Consisted of seven hours in a car to get from Memphis to Dickson (a trip that normally takes three hours), where we are currently staying in a Motel 6, after being stuck in snarled, crawling traffic that sat helpless as it became surrounded by accumulating snow and packed ice on an increasingly unsalted interstate, watching car after car slide off the road and get stuck in the drifts on the side of the road.
Tuesday brought much milling about and squirreling away. Pigeon Forge is lined with places you never want to go into but that you always end up buying shit at. Why? I don’t know. It’s some kind of universal law involving the eventual depletion of your checking account.
Amber and I were sitting and waiting on the folks to meet us when my mom walked up to us. “Y’all!” mom started, then laughed. “I was going to say, ‘Y’all make a good couple!’ but that’s not what I mean!”
I looked at Amber and back at mom with a smirk on my face. “Well, actually, I’ve got something to tell you…” I said dramatically.
Mom froze in her tracks and a look of complete terror overtook her. I laughed, suddenly completely embarrassed. “I’M JUST KIDDING!” I screeched. Mom looked more relieved than I have perhaps ever seen her. Amber and I devolved into nervous laughter and I realized that my parents must actually wonder about my sexuality since I never bring boys for them to meet and I am creeping up on thirty, unmarried and unashamed.
We sat down for dinner at a place that will not only make your food, but will make the plates it’s served on. The food was great and Amber and I were really bad at being sneaky about paying the tab for everyone. Oh well. Free food is clumsy sometimes.
We spent the remainder of the evening at the outlet mall, trolling for bargains or shiny things to catch our eye. Part of me feels guilty for spending so much time shopping, but then I realized that A) What was I going to do? Camp in the woods? HA HA HA B) I was helping our battered economy! C) I was buying much-needed Christmas presents for friends and loved ones! D) My other cultural options were pretty much dictated by Dolly Parton’s corporate handlers. So. I deal with the guilt pretty easily.
At some point, I managed to take this photo, which cracks me up, without exception, every time I look at it:
Amber and I came back to the cabin with a car full of sweet sweet swag, and tucked in, determined to watch The 12 Men of Christmas since that scamp Stephanie had given me a review copy and I was determined not to let her down. We made s’mores in the fireplace and drank champagne and I yelled at the television when I realized that my protagonist was a 3-foot-tall, obnoxious PR hack with a supersonic voice. Fun fact: That movie had not a damn thing to do with Christmas. Or men, really. Or the number twelve. Except that there are 12 months in a year and that is roughly the amount of time it will take me to forget that this movie exists. Fun fact part two: There’s a token black dude who gets roughly seven seconds of screen time. Hilarious!
Two bottles of champagne, another s’more, and an untold amount of honey bourbon liqueur later, we passed out.
Pigeon Forge is so bizarre. There’s these big, big rolling hills in the distance, but to get there, you’ve got to crawl past mounds of kitsch draped in rope lights that make your eyes hurt. I don’t even know what the point of Pigeon Forge is. I just opened a new tab so I could read the wiki. Huh.
FAMILY VACATION HUB
Yes, okay. If you insist. Jeez, Pigeon Forge. Step the eff off, Pigeon Forge. We’re all friends here, pal.
Amber and I rolled into town Sunday night (a leisurely drive on our part, with no less than TWO pee stops where we allowed ourselves coffee and things wrapped in cellophane and time to gawk at all the weird “regional” shit pumped out by factories in China. Part of the trip we spent trying to come up with questions for the students in an online English composition course Amber teaches. Don’t worry; we were completely sober. When we arrived at the resort (I can’t say “hotel” because we have a timeshare (*places monocle over left eye*), and the timeshare place is also a hotel and resort, so, yeah, resort), we went to the front desk to get our parking pass and directions to the cabin (indulge me, please, for another parenthetical as I point out that these places are hotel suites dressed up as cabins; my family is a sucker for the creature comforts). We crept up the mountain on the winding asphalt road and parked when we saw my parents’ truck. We were greeted by my brother, who was outside schmoozing with a neighbor (my brother is basically the third-best schmoozer I know) because this neighbor happened to be the father of two cute girls (one of whom, by Wednesday, had made a date with Evan).
The cabin itself was pretty motherclucking swank. I mean, I am kind of into hotels anyway, but usually when I’m paying for my own room, I am staying in budget rooms with scratchy Polyester comforters and not thinking about how many speeds the kitchenette’s dishwasher can run. Our half of the suite opened onto a really lovely balcony overlooking the downslope of the hill — I get uncomfortable calling something a mountain until it’s technically east of Gatlinburg — and had a fireplace and a washer/dryer and big glass shower and big fat sauna tub thingy and leather couches a kitchen full of shiny utensils. It was connected to my parents’ half and they insisted that we keep the doors propped open so that Sissy had open trotting access to the whole compound.
Amber had to go file her test questions so we dropped her off in the lobby (wireless hadn’t been set up in our building yet, we were told) and my mom and I took off to Kroger after I called to make sure they were open 24 hours (it was pushing 10 p.m.). Because if you bring the Turners to a place with a kitchen, you can bet your ASS we are going to buy a shit-ton of food for that place. Empty pantries make us anxious. So mom and I traipsed up and down every aisle in the Pigeon Forge Kroger (I presumptuously assume there’s just one), filling up a proud, bulging cart and finally, after both agreeing we had scoured every aisle for everything we could possibly need while staying more or less on a budget, headed toward what looked to be the checkout aisle, where a dour lady with long stringy brown hair was dragging grocery items across a scanner.
“I’m closed!” she said with exhaustion and utter contempt. We shuffled our feet and smiled meek smiles and looked over the remainder of the aisles for the other open aisle, and found none of the numbers lit. An even more miserable-looking man with white hair pointed us down toward the U-Scan area. “You’ll have to use the U-Scan,” he said. “Everyone but one person who runs the U-Scan leaves at 12.” So we walked toward the U-Scan. Except white-haired sad man wasn’t done. “But you can’t go to the U-Scan. You’ve got too much stuff.” He heaved a colossal sigh that could have made a butterfly in China shudder. Mom and I flushed with embarrassment, like, THE SHAME OF BUYING SO MANY GROCERIES. “So what are we supposed to do?” we asked. “Who’s open?”
The white-haired man, now joined by dour lady and milquetoasty mustachioed man No. 1, all mumbled things about everyone getting off work at midnight (it was 12:05) and how only one dude was left to man the U-Scan and we had too much shit for the U-Scan.
I don’t know if that’s true or not; I only ever buy cereal and cheese when I go to the grocery.
But mom, ever the Southern lady who will slap someone with a metaphorical white glove if they sass her, held her hands up off the cart like she was a bank teller confronted by a masked man. “We will be more than happy to leave all this right here and go on down the road,” she said. It was a standoff. A standoff in Kroger at midnight with my fucking brie and crackers at stake! Mustachioed man No. 2 — the post-midnight U-Scan Wrangler — stepped in and relieved dour lady and waved us on through the line because there were even MORE people ready to check out behind us. My mother, flushed and flustered and taken aback by this less-than-friendly treatment, mumbled grievances under her breath as we both shoved things onto the conveyor belt and watched mustachioed man No. 2 scan them all with a quickness and watch them pile up at the end of the counter. “So everyone but you leaves at midnight,” I said to the guy. “Yep. And I run the U-Scan,” he said. “Which can only handle certain orders,” I said. “That sucks for you! I mean, it puts the burden on you!” All I wanted was for the guy to say that Kroger had a bullshit policy but he was a pro and clammed up.
I shop at Schnucks post-11 p.m. quite a bit, so I am no stranger to the bag-your-own-shit game. I hopped down to the end of the counter and plastered a middleman smile on my face and shoved packed bag after bag back into the cart while mom just got angrier and angrier at being embarrassed in front of all those people. My carton of blueberries slipped between the wires and spilled into the floor, sending purple juice splattering everywhere. “Poetic justice,” my mother said while watching mustachioed man No. 2 attempt to mop up the mess after my failed attempts to pick up and salvage each berry one by one. She asked him for his manager’s name and he evaded like a champ. “Never in my life,” mom said, holding her hand over her heart. “I have shopped at Kroger for years.” When everything was bagged I thanked the mustachioed men for their help and threw my weight against the cart to get it moving as my mom went to the customer service counter to get a comment card. I tossed everything into the back of the truck and, like a sullen teenager, dicked around with my phone while mom talked to the New Yorker lady who had been in line behind us about how horrible an experience we had apparently just had. I don’t know. I just can’t handle hyperdramatic 2-hour bouts of grocery shopping with any sort of grace, I guess.
We drove back to the cabin and I was probably short with mom and tired of talking. I’m not grown yet, am I?
Monday morning. I wake up vacationlate, 9 or so, bed empty because my sleeping partner had retreated to the living-room couch when my snoring proved relentless. Amber and Evan told me I had stopped breathing in my sleep … a lot. Both my parents and my one remaining biological grandparent have sleep apnea and have to wear C-PAP machines. I don’t want that. Not now. Not yet. Not until I convince someone to sleep in my bed longterm. THEN maybe. Nocturnal horizontal SCUBA divers. Not yet.
We’re having coffee in mom and dad’s suite. Mom is moving slow because of a headache. We finally convince her to take something and lie down. Next door a racket is brewing. We think someone is laughing but we quickly realize it’s someone shrieking … about a phone … being taken away by a parent. And it takes ten or so foggy-brain minutes of us listening, slack-jawed, to some teenage girl shrieking about her unfair parents before that obnoxious I HAVE GOT TO GET THIS ON VIDEO thing that’s always with me kicks in. TEN MINUTES!
And then I got this video, which makes me lol and lol and lol because the girl’s shrieking is straight-up COMIC and then at the end it looks like I do some kind of ninja roll.
Our brilliant plan when we bolted once the neighbors’ door opened excluded CLOSING OUR OWN DOOR, so the mom just peeked in and apologized for their “unruly teenager” and then gushed over Sissy a bit and then did some laundry, seeing as how we were basically eavesdropping right there beside their suite’s laundry room.
Amazingly, even though I had bounded through my mother’s bedroom like a frightened, very stupid gazelle when that door had opened, mom remained asleep. Which is how we knew she was really feeling unwell, which is why Evan and dad got ready and went out while Amber and I hung back, taking our time getting ready and making sure mom was okay. When she woke up, she insisted that she was okay and that we get out and about. She seemed better but tired, so we didn’t feel too bad about leaving her to putter around the suite by herself (I think I got my love of solitude entirely from her).
So Amber and I took to the nooks and crannies of Gatlinburg and handled trinkets and candles and dreamcatchers and wolf shirts and free dip samples and tiny shots of free coffee. We had lunch at a “pub” with actually decent food and then followed the rest of the family up into the mountains since it wasn’t rainy and gross and my dad insisted that I’d be able to get good photos (which I, probably out of sheer laziness, was unable to do). Mom’s head was still kinda hurting her so dad said they were heading back 17 miles short of Clingman’s Dome. We had the choice of going on to North Carolina or turning around too. Amber was powering down and the sun was setting, so I saw no reason to go to Cherokee.
Back at the cabin, everyone crashed but Evan and me. I got a text from work saying, basically, where is the biz cartoon for this week?!, and I realized with great eye rolling that I had forgotten on Saturday to import the upcoming week’s comics, blah blah work minutiae hooey. I dug into my e-mail on my phone and forwarded the files, and they converted into one big bitmap. I realized my phone and I were going to fight so I needed to talk to my laptop ASAP. Except … no internet except the $12 internet in the lobby. So Evan and I made for the lobby and I pushed us on through to the bar because I knew that’s where he was wanting to go anyway. We bellied up to the bar and exchanged squinty glances when our bartender turned out to be probably the most unlikeable, sour bartender I have ever encountered in my entire life. She was bitchy — and not in the funny, you’re-in-on-the-joke, sassy way either — and took the duration of my brother’s entire first beer to get my first glass of wine (when I reordered, thinking she’d forgotten me, she gave me the same look of utter contempt I’d gotten with my mother at Kroger and said, “I’m getting it!” without even a hint of a smile) and then had the fucking nerve to chastise me for having my laptop out in the bar. “You’re on vacation,” she sneered. “No technology!” A giant television screen flickering a basketball recap show made her into a silhouette. “There’s a TV!” I said, smiling thinly. “That’s different!” she scoffed.
“Where are all the women?” my brother asked, half joking. The bartender curled her lip and looked at him. “Sweetie, I hate to break it to you, but this isn’t a singles bar. If you’re looking to meet women, you’re better off going to some other bar. Of which there is none.” My brother downed his third beer and muttered a curse word under his breath, and it was time to go. I drank the last of my wine as he paid the tab. He didn’t leave a tip, so I threw $2 on the counter as we shuffled out. “Awwwww,” the bartender called. “Y’all were the coolest people I’d had all night!” I smiled and wanted to hit something.
$12 for 24 hours of internet and she had sucked so bad that we couldn’t stand to spend more than 30 minutes in her bar. Now THAT’S a moneymaking strategy, Westgate.
Amber awoke before midnight and I had gotten into the whiskey. We stayed up, clucking, until past four.
This lovely setting is not, I repeat NOT inside our cabin in Gatlinburg. It is, however, in the lobby, where we had to go to get online (for a nominal fee) so Amber could file her students’ final essay questions since wireless was not working in our cabin.
The last bit of my time in the mountains was considerably better than the first bit. Wednesday, my dad and grandmother and I headed eastward in my car (which was a trooper) to scale the mountain and turn around in Cherokee, N.C. The weather was heavy and wet and temperamental, but we braved it anyway. The dampness saturated the colors, but when the fog set in, it was hard to see anything through a lens or a set of eyeballs.
It was quite beautiful, and a nice way to undo some of the damage that had been done earlier in the week. (Even though all that shit is going to need to be worked through eventually. And sooner rather than later, if I have anything to do with it.)
The next morning, Grandmaw and I headed west. A fateful stop at the Dickson I-40 Arby’s and several hours later, just after I had gotten to my apartment and started hauling bags inside, I got sicker than I have been in years and years. For roughly nine hours, my body rejected everything that had ever been put into it. With violence. I was hot then cold, fine then nauseated, up and down, back and forth, moaning, crying, shedding layers of clothes, hugging the trash can, convulsing, dehydrated, unable to keep my head up, unable to walk, fully feeling the bite of the humiliation of living alone and wondering if you’re going to die there near your toilet. At 4 a.m. I laid awake on my bed, unable to get comfortable, just listening to the wind roaring outside and feeling my whole building sway and creak from the pressure. Turmoil, inside and out.
Gah. Fuck that.
But I’m not dead. Yet. I dragged myself to work yesterday and probably freaked everyone out with my pallor and bottle of Gatorade with a straw in it. And my inability to move with a speed that could be described as anything faster than “sludge-like.” My bones hurt, I can’t turn my neck, my voice is raspy, and worst of all, I can’t stop complaining about everything.
I haven’t had anything to eat since roughly 3 p.m. Thursday (save three crackers) and, although I’m a bit paranoid about eating anything just yet, I am about to take the plunge and eat what will probably be either the most delicious or most disgusting meal I’ve ever had.
This Christmas, surprise the one you love with this beautiful “Humping Bear” figurine.
Today was quite a bit better than yesterday. Because it had to be, I guess.
We got a late start but ended up frittering away several hours in Gatlinburg proper, milling around, wandering in and out of shops, and getting rained on. A lot. We’re a slow-moving bunch, for sure. Mom is hobbling around because both her feet are in orthopedic boots (she’s had surgery on both feet this year), and her hip is giving her fits. Dad hobbles too; he just had knee surgery two weeks ago, and said his hip is acting up too. Grandmaw has an old knee injury that slows her down, and she gets out of breath easily. And me? Well, I just like moving slow enough so that no one ever really sees me in motion. BECAUSE I’M A NINJA.
I’m broke right now and not the world’s biggest shopper anyway, so I didn’t go as nuts as I might have in a different life, under different, more despicably wealthy circumstances, but I did really enjoy seeing the town and its weird little tourist traps decked out in Christmas lights. Holy god, there is not a surface in this city that hasn’t been draped in something sparkly or glowing or both. It’s so deliciously tacky that my head is threatening to explode.
One of the strangest haunts here is that Mountain Mall place. It’s tiny and it has the weirdest stores in it. An entire store devoted to Case International memorabilia? An entire store dedicated to chintzy dog and cat items? An entire store that stocks nothing but turtle-related trinkets? Really? Yes. Really. Oh, and it features a really hideous rusted-metal-and-busted-wood water feature. If you like, you can throw your spare change into the dirty water and make a wish.
I won’t tell you what to wish for.
Okay, I am completely exhausted and can’t even finish the thoughts that are buzzing around in my brain. Actually, they’re not buzzing right now; they’re doing something more akin to flopping. Nor will I be processing the rest of today’s 300 photos tonight. Tomorrow I think we’re going to actually pay some attention to these great big mountains and not the cheap crap from China that’s being sold all over it.
It’s 2 a.m. in Gatlinburg. I’m out on the deck of our cabin, hoodie engaged, enjoying the ha-ha-not-free wireless we paid $12 for. The world’s tiniest creek is babbling several feet below me. The wind is blowing and my feet, despite being besocked, are cold. My grandmother is just inside, her hearing aids resting on the night stand, a frightening C-PAP machine strapped to her face, the television blaring its early-morning mediocrity to the world. My parents are in the sweet suite below, the one with the giant jacuzzi (Grandmaw and I only got a semi-sweet jacuzzi, bummer).
We’re done yelling, maybe. Hopefully done crying.
It’s not been a pleasant night.
I swear to God, watching my parents get old is breaking my heart into ragged little pieces that pierce like knives when I breathe. A weeklong stay here inspired in my mother the need to bring with her the entire house, including Christmas decorations and baking supplies. Which is fine. I’m all for staying in one night and making a shit-ton of treats. But we also brought the entire pantry — frozen cocktail weenies, cans of soup, six single-serving cups of peanut butter, oatmeal, roughly 24 bags of microwave popcorn, etc. — including the Christmas tree-shaped salt and pepper shakers, a container of toothpicks, the entire medicine cabinet, a Mag-Lite flashlight, fifteen tiny containers of Nutrisystem lasagna, and MORE GOD SO MUCH MORE. And then we even stopped by the on-site grocery to get even more shit. I … I don’t know.
We’ve got no cell service in our cabin, and it took me a tension-filled half-hour to figure out how to connect to the wifi (seriously, you buy a fucking timeshare, shouldn’t they throw in free wifi?), so the instant we got there, we kicked things off on the wrong foot by not being able to call and check in with the legions of people just waiting on pins and needles to hear about our safe arrival. (In my family, you call when you leave, you call when you stop to pee, you call when you get there. PERIOD.)
Things have been tense in the family lately. It all came to a head tonight, of course, because people just need a cabin on a mountain to give them an excuse to fucking break down and act like children. The passive-aggressiveness hit a level even I couldn’t handle and I had to go from room to room, pulling adult plus adult plus adult into a common area so we could work some shit out and stop acting like angsty 14-year-olds. I yelled at them through a veil of tears that clearly announced my fear and anxiety. I played therapist and said things like, “That’s not helpful or constructive!” I think it worked, if just a little. There’s more shit to work through and tomorrow may end up being harder than today, but at least we all got a little bit off our chests and hugged it out at the end (however superficial said hugs might have been). It’s hard trying to resolve conflicts whose roots were formed probably before you were even born. It’s even harder trying to work through issues you yourself aren’t even fully acquainted with. It’s fucking gut-wrenching watching the most solid thing in your life — your family — waver and buckle like some shittily constructed apartment building on the perimeter of a college campus. The thought of my parents as vulnerable, imperfect beings who don’t know how to solve their own problems levels my concept of life itself. I look up to them as the people on this planet who have their shit together and who will have their shit together for eternity. Knowing that that’s not true? Well, it terrifies me.
Is that naive? Am I late to this particular terror because I’ve been blessed with a pretty solid non-divorced family? Maybe.
But holy fucking shit. The crazy that courses through my veins: It scares the hell out of me. It’s there. I feel it bubble and surface every now and then in my own life, away from its source. I work hard to keep it at bay. But I worry that there is something beneath my skin that ticks, that some day will implode/explode without warning. That I am a product of my destiny. That as much as I want to look at the ways my forebears are flawed and build a different self, a phoenix out of the ashes, I am just biding time until I re-enact the exact same things that have already played themselves out in other lifetimes.
I don’t like seeing my worst qualities surface in my parents. I watch my mom clam up and pretend she’s not here and my dad get overly emotional and abrasive and I freeze in disbelief. I hear myself threaten to leave if people don’t straighten up and I realize that’s just as passive-aggressive as the shit I’m trying to get them to exorcise, and that I am playing cards that I know need to be folded. I don’t like knowing that who I am was more or less determined before I even came into existence. I want free will. I want to be in charge of myself. And, on a micro scale, I want to be able to leave a room without it causing turmoil and drama. Is she mad? No. Maybe she just has to piss. Maybe she just wants two fucking seconds to herself to think. Maybe everyone should chill out and stop being so goddamn tense about EVERYTHING.
I love my family. Family is the most important thing in my life. I blog about it constantly. But holy shit.
We may be the most dysfunctional functional family on the planet. Maybe not. But maybe. We have prolifically hilarious conversations that defy description, and our entire narrative arc reads like some kind of Southern-fried absurdist melodrama. I mean, the first thing my dad did when we arrived at our cabin was to erect a rebel flag on the deck. Yes. Really. But we’ve got problems. Plural.*
We’ve been here roughly ten hours and already, all this. I am putting out fires as best I can and it leaves me sobbing in the bathroom and flushing periodically so no one suspects anything fishy like private emotion.
It is now 3 a.m. and I’m inside the little apartment. It got too windy and cold for me out there. Grandmaw’s still got the goddamn TV blaring. I came inside and turned it off, thinking she was asleep. “I wa wa-in tha,” she muttered from underneath her C-PAP machine. I tried to find the button to restore the channel. I found it and recoiled from the insanely loud volume and close-up of Lindsay Lohan. And now? I’m in the next room on the couch. Her television is roughly 50 percent louder than mine. What can you do? But I am about to get in our smallish jacuzzi tub and finish off this bottle of wine. And then maybe sleep for a few hours before everyone wakes me up at dawn.
It’s going to be a long week.
*Name the movie this reference is plucked from and I’ll e-smooch you on the e-cheek.
Seen in her natural habitat, the Middle Child might seem grumpy, unapproachable, and/or miserable, when in fact she is just, as they say in popular parlance, “balls cold.”
My parents’ Explorer’s every nook and cranny is full of stuff. We are taking Christmas decorations and baking supplies, for God’s sake. And a giant bin full of food. Because Gatlinburg is so rural that I heard you have to kill and eat your own dinner there.
The upstairs portion of the parental unit’s house currently has no heat. I slept for three hours, tightly wound into a ball of nerves, and awoke to my father’s face looming above me. He told me my brother and I both snored hardcore. Having my dad tell me that is a little like having Michael Phelps tell me I’m a good swimmer.
My parents’ newest dog, Charlie, hates me and does not let me enter a new room without issuing ear-piercing tiny-dog bellows and barreling after me like he’s going to take me out with his tiny little jaws. My brother, who Charlie also hates, said Charlie crapped in his bedroom five times one night just because he could. I love all living things, but I hate this fucking dog.
I took a shower despite warnings of no hot water. I usually take pretty long, leisurely showers, during which I balance my checkbook and compose poetry, but this shower took roughly seven nanoseconds. When I got out and saw my mom, she told me my outfit was cute.