Midnight Ramblers

Digital Painting by Stephanie Khattak. iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, Adobe Fresco

Nights were dark behind the pine curtain. I have written before about our relative comfort with cemetaries. I’ve been thinking on that a little more lately, perhaps because it’s the “spooky season” and it’s getting dark a little earlier. But there is more to say, because the bigger picture is that we were just pretty fearless.

We were never really afraid of the dark, period. Literally or figuratively. We weren’t afraid to go out at night, we weren’t afraid to take risks to pull pranks or do silly things. We loved who we loved, no matter what, and we were so loyal to each other long before “Ride or Die” became part of the pop culture lexicon.

As the Bible says, to paraphrase Romans 8:31, if you are for me, then who can be against me? The verse is referencing God, but for us, it was each other as well.

During slumber parties, after we tired of making prank calls, we would inevitably clean out the hosts’ toilet paper supply and load into someone’s car. (Sorry for any rude awakenings, moms and dads!) We would then drive to a house or two or three and proceed to toss toilet paper into the trees, across the shrubs, over the mailbox and whatever else we could. When plain toilet-papering became too predictable, we upped our game to “Oreo-ing” (Take an Oreo apart. Stick the icing half to house or car windows. Eat the other half.); “Forking” (Plant a million forks in someone’s yard); “Hot-Tamale-ing” (Similar to the Oreo, bite a Hot Tamale candy in half and stick it to windows” and general sign leaving (posterboard, markers and phrases that ranged from encouraging to amorous.)

During these attacks of extreme creativity, we were chased by angry people on four-wheelers; had popper firecrackers thrown at our legs, bumbled into a herd of geese and were almost always made to go back and clean up, if the victims’ parents knew ours. Once, in an impressive counter-attack, someone was hiding in a tree watching for us, jumped down and ran to his neighbor’s house (next on our list!) and woke him up so that they could lie in wait for us. I don’t remember what they did to defend themselves, but it was extremely well-played. (Unsurprisingly, that person went on to join the military and plan counterattacks and defensive actions for the government.) Another time, a house light came on and in our infinite wisdom, we fell down in the yard and “played possum.” That person didn’t confront us then, but his college-age girlfriend was absolutely ringing my phone the minute we got back home.

When you’re a champion, others try to knock you down. Once, a group of guys planned to wrap MY house when I was having a slumber party. Luckily (for us!) my mom had turned a mailbox into a bird feeder and hung the metal part from our biggest tree. One of the wrappers, sneaking around, stood up under it and saw stars. They all had to come inside for the adults to decide if he needed medical attention. (He was fine.)

All of these things took place after midnight with very, very minimal supervision. Before we could drive, our parents drove us, but then we were set free. My friend Courtney and I were recently brainstorming ways to entertain her daughters. Wrapping came up, but was then dismissed with “well, now they’d just get shot.”

We could just as easily have been shot then! Or the cops could have come, or someone could have come out of their house and cursed at us, or hurt us in other ways. Were we naive? I don’t think so. I think we were just confident in the dark.

Because we may have been vandals, but we were a UNIT of vandals! My bestie may have thrown that particular toilet paper roll, but if it knocked over a rose bush, we accepted that were all in trouble. We had faith in God, too but at the time we didn’t really articulate it as such. We certainly didn’t go around saying “Every Oreo Stuck Perfectly. God Bless Us, Every One.” or anything like that. But we did have a basic faith that something, someone, somewhere would make sure we would be ok.

And I know we were lucky. I do realize, especially as a grown up, that in some communities and some groups, this kind of “fun” would not be fun at all. We were lucky, and privileged. The worst we got was cleaning duty.

It’s October, almost Halloween, and I had originally wanted to write about things that scared me. But honestly, looking back, the things that scared me weren’t shadows in the dark or bumps in the night, or even the desolate streets and spooky back roads we drove after dark in our clackety “starter cars” before cell phones existed. As I have thought about this and other things we did, I think “wow, we should have been more scared!” Some of the things we did make my heart skip.

But my friends were with me. We were emboldened. We were safe. If we were together, if we were for each other, then who could be against us? There were so many things I truly was scared of – being made fun of, doing something wrong, the asshole on the school bus, my English teacher. But not this. Not this darkness, and not these risks. WE were the things that went bump in the night. WE were the prowlers, the instigators, the throwers of toilet paper and catchers of fireworks and consequences. And we loved every minute of it. Call it naivete’ or call it faith, I mostly call it friendship.

’80s Ladies

Looking back, I wonder if my hometown school system was inspired by the game Pick-up Sticks. Order, chaos, order, repeat.

Kindergarten through sixth grades were at small elementary school campuses across the city. In seventh grade, we were shaken up and thrown together on a huge campus with a residential street running through it. (Inspired by Pick-up Sticks AND Frogger?) After a year, just enough time to get our bearings, we were spit up again into two junior highs, East and West. An “Us vs. Them” division perfect for sports team rivalries, petty factions and bullies looking for a reason. For our final three years, we were all flung onto the single high school campus to try and get along until we graduated. Quite the social experiment.

Prior to the seventh grade, my friends had come from three groups: church, my mom’s friends’ kids, and kids who had been seated near me from kindergarten through sixth grade. Until I was twelve, my friendships were mostly “you get what you get” situations.

So, I was overwhelmed on my first day of seventh grade at the big Dunbar Intermediate School from the moment I stepped off the bus into moving traffic. I was immediately lost in a sea of kids who not only didn’t go to my church, but who I had never seen before in my life. Who were these people? Had they been in Lufkin all this time? And they were all supposed to be seventh graders? Teased hair, acid washed denim, puff painted sweatshirts…in my memory, those kids looked like 30-year olds. At least compared to me, in my long skirt, button-up blouse and red scarf tied “nicely” around my shoulders. Dressed from bow-head-to-squeaky-loafer in Wiener’s finest that was chosen by my mom, likely with some input from my great-Aunt Lucy, a saleslady there. Thus ensuring that my only school friends would be the lunch ladies.

I don’t think I blinked once that entire first day, and maybe not the day after, either. Getting from class to class was a wild-eyed obstacle course. I kept tripping over my skirt. I regretted all previous life choices almost immediately. My elementary school friends seemed gone forever.

But then came Computer Science class, or what passed for computer science in 1988-89. I remember two things from that class: one, that I met Valeria and two, that she taught me to say “I love you” in Spanish. (Don’t get excited, she wasn’t saying it to me. She taught me so that I could say it and impress some pre-teen twerp who didn’t care.)

This is important, because Valeria was the first friend I ever made on my own. I came from the rural “bubble” and she lived in town. I was an only child and pretty isolated. My life advice until that point came mainly from people who were raised in the 1940s. Valeria had a big, busy family and lots of neighborhood kids to play with. So, we were different in some ways but we still clicked immediately. Even when we were too young to fully articulate it, we looked around this bisected city block full of future “*Lufkin bozos” and wanted so badly to fit in, and also wanted so much more than what we saw. And neither of us had any idea how to be anything other than exactly how we were, which was mostly braces, eyebrows and imagination.

We tried so hard. We passed notes by the hour, updating each other on the highs and lows of the day, a cycle of plotting and rehashing that has continued for 30 years. (Now, we text and Instagram message.) We were on the newspaper staff and made a whole column about who was dating who, who broke up, and what we thought about it. (Strangely, our sponsor never actually published this.) We made up unflattering, permanent nicknames for, well, pretty much anyone that so much as looked sideways at us. (Sorry, Hobbit Man. How are the grandkids?) We were each others’ biggest fans.

Valeria was not my only friend in seventh grade, but in general, I struggled to fit in. I ran for student council but was disqualified because I mixed up the date and passed out my campaign materials early. I was targeted by a group of “devil worshipers” who were going to “get me” at the mall. Groped in Science class. That sort of thing.

And there were other little dramas, some that I instigated, and right or wrong Valeria was there to egg me on or pick me up, whichever was called for. We have seen beginnings, endings and entire story arcs over the course of our lives together. She was there when I finally got a boyfriend, and she was standing at my side when he walked out of a school dance and broke up with me instead of inviting me to the dance floor.

At our ten year high school reunion, she was next to me when he approached us, recounted that day down to the detail. “I made a left out the door, and there you were.” He said it was something he deeply regretted. He blamed the whole thing on a mutual friend who had died in the 90s and could not defend himself, and implied that another shot would be pretty cool. I knew he had a wife at home. I never liked her, but I wasn’t going to do that to her either. Anyway, if you didn’t want me with my unibrow, then you don’t want me, mister. Valeria and I laughed it off. Our feet were hurting in our class reunion heels. (No more Wiener’s finest for me! I had since discovered Nordstrom Rack.) We were eager to go to Sonic and talk about all the people we’d seen. Maybe some new nicknames were in order.

Between seventh grade and our class reunion, Valeria and I did get the things we wanted from life, even if it hasn’t always gone how we imagined it would. But does it ever? We both muddled through junior high and high school, friendship mostly intact but our paths diverged a bit as friendships often do. She went to Nashville and I went to Austin. We found each other on Classmates.com sometime in the late 90s and resumed our “note passing” almost immediately. She eventually moved back to Texas. She got married in an actual castle! We were in each others’ weddings, our husbands get along and I saw her a few months ago with her baby. She has a little girl and twin stepdaughters who are in college. I look at them and know they will have great lives because Valeria is their mom.

As I said, Valeria was my first chosen friend. This is important because growing up in the “bubble,” it was implied that people outside the bubble were scary, and possibly even mean. Valeria was proof-positive that this wasn’t true. Meeting her, finding our commonalities, our shared goals and humor – this was the first step for me toward something different than was being handed to me. I have had someone to figure things out with since 1988 and that has been priceless. It was the first step in making my world bigger, in trusting myself a little bit, in seeing that maybe it was okay and valuable to trust in and care about things that I had to cross the street to get to. Valeria wasn’t mean – I am much meaner than she is – so maybe others wouldn’t be, either.

If not for my friendship with Valeria, I would not have had the courage to form close friendships with Courtney, Michelle, Mallory or others who came after.

Earlier, I used the term “Lufkin Bozo.” It is a given that any time something weird is in the news, it will have a Lufkin connection. Second only to “Florida Man.” The most recent “Lufkin Bozo” is the Blue Bell Ice Cream Licker. Our hometown crime blotter is famously weird. Valeria and I are fanatical about the adventures of the Lufkin Bozo, texting constantly when they appear in the news, mapping any possible connections to us, our family or friends. We know that but for the grace of God, etc.

What would have happened if I hadn’t met Valeria? Would I have erased all my eccentricities, or completely devolved? If she hadn’t met me, she would still be just fine. If nothing else, she had a pretty, popular, older sister that has no problem making people correct themselves. But I had an echo chamber. An echo chamber that cared for me, but an echo chamber nonetheless.

If I had not met Valeria, I wonder if she’d be somewhere in her life reading online about a new Lufkin Bozo, because they are definitely created in echo chambers. Or if this Lufkin Bozo would have ever had the courage to be seen at all.

Love Hurts

Do young people have social dances any more? I don’t have kids, so I honestly don’t know. But before cell phones, texting, social media – all the things that make it easy to plan for yourselves and/or socialize without leaving home, the dance floor was THE place to be. My church hosted one every few months, and in between, there were school dances, Teen Nights at grown-up clubs, dance parties at the Episcopal church…we were dancing nearly every weekend. We definitely could not relate to the anti-dance histrionics of “Footloose,” because our parents knew that if we were all thrown together in one room, a chaperone in every corner, a few stationed along the walls, and one weaving through the crowd to move errant hands, then a dance was the safest place in town.

As I have mentioned before, my social group was largely unchanged from kindergarten on up. I made other friends at school through the years who I loved just as much, but as far as Saturday nights went, I was with the same ten kids, give or take a few for disciplinary groundings, etc. So that’s who became our dance partners.

Our parents: “Tired of seeing this kid? Too bad, you’re dancing with him. No, there are no other options. This one’s a known entity. You can dance with him or you can sit down over there.” More or less.

Anyway, the pickings were slim. There was a group of nerds who clustered together and did the “California Raisin” dance to every song, and there was my mortal enemy who spent ages 6 to 35 trying to take me out, Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner style.

So that left “Eric.” He was taller than me, which was a plus. Good-looking, but I didn’t “like” – him – like -him, so there wasn’t any hormonal weirdness to contend with. He wasn’t caught up in the raisin dance and he wasn’t trying to throw dynamite at me. A catch! And an easy, low stakes dance partner.

But off the dance floor, things were harder for Eric and me. He was a part of the cool group, and I was in a… different group. I had it bad for his best friend, who thought I was an irritant at best and treated me accordingly. So, Eric was my friend away from school, and in school, he was something else. Meaner. Sharper.

But for some reason, at the time, that was okay. I didn’t know any better, and accepted it as the way things were. After all, if “Wile E. Coyote” could destroy my belongings, hurt me and be invited back over to do it some more, then what Eric did was nothing.

Anyway, I loved him. I still do.


After the drama of high school, we settled in to an easier, more friendly rapport.

But as some of us went on with our lives, learned about the larger world, made other friends and got a better sense of how relationships worked, Eric stayed the same. The last time Courtney and I saw him together, he took us to see where his trailer had burned down. He’d lost everything in an electrical fire, and was living in a half-finished shed behind his parents’ house. He did okay for a while. Proximity to his family was a good thing.

I saw Eric once more after that, in the late 90s. He was the last person I dropped off after a night out, and invited me to stay and catch up a little longer.

We sat in his parents’ garage into the wee hours, talking, smoking cigarettes, listening to the radio. Sometime just before sunrise, “Love Hurts” by Nazareth came on. Eric stood up and extended his hand to me. My old dance partner and I shared one last song, slow and even then, bittersweet.

In 2013 a friendly acquaintance and the object of many a schoolgirl crush was arrested on live TV, tackled to the ground in his driveway, charged and convicted with trafficking exploitative images of minors. We couldn’t believe it! Him? He was so nice! His family was great! You think you know someone.

Within a year, in a separate case Eric would be arrested, charged and convicted for a similar crime. Unless something changes, we will be in our sixties when he’s released.

When he was sentenced, I went down an internet rabbit hole and found five other familiar names in his prison system, for the same type of thing.

Maybe we don’t really know anyone.

It was hard to absorb. Even with all of his challenges and volatility, we always felt safe with Eric, at all hours of the night and in all situations. He had never laid a non-consensual hand on us in violence or otherwise. Maybe other young women had different experiences. I don’t know. I believe victims.

I won’t speculate on guilt or innocence because Eric was tried and convicted by a jury whose job was to do that. I’m not going to describe what he did or ascribe motive, because it’s not my story to tell. To say more would be disrespectful to his victim and the families involved.

But I can tell you what it did to me.


When you’re fourteen and someone says “this is your friend. This is your dance partner.” You don’t question it. “This is my friend,” you think. Once before a duet at church, Eric shared that his bestie had called me a “butt ugly b*tch.” (I was no such thing, not that it matters.) I bounced a peppermint candy off of his face, then we went on stage and sang our song. Beautifully. “This is your friend,” I had been told, my whole life. The implication was “Forgive him. Love him.” So that’s what I did.

I assumed that was just how it was, with certain types of friends.


My in-laws live in Houston, and when we drive there from Dallas, we pass the state penitentiary. I “wave” to Eric every time. Maybe that seems flip, but I don’t mean it to be. My husband doesn’t get it. How could he?

Every now and then, I think of sending a letter. Eric’s brother died by suicide when we were in junior high, the first domino to fall in many ways, for both of us. For years, Eric and I would leave notes on “Charlie’s” grave for the other to find. I’m not sure why, or how it started, or even if it was appropriate. But Eric and I had always found a way to communicate. It’s too hard now. I know my husband wouldn’t like it, and what would I even say? Even in offering love and friendship, I can’t absolve, which is different than forgiving. I certainly can’t forget and I know I can’t be part of Eric’s life anymore in any real way. It’s not just one thing. It’s all of it.

Looking back on the situation, I try to connect the dots to see if the way he treated me had anything to do with his choices as an adult. I’m sure there is some commonality, in terms of respect for women, respect for boundaries and the lack of consequences in our fairly insular culture, but I know that it’s more complicated than that, too because not every bully grows up to break the law.


All this to say: Love hurts? It’s not supposed to, not really. If someone’s not your friend in all situations then they’re not your friend. If someone punches your boyfriend, it’s like they’re punching you, and they know that. I know that now, too. Love them anyway and forgive them, but only if you feel like it. Set better boundaries. Put the best of your love somewhere else. Life is long and bigger than your dance floor. YOU choose your partners. There’s plenty of people out there happy to break your heart, in ways you can’t even imagine. You don’t have to break your own.


*I struggled a lot with whether or not to write this. I still am in touch with Eric’s family who are wonderful people and have been dealt an unfair hand. And as I mentioned, I still love Eric. But at the end of the day, he chose to do these things and it’s public record. I’m not speculating, editorializing or really adding anything new to the story. It helped me to write about it, and maybe it will help others who are in complicated situations, to know they’re not alone. Names have been changed, details lightly fictionalized.

Living in Oblivion

“Living in Oblivion” By Stephanie Khattak. Custom watercolor, gouache, acrylic gouache and metallic ink on paper.

I turned 43 this week, and that milestone paired with a head-spinning run of funerals and news of ill friends has me thinking about my purpose, specifically how it relates to my art and what I want to express through it, and how it can outlast me and hopefully help others.

I’ve been an “artist” consistently since I left my last corporate job in 2016, starting as something to occupy my mind between obstacle-course technical interviews and spur-of-the-moment airplane trips. So, in the beginning, I just drew what I liked, and mostly still do. But I’ve struggled with my “why” and “how much to share.” Many of my friends and connections are people from my hometown, or people who know one side of me – the good side.

But the more I think about it, the stories that I really want to tell – my stories and the stories of my peers – aren’t all good. But they’re so powerful and interesting.

There’s a trend lately in TV and movies about 90s nerds, but I don’t see my experience there. Don’t get me wrong, I was absolutely a 90s nerd. But not the funny, madcap type who solves everything by senior prom. I made horrible choices. I hurt people and prioritized people who hurt me, and honestly, at 43, I greatly miss the former and hardly even consider the latter. It wasn’t all roses, and it wasn’t an experience that can easily translate into “cringe humor.” And by that, I mean, sometimes young people died. I was flying without a net. There weren’t always happy endings, and there was no playbook for what my peers and I wrestled with, and in the era of the anti-helicopter parent, we were left to figure it out for ourselves, mostly. At sleepovers, our parents would throw pizza into our rooms then leave us alone to do whatever until sunrise, as long as no bones were broken. Like a “purge” scenario but make it alt-rock and landline based.

I have wanted to tell these stories, but haven’t known exactly how to do it. When I was in high school, I drew comics which have long been lost or tossed in my parents’ house. I think I had more nuance and bravery in my writing between 18 and 25 than I do now, for sure, and I hope I can get there again.

I am compelled to tell these stories now and it’s vitally important that no one gets hurt in the process. To address that, and to avoid the “you/she/I didn’t look like that” comments about the art, lets just say all this is “inspired by.” Names will be changed, along with major identifying characteristics. And, I promise, no one will come across worse than me in the telling.


So, the opening painting is “someone like me” in 1992 in a Babydoll dress that “an Auntie” made, knee socks and a cigarette. Yes, I’m putting a pearl-clutcher out there early. I smoked. And I loved cigarettes. My favorite were cloves, which tasted like Christmas as they shredded my lungs. Also, I was a truant.

My junior year of high school, I was on the newspaper staff and yearbook staff, both of which allowed us to leave campus for “ad sales” and honestly, half the time I’d just stay gone. Where I spent my time varied, but sometimes, in my infinite teenage wisdom, when my Dad was working the day shift, I’d go home and just hang out, forgetting that my house was surrounded by retired family members with a direct view of our garage. I’d smoke in my car and skip school and not think twice about anything beyond how cool I must look.

A few years later, my grandfather was coming out of surgery anesthesia and asked my mom if I still smoked. “Smoke? What are you talking about?” She thought it was funny that he would get that idea. I agreed. “Yeah, Poppa sure was out of it. Me, smoke? Hah. The rantings of an old man, for sure.” (For context, he was probably in his 60s at the time. And of course, his rantings were correct.)

And that’s the kind of stories I want to tell. Stories of being given just enough leeway to make my own decisions, and some of those decisions being stupid, and then clawing back from them successfully or less so. The stories of getting caught up in things you’re too young for and figuring it out on your own, and of outcomes good and bad. The thrill of discovering life, real life, for the first time. The joy of sleepovers and church dances and how it feels when the 90s hometown heartthrob who looks like a young Julian Sands meets you again in your twenties and how that goes for everyone when it’s real life and not a rom com. What it’s like as an adult to know that the person who called you names and tried to punch your high school boyfriend in order to hurt you is incarcerated for acts way worse than anything he ever did to you. What it’s like to look back in your 40s and realize that your frenemy, your biggest nemesis to date, is – plot twist – also the person responsible for many good parts of the life and perspective that you enjoy now.


I titled this post “Living in Oblivion” because of the 1990 Anything Box song. It was the first non-Top 40 music I had ever heard and in many ways, learning that there was music beyond what I heard on the radio opened the gate to everything that came after, in music and in life.

To sum up a very long post, these are the types of stories I’ll be telling in my art and words for a while. Motivational quotes are good and so are dress drawings and I’m sure I’ll be back to those soon enough. But this is who I am and why I am, and however complicated, this is what I am bringing to the table.

So, if you’re still with me, and I hope you are, please pull up a chair.

Mary, Untier of Knots

Our drive southwest was supposed to happen last year.

We reserved weekends twice, and hotels twice over the course of a few months. Each time, we were derailed by my father-in-law’s illness, which started out stressful but manageable, but steadily declined until he passed in July 2017. That seemed to kick off eight months of chaos, and when we finally planned our third attempt for travel, we did so holding our breath, afraid that this trip was just cursed, forever derailed by something confusing and awful that we could not control.

On the morning we left, our anxiety lessened as we drove further away from Dallas. By the time we arrived in Santa Fe, we had fully relaxed.

For the most part.

Not only did we lose my father-in-law last year, we also lost my husband’s bestie – the Pinky to his Brain, the mastermind to his sidekick or vice-versa depending on the day and the task at hand. Combine those devastating losses with the fact that I left my last full-time job in 2016 and just recently made the decision to start my own business after a year spent on airplanes going to stress-filled interviews for jobs I only kind of wanted, and you can see how vacation mode was still a bit out of our reach.

But we were happy. Our hotel room was amazing, quiet and private. We could walk to most places. We were in the tea house and chocolate shop  district (apparently). Everyone was nice. I mean, REALLY nice. It was good.

Friday afternoon, we walked down to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, an 1800s-era cathedral on the Santa Fe plaza.

It was just after Easter when we visited the basilica, and the sanctuary was filled with flowers and beautiful colors: symbols of rebirth common across many religious calendars at this time of year.

As I made my way through the sanctuary, I noticed in a statue in the corner that was festooned with purple ribbon. This was something I hadn’t seen before, so I stepped in for a closer look.

It was Mary Untier of Knots (aka Mary, Undoer of Knots), and each of her ribbons was attached to a prayer. There were so many! The words on the cards were private, so I didn’t look at them in any detail. But on one, the words “please don’t let him die” were visible in plain sight.

“Please don’t let him die.”

It was impossible to tell if the writer was male, female, young, old, or where they were from. It was just their prayer, their “knot.” This time last year, it could have been written by me. This time next year, or next month, or next week, it could be written by any of us. In researching Mary, Untier of Knots, I learned that she is invoked when we can’t solve things for ourselves, when the knots are too tight. When we ourselves do not see any solution.

Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we can agree that there is something powerful about letting go of an impossible burden. That was the beauty – and the clarity – of my personal experience in the basilica.

We hope someone will get better, but can’t guarantee they will. We hope our professional lives will stabilize, but who knows really. We hope our family and friends will be happy, but there’s no magic wand for that.  That’s reality. But there’s a solace in the act of tying those hopes to a statue and walking away from it, even for a moment. Thank you, Mary.