A Short Story by Diane CorsoAuthor’s Note: This is a fictional short story I wrote 17 years ago. Inspired by true events, maybe, but really, what isn’t? So take it at face value, and don’t expect much.
Picking Through the Rubble, September, 2001:
It’s almost eight on that Sunday night in July before I finally pick up the phone and call my not-quite-boyfriend Patrick. He answers with his usual untroubled, “Hello?”
“It’s me,” I say. “I got back from Tammi’s wedding a little while ago.”
The joy in my voice must really carry. “You sound . . . less than enthused. Was it everything you hoped it would be, and more?”
“Oh… so much more,” I reply. I light a clove cigarette—it’s a special occasion, after all. It’s the beginning of the end of everything, even though I don’t know it yet. The first of so many bombs to fall has fallen. Next month, my roommate will start drinking heavily, and I will think this is the worst of her problems; this is before she gets tossed in the can and I find out about her crack addiction. And in a few months, Patrick will be stuck in Dallas, his plane grounded on September 11, 2001, and when I send a frantic e-mail to him, I’ll get a reassuring reply addressed to someone named Renee.
Lighting up my clove though, I don’t know any of this. Right now, this wedding seems like a big deal. I don’t know Big Deal from Adam.
* * *
Okay, unfair. I’ll back up.
We had all assumed that the worst thing that could happen would be Tammi would have too much to drink and maybe make an ass of herself. Looking back on this now, I see how foolish it was. What was I thinking? Was I imagining that Tammi would just get a little tipsy and become a frowzy, amusing bride who perhaps giggled too loudly, and maybe say something she shouldn’t, leaving the rest of us to suppress smiles, roll our eyes and pat her on the arm as we wished her well? This was Tammi, for crying out loud! Tammi Westerhaven, who never did anything without the maximum amount of drama and damage, and who always, always dragged at least one – preferably three or four – unwilling participants down into the sewage with her.
My pals and fellow music journalists, Victoria and Kay, headed for the bar immediately. They were younger than I but had been on the scene a lot longer, and I often felt like a tourist in that strange world of San Francisco Music Scenesters. I shrugged, took a drink and went along for the ride.
We certainly weren’t here to cover this sham of a wedding. Nope – we were here as guests of bride Tammi Westerhaven, former lead singer of the solid retro-sounding garage band, The Model Ts. I’d been in awe of her then, with her amazing long blond ’60s ’do and larger-than-life gutsy girl persona. In retrospect, I think she’d cast herself as the Original Manic Pixie. And that was part of the problem – who could live that lifestyle without doing major damage to your psyche?
As Tammi’s dependence on booze, prescribed Paxil and Xanax became heavier, we’d all started avoiding Tammi, because there was nothing any of us could really do for her anymore. Hoping to save ourselves, we’d all backed off over the past month.
What compelled us to show up? Some misguided sense of duty? Morbid curiosity? Looking around at the time, I saw that the only people who showed up to this event were either music scene freeloaders—curious onlookers who hadn’t spoken to her in months—or people like us: those who had once been her friends, and felt we ought to be there to help cover the body when the time came. Kay saw me looking around the room and pointed to one couple at a table who were reading the newspaper while they drank their champagne, as if they were just there for Sunday brunch. “I want a picture of that,” she commented wryly.
Naturally, Tammi had chosen everyone’s favorite bar – The Dresden Fire Pit – for the setting of her green-card wedding to her ex-boyfriend, Hansi, a German concert photographer with whom she still lived. He was like her sugar daddy, only without the sugar. She had a vested interest in him being able to stay in the country, and he had a vested interest in her.
The Dresden Fire Pit was located on a windy corner on San Francisco’s Market Street, with plate glass windows making up most of the walls. It was a summer’s day, but this didn’t change the fact that we were still in San Francisco, and even if it was nearing 1 p.m. in late July, it was cold, foggy, and windy as fuck. I wrapped my jacket closer around me and watched as Victoria began documenting the day with her digital camera. “For when the police arrive later!” she grinned.
That was when we all decided to check out the pornographic wedding cake.
I wondered what Patrick would think of this scene; it was times like this when I mentally referred to him as Professor Patrick the Anthropologist. He never came with me to any of these places, but seemed to enjoy hearing the details. I was mentally taking notes for him, ready to report back on Music Hipsters in their Natural Habitat.
As the Dresden Fire Pit was brought to some kind of inner order, a hush fell over the crowd and those who had decided to show up fell into their appropriate places along the sides of the room. I guessed that Elvis was in the building, so to speak.
In came Tammi.
She had pre-arranged for “The Girl Can’t Help It” to be played over the stereo system as her wedding march, and this was the one thing that was definitely appropriate. Tammi’s wedding dress was a black vinyl mini with matching black elbow-length vinyl gloves. She matched those with black fishnets and black go-go boots, with a blood-red feather boa. The coup de grace was the lime green bobbed-cut wig. She looked like a Dominatrix Christmas Tree.
Have you ever seen that Brady Bunch episode where Jan, unhappy with her self-perceived mediocrity, decides that she needs a new look, and purchases a brunette wig that looks like it belongs on a middle-aged mom? For her grand re-introduction at a party, she has her brother Peter introduce her as “The new Jan Brady!” and her confused friends simply laugh it off as a joke, thus making her humiliation total and complete. God help me, I could practically hear Peter Brady’s voice squeak out, “The new Tammi Westerhaven!” I mean, the poor woman looked so scared, so nervous, yet so pleased to be in the spotlight, all at the same time! I wanted to go over and pat her hand, tell her it was okay, that she didn’t have to do it, that it didn’t matter, and why, why was she putting herself—and us, for fuck’s sake—through all this?
Now, it’s not that I’m opposed to unconventional weddings in vinyl and with dick-shaped wedding cakes. I’m not even opposed to green card weddings. If you’re willing and able, go for it. But a mentally unstable person should not be doing it, and further, they should not be doing it “for security”. Further still, she should not be blowing a wad of cash (probably Hansi’s) to make a spectacle of herself in front of a lot people who don’t give a shit but who show up so they can eat and drink on her dime. I mentally buckled myself in.
Smiling a jittery, uncertain smile, Tammi teetered in her go-go boots to the nearest friendly face—someone I didn’t know—and gave them a little hug as she walked past, repeating this for a few others as she worked her way towards Hansi and the minister in the back of the room. She finally got to me, and I stepped forward, giving her a hug. “Good luck,” I whispered, smiling lightly. “You look fabulous.” She looked happy and gratified, in a caged rabbit sort of way, before moving on.
It was, of course, one of those hey-it’s-a-bar-fer-Chrissakes non-denominational ceremonies that lasts maybe three minutes, during which the bartender politely refrained from serving drinks. I looked into the gaping maw of my empty glass, becoming increasingly aware of my growing desire for vodka madras number two.
Everyone cheered politely as Tammi gave Hansi a friendly peck on the cheek to seal their strange deal, and I found myself wondering if the German job market was really so awful, when the music started up again and Hansi announced that food was available, “So be sure for to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die, no? Or, get married.” Nobody needed to be asked twice.
“Tammi’s already kind of fucked up,” Victoria told me in a low voice. “She completely blew me off when I went to say congratulations. Know what she said? ‘I thought I wasn’t cool enough for your iceberg!’”
“Huh?” I ask, suddenly realizing I’d sucked down most of my second drink in about thirty seconds. “What, has she been composing that one all month?”
“Yeah, I know!” she hissed. “She’s the one who’s been acting like a crazy pillhead from Valley of the Dolls. Then she loosened up when I said I’d been swamped at work, you know the drill. Anyway, she said she took Paxil earlier at home, then some Xanax in the car. And now she’s going through the champagne. Look, for Christ’s sake, she can barely stand on her own.”
Why the hell couldn’t Tammi just take speed like a normal scenester diva so we’d know what to expect? Initially, I’d thought her unsteadiness was due to the high heels on the boots, but now I could see she was pretty fucked up. She’d needed something to calm her nerves, and now that she had the artificial confidence, she wanted to raise some Hell . . . and then some.
I could see the train wreck wobbling towards us all, but horrified, I was unable to either look away, or call for help. It was simply too late.
As the party progressed, so did Tammi’s slurred speech. At first, she had been fairly coherent. When I first went over to congratulate her, she said, “I’m glad you came. I thought you were mad at me.”
“No,” I said, feigning shock. I had been avoiding her, it was true, because of her strange behavior and constant bitching about our friends. The pill-popping didn’t help, either. “I was on vacation. I talked to you what, a month ago, about the wedding?” I hoped that sounded convincing. It sure sounded better than, No, I just didn’t want to get sucked into your whirling vortex of pain.
The dancing to ‘60s garage band classics continued for another half hour or so, until a clamoring sound at the bar distracted everyone. It was Tammi—she had taken the runway, and was wobbling her way along the bar. The bartender was speechless.
I was standing over by a window and looked around for Hansi. He was off drinking in a corner, still convincing himself that Tammi was beautiful, daring, and secretly in love with him. He looked proudly up at her and applauded her efforts, a sad-looking carnation wilting in his lapel.
Tammi looked down towards Hansi. She was dazed from the pills and the booze, which apparently were working together as a team to make her emotional, agitated, sleepy and unsteady all at once. This, incidentally, is great when you’re walking on a bar in heels. Of course, she lost her balance and fell. Luckily, a barstool broke her fall, but no one nearby came to her aid. Instead, they mostly just moved away. One dude even yelled out an enthusiastic “YEAH! WOOO!” What did the Hipster’s Guide have to say about this particular situation? Even Tammi tried to laugh at herself, along with the others, but still, no one helped her stand while she twisted around, wig sliding off, stumbling again and again as she tried and failed to get her heels and ankles to cooperate with the floor.
What was wrong with these people? If someone had been hit by a fucking car outside, would they stand around and point and laugh? Probably. I tossed my cigarette through the window and hurried over to help Tammi, even though my mind was screaming at me to keep running, run for the door and don’t look back. Her wig had all but fallen off by now and as her sweat caused her makeup to start running, she looked like an escapee from some Fellini killer clown movie.
“Here, let me help you fix that up.” I suspected that I had just wandered into a Nathaniel West novel, but continued anyway.
I sat Tammi down in a nearby chair and straightened out the wig, and in the process I realized as a knot tied up in my stomach that there was a funny substance drying in the wig. A funny, yet strangely familiar substance. A sticky clear yellowish substance with a copper smell which most women will recognize in about .04 seconds, especially if it’s drying on their friend’s face and wig. Suddenly, things went from kind of pathetic and sad to fucking freaky, as in get-me-some-drugs-and-a-dark-room freaky.
There is no real ladies’ room at the Dresden; there is one unisex bathroom. It has one toilet, so I knew we needed to be relatively quick about this. I rushed her in there, closed the lid on the toilet and set Tammi down, filling an empty glass with water from the sink. I silently handed the glass of water to Tammi to drink from, running the tainted strands of wig under the hot water, avoiding touching it at all costs. “Tammi, what the fuck, girl?” I asked softly, not really wanting to know, but needing to. I was a journalist, after all, and questions like these were expected of me.
“I don’t know,” Tammi sniffled, stray blonde hairs poking sadly from the net cap covering her bleach-blond hair. “That guy Jim from that band The Zodiacs and I were dancing—you saw, and I kind of followed him back here, and I grabbed him and asked him if he wanted me to, you know, do him.” Subtle little minx, I thought, but said nothing. She looked up at me then, wavering between crying and becoming defensive, a sniveling tactic she’d recently developed. Though the crowd out there was not exactly peopled with winners, myself included, the scene before me was beyond old. “I just love to do it, it’s something I want to do, you know?”
No, I really don’t get it, but okay. “Mmmm. Here, have some more water. You’re okay.” The wig was at least no longer a biohazard, so I moistened a paper towel and turned to clean crusty bits off of Tammi’s face. I wondered if anyone else noticed this before me. Kind of hard not to, but then what do you do? Point it out?
I couldn’t help but wonder why it was always me – me, in particular – that ended up in this role, giving the bathroom pep talk to the sad lush and “sort of” dating the Patricks of the world.
Tammi sighed. “And I just, I just started to cry. I don’t know what happened, but I just started to cry,” Tammi said, her sniffles escalating into sobs.
“Okay, okay. Here, drink this.” I handed her the water again, and while she was crying and trying to drink water at the same, I took advantage of the opportunity to clean off her face more thoroughly. My mind had all but shut down, repeating the mantra, does it get more awful than this? What I didn’t know then was: Yes. Yes, it does.
I knew not to preach, or give advice. Tammi was too fucked-up right then for it to matter, anyway. “Here, just have more water, and you’ll feel better. Just, no more champagne, okay?” I held out the ridiculous lime-green wig, now slick from the water on one part, but at least relatively jizz-free. I dig into the antibacterial soap and hot water, realizing I’d probably just exposed myself to someone else’s excretions. “Here, your wig’s okay. Do you want it back on, or do you want to give your real hair a shot?”
A strange calm settled over Tammi as stood before the mirror. It was like she was channeling Bette Davis or something. “The wig. My hair’s been under this cap all day and looks like shit.” Well, sure, I thought. Who wouldn’t choose jizz over hat-hair? Tammi pulled her wig on firm and straight. “Al, could you hand me my purse? I’d like to fix my make-up.” She sighed, and for just a second, the old Tammi that I met and knew and loved resurfaced. She gave me a sad look and a half-smile. “Man, I look like a goddam drag queen, don’t I?”
After that, I called myself a cab. They said it would be half an hour. This really is becoming a surrealist film, I thought. I’d call it No Escape.
Nearly half an hour later, I was beginning to kid myself that I might escape soon without further mishap. That is, until there was a commotion near the bathroom. I looked up from my smoking spot by the window, the spot upon which I had begun to sprout roots, and saw Victoria hurrying out of the alcove where the bathroom was, a hand cartoonishly held to her cheek. Kay and I pulled her aside and she stuttered, as if not knowing whether to laugh or yell, “I think the f-fucking bride just s-s-slapped me!” She removed her own hand from her face, and sure enough, there was the red smack-mark imprinted on her pale cheek.
I gave a low whistle. “Huh. Hostess gifts are getting kind of extreme these days.”
“What happened?” Kay asked. I wanted to tell her not to ask that question, that she would regret it, but it was too late.
Victoria began her story breathlessly. “I knocked on the bathroom door while she was in there—I mean, there’s a sign outside the door that says, ‘Knock Before Entering’, so I did. And I heard this voice from inside say, ‘Bitch, I’m the fucking bride, you knock one more time and I’ll kick your ass!’”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” sighed Kay.
Victoria shook her head. “No! And I thought, well, she’s kidding. Like I totally thought she was just kidding around—who talks like that for real, outside of The Jerry Springer Show?”
“So, I was joking around too, and I knocked again. So she flings the door open, comes out, and pops me one,” Victoria continued. She looked nervously over her shoulder.
I wanted to go home. But my roommate was on a downward spiral and now my home wasn’t even mine.
I wanted Patrick. But that was just not happening.
Fuck Me and My Actual Life.
My cab pulled up then. I left without bidding farewell and good luck to the beautiful bride, who had bolted herself back in the bathroom.
* * *
December 2001, the Ashes Washed Away:
So back in early October, I had my crack-addict roommate evicted. She was Part Three in the Horrible Stuff Saga that Tammi’s wedding kicked off, and man, did it ever take a long time to get rid of her. I did it by myself, too. Well, Patrick helped, in a friend sort of way. We stopped not-really-dating back in September, after he returned from Dallas, just after the Renee Incident of 9/11. Strangely, he’s been there for me now a hell of a lot more than he used to. I think it’s the clarity. He likes being my friend; I just wish he’d said that earlier. In any event, I’ve had the house to myself for nearly two months now, nearly insanity-free and without major catastrophes for a few months. I’m quite pleased.
It has been a long time since I’ve felt safe enough in my own home to leave the doors open, and let the music play loudly while I have a beer on the front porch. It used to be my favorite thing to do, long ago. When I first came home from a trip in October, I was too scared to do it. I would lock the doors behind me as soon as I got home, and even set the coat rack in front of the front door so I would hear if any crazy ex-roommates or drug addicted freaks tried to break in.
Now, I’m not afraid anymore. It’s just a process that happens slowly over time. For now, what I really want is to be on my porch despite the chill and have a beer and listen to Radiohead playing on the stereo. And as I sit here, I realize it’s awfully cloudy, the sky, but it feels good. And when it starts to rain, that feels good, too, and I don’t move, not a muscle. Because I’m afraid to scare away the feeling of new that’s coming over me. If I move during this process, I may have to start the whole thing over again, and that might just make me crazy. And the rain is confirming it all, making it real, proving that I am here.
So I sit there in the rain, drinking my beer and listening to the music. Eventually, my cigarette goes out because it really starts coming down. I mean, really pouring.
Doctor to little kid: There, there, that didn’t hurt so bad, did it?
Little kid: Are you fucking kidding me?!?
Okay, it sucked. It sucked a giant bag of dicks. In a few short months, one of my friends went batshit crazy at her Fisher-Price Pretend Wedding, my roommate spiraled into a world of drug abuse costing me almost a thousand dollars in damages and a significant portion of my peace of mind, and my not-really-a boyfriend decided he would rather just be my friend without telling me. And in the midst of all of it, four planes crashed into the east coast and changed the way we live forever.
But that’s okay. It’s all okay. Because one thing I have learned out here in the rain is that the ashes eventually wash away.
5 thoughts on “In the Days Before the War When the First Bombs Fell”
Waow… LOL. Between laughing and ‘oh-oh-oh’, I get you. No “tell”, just “show”. Very vivid scenes, smack to the point to see the nightmare right before me. Great writing, Diane.
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Thank you, Anne! It’s an older piece but I feel like I’m become re-acquainted with the bolder writer hiding underneath years of caution. 🙂 Love ya, lady!
Girl, don’t hide. Let the bolder writer come out and say it as it comes. Big hugs to you, love you back.
An engaging meditation on catastrophes large and small. What else is there to do but soldier on, slogging through the muck and mire?
Thanks! And all things considered, there will always be something even worse to come. Things like this are like Prep School for Personal Horror.