The entire time I was there, I kept asking myself: what am I doing in North Carolina?
Over and over, in texts and emails to others, and in my own head, what the hell am I doing?
Because there was barely a week between returning from Denver and flying off to Raleigh, I didn’t have a lot of time to ask myself this question until just before I left. True, part of the answer is the same as it was for Denver: the airline had a sale, and I had miles. I’m trying to see more of the United States. Also true, I looked at other cities on sale, like Nashville, but Raleigh’s were the only sale dates that worked with my schedule.
Also true: I’ve always had this nagging desire to visit Chapel Hill. Why, you ask? Because my favorite magazine, The Sun, which I’ve been reading for over 20 years and which, in sometimes vague, sometimes concrete ways, has been a lifeline for me during that time – is published in Chapel Hill.
That’s it. No big deal.
Did I contact them to let them know I was coming? No. Did I even think I’d try to visit their offices? Not really; what would I even say, “hi, I really like your magazine…”? Then what? Hence the increasingly desperate “what the hell am I doing?” self-talk. Am I just going to show up and say hi? Am I going to stand across the street in a trenchcoat with a boombox playing “In Your Eyes” over my head? Am I going to just walk around town aimlessly because I didn’t plan my trip well and of my three days in town, one was a Sunday, one was a holiday, and one was the day I had to leave? Yes, that one.
That was the not-planned-out unofficial plan, anyway.
Instead, I did show up and say hi. I knocked, I awkwardly stumbled through my “I don’t know what I’m doing,” and they graciously took me in. They did not seem surprised to see me. I asked, “does this happen? Do people just…show up?”
“You’re not the first,” they said.
I made terrible small talk. They continued to be very kind. And then, Sy Safransky, founder and editor of The Sun, walked downstairs.
You know those moments when the kid comes to pick up his date for prom and after talking with her dad about the weather for a while, she finally walks downstairs and time slows down…maybe angels sing? That’s what it was like. Except that Sy wasn’t wearing a ballgown, and I wasn’t in a tuxedo, and I certainly wasn’t hoping to get laid in a Motel 6 later. But it was similar, in that I forgot how to use words. I think I stumbled through the introduction with something along the lines of “OH YES I KNOW WHO YOU ARE!” I tend to get loud when I’m nervous. “OH YES A TOUR WOULD BE GREAT” *nervous laughter* “OKAY COOL YES THANK YOU OK SEE YOU IN A FEW COOL THANK YOU HA HA THANK YOU OK BYE SEE YOU SOON!”
He walked slowly back upstairs and I listened to the tour given by Derek, the man who’d opened the door for me and was perhaps now regretting it. Every time he showed me someone’s office I did an internal little squee because I know all of their names and had barely survived meeting Krista when I first walked in. Man, I tried to play it cool. I’ve learned from previous celebrity-meeting mistakes.
The tour ended in Sy’s office, which was bright and comfortable and I was inside of it. We sat and he asked polite questions and we made small talk. He asked why I liked The Sun. I have no idea what I said but I’m sure it was ridiculous. He then asked if I had any questions I’d like to ask him.
Oh, jesus. See, this is why people prepare for potential meetings with their literary heroes. I’ve never been good at things like ‘thinking on my feet’, and so rather than say “I’d really like you to hire me and let me work remotely for the next seven years until I can move in,” or something much more insightful or profound, I just said “no, not really. Just, thank you for what you do.”
And then, because I just can’t NOT be awkward, I told him my subscription had expired a year ago and I’d never renewed it. This is a magazine that relies on subscriptions to survive. They don’t get money from ads. Just people. I tried to backtrack and explain that the magazines had stopped arriving around the time my town was on fire, and it took me a while to notice, and when I finally noticed that something was missing from my norm, I meant to renew and then…didn’t.
He was very gracious about it but I could tell I was now pretty much dead to him. Why do I ever talk out loud?
The rest of the day was ruined for me. It felt like the time I got my manuscript workshopped at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and then had many hours free afterward to process. My way of processing was to walk around thinking about how much different I thought my life was going to be than how it turned out. When I started reading The Sun, I felt like a ‘Real Writer’ and planned on dedicating my life to writing in a ‘Real Way’. When I went to Squaw Valley I realized how far away from that plan I’d strayed, and I wondered why they’d even let me in.
Being in The Sun offices, telling Sy Safransky how I’d come to discover his magazine – my boyfriend at the time, a fervent believer in my writing, had picked up a copy and brought it to me, saying, “this looked like something you’d like” – reminded me of that young writer. Lord, did she ever get waylaid.
Another scenario: you know how people look back on their lives and, even if they got screwed up along the way, they say they wouldn’t change anything because of the good things they had now? If you asked me that question, I couldn’t say the same, if I were being honest. I would change a lot. So much. Some really big decisions that seemed to be controlled by momentum at the time but I see now could have been controlled by, well, me.
That’s not something I’ve felt very often in my life: control. I hope the next time I get the opportunity, I have the words to make it happen.