Forgotten Towns

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One Saturday in August, Charlie and I spent 12 hours driving toward, along, around, and away from the Texas-Mexico border.

The first thing to know is that our entire “day trip” was informed by a very devious, very outdated, and quite frankly UTTERLY FALSE AND DIABOLICAL flier that we picked up at an overly hip hotel in Marfa, Texas. The flier urged us to visit the nearby hot springs—turns out you can only soak in the springs if you rent a cabin, like, decades in advance. It went on to recommend that we swing by Presidio, a quaint Texan border town filled with charming hotels, lots of restaurants, and “outstanding shopping.”

With visions of colorful woven baskets and kitschy Texas-themed merch dancing in my head­, we packed three types of film cameras, bagel chips and cheap spreadable cheese, hiking shoes just in case we came across a mountain, and a gallon of water I happened to have on hand. Then we peeled out of town.

Presidio

An important thing to know about me is that I LOVE things that are objectively depressing (though what’s more subjective than the declaration that something is “objectively depressing”?). I get a distinct thrill from them. This isn’t an ironic “hipster” consumeristic thrill, either—it is real, it is poignant, it is unexplainable. I love Dollar Trees. I love sketchy motels. I love happy hours at TGI Fridays. I love half-abandoned buildings, failed businesses, dusty opera houses. So when it became clear that Presidio was not a bustling little town, but rather a stopover on the long and lonely highway from Death to Hell, my first thought was: maybe I could love Presidio. 

We drove around and around, admiring the broken signage and faded lilac buildings, but soon it became clear that Presidio was nothing but dust and “Closed” signs and sketchy restaurants located in people’s actual houses. Eventually we made our way to a dollar store and bought peanut M&Ms in order to get a crisp $50 bill via the “cash back” function.

Why the money, when Presidio was otherwise business-less? Because we were about to cross the border to Ojinaga. And in Ojinaga, the mendacious flier promised us, we would find even better shopping.

Ojinaga

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Okay, this trip wasn’t just about indulging in a rampant consumption of “authentic artisanal crafts” with “Made in China” stickers on the bottom. It was also about spectre of The Border and the archetype of The Border Town. These things loom large in our cultural imagination, and I think it’s very important to see things like that IRL, to see as much as you can, no matter how far removed it all seems from your regular life, no matter how many miles away your real home happens to be.

The border itself was like something out of a dystopian novel. Looking at it—the military green uniforms, the huge white buildings, the mysterious “under-construction” structures that seemed destined for strange and foreboding purposes—you really got the sense of the magnitude of the State, the cruel, cold efficiency of Law, and the pointless stagnancy of Bureaucracy. The soldiers seemed . . . well . . . overdressed. I felt odd about the ease with which we whipped across the line.

Where Presidio was dead, Ojinaga was alive. I’ll give it that. But the town was confusing, sprawling, full of dead ends that spilled out into gravel pits. It was stuck in the hot humid gunk of transience that characterizes all things that live on the edge. Sure, there were schools, and stores, and men selling hammocks by the side of the street. My favorite part was the graveyard—festive with color, bleak with wire fencing. But you got the sense that people didn’t want to live there, that they were coming or going (or unable to come and go, trapped under the great black boot of the American Border Patrol).

The above paragraphs demonstrate a fallacy: my tendency to filter my experience of things through my own preconceived ideas of them. Is the Ojinaga/Presidio border actually foreboding? Are people in Ojinaga really stuck in a gunk of transience, waiting to cross over? Why is it so easy to convince yourself that you’re picking up on real human woe and boredom and despair? We all like to think we’re some beautiful empathetic channeler of pain, quivering like a dowsing rod, so tuned in to the agony of the world that by simply glancing at a colorful graveyard we feel—nay, we TASTE—the pain of a thousand border crossings, THE AGONY OF IMPERMANENCE, THE VERY CLASH OF NATIONS THEMSELVES!

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Getting back across the border was characterized by a flurry of confusion. We had to pay $1.50 to get back into the States (an oddly petty fee) and only had our infamous $50 bill on us—and the people at the border toll simply didn’t have any change. We looked at them in disbelief as they told us to make a u-turn and go back into town and buy something to break up that albatross of a $50. So we went spinning back into the streets of Ojinaga, where Charlie sidled up to a currency exchange and I bought three beaded bracelets from a woman who had given us directions earlier. Then there was some waiting in traffic, some brief and disinterested questioning about our citizenship, and we were across.

Big Bend State Park

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The Rio Grande is muddy and slow. The road snakes alongside it, mimicking its curves. We curved along the road. I looked for falling rocks, since the signage implied that there was a 75% chance we’d die that day under a rock fall. We got out to look at the hoodoos—rock columns that have been eroded on the bottom, so that the rocks appear to balance on top. Two women were taking a selfie. I thought about offering to take their photo, knowing how often I wish someone would offer the same to me and Charlie. But I didn’t. I was feeling awkward, sensitive to other humans, content just to nestle against Charlie and look at the mushroom-shaped rocks.

Later, I broke the law of the park by filching a purple rock, studded with crystals. In my defense, the rock was already sitting on the road. The next semi truck would have crushed it. You could say I saved it. You could say I was truly a Good Person in that moment. Couldn’t you?

Terlingua Ghost Town

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If you want to commune with the ghosts in Terlingua, I have a recommendation: meet them in the cemetery just before a rainstorm, when the wind is making the milagros rattle against the hand-hewn wooden crosses.

It wasn’t raining when we got there. We scrambled into the incongruous gift shop (no ghosts there) where we snagged a map of the tiny town, put a dollar in the “suggested donation” box, and set out to explore Terlingua on foot. The sun was brutal.

Terlingua used to be a mercury mining town, and now it’s mostly laying in beautiful ruins. The town seems sensitive about mercury poisoning and insists that very few people actually died of it, despite the size of the graveyard. My favorite ruined building was the former house of a very rich man, which was tall and thin and gorgeous (the house, not the man), and is now half-hotel, half-ruins. I’m sure the insurance company has a field day with that. The windows on the top of the house were built purposefully narrow, to protect the house against Pancho Villa. How these narrow windows protected the inhabitants against Villa was unclear to me. Less glass, less chance that a bullet is going to fly through a window and snuff ya out? See, I would want big windows, massive windows—not just because I love natural light, but because I want to see my enemy coming.

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The church was also beautiful, and seemed to be still in use. But it was so hot and humid and airless that we moved around slowly, dripping sweat. I liked these little pictures that narrated the walk to the cross. I know other people would find them cheesy, or tasteless, but somehow they managed to strike me as very sorrowful—perhaps because they were so small, and tacked so high to the wall.

Residents

In the ghost town, as we were staring at what looked like an abandoned movie theater (but was actually a functioning restaurant housed inside an abandoned movie theater), a man in his 70s asked us if we were enjoying Terlingua. He was wearing a shirt that said “My Indian Name is Runs-With-Beer.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“We’re living in Marfa this summer, then Chicago in the fall,” I said.

“I hate both those places,” he replied.

I laughed and didn’t say anything.

“Okay, Marfa has like three cool things about it. But this place has eighty thousand cool things about it.”

He told us that his house was the one with the rock sculptures around it. “Are you an artist?” I asked.

“No!” he scoffed. I really dug his denial.

The residents of Terlingua have a vague truther vibe. You have to be a little bit cracked to reject the venerated cultural capital of Chicago and Marfa and settle among ghosts in one of the most striking and desolate parts of the world. I think it’s admirable. The town’s population is, like, 50 people.

Police

Our stint with the border patrol was far from over. At night, on our way back to Marfa, speeding down some lonely and flat highway, we were waved into a border patrol checkpoint. A huge drug dog with a manic look in his eyes smelled the wheels of Charlie’s car and gave some mysterious signal to his handler who gave another mysterious signal to the man who was interviewing us who, in turn, informed us that our car had drugs inside it.

No, we said.

They looked at us sternly. “It will be so much easier for you if you’re honest with us,” they said.

We speculated afterward, racing away in our drug-free car, that they were bored, that they had a long night to kill, and that the dog was just hyped up on all the human attention.

It’s hard to know what to take away from that interaction, as it is with most things in life. There were five of us: two men, the dog, me, my husband. Who was just doing their job? Who overreacted? Who tried too hard to be right? Who could have tried harder to be kind? Under the fluorescent lights, in the Texas night air, we were all looking warily into each other’s eyes, trying to read the situation, wondering how real it all was, striving to calm our animal selves as the beautiful mad dog leaped around, panting, confused, happy to be alive.

Everything

I don’t even know where to begin. Here’s how I’ve been feeling lately: ecstatic, dopamine-fueled, like everything is happening at once, and full of that subtle but deep underlying sadness that I don’t think any thinking woman will ever be able to shake. Example: today, I saw Picasso’s “Guernica” in person. I started crying. I stood close to it for ten minutes. I stopped myself from even thinking about taking a picture. My vision was blurry. I’d had so much coffee, and so little food. I felt: so moved to be in the presence of legend, so moved to be in the presence of great art, so envious of every artist and ex-pat who’s ever lived in Europe among this deep deep artistic history that we will never be able to approximate in the US, so sad about the bombing of Guernica, so intimidated by how perfectly Picasso channeled real human suffering into art, so restless about the fact that I don’t live in a city with Guernica in it, so dreamy at the thought that I was standing in an art museum by myself in Madrid, so confused.

I walked back, buzzing with caffeine and Guernica and work, listening to something just as blood-pumping and confusing as anything: a song that my brother recommended to me for a road trip with my sister but that has come to represent, for me, my first solo trip to Europe. Buzzing is the best word for what I’ve been feeling lately. Sometimes it’s literal (wayyyyy too many gin and tonics in Portugal), sometimes it’s because I’m listening to a great song and walking extra fast, sometimes it’s because I’m angry (I recently got an EMAIL criticizing one of my articles for having a TYPO), sometimes it’s because I’m thrilled, sometimes it’s because I’m making eyes at everyone on the street and I can’t stop. I’m too obsessed with burning imagery, stigmata, flash fiction. I just stopped writing and reached for the screen. See—the big gesture of my life right now is me holding my hands out in front of me and shaking, fingers poised in a gesture that’s half-claws, half-reaching. With joy? With fear? Even I, the trembling mind inside my only body, couldn’t tell you.

The Internet Makes Me Feel Sad, Part 2

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Some writer-type people are very vocal about their depression. Some are vocal about their sexual orientation, their childhood traumas, their totally misunderstood penchant for offering small children a lift in their nice, clean, white van. This is all part of this thing writers attempt to do called “connecting,” which, yawn, whatever, but there is one issue of mine that I want to be perfectly honest about because I don’t see many people talking about it: my reactions to the internet.

I wrote about this same issue a year ago, and not much has changed–except I like checking my email now, because every now and then someone says, “I would like to send you my Rwandan inheritance via money order!” and I’m like “Okay, here’s all the info you’ll need!” In this way I have become very, very rich.

Speaking of wealth, I have wanted to be a freelance writer for a long time, and things are finally happening. I got a paid writing job. A PAID WRITING JOB: rarer than a unicorn, rarer than a female director in Hollywood, rarer than finding quality saffron at the dollar store. As a hippie archetype in a lazy film full of one-dimensional background characters might say, “Cool, dude! I’m wearing a tie-dye shirt…Woodstock!”

My once-dark summer has turned into a pretty good time. I write articles in the morning, I write fiction in the afternoon (TOTALLY JOKING, I NAP), I waitress at night. I had a near-brush with a serial killer that I need to tell you all about, and I got to hang out with my little sister for like a week. “Far out, man,” says the hippie in the corner. “Why is everything you say so exhaustingly cliche?” we respond, but the hippie is silent inside his cloud of pot.

Unfortunately, doing online-type things has caused me to morph into a human-shaped mass of buzzing anxiety covered in a thin, easily-bruisable layer of skin.

The internet makes me sad. I can’t deal with the mediocrity of the internet, I can’t deal with the disposability of writing on the internet, I can’t deal with the thought that I might be adding to the worthless noise, but I need to be online to do the type of writing I want to do (quasi-journalistic, quasi-creative shortform writing that was designed for people like me: narcissists who can’t maintain an argument. OMG THAT WAS THE MEANEST THING I’VE EVER SAID ABOUT MYSELF, I’M LIKE EMINEM IN 8 MILE).

Let me be simultaneously more specific and more melodramatic. For the past few days, I have had intense physiological reactions to the thought of going online. My stomach has literally been in knots. YES, LITERALLY. IT’S A RARE DISEASE THAT ONLY I HAVE. I started crying in front of my sweet boyfriend yesterday evening as I attempted to do anxiety-relieving accupressure on my own arm. If that’s not the saddest thing you’ve ever heard, you must read the news.

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I think that flowers are the opposite of the internet. The feeling I get when I’m filching black-eyed Susans from a community garden, ransacking my neighbor’s lilacs after midnight, or snipping mint leaves from my grandmother’s herb patch to make the best chimichurri this side of the Panama Canal is an incredibly centered, grounded, relaxed, inspired peace. It’s the feeling of participating in a physical world as present, tangible organism.

…#biologymajor

The internet is none of those things. It’s not physical, it’s not dependent on time or place, it appeals to three senses at most (sight, sound, and touch, and that’s stretching it). Sure, it’s possible to be genuine–even genius–on the internet, but it’s all technically intangible, and to me, intangibility is a close cousin to the unreal, and though I’ll always be the kind of girl who flirts with spirits, I like my unreality in very specific forms: fiction, nighttime walks, and the best parties. Online, phrases and intentions are stripped of their weight and subtlety because of how easy they are to create and how devoid they are of dimension. Everyone is engaging through a screen, both literally and figuratively, and the whole thing has a frantic but non-vital hum. I find it hard to sustain a concentrated thought on the internet but very easy to contribute meaningless content. And now that I get paid for writing content, the temptation to be throwaway, quick, and depthlessly catchy is greater than ever. I try to hold myself to some sort of standard with the following formula: say something interesting, analyze it beyond the superficial, and conclude something new. But then…Buzzfeed exists. And I know this sounds dramatic, but I feel the effect of the whole thing in my body. My spine knots. My heart speeds up.

This afternoon, I went on a walk with my boyfriend and picked a huge tangle of wildflowers and after a minute of silence, I told him I understood why so many older writers have gardens. Believe me, I know the internet isn’t going anywhere and I wouldn’t want it to–I don’t think. I like being able to stay in touch with my childhood best friends on Facebook. I love some of the writing freedoms it provides and I like being able to work at my own open window (and not someone else’s) because I have a computer and an internet connection. But I am trying to figure out how to live without being hateful and anxious and scattered. And I know that I’m going to need a garden.

Useful Distractions Designed to Impede Your Reading of “Infinite Jest,” or How I Spent My Summer

I assume that everyone who religiously devours this blog has at least once in their young lives considered reading the literary magnum opus of our time: a little book I like to call Infinite Jest. It’s 1000+ pages, it has hundreds of footnotes in size-zero font, it inspired millions of irritating bro-like copycat writers, it’s immortal, it’s canonized, it’s just something you DO, you know?–like watching Pretty Little Liars, or guiltily feeding your little sister sips of beer. However, just like War and Peace or Beowulf or Ulysses or my wealth of contributor bios around the web, it looks mad intimidating. It’s something for which you have to gird up your loins. (I know: EWWWW. Grossest phrase EVER, Bible!!) I have spent the better part of this fine July reading Infinite Jest, and though I have not yet finished, I am an expert in one thing DFW-related: distractions to keep you from reading Infinite Jest. Here are some of my favorites:

Pet any and all available dogs, except the ones that clearly wish to eat you. My favorite type of dog must meet the following 3 criteria: fat, squishy, attention whoreish.

Sprint down side streets to avoid creepers. FEEL THE BURN.

Lie on the carpet and complain about the heat.

Loudly criticize people’s parenting strategies. It’s surprisingly fun. See that squalling little kid in a wifebeater? Total future serial killer, riiiight? Make sure his mean-lookin’ dad hears you, and then run. (Note: you can also file this post under “summer weight loss strategies.”)

Pour Coca-Cola onto pigeons.

Objectify men.

Accidentally break the following things: large bottles of vodka, tall candles, mason jars, pens flung from rooftops. DO NOT attempt the following: anything that grows on a person, anything you may want to eat later.

Attempt to come to terms with your own crippling materialism, then blame the advertising industry.

Onion pizza.

Forgery.

Rediscover the immortal harmonies of “So Fine” by Sean Paul.

Go on iced coffee runs whenever the sun shifts positions.

Force people to massage you. Complain when people force you to massage them.

Creepy poetry.

Delve deep into the vicious circle of public snickering/guilt.

Ombre your toenails.

Hug a smaller sister.

Find a better bookmark.

Turn on the fan. Collapse on the carpet.

….GO.

Ten Books That Will Make You Cry But Also Look Smart

Let’s be real, I lost it when Fred Weasley died (and don’t even get me started on the dark cloud of despair that descended over my heart when Sirius Black falls behind that fluttering veil), but sometimes a girl wants to cry over a book while still looking adorably intellectual at her favorite independent coffee shop. I know: #poser. If you, too, are completely swayed by aesthetics, but long for your cold, dead heart to feel again, I’ve compiled this list of ten incredible books just for you. They’re a little more highbrow than your average guilty read, but still passionate and perceptive enough to wrench a tear from the most dry-eyed of Voldemorts.

1. Home, by Marilynne Robinson

If you have a father, brother, or sister—even if you’ve watched an old man rise shakily from his chair on a cool Sunday morning—this book will tear your heart out with its sensitive, subtle fingers and then make dumplings out of it, but dumplings so fraught with significance—I’m already weeping/getting carried away. Home is the story of a dying pastor whose prodigal son has returned home after 20 years. Glory, the youngest sister, has also come home to care for both of them while struggling with her own secret heartbreak. If you’re an existential twenty-something like me, this book will make you long for your cozy childhood bed and your lost innocence, while your soul cries something like this: LIFE IS FLEETING, WHEN DID I GROW UP, CAN EVERYONE JUST BE HAPPY?

2. Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Boring summary: a 12-year-old girl contracts rabies and gets locked away in a convent because everyone thinks she’s demon-possessed and then a priest who’s struggling with his own religion falls in love with her and tries to save her from being exorcised. NO BIG DEAL. If you think that doesn’t sound heart-wrenchingly romantic, you probably haven’t read Lolita. Some authors can make the creepiest things really beautiful. The NYT describes this book as “grotesque, terrible, glinting and gloomy,” so get your pedo-priest jokes out of the way before cracking it open—this slim novel is a masterpiece (and, incidentally, my favorite Marquez).

3. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [recommended by Meriwether Clarke]

Can you hear the phrase “lives torn apart by war” without tearing up? This novel tells the story of two twin sisters, their lives torn apart (sob!) by the terrible Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s. There’s loyalty and betrayal. There’s a massacre, and someone sleeps with her sister’s boyfriend. There will be tears.

4. Atonement, by Ian McEwan [recommended by every girl friend I own]

Like the previous book, this novel walks the fine and sob-inducing line between a sweeping historical drama and an intimate portrait of guilt, love, and artistic struggle. If you thought Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers, you haven’t met Robbie and Cecelia. (Oh, and rumor says it’s so much better than the movie. Keira Knightly is great, I guess, but sometimes you don’t want to see her teeth ever again.)

5. Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a story set after a war. Don’t draw a shaky breath of relief yet, though, because you will probably still cry. Have you ever known a man who’s desperately in love with someone, but never has the chance or the heart to say it? LIKE HUGH JACKMAN TO ME? This is the story of Stevens, a heartbreakingly faithful, laconic butler who has dedicated his life to this silent duty. One of his employees, Miss Kenton, is totally his soulmate. But being a butler means squashing down your feelings sometimes, even when the love of your life is walking out the door. (It also means providing handkerchiefs and hot rum toddies to emotional ladies who weep over novels.)

6. The Captain’s Verses, by Pablo Neruda

Neruda wrote these impassioned verses for his lover, Matilde, while exiled on the island of Capri. If that sounds like the setting for an immortal romance, just wait till you read the poems—sensuous and explosive, angry and tender, gorgeously direct (meaning you don’t have to, like, “get” poetry to love them). Pore over the poems under a full ocean moon or read them aloud in bed with your lover. Just don’t give the audiobook version to your dad for Christmas. Like I did.

7. Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates

Everything about Marilyn Monroe’s brief, tragic life makes me want to cry. Her over-utilized sexuality, her often-mocked passion for reading, her perpetual aloneness, her pitiful little poems, the fact that nobody really knew her—I just want to be her best friend and let her cry on my shoulder and maybe borrow some of her dresses. Blonde is fiction, but it clings closely to Marilyn’s actual life, focusing on the parade of men—referred to simply as the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright, etc.—who held her, used her, left her, and ultimately lost her.

8. The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

This is an exquisite work of fiction. I think you can tell that it’s also really, really sad based on the title alone, which is composed of two really weighty words and one small boring word. So let’s talk about the writing itself: it’s intricate, it’s lyrical, it’s poetic. IT IS ALL ADJECTIVES THAT ARE GOOD. Except “crispy.” If you were ever a young girl struggling with her burgeoning sexuality, or a young boy struggling with his burgeoning stalkerlike obsession with the neighborhood hottie (jk—sorta), this book will play you like a harp. If you were never a young person, that’s super weird, but you’ll love it anyway.

9. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken [recommended by my amazing fiction professor, Anna Keesey]

If nonfiction is your scene, lucky you—you’ve got a host of tearjerkers to choose from. AND DEAR LORD THE SAD THINGS ACTUALLY HAPPENED TO REAL PEOPLE. This heartbreaking account of a stillbirth, written by the mother, is told in intimate, devastating, crystal prose.

10. “Ebb,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay [a favorite of mine and Lisa Hiton’s]

This is not a book. This is a poem. A poem so tiny that you can read it right this second. And then you will want to cry.

I know what my heart is like
Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
Left there by the tide,
A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.

(…you know what? Forget what I said about coffee shops. You probably want to read these books in a dark garrett, listening to the rats and the rain, only pausing to gasp for air and cry, “WHY IS EVERYTHING FALLEN?”)