Surry on Down

dark-eyed-junco-in-snow

Please imagine: red berries.

Dark eyed juncos. Those are my favorite birds this winter. They’re dressed right for the white background. They’re not really posing, in my heart of hearts I know this, but they do perch in the branches of some kind of shrub that has only red berries this time of year. This is the kind of calendar photo my friend Miriam would roll her eyes at, the kind where she would have to say to me: It’s a little cheesy, don’t you think? because, on my own, it would not occur to me. I like the Fifth Dimension, too. This makes my friend Karyn roll her eyes, but when “One Less Bell to Answer” plays at Market Basket — a much more rare occurrence than seeing one of ten thousand juncos at the feeder — I can’t help it: I sing.

I’m telling you this so I don’t discuss politics. I know you haven’t been sleeping at night so for your entertainment, I’m going to go on about the kinds of things that might induce drowsiness. Trust me. You are safe here.

In the mid-nineties, I had a student named Jennifer (I had several Jennifers then, sometimes in the same class; in my return to the classroom, I don’t think I’ve had any). This Jennifer sat in the back row and was a bright kid in a lovely but totally unmotivated class of seniors. She never asked why Shakespeare was written in Old English, for example. She volunteered to read poems aloud. She could correctly pronounce the word bosom. One day, I told the class that, if they were ever stranded on a tundra and could only eat polar bear, they should never eat the liver. Too much concentrated Vitamin A. Jennifer said, “Now I know why you remind me of Mr. Luther.” Mr. Luther was a beloved science teacher, iconic. I was still a young teacher unused to this kind of praise. I got that feeling peacocks must feel just before they flex that tail, but then Jennifer added: “You’re both so full of useless information. I mean that in a good way.”

For example, I’ve never forgotten the Islets of Langerhans from freshman biology class at Westerly High School. TWICE I’ve scored with that answer on a Jeopardy question. (On the other hand, in Pictionary, when I was asked to draw Europe, I put it slightly north and east of Maine. (And my partner guessed it immediately.))

While we’re on the subject of high school. Turns out, you never do need to know anything about trigonometry to make a go of it in life.

Dogs in TJ Maxx. Dogs sitting behind me in a basketball game. In Paris in 1992 (here, if I sound like a world traveler, you must accept that as an alternative fact), dogs went to cafes where, at least, they breathed cleaner air than those of us head-level with the mushroom clouds of cigarette smoke. But I remember thinking: ew. I grew up on a farm where animals were, you know, animals. Dogs in restaurants, especially in places with no real pooper scooper laws? This was a cultural leap for which I was unprepared.

But now, stateside, I’ve stood in line at cafes with dogs. They’ve run over my carefully unpacked picnic at the outdoor jazz concert on the Rowley Common. They’ve burst into my house, dashed up my stairs, scarfed down the catfood and torn out my screens. They’ve ridden around in carts someone is going to put clothes (maybe even food) into later. And everyone, everyone who considers themselves a dog lover, now considers me intolerant. I prefer to think my tolerance has limits. I have dogs. I’ve seen what they eat and what they lick. I’ve seen what they do when they have problems with their anal glands. They have anal glands. However, today, for example, when I’m done with this, I am going to bring them to the beach and let them chase the waves and then they are getting baths at the dogwash. On the way home, we are stopping to buy marrow bones and their organic, grain free food. But tomorrow, when I go to CVS to buy toothpaste or to the 99 with my mother (she calls it the 99 House), Bella and Izzy will be left home on their brand new dog bed that I am buying today at TJ Maxx also without them.

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Just to be clear: This photo is not from today, but these are my dogs and this is where we’re headed.

If, however, my cats would travel, I would strap on the Babybjorn and be off to Symphony Hall, Restaurant Week, and Nordstrom’s.

Last thing: Today on my walk, I saw three deer at the edge of the woods. When they saw me, they leapt through the snow. Deer leaping through the snow. Made me hum a little “Stoned Cold Picnic” all the way home.

Sweet Dreams.

 

How to Survive Student Teaching or How I Met Rob

In the graduate education program: one mooch of a future math teacher who ate whatever food we brought for our own lunches and then said he’d help us with our computer logo if we paid him twenty bucks; one aspiring middle school history teacher who opened a can of tuna during each class. Once, at an otherwise pleasant dinner, he discovered I was twenty-six and single. “Aren’t you worried,” he asked, “that at your age you’ll be so settled in your ways, it will be impossible to find someone to marry you?” One sweet man who spent a few minutes in the chaos that can be a high school classroom and decided to return to the legal profession. Other assorted characters who believed what the university promised: One year for your teaching masters.

In exchange for tuition, I worked as a program assistant with one other woman. The professor in charge of the graduate education department (I’ll call her Dr. Jane), called frequently to say she wouldn’t be in — left us alone to deal with people who hadn’t gotten into the oversubscribed required courses and now had to be told those courses wouldn’t run again until next fall. For anyone doing the math, that’s longer than one year. Any student who had a question about transfer credits, tuition reimbursement, scheduling issues; any professor who needed a different classroom space, a salary adjustment, Dianne and I had one reply: As soon as Dr. Jane comes in, we’ll let her know.

Even on course registration day, Dr. Jane didn’t make it in. Instead, Dianne and I attempted to schedule a few dozen people into overloaded courses via a paper and pen registration system that was the technological equivalent of an abacus. So many angry people. So many demands we could not meet.

We had no control over this mess of a graduate program, of course, but Dianne and I were the (worried, creased, sickly green) faces of it. The only break we took was to run back to the cubicle to call Dr. Jane’s voicemail and ask, again, “When will you be here?”

And so, Rob at first seemed invisible. Uncomplaining. Unassuming. Capable of finding suitable courses. Lucky enough to be able to register for them. It was one of those times in my life when I thought: Thank GOD for people who demand nothing from me.

One night, the graduate students met at a Chinese restaurant. The Tuna Man, the Nice Man, The Mooch, and Rob who, it turned out, with a little alcohol in him, was very funny. Silly even. Irreverent. Hmm, I thought. Wish I could get to know him a little better.

We were assigned to student teach together at Boston College High School, part quality Jesuit education; part 1950’s sitcom where the men call all the women “dear”; part Lord of the Flies. Rob, who had been teaching in a Catholic school for a few years, quickly assimilated. For his doting cooperating teacher, he ran off reams of papers, suggested viable and rigorous additions to the curriculum, covered classes at the last minute in the seamless way only true veterans could. Each afternoon, he climbed into his one door gold TransAm and headed off to lifeguard at a local pool.

Meanwhile, I struggled. When I reported a boy’s rude behavior to the Dean of Discipline, the Dean said, “Do you suppose he has a crush on you?”  My students insisted I needed to add some pastels to my wardrobe. My cooperating teacher left campus completely. And by left completely, I mean he retreated to his home several miles away to write more episodes of The Love Boat and to leave me in a Piggy-like position where, at any moment, I felt someone would surely crush my metaphorical glasses.

Rob’s response to my crisis: Cadbury chocolate bars, mostly melted, in the front seat of the Trans Am. He’d throw open the driver’s side door during a mutual free period, scooch me over and then climb in himself as I unwrapped the foil.

“I can’t do it,” I would say, licking my fingers. “I mean it.”

“Here,” he would say, “Have more.”

Eventually, we got invited out for drinks with the faculty at Amrhein’s Restaurant in Southie. We had a class later that night: Something about the psychology of education. By the time we strolled in, we had all kinds of theories about human behavior.

The next time we received the invitation to join them, Rob had to work at the pool.

“Call in sick,” I said.

And he admitted: “I’ve never done that.”

This called for a serious intervention. “Rob,” I said, “Please. I need you.”

The Trans Am bit the dust just before we finished student teaching, but we had gotten jobs — minor miracles for English and history teachers — and this allowed Rob to buy a new car, one in which a neighborhood cat immediately climbed in to have sex with multiple partners. For the end of the year party, I left a bag of clothes in his backseat and smelled like cat semen for the duration of the celebration.

When we got lonely in our adult lives, we grabbed a bunch of beach towels from the lost and found at yet another pool where Rob lifeguarded part-time, and brought home two puppies from a horsefarm in Dover. Our dogs were the only ones who were not blind or suffering from severe tremors and we had no idea how to be pet owners, but Rob had recently begun dating a veterinarian and this seemed like a good enough plan to us.

We have more than fifty years combined experience in the classroom now, but being together with a bottle of anything still makes us as silly as that night many years ago when we first sat next to each other in the Chinese restaurant.

Rob saved me once, long ago. And his friendship has saved me several times since: When my father died, my mother said, “You take good care of her when she gets back to Boston.” She had no idea that she had just given an assignment to the world’s most conscientious student. We spent every Friday night of 1991 together because of that. For my birthday, he took me to restaurants that he claimed were just around the corner. My birthday is in January. An hour into our trek, my limbs frozen, we would still be laughing, heads down to resist the windchill. Our dogs grew old and died six weeks apart. Our relationships changed. We moved several times. We found new jobs.

We don’t see each other as often these days. But sometime this weekend, I’ll hear from him. It’s the beginning of the school year: he hasn’t missed one yet. We’ll complain about colleagues or schedules or mandates like DDM’s, MCAS, the new eval process, the mooches and kind men and Lord of the Flies characters still hovering in the halls of certain institutions. We’ll remind one another how many years (not many now) we have until we retire.

Rob, I’ll say. Remember all the chocolate you had to feed me?

He’ll say, You know I didn’t miss a day of teaching last year, don’t you? That never, not once did I call in sick.

And I’ll be thinking: We definitely need to spend more time together.

 

Napkin Notes to The Stone or How I Met Lauren

black-and-white-candlesOnce upon a time, a long, long time ago, I had two best friends. Funny and creative and bright. Beautiful girls with the kind of long, straight hair I coveted. These were note-writing years and Thanksgiving Day Game rally on the Post Office step years. Years we danced in Ericka Hemphill’s basement to Brick House, years we wore down vests with hoodies underneath them, Levi corduroys, Tretorn sneakers. We took chorus with Mr. Norcia whose heart seemed permanently broken by our tunelessness. In gym class, during the gymnastics unit, Laura Sminkey brought in her Carly Simon album and we hung around pretending to take turns on the trampoline singing You’re So Vain. Saturday Night Live had the original Not Ready for Primetime Players. We knew every word of Bohemian Rhapsody. Sleepovers occurred in people’s re-done basements where we unrolled our sleeping bags on cement floors covered with indoor-outdoor carpeting and slept like rocks.

I thought the same thing we all think when we’re just becoming teenagers: these days will never end. These friendships will last my whole life. Especially, most fervently, I thought that.

For a person who always knew she wanted to be a writer, who kept journals, who has vivid memories that certainly seem real, I should be able to remember what, exactly, went wrong with those two friendships. The generalities, I recall, and can sum up this way: Whatever it took to be a good friend, I had not quite figured out and it cost me.

I spent a little more than one year of high school without friends (except my 4-H friends, but I was without a license and the half hour between my house and theirs seemed like a journey to Bangladesh). I learned, from a very unique perspective, that, despite how friendly people were when you sat next to them in Spanish class, when it came time to saving you a seat at the lunch table or calling you up to invite you to the basketball game, they had their group and, perhaps they assumed, you still had yours.

Thanks to Donna Schaeffer, Mary Jo Sisco, and Sandra Trombino, I wasn’t lonely for long, but those lessons stayed with me. You could grow very attached to someone and then, everything could end.

The ghosts of those friendships followed me all the way out of Westerly High School and to the University of New Hampshire where one fall night, I sat at my desk doing homework. Lauren Liberman, the girl next door who never seemed to be next door, was sitting in the chair beside me eating a Tootsie Pop and avoiding her own studying.

My roommate, Tedi, was clever and witty and unpredictable. Even so early in the semester, we were used to her making us laugh. But when I said something humorous, Lauren stared at me.

“You’re funny,” she said, the way a suspicious detective would say, “You’re left-handed,” to a suspect in a case where the murderer was left-handed.

I shrugged and continued on with my assignment, ignoring them the rest of the night.

A few weeks later in the dining hall, she said, “You do know what your nickname is here, right?”

I’d never had a nickname and had always wanted one, so this was exciting. But then she said, “The Stone.”

Why was she even here with me? She mostly hung out with Tedi who must’ve had a late class. The first day we’d moved into the university’s biggest and most notorious highrise, Lauren’s mother had cornered Tedi’s and said, “Have your daughter look out for my daughter.” A bond had been forged.

I, on the other hand, wanted none of it. Dependencies. People waiting to eat dinner with you so you didn’t have to eat alone. Late night chats in your pajamas while someone air popped some corn. Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf, I would have chanted, if I had had any awareness of my own actions. Obviously, I had no idea how to be a friend. This I had accepted about myself as easily as I understood I needed to avoid calculus at all costs. But so long as I was minding my own business, who cared?

“We call you this because you give nothing away,” she said. “Nothing.”

Outside the cafeteria’s plate glass windows, kids played hacky sack on the sparse lawn or walked in groups towards the library up the hill.

“I don’t know you,” I said.

“No,” she said, “and at this rate, you’ll never get to know anyone. You have to let people in, you know.”

After this ABC Afterschool Special moment, I choked down whatever beige food I’d collected on my tray, mumbled a silent: Fuck you, and headed back out onto a campus where, mercifully, I knew no one. It was one of the reasons I had been so desperate to come here.

I played intramural sports. Interviewed to be a Freshman Camp counselor. Volunteered to help out with the floor’s pasta party. Look at me! I wanted to say. I’m fitting in here just fine, thank you.

Later that semester, back in the dining hall, a boy from my English class walked by me and tossed a napkin onto my tray. George and I walked to class each night with another girl from my dorm. The first boy I’d met on campus happened to be a farmer’s kid, too, red-faced, more painfully awkward than I was (or at least I hoped so).

As he darted out the door in his Allis Chalmers hat and Wranglers, I opened the napkin: Party in my dorm room, Saturday night.

Christ, I thought. The more you try to avoid people, the more napkin notes they toss into your unsuspecting path.

Tedi was heading home that weekend, stocking up on leather boots and silk sweaters at the mall she could see from her bedroom window. I could just refuse the invitation, but that seemed cruel. I might not be interested in George, but I could appreciate the risk he took in chucking that missive in my direction.

“If I’m not back in an hour, call campus security,” I said. In Tedi’s absence, Lauren had camped out on her bed.

“I’ll go with you,” she said. There are times, this many years later, that I still think she’s a little crazy.

“What are you talking about?”

“You can’t go alone, can you?”

Maybe not, but I wouldn’t have accompanied her.

Still, we went. To Alexander Hall which was full of jocks minus one Future Farmer of America whose party consisted of me, him, his roommate, and Lauren, who, when they asked us, posed with me in a picture. Trophy girls for the first and only times in our lives, perhaps, we sat together on the plaid bedspread and smiled.

That was the end of that romance, but not the end of my friendship with Lauren. It was a friendship, it turned out. After all, how can you continue to keep your guard up around a person willing to honor your very first napkin note invite? A person whose image, even now, might be tacked up over a workbench on some cold New England farm where a much older George reminisces on his college sweethearts?

She has taught me many things about how to be a friend starting with this: you don’t have to do everything alone. What a gift that was. How it began to heal me. Every friendship I have made since, began in that moment she revealed my nickname. Every one.

Today is my birthday and, in this era of social media, I’ve been wished so many happy birthdays from so many wonderful people. Hard to believe how lucky I am. But along with the gratitude I feel for every greeting, comes the lingering sadness that, once in my life, I lost two people whose friendships I might have had almost five decades later. Those two women keep a part of my history no one else will ever have a glimpse into. And, somehow, I had to let them go. I had to turn to stone, and then, ever so slowly, return to my very flawed and vulnerable self.

It might surprise people that such a happy day always reminds me of less happy ones. But it won’t surprise Lauren.

 

2015: The Year in Review and of Reviews

macysparadeThings Dennis and I have in common: The Macy’s Day Parade depresses us. We have, late in life, become cat people. We both teach (taught, in his case). We write. We can eat ridiculous amounts of kale. That’s about it. Oh! And we hate to read all the Year in Review stuff that comes out in the newspaper.

But here is my list anyway. So long, 2015.

On a random day when I least expected it, I got my first really scalding reader review (titled: I Was Somewhat in a Good Mood, but . . .).

I also received my first professional review where the writer saw a penis where I swear I envisioned only a really terrible haircut.

And then this happened, in this order:

  1. January:
    • I turned 52. (52! Really?)
    • The first of 101 inches of snow began to fall just about the time my oldest daughter got her license.
  2. February,
    • We embarked on our first college tour. Great idea to take your kid to a school you can’t afford when the windchill is below freezing, by the way. If I wrote for Baron’s, I would suggest this strategy. I tried not to be jealous, but pasta stations? pottery wheels? rock climbing walls? And to think I was feeling nostalgic for dining halls that served Yankee pot roast and ratatouille almost exclusively for four years and an athletics fee that allowed me to take an aerobics glass in a windowless room with four inch gymnastics mats on the floor and the football team knocking on the door to see if we were finished so they could lift weights (though it smelled as if they’d never left, especially not to shower).
  3. March:
    • I played Cards Against Humanity for the first time and my closest friends in the world might never look at me the same way again. I care more about winning, it would seem, than I do about appearing to be a person who is not an asshole.
  4. rebecca and carla selfie

    Writers In Black:With Rebecca Kinzie-Bastian in Minneapolis for AWP.

     

    April:

    • I traveled to Minneapolis to celebrate the publication of Bewildered and spent lots of time avoiding any bars where writers might be hanging out until the final night when I discovered it was actually a lot of fun hanging out in bars with other writers.
    • Dennis and I also took the girls to New York City. I hate the Giants. I hate the J-E-T-S, but I do love New York.
  5. May:
    • To celebrate my friend Hudson Rush’s inaugural Fringe Fest, I travelled to Pittsburgh. I hate the Steelers, but I loved Pittsburgh. And I love Hudson. And I loved her performance art: Resurrection. And I especially loved being part of the beginning of something wonderful. Next year, I want to do that again — bear witness, raise a glass for an inaugural.
  6. June: (oh, god, June, do I love you).
    • My youngest daughter graduated from Middle School. Junior High (which is what they called this particular hell when I attended it) was a  time of aviator frame glasses; menstrual cycles that arrived on one of two days: when you finally got brave enough to wear your new white pants, or when you finally got invited to a pool party; oversized and yellow front teeth; acne; and party lists drawn up in two columns where you were arbitrarily matched to someone, just as homely as you, who you would be expected to make out with when given the signal from the hostess. Does anyone ever feel nostalgic for those days? To witness your children navigate that stage awkwardness, social exclusion, just plain ugliness, is even worse. So, good riddance middle school. We have passed Go. We have collected $200 and we will not be back.
  7. July
    • After several years, we returned to a lakeside rental. The girls floated with friends. I kayaked and walked and wrote and tried not to sob thinking about all those summers my babies came naked to the beach and fell asleep in a room they shared with Nana before the sun had set most nights.
  8. August:
    • The girls and I spent a week in Westerly. They went to a drive-in. I saw Shakespeare in the Park. We walked the beach at night, bowled with my cousin and his son, took Nana out to dinner. They paddleboarded: I took bad pictures of them paddleboarding. We spent a few hours most days at the Town Beach. Homecoming.
  9. September:
    • Kicked off the month with the second annual Bohemian dinner (on a school night!) and pretended I live the life of an artist. Got up at 6 and went to school because, really, I live the life of a perennial adolescent.
    • Dennis turned 60. I have a sixty year old (cradle-robbing) husband.
  10. October:
    • Tailgated in the back yard for the Pats; Wrote poetry for strangers at Ipswich Illuminated. Good month.
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    Take that, Madonna!

    11. November:

    • 80’s Dance Party. Nuff said.
  12. December:
    • Mild weather, mad shopping, those cookies with the peanut butter cups pressed into them, wrapping gifts with my cat.

 

Readers: May you have many fine moments in ALL of the years ahead. And share some highlights of this one!

Nice to Meet You? Yes, It Always Is

Todd was well known around campus, a life-of-the-party fraternity-type. Women loved him. Men loved him. He moved in a crowd or inspired one to gather. Why, then, would he remember me? I was quiet then, boyish-looking in my collared shirts and short hair. He’d only met me a dozen or so times even though when we did run into each other, I was always with his former roommate and good friend, Jon. And, true, Todd and I did rollerskate once together — because he asked me. He’s sure to remember me now, I thought, clinging to his arm as we stumbled around the rink to Duran Duran. But the next time Jon and I strolled across campus, here came Todd, reaching out his hand to grasp mine, saying, “Nice to meet you!”

I moved around a lot in my twenties. My social circle changed again and again. It wasn’t until we settled in Rowley that I discovered: My god. It wasn’t Todd at all. It’s me.

Josie and I worked out at the gym. Her children and mine took swim lessons at the same time so we shared bleacher seats and the family changing room. Two other friends introduced us at various times, told us we should get to know each other, that we had so much in common: children the same age, vegetarianism. So, a couple years later, when she requested a meeting with her son’s teachers, I was excited to see her again. I opened my mouth prepared to greet her, when she looked up from her notes blankly. “This is Carla Panciera,” the guidance counselor said, and Josie said: “Nice to meet you.”

Then, there was Tina, a perfectly lovely woman whose daughter was a year ahead of my daughter at our local (and tiny) elementary school. Many days we waited outside for the end of the school day, my friend Anne, Tina, and I chatting. Eventually, I also had Tina’s children in my class. Tina came to parents night. I see her often at Market Basket. Anne and I pass her working in the garden on our morning walks. Each time, she smiles brightly at me — she is very friendly — and cocks her head the way people do when they are waiting to be introduced. “She doesn’t have any idea who I am,” I say. Anne used to say I was imagining it (how little she knows about my history!), until the day she mentioned me to Tina and Tina said, “I hear you mention her name a lot, but I don’t know that I’ve ever met her.”

My brother once married into a small family. By small, I mean ten relatives including his new bride. The matriarch was Aunt Edie, a well-dressed woman who clearly worshipped her niece’s new husband. “Janice’s new husband is a wonderful artist,” Edie would tell me. “Yes, I know,” I would say. “I’m his sister.” She’d glance at me as if I was playing a mean trick. “Remember we met at the shower?” I’d say (where there were six of us around a tiny table?). “And the wedding?” (which took place in my family’s back yard). “And in Janice’s new shop?” (where I was the only customer). And, okay, my brother has four sisters, but she remembered Barbara Ann, Jeannie, and Patty.

Last summer, on a river cruise, I saw Lillian who was very pleased to meet me. I knew she would be, as she has been genuinely pleased each of the dozen times she’s done so — even the time before last when I said. “You know, I’ve met you several times before.”

Marybeth gave my daughters Halloween glowsticks for years because she lives beside Anne whose house I am in nearly as often as my own. When my mother visits, I call Marybeth at the senior center to request a wheelchair rental and remind her that I’m Anne’s friend. When I return the chair, she doesn’t even bother to pretend I’m not a complete stranger to her.

At the Rowley library, I help Suzie unpack books for the used booksale. We’ve met at Holly’s house, a gathering of a few couples to celebrate Holly’s latest book launch. At another of Holly’s (small) gatherings, we embark on a hike and then regroup in Holly’s barn for lunch. Now, across piles of paperbacks, Suzie says, “I have a very good friend in town who’s a writer.” Before I can stop myself I say, “Yes, I know. Holly Robinson.” This causes great confusion until I’m forced to remind her: “I met you at her book launch?” I leave the hike slash luncheon thing out. Preserve some little pride.

At the Ipswich library, Elena, who took several of my writing classes, asks me again what my name is so she can check my book out. At least she admits she has a touch of that facial recognition thing. The director of the library, a man for whom I worked for several years, passes me as if I’m completely invisible, and, perhaps, at least at certain times during my life, I am.

You might think I’d learn by now.

But Bob and I had been counselors together at UNH’s Freshman Camp, an organization that was known on campus as a tight-knit, borderline cultish group. Once a month for three years, we gathered to build the kind of team chemistry that would foster an amazingly fun four day camp experience for three hundred incoming freshman. Camp itself lasted nearly a week. Counselors also spent one weekend every spring at a retreat in a mansion in North Andover where we danced until dawn each night. Bob could swing dance; so could I. Our final year as counselors I was on the Exec Board which meant I sat ON A STAGE to conduct meetings. Fifteen years later, Bob and I met again at a pediatrician’s office where we had both taken our babies. Hugs all around! Good times! Fun, improbable reunion!

So this fall, when Bob’s son walked into my classroom, I said, “Oh my god! Sean Dorring. You’re not going to believe this, but I have danced with your dad.” A few weeks later, I searched the parents night crowd for Bob’s familiar face. Instead, I met his wife who said Bob wouldn’t come to my class because he was embarrassed. “He doesn’t remember you,” she said. His son had even shown him my picture in the yearbook. Nothing. “How do you remember him?” his wife wanted to know.

How, indeed? Maybe I have the opposite of that facial recognition thing. Maybe I am cursed, instead, with indelible imprints. I can see you, all of you: loping across campus as the bells at Thompson Hall chime, bending down to fasten a neon light to my young daughter’s neck, smiling up at the Justice of the Peace as she pronounces our loved ones husband and wife, waiting for your child to bound out the doors of school with her lunchbox swinging. holding out your hands so I twirl just right, spinning so close to you that it is impossible to believe you would ever miss and let me go.

Why Not Attempt to Replicate a Renaissance Tapestry? Something No-Brainer Like That? or How I Met Holly Robison.

My mother, like the queen of a matriarchal realm, had four daughters in part so that she could ensure the continuance of a part of her reign that was very important to her: knitting and crocheting. She made the entire family Christmas stockings with our choice of Santa, reindeer, or snowperson head, and then knit our names across the top. For my father, she knit a sweater with his famous cow on the back, lined it, and put in a zipper. From her throne on our old green couch, she crocheted acres and acres of afghans and one christening outfit worthy of a royal birth. Despite all her efforts, however, Jeannie’s mopines (Italian dishrags), and Patty’s scarves, were more of a cruel disappointment than Barbara Ann’s and my complete lack of interest in the craft. One Christmas, she even gave me one of those potholder looms, peering at me so full of hope as I opened it, that I tried my best to figure the goddamned thing out. Although I did finally get the loops braided, once I released them, the final product shrunk to coaster-size except it was so lumpy, no glass was safe resting atop it.

When my neighbor Cathy invited me to Knit Night, I hoped to god it wasn’t about knitting. I knew, for example, that book clubs aren’t necessarily about reading (though my own book club — much more on them later! — doesn’t like to mix alcohol with the kind of beatings they can lay down on writers, and that’s probably a good thing). But, home with three young daughters, I desperately needed an evening out, so armed with some of my mother’s old needles, a ball of yarn she threw in for good measure (her grim optimism still at work), and — what the hell — a bottle of white wine, I headed out.

For the first few months, I did knit, a stitch here, a stitch there, on a Penelope-like endeavor I envisioned might someday be a scarf. Fortunately, though everyone did play around with their needles — either sewing buttons back on kids’ shirts or continuing work on a collection of argyle socks (now there’s a daughter my mother could love)– there was plenty of time to toast what a great idea this was, a once-a-month meeting of handicrafters anonymous.

Then, one night, Kathy announced she’d invited someone new to the group. “And Carla,” she said, “I especially can’t wait until you meet her because she’s a writer, too!” Oh boy, I thought, imagining the Hallmark verses or grade-school attempts at detective stories I would soon find stuffed into my mailbox. “Anyone else need a refill?” I asked.

Holly, it turned out, didn’t write poetry or detective fiction. Oh no. Instead, she had just signed a big-house book contract for a memoir. She wrote for magazines people had actually heard of. I smiled and dropped a stitch or two. So what if I caught a chill when I could finally don my homemade creation? With a real writer like Holly in the room, who would ever miss me?

The good news was, however, that Holly didn’t know how to knit, either. Smugly, I clicked away. Look at me, I might have said. New poem out in the East Bumfuck Literary Journal and an (almost; actually non-existent) ability to knit without looking at my hands.

When Holly sat down and dug into her bag, I thought: Let me get ready to teach her how to cast on. Set this hierarchy straight. But she had already casted on the first few stitches of the wool sweater she intended to make for someone’s Christmas present. Three weeks away. “I might need a little help,” she said, “when it comes to the cabling part.”

I held up the thin ribbon of my scarf. “I think I’m done,” I said. “Do you think it’s long enough?” Everyone said it was. Everyone who had been drinking for an hour before Holly breezed in. Everyone who knew I was not in it for the 4-H Hopechest Medal. But then Holly looked up and said, “Oh god, that’s not nearly long enough. Keep going.”

The group buzzed on, but I said, over them: “Hey, New Girl. No one asked you.”

Holly finally stopped knitting long enough to look up over her cheaters and make eye contact. No one blinked. We were outside the saloon now, boy, pistols drawn. You know we writer types. Always looking for a shoot-out.

The room quieted; needles froze mid-stitch; the cheesedip paused in its congealing; even the wine the hostess poured suspended itself in a twinkling rivulet over the mouth of the glass.

And then, Holly did the thing I most hoped she’d do: she laughed.

And that was that. Score settled.

So she’s an overachiever, so what? She’s a funny bastard. She knows a thing or two about the writing business. She likes walking and playing tennis without keeping score. She has a husband who mixes great cocktails and a mother who is an outspoken supporter of local artists. She has kids who don’t think my husband is a freak just because he grills them about their mile splits. She has a dog who is as loyal and generous and excited to make friends as she is despite the fact that my dog (big surprise here) is more reluctant to, shall we say, bond?

And best of all? She lives in my neighborhood. So let’s hear it for non-long distance relationships!! And to all those queens out there, trying to maintain a foothold in their lonely kingdoms when, all of a sudden, some new royalty (thank GOD!) moves in.

How We Came to Be the DOR Girls: Chapter 1 — The New Girl

We moved off the farm in October of 1987, a few days after my mother had to bury her mother. There was no time for mourning and there was a lifetime for it, but there was no lingering for me. After a weekend of emptying out a place I never considered leaving, I headed back to Boston to begin my first job as a Telecommunications Specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. My friend Lauren, intrepid Financial District veteran, took me to Frugal Frannie’s to try on suits. When I got stuck in one and had to be surgically removed from it by the store’s (not so customer-is-always-right-oriented) seamstress, I interpreted it as a sign: I had no business in the world of business. I didn’t even have any idea what a Telecommunications Specialist did.

But I showed up anyway. Seventh floor of the Saltonstall Building, Government Center, Boston.

A little known fact about Capricorns: a) we are innately aware of social hierarchies, and b) we don’t like to be anywhere but at or near the top of them. Okay, so it was an entry-level job, and my first career had been shovelling cow shit, but that didn’t mean my manager shouldn’t impress me with his status. “Steve”, I learned very quickly, was the kind of person who snorted at his own jokes. He had a thick, and not entirely clean, mustache, red-rimmed watery eyes, and bowl cut. Perhaps, when he made the rounds to introduce me to the other employees, the pity I sensed was only my imagination and not my Capricorn antennae. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just keep busy. When I asked him what I should do to get started, he handed me a thick binder full of information on telephone systems and said, “We’re renovating the office starting tomorrow, so you’ll be stuck in the conference room for a few days anyway. Might as well have something to read.” All day, as in plural days? As in, eight hours each day? Well, not if you count the coffee break where Steve and his office bff “Bob”, head of security, asked me to join them for the state employees’ mid morning coffee break. They treated me to a Warburton’s muffin and a cup of tea. In exchange, I listened to the intricacies of the birthday banners “Bob” made on his dot matrix printer. Oh God, I thought. These can’t be my friends here.

The office was, in fact, teeming with young people who marched off to lunch (and to the afternoon state employees break) in pairs and congregations, but no one asked the new girl. Especially after they saw her returning wedged between Steve’s polyester suit and Bob’s bulging sort-of-white shirt from an all-you-can-eat buffet at an empty Chinese place, a shred of scallion clinging to Steve’s mustache. During renovations, the employees sat in a small theater which was fitting. I sat with my binder and watched the show, the star of which was a highly disgruntled young woman named Jeanne Something Wicked Italian, in the kind of high heels that made it clear she did not grow up on a dairy farm. Although most of the managers disappeared to who-knows-where, Jeanne’s manager, a Puritanical rail of a girl, marched in quite frequently to give Jeanne an order. As soon as she did so and turned to leave, Jeanne rolled her eyes and pursed her mouth so that I thought (hoped!) she’d spit at her. If you were not Jeanne’s boss and you asked her a question (something I never attempted), she’d cock an eyebrow and say, “Whaddaya, stupid or something? I just said that for Chrissakes.” And then she’d strut off, incapable of imagining that, in those highrise heels, she might stumble. When she walked by my seat in one of the back rows and mumbled, “Asshole,” I concentrated as hard as I could on the bullshit in the binder and murmured a prayer to the gods of invisibility.

The renovation itself was organized by one of the project managers. The Department of Revenue spanned all the floors of the Saltonstall, and satellite offices all over the state. Our specific office was called OFM, the Office of Facilities Management. We designed and re-designed spaces, ordered supplies, maintained security (when Bob wasn’t making birthday cards) and, once in the nine months I worked there specifically for this purpose, sent out bids for new telephone systems. Robin dressed in the kind of suits I had been stuck in only weeks before. I had an idea she never got stuck in one, however. She oversaw cubicle assignments and carpet colors with a brisk, take-charge attitude that was an anomaly in a place where the managers spent a great deal of time in the computer lab alphabetizing their x-rated VHS tapes and re-designing the heading for department memos that mostly advised us on the new memo headings. But Robin also had a sense of humor. She rolled her eyes like Jeanne, but you weren’t so afraid she’d kick you in the groin with her pointy-toed shoes if you asked her a question she thought an idiot would know the answer to.

Luckily, I got a cubicle beside her. We hadn’t been there long enough to get a window seat like the other Jeanne, Jeanne Kelly, who smiled at we aisle girls but ignored us on her way out to Filene’s basement several times a day. Robin didn’t need a view since she kept herself busy with — miraculously — actual work, but I spent lots of time re-arranging the pushpins on all the squishy cubicle walls around me and wondering what I was supposed to be doing.

The answer was provided to me a few days later when yet another new girl, Melissa, received a tour of the office from Cathy “Cat” Lange, so-named, I thought, because of the cat-eyed glasses she wore beneath a startlingly orange crop of hair. As they passed my cubicle, I overheard Cathy say to Melissa, “That’s another new girl, Cawlah (Cathy was from New Jersey). She doesn’t have a real job, but no one’s told her that yet.”