Red Ticket: If I'd Stayed
Why isn't Robin scared? She's from northern Florida.
Robin Whetstone is back with two more chapters from her memoir of studying in Moscow in the early ‘90s. In this chapter we get a little backstory, which, being Robin, sounds made up but unmistakably true. If you need to catch up, go back and read chapters 1, 2-3, and 4-5.
6. If I’d Stayed
“If you’d stayed in Florida,” I told myself the next morning, “None of this would have happened.”
I was sitting at my desk, writing about the attack the day before. I needed to be careful, I thought. I was halfway through this notebook already and I’d only been here two days. If things kept up at this pace, I’d soon run out of paper.
I knew I was in danger, and I knew I had to get out of the dorms. But I was not terrified. For one thing, it simply wasn’t true that if I’d stayed in Florida, I would have been safe. Women got attacked in Gainesville all the time. I thought about “Rodeo,” a fraternity game described to me by a guy I knew. A frat boy in his room, having sex with some unsuspecting girl. After a pre-arranged amount of time, the door flies open and a crowd of brothers charge in, yelling and hooting. The terrified, mortified girl tries to get away as the men surround the bed, one of them holding up a stopwatch. The object of the game was to ride the girl for as long as possible after the others came in. I didn’t ask the guy how he knew about this game. I didn’t want to know.
Then, there was Danny Rolling. Two years before, he’d butchered five of my neighbors, leaving one of their heads on a bookshelf. America was full of psychopaths, too.
But scarier to me than the occasional psycho was what was most likely to have happened to me if I’d stayed in Florida: nothing. I would have worked at the bookstore. Hung out with friends. Probably, eventually, graduate school. It would have been stable, and safe. This would have been intolerable. The attack by the Azeris might have caused some other person to rethink her life choices, but not me. I knew that if you wanted an adventure, you had to be prepared to take the bad with the good. Because stories about happy people doing safe things were stories no one wanted to hear.
I’d learned this on the playground when I was 10. Back then, I was too fat for kickball and too weird to join the lunchtime huddle. I did have one skill, though, and I honed it every day at recess from my perch atop the monkey bars. I’d sit there, waiting, and soon the first one would climb up to join me. First Allison, then Jennifer, then Kelly and Becky. They’d pay me a quarter and wait for the story.
Every day, I’d tell whoever was up there with me the latest installment in the story of themselves. I soon noticed that the more lurid and treacherous the plot, the more my listeners forgot that it was me doing the telling, and the more they disappeared into my words. Charlotte, kidnapped by ruthless men in skeleton suits. Andrea, sent to a “summer camp" that was secretly run by the Russians, our terrifying Cold War foe. And Charley, whose parents took off their mom-and-dad masks and ate him, in the kitchen. No fate was too dreadful for my classmates, and the worse it was, the harder they listened.
I was forced to make things up because nothing very interesting ever happened here in this elementary school, or in this small town. If I’d stayed in Florida, I knew even then, I’d become one of those people who yearned for something bigger but instead was trapped by family and entropy into a beige hallway of a future: a cubicle and a television. This would do to me exactly what it had done to my dad. It had made him desperate. A liar.
It was 1986, a weekday. Instead of going to 10th grade, I was sitting in the living room of my stepmother’s big house with my dad. The brand-new CNN news channel looped on TV, muted as always. A boombox on the fireplace hearth played the Big Ape, Jacksonville’s classic rock station. When “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” came on, my dad spoke up for the first time in a long time.
“That was a terrible thing,” he said. He sounded anguished.
“Yeah,” I said, surprised he cared about a shipwreck way up on Lake Superior.
My dad shook his head, staring hard at the floor. “I was on that boat,” he said.
“You what,” I said.
That was when my dad told me that he was the only survivor of the notorious wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald back in 1975, the year I turned five. My father had no explanation for what he was doing all of the sudden in Duluth, Minnesota, working as a mariner. Hadn’t he been a salesman of…pacemakers? Medical supplies? He also couldn’t explain why his roommate, whose name my dad couldn’t remember, was for some reason determined that my father should live. To hear him tell it, the roommate pushed my dad through a porthole before being snatched by the waves rushing into their berth.
“He broke both of my collarbones,” said my dad. “But he saved my life.”
I understood what motivated Dad to make stuff like this up because I shared his yen to be part of something big, something that mattered, even if that something was tragic. But I wanted my stories to be true.
“This is what you have to do if you want the kind of life songs actually do get written about,” I thought. “It comes with the territory.”
I finished up the story of the attack, and my first spiral notebook.
If you’re enjoying Robin’s Moscow memoir, share it. Part of the reason I’m serializing it is to help her build the audience she deserves. (The other part of the reason is that I want you to have something fun to look forward to every weekend. And there’s another part, but that comes later.)
Read the next chapter here, and subscribe so you don’t miss anything.
We Get Letters
It is taken as an article of faith that my wife has an Aunt Janet, whom I’ve never met. She did not come to our wedding, her brother’s (and my father-in-law’s) wedding, or the big Thanksgiving back in 2015 when we all got together Franklin, Tennessee, where Aunt Hope booed the Union soldiers at the re-enactment of the Battle of Franklin, which the south lost. Badly. I’ve maintained for years that Aunt Janet was an elaborate prank they were playing on me and congratulated them on constructing such an elaborate backstory about the recluse who only shows up when someone dies but leaves before the funeral. At one Thanksgiving I met a woman named Edie who claimed to be Janet’s daughter, but after this “Edie” told me stories of being a leather miniskirt-wearing DEA agent I had to conclude that she was just a talented actress, and my esteem for this family and their marvelous prank of inventing an Aunt Janet grew.
On Monday, Aunt Janet asked to respond. -JS
A very old and tired rumor appears every year or so, usually around the time the pigweed and deadnettle also pop up to colorfully spackle the pastures and rural highways of East Texas. It is reported that the rumor once again is being circulated by a certain literatus of note, that Austin blackguard, Jason Stanford.
He purports that his beloved spouse, the beauteous, accomplished Sonia Nicole Van Meter, has long fed him stories of a mythical relative, a reclusive, ideosyncratic aunt who seeks solitude and avoids, best she can, the blather and cacocphony of the public sphere. To her, music is the least offensive of all noise, conversation the least satisfying and most brain-jarring of all human interaction.
The above-mentioned blackguard, however, believes that Sonia's paternal aunt, Janet Hill, is a fiction! And to his delight, it would seem, he enjoys dusting up controversy now and again that addresses her existence or lack thereof. Mr. Stanford never personally has laid eyes upon the the illusive "Aunt Janet," and therefore concludes that she does not exist (where is Christopher Hitchens when you need him?) Perhaps he is of the ilk that if you can't see it, it ain't there. A little poking, however, could unearth many tales of her doings and ruinings. Miss Sonia's father, Ike, could offer some pearls. Her silly stories and compulsive blurtings are well-documented in the archives of the Van Meter family psyche.
The phantom aunt is actually alive and well and happy to be currently hiding out from the killer covid. Finally! A believable excuse to stay extracted from the sweaty masses. It is not, please understand, that she doesn't embrace mankind in the whole and dearly love select members of it that include her wonderful family and hundreds of delightful friends who have been kind enough to tolerate her over the years. It's that like most curmudgeons and malcontents, she just doen't care to participate in the fray. Think Greta Garbo. She vants to be alone.
Include her out. She's made a subsequent commitment. Sorry, got a bone in her arm. No hables Espanole. Will be out of the country. Presently hiding out from the law. Navel needs contemplating. Can't attend. Don't ask, don't tell. Apartness, please.
Mr. Stanford should quit with his fake news allegations. Too much cage rattling, he should be warned, and the monkey might get out.
I would like to pay respect to those we lose along the way. If there is someone you would like to be remembered in future newsletters, please post links to their obituaries in the comments section or email me. Thank you.
How we’re getting through this
Sending people pies
Going to FilmFest DC
Going to the Hirschhorn
Going to the Smithsonian
Seeing the U.S. Army Band
Singing along to show tunes
Seeing the U.S. Army Field Band
Wishing I’d julienned the carrots
Eavesdropping on Frédéric Yonnet
Losing 11.6 pounds since March 11
Watching the Folger Theatre’s Macbeth
Allowing streaming movies to be considered for Oscars
What I’m reading
Dan Zak and Monica Hessee: “Nurses are trying to save us from the virus, and from ourselves”
Got some reading suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter. Have a book to promote? Let me know in the comments or email me.
What I’m watching
The Parks and Recreation QT episode was an antidote to everything.
The Washington Post likes Ryan Murphy’s alternate universe take on Hollywood history, whereas I cannot pretend to be objective. I mean, Holland Taylor is in it, and I dig anything she’s in just because it affords me the chance to take her in. I love the frequency on which she vibrates. As Glen Weldon writes in his middling review, “Holland Taylor remains Holland Freaking Taylor, and that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”
Got suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter.
What I’m listening to
Nick Cave covering T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer”? Oh, yes, please.
Got suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter.
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