A is for Ambergris

My old girlfriend Sylvia collects perfumes that have been fixed with ambergris. Ambergris is a waxy substance that’s formed in the intestines of whales; it’s found on the beach or floating in the ocean – extremely rare events – or it’s taken directly from the whale’s insides, which is done after the whale’s been killed, which is supposed to be illegal worldwide and not a thing that Sylvia likes to think about. Anyway, ambergris is kind of rare and expensive, and Sylvia figures it’s for her since she’s kind of rare and expensive too. Also, she’s had a thing for whales ever since she did her Master’s thesis on Moby Dick and had it published in some obscure literary magazine.

B is for Bilingual

Sylvia has a very high opinion of herself most of the time, but not when she’s depressed: Then she stands in front of the bathroom mirror and hits herself until there are bright red marks all over her body. (At least, she used to do this, every so often, while we were living together. It’s not a thing that she’d like anybody to know, I’m sure, so you might as well assume it was just a phase she was going through and that she no longer does it, is now normal and well­-adjusted and so on.) One of the things that she likes about herself when she’s feeling good is that she’s fluent in Japanese. Her parents were in the military, stationed near Osaka, when she was born, so she grew up over there and had an old Japanese woman as a part­-time nanny. Sylvia learned Japanese even faster than she learned English, her father says, and these days she keeps in practice by tutoring students at the local community college every Tuesday night. She’s especially glad that she speaks Japanese instead of French or German or something, because, she says, the Japanese are eventually going to run the world and then she’ll have a sort of inside track on the scene.

C is for Coffee

Sylvia’s favorite drink is coffee, and when she has a cup of some new bean she does this little tasting ritual, as if she were a connoisseur at a fancy wine­tasting fair. It’s kind of annoying, frankly, watching her go through it in public. She’s done it for years – there are a lot of different coffees in the world – but it still seems pretty damned pretentious, especially when you’re sitting with her in a crowded place like Quack’s or Thunderbird and people start looking at you like you’re sitting with a woman who’s having some sort of epileptic fit. She’s definitely serious about it, though: Two whole shelves in her kitchen are devoted to coffee, the bottom shelf of her big bookcase is crammed with volumes about the stuff, and with maps of Ethiopia and Java, and on the wall above her aquarium there’s an original Too Much Coffee Man cartoon dedicated to her by Shannon Wheeler, and besides two electric grinders she also has a brass espresso machine from Italy that took her almost two years of saving to afford. And she often goes to this little cafe on the east side of town, where they get weekly shipments from Brazil, and the family who runs the place treats her like a daughter.

D is for Dirigible

Sylvia’s great­-grandfather was one of the people who died in the Hindenburg disaster. She’s got these old sepiatone photos of him on her bedroom dresser, and near the small dresser lamp are a bunch of letters he’d sent to his eldest and favorite daughter – Sylvia’s grandma. She’s got a newsreel video of the crash, too, and she plays it and lights this long white candle on May Sixth of every year. Sylvia thinks it’s cool, somehow, being related to a part of history like that, and one of her favorite things to say about someone’s slight misfortune is “Oh, the humanity!”

E is for Emerald

Sylvia’s birthstone. She has three small ones, gifts from her maternal grandparents. She wants more and bigger.

F is for Fossil

Sylvia no longer refers to her father as Father or Dad. Ever since her mother died, she’s called him The Old Fossil. “I went to see The Old Fossil today,” she’ll say. “He’s not looking so good.” And she says the same thing to his face, too, except she sometimes calls him Papa Fossil. Being a military man, he’s retaliated, of course: Her given name has been replaced by The Young Whelp. “Well,” her father will ask me whenever I stop by to keep him company in the evenings, “what has The Young Whelp been up to lately?”

G is for Gazpacho

Sylvia, who traveled all over Europe during summers from college, says there’s this little restaurant just outside Toledo in Spain that makes the best gazpacho in the world, and try as she might there’s no way she’s going to find its equivalent in the States. Since gazpacho is pretty easy to make, she says, the chef in that restaurant must’ve used some special ingredient that no one else knows about – although he wouldn’t tell her when she asked. Sylvia’s friend Leila, who traveled with her and now comes from New York to visit maybe once a year, tells me that the taste had less to do with the gazpacho than it did with the amount of dope Sylvia’d smoked before they sat down to eat.

H is for Horse

When Sylvia was four years old, her family was on R&R from Japan and spending a week at a relative’s farmhouse in Nebraska. And there was a special corral out back, used for horses that hadn’t been broken in yet. And one day while her mother and father and Uncle Richard were occupied with a new windmill, Sylvia climbed between the cross-posts and walked over to the single dark stallion inside. The horse kicked as soon as she touched its leg, knocking her to the ground, jumping around her like an avalanche of equine calamity as she screamed and cried. Her father and uncle, come running like their legs were on fire, were able to control the animal while Sylvia’s mother scooped her up and got her outside the corral. At the emergency room, Sylvia was treated for two fractured ribs and a slight concussion. She’s been terrified of horses ever since.

I is for Intellectual

“The problem with most intellectuals,” says Sylvia, heading into one of her favorite rants, “is they’ve forgotten that their minds come equipped with these wonderful, handy­-dandy physical experience machines – what we call bodies, you know – and all they ever do is hole up somewhere out of the light and discuss what’s wrong with other people’s discussions of things. Sweet suffering Jesus,” she says, “there’s nothing worse than a roomful of militant navel-contemplators. Don’t these people know what a beach is for?” Note: Sylvia is quite pale and rarely leaves the great indoors for anything more than a Sunday jog along Lady Bird Lake.

J is for Julep

Sylvia hates the way bits of pop culture can creep into someone’s mind and lodge there like barnacles in the waters of consciousness. It annoys her that useless information is, without extreme conditioning, impossible to purge. It annoys her, for instance, that she will never be able to forget that, on Star Trek: The Original Series, Dr. McCoy’s favorite drink is a mint julep. And that each time that bit of data surfaces, it’s followed by the knowledge that it was acquired from the show’s first season, in an episode called “Shore Leave,” that was written by Theodore Sturgeon. On the other hand, Sylvia can never remember her father’s birthday. And this, too, annoys her.

K is for Koala

There are two shoeboxes beneath Sylvia’s bed, shoeboxes filled with printouts of stories that she’ll never finish writing. One of the stories I remember is called “Underground.” It’s a melodramatic piece about this off-­duty paramedic, an African­-American woman, who chooses to save the life of a Nazi Skinhead after a Puerto Rican gang tears into the Skin in a subway station below Manhattan. And the young medic’s got to use whatever’s available, which includes her calfskin belt, a pair of tweezers, a silk scarf, and this little clip­-on Koala Bear ornament that some concerned yuppie-type has given her to use in clamping shut a torn artery. “Christ almighty,” says the paramedic, leaning back to check her impromptu handiwork, “that’s fucking ridiculous. But it should do the trick.” Possibly the yuppie­-type giggled, possibly nervously, in response. But maybe not – the story ends right there, halfway down a cream­-colored sheet of Classic Laid.

L is for Leila

They went to Smith together, shared a dorm, had a lot of the same classes, both majored in English. It was like discovering a long-lost sister when they first met, Sylvia says. They were wild and crazy. They were inseparable. They were lovers, too, briefly – partially because they wanted to see what it would be like and partially because there was no male they cared for as much as they cared for each other. They ceased their lovemaking soon after returning from Europe the second time, though, because Leila had met this guy named Hank in a bar in Boston. And Hank was really great for a couple of months, but eventually he up and left for Seattle with some performance artist who had a pair of wings tattooed on each of her small breasts. Now Leila lives somewhere in Brooklyn and works behind the United counter at LaGuardia and goes through men like she’s trying to meet some quota on an assembly line. Sylvia says.

M is for Marijuana

Sylvia has this bong that she bought at a head shop when she was still in high school; it looks like the plastic model of a bathyscaphe that’s being attacked by some transparent mutant octopus. Since Sylvia rarely smokes anymore, the thing is usually stashed away in the top of her junk closet. When she does smoke, though, slightly reducing the baggie of her ex-­neighbor’s homegrown that she’s had in the freezer for about a year, she brings the bong out and fills its chamber with cold Tito’s Handmade Vodka before lighting up. If you’re going to do a thing, she says, you should do it right. She says that almost every time she lights up, perhaps without realizing she’s said it so many times before.

N is for Narcissus

When the mirror isn’t Sylvia’s worst enemy, it’s her best friend. She can stand in front of it in the bathroom for half an hour at a time, not even fixing her makeup – mascara is all she uses – but just looking at her face, examining her skin, the bone structure beneath, the way the light from the cracked window moves as she tilts her head first one way then the other. She makes faces in the mirror, observing – or maybe practicing – what she’ll look like when she’s annoyed or delighted or bored. She writes messages to herself on the mirror, too, after a shower has steamed the glass all slatelike. SEE YOU SOON, she wrote once, then licked the moisture from her finger, smiling.

O is for Oscars

Sylvia has, in the living room of her apartment, a 50-­gallon aquarium in which swim two very big fish called Oscars. They’re kind of ugly, actually, and they eat crickets and frogs that Sylvia buys at a place called ZooKeeper on North Burnet Road. She’s named the fish in reference to their generic name: One is called Madison, the other is called Mayer. She used to have a third – de la Renta – but it died of some mysterious disease a few months after she bought it. Sylvia likes the idea of a couple of big fish instead of a bunch of tiny ones, but what she’d prefer is a room-size tank that could hold at least a lemon shark, and in her wildest dreams what she has in a tank in her living room is an honest-­to­-god Coelacanth. But that, of course, is out of the question.

P is for Publishing

After five years of working for Cheshire House Publishing, Sylvia finally has an office – a glorified cubicle, really – with a window view. She’s a Senior Editor with the company now, and supervises their small line of travel guides. She doesn’t go to work until ten o’clock each weekday morning and usually doesn’t leave until after six; this allows her to miss rush­-hour traffic, which is no end of cheer to her. Still, it’s a half­-hour trip each way, so she listens to audiobooks while she drives – she’s halfway through Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, currently. She shares a secretary, Valerie, with two other Senior Editors, and every Friday morning Sylvia brings Valerie a chocolate eclair from this mom & pop bakery near the office.

Q is for Quintuplets

Before Sylvia’s mother Claire was married, she lived next door to a woman who was an aunt of the Dionne Quintuplets. To Claire, this was a most remarkable thing, and, in fact, she remarked on it frequently – to anyone who would listen. “Constantly,” says Sylvia. “Mom’s single claim to fame. That, and living in Japan for part of her life. God bless The Old Fossil for giving her that, at least.”

R is for Random House

One of the first things Sylvia did after graduating from Smith was to get a job with Random House in New York City. A month later, she left, escorted from the building by two security guards. That’s all Leila will divulge, and Sylvia refuses to talk about it at all. She used to get letters from their legal department every couple of months, but she’d always throw them into the kitchen trash, in there with coffee grounds, eggshells, and the tops of carrots.

S is for Subaru

Sylvia’s is a dark red one, with a Tune­-Up Masters decal on the rear window and a small dent – my fault – near the right front fender. The bucket seats recline all the way back, which is how she transported her mother to the hospital the day she died. Sylvia’s father was at a Veteran’s Conference in Washington at the time, and Sylvia was spending the weekend with her mother when the stroke hit. Sylvia said Claire kept going on about the car, slipping in and out of consciousness, mumbling about how she hoped it wasn’t a Datsun because didn’t the Datsun people kill whales and what did whales ever do to deserve such murder they were such harmless creatures. Sylvia assured her that it wasn’t a Datsun – although she suspected the Subaru company was similarly involved – and tried to tell Claire about her perfumes, how they could come from whales without the whales being hurt in any way. But by then she was crying and trying to watch the traffic through her tears and all she could do was keep saying “It’s okay, Mom, it’s not a Datsun,” over and over like some kind of prayer.

T is for Tensleep

Jack Tensleep is one of Sylvia’s favorite authors, and the only good thing about her time at Random House, she says, is that she got to meet him at a cocktail party two years before he died. Sylvia’s father is currently engrossed in Tensleep’s last book, released posthumously, a birthday gift from The Young Whelp. It’s a thick novel called Brutally Frank, about an Olympic boxer growing up in the urban tangle of Lynn, Massachusetts, and it’s based on the life of one of Tensleep’s boyhood heroes who is now a United States Senator. Tensleep died from complications resulting from AIDS; this fact, and the book’s powerful writing, is causing Sylvia’s father to scrutinize his lifelong homophobia. At least that’s what he said the other night, after we’d had a few Shiner Bocks and were sitting in the shadows of his screened-­in porch. “I started thinking,” he told me. “I started thinking that people shouldn’t have to die just because they’re, well, because they’re homosexual. And then I started thinking, well, what should happen to them because of it? And I thought, who the hell am I to say? What the hell have I done that gives me the right to, I don’t know, pass judgment, I suppose. On a man like Tensleep. Or this Senator he’s writing about. It’s just that, when I was a young man, they were, the queers were ... well, things weren’t so out in the open. Like they are now. It didn’t seem so, well, I don’t know, who am I to say? To say anything?”

U is for Utopia

In Sylvia’s idea of the perfect world, a lot of things are different from Life As We Know It. There are no wars, of course, and everybody has enough to eat. The rain forests survive, the whales and dolphins are left alone, cars are built with engines that run on bacteria-­produced alcohol and don’t pollute the air. All mechanical weapons or regular tools that are used for violence cease functioning when approached with malicious intent, leaving only sharp objects, blunt instruments, and human­-powered projectiles – which, Sylvia figures, is perhaps a necessary serpent in Paradise and will keep things from becoming too boring, besides. All drugs are legalized and quality­-controlled and if you get addicted there are people who will help you quit if you want, but otherwise it’s your own goddam choice and you have to accept responsibility for your actions. The penises of rapists explode before penetration can be forced. Anyone who tries to mandate what is Art and what is Not Art is stripped naked and spanked by a giant robotic Mommy, in public, with full media coverage. And, not last nor least, part of World Law states that someone must buy Sylvia a Ghirardelli chocolate bar at least once a week.

V is for Virginity

Sylvia relinquished – which is how she puts it – her virginity two months before she was fifteen. Her Uncle Richard and Aunt Carrie’s son, Morris, who had just turned fifteen at the time, was her comrade in debauchery. The two of them had been playing with the backyard hose, trying to cool off in the heavy heat of Nebraska’s mid­summer. They were soaked, both of them, their clothes stuck dripping to their bodies like garments that had been painted on and begun melting under the imposing sun. Morris suggested the loft of the barn, which hadn’t been completely stocked with hay, as a good place to dry off. Of course, in order to properly dry, he said inside the huge building, they would have to take off their clothes. Sylvia agreed without hesitation, but said that Morris would have to remove her clothes for her. And when he began nervously unbuttoning her water-slick blouse, she leaned down and kissed him twice, first on the cheek. They didn’t leave the barn until it was suppertime, and for two days afterward Morris was unable to meet her eyes without blushing.

W is for Winter

When the sky is obliterated with thick white clouds and the bare trees look like giant nerve-­endings protruding from the barren ground, that’s when Sylvia is happiest. She likes the cold weather, the way a chill breeze stings her face and her bare arms and legs. When she’s in a good mood she rushes about the dreary scene as if she were one of the few living things left on the planet. And when she’s depressed she can pretend that the entire world commiserates with her, that it helplessly reflects her bleakest of funks and will not leap into Springtime until she’s feeling pleased enough to release it from misery. Out here in the Southwest, she misses the winters of her college days in New England, and she grinned like a madwoman last year when Leila sent her some snow in a Thermos via Federal Express.

X is for Xenophobia

Sylvia thinks that a lot of people who have a fear or hatred of strangers are that way because they’re afraid of being considered strangers themselves; that, if they can follow or incite others who will bind together against someone of a different sex or skin color or sexual preference or whatever, they – the xenophobes – are less likely to have their own unique but less obvious qualities questioned or attacked. Fear of nonconformity, as well as its mirror­-twin fear of conformity, is a powerful force and can lead to all sorts of insane behavior. “I mean,” Sylvia once said to Leila at a bar downtown, “when you hear the phrase ‘well­adjusted individual,’ you don’t picture some guy with a sheet over his head calling himself a Grand Dragon and setting fire to a cross, do you?” “But all that sheet-and­-cross stuff is just strange behavior, so aren’t you the xenophobe in this case?” countered Leila, playing Devil’s Advocate even though – or maybe because – she’s half-African. “Not when that strange behavior is the practice of a group that gets its jollies by harassing and killing humans who aren’t White and Christian,” replied Sylvia. “Point taken,” said Leila, winking at the bartender who was White but possibly Jewish. And with whom Leila would spend most of the next weekend.

Y is for Yeti

Sylvia doesn’t believe that they exist. She tends to think that those who do believe are missing a few cubes in the old icebox.

Z is for Zimbabwe

Leila’s father came to the U.S. from a township near Zimbabwe, but Leila has never been there – nor anywhere in Africa. Lately, though, she’s had a desire to visit the land of her ancestors, especially since she’s been to Europe twice already, and she’s always calling Sylvia and they’re talking for hours about taking a trip out there next Summer. Sylvia likes the idea herself, thinking that maybe she can do some travel writing for Cheshire House and chalk off part of the trip as a business expense. She’s started bargaining with Leila about the itinerary, though, because two weeks is all she can take off from work and she refuses to go to Africa without stopping in Ethiopia – home of the first coffee plants. Sylvia’s father is against the whole idea, thinks she should just do a tour of the States and get to know her own country better. He doesn’t say it, but it’s obvious he would worry about her traveling over there. “It’s not the most stable place in the world,” he says. “Right,” says Sylvia. “As opposed to New York City?” “Well, now,” says her father. “New York,” he says, “well, that’s a whole ’nother animal.” Sylvia shakes her head. “The Old Fossil went through two wars and now he’s worried about stable places,” she says, giving me a look. But she’s grateful for his concern.