THE MONTH I SPENT A YEAR IN WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA

In March I visited my grandparents and uncle for a week. While there, I interviewed my grandparents about growing up in Puerto Rico in the 30’s and 40’s, about the move to the United States, about family and friends they knew, about stories and histories and details of their lives. It really was a mind-expanding experience. I asked questions I wanted their answers to that I could share with others once my grandparents are gone. I recorded hours and hours of material. And then, a couple of hours ago, my digital recorder erased it. All of it. Every last second.

I don’t have the heart to write about how that’s making feel. So instead, I’m going to write about my brief and disastrous fling with North Carolina.

salt

In 2004 I flew from Buffalo to Wilmington, NC. This was my first plane flight in 10 years and also the last time I’ve been on a plane. There are a few things in life I dislike with abnormal intensity. Nickels. Raw tomatoes. The metal lids on containers of salt (special shout out to gymnast/novelist/biped extraordinaire Diana Gallagher for helping me with that terminology—one of the secret shames of the life of a writer is when you realize you don’t know what to call an everyday object you realize 99 people out of 100 can, while my ass is stumbling around wondering if “salt cylinder” cuts the mustard. Oh yeah. I also don’t like mustard. Devil seed.).

After 35 years on this spinning globe there are 2 people I’ve ever hated. I think that’s a pretty good ratio. There is one thing I’ve always hated, though, to the point that it dominated my nightmares for years. That thing is flying.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say I have aerophobia/fear of flying. My airborne anxieties are really a combination of several anxieties that over the years have combined to form the perfect harmony of fear and freak out.

I don’t like heights. But that’s possibly a symptom of the vertigo I began experiencing once I turned 30. I don’t like having my options for movement restricted, but I wouldn’t say I’m claustrophobic; when the vertigo was at its worst and I was taking every medical test under the sun, I was happy as a poet on payday listening to The Howard Stern Show on headphones while stuck in an MRI machine for almost an hour.

I’m actually perfectly cool being on an airplane when it’s on the runway. I’m even cool when it taxis, and I’m practically this guy when it lands.

happypenguin

It’s that moment when you feel the plane lift off the ground that I first turn into this.

tumblr_ls4v5bXurZ1r1rvcno1_400

Then this.

supernatural

And finally, this.

 

What could have inspired me, then, to fly to Wilmington? I’ve heard it said—and I kinda believe it—that the answer to 99 out of any 100 unanswered questions is “money.” If you’re a gent attracted to the fairer sex, the other answer is “a woman.”

Me and my ex-girlfriend had pulled off the high degree of difficulty move of becoming really close friends. In her first year in grad school in Wilmington, when her birthday neared, I decided to surprise her (and me) by taking the plunge and flying to see her. She was thrilled. I was buggin’.

I'll f#@& you up quick two times!!!

I’ll f#@& you up quick two times!!!

I flew from Buffalo to Philadelphia, then Philly to Raleigh, where a smaller plane (NO ONE SAID THERE’D BE SMALLER PLANES!!!) flew into Wilmington. I spent the entire flight to Philadelphia with my eyes shut, listening to a Tori Amos CD (good luck charm #1) while wearing all 3 rosaries I owned (good luck charms #2-4) and clutching my grandfather’s lucky silver dollar (lucky charm #5).

I like to do silly maths in my head when I’m freaking out. I calculated the infinitesimal % of the flight that a single second of the Tori CD equaled and continually updated myself on how much of the flight was left. Spoiler: this does not make the flight seem like it’s passing any quicker. This is like sticking your hand on a burning stove and trying to measure the temperature of your flesh rising degree by degree.

In Raleigh I was thrilled to learn that you could not only order a drink at 9:30 in the morning at a North Carolina airport, but you could buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke INSIDE the airport. I don’t even smoke, but my nerves were so raw I bought a pack of Red Camel Lights and smoked like a silent film movie star (my favorite brand as an undergrad who only smoked when I drank…or when I was hanging out with Rachel, a super-cute girl I sometimes took trips to Ohio with who was maybe five feet tall and whose eyes were the size of full moons).

cigs

I got to Wilmington and loved it. LOVED it. In retrospect I was probably still coming off the high of flying without dying, but my faaaaaavorite things in life are anythings that make the world seem bigger, and nothing makes the world seem bigger than being somewhere new. You’re visiting somewhere you’ve never been before. Every face is new. Every accent. Every street, skyline, sunset—new. Even the supermarkets’ hokey names lend a parochial charm (Harris Teeter? Lowe’s? Don’t they know Lowe’s is a hardware store? Silly Southerners!).

I had such a good time the flight back to NY wasn’t even that big a deal. I decided this must be a sign. A little over a year later, I left my job and friends behind and moved to Wilmington.

 

My ex had a friend named Renee Harrington. I’m not going to bother using a pseudonym because Renee Harrington turned out to be a real twat. Renee the Twat agreed to sublet her apartment to me because she was away that summer, probably off being a twat somewhere. She said if I liked the place I could eventually sign a lease on it. Renee left my ex the key for when I arrived. I never saw the place till I got there.

235 West 4th Street in Wilmington was without a doubt the most amaaaaaaaazing apartment I will ever live in. It was fully furnished. And I don’t mean “decrepit desk with mismatched drawers and a couch that looks like a bedbug orgy” furnished. I mean twelve-piece leather sectional. Queen-sized bed. Cathedral ceilings. The washer and dryer were in a closet adjoining the kitchen—you opened a door and there they were, at eye level. The kitchen alone was bigger than some of the apartments I’ve had since. There was a Jacuzzi in the bathroom. Did you get that? JACUZZI IN THE BATHROOM. The best part? $375 a month. For everything.

shocked

My impossibly nice apartment should have been my first clue that when things are impossibly nice, the universe is sending a brutal correction your way. The second clue came when I went grocery shopping at the Harris Teeter.

recaito

First of all, I hadn’t realized that North Carolina’s about as diverse as—actually, I don’t have a simile here. NC ain’t diverse. Period. I’m a New Yorker. In New York, it’s pretty much state law that supermarkets must include Goya products. As I went up and down the aisles and saw no sign of what I recognized as food, my heart began to speed up a bit. Still, no worries. I just needed to get my bearings straight in this strange new world. I walked up to a guy stocking butterbeans.

“Hey, man. Where do you keep the recaito?”

He looked at me like I’d farted. “The what?”

Hmm. “You know…like sofrito.”

“Like what?”

Hmmmmm. I might have to make my own recaito. “You got cilantro?”

He pondered this. Pondered whether there was any cilantro. In a supermarket. “We might.”

This was when I first began to feel like William Shatner in pretty much every Twilight Zone he was in: a lonely man trapped in a crazy world no one else recognizes is crazy.

On my way to the produce section, I passed the seafood section. Behind the counter, the fishmonger was waving me over. I had to look around to confirm, but yes: he was calling me over. This must be that famed Southern hospitality I’d heard so much about. When I reached the counter, this smiling, affable gentleman proceeded to tell me a joke about Northerners that would have offended me beyond belief as a Northerner if not for the fact that it was even more offensive toward African-Americans.

I left the store dazed and confused, a feeling that would grow over the next few weeks as phone calls came in from my friends back up north, all asking the same question: What the $&%@ are you doing in North Carolina?!?!

 

I’d moved to Wilmington for what I considered solid reasons:

1) My ex was hot.

2) After freezing for years in upstate NY, Wilmington was, weather-wise, close to godliness. Beaches. Ocean. No snow. Hurricanes, sure. But you don’t have to dig your car out from three feet or more of snow after a hurricane.

3) My ex was hot.

4) I was sick of school and wanted to spend a year doing anything not academic.

5) My.

6) Ex.

7) Was.

8) HAWT.

9) Upstate NY is not what one would label a “job center.” Two things are so eerily constant there you could stick them a time capsule, bury them for a hundred years, and when future generations dug them up they’d think you were pulling their leg ‘cuz they’d still be the same in 2114: real estate prices and job opportunities. I’d heard North Carolina was actually expanding economically, and after finishing grad. school I liked the idea of being something other than a delivery guy, a day-care worker, or a cashier.

I soon found a job in day-care. Sure, go ahead and laugh, but it was a job, and my amaaaaazing cheap-ass apartment would be easily affordable. I was all set to do what I’d dreamed of: work at a job I didn’t have to think for or bring home with me, chill at the beach, wash, rinse, repeat.

One night I was cooking when there was a loud knock on my door. I opened it to see a sheriff standing there. He was not smiling. One minute later, neither was I.

cartmancop

Turned out Renee Harrington, the twat, had lied about the apartment. It wasn’t her apartment. It was her boyfriend’s. And by “boyfriend’s,” I mean “ex-boyfriend who Renee had recently dumped,” and by “ex-boyfriend she’d recently dumped” I mean “ex-boyfriend who’d just been dumped over email while serving in the Marines in Iraq.” His friends had gotten word to him that some strange dude (moi) was coming in and out of his apartment, and not surprisingly, Mr. Marine did not like this one bit. The sheriff said I had to pack all my shit up and get out STAT. He did not care that Renee The Twat Harrington had lied to both of us. He did not care that I said I’d contact Mr. Marine and try to work something out with him. He did not care that it was 100 degrees and humid and I had nowhere to go. Out. Now. Or else.

If X represents the number of friends you have in life, I’d estimate X – (0.88X) = the number of friends you’d be cool taking a cross-country road trip with. You can have the best time with someone, but remove the safety valve of time and distance apart and it’s just like autoerotic asphyxiation: what once was fun slowly starts to kill you. My ex and I were great friends. We were not two people meant to live together. She was Germanically anal about cleanliness. She had a bunch of pretty new furniture from Pier 1 and I had a cat with extra toes who wasn’t de-clawed. Do the math.

I got in touch with Renee The Twat Harrington about what went down with Mr. Marine. Confirming her twatness was not restricted to fucking with my life, she actually CC’d me on an email she wrote to him where she tore him a new one. In true Shatner Twilight Zone madness, my situation had gone from dim to ebon. Not only had I been kicked out of my now-I-knew-why-it-was-too-good-to-be-true apartment, not only was everything I owned in the world now crammed into and threatening to rupture my Geo Metro (a car the size of a toilet stall, and in my case one with no air-conditioning, which was just dreamy in the South…in August…yeah), but now this twat was including me in her attempt to shame some poor guy she’d dumped while he was away at WAR. My life flashed before my eyes. Actually, my death did. And it was death at the hands of a righteously pissed-off shell-shocked Marine. It was not a pretty death. I had to act quickly.

What I did that was smart: I wrote to Mr. Marine on my own and told him Renee The Twat Harrington did not speak for me, that I totally understood why he’d reacted the way he did, that anyone would do the same, and that he need not worry about me every having anything to do with his life ever again.

What I did that wasn’t smart: I told the day-care place who’d been processing the paperwork to hire me what happened. They decided to put my hiring on hold until I had an actual permanent address. Right when I found this out, Renee, who’d initially promised to refund the month’s rent I paid, had a change of heart—by which I mean, a twattish absence of anything resembling a human heart or the merest vapors of Ebenezer Scrooge-like decency—and emailed me (she was in Nevada that summer) to say she’d decided to mail me back half the money.

Now I was facing a Catch-22. With The Twat screwing me on the rent and no job in place, I didn’t have enough money to put down on a new apartment. But without a new apartment, I couldn’t get the job that’d pay me the money I needed to land a new apartment. Making things even more awesome, my ex’s mom was coming to visit, which meant there was no room at the inn for me anymore. The last money I had saved was pissed away living for a week at the world-famous Wilmington Econo Lodge, where I took turns being depressed and going crazy, hiding my cat from the cleaning ladies, and eating the worst Chinese food of my life. What did I do to decompress? I’d drift and float in the hotel’s outdoor pool, which was mostly a watery graveyard for bugs.

Where dreams go to die in an airless, soundless vacuum of self-loathing and regret...as long as you have a credit card.

Where dreams go to die in an airless, soundless vacuum of self-loathing and regret…as long as you have a credit card.

Since Renee The Twat Harrington’s lie didn’t manifest till the 20th of the month, I was up against it now trying to find a new apartment. Wilmington is a college town, so August 20th is right before the semester starts, meaning finding an available apartment that late in the month is about as likely as Thursday following Friday. I visited places 24/7. I actually visited one apartment during a hurricane; it was right on the ocean and on the slog back to my car the flooding was almost at my knees. No luck. I was getting desperate.

There was one place left to check out. When I got to the house, which looked like some Southern Gothic nightmare where V.C. Andrews sent her characters to die, I threw myself on the mercy of the universe.

Give me a sign, I pleaded silently. I don’t know if this is one of those times where I’m supposed to fight fight fight and never give up and learn the value of perseverance, or if I’m supposed to take the hint and get the hell out of this town once and for all.

I entered. A few seconds later, there was a loud bounding sound. Something was coming downstairs. Fast. At this point I was prepared for anything. If Cerberus itself had come flying down and raced toward me, I’d have bared my neck and let him take me. I was too tired to care what happened next; I just wanted an answer, one way or the other.

cerberus

It was a dude. A young dude. Early 20s. Tan. Good-looking guy. Full of life. I thought this was a sign. It was…but once he started to speak, I realized that now, finally, I’d actually lost all hope. He wasn’t full of life. He was full of meth. I could practically hear his jaw grinding itself to dust as he rambled on at light speed about going up to Asheville to score a big haul from his brother, and that he hoped I was cool with that, and that he wasn’t really into locking doors because he didn’t think locking doors jived with “living free, living like there’s nothing left to lose.”

I walked out, convinced the parade of indignities had ended. I was wrong. There were still two more.

 

When I’d moved in with Rebecca, I’d hauled all my stuff out of my car because the driver side door’s lock was broken and with the way Wilmington was going I didn’t like my odds of not having all my shit stolen. My ex lived 3 floors up. If Sisyphus had seen me hauling all my shit up three flights of stairs in the midday Southern heat he would’ve felt guilty about ever griping about his own burden. Once I accepted it was time to get out of dodge once and for all, I had to pack the car up again. It was hot as hell my last day. I was about 85% done packing and breathing like I’d just run the Iditarod when my ex took a break from sitting and silently judging me in the air-conditioned cool of her apartment to announce, “This never would have happened to me. I prepare for things in life. This wouldn’t have happened to me.”

spock

There have been three times in my life I look back on wonder if it really would have been so bad to hit someone. This was the second.

 

The final indignity:

A few hours into my drive of shame back up north, I was driving on a curving mountain road. My cat was in her crate on the front seat, the only available real estate left in the car. Her cat litter was on top of the crate. I was in that sad state people find themselves in after something they wanted has ended poorly and they’re rationalizing why this is actually the best thing that could’ve happened. Whatever tape I was playing was scratching me right where I itched and I felt like swelling up. Everything was OK. Everything was in its right place. The past month was just that: past. I was literally and figuratively leaving that losing streak behind. Time to celebrate the freedom of the open road, the unfettered future.

As I said, my car didn’t have air-conditioning, so I had both front windows rolled down. As I neared the next bend in the road, I raised my voice in song. An 18-wheeler passed me in the right lane, blasting cat litter into my eyes and mouth. I was blind. I was blind and tasting cat litter and heading toward a curve on a mountain. I was going to die. Because of shit. In North Carolina. I couldn’t help cackling, half-amused, half-scarred, half-scared. I know that’s three-halves. Improper fractions are no less rational than entitled lying twats or the soldiers they screw over and then scold or a best friend kicking you when you’re down.

The highlight of my time in North Carolina was not cat-litter-blindly driving to my death off a mountain.

Correction. The highlight is that remembering this story made deleting my grandparents’ interview not seem so bad anymore.

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