The judges are dumbstruck (all right–their usual state) at the daring and profundity of the entries in the first ever Memoir-in-a-Box contest. These memoirs are searing, honest, startling and bold. Amazing work of the sort we did not expect. Honour to all the entries. If, as the psychologist James Pennebaker says, there is healing in writing the trauma down, the judges hope you have all found solace in putting these words on the page (in the box). (We were disappointed that no one felt boxed in, but perhaps it was better to avoid the obvious.) But then it’s also true that if you’re not willing to put it out there, then you’re better off writing fiction. This year’s entries all passed the test of nerve and honesty. They all have a great subject–themselves and the drama of life.
Read the finalists below.
Memoir in a Box
By Steven Axelrod
It was finally over Didn’t I know it already? Wasn’t it obvious?
She was right, too – I had no business being surprised. We had been in the middle of the unspoken knowledge for years. It was like living in Chernobyl as desperate Russians were starting to do again now: ignoring the obvious and waiting for the symptoms to show.
How did I figure out that Ned was sleeping with my ex-wife? I wanted to sell my wedding ring. Nick freaked. Kim said, “I’ll keep it until he’s older.” So I gave it to her, in front of her friends. She called, furious: it was a spiteful thing to do. Ned agreed. Ned? He had to be fucking her. Only one way to be sure: read her diary.
Why stalk my ex-wife? I wanted to be fully included in my exclusion, in complete control of my helplessness. I found Lisa’s diary in her underwear drawer. Reading it was like a Krav Maga demonstration: pulled by the back of neck into a series of blows, the brutal parody of an intimate embrace. The only solution: walk away.
The agent said: “When are you moving to L.A?” But I had kids. I couldn’t leave them and I couldn’t take them. But I could resent them and I did.. Then Caity got sick and cleaning her puke off the bathroom walls at two AM I realized: this was what I wanted to be doing. This was where I wanted to be.
The advantages of divorce: time off, silence. The dishes in the sink are no longer a passive-aggressive statement. They’re just dishes. And no more nonogomy. A much needed new word: being sexually faithful to a woman who’s not fucking you. Happily married, I was the one guy at a party not smoking weed. Now I’m one of the guys. Pass the doobie.
Maybe divorced men should be quarantined for eight months. The first relationship is always bad – the first pancake you test the griddle with, and invariably throw out. Sasha was a good Catholic girl, so the more obvious erotic encouragements were out of the question. She didn’t want to put anything strange or unusual in her mouth.
“I don’t even eat sushi,” she said.
I was happily alone when I met Annie. Solo flights – that was my kind of flying. Solo cups – that was my kind of cup! Han Solo, that was my kind of corny outer space smuggler with a heart of gold! O Solo Mio – that was my kind of Mio. Then we read each other’s work and she kissed me under the Chekhov moon.
So we moved in together. She endured Caity’s pack of friends she battled Nick over his dirty dishes and won. She went to Grad school and I followed her like a horse clopping after another horse. I was no longer living in the past. It was a physical relief, like taking off a bulky coat I should never have been wearing in the first place.
My Mom and my brother Peter came to Nantucket for Nick’s graduation. He walked into the house with a bag of groceries. Mom offered to help. He gave her a baffled look, said “I’m fine Mom,” and started unpacking the food. I said, “I guess that’s a look I’m going to have to start getting used to.”
“Yes,” she said. “But you never will.”
The Eight Things I Remember
About the Collapse of My Parents’ Marriage (A Memoir)
By Adam Arvidson
When I was perhaps ten, my younger brother and I awoke to smoke in the house. I stepped onto the upstairs landing. Several couples in the living room with my parents laughed uproariously. The fireplace flue had clogged and no one had noticed right away.
A few years later, Dad had a business trip to Missouri, so the family went with him in the motorhome and camped. The ticks were so bad we would pour them from our shoes. In the evenings, Mom and Dad would fight about the ticks, and whatever else.
On the first day of a family ski trip to Colorado, Dad crashed and injured his shoulder. He wrapped the shoulder in an Ace Bandage and spent the days on the couch. He didn’t shower. Mom commented on the stench.
My brother once asked Dad, “What do you do at night in the hotel?” He laughed, “I get Kentucky Fried Chicken and eat it in bed and throw the bones around the room.” It became a running joke for when Dad left on business trips, which was often.
“I have a problem with alcohol,” Dad told us on a weekend afternoon. “The office is going to help me get some help.”
One morning Mom said, in response to a question I don’t remember asking, “I went to one of those loved-ones support meetings. I am not one of those people, and I’m never going back there.”
When I was 17 and after Dad got sober, he announced at dinner he was moving out. “You bastard!” screamed Mom. “This is not how we discussed this would happen.” They stormed upstairs. My little brother stared at me, eyes dry but frightened.
Dad took me aside and said I should be careful, because addiction can be hereditary. I stayed dry until my final year in college. Then, I realized that my vehement denial was allowing alcohol equivalent power over me.
My brother has different memories, like of half-finished six-packs on the floor by the recliner where Dad slept away the weekends. My brother and I don’t talk about those years. I have an exact small sum of what I remember. And I prefer it this way.
I Was Young When I Left Home
By John Proctor
My Uncle Jim recently wrote me an email from the West Coast that started, “I found out that my grandpa Chaney (your great grandpa) had a brother who died at age one. His name was Earl Chaney who died December 15, 1909.” It ended, “Do you live near where Obama wants to put the Islamic mall?”
When I was three years old, my mom and I moved into my Uncle Jim’s extra room in his apartment in Lawrence, Kansas. He was divorced, and my mom was recovering from an addiction to amphetamines. We moved out the next year, when he remarried. All I remember from then is a red wagon I rode to the laundromat with my clothes and my mom.
A tradition in my family is, every birthday, for the birthday boy or girl to give the first piece to his or her favorite person. No one in my family ever gave me the first piece of cake. I always gave it to my mom.
One Christmas, my grandma gave me a shoebox. In it were hundreds of letters from my Uncle Ollie Chaney, who died somewhere in France during World War II. No one else in the family knew him, except that he died somewhere in France during World War II. He was drafted before he graduated. His grammar was horrible.
I moved to Brooklyn after reading a book about Brooklyn. I wanted to have a family in Brooklyn, to be a Brooklyn family, to be Eugene in Brighton Beach Memoirs, or Woody Allen in Annie Hall. I wanted to be educated, cultured, a Dodgers fan, even Jewish.
My brother hanged himself from a bed sheet when he was ten years old. The same year my father’s best friend Gary’s one-year-old son was hit by a car and killed. My other brother’s firstborn son died in childbirth. Gary met with a channeler on Jenny Jones. My brother took photos of his blue, starfish-like child. My father grew much older.
I’ve now lived in eight different Brooklyn neighborhoods. I was living in a factory loft in Bushwick with my wife when we got pregnant, so we of course moved to Park Slope. Before our daughter’s birth, I had repeating dreams that she died before or after she was born.
Yesterday, I got another email from my Uncle Jim. “I just saw you live in Brooklyn. Did you know that we have a relative, Preacher Roe who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers back in the fifties? It seems I am the only one who had any type of relationship with him. We used to talk on the phone and write letters.”
Last year I was the same age, 35, when my daughter was born that my mom was when I left home. My wife says they look a lot like each other. I don’t see the resemblance.
By Giovanna Marcus
Chapter I-The One That Stuck
“My lover,” Kat told Linda in her black-cherry truck
when she asked, belly outstretched and tender pawed,
what this was. Linda said that they were two orbs of
beauty when they made love and that she’s never liked
the word “pretty” until Kat said it. They kissed.
Chapter II- Abundancy is Not Just for The New Age
At Kat’s birthday party her boyfriend, Ed and Linda
stood on the porch as the other guests watched her
open a gift card to a tattoo shop from them both. She
blushed hard enough to bruise, the night a delicate
tight-rope walk of nervous grace.
III- The Heart Has Eyes Which The Brain Knows Nothing Of
Lisa’s dog gets stolen and she wants Ed on the search—
he has a penis even after all the sensitivity
training. He’s a black belt and though he can kill,
he’s slender and soft inside. Kat cancels with Linda
so she can go, to protect him; she has large calves.
IV-Some Flat Land Would be Nice
This is a first polyamory-inspired tattoo, Kat jokes.
Her personality is MSG-infused; hormones apparently
make her funnier, somewhat erudite, interested in
conversation. Most people just annoy her when they
ask for her counsel or tip her handsomely.
Ed wants to move in and become family with Kat—a
sharp-angled turn from how he once stated that he
would never get her pregnant (he had a vasectomy; she
disliked children) and that he would never live with
her (he was already divorced once; she got pissed).
VI-The Shadow Side of Free Love
A dusk-inspired talk renders Kat feeling less punk-
than-thou. Ed’s vision of family includes dates
spending the night. She agrees; her lack of jealousy
feels like a house of cards she is steadying and
constantly tending, watching for signs of swaying.
VII-The Graceful House Guest
Early on, her therapist had warned that if she didn’t
date other people, she would become part of a harem.
Kat had dated three, Ed: one; and the one was shared
between the two of them. Ed brought home his first
male lover in years, a dancer and bike mechanic.
VIII-The Age of Progress
Breakfast that day was a study in democracy. Could
she be gay but demand her boyfriend not? She passed
the fucking jam to the dancer. Ed did say that he
liked her sister and her co-worker. Kat declares she
is still polyamorous, but just controlling about it.
IX-A Ribbon Around the Index Finger Is Fashioned
At the tattoo shop, Kat gestures largely as she details
the design she wants engraved in her skin.
She wants a hammer surrounded by the Jack of Hearts.
It looks better than it sounds. If anyone asked, she
elusively explained it represented her Polish roots.