This book is a love letter to my family. It’s about the surprising discovery that the most terribly human moments—the ones we want to pretend never happened—are the very same moments that make us who we are today. I’ve reserved the very best stories of my life for this book…to celebrate the strange, and to give thanks for the bizarre. Because you are defined not by life’s imperfect moments, but by your reaction to them. And because there is joy in embracing—rather than running screaming from—the utter absurdity of life. I thank my family for teaching me that lesson. In spades.
There Is a Method
to My Madness
This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t. It’s basically like Little House on the Prairie but with more cursing. And I know, you’re thinking, “But Little House on the Prairie was totally true!” and no, I’m sorry, but it wasn’t. Laura Ingalls was a compulsive liar with no fact-checker, and probably if she was still alive today her mom would be saying, “I don’t know how Laura came up with this whole ‘I’m-a-small-girl-on-the-prairie’ story. We lived in New Jersey with her aunt Frieda and our dog, Mary, who was blinded when Laura tried to bleach a lightning bolt on her forehead. I have no idea where she got the ‘and we lived in a dugout’ thing, although we did take her to Carlsbad Caverns once.”
And that’s why I’m better than Laura Ingalls. Because my story is ninety percent accurate, and I really did live in a dugout.1 The reason this memoir is only mostly true instead of totally true is that I relish not getting sued. Also, I want my family to be able to say, “Oh, that never happened. Of course we never actually tossed her out of a moving car when she was eight. That’s one of those crazy things that isn’t quite the truth.” (And they’re right, because the truth is that I was nine. I was sitting on my mom’s lap when my dad made a hard left, the door popped open, and I was tossed out like a sack full of kittens. My mom managed to grab my arm, which would have been helpful if my father had actually stopped the car, but apparently he didn’t notice or possibly thought I’d just catch up, and so my legs were dragged through a parking lot that I’m pretty sure was paved with broken glass and used syringes. (I learned three lessons from this experience: One: that vehicle safety in the late seventies was not exceptional for children. Two: that you should always leave before the officials arrive, as the orangeish sting of the medicinal acid applied by a sadistic ambulance driver will hurt far worse than any injury you can sustain being dragged behind a car. And three: that “Don’t make me come back there” is an empty threat, unless your father has been driving four hours with two screaming kids and he suddenly gets very quiet, in which case you should lock your door or at least remember to tuck and roll. I’m not saying he intentionally threw me out of a moving car, just that an opportunity presented itself and that my father is a dangerous man who shouldn’t be trusted.)2
Did you notice how, like, half of this introduction was a rambling parenthetical? That shit is going to happen all the time. I apologize in advance for that, and also for offending you, because you’re going to get halfway through this book and giggle at non sequiturs about Hitler and abortions and poverty, and you’ll feel superior to all the uptight, easily offended people who need to learn how to take a fucking joke, but then somewhere in here you’ll read one random thing that you’re sensitive about, and everyone else will think it’s hysterical, but you’ll think, “Oh, that is way over the line.” I apologize for that one thing. Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking.
1. I never actually lived in a dugout. But I did totally go to Carlsbad Caverns once.
2. When I read these stories to friends I’m always shocked when they stop me to ask, “Wait, is that true?” during the most accurate of all of the stories. The things that have been changed are mainly names and dates, but the stories you think couldn’t possibly have happened? Those are the real ones. As in real life, the most horrible stories are the ones that are the truest. And, as in real life, the reverse is true as well.
I Was a Three-Year-Old Arsonist
Call me Ishmael. I won’t answer to it, because it’s not my name, but it’s much more agreeable than most of the things I’ve been called. “Call me ‘that-weird-chick-who-says-“fuck”-a-lot’” is probably more accurate, but “Ishmael” seems classier, and it makes a way more respectable beginning than the sentence I’d originally written, which was about how I’d just run into my gynecologist at Starbucks and she totally looked right past me like she didn’t even know me. And so I stood there wondering whether that’s something she does on purpose to make her clients feel less uncomfortable, or whether she just genuinely didn’t recognize me without my vagina. Either way, it’s very disconcerting when people who’ve been inside your vagina don’t acknowledge your existence. Also, I just want to clarify that I don’t mean “without my vagina” like I didn’t have it with me at the time. I just meant that I wasn’t, you know…displaying it while I was at Starbucks. That’s probably understood, but I thought I should clarify, since it’s the first chapter and you don’t know that much about me. So just to clarify, I always have my vagina with me. It’s like my American Express card. (In that I don’t leave home without it. Not that I use it to buy stuff with.)
This book is a true story about me and my battle with leukemia, and (spoiler alert) in the end I die, so you could just read this sentence and then pretend that you read the whole book. Unfortunately, there’s a secret word somewhere in this book, and if you don’t read all of it you won’t find out the secret word. And then the people in your book club will totally know that you stopped reading after this paragraph and will realize that you’re a big, fat fake.
Okay, fine. The secret word is “Snausages.”
Still there? Good. Because the secret word is not really “Snausages,” and I don’t even know how to spell “leukemia.” This is a special test that you can use to see who really read the book. If someone in your book club even mentions Snausages or leukemia, they are a liar and you should make them leave and probably you should frisk them as you’re throwing them out, because they may have stolen some of your silverware. The real secret word is “fork.”1
I grew up a poor black girl in New York. Except replace “black” with “white,” and “New York” with “rural Texas.” The “poor” part can stay. I was born in Austin, Texas, which is known for its popular “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, and since I’ve spent my whole life being pigeonholed as “that weird girl,” I ended up fitting in there perfectly and-lived-happily-ever-after. The-end. This is probably what would have been the end of my book if my parents hadn’t moved us away from Austin when I was three.
I have pretty much no memory of Austin, but according to my mom we lived in a walk-up apartment near the military base, and late at night I would stand up in my crib, open the curtains, and attempt to wave soldiers on the street up to my room. My father was one of those soldiers at the time, and when my mom told me this story as a teenager I pointed out that perhaps she should have appreciated my getting him off the streets like that. Instead she and my father just moved my crib away from the window, because they were concerned I was “developing an aptitude for that kind of trade.” Apparently I was really distraught about this whole arrangement, because the very next week I shoved a broom into the living room furnace, set it on fire, and ran through the apartment screaming and swinging the flaming torch around my head. Allegedly. I have no memory of this at all, but if it did happen I suspect I was probably waving it around like some kinda awesomely patriotic, flaming baton. To hear my mother tell it, I was viciously brandishing it at her like she was Frankenstein’s monster and I was several angry villagers. My mother refers to this as my first arson episode. I refer to it as a lesson in why rearranging someone else’s furniture is dangerous to everyone. We’ve agreed to disagree on the wording.
Shortly after that incident, we packed up and moved to the small, violently rural town of Wall, Texas. My parents claimed it was because my dad’s enlistment had ended, and my mom found herself pregnant with my little sister and wanted to be closer to family, but I suspect it was because they realized there was something wrong with me and believed that growing up in the same small West Texas town that they’d grown up in might change me into a normal person. This was one of many things that they were wrong about. (Other things they were wrong about: the existence of the tooth fairy, the “timeless appeal” of fake wood paneling, the wisdom of leaving a three-year-old alone with a straw broom and a furnace.)
If you compared the Wall, Texas, of today with the Wall, Texas, of my childhood, you would hardly recognize it, because the Wall, Texas, of today has a gas station. And if you think having a gas station is not that big of a deal, then you’re probably the kind of person who grew up in a town that has a gas station, and that doesn’t encourage students to drive to school in their tractors.
Wall is basically a tiny town with…um…dirt? There’s a lot of dirt. And cotton. And gin, but not the good kind. In Wall, when people refer to gin they’re talking about the Cotton Gin, which is the only real business in the town and is like a factory that turns cotton into…something else. I honestly have no idea. Different cotton, maybe? I never actually bothered to learn, because I always figured that within days I would be escaping this tiny country town, and that’s pretty much how my entire life went for the next twenty years.
Our yearbook theme one year was simply “Where’s Wall?” because it was the question you’d get asked every time you told someone you lived there. The original—and more apt—theme had been “Where the fuck is Wall?” but the yearbook teacher quickly shot down that concept, saying that age-appropriate language was important, even at the cost of journalistic accuracy.
Those things on the back cover are cotton balls. No shit, y’all.
When I was asked where Wall was, I would always answer with a vague “Oh, that direction,” with a wave of my hand, and I quickly learned that if I didn’t immediately change the subject to something to break their train of thought (My personal standby: “Look! Sea monsters!”), then they’d ask the inevitable (and often incredulous) follow-up question of “Why Wall?” and you were never entirely sure whether they were asking why the hell you’d choose to live there, or why anyone would choose to name a town “Wall,” but it didn’t actually matter, because no one seemed to have a legitimate answer for either.
Unfortunately, pointing out sea monsters was neither subtle nor believable (mostly because we were completely landlocked), so instead I began compensating for Wall’s beigey blandness by making up interesting but unverifiable stories about the small town. “Oh, Wall?” I’d say, with what I imagined was a sophisticated sneer. “It’s the city that invented the dog whistle.” Or, “It’s the town that Footloose was based on. Kevin Bacon is our national hero.” Or, “I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of it. It was the scene of one of the most gruesome cannibalistic slaughters in American history. We don’t talk about it, though. I shouldn’t even be mentioning it. Let’s never speak of it again.” I’d hoped that the last one would give me an air of mystery and make people fascinated with our lurid history, but instead it just made them concerned about my mental health, and eventually my mother heard about my tall tales and pulled me aside to tell me that no one was buying it, and that the town was most likely named after someone whose last name happened to be Wall. I pointed out that perhaps he’d been named that because he was the man who’d invented walls, and she sighed impatiently, pointing out that it would be hard to believe that a man had invented walls when most of them couldn’t even be bothered to close the bathroom door while they’re using it. She could tell that I was disappointed at the lack of anything remotely redeeming about our town, and conceded halfheartedly that perhaps the name came from a metaphoric wall, designed to keep something out. Progress was my guess. My mother suggested it was more likely boll weevils.
I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have a childhood that was not like mine. I have no real frame of reference, but when I question strangers I’ve found that their childhood generally had much less blood in it, and also that strangers seem uncomfortable when you question them about their childhood. But really, what else are you going to talk about in line at the liquor store? Childhood trauma seems like the natural choice, since it’s the reason why most of us are in line there to begin with. I’ve found, though, that people are more likely to share their personal experiences if you go first, so that’s why I always keep an eleven-point list of what went wrong in my childhood to share with them. Also I usually crack open a bottle of tequila to share with them, because alcohol makes me less nervous, and also because I’m from the South, and in Texas we offer drinks to strangers even when we’re waiting in line at the liquor store. In Texas we call that “southern hospitality.” The people who own the liquor store call it “shoplifting.” Probably because they’re Yankees.
I’m not allowed to go back to that liquor store.2
1. “Fork” is not really the real secret word. There isn’t actually a secret word. Because this is a book, y’all. Not a fucking spy movie.
2. Author’s note: My editor informs me that this doesn’t count as a chapter, because nothing relevant happens in it. I explained that that’s because this is really just an introduction to the next chapter and probably should be combined with the next chapter, but I separated it because I always find it’s nice to have short chapters that you can finish quickly so you can feel better about yourself. Plus, if your English teacher assigned you to read the first three chapters of this book you’ll already be finished with the first two, and in another ten minutes you can go watch movies about sexy, glittery vampires, or whatever the hell you kids are into nowadays. Also, you should thank your English teacher for assigning you this book, because she sounds badass. You should probably give her a bottle from the back of your parents’ liquor cabinet to thank her for having the balls to choose this book over The Red Badge of Courage. Something single-malt.
You’re welcome, English teachers. You totally owe me.
Wait. Hang on. It just occurred to me that if English teachers assigned this book as required reading, that means that the school district just had to buy a ton of my books, so technically I owe you one, English teachers. Except that now that I think about it, my tax dollars paid for those books, so technically I’m kind of paying for people to read my own book, and now I don’t know whether to be mad or not. This footnote just turned into a goddamn word problem.
You know what? Fuck it. Just send me half of the malt liquor you get from your students and we’ll call it even.
Also, is this the longest footnote in the history of ever? Answer: Probably.