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The worst thing about Cheryl Burke’s memoir My Awesome Place (Topside Press) is that it ends. I put off reading my copy for as long as possible, knowing that once I cracked the cover open and started reading, I’d be that much closer to finishing it. Cheryl Burke was a staple of the electric queer literary and performance art scene of the 90s, that pulsing circus of creativity and queerness and love and expression that we can only dream of today. During that period you could find Burke organizing badass poetry tours, tearing it up at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and appearing in countless anthologies over the years. At thirty-seven, when diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Burke high-fived a writer friend and remarked, “All I know is that I’m getting a damn book deal out of this.” Less than a year later she was dead, not because of the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but in an outrageous twist, from complications with her chemotherapy that medical professionals dismissed until it was too late.
Here is her first book, a memoir, published posthumously and assembled by her writing group, of whom Sarah Schulman is a member. It is under this eerie pall—the memoir of a loved one who is no longer here—that Burke’s memoir begins. Burke recreates the volatile late 80s New Jersey of her youth, including abuse from her father, her mother’s constant cigarette smoke, the massive cans of Aquanet she wields. Here is a scorching portrait of a teenager with absolutely no hope. After a suicide attempt, the cruel guidance counselor tells her that people have worse problems than she does (the same counselor bluntly tells Burke she’s not college material and should consider work as a tollbooth operator on the Turnpike). At a cobbled together family dinner after her acceptance to NYU, her father spontaneously smashes a plate over her head. Still, Burke is able to slice through these everyday horrors in her narration with notes of humor. A scene of her parents fighting:
“Fuck you,” my mother said in deep Staten Island.
“No, fuck you,” my father creatively replied.
“Fuck me?” my mother asked, her voice taking on that of a mafia don.
In this same scene, Burke is huddled in her station wagon with the dog, late to work in her Rickels Home Center shirt. The precise details of her life are what sears the narration. “The Bart Simpson bumper sticker was still stuck to the glove compartment. This girl I knew whom I had once driven to an abortion clinic had given me the sticker in return. The corners curled upwards, folding in upon themselves.” What could be more emblematic of an abused teen girl’s life in New Jersey in the late 80s?
Burke escapes to New York under the guise of attending college, and immediately befriends Keith, a towering drag queen who dons a t-shirt with Divine on it and glittery eye shadow. She and Keith drink vodka & Juicy Juice in Burke’s subletted closet bedroom (she describes the room being so small that her futon rolls up at the sides like a hot dog bun), dancing at Crow Bar, and watching Madonna’s Truth or Dare documentary on loop. Keith is the exact accomplice Burke needs, as she inches towards performance arts, slam poetry, and girls. Morphing from seriously depressed fat girl to Manic Panic’ed, Valerie Solanas-reading East Village poet, Burke finds herself performing at the Nuyorican with her name on the bill. “I won my first slam and left the cafe feeling a bit post-coital and completely energized at the same time, like the way you feel when you first fall in love. I had found my awesome place.” This is a New York people will hopefully recognize, those of us who moved here not due to an It-Gets-Better campaign or a trust fund, but those of us who moved here to escape, to make something, to find others like us.
While a memoir of the 90s heyday of poetry slams and queer performance art would satisfy on its own, the stunning compassion Burke musters as she wrestles with her family elevates the memoir to powerhouse status. When her father suffers a heart attack, Burke and her cheating second girlfriend rent a car in the middle of the night to get to the hospital. A few years later, after her father dies from cancer, Burke is catapulted back into the same walls of her tumultuous upbringing, trying to care for her mother. In one scene, Burke’s mother tries to insist that she wants a family plot, her two twenty-something children sitting stunned beside her. In another heart-wrenching scene, Burke remembers how her father tried to reconcile his reaction to her college acceptance years ago. Burke one day climbs the stairs to find a newspaper article clipped and taped to her door, about children’s author Paula Danziger. In his block handwriting, her father has penciled on top, NYU ALL THE WAY.
From here, the memoir integrates back into Cheryl’s manic New York life, where she falls in love with a boy, remains a lesbian performance artist, joins the ranks of young things doing cocaine, and begins an MFA program at The New School. Its during this first semester that she gets the call—Keith has been admitted to the hospital. She joins her friends Jon and Chelsea (together they make a caretaking trio, with lapses into a menage a trois), and the waiting room fills with beautiful queers, there to support Keith under the stark fluorescent lights of reality. (When Burke enters his room in her same clothes from the day before, he remarks, “You look like a $2 whore on sale for $1.50.”) And when Keith is diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, readers will feel a stab of irony—here’s the sister disease that will lead to Cheryl’s end, although none of the characters present know this yet. The memoir has a mere fifty pages left. It all feels like too much.
As Keith enters treatment and slowly recovers, Cheryl’s drinking and drug use escalates. She colors in the portrait of an alcoholic’s demise with the same humor and cringe-worthy details that make the pages of her abusive teenhood so vivid. By the final chapter, enough has transpired that something prompts Cheryl to get rid of it all: all the liquor goes down the drain in her tiny Williamsburg apartment, bags of candy from Economy Candy at the ready. Our spunky beloved narrator stands on the precipice of change, “teeth sticky with Swedish Fish.” You’ll want to turn the page for an epilogue of hope, fresh beginnings, change.
There’s some of that. Turning the page is an afterword by Cheryl’s partner Kelli Dunham. Cheryl celebrated ten years of sobriety not long after her diagnosis. Dunham lovingly recreates their courtship, relationship, Cheryl’s sobriety, and the descent into cancer. The afterword leans heavily on excerpts from Cheryl’s blog, wtfcancerdiaries, where her talent and grit kept readers abreast of her life during treatment. After a complication from chemotherapy makes Cheryl unable to breathe, Kelli decides it’s time to take her to the hospital. Cheryl recalled the episode:
Here’s a riddle: how does someone who can’t stand or walk without losing all breath get down three flights of stairs to be driven to the ER. The answer is on her butt, cold marble through loose jeans girlfriend coaxed by threats of 911. Friend tries to carry lung issue girl on her back, but the floor is less of a challenge, a front-loaded crawl[…]
Hallways, walk ups, apartments, spaces—this is still Cheryl’s New York, now being experienced in a sad, crazy way. A mere three months after writing about the experience, Cheryl is gone.
While reading this book, I kept curling my hand into a fist and holding it against my stomach—how many books can make you have a visceral, physical reaction? I think only the best books can. I read it in a day, frozen at the same table at the same coffee shop, in one of the neighborhoods Cheryl had trapezed through not so long ago. It’s hard to choose between the tragedy or the triumph: that we only get one book from Cheryl, or that we only get one book from Cheryl, and it’s this incredible, life-affirming, important queer jewel.
My Awesome Place: The Autobiography of Cheryl B
By Cheryl Burke
Hardcover, 9780983242246, 208 pp.