The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Instructions for Replicating a Bad Summer



Waking up too hot on humid mornings, I’d climb out onto the roof and watch the empty campus, the silent smooth paths, the gray-blue New England slate beautiful for no one. The problem was time and how to fill it. I self-prescribed drives through farmland still green in July, stopping in nearby towns for expensive coffee or to run my hands across typewriters, their shells subdued mint green or Easter egg blue. There was entirely too much color. It’s a blue, bright blue Saturday, hey, hey, Alison Goldfrapp sang through the car stereo. There was no joy in her voice.


Compare yourself to a raw wound. Explain that everyone else is one too, whether they know it or not. Describe the dangers of cross-contaminating sadnesses. If you’re accused of mixing metaphors, become very angry, but don’t say anything. Drink cheap champagne out of a mug. The gigantic golden bubbles look better than they taste. Don’t go for a refill. You don’t want to seem like an alcoholic. Rent Better off Dead, starring a young, heartbroken John Cusack. Identify strongly with a young, heartbroken John Cusack. Don’t return it on time. Don’t pay your late fees. That’ll show him.


Let’s swim to the island, said Anna. It’s not that deep. On the little beach, kids wearing drooping sun hats patted wet dirt into plastic buckets. We put down our books, spines up to mark our places, and walked into the water. The bottom was silty, the water brown-tinged, and we gulped for air as we made our way across. I was amazed by the sight of my hands in front of me, how they just did their sloppy crawl, how they kept me afloat, how they seemed to know something about forward motion that I did not.


Read Lolita in the bathtub over and over again. When asked how you’re doing, compare yourself to an orange that isn’t yet being squeezed into juice as a way to demonstrate that today is one of your good days. When that metaphor invariably fails, just say you’re having a really hard time right now, and that you don’t really want to talk about it. Read every single book in the Twilight saga. Identify strongly with Bella. Never take off your sunglasses. Every time you see a Honda Civic, cry.


At the Donut Man on Route 9, Anna and I shared a half-dozen donuts and drank milk out of plastic jugs intended for children. As we licked the powdered sugar and chocolate frosting from our fingertips, the cashier brought us a paper bag of donuts left over at closing. He said, No one else is coming by. We ate until we couldn’t. When we got back in the car and I turned the key in the ignition, I felt impossibly stuffed, like sentient cotton candy, satiated and empty. A year later, not recalling this, I actually said, How can you be sad when there are donuts? (Amnesia of despair.)


A steady diet of bread and caffeine. The day the brakes failed on my car. The space between waking and sleeping. Coming down to the common room during an afternoon thunderstorm to find a girl I didn’t know watching someone get beaten up on TV. Nights crackling with June bugs and cicadas. Eating breakfast alone before I knew how to take pleasure in it.


Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer for hours at a time, with your arm elbow-deep in a box of Peanut Butter Puffins. Use your credit card to pay for a cheeseburger that you are very sure will give you food poisoning. Impulse-buy a typewriter on eBay. When it arrives, a discolored island surrounded by packing peanuts, the smell of stale cigarette smoke, realize, with disappointment, that it carries an aura not of analog romance but of gray, plastic disuse. Don’t ask for what you want. Wonder why you can’t have it.


A dream touched in the fugue state of illness, you can only remember pieces of it when you’re well again. It feels like it didn’t quite happen to me, even though I know very well that it did. Returning to the valley years later, I saw bird-like college juniors on the bus to Northampton, with sad big eyes, guitar calluses, sunburns. All I wanted to do was make sure they’d had something for dinner other than tuna sandwiches and coffee.


In a cab already on its way to the airport, I realized I didn’t have any cash and the balance on my checking account was negative. Embarrassed, I called my uncle to bail me out with a wadded $100 bill when the driver turned down my credit card. While I waited for him to arrive, a torrential downpour soaked through my tank top and shorts, a cold shock for August in Massachusetts. When I finally got to Logan and sat down at my gate, a boy sitting next to me saw my portfolio. He looked down at it, back up at me, and asked, Are you an artist? I stared at his wrist, which had the symbol for infinity tattooed on it. I hadn’t thought about that question in months. I didn’t know what to say in response to it now.


What does that mean? I asked. Anna and I were sitting on another roof, watching The Apartment on her laptop. She twisted loose Bali Shag into rolling papers, and I drank my coffee and felt sorry for Shirley MacLaine. It means everyone’s going to have trouble communicating for a little while. It means I keep ruminating on old relationships. Oh God, I said. Me too. What do you do for it? I listen to Sam Cooke, she said. Eventually I won’t have to anymore. When will that be? I asked.


Feature photograph © National Park Service.

Megan Burbank lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is the arts editor of The Portland Mercury. She's also written for The Stranger, The Billfold, The Toast, and Bitch Media, among other publications. Her fiction, poetry, and lyric essays can be found at Pioneertown, Wicked Alice, Two Serious Ladies, Midnight Breakfast, The Destroyer, and elimae, and in a chapbook, Notes on Lee Miller, published by Dancing Girl Press. She holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. You can find her @meganireneb. More from this author →