Reading Time: 14 minutes
"Nola Face" debuts in Issue 23 of Tahoma Literary Review. I'm a dog lover, so of course I'm going to love Nola, the titular bitch in this fantastic essay. But Nola's only one of many reasons that I selected this piece for TLR. Another is how the essay is properly cussy, and by that I mean its cussiness feels organic to the conversation in Champagne's head, the narrative she shares. Champagne's voice. It's hypnotizing and wondrous. Nola the puppy was not a beauty. But then neither was the narrator, according to old-school standards of conventional beauty -- i.e., blonde. Turns out, Nola was an awesome creature worthy of great love. Champagne's essay is worthy, too. Read it here and in our most current print issue, #TLR23. Or listen to Champagne read it: https://soundcloud.com/
We'd love to hear your thoughts on this piece, our latest issue, or anticipation for future TLRs. Join us over at our Facebook page, or reach out to us on Twitter or Instagram. Thanks so much for reading.
It was unfortunate: the bitch had an ugly face. Aquiline nose, weird on a dog, and muddy eyes that couldn’t pick a color. Puppies are supposed to be cuddly, but her tiny cask torso was covered with coarse fur about as soft as a pinecone. When Brock rescued this abandoned pit-boxer mutt from the LSU lakes biking path shortly after Hurricane Katrina, rather than lauding his heroism, I took it personally. We already had a dog, King, a downy-soft, smiley, but high maintenance three-year-old Aussie—when did I co-sign for two? Our community was dog-rescue-fatigued after the storm, so no one would take her in. If she wasn’t adopted within weeks at the overrun shelter, they would, you know, kill her. King kept lovingly licking her eyes. Brock fed her by hand. Everyone was smitten, but I was already tired. When her heavy tail banged across her crate each morning at five, excited for another day on this earth, I reminded her every time that she was only alive not because of Brock, but because of me.
Still, I’m not that shallow. Nola, whom we named perhaps too obviously after my birthplace, became beautiful to me soon enough. She grew quickly into a fifty-pound pinecone, but even to old age she behaved like a lapdog. This was a dog who conspicuously licked her lips each time we ate, tonguing bigger and bigger circles around her mouth until we offered her any little scrap of beef jerky or potato salad or oatmeal; she was easily appeased. In those early days as a sleepless mom to a toddler puppy, I yelled at her a lot, but she never held a grudge. Maybe because she was so sweet, I no longer noticed her dearth of beauty. Then we moved to Alabama and, at a start-of-semester cookout we hosted, Nola met our colleagues’ blonde pit bull, Purl. This dog was a Nola leveled-up, a pretty Nola, smooth-and-shiny skinned with marbled muscles. A purebred.
As soon as Purl stepped confidently into the side door of our cabin, Nola lost all of her shit. She barked maniacally, hackles spiking dangerously from her back. It was like watching Gizmo morph into a Gremlin. When I pinned her down, middle-school-wrestler style, I saw the utter transformation of her face. She was a wooden-statue warrior come to life. Her nostrils flared, her eyes lasered onto Purl. She would respond to no command until our colleagues finally walked backward out of the house, leaving Purl leashed and socially distanced for the next two hours.
The cookout was still a success, but we had to keep Nola crated for most of it. Her face would return to normal, but whenever Purl made an unexpected movement or sound, she’d Nola Face it all over again. That’s what we called this phenomenon, the Nola Face. We had no idea how prolifically it would return when she’d encounter Daisy the urbane French bulldog, then Sadie, the velvet-bowed, wool-sweatered terrier, then the anonymous Siberian Husky ice queen at the local arboretum. And it continued with every beautiful, purebred—or just plain pretty—female dog she came across until the day, several years later, she died.
I’m trying to remember the exact moment when I realized I’d created Nola in my own jealous, bitchy image.
Listen, I haven’t been looking forward to admitting my blonde problem. It’s as shamefully a part of me as my propensity to turn silently sour when I don’t get my way. My dark skin and hair and reading obsession designated me early on (at least in my own mind) as culturally Not Beautiful, which gave me access to that other realm for awkward girls, Chubby/Funny. But I couldn’t even be notable at that. I wasn’t chubby enough for my pediatrician to scold my mother about it, and I’ve never been as funny as I’d like. Only last year, when my daughter started doing it and I noticed how ineffective it is, did I stop telling a joke twice if no one laughed after my first delivery (I’ll change my inflection this time, then they’ll get it!). Funny people are supposed to let shit go more easily, but I’m no Tina Fey. In her book Bossypants, Fey easily dispatches the power of blondes by calling them “yellow hairs.” By renaming them something so prosaic, she chops off their mystical powers. And in an age when standard beauty norms have changed drastically, when in my teens, Beyonce and Selena and J-Lo widened them, I couldn’t blame a reader for wondering what the hell my problem is.
But it cannot be helped. Blondes, for me, are Elijah Mohammed’s white devil. They’re the white devil’s daughter. They are the standard, they are the ultimate, they are the totally tubular. They are Christie Brinkley lithely dancing before a red Corvette while Chevy Chase throws her sandwich air-kisses, they are Olivia-Newton John in black leather and Aqua-Netted curls, they are a size 0 Penny shimmying in Dirty Dancing, in all her pre-abortion, pink-dressed perfection. They are Christie Brinkley, again, fancy-hatted and descending from a black-butler-driven Rolls Royce, twirling with a bunch of mechanics singing Doo Wop into socket wrenches, and because one of them is Billy Joel, despite all of them making rape-y faces at her, she knows for certain she is not going to get raped.
To exorcise myself from their dominion over my childhood, I recently decided to re-immerse in early-80s blondes, and it was the 1983 music video for “Uptown Girl” that ultimately broke the spell. I cannot believe I ever coveted these blondes’ looks or lives. They are skinny and boring and, barring Penny’s abortion snafu, soullessly one-dimensional. Their personality is “I like boys,” though they like it even better for boys to notice them. Yet this is inherent to the blonde problem: their dearth of character doesn’t matter. Because they were, and remain, ubiquitous. Only after reading Claudia Rankine’s essay “Complicit Freedoms” in her collection Just Us, did I discover blondes’ ubiquity is a facade. It turns out only two percent of the world’s blondes are naturally so; real blondes live in Sweden, and the rest of them dye it. The possibility that many blondes might also hate themselves has provided me no small amount of comfort.
I’d always assumed my blonde issue was a beauty thing. Because if there’s an American caste system for beauty, and of course there is, I grew up solidly middle caste, destined to always venerate yellow hairs as beacons of sublimity. To some degree that’s still true. But in years of studying Nola’s Nola Face directed pointedly to purebred female dogs, I’m seeing a connection in our Nolafacedness. Nola and I are both muddled mutts. We lack purity. Or maybe a better word for it: pedigree.
It was not the case that every one of my graduate school peers were moneyed white people with advanced degree’d parents. But most of them were. It’s true, a small number felt proud to call themselves blue collar, like the New England white woman who also claimed to be more Hispanic than me. (Her rationale: I couldn’t cumbia, and she grew up with more Hispanic friends. For the record, she was a blue-eyed, actual blonde. Ain’t that a bitch?) No one in grad school ever explicitly stated this, of course, but implicit in feedback I received (there were correct ways to interpret, apparently, my Ecuadorian grandmother’s culture and behaviors) in the canonical readings I was assigned, was that whites had more of a right to write. My imaginary readers looked just like the crowd of lilies surrounding me at the mahogany table in the Robert Penn Warren Room, so I bent a quiet head across the workshop table towards them.
What graduate school granted—much more than learning the craft of writing—was a tentative access to pedigree that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Because being first-gen is mere novelty; real pedigree trumps it every time. Sure, with an MFA in hand, I could teach as an instructor at a university, but would be paid half the salary of my tenure-track colleagues and teach twice as much. The real access gained was in making academic friends for whom the intellectual life I’ve always coveted was a given.
One good friend worked in upper administration at the University of Alabama; her father was college president for another large Southern state school. This meant their family lived in the campus mansion, where once, in my early thirties, I was invited to stay for a weekend. Their house/museum was decorated with inscrutable paintings by canonical artists I couldn’t name, and would forget to later look up. If family pedigree could be ascertained by furniture, this one was mahogany. Mine was particle board.
A decade later, this lovely and welcoming family remain dear friends, but imagine you grew up with a stepfather who considered the height of literature to be Field and Stream, best read on the toilet with a Busch Light, and you’ve just entered the colonial home belonging to the better-adjusted Tenenbaums. Every family member had a Major Artistic Talent—singing, painting, dancing—and probably even their dog knew which artists hung on the walls. What stung the most is that everyone spoke Spanish, since they’d traveled the world many times over, vacationed in Spain and Mexico and across South America. Study abroad was not an “if” concept, but a when, where, and how often. I scanned photos atop the mahogany sideboard (a piece of furniture which, at that point, I didn’t know the name of) and saw a picture of my friend’s father and stepmother. With the Pope.
The stately stepmother lifted the gilded frame. “We were lucky enough to be visiting the Vatican when he came out to bless the crowd. And he sure was holy, because I got pregnant right after this trip! That’s why we named our oldest Maria Graciela.”
Before I could sink my ass into some genuine leather, the father poured me a bourbon neat. This was a language I fully understood. But then he started speaking to me in Spanish, declaring how lucky I was to grow up around it.
“Yup,” I said.
“En español!” he said, merrily.
Because I’ve historically done precisely what white men ask me to, I stumbled through some excuse for my poor Spanish. My grandmother was in a nursing home in New Orleans, and she wasn’t much for talking on the phone anymore.
“What about your mother?” he asked.
“Oh, we’ve never spoken Spanish with each other. That would be like us flossing each other’s teeth. Unnatural.” I hoped my jokes were making up for the fact I was continuing to speak in English, while he spoke in Spanish. How long could this continue? Unnatural, indeed.
“Have you been back to the homeland yet? Es Ecuador, si?” he asked.
“Not yet, unfortunately.”
“Oh, you must go! Why haven’t you?”
“Muy pobre” would’ve been an honest answer and one I could respond with easily. I’d checked Expedia for tickets and knew they cost more than a grand year-round. But I would also need to bone up on my Spanish beforehand to avoid situations like the one I was in right now. I didn’t want to sound like an Enriquita in front of any long-lost relatives. I gave another noncommittal, easy (but truthful) answer.
I thought that would be the low point in this trip’s Nola Facery, begrudging nice, overly-educated white people for their nice, overly-educated white lives. But then I learned about the eleven-year-old twins’ Major Artistic Talent: writing. I don’t have Nola’s hackles, but I did feel the hair rise on the back of my neck when I heard this unwelcome news.
The twins had just won separate statewide writing competitions, the stepmother announced. She knew I was a writer and insisted I appraise their work. After I read one of their poems, something melancholic and, yes, well beyond their ages, I smiled and offered encouragement. Meanwhile, my emotional hackles lowered, because I could finally relax. My shit was better than theirs. That’s when I knew I must beg Nola’s forgiveness for my years of judgment. I had a major Nola Face problem of my own.
Part of the problem with New Orleans itself is that while it prides itself on its culture, its food, the inherent warmth of its people, it’s obsessed with pedigree, too. Where you’re from within the city matters. So many times I’ve been asked by both natives and transplants a simple enough question: Where in Nola did you grow up? But deeper into my thirties, I realized what an in-crowd question this is. At a poetry festival in the Marigny, the extremely hip, gentrified neighborhood bordering the French Quarter’s north end, a poet (blonde) asked me this question. I gave my non-committal “From all over” response, but then she pressed, “Yeah, but where did you go to high school?” I answered truthfully—the largest public high school in the state of Louisiana, located on the Westbank, home to a decent football team and not-too-big-of-a-race-riot the day of the O.J. Simpson verdict—and she said, “Oh.” And sipped her Tom Collins, and turned away. My “from all over” answer is the quickest. But if we’re gonna get into it, I’m from a lot of specific places in New Orleans. Though none of them are the recognizable “good” ones that paint the mystique of the city.
I’m from New Orleans East, Michoud Boulevard, where Lala lived. Her house was one of the few without barred windows, a detriment on the morning Lala’s lawn boy tried to break in with a crowbar. Luckily two loud sounds scared him away: Lala’s hysterical Spanish curses, and her dog Titina’s barking. I suppose we’re all fearful of what we can’t see, which is why I’m grateful the guy didn’t know that on our side of the brick wall, Lala held only a broom and a foreign language to defend us. Titina, for her part, was a Bichon Frise who’d been blind since before my birth.
I’m from Lakeview, site of the once-grand Pontchartrain Park, which closed due to high levels of water toxicity just around the time I would’ve enjoyed it. Lakeview is where I met my first stepfather, who introduced me to the word “prima donna.” It makes sense now that he’d given me this name, since I’d ask him delightful questions like, “Did you even go to college?” When I heard my mother and him arguing about me, I believed the word was a different kind of insult, pre-Madonna, something akin to “pre-cool.” I was in my twenties before I learned the word’s definition, and it was ironic that I’d been calling him a dumbass without understanding what he was calling me. Lakeview was also where I first learned about death. Two goldfish, back-to-back, committed suicide by jumping out of their bowl into my room’s trashcan. I became inured to funerals ending in flushes, and wondered if their final resting place would be the lake in which I’d never get to swim.
I’m from Metairie, French for “white flight,” the district that elected the convicted felon and former KKK grand wizard (and current Trump supporter) David Duke to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1989. Toward the end of Duke’s ignominious term, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit Louisiana’s boot sole, and the drainage canal at the end of our street overflowed, sending gators and snakes past our house. We neighborhood kids swam in the streets until they got too close.
I’m from the Westbank, across the river from New Orleans proper, where I learned to speak a third language—Westbankese—full of bruh and where yat and youse a pussy ass bitch. It took me a while to get the hang of this new manner of speaking. My first day of gym class, a boy asked me if I had talked to another boy. Just like that, he said, “You talking to him?” I said yes, I’d talked to him earlier. By the end of the day I understood “talking to” meant “dating,” and clarifying to the boy and my peers that I wasn’t interested (and didn’t know what I was saying earlier) was kind of like admitting I was a Latina who didn’t speak Spanish well. My family moved to the Westbank just as I started high school, and this event coincided with the dispassionate loss of my virginity. I don’t blame this loss on my backyard swampland that forced me and the neighbor boy inside during most months of the year. The lovebugs were so fervent in their own dispassionate fucking that I had to kick the front door to shoo them away enough for me to get inside my home every day after school.
The point is, I don’t have an easy answer to where I’m from in New Orleans, and I certainly don’t have the right answer. Because the right answers could be the dazzling French Quarter or cool Marigny or Bywater or even the bustling Central Business District. But the best right answer is Uptown. When you’re Uptown, you’re an insider. Kind of like one of my grad school friends, originally from Idaho, who cooked a shit ton of amuse-bouche at a French brasserie while he attended the private university, Loyola. Yeah, he was Uptown. He knew where all the hip restaurants were and who to call for coke or MDMA. He was amazed I’d never even walked in a jazz funeral. “You’re not real New Orleans,” he ribbed me more than once. And because I didn’t have access to what he knew about my city, he was right. (Though I discovered years later how close I was to being an Uptown girl myself. When they were married in the late ’70s, my mother and father lived in an Uptown duplex on Fountainbleu, where they owned two pet birds whose names were, no shit, Billy and Joel.)
So I don’t know if I’m legit New Orleans enough to write about New Orleans. Or Latina enough to write about being Latina. Or too pretty to write about feeling ugly, or too dumb to write about smart things, but also too keenly self-sabotaging to just tell the truth, simple and plain. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully rid myself of the Nola Face that was so obvious in my dog, and within myself. Without my noticing it, Nola’s face became nice, became beautiful, became mine.
When I was a child I learned that every book would end with a vanquished villain, or the threat of their return. Usually my essays vanquish a villain by the end and that villain is usually me or my stupidity. And both of us always return. But one thing that writing this essay and book taught me is that despite everything, I love my stupid shit. That’s how I know I’ve changed. I resented zero blondes while writing this essay and, even better, didn’t resent myself. I don’t want revenge on any mammal (or unfair social construction!) that ever made me or my dog feel small. I just want to end this essay with my dog herself, Nola. Nola’s face.
The last time I saw her face was the day after Christmas in 2016, the perfect cap to a shit year. We’d hired a dog sitter in Tuscaloosa so we could have a more peaceful Christmas with our baby at my mother’s house in New Orleans. The dog sitter accidentally left our front door open—I still don’t know the whole story—and Nola wandered away. We found her two days later, apparently having been struck and killed by a car on Lurleen Wallace Highway, several blocks from our home and a few yards away from the Sonic Drive-In, her sweet pink tongue hanging from her mouth. Brock buried her in our backyard, heroically, in the cold rain.
I often wonder about that last night of her life. She must’ve been terrified. It was cold and she was alone and didn’t know how to find home. That’s the closest version to the truth I can conjure and I fucking hate it.
But I’ve got a version of that night I like much better. Her parents were gone, so Nola was going to take advantage. Nola was hungry. Four blocks over, the cheese-meat smell of Sonic called. Why should those cunty purebreds, the ones who don’t even have to lick their lips to get what they want, have all the fun? She was gonna get her ass some Sonic. She pointed her beautiful, aquiline nose toward her desire: a perfect, half-eaten, quarter-pound double cheeseburger some chump had thrown out their car window. Nola got hold of it, a full, meaty bite. She was, at that moment, like the city of my birth—even on the precipice of disaster, chomping away, enjoying the things in life that are good.
Champagne had this to say about her piece:
The title essay of my manuscript “Nola Face” was the last one I wrote for the collection and managed to be the most heartbreaking and fun to work on. I knew I needed a piece that dealt with both the life and death of my dog, and the death of an idea about myself. Also my lifelong fear and envy of beautiful blondes. That research for this essay included re-reading Claudia Rankine’s Just Us, and repeatedly watching the 1983 music video of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” maybe says it all about the writer I strive to be.
Brooke Champagne is the 2022 National Champion of the March Faxness Music Writing Tournament, and is seeking publication for her collection of essays entitled Nola Face.