Sedaris & Me
Uncoolness, illness, a cafe in low light and a Maui-exclusive interview with a bestselling author
November 05, 2009
Forty-eight hours ago, I woke up with a bloody nose. Peeling my face off the crispy, dark crimson pillow, I recoiled at the sight. Not because of the blood, but because dried up within it was the sparkling evidence of having broken a longstanding vow—a vow to never wear glittery makeup past age 12.
Not only did I break that vow, but I did so with Hannah Montana-branded cosmetics and topped it off with butterfly wings. Somehow I'd convinced myself this was acceptable behavior because it was Halloween, and I was attending a costume party. To make myself feel better, I'd decided that I would first arrive to the party wing-less, tote around a copy of David Sedaris's Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (loaned to me by my editor in preparation for this story) and call myself a bookworm.
"You need a big sheet," my mother said as we picked through her sizable costume collection, the night before my nosebleed. "Then, when the time is right, you can pretend it's a cocoon and emerge from it a butterfly!"
My brother Jayson cocked his eyebrow and left the room, mumbling something about Mom and I being "dramatic."
Jayson is a natural mountaineer in the highlands of cool, whereas I am a rope-less spelunker cast helplessly in the opposite direction—into the cavernous abyss of lameness. Cool people like my brother, with their easy ascension to lofty accomplishments, are, unlike me, blessed an inherent toolbox of talents, so that cultivated fallback traits are simply not necessary. On the other end of the spectrum, I have had to farm a healthy ham garden, and a crop of unabashed silliness has long been my only saving grace.
Seeing on Jayson's face the flicker of perplexed embarrassment at the mere thought of me ensconcing myself in fabric for a theatrical wardrobe change, I made a quick mental note that doing so would not only register me low on the cool scale, but could possibly be damaging to Jayson's status as well.
Though I didn't dance out of a sheet like a wet worm with new wings, I woke up looking like I had—and had gotten beaten up for it.
"That's messed up," my brother growled, lovingly. We were lounging on the lanai, having coffee after breakfast, and I at first thought he was referring to the glitter—flecks of which were still falling into my coffee cup, though I'd scrubbed my face several times. "You need to go see a doctor," he continued as he motioned towards the bright red squiggle oozing from my nose, his eyes scanning the deep purple bruising on my legs.
"Yeah, I know," I said, wiping my nose. "I'll go when this week's issue is pau," but I was lying and knew it. I hate going to the doctor.
Besides, I simply didn't have the time. It was Sunday, and I'd accomplished absolutely no work since Friday morning, thanks to some self-inflicted boyfriend issues. Though I've never felt the pleasure of being ahead—notoriously always in catch-up mode—I've somehow or other managed to pull something together in the final moments before deadline, for better or worse.
All I'd done in preparation for this week was, for the last month, feign cool (another fallback trait for people lacking real cool), by bragging without demur about having had an exclusive interview with David Sedaris. I mean, it was not as if I personally had anything to do with scoring the interview—by all appearances the Sedaris camp picked Maui Time from the onset—but regardless, I had indeed, about a month ago, interviewed Sedaris from his apartment in Paris.
Since then, I've been walking on air, knowing I get to write a story about our little chat. But for all my excitement, I had yet to dive in.
See, Sedaris's career is my most blissful dream: a magical start on NPR, novel after bestselling novel, book and lecture tours, regular gigs with such illustrious publications as The New Yorker. He's an architect on the page, building bold, sardonic stories that are every bit as touching as they are humorous.
Sedaris (coupled with those sultry, emerald Salem ads) is the one of the reasons I first started smoking and I have long dreamed of—no, fantasized about—being his friend. Though I lack intrinsic coolness, I was certain that if given the chance, he would love me. Not that I have anything to offer now, but that somehow in his presence—sitting, chatting at some cozy European cafe in the late evening—I would blossom into the feminine, intellectual creature I've always desired to be.
Of course, when I attempt to be suave I end up achieving quite the opposite effect. After our interview, I'm haunted by his story, "The Change in Me." In it, he's 14 years old, and a hippie girl begging for change in front of a convenience store, regarded by him as "sophisticated," has called him "a teeny-bopper, meaning in effect that [he] was a poseur."
He closes that essay with the musings of a confident, grown-up self, again passing that young woman, where "she'd ask you for a quarter and you'd laugh, not cruelly, but politely, softly, as if she were telling you a joke you'd already heard."
That politeness was the tone that engulfed the memory of my interview with Sedaris, and I had yet to admit to myself that the idea of reliving the failure of my fantasy materialized, for the sake of the article, was simply too much to bear. Here it was, doomsday (a statement I would come to find was true in more ways than one), and I had accomplished nothing tangible. To make matters worse, I was evermore that poseur, with the Hannah Montana glitter to prove it.
Flash forward to today, 48 hours after my nosebleed. I am no longer on Maui and have three tubes sticking out of my arms. My nose and gums are still bleeding, and I've been pumped full of so many "blood products" that I've gained 7 pounds since my arrival at the hospital (which came only because of the forceful insistence of my family). I've had X-rays, bone marrow extractions, and am not allowed to get out of bed without an attendant. In the last two days, no less than 20 people have looked at my bloody, bruised bare ass. They even take pens and regularly mark my butt, to track the bleeding. To compensate for these things, everyone is treating me very, very nicely.
While I say words like "stress" and "copious amounts of cigarettes" to explain what's happening to me, the medical professionals shake their heads saying words like "denial" and "highly abnormal." Before they whisked me away to Oahu, on a little plane just for me, I signed a mountain of paperwork that all stated, in careful blue ballpoint script "newly diagnosed leukemia."
I suppose it's my penance for breaking my no-glitter rule, or for ruining the one chance I had at wooing my hero.
Still toting around my editor's copy of Sedaris's book—one of just a handful of possessions I brought with me on my last-minute venture—I tell everyone about how he is concluding his lecture tour here in Hawaii this week and about how one of the six stories he wrote for this tour takes place in Hawaii.
My skin crawls a little as I say this, as I'm unable to help but reflect upon when, in our interview, he politely corrected me after I called his tour "a book tour."
"This is a lecture tour, so this is different," he said. "I went on a paperback tour in June. Twice a year I go on these lecture tours—so this is a lecture tour as opposed to a book tour."
Yuck. I should know better. Hearing the word "lecture" three times, it's forever engrained. My face flushes thinking about it, and they rush to take my temperature, draw more blood from the tubes hanging from my arm in order to check my platelet levels—which today are at 17,000 (a good number is well in excess of 100,000).
Sedaris collects medical oddities, a passion I would also share had I the money, and now every time I look at my tubed-up arm, I wonder if he'd think it was neat. Maybe it'd make me a little cooler.
"There's a museum in Prague," he told me, "a dermatological museum that closed about 10 years ago." The collection was dispersed, gobbled up by collectors, and he already had a few pieces himself—wax models of human body parts, in boxes covered in glass with Czech writing on the back. He was particularly enthusiastic about a new piece he acquired in Turin, Italy. "I got an arm with a blood infection. So, it just looks like a human arm from the elbow down, and it's really subtle—just really subtle, this red streak in the arm…That was pretty great."
I'm lying on my stomach, and my hematologist is forcing a large metal spike into my hipbone. I can hear a knocking grind as the instrument bears down into me, to scoop up a bone marrow sample that will—in a few hours—confirm their suspicions that I indeed have leukemia. As I strain my neck to watch the procedure, I see the stunning view I have of the Moanalua Valley. Rain clouds collect and consume the valley, and I'm reminded of the writing strategies Sedaris shared, the little coded notes he makes based on audience responses.
"I'll start this tour with six new stories. I'll read out loud and rewrite. So, what I'll read in Massachusetts next Wednesday will be quite different than what I finish the tour with in Hawaii…Oh, you know, I'll put a big check mark next to things that get a laugh, an 'X' next to the things that I thought would get a laugh, but didn't work for some reason. I'll draw a skull in the margin sometimes—that's for coughing. When the audience coughs, it's like they're throwing human skulls at you.
"It's difficult," he continues. "I had a story in The New Yorker about a month ago…I had to convey a page worth of information…that can be enough to lose an audience, and I got a lot of coughing there. I'd be relieved to find that they laughed later on, so I didn't lose them completely. But what I did, over the course of that month, [was] I parceled it out. So I had a little bit here and a little bit there—I didn't have Death Valley there. You know, that's what you want to avoid, Death Valley."
I can't turn my neck enough to see the bone marrow biopsy, so instead I focus on a little black bird hopping on a painted eucalyptus branch not far from my window. Over the subtle sound of breaking bone, his chirp is a bit like a cell phone, electric and monotonous. I wonder if he sounds like that because of my, or his, accustomedness to cell phones.
Sedaris writes quite a bit about birds. From little mentions here and there to entire stories circulating around them. His voice, too, is rather bird-like, light and whimsical, with careful, songlike emphasis in all the right places (one of the things that makes him so wonderful to listen to on NPR, or on a lecture tour). As I finish this story, I've already started chemotherapy and feel a little sick. Not from the meds necessarily, but from knowing I'll miss his show, his birdlike voice.
This last month, since my interview, since my gums began to bleed and trickle into the corners of my mouth, since my body began to inexplicably bruise, I've thought I'd mostly be writing about Sedaris and our long talk about birds.
It was, after all, the most pleasant part of our conversation—the only part of our hour-long talk where I didn't feel like a total idiot. For in that fleeting moment, as swift and soft as the current of air from a single wing beat, we were sitting in the low light of that cafe with the chime of wine glasses and our clever chatter.
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