And Scene

“You wanna walk downtown for a drink?”

I don’t normally head to bars with other men, but since my Dad asked, I said yes.

I was in my hometown by myself at the house I grew up in and downtown was a mile away – an easy walk. I wasn’t prepared for the night chill in the air, but the walk and cocktail I’m sure would warm me up.

There are several nice drinking establishments nestled in the downtown area, which takes up two city blocks in total. Our first stop was a what used to be a lawyers office, and while the name hasn’t changed, it’s a bar now. We walked around to a side entrance and found it was closed for a private party. My Dad wanted to jump in anyway – here I was, a teenager again, dying of embarrassment – trying to get him to not go inside. As this was unfolding, two girls and a guy walked in: the girls were in heavy make up, tiny poofy skirts and cropped shirts; the guy was in what could only be described as a speed-do and go-go boots. Our jaws dropped. This was not my hometown. Who were these people?

I grew up in a county that was redder than red: we were all white, conservative, and Christian. I’m sure a few liberals lived in town, but they were closeted. Whenever someone moved into the neighborhood that wasn’t white, conservative, and Christian, they were shunned. In the mid-1990’s, there was a proposal to build a country music venue that would host bands, dancing, a bar, and could be rented out for events. My hometown went ballistic in stopping this. This business would bring in non-white, non-conservative, non-Christian people and they would be consuming alcohol – we’d basically become the south side of Chicago with drunk driving accidents every few minutes, according to the Letters to the Editor in the local paper. We ran the developer out of town.

This was running through my mind as my dad suggested we head a different spot. The last time I was there, it was a bait shop, as it sits right on the river. And now? It was a club.

The bar was outdoors in the back of a restaurant, great for these COVID times. A DJ booth was set up, blasting the latest hiphop hits – not the radio edit versions – complete with multi-colored stage lighting going every which way. The bass was turned up so loud I could feel it in my chest. My dad turned down his hearing aids. A decent amount of people were there for an Indian Summer Saturday night; I expected to run into someone I went to high school with, but I did not recognize anyone. I had been gone too long.

My dad got a beer and I got a Long Island Iced Tea, as we shouted our order to the bartender. We took our drinks and sat in some Adirondack chairs on the far side of all this. I took in the scene: all middle class looking white folk, just as it had always been. A few MAGA hats dotted the landscape. Road signs depicting roads and places I could tell you stories about where strewn up around the fences. The large overhang by the bar with its Italian string lights gave a cozy vibe, contrasting with the DJ booth’s bright lights. The fenced in yard had tables and chairs set about. Everyone had coupled up, no one was dancing.

Clubbing with my father wasn’t on my bingo card.

“What do you think?” asked my Dad with a nonsensical smile on his face. (Although in the accent of his adopted hometown, it came out more like “Wha-dya th’nk?”)

“I did not expect all this,” I replied with another sip of my Long Island. Finally, I was starting to warm up. I was still a bit befuddled that my hometown had a semi-legit club. While my dad can throw down when he chooses, this was not his scene. We finished our drinks and he was ready to head home.

If you would have told me in high school that I would walk home buzzed from a club with my dad in my hometown in 25 years, I’d have said you were out of your ever-loving mind.

I’m looking forward to doing this again next time I’m in town.

You, Me, and the Lights of BloNo

“You, me, and the lights of London.”

The line was coined by one of my favorite characters, John Bentall, from Alistar MacLean’s The Black Shrike. It was said to his MI6 partner Marie, whom he was developing feelings for during a high-stakes mission. It was a hope for the future, a spoken promise of returning home, and being together, which became a running line throughout the novel. She is eventually blown up with the enemy, but nonetheless, this phrase became intertwined with my high school sweetheart, who introduced me to this book.

With neither of us having been to London or ever admiring the city lights from anywhere, really, since we grew up in darkened cornfields, it resonated like John Bentall’s empty sentiment of it.

And yet, not long after we broke up because I was leaving for college, the words rang true.

One of the main reasons Bloomington-Normal, Illinois is tied to my heartstrings is because it was the first city I made my own.

I’m an independent person, bordering on an almost criminal sense of solitude. I’ll do anything by myself and I don’t need the adoration or permission from others. I’d be just fine on a deserted island.

In high school, I drove through BloNo on my inaugural road trip to Decatur. Going there, I took the I-55 bypass; coming home, right as the sun was setting, I took US 51 – the main drag through town. Like seeing a handsome guy from across the room, this city gave me a head nod as I passed Illinois State University’s campus.

Through a series of unfortunate events which can be directly sourced from my low ACT score, I ended up in college at ISU because I had a bank account, a pulse, and an acceptance letter into my field of study.

Yet when I arrived, I couldn’t wait to explore.

My independent streak had never been tested, growing up in a very strict household where I didn’t have a car. Instead of going hog wild like my floor mates, I lived the sober life and leaned in to what would be my life thesis: to live well mixed with adventure.

Every Friday night I explored one campus building I had never been in. It became a tradition until I had the entire university mapped out in my head. I quickly figured out the city bus system to get to the mall in Bloomington. I had never ridden a city bus in my life. Looking back, it’s almost comical how I had no idea what to do; I watched what others did and pretended I knew what was happening.

I explored on foot into the sleepy downtown (or “uptown” as the locals say) Normal — I still have the Indian blanket I bought at the local head shop (I had no idea what that was at the time). I rented movies from the Movie Fan, watched old and independent films at The Normal Theater, and was a card-carrying member of The Normal Public Library. Years later, I’d get my first tattoo and body piercing here as well. The Coffeehouse became a constant in my life; I fully intend to return there and finish my novel with an iced mocha on stand-by.

Yet, the lights still found me.

It’s difficult to find solitude in a dormitory, but I managed.

I lived in Manchester Hall, on the east side of campus. It’s an 18 story building, a practical skyscraper from the rural farm fields I was raised in. I lived on the third floor with a unexciting view the dining commons. But one night, bored and in need of an adventure, I walked up the flights of stairs to Manchester 18: the top floor. Two graduate student apartments were there, the rest of it was a quiet lounge, no one ventured up here. Hallways with fluorescent lighting and full length windows lined the perimeter, giving me a panoramic view. The north side gave a dim view of more farm fields and Interstates 39 and 55.

The south side however, gave a spectacular view of Bloomington – big city lights as far as I was concerned. Mesmerized by the view, I used to come up here whenever I was in need of some peace and gaze out at the sprawling city. I would come up here to write, to dream, to lose myself in the bustling glow of Bloomington.

It could have been London for all knew. I’d never had this bird’s eye view, well above the trees, and I was captivated.

I was able to pick out landmarks like the large radio tower that marked the gateway into downtown, which had a big city feel compared to the small town feel of Normal. But mostly, I was there for the glow of the lights. I know now that Bloomington, Illinois is rather small. With my limited world experience at the time, I was looking at a metropolis. “Has it always been this small?” I asked a friend as we were driving through a few years ago, struck at how quickly we crossed town, as I had always recalled it was bigger. “Yes, Sim, it’s always been this size.”

I never expected to be the one who changed.

I’ve seen London at night. I’ve seen Paris at night, which now sings to my heart as Bloomington once did. Last time I was on campus, I was locked out of Manchester Hall – I couldn’t get through the front doors, let alone the unlocked front staircase – even though I longed for another glimpse of that Bloomington view.

Perhaps in the future, I’ll be able to log into a camera and see those lights in real time again.

Or better yet, grab my laptop, a chair, and prop my feet on the vents under the windows and write my heart out as the lights of BloNo burn through the night – just as I did so many decades ago.

Authentically Strong

It’s been sold to us that in order to be a strong, athletic and healthy person, one must have a gym membership and show up several times a week for an hour or so: cardio, weights, and other strength training. In fact, it might be best to get a personal trainer.

The strongest, most athletic person I know is my father. At 72, he can out-do me in almost any physical capacity. I walk two miles on my lunch break; he walks at least six a day. The last time we went on a twenty mile bicycle ride, I was out of breath, but he shrugged. This was a warm up for him who easily covers about 80 miles a day.

He’s never set foot in a gym in his life.

His career was spent as a team member of a publicly traded company, so his working days were in a windowless cubicle. He was outside every moment he could be. He spent the summers roller blading, biking, kayaking, and canoeing. In the winter, he cross-country skied or went on hikes with snowshoes with a group of other like-minded individuals. In between, he did all the house yard maintenance for himself and a few elderly neighbors. Consequently, he’s in great shape, so agile, that he outweighs me only by thirty pounds. Sure, he’s battled frost bite, dog bites, heat stroke, and pulled more than a few muscles over the years, but it hasn’t stopped him, it’s only made him stronger, more resilient. He has no interest in gyms or repetitions of strength exercises. I once asked if he’d ever join a gym and he made a face and said, “Why? I get a much better workout in the great outdoors and it’s free.”

I think a lot of about this in terms of the Christian life.

Like working out a gym, many Christians believe living the Christian life and becoming strong in the Lord centers around church: serving in a role on Sunday morning worship and attending traditional church events: bible study, choir practice, and business meetings. To me, so much of this is like working out a gym. You’ve got your weights, your treadmill, and circuit training. Yes, you’ll break a sweat. Sure, you will get strong. And yet, it is all so sterile, like wiping down the gym equipment after you use it.

All those miles logged on the treadmill got you no where. You were probably listening to music or watching TV as you ran – not even using your full muscle strength because the machine propels you forward. You never feel the sun on your face. You never notice the trees changing, as you go along your route. There’s no turning back for a warmer jacket as the winter chill rushes in a few weeks early. There’s no amazing sunsets or cloud formations to see. But it’s safe, which is paramount in our culture.

“I go to a place to keep my fitness.” We’ve put everything in its box: spiritually, that place is church. Physically, that place is a gym.

It never occurs to us that we don’t need a building to accomplish these things.

When I think of the strongest Christians I know – the ones who are the real deal – they’re more along the lines of my dad. They’re not in a temperature controlled environment that encourages their comfort. They’re not limited to a room with equipment they need to succeed in their endeavors. They don’t have a laundry list of things they do at church for church people. They’re not on half a dozen committees or design crafts for elementary school children (which I think is a huge waste of time, resources, and energy). They’re the ones that show the love of Christ not only to fellow believers, but outside the church too. They don’t wear suits and carry a Bible around everywhere they go; they demonstrate their love for Jesus with their words and actions. They often host people in their homes, sharing their bounty with others. They’re the ones you can call at 3am. They’re the ones who reach out to the poor – in the moment – without peddling capitalist bootstrap mentalities, white washing them as “ministries.” They’re the ones that really listen and provide basic needs without statements of faith, an often thankless job. They’re also the ones who hurt the most, who’s heart gets crushed when someone they’ve been walking with decides to leave the faith or overdose or doesn’t “stick with the program.”

And the Lord calls us to so much more. The Bible doesn’t mention any of these churchy things. The Bible does speak often about showing the love of the Lord in community.

I want that. While I am far from wise, the older I get, the more I lean into the nuance, the more I look to live in the tension of living the Christian life.

Another Friday

It was suppose to be a seamless day: go to work for a few precious hours at my desk, whittle down my to do list, and be gone by lunch. I was suppose to meet a dear old friend I hadn’t seen in ages for dinner. I was positively giddy at the prospect of the good food, beer, and company that awaited me.

And suddenly, my coworker became sick. Not Covid, thankfully, she managed to catch some other virus that’s going around and I sent her home. Unfortunately that meant I stayed until the evening – such is life when you’re the boss.

Good-bye dinner plans, hello troubleshooting things at work that wouldn’t work. I wasn’t upset by the time I got home, I was just done. Instead of a night out, I figured pajamas and a book would be a decent consolation prize. I needed quiet and peace.

Home was not the calm oasis I envisioned. My husband wouldn’t stop talking and seemed upset that I wasn’t willing to hang out. He kept pressing the fact I didn’t eat dinner. This was not going to work.

“Mind if I pop off for a bit?” I deadpanned in British slang with my full American accent, after he encouraged me to take my kinetic energy elsewhere.

Today was just not going to go according to plan.

I ended up in a lifeguard chair at Carolina Beach with my tablet and bottle of water. I read my book and I watched a bit of a show I had downloaded. Wasn’t ready for the cold wind and early sunset, however. I hunkered down best I could, making a mental note to grab the blanket in the trunk next time I do this.

The constant crash of the waves was salve to my weary soul. It was low tide and from my vantage point, the waves looked a bit rough, but surfable. As I scanned the beach, I saw a bright light. Coming from land, it appeared to be a massive floodlight which illuminated the waves, so the wave crests were highlighted and a section of the beach was caught in a pool of white glow. I tried to capture it on camera with no luck. I’ve been down on the beach many times at night and never saw this crazy bright light. What was it?

I totally get the wise men following that star now. I had to investigate. Also, my butt had fallen asleep and I needed to move to keep warm.

I walked a little ways down the beach and then I saw it: A massive white light on a crane wrapped a diffuser. I smiled. That could only mean one thing: they were filming.

Sure enough, I found myself on the boardwalk by a parking lot full of semi trucks and trailers, obviously a filming crew. I have no clue how they got all them so orderly, but they did. I walked until I found what the light was illuminating: they were actively filming a scene. I watched them do several takes.

The adventures of today were never ending, but this was pretty cool.

They wrapped and I got back in the lifeguard chair to read some more. I didn’t have the calm peace of mind to pray or quietly reflect. My brain was still in overdrive, I needed the distraction of my book and the waves.

I left for home not long after and was in bed stupid early, grateful that His mercies are renewed every morning.

Let the Reader Try to Understand

This week, I found myself missing the church of my youth. Like homesickness, a lump formed in my throat when I recalled those days.

The church worked like a family unit and I was a parentless youth there. The message of the Gospel hit me like a 2×4 to the face; I remember thinking, how could anyone hear this message and not come to Christ?

I miss that it all made sense. The Catholics could have their false beliefs of “holy mysteries.”

The Bible was clear about nearly everything.

Pastor preached so elegantly and straight forward, there was no doubt in my mind where I stood on all the issues; of course, they were products of my white middle class midwestern culture, but I didn’t know that.

My brain let me gloss over things like, “You have to pray the sinners prayer and let Jesus into your heart, especially after the age of accountability” – not in the Bible – but yet, my heart was sinful and I should not follow it, lest it lead to the pits of hell. So which is it?

Fruits of the spirit included self control, yet if my shorts were too short, I (me!) was causing men to stumble in their walk with my Jezebel spirit. The body I have apparently, given to me by God, causes men to sin, so I have to cover it up. Yeah, because back then my unconditioned wavy – no, poofy – hair, unplucked caterpillar eyebrows, and pear shaped body that I hadn’t grow into yet coupled with painful awkwardness was apparently driving men wild with desire and it was up to me to stop them. I did my best to hide my body by wearing oversized shirts and men’s jeans that hid my curves so I looked like a box (I was a size 4/6, wearing size 10/12). I would be a freshman in college before I realized I could actually wear women’s clothing in my size and accept my curves.

Yet, I was responsible for the self-control of others. Jesus didn’t say that.

And then I met a man who got off on women in baggy clothing. It’s impossible to win at this game.

How come men never needed to cover up? How come there were no talks with the boys about not dressing to catch a girl’s eye? The church taught that all women were demi-sexual (one cannot be sexually attracted to someone unless they have a strong emotional bond to the other person): yet, that wasn’t my story and it certainly wasn’t me. Whenever the church described the sex-on-the-brain guy mind, they described me.

I’m really bad at getting with the program and staying in my lane, even back then. That’s why you’ll always find me on the margins, away from the kids who have it all together.

The church of my youth – a very conservative southern baptist outfit – had all the answers. This is sin. This is not. Stay on the narrow road. Don’t question. Just do. Like Jesus. It’s all here, it’s all been thought out for you, all you have to do is discover it, internalize it, live it, and then tell it to your children. Black. White. There was no gray. None.

I couldn’t do it now.

I need community, not a list of items to check off. And unfortunately, so many Christians are bent on checking boxes in the rule book and never engaging in relationships which are messy, imperfect, and complex.

And the thing is, after walking with the Lord for over 20 years, I have more questions than answers; in my youth, I had more answers than questions.

Once upon a time, we hosted a pastor in our home for three months and didn’t tell many friends. Once they saw who he was – a bleeding heart liberal – they would have pulled me aside to say I had no business housing this sinner, because the the Bible is clear: he is on the road to perdition.

“But my spiritual gift is hospitality!” I’d have retorted and probably have bruises from the Bible thrown at me.

I miss the days where everything was laid out for me in perfect understanding. I long for the days of “Because Jesus” and other pat answers were enough. I miss the times where I didn’t have conflicting experiences or friends or thoughts or read a Bible verse and went “Huh, that’s an odd thing to say here.” I never want to return to the days of “Us” and “Them,” but I must admit it was much easier to live that way.

As I continue to blunder through life, despite nearly half a century of rotating around the sun, I find solace in the margins of scripture. I lean into the nuance.

We’re all familiar with the story of Job.

But I wonder, did he ever think back to his first family and muse, “My son would have been a man now.”

There it is: the nuance. Some would say I’m adding to Scripture, but the more I meditate on it, I wish we knew the depths of his story.

My best friend is fond of saying that current happiness doesn’t automatically erase the past pain. I wish I knew how he dealt with that.

All this to say, I have no answers. In recent years, I’ve found it best to accept my low intelligence as a blessing.

The Lord ain’t through with me yet.

The Last Time

I wish I knew it was the last time. But that’s the things with last times, often you don’t know. This was the case when we walked through the doors of the church for a funeral.

The pastor’s voice broke several times during it, as he was close with the deceased. Sniffles echoed in the sanctuary, as the eulogy was given and a murmur of laughter rolled through the small crowd gathered when the funny stories were shared. It was heartwarming, despite the pain.

We didn’t go out to lunch with everyone afterwards. I regret that now.

The funeral might as well as been for all of us too.


A man had a rather odd sport of fashioning the Bible into a weapon. I heard whispers of him in a forge, grinding off the sides until the blade was sharp enough to shave hair and long enough to severe an aorta. He wasn’t some Christianized version of Jack the Ripper; he simply used it defensively, not offensively. The take away message was don’t get too close: you’ll probably leave in an ambulance. At least, that’s what all the others did.

I saw first hand the wounds from the biblical knife. I saw the blood seeping through the bandages. I saw the script for hardcore antibiotics to keep infection at bay. I always seem to carry iodine preps in my purse and so I hand them out liberally on the down low. If you say enough words, I’ll show up. Better to prevent an infection than to treat one, I say.

It wasn’t just a few apples with worms. “Fold,” one of the prominent ones said, as if they were at a poker game. They had plenty of chips, but didn’t like the game. No ace to get that fourth card. They cashed out before any blood was shed. Nonetheless, it didn’t change anything.

A duel happened. And then another one. And then I found myself silently cheering on another one who put all their pain in words. I heard that mic drop all the way over here. This could have been a rap battle had it taken place in the back room of a bar in Detroit. There would have been fights outside afterwards.

And then silence.

Silence.

There’s always silence.


With the world in the current state of affairs, I haven’t heard much. I’m not in those circles anymore, but the circle is broken now, more like a wavy line that just sits there.

If I could repair it, I would. I’m a peacemaker by default, so all of this strife is very contrary to my nature. And yet, the wounds are not mine to heal. And confronting my sword-wielding friend? “I wouldn’t waste your breath,” one said slowly as they absentmindedly touched the raised scar over the wound that never seems to heal. “They’ll deny everything.”

How does one more forward? I will be the first to admit the cognitive dissonance that I feel needs to be addressed.

But how?

My thoughts drift back to the funeral, the last time we were all together, comforting each other, united under a common purpose. I long for those days, especially after this past year of absolute madness.

But I can’t claim I didn’t know the score anymore, I’ve seen too much, I’ve heard too many things.

And now I’m caught again, between the past and present.

I’ll evade getting sliced and diced. I know how to dance this dance.

The Battle of Overwhelm

It’s been so long ago, I don’t remember the circumstances, but I do remember how I felt.

And oh, how I feel it again.

My freshman year of college I started my stagehand gig and this particular evening was a bad night. Things went wrong. I remember getting back to my dorm room, still shaken. I couldn’t turn my brain off. I paced my room, attempted to sleep – it was after 11pm and I had an early class the next day. My stomach was doing flip flops and I was nearing the inconsolableness that anxiety always seems to attract.

Yet I was able to articulate what I needed: comfort.

But from where?

I didn’t drink at the time. I was single. All my friends were asleep – it was a school night after all. I knew I needed rest and didn’t have any business wandering around campus in the middle of the night waiting for it.

And then, his words echoed in my head: AJ, a fellow science nerd and Christian who lived down the hall from me (I lived on a co-ed floor), a kind and gentle soul, had said anytime I needed anything to come by, his door was always open. He was safe.

His door could be seen from my own, we were practically neighbors. I knocked gently. His roommate was usually gone – as was mine. AJ opened the door in his pajamas, took one look at me and said, “Are you okay?”

“Not really, I had a bad night at work. I can’t sleep.”

AJ nodded. “Come in.”

I did and turned to him. “Do you mind if I sleep next to you tonight?” It was a bold statement from someone like me. I’d only slept next to one other person, who if he’d have any romantic inclinations towards me, we’d be a couple. But AJ was different, we hit the friend zone so hard, there was nothing even remotely romantic there. He knew all this, as we had talked a lot about our romantic woes and hopes.

“Of course, Sim. I was just getting ready to turn in.”

“Thank you,” I said, already feeling the tension release.

And so, that night, I slept next to AJ, both of us fully clothed, with his arm around me, resting in the comforts of friendship.

My head hit the pillow and I was out.

It was one of those moments I can still recall nearly 20 years later: the sheer comforting presence of another person.

And this week, the waves keep coming. I managed to get my head above water to grab a lungful of air before the next wave came – until I started breathing in water – my time at the surface was not long enough to expel the aspirated water and take on new air. It’s such a scary thing, especially when your body gets tired.

While I have a built in comfort system, the Burgundy region of France is part of the reason I found myself with tears streaming down my cheeks on the couch. I managed to get some sleep mixed with weird dreams, a relief in these times. I awoke with a start at 5am on the dot, a full hour before my alarm would go off. I tried in vain to get myself back to sleep, and finally gave up. I wrapped myself in my Kenyan blanket and went out on the back porch; I didn’t particularly care who saw me. It was too early to care.

It was right at dawn: a hint of light shown in the sky.

“Waiting for the angels of Avalon, waiting for the eastern glow.”

I smiled for the first time in days.

As I sat down and listened to my devotional, the tears returned. The scripture passage was about Jesus on the boats, telling the fishermen to let down their nets after a fishless night and they caught a bounty.

I wanted Jesus to show up at my workplace. It was the cause of nearly all my woes, like that bad night backstage so many years ago. I craved that peace only He can bring.

I needed an AJ to show up and reassure me in a calm voice all was going to be okay.

Nonetheless, the proverbial ocean spat me out of the tumult and onto a beach Friday night, five hours after I was scheduled to leave my shift. Waterlogged and exhausted, but breathing on my own, I ended up walking several miles before going home in order to work out all the stress and to find some semblance of order.

I watched the sun dip below the horizon.

“The Prince of Peace embraced the gloom and walked the night alone.”

When Life Hands You Lemons

Despite growing up in an alcohol-friendly first generation American household, I joined a SBC church and avoided alcohol like the plague through high school. In fact, I left a theater cast party once because they decided to bring liquor into it. Nope! I was living the sober life and nothing was going to change that.

I went to Illinois State, a college known for its drinking habits and still managed to avoid all alcohol freshman year. I simply wasn’t interested. I was still plugged into SBC life and I never quite understood what all the fuss was about drinking.

And then I met Jim, my college sweetheart. He introduced me to all my vices.

Thanksgiving 2001 was my undoing.

My parents were renovating their kitchen, so they weren’t celebrating Thanksgiving. My sister had gone off with her boyfriend to his family’s Thanksgiving; I decided to do the same with Jim’s family.

Friday, however, things took a turn. Jim decided to host a party with his close friends who were in town at his Dad’s house – alcohol would be present – Jim drank now and again. He knew I had never experienced it before and asked if I was comfortable with it. “Sure,” I said as I was slowly coming into new experiences. “I’ll try it.”

What changed? I don’t know. Perhaps it was my shifting perspectives as a sophomore: I was ready for new experiences and thinking outside of the box I had previously found as my boundaries.

Jim left with the guys to get the alcohol – all of us were under 21 at the time, so we had to rely on the over 21 brothers of friends. I had no idea what to ask for, but Jim knew what to order. “Trust me,” he said. “I got you, sweetie.” I had no expectations of the night, except maybe to catch a buzz.

Not too long after, the boys arrived back to the house with the goods. While they were gone, I bonded with Jim’s friend Deborah and we became fast friends. Such good friends, we even got an apartment together a few years later.

“Gonna start you off easy,” Jim said, as he handed me a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. It tasted like lemonade with a bit of an aftertaste. Half way through that – I was just sipping on it – the group decided to do lemon drops. That’s where you take a shot of vodka and then immediately bite into a lemon covered in granulated sugar.

The cheap vodka stung. Whew! That was some strong stuff! I never thought of biting into a lemon as a relief, but that’s exactly what it was. I did two of those in a row.

And then, I felt it.

The song “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies was playing in the background and I have forever linked that song to this moment. Every time I hear that song, I am immediately transported to Jim’s Dad’s basement in Decatur, Illinois. He’s giving me that goofy smile of his and handing me another Mike’s.

A couple of drinks in, I was flying pretty high. Everything was funny. Everything sounded like a good idea. Jim’s friend was hilarious and I couldn’t stop laughing at his jokes. I’m am by nature very protective of my personal space, yet I found myself leaning against my newest friend Deborah, who was also fairly intoxicated.

Jim suggested I drink some water and I did, but I had another Mike’s. Or maybe it was left over from my one before. I wasn’t sure.

The lemon drop went down easier now.

Jim was drunk, but his other friend was drunker. This friend decided the best spot to pass out was at the bottom of the staircase. I managed somehow to get his arm over my shoulders and upstairs to the couch; in that action, I cemented my status as the den mother of drinking parties, which I still am to this day. (I would spend the rest of my college days assisting this friend after he passed out).

Jim and I fell asleep on the basement futon sometime after 1am. Or was it 2? Closer to 3? Mike and his Russian friend with the lemons had me losing all track of time.

I woke up the next morning feeling quite sick. Oh no. “Jim? I think I have the flu.” I was nauseated, my head was pounding, I felt like a train hit me. And everything – especially eating – felt like a bad idea.

“It’s not the flu, you’re hungover.”

“I’m not hungover,” I protested. “I have the flu.”

“You don’t have the flu, Simonne. You drank a lot last night.”

“I did?”

Jim sat next to me on the futon. “You did. Do you remember?”

I nodded. “I remember everything, but I didn’t think I had too much. I was definitely drunk though.”

Jim smiled. “You’re not used to this. Here, have more water. It’ll make you feel better.”

I spent the morning drinking water and could finally choke down some McDonald’s mid-day. I still felt like I had the flu.

And that’s how Vice #1 began.

I became a bottom shelf vodka drinker – screwdrivers – (cheap vodka and orange juice) defined my college experience. I certainly didn’t tell anyone I was drinking at church, although one of my church friends was an avid beer drinker and we used to go to bars together.

Even now, any time I drink too much, I am hungover the entire next day and nothing helps it.

Tonight, I find myself drinking alone at a brewery, as I write, sipping local brews, not much stronger than the Mike’s Hard Lemonade of that Thanksgiving break so many years ago.

Over the years, my personal relationship with alcohol hasn’t changed much: I enjoy it and have never passed out, blacked out, or done anything I regret under the influence. My tastes are refined now: I prefer Deep Eddy Lemon Vodka on the rocks instead of a Mike’s Hard Lemonade any day. Sometimes I indulge, but not often. Some of my favorite people in my life are alcoholics – both in recovery and denial – so, it’s a very fine line to walk.

While Jim and I are no longer in contact, I hope for a day where I see him in a bar and I’ll send over a lemon drop and pay for his tab and sneak away without a word.

He’d know it was me.

In the Surf

I know there’s probably something wrong about ordering an espresso drink called an “affogato” – Italian for “drowned” – before a surfing session. The Workshop in Wrightsville Beach does it so well, I cannot resist. It’s my favorite.

This summer, I have rediscovered my first love here: Wrightsville Beach. I’d been so caught up in the free parking at Kure Beach (that no longer exists), I forgot WB has the best breaks with gentle, perfect Simonne-sized waves at low tide. I even found a honey hole – a secret spot where there are waves even at high tide.

You could find me there most weekend mornings. Paid parking doesn’t begin until 9 – usually I’m gone by 10. It gets too busy and I spend far too much time in the sun for my skin as it is. Yes, I keep skipping church to be there.

It took me forever to learn: it was years before I could stand up. I still can’t drop into a wave and I know its a confidence thing: I’m out there to have fun and unwind, not land a sponsor.

Surfing has tested my mettle.

Balancing on the board is second nature now. Each board is slightly different, I learned where my body fit best; not too far forward (otherwise I’d summersault over it) and not too far back.

Proximity of my body to the board is also quite important: one time I fell off in a big wave and when I surfaced, I didn’t see my board. It wasn’t tugging on my leash strap attached to my ankle. As I was treading water, looking around for it, I turned and WHAM! a wave pushed the board into my face. My incisors went through my lip – a complete tear – and I found myself in urgent care for 20+ stitches – both inside and outside my lip. It’s no matter, it comes with the territory.

I know I’ll have goose-egg sized bruises on the front of my hips after a long session because fat likes to stick around the tops of my hips instead – so its bone-on-board, as I lie prone to catch a wave. It hurts after awhile, but I’ve learned to push through the pain – especially if a good set is rolling in.

Board rash – where the delicate skin on one’s belly gets rubbed off from the surf wax and sand – is another issue that I could easily solve with a rash guard, but it would ruin my tan lines.

I’ve mastered the pop up, going from prone to standing in one motion. It’s like a burpee, but it causes an afterglow. The instant I’ve caught the wave – it’s nothing short of exhilarating – like that moment right before a first kiss, as I move into position, hoping the wave has enough umph to keep me on a long ride.

And yet, at the end of it all, I feel the most beautiful 100 yards from land where the waves are breaking. No jewelry, no make up, and messy hair (the Atlantic is a terrible stylist) with a bikini corseted to my body. My skin is pink from the sun and my muscles are screaming from paddling and popping up to standing.

There’s nothing quite like Wrightsville Beach, the atmosphere here calms my soul like nothing else.

I love it and can’t wait for the next low tide when I’m not at work.

Ghosts, Just Passing Through

My phone dinged. I glance to see the message on social media and stopped.

It was an old flame from the past, estranged at best. There was a link. I rolled my eyes, thinking he’s probably been hacked, we hadn’t spoke in two lifetimes. What could possibly be said now?

I clicked on the message, expecting it to be trash.

And it wasn’t. It was directed to me, a news article about an event where I used to live. Without preamble, the words flew out of my thumbs: “Is that [redacted]?” He said it was. I also added, “Hello! It has been ages!”

This was disregarded as the ellipsis disappeared. He replied with more perfunctory verbiage captured in this article. It read like a radio report from the ambulances I used to overhear in the Emergency Room. Just the facts, please, and quickly.

And that was it. The line went dead. It was like I saw an apparition that held my gaze for a moment, turned, and disappeared into wall. I sat back, wondering. It felt so weird.

A part of me wanted to reach out with 1,000 questions. How are you? What are you doing now? Are you in the same town? What is your job? Where do you live? Are you with the same girl? What are your hobbies? Do you ever get back to [place we had in common] or see [person we used to know]? Do you have a church home? What are you successes? How are you struggling? How’s your family? Do you get back home often? Where have you traveled? Tell me a story. Tell me everything.

In short, who are you now?

As the list of questions spun in my head, I realized the same of myself.

He didn’t know me anymore either.

Despite my cries of I haven’t really changed at all in the past two decades or so, the truth is I have. I’m quite a good cook now; I make most of my meals from scratch and my breakfasts are vegan. I’m a huge coffee snob. My understanding of God has changed; I’m a contemplative who doesn’t prescribe to SBC regulations. I love aunting. I can crochet. I have a healthier lifestyle. I did Bikram yoga in the pre-pandemic days. I’m gardening and learning so much, like two languages. I write. I still get myself caught up in crazy adventures. I still run like I used to. My depression morphed into anxiety and it’s been a struggle. My spiritual gift is hospitality and I’m sorry it wasn’t refined in days when I knew him.

But I asked none of them. And neither did he.

One of the last times we spoke, I poured my heart out about work – our professions are related – and he said nothing. When I asked about him, he replied, “Fine.” And then he had to go.

It is all like a poltergeist, just making noise to be heard as it’s passing through. Trouble is, I’m sensitive to these things.