LYRIC ESSAY / MEMOIR
ELLENE GLENN MOORE
THE DAWSON'S CREEK ESSAY
I am watching Dawson’s Creek for the first time.
I know. This is bad. Both that I am only now, nearing thirty, watching this bastion of 90s nostalgia for the first time, when my peers were calling each other on their novelty Conair see-through-plastic phone sets to wig out over the latest episodes in real time; and bad that I have now, nearing thirty, arrived at a moment of my life where such an endeavor has become utterly necessary.
When we first brought Baby Girl home, Andrew and I tried to tag-team middle of the night wakings. It only seemed fair. This was before we realized that my breasts were the only things that would get her, and us (or, more immediately, Andrew) back to sleep. One breast at a time, then a careful lowering of her into her bassinet. Interestingly, breasts were a huge point of contention when the Dawson’s Creek pilot first aired. Joey’s breasts, that is—she points out that she has them, which is repulsive and bewildering because she’s fifteen and fifteen-year-old girls don’t actually have bodies but instead float sweetly along on some incorporeal plane of gentle existence and anyway this is a family TV time slot so don’t be crass. I stare blearily at my phone while Baby Girl sucks away at one breast and then the other, and as they deflate I find myself repulsed—not by the discussion of genitalia or casual use of the word “transcend” by ostensible teenagers, but by Dawson’s sprawl over his twin mattress while Joey takes up as little space as possible. You invite your best bud to spend the night and then consign her to the edge of the mattress? I knew right then any romantic inclinations between them were not meant to be.
I should clarify that I am not watching the whole series straight through. No, I’m in this for Joey and Pacey and as such I am letting various articles titled “Joey and Pacey Explained,” “How Joey and Pacey Ended Up Together on a Show Named Dawson’s Creek,” and “Best Joey and Pacey Episodes of ALL TIME” guide my viewing experience. No thank you to the Leery’s raw divorce, no thank you to Jen’s powerfully earned redemption arc, no thank you to Mr. McPhee’s moving acceptance of his gay son. Give me a sailboat disappearing into a literal sunset and a wish-fulfilment bottle episode featuring a contrived stuck-in-an-elevator-oops-typo-I-meant-KMART premise. True, using this approach I am unlikely to catch all of the little clues, near-misses, touches and looks, the titillating moments primed for deconstruction, backs up against lockers, before first bell. But I am finding that my desire to lie awake at night thinking about anything other than how long I have until Baby Girl wakes up is more than satisfied by the big moments. The agonizing silence before Pacey’s soft count to “ten” and even softer kiss of season 3 episode 19 alone got me through a five-day growth spurt. This slow-burn is not lost on me; I am very good at connecting the dots.
I am a little touchy about sleep nowadays. Just sleep when the baby sleeps is what everyone says, which I’m finding presupposes a lot about the baby, and about sleep. No one explains to Andrew when he should or shouldn’t be sleeping. Is this because he is an adult who is in charge of his own bodily functions? I resent all of it, which I tell him while Baby Girl sleeps, because it is 1:17 in the afternoon and I am hungry and not sleeping. The conversation escalates, also because it is 1:17 in the afternoon and I am hungry and not sleeping, and Andrew and I are once again bewildered by each other’s callousness. “Do you hear yourself right now?” he asks me in monotone, scanning the horizon of his withdrawal reflex. “Stop yelling at me,” he says. “I’m not yelling,” I say extremely loudly. I cannot comprehend his unwillingness to match my enthusiasm for misery. It is a bitter, despairing rage. My rage builds a home so real that I can reach out and touch it. They also say when you get frustrated, put the baby down in a safe spot and walk away. But what about me? I am stuck with myself, and all my moods, and how do I walk away from that? Instead I sit in bed to nurse Baby Girl and mull over the contrivances of motherhood and escape again into my phone.
I find that this rapid-fire and self-aware dialogue takes the edge off the contrivances of the drama. “Look at it from a storytelling perspective,” says Dawson. “Pacey’s brooding, disillusioned, tough-guy persona was destined to collide with Jen’s fake sexual bravado. It was inevitable.” Yeah, I can see you Dawson’s Creek writer’s room, you’re, like, totally obvious.
But the brooding tough-guy and the damaged sex-pot don’t end up together, do they? Just as the best friend soulmates don’t end up together. In fact, the whole point of this particular episode is how not together these pairings are. Or, the whole point of the episode is what their not-togetherness reveals. Pacey, faced with Dawson’s misfounded but ultimately prescient conviction that something (teen sex!) is happening between his two best friends, launches into an astoundingly perceptive and well-written monologue: Joey is a freaking goddess, did Dawson expect her to stay single forever? Dawson takes this in but just can’t let it go: “You didn’t answer my original question.” Oh but he did, Dawson. And he answered a question we hadn’t, any of us, thought to ask. The storyline is a red herring for Dawson but a revelation for the viewer: we are on the verge of a touchstone moment in teen drama, where the inevitable is thwarted, where the best-friend-soulmates are not meant to be, because being soulmates is not the same as choosing to build something where once there was nothing.
I’m reminded of a dream I had in college, newly with Andrew and in deep: I walk down a road with Andrew at my side. We are carrying cases upon cases of baggage—yes, in my dream it was clearly understood to be baggage. It’s my baggage. Saved grocery bags, backpacks, suitcases, weekenders, duffels. All my baggage, neatly packed but cumbersome nonetheless. It’s too much for me, so Andrew is helping me. To carry my baggage. Just in case you missed this subtlety: My new boyfriend is helping me carry all of my baggage.
My mother appears at the side of road. She calls out, “How can you make that poor boy carry all of your baggage?” Suddenly, in that way of dreams, she is unpacking my carefully stowed baggage, fluttering my stockings in the wind and laying out all of my blankets, tossing pictures, ripping covers off of books, sorting and refolding and consolidating, the toss pile getting bigger and bigger. I am overcome. My baggage! I packed it perfectly! Andrew was helping me without complaint! We still have the whole road ahead of us, why are we stopping to do this? I wake up crying.
Message received, brain. You’re, like, totally obvious.
Truly, the bottle episode I referenced above, “Castaways,” is some of the best TV I’ve seen in a long time. You can back right up, prestige TV devotees. I miss sincere cliché. I just miss sincerity. I’m lying naked in a second-hand bed in Andrew’s post-college shithole apartment and I playfully jiggle my breast with my hand. The bed creaks in time. Eee-ernh eee-ernh eee-ernh. I cackle and proffer my breast to Andrew so he can take a crack at it. EEE-ERNH EEE-ERNH EEE-ERNH. Now I am laughing deeply, robustly, clutching the covers and rolling back and forth because my body simply can’t contain this demented pleasure. Still shivering with hilarity, I calm down enough to face Andrew, who shakes his head, looks me dead in my eyeballs and says “This is the single best moment of my adult life.”
Is it possible to feel nostalgic for something you never had? In some ways I feel a longing not for the hormonally charged banter with boys at my locker, which ten years of single-sex education precluded, or palling around with a coed cohort at the mall after school, for which I was far too lame, but rather I feel a longing for the longing folded into missing out on those rites of kid-hood. Joey and Pacey and Dawson’s school days shenanigans remind me of nights I lay awake in my twin bed, possiblizing a future romance where I would be thrown together through some absolutely plausible set of circumstances with a buddy cum crush, and our delicious repression would bubble under our tongues as searing insights into postmodern angst and the trig homework due in third period, which are, of course, the same thing. And if a fairy-dance-class-godmother can gratuitously claim that our clumsy way together necessarily means we are hot for each other (see Season 3, Episode 9, “Four to Tango”), setting into motion another totally convincing turn of events that eventually lead to us slow dancing (remember when that was a thing?—anyway, see Season 3, Episode 22, “The Anti-Prom”) to Sarah Slean’s “My Invitation” somehow completely elegantly while we let our feelings for each other tumble out in tender piecemeal—well, all the better. This is a forward-facing nostalgia. Pacey remembers everything. I imagine everything.
Andrew remembers nothing. This is an undercurrent to our relationship that ranges from the shallow eddies of endearment to the white water of contention, depending on how much rain we’ve had. Yes, I told you a friend was coming in this weekend. No, the appointment is on Thursday. Let me remind you: It was winter. You were studying; I got drunk and slept on your couch. We spent 48 hours together. Lying on our backs on the floor of a friend’s apartment and soft again with liquor, I said, “I don’t want to be away from you tonight.” At the end of the yard, we turned right instead of left. There was snow on the ground; I ran ahead and looked back at you. I didn’t sleep on your couch. You had your back to the cold window. I had my back to the nightstand. You said, “I really want to kiss you.” And so you did.
So much happens in between. In the silence. Joey and Pacey end up together, of course. That is the big question we’re meant to ask ourselves at the outset of the two-part series finale—Dawson, or Pacey?—before we’re provided with some haunting perspective. “The best friends are soulmates,” says the checked-shirt doofus in the fictional writers’ room on Dawson’s successful portrait-of-the-artist TV show The Creek. “It’s destiny.” One of two women in the room gestures with her Fiji bottle, shooting back, “If she chooses the feisty third-wheel, it will break convention and surprise the audience.” What does showrunner Dawson think? “You guys are on to something,” and then he bolts. So begins the cascade of interruptions that punctuate the series finale. Joey is about to say something—but Dawson enters from stage left. Pacey is looking for an answer—now Mrs. Leery needs to know where the plates are. Joey realizes—“Give me a hand with this tray!” Bess exclaims. Will they ever get their cathartic moment full of clever turns and one-liners and four-syllable words?
They will, but we won’t. It all happens off-screen. There’s the lesson here. The break with convention is that ordinary wins.
“Do you love me like a sarcastic underachiever loves the girl next door in a late 90s teen drama?”
He’s silent, and then—“I can’t think of anything sarcastic to say, so I’ll just say… yes.”
I turn over and let my arm sprawl against his side, my leg over his leg, puffing a little breath into our chronically unwashed pillowcases. Silence comes again, settling over us, our grown-up bed, the pile of unfolded laundry at its foot, our dog in the bathroom, our sweet Baby Girl with her double-face linen blanket clutched in her fist, the loose floorboard plaguing the hallway outside of the room, the metal roof, the live oak branches twisting above it. The silence settles into the cracks and joints and nail holes of everything we have built here. It’s enough. It’s right. It is exactly alright.
Ellene Glenn Moore is an American writer living in Zürich. She is the author of How Blood Works (Kent State University Press, 2021), winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. Ellene's poetry, non-fiction, and critical work have appeared in West Branch, Brevity, Best New Poets, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. Find her at elleneglennmoore.com.