I always thought of “tacky” as my mother’s word, and at eight, I didn’t quite know what it meant. In fact, at twenty-eight, I still don’t really know what it means, though like Supreme Court Justice Stewart once said of the threshold for obscenity, I know it when I see it. But I hadn’t yet seen it enough to wrap the word into an appropriate context in my mind. I mostly heard my mother use it when speaking about my father’s mother, a glamorous woman whom I believed was the absolute coolest. I liked watching her chain-smoke and hand my dad his ass in games of Scrabble, though I liked it less and threw occasional temper tantrums when she handed me my own ass in Scrabble. My tantrums seemed to galvanize her. She always responded to them by pointing at me and laughing, taunting me with a chant of “Aries moon, Aries moon!” until I either cried or shut up. Having been a professional astrologer for decades, she had one answer to all my most annoying behavior, be it my sore loser tendencies or my stubborn refusal to take a joke that was made at my expense, which was that my Aries moon was responsible.
Still, I liked exploring her musty Miami condo and checking out all the badass old lady stuff she had: piles of furs that her gangster husband had bought her, entire libraries’ worth of books about Tarot and palmistry, four full boxes of real jewelry that looked fake. Her jewelry alone, she’d once bragged, was so heavy that she’d had to tip her movers extra. To this day, I look back on that statement and think about how baller it is.
My mother had her issues with her mother-in-law, because this was the ‘90s and everybody hated their wives and mothers-in-law with all their hearts, if the era’s stand-up comedy is to be believed. But when she really wanted to cut my bubbe down to size, she’d bust out one particular insult. “Your Grandi is just tacky-tacky-tacky!”
she’d say to me, her voice jumping into its shrillest register with each ‘tacky.’ “I mean it. Tacky-tacky-tacky-tacky-tacky!”
All that said, I wasn’t worried about the central tenets of tackiness as an eight-year-old. My thoughts were firmly on the school talent show, where my then-best friend Maria and I planned to sing and perform an Irish jig to a B*Witched song. We couldn’t sing and did not know how to dance any traditional Irish dances, but we weren’t about to let that hold us back. A lot was riding on this: our reputations, our love for B*Witched, our ability to wear glittery costumes. This last item was, I suspect, our primary motivator: my mother had taken us to a Michael’s craft supply store once, where she’d made the mistake of letting us see the store’s selection of fabric paint. My mother refused to stock a single tube of the stuff in her house, correctly believing that I would immediately turn it on all my most hated child formalwear. But now that we had an act for which we needed to costume ourselves, our desire for the fabric paint was legitimized. My mother grudgingly purchased us a couple tubes, along with some white T-shirts.
“So what are you going to paint?” she asked us, a lifelong artist herself. “Polka dots, stripes?”
Maria and I hadn’t thought that far, and looked at each other.
“Princesses,” I said, at the same time that Maria said, “Jewels.”
My mother chuckled. “Sounds good.”
At home, we promptly went apeshit, drawing vast squiggling fuckeries all over those poor white T-shirts. I do think we were making an honest effort to draw actual things, since we had developed our princesses/jewels theme a little more in post-production and decided that we would dress as actual members of B*Witched. I would be either Edele or Keavy (they were identical twins and my obsession with the band did not extend so far that I could tell them apart). Maria wanted to be Sinead, but I pointed out that it wasn’t fair for either of us to be blonde Sinead, since we both had dark hair. So she settled on being either Keavy or Edele, whichever one I wasn’t. Clearly, we were running a tight ship.
You couldn’t have told us that our shirts looked like shit, of course. It would have been roughly as effective as it ever is to tell your friend that the guy who’s been giving her the best dick of her life is a jerk. We were in love with our shirts. I fell momentarily out of love when I determined that the dog had stepped on my shirt while it was drying and left a pawprint. But fortunately Maria liked the pawprint and switched shirts with me, so I got to fall right back in love again. As we modeled our shirts for each other, imitating the dances that we’d seen the B*Witched girls do onstage, it occurred to us that we looked amazing
Then my mom came in the room and burst out cry-laughing. I’d never seen her go from zero to a hundred that quickly: one moment, she was leaning against the doorway; the next, she was losing her make-up all over her cheeks, red in the face and guffawing.
“Mom!” I said, watching her collapse.
“Oh my God, I can’t breathe!” she said. I thought, Good. Then you’ll die! And it’ll serve you right!
It took her a minute, but her laughter eventually petered out to chuckling and then “aaah”-ing. “I’m sorry,” she finally said, flicking a tear from her eye. That was how she thought she could save her eye make-up when she cried, though it was too late this time. “It’s just. I’m sorry. You just look so tacky!”
Hearing my mother’s dearest insult directed at me that day, when I knew I looked the best I could ever possibly look, I decided that I would make my life a monument to . . . to whatever the hell ‘tacky’ was, because I still didn’t know. Tacky, as far as I was concerned, was the manna of the world. The alpha, the omega. My mother only ever said it about awesome things; if I wanted to become awesome myself, ‘tacky’ was the answer. Potentially high off paint fumes and unequivocally drunk off my rage at my mother’s lack of taste, I had inadvertently stumbled ass-over-elbow onto the path where I’ve stayed ever since.
It was the first time ‘tacky’ was directed at me, but it wouldn’t be the last. And every time I heard it, my determination was fortified. Everything worth doing, it seemed to me, was tacky-tacky-tacky: wearing pinstriped denim overalls over a red sports bra. Shotgunning brick weed into my hot friend Adam’s mouth in Bishop’s Garden. Repurposing my toe rings as pinky rings during the winter months, which I sincerely believed was just smart jewelry ownership. It occurred to me that being tacky was, in some sense, the opposite of being right. And being right was hard, and thankless, and involved so much tasteful covering of the very tits that I’d prayed for throughout puberty until finally the fuckers sprang out of my chest seemingly overnight. Why should I put all that work into being right, when the alternative was so much more fun?
For over a decade, I’ve cultivated my understanding that the rightness so many intelligent, capable people pursue does not actually matter one bit. This book is the fruit of all my research into the opposite of what is right. I mean, I call it “research,” and it’s true that I’ve read books and watched movies and whatnot, but most of that research has taken place in and around my body. The work of tackiness belongs to lived experience anyway! Would you trust someone to talk convincingly about tackiness if that person had never dated an adult man who called himself Viper and believed that showers were a conspiracy inherited from the Nazi government? If that person never passed out in a strip club bathroom, came to, and immediately vomited on her ex-girlfriend’s Pleasers to the raucous laughter of all her fellow strippers?
As far as I’m concerned, tackiness is joyfulness. To be proudly tacky, your aperture for all the too-much feelings—angst, desire, joy—must be all the way open. You’ve got to be so much more ready to feel everything than anyone probably wants to be. It’s a brutal way to live.
What fruits will you reap? Well, you’ll do a lot of stuff and be a lot of fun at parties. Your friends will be exhausted; you’ll need to make, like, six additional friends because they’ll have to work in shifts to accommodate the amount of time you’ll spend in emotional crisis. You’ll believe that Spice World
never did get its fair shake as a piece of effective satire. Your friend will Venmo you for the cost of replacing her curtain, into which you’ll burn a cigarette hole while gesturing a little too wildly during a conversation about Puddle of Mudd. Oh, you’ll be the sort of person who gestures a little too wildly with a cigarette during a conversation about Puddle of Mudd. And you’ll be a relentless optimist.
Tackiness is about becoming: it’s hard to access all those too-much feelings if you believe you’re already done growing, but it’s the easiest thing in the world when you’re constantly poking your head around corners looking for what’s next. Maria and I, we didn’t know how to dance. We couldn’t sing worth a damn. We barely knew the words to the song that we’d decided to perform. After that day, we had to admit that we were no longer even interested in fabric paint, because we hadn’t counted on what a pain in the ass it would be to use. We were constantly poking our little heads around corners, full of childish thrills at the idea of the next thing and yet so young that we couldn’t even predict what that thing would be.
In that moment, standing there being roasted by my mother, the next thing wasn’t so great. We made asses of ourselves at the talent show. We stopped speaking in fifth grade. The last update I had on Maria’s life was that she got a belly button ring, which I approve of, the belly button being the tackiest of piercings. As for me, I launched from that moment into a life of pining after unsuitable boys and surreptitiously listening to music that those boys would have scoffed at. I wanted so badly to be respectable and believed for years that I really could get there. I drank (well, drink) too much and smoked (well, smoke) too much weed in pursuit of a quiet mind. To this day, my mind is the fireworks on the Fourth of July. But who cares? I’m comfortable now.
My friend Hillel recommended that I say here what I hope people learn from this book, because everybody wants to buy a book and then read a book report called “What I Hope People Learn From My Book by Rax King (age eight and one half)” at the beginning of that book. No, I’m just joshing. It’s not a bad idea. I hope that people learn how to have a fun time with the things they love, even the silly-seeming ones, before it’s too late. And in truth, I’m unqualified to teach anybody anything other than precisely that, anyway.
Copyright © 2021 by Rax King. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.