t believe in Hell exactly.  Or—surprise—I didn’t believe in Hell for “other people.”  If one of my equally slutty girlfriends had expressed this belief to me about herself I would have laughed at her, hugged her, and advised some kind of deprograming from the misogynistic beliefs of the church.  I didn’t attend any kind of services and didn’t believe in anything the Catholic church I’d been raised in stood for and took Women’s Studies classes and instructed one of my roommates, who’d never had an orgasm, on the proper masturbatory techniques and sent her into her bedroom and told her not to come out until she’d come.  I smoked pot every day and picked up guys most weekends and left my underwear in Chicago cabs and was in an “open” relationship with a British guy who did things like pack condoms right in front of me when he was taking a trip to Greece—a fact that bothered me not in the least since I aspired to be some cross between Anaïs Nin and Sabina from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and monogamy clearly did not fit in to this glamorous picture.

My terror of unopened packages of food—and the fact that sometimes I could not eat all day if I didn’t organically encounter something other people were already eating that they wanted to share with me—did not much fit into this glamorous image of my future either, but it admittedly made it much easier for me to keep my weight down.

The adage that whatever fucked up, self-destructive habit or belief system we hold on to must be working for us on some level or we’d let it go, in my experience, has always been true.

It’s hard now, in retrospect, to pin down the extent of my diffuse spiritual anxieties in those days.  I had gone to Catholic school, the kind of blue collar, old world place where the principal—a former nun—did things like spank kids with the Bible, and if the class misbehaved, our teacher told us we were all going to Hell.  I spent a great deal of time standing in corners for my “big mouth” and my inability to sit still in my chair and keep my feet on the floor.  I had the highest test scores in the class, and was often told by my peers (not always in a good way) that I was “smart,” but I never won any of the prizes for academic achievement given at the end of the year, which the teachers baldly admitted was because I didn’t know how to behave properly.  Conformity was prized far more highly than a certain innate academic giftedness, the point of which was unclear anyway, since no one in my neighborhood had ever gone to college or had any type of profession that required critical thinking, and there was no reason to presume I would be any different since no one had ever been any different.  It’s fair to say that it was even a gesture of care to try to teach me to conform and behave the way a girl was expected to behave, because these were the ingredients the Catholic school teachers knew of that led to a smoother future.  My father, out of similar feelings of care, urged me to the point of badgering to stop reading and writing endlessly on the couch and instead “go out” and hang with my cousins and the other popular girls on the corner, where I might attain a boyfriend and some status, hence making my future brighter.  In those days—until I was fourteen and placed into a selective enrollment high school far away from my neighborhood and essentially “got out” four years before I would physically move away for college—reading and writing were viewed as self-destructive habits.  The Catholic school girls were meek mice who folded their hands on their desks and chewed their tongues whenever they had a desire to speak out, but the public school girls were brash and tough talking, prone by seventh grade to getting high before school and blowing twentysomething guys in exchange for drugs.  They represented a spectrum of possibilities among which I fit nowhere.  I wanted to be Joyce Davenport from Hill Street Blues, and wear sexy business suits and keep my last name.  I had a vague sense that I wanted to have a lot of sex, but the guys in my neighborhood were terrifying and stupid.  The other kids said I was probably a lesbian, and though I knew that wasn’t “it,” whatever I was felt even harder to place.

I wrote on brown butcher-block paper, which my mom bought because it was the cheapest and cut for me by hand.  By the time I was 15, I had four “novels” of 300-400 pages each.  I hid them, not letting even my devoted mother read them, because I was ashamed of what a freak I was, scribbling stories about people who weren’t real instead of partying in someone’s mom’s basement and getting myself a gangbanger boyfriend.  And yet I kept writing, even though it appeared counterproductive to everything I knew.  The self-destruction of my participation in my own social ruin “worked for me” on some level, even if I couldn’t place it yet.

In an Afterschool Special, the crazy girl who is afraid of unopened packages of food would get help somehow, would have an epiphany and heal.  But in real life, we often have no idea what we’re healing from.  Kids I had grown up with had been brutally physically and sexually abused, had lived in apartments overrun with roaches where they were often left alone while their mothers hung out in bars and went home with men, had fended off the advances of their mothers’ parade of boyfriends, had—in a few cases—been murdered in gang violence or simply by crazy, enraged neighbors.  Although I had grown up in the middle of all that, none of it had ever happened to me.  My parents were nice people.  We were below the poverty line, but there were only three of us and we always had enough to eat.  My mother took me to the library every week and read books aloud to me.  I had gotten out and here I was at a Big Ten college, having studied abroad in London.  I had a sophisticated British boyfriend who sent me tapes of cool music and accommodated my vision of myself by packing condoms in front of me.  I had scads of friends, who didn’t judge me as harshly as I may judge my former self, as we were all only twenty-one and they had their issues too.  I had a massive case of Survivor Guilt.

I stopped going to class.  Crowded rooms gave me panic attacks.  Sometimes, just walking on a street teeming with other students, my limbs would go completely numb and I would stop being able to breathe.  I’d take off my shoes and feel the cold pavement against my feet, and this would help me enough to get me home to my apartment, where I would smoke a joint and listen endlessly to Depeche Mode or Miracle Legion or Janis Ian in my bedroom.  Sleepless in the middle of the night, overcome with clawing hunger, I would masturbate in an attempt to tranquilize myself to sleep.  When I would end up in front of the open refrigerator, scouring for something my roommates had already eaten, I would sometimes permit myself a quarter of a blueberry bagel or one carrot or a slice of turkey, and I would go back to bed hating myself for my weakness and figuring I would grow up to be fat like my mother, who made no secret of the fact that my father had stopped having sex with her after I was born.  I would be fat and nobody would want me, which had been true in my youth but somehow I had been okay with it then.  If in the morning, the scale said 100, I would starve myself for two days or go on Slimfast.  On the rare occasions I made it to class, the wooden lecture hall seats dug into my prominent tailbone, and my friend Trish and I made jokes about bringing pillows to sit on, and then she started really doing it, but I didn’t go to class often enough to bother.  One day Trish ended up in her car in the middle of the night, where she kept her food so she wouldn’t be tempted to eat in in her apartment, stuffing her face at three a.m.  She weighed less than eighty pounds, and finally she snapped and started sobbing, saying aloud to herself, Do you want to die?  Do you want to die?  She lives now in San Diego with a husband and a son who has a lot of allergies, but demons are never banished that easily.  You push them out of the top floor of the house into the basement, and you can still hear their voices through the pipes but you refuse to give them free reign anymore.  You learn to chew and swallow even though you think the ingestion of nutrients will turn you into your mother or whatever it is you fear being.  Trish was a virgin, a more “classical” anorexic than I was—she looked like a child and feared sexuality and being pursued.  She wore her child’s body like armor until it nearly killed her.  I don’t know what happened to her when she was younger, but I know that in my neighborhood and most of the world, having a child’s body doesn’t protect a girl from much of anything.

I took a psychology exam, the day after a bad trip where I’d gone into a kind of shock and had tremors for most of the night, and in response to a question asking about what major theory Freud formed in Paris, I wrote, “Freud never went to Paris.”  This cracked me up for weeks.  Somehow I got a B on the exam.  It was the first semester in awhile that I hadn’t made Dean’s List, but I still got my diploma with a good enough GPA to apply to grad schools.  My creative writing professors called meetings with me and recommended journals where I should submit my work, though I never, to my recollection, sent to any of them.  Instead I moved to London, where I would be a maid at a hotel and a bartender, under the table, and live in an almost-squat with eleven men from all over the world, most of whom were drug dealers, although they were also some of the most nurturing men I will ever know. I would wander around Battersea Park, so ravenous from fasting that the world seemed both jaggedly sharp, yet faraway and surreal at once; stars popped before my eyes dizzily as though I were only steps away from seeing visions.  I’d lie on park benches and tell myself I was doing penance.  Penance for what?  I was in love with one man and living with and fucking another, but that wasn’t quite it.  My sins ran deeper than that in my own imagination.  Maybe my crime was being in London to begin with, when most of the girls I’d grown up with never even got as far as the other side of the city where I went to high school.  Maybe my crime was still being alive.  Every time I boarded a plane, I was certain God would rectify that problem.

I had shunned all the partiers and dealers in my old neighborhood for years, making a social outcast of myself, and been the first person in my family on either side to go away to college, just so that I could—in a different country—live among drug dealers, tending bar like my father.  The irony wasn’t lost on me.  And yet I had come to realize I was no Joyce Davenport.  Even with a part-time bartending job, I often showed up late or called in sick.  I couldn’t keep track of money, and preferred just putting it into my rucksack and letting my male companions pay for everything, or throwing my paychecks into a communal pool.  One of the men I lived with was an amateur photographer; another had friends who were starting a literary magazine.  They also had friends in prison for murder, which seemed ordinary to me.  I knew I couldn’t stay in London forever, but this static world, this hybrid of my youth and vaguely boho-artistic fantasies, felt safe.  Finally, I moved to rural New Hampshire for the boyfriend who would become my husband.  He was pursuing his PhD, and simply following him gave me the illusion of movement and change, without requiring me to do anything myself.  I moved into the house he shared with other grad students and I waited tables and nannied (both rather poorly) and cried so often it remains a miracle he didn’t break up with me.

This had been going on way too long to accommodate any Afterschool Special by this point.  A year passed, then another.  I got into therapy, though it didn’t help much since all I did was lie to my therapist.  I once ran into her on the street and—although this violates the ethics of what you’re supposed to do if you run into a client in public—she said an enthusiastic hello to me.  I had no idea who she was.  I’d been her client for eight months, but I never even looked at her, really.  I was looking at myself: at how to construct the Me I wanted her to see.  I was fighting another invisible enemy, like God.  I’d gone into therapy to get control of my life, but once there I wanted my therapist to like me.  I handed her pictures of who I thought a likable woman might be.  It never occurred to me that a likable person might be someone who would recognize her on the street.

When you’re the piece of shit at the center of the universe, you aren’t a person exactly, but more importantly neither is anyone else.  The world is merely your audience, the way God was my imaginary audience.  The rest of the world exists just to confirm your belief in what a shitty, punishable person you are.  What a special person you are in your horribleness.  In a world of Hitlers and Milosevics and Dahmers, your awfulness can rewrite the past of the bagel factory; your awfulness can bring the plane down.

Three years passed this way.  Pulling my car over to the side of the road during legendary New Hampshire snowstorms, hyperventilating and numb with a panic attack, afraid the car heater must be poisonous and would kill me.  Driving the rest of the hour home with my windows down, the heat turned off, and ending up with chilblains, the doctor telling me how strange it was that I had this eighteenth century malady, and my feigning confusion, How could I have gotten this?

I got an MA in counseling during those years; I got engaged during these years; I wrote the first draft of what would become my first published novel during these years; I traveled extensively.  It’s easy to look back on a messed up time in our lives and say, Who was that?  But many of the things I did were the things I would keep on doing for the bulk of my adult life, even after unopened packages of food and car heaters and churches looked innocuous again.  Various things add up to change: a chiropractor who put me on a hypoglycemic diet, and within two weeks my anxiety issues and my breathing problems had stopped.  Starting a grad program in writing, and feeling for the first time in my life that there was somewhere on the spectrum of possibilities where I might actually belong.  Moving back to Chicago, and coming to grips with the city I grew up in, on new terms.  Reading a shitload of books on theology, initially in an attempt to reconcile with the Catholic church, and emerging realizing that I am an atheist, and that my spiritual crises, such as they were, were always partly about trying to swallow a system that made no inherent sense to me, and my guilt over that because abandoning my religion was just one more puzzle piece of my youth I was throwing out the window of a moving car, so that I could never come together again as the person I’d once been.  One day you live in a state of acute crisis, unable to walk down a crowded street without having to take off your shoes to feel the earth beneath your feet, and then it is three years later, and maybe you have just gotten too fucking exhausted to keep carrying on that way, and you just don’t do that anymore.

Do you want to die? my friend Trish asked herself alone in her car.  Do you want to die?

I didn’t have to come as close to dying as she did to realize I wanted to live, but maybe it took longer.

The other day, my father, who is ninety-two, and with whom it would be accurate to say I haven’t had an in-depth conversation in years, suddenly said to me, on his return from the hospital: “All those times I used to try to get you to go outside and run around with the other girls—Jesus Christ, was I an idiot.  I didn’t understand that you knew what you were doing.  I didn’t understand that you were going to have a completely other kind of life I just couldn’t imagine.”  His words meant more to me, even after all this time, than I maybe want to admit.  And yet the truth is, I was acting blindly too.  I was simply a different kind of animal than the people around me, back then.  There was less “choice” involved than perhaps I wanted to tell myself.  My writing and reading were less “heroic” acts of rebellion, and more simply my nature, my evolutionary survival skills, no different from the way Martha Cruz ran around the playground every day as though it were a track, or the way my best guy friend, Hector, picked endlessly at his own scabs, opening and reopening them until they scarred, biding his time until he could come out of the closet.  The belief I held, back then, that I was somehow the only one who needed something different was part of an old mythology.  Unhappiness in captivity doesn’t make anyone special, and maybe getting out doesn’t either.  Maybe it took my father validating my choices to realize that he—by not being an addict or an abuser or a criminal; by contributing his particular genes my way—was as much a part of the pastiche of my choices as I was.  Shift everything just that much to the left, and who knows where I would be now?

I am a writer now, living that “different life” neither my father nor I could imagine.  I’m also a mom of three, living in the Midwest, and my life doesn’t resemble Anaïs Nin’s much more than it does the coffee clutch ladies in their housedresses from my youth.  Life is a work in progress, and part of being a writer is listening to the voices from the basement.  Letting them drift up to you and clearing a space at the table.  Learning not to hate yourself for surviving, but not to hate the self you were to survive either.  Maybe not giving up on being “special” but rather realizing that without the abiding belief each human being has inside of our own uniqueness, there could never be art, there could never be love, and that part of the fundamental task of humanity is to truly see the pieces inside those around us that make them special too.  These days, I sit on planes reminding myself that the universe doesn’t care whether I’m aboard—that I’m not at the center of anything—and yet that doesn’t abdicate me from acting as though I can make some kind of difference.  I still usually need a benzo to board a plane, but I’m working on that.  If I never get there, that’s okay.  Sometimes, we feel static for a very long time, and then suddenly, we’re somewhere else instead.  Movement may not always be progress, but, like art, I’ve come to believe that it has a beauty for its own sake.

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Gina Frangello is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010) and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006).  She is the Sunday editor for The Rumpus and the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown, and is on faculty at the University of CA-Riverside’s low residency MFA program.  The longtime Executive Editor of Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, she now runs Other Voices Queretaro (www.othervoicesqueretaro.com), an international writing program.  She can be found at www.ginafrangello.com.

 
Jennifer Pastiloff is part of the faculty in 2015 at Other Voices Querétaro in Mexico with Gina Frangello, Emily Rapp, Stacy Berlein, and Rob Roberge. Please email Gina Frangello to be accepted at ovbooks@gmail.com. Click poster for info or to book. Space is very limited.

Jennifer Pastiloff is part of the faculty in 2015 at Other Voices Querétaro in Mexico with Gina Frangello, Emily Rapp, Stacy Berlein, and Rob Roberge. Please email Gina Frangello to be accepted at ovbooks@gmail.com. Click poster for info or to book. Space is very limited.

 
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