For almost the past year, I have been attending Saturday Night Special at Nick’s Bar in Berkeley, a featured reader and open-mic event curated and hosted by Tomas Moniz and Hollie Hardy. Every month Tomas and Hollie assign a word/theme to reader/writers of the open-mic portion to use in their pieces. In past months, I have been working hard to promote my book Pretty Bold For A Mexican Girl, so I have usually found a piece or an excerpt from the book that fits the word or theme of the night, and that’s always felt a bit like cheating. For this February’s Saturday Night Special, I wrote a piece specially written for the event, using the word assigned for the month: safeword.
While I’ve taught creative writing myself, I learned first-hand in Ariel Gore’s online Wayward Writer’s workshop how writing exercises, or writing on an assigned word, can tease out memories or concepts you’ve never written about before, but still when the word was assigned at the January reading, I thought I wouldn’t participate because I just didn’t know what I would write about. I’m glad I let my bestie, Karin Spirn, author The Divine Sharpness in The Heart of God, encourage me to write something, gave me the idea of what to write about in fact. Karin’s encouragement (and who am I kidding, I’m a writer, I really always want to read) gave me the chance to really experience how using the word of the month in a piece specially written for the event really does create community among the readers who cheer and clap and whistle when they hear the word or an especially creative interpretation of the assignment.
Here’s what I wrote:
Triggers like Renaissance Fair and The Grateful Dead. Thinking about either or hearing the wan sounds of singer Bob Weir, who my mom and her friends listened to while smoking pot and not paying attention to us can bring on an anxiety attack.
I was pretty naive about city guys when I moved to San Francisco from that hicktown Tuolumne at seventeen, and I almost right away started dating a skinny sort of Billy Idol look alike. That is to say he had spiky, blond hair and his name was Billy too. Put that guy in Tuolumne and he looked cool; he looked edgy, but in San Francisco in the late 80’s he was just another guy who lived off Haight Street, at the end of my block in fact, which is how we met. I let him work his city slicker charm on me and mistook my discomfort for awe of how cool he was.
And when he asked if I wanted to go to the Renaissance Fair in Novato, where ever in the fuck that was, with his friend and his girlfriend I said sure I’d go, even if it sounded pretty lame. By the time we went to meet his friend so they could plan their outfits, a few days before the fair, Billy had told me that he had recently worked as an escort for super rich fat or rich old women who couldn’t get laid without paying for sex. He had gone to their houses in neighborhoods like Pacific Heights and did what they asked him to do. He was matter of fact about it, so I didn’t judge him because it had nothing to do with me and I thought it was sort of a nice thing to do even though he did it for the money. Only there were other things about him I couldn’t figure out, things that didn’t seem quite right but I thought didn’t matter because we were just hanging out.
After we went to his friends house and after watching them try on frilly white shirts and speak in fake English accents, Billy told me that his friend wanted to swap. “Swap what?” I asked. “Girls,” he said. “Just for one night,” Billy said when I didn’t say anything back. “He thinks you’re hot.” His friend was good looking too, dark skin and big eyes, better looking than Billy even, but I didn’t even know him. I didn’t know Billy either.
But I went to the Renaissance fair anyway, taking the long drive with them to Novato, feeling lonely and stupid for wearing my regular clothes when they were all dressed up, but knowing that I’d feel even more stupid if wore those clothes and spoke in a fake English accent. I guess I was trying to make friends, but I hadn’t moved all the way from that tiny hick town to spend the day, not even one, going back in time, pretending I was in an English village, and with a bunch of anglophiles.
Now, I cringe at any mention of a Renaissance fair because it reminds me of how naive I was then. Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t have access to the wisdom of this yelp reviewer: “People who come and expect the entertainment to be handed to them, while not dressing the part, are in for a real disappointment. The whole reason for going to the Faire is to dress up. That’s when the real fun begins.”