Title: Adult Drama
Author: Natalie Beach
Read In: 2023
Description: She became famous for selling out her ex-best friend, Caroline Calloway, to The Cut. Now she has written a coming-of-age collection of essays, which most prominently focuses on the odd jobs she held while trying to find herself as a writer.
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
She didn’t understand that I chose my outfits not for how they made me look but what they allowed me to do—bike to school, absolutely wreck kids in gym class, etc.
I was a starting player on the best U-13 soccer team in the state, but I didn’t understand that while we were young enough to still play hide-and-seek, we were too old to try. In fact, these girls were only pretending to play one game while actually playing another, and I was just naturally supposed to pick up on that? It was a minor incident, but I replayed the faux pas over and over—my giddy anticipation, their jeers when they found me under the car.
When I got home from school I’d tune into the afternoon Law & Order block on TNT and leave my jeans in a pile on the kitchen floor. I became obsessed with that small gesture Jack McCoy and the other male lawyers made, neatly tugging up the legs of their trousers to give the fabric slack before they settled into their chairs. What luxury, to adjust your pants to your body as opposed to the other way around.
These days when I wear jeans they’re high-waisted, but lately I’ve gravitated toward coveralls and jumpsuits, and have a closet full of them. I wonder if this is because they’re comfortably androgynous, or if, as always, I’m just happier in a uniform.
“I am beginning to feel like a child or an unpaid intern,” I wrote, “both of which I had been recently and never wanted to be again.”
It was 2013, and the internet felt like the future of writing, at least for girls. The boys from our classes were churning out different versions of Fear and Loathing in Bushwick, but I believed Caroline and I were busting open the form of nonfiction. Instagram is memoir in real time. It’s memoir without the act of remembering. It’s collapsing the distance between writer and reader and critic, which is why it’s true feminist storytelling, I’d argue to Caroline, trying to convince her that a white girl learning to believe in herself could be the height of radicalism (convenient, as I too was a white girl learning to believe in herself).
“Women spend too much time apologizing for promoting their work,” she told me.
Caroline had a way of drawing the world into her.
. . . I stuck around for three years, to this day the longest I’ve ever held a job. Sure there were the usual indignities—Black Friday, a dead mouse rotting somewhere under a donation from The Dark Knight Rises but there was something life-affirming about the job. The simplest explanation is that I got to wear a tool belt. The work required cheerfully ringing out a customer and then muscling their purchase into a taxi or cube truck, a quick change from Retail Barbie to manual laborer that, now that I consider it, probably activated latent gender dysphoria, but at the time felt like eating a meal comprised of all the major food groups. If only it could have lasted, but the good jobs never do.
After work she [Patricia Highsmith] wrote an eight-page story about the woman, and the next day she almost fainted again, this time on the subway, sick, she’d learn, with chickenpox. “One of the small, grubby-nosed children there must have passed on the germ, but in a way the germ of a book too: fever is stimulating to the imagination,” she wrote in the afterword of The Price of Salt, the book that the short story would grow into.
The longer I stayed a shopgirl, the harder it became to pretend that the job wasn’t who I was. As an hourly employee, the passage of time had a particularly tight grip on my sense of self. It didn’t help that at Shorthand the cash register sat beneath a 3×12-foot Stendig calendar mounted to the wall. Through my shift, the Helvetica days and weeks loomed over me until it was once again time to clamber up the stepladder and tear off another spent month.
The more personal an object, the less value it has to a stranger. What is anyone supposed to do, for example, with the photos? They’re both useless and impossible to imagine in a dumpster.
Every house has something to give, and an accurate essay about estate sales would grow into a biography of every resident and an account of all their possessions and everyone who ever passed through their lives and left a mark, and to do all these lives justice I’d have to accidentally write the story of the entire world. A flash of recognition in James Agee’s portrait of tenant farmers Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, where Agee laments, “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement… A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”
The archaeologist lan Hodder has said that “as humans we are involved in a dance with things that cannot be stopped, since we are only human through things.” That may be true, but the homes I remember best weren’t the ones with the coolest stuff or best deals, but those that provided a blueprint for living. The people who had lived there had figured something out, it seems to me, and they wove their happiness into the everyday material of their homes—an anti-Freudian psychotherapist and collector of fertility statues; the first woman in Hancock Park to tear out her lawn and grow a native garden; Jeanne Barney, Lester, Jeraldine Saunders. At one time, Michael Hogarth had thirteen St. Bernards living in his East Hollywood craftsman. (He had a hang-up about neutering.) When I first moved to Los Angeles, I thought if I could spend enough time in these places, buy just the right keepsakes, uncover their secrets, maybe I could learn how to bridge the chasm between paranoia and camaraderie, hopelessness and comfort.
He believed that a well-tended home garden was society’s cure-all, and in every apartment he ever rented he’d rip out the concrete to plant whatever could take root in the polluted city soil.
Jamaica Kincaid wrote, “The garden makes managing an excess of feelings—good feelings, bad feelings—rewarding in some way that I can never quite understand.”
I’ve tried my best to write myself back to those South Brooklyn gardens, to try to remember the licorice taste of purple Thai basil plucked right from the stem, the feeling of calluses, the prickly centers of corn flowers, because like gardening, memoir writing is also in defiance of time. But when it comes to plants, dirt, thorns, stones, summer heat, manure, there’s no substitute to being there.
About this specific essay, my book proposal reads, “it’s a raw time in my life, but as always, I’m taking notes.”
That’s just the way Chris has always been; he makes loving look easy.
The last place I wanted to be was in the room with the body, but the nurses told us that the final thing to go is a person’s hearing, and even though Mary Ellen’s heart had stopped beating, we should keep talking to her. I tried my best not to be afraid. “Everything is OK. We’re here with you. You’re safe,” I told her, because it never ends, our obligation to care for one another.
Unlike most things were forced to do, I don’t mind growing up.
I spent years overthinking the idea that I had so much love to give and no where to put it. But if you have a surplus of love to give, ain’t nothing in the rule book that says you can’t self-deal. Sometimes “go fuck yourself” is helpful advice.
I, too, was surreptitiously taking notes, and what writer takes notes without a plan to use them?
My initial anger was useful in jolting me out of writer’s block (a euphemism for depression) . . .
I truly believed that as long as I wrote the both of us as complicated and messy, tempered my pluck with self-loathing, and remained true to my memory and the archive, that in the end we would come out unscathed.
Caroline walked beside me and listened to every word. After a beat she said, “I don’t actually have a sore throat. I was just pretending to get you to open up.”
Writer Ayesha Siddigi says, “How you treat people is who you are. . . Your choices leave a record.” A record I think, that’s kept on the bodies of other people.
Like when Caroline writes that seeing a good photo of herself would “brighten you inside like a compliment,” not out of vanity, but because the photo served as “evidence that the world was seeing you the way you wanted to be seen.”