Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Monday, February 26, 2007
In my hometown, some boys used to collect scorpions and put whiskey on their stingers. The scorpions would sting themselves to death to get the whiskey and great hilarity would ensue for these bored hooligans who didn't have much upstairs, as the saying goes. Scorpions and cheap whiskey were easy to come by and it beat the rattlesnake game where you'd drop a cookie on the head of a rattlesnake in a box and try to snatch it off. When you can take the pebble from my hand . . . Badass or dumbass? It is, as one might imagine, a very fine line. I used to sing along with Simon and Garfunkel in those days, particularly the line, Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.
Even though I have not lived there for many years, I imagine that the same things happen now. It wasn't a bad place to grow up, though. When I return, the past comes flooding back, along with warnings from the locals about the dangers of living in the big city. What I don't say is that everything truly awful that has happened to me has happened in this small town. Even so, some part of me is deeply attached to it. You can't disown that which has defined you without paying a huge price. Besides, where else am I ever going to see someone try and take a cookie off a snake's head again?
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Went on with my life/ But that memory entering like a spike." Raymond Carver
Moving drinking suggestion: Jarhead
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Monday! Congratulations to Forest W. for winning the Oscar! I was thrilled. I also loved Ryan Gosling's performance in Half-Nelson, but Forest really deserved it. There's a great story about when he was on safari in Africa learning his lines. He wanted to see a lion, but everyone told him that it wasn't likely because the conditions weren't right. So he began to learn his lines and work on his craft and lo and behold, a lion appeared. He didn't stop, though, he just kept reciting his lines to the lion. This is a man who has worked on his craft for years, never getting the proper recognition. So writers, take heart! Your lion will appear.
41 days until The Sopranos airs!
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Saturday, February 24, 2007
One of my favorite books is Diary of A Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman. I read it when I was twenty, purchasing a hardback copy from a used bookstore for a dollar. Actually, my dad bought it for me, along with a copy of Fear of Flying, which he, being a pilot, kind of assumed was about flying. I saw her in an interview, he said, of Erica Jong. Pretty girl. She really is afraid of planes. I loved Fear of Flying, of course, but what I really related to was Diary. The narrator is a character that described my emotional state exactly -- that ever-present anxiety that I was living with at that time, the way that the world turns on you. She blamed it on turning thirty-six, but I was only twenty and the world she described, minus New York City, was my world. I suppose this makes all those Reading Is Fundamental campaigns so important.
Sue K. wrote lots of books, most of them sad and nerve-wracked, but she always presented a happy face to the world except on a few book jacket photos where she looks fierce, but the kind of fierce that is forced, the look of someone who is really trying to get through it. She killed herself by jumping off a house -- I can't imagine a worse way to commit suicide, but it does have its metaphorical value, I suppose. I kept reading lots of books about women trapped in loveless marriages, having breakdowns, lonely, and broken. This was my world, you see, no matter how different the outward circumstances might be. On my honeymoon so many years ago, I bought Marge Piercy's Small Changes, a novel about how a woman makes a terrible mistake getting married and how she frees herself. Now there was a book I needed to learn to write.
Friday, February 23, 2007
Thursday, February 22, 2007
We are all stardust, the priest said last night as I sat in mass attending the Ash Wednesday service. For reasons I didn't understand, I was feeling weepy and strange, strung-out and a little hopeless, and the thought made me smile for the first time that day. I like the idea of stardust far better than regular dust -- a priest who can make things glitter -- that's my kind of priest! I knew I was in the right place. You are defined by the cross you are carrying, he said. Give it to God. I thought about a book I have with pictures of Southern writers in their work spaces and my favorite shot is Walker Percy in his bed with a crucifix over his head. The body of Christ is actually the crucifix. There's no tree -- Jesus has taken the form of His sacrifice. The rest of the room is spare, like that of a monk. Unlike Mr. Percy, I never write in bed and my work space glitters, more like stardust.
One of my favorite Woody Allen movies is Stardust Memories. Charlotte Rampling plays Woody's most disturbed and beautiful girlfriends (he has three in the movie -- Go Woody!). Woody defends his relationship to a friend, saying that for a day out of the month, she is the most perfect woman in the world. He's willing to sacrifice the other 29 days a month for that one day. Louis Armstrong's "Stardust Memories" plays during the scenes of this rapture, which don't include sex, but merely suggest a strong emotional connection -- reading the paper, smiling at each other, drinking coffee. I suppoe the question becomes how much we would sacrifice for the things we love and those moments of glittering perfection, like a diamond earring I once lost in the snow. I despaired -- I'd never find it in all that beautiful white! But I spotted it as if it were an imperfection. For a minute, I felt as if anything were possible and put that earring back into the hole in my ear that felt as if it had always been there, but in fact, the piercing had been my own doing and the filling of that hole with something beautiful and lost, if only for a moment, seemed nothing short of miraculous.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"on a hot day/ mayonnaise is supposed to kill you/ that's what my aunt told me/ she also told me/ never to go out without my wallet/ in case I got killed/ they'd need to identify the corpse." Sam Shepard, Motel Chronicles
Drinking reading suggestion: Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape Susan Brownmiller -- you're going to need a drink for this one, the first definitive study of the history of rape. Published in 1977, it's still brilliant and timely.
Benedictions and Maledictions
46 Days until The Sopranos airs!
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Where I grew up, people were big on talking about the Rapture, the blood running from the fountains kind of bullshit, the left behind, you'll be all alone while your "saved" relatives will be lifted up and taken to Heaven. While many of my friends were terrified by this prospect, it didn't have much of an effect on me. After all, I lived in a house where there were diaper pails of rattlesnakes from time to time, where we had a pet bat named Andrea until it became rabid and died, (ie, I think Andrea has taken a turn for the worse, my mother said, when her sickly head drooped and she began hissing), where people regularly performed seances and talked about astral projection. Blood from the water faucet wasn't much of stretch and in fact, sounded kind of cool. As for being "left behind," hell, that happened with some regularity on the playground, not being a popular or easy child, I found that I often couldn't keep up with the next cool thing. So big whoop, as we used to say. Some of those assholes could leave the earth as far as I was concerned, and if they were pulled up into Heaven, well, I could only hope that Heaven was a place that wasn't that interesting and the whole streets of gold thing would bore them after a while.
Preachers in my youth were always vague on Heaven -- Hell they had done to a fine art. I admired how well-crafted the sermons on Hell were -- you would burn in eternal fire, your skin would fall off, and then you'd reburn. They'd really warm their hands to the subject, and pretty soon, several people would come up during the altar call to get "saved" or "rededicate" their lives. Even though you were saved by grace, nobody ever felt good enough to trust it. And Heaven, well, that was a scary thought as well-- the clearest picture I ever got was that you'd have to play the harp in a white outfit. I still know lots of people, rational, lovely people who talk about the Rapture and fear it. I don't. I believe in C.S. Lewis' definition of Hell -- separation from God. That can happen on earth or in death or merely standing in the shower. The water doesn't have to turn to blood -- we all have plenty of that on our hands, whether we can see it or not.
Monday, February 19, 2007
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Contrary to my penchant for inspirational corny sports movies, I seldom like movies about teachers, probably because I have been one so long myself. I can orient my reader to this genre as honky enters depleted ghetto classroom and tells the students they are somebody. The students resist, they give "the man" (or in one case, an improbably beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer -- note to potential students, teachers do not look like her) a hard time, then finally because they are loved and taught the importance of learning, they rise. The day to day tedium, the low salaries of high school teachers, the wretched and exhausting business of dealing with endless tests scores, certification requirements, and days of eating leftovers out of Tupperware containers are ignored or glamorized. Yawnfest, usually. Last night, I watched Half-Nelson because it had Ryan Gosling in it, who got a nod for best actor for his work in this film. Now everyone knows I'm pulling for Forest Whitaker, but Ryan G. did some excellent work in this film. The plot sounds predictably awful -- dynamic inner-city high school history teacher by day, crack addict by night, caught by one of his students. My resistance was worn down immediately by the preciseness of the detail -- the shitty, ramshackle one bedroom apartment, the exhausted hungover teaching day of Dan Dunn, the character Gosling plays, the broken relationship with a woman with whom he used to do drugs (rehab worked for her, not him), his oblivious family. Gosling as a teacher is passable, certainly no dynamo with circles the size of half-moons under his eyes, curled up in the fetal position in the staff room between classes, and smoking crack in the bathroom as soon as the basketball game he's ill-suited to coach is over. A young female student without a ride home finds him in the bathroom, strung-out and sick, pipe in hand.
You'd think the movie would take a turn -- he'd clean up, change his ways, change her life, become a better teacher. To my great relief, none of this happened. I won't give away the ending, but it's the kind of ending I love. A half-nelson is a hold in which the wrestler applying the hold puts one arm under the arm of their opponent and applies pressure to the back of their opponents head or neck. When Jacob wrestled with the angel, he wrestled for an entire night, a very long time to be engaged in battle. In this movie, we are still in the middle of the night and daylight seems a long way off.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Friday, February 16, 2007
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
I've written love letters and e-mails to married men. This offense, a fairly egregious one, didn't yield me a fun frolic or nights of wondering will he call, will he leave his wife? No, dear readers, these were notes for various friends who were in love with married or otherwise unavailable men that I helped craft -- perhaps one of the weirder ghostwriting gigs around. Dear Man I Have Not Met . . Because you almost never meet the married ones. The secrecy of an affair seldom allows such public events and when it does either the man in question is so late that you're blasted out of your mind at some dive bar with your increasingly anxious friend as a result of having four or five tiny little drinks to take the edge off -- but more likely than not, the married dude will make the I Can't Get Away Call. Your friend sighs and you say, It's not a big deal, there will be plenty of other times, both of you knowing deep down that there won't, and yes, we'll have another round and maybe some buffalo wings because who cares about looking good now that everything has gone to shit and all the make-up your friend has spent the night applying starts to smear as she goes into a thousand yard stare, watching the people at the bar, the ones ranging from buzzed to ass-out drunk and she begins to cry because her friends can't even meet her boyfriend because of that bitch of a wife of his without it being a big fucking production. Not that I've ever experienced this before . . .
So the notes I have written are all a little on the generic side given that I don't know my audience. But I haven't had to write such a note in a long time. I imagine that the wide variety of greeting cards now available might have this area covered. I was heartened to see a divorce card with Snoopy on it, trying to rewind a VCR to get rid of the bad parts of life. So I'm out of a job! And thank God -- I don't know how to text message. I don't know what I'd do with even less words with which to work.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Those people who have confidence to eat from each other's cooking pots can count on each other in times of trouble. This is the definition of family: people on whom one can depend. Yet this group can never be taken for granted whether blood relatives or fictive kin." Donald Cosetino, A History of Voudoo
Drinking music suggestion: For Lovers Only Southern Culture on the Skids
Benedictions and Maledictions
55 Days until The Sopranos airs!
Monday, February 12, 2007
One of Andy Warhol's tricks to create art was to train a camera on someone for several minutes, a screen test of sorts without any dialogue. This process, like many an unlikely idea, produced a variety of effects, all intended to see the soul of the person or have them crack, whichever happened first. If you were the victim of the screen test, you could speak or not speak. After a few minutes, a person often started laughing or crying. As a child, Andy W. had been sickly and often left alone to drink coffee chained to the couch as a form of "babysitting." It is not surprising that he turned out the way he did -- more surprising that so many people turned to him for guidance, drugs, art, and a cornucopia of masochistic mind fucks for which he became well-known.
But who needs to find someone on the outside to do some real damage to ourselves? One night of heavy drinking can have you weeping at the jukebox, punching in Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" for the tenth time, saying in that earnest, drunk way, I love this song, I've always loved this song. The next day is an exercise in willpower and titration, i.e., I will not vomit and How much Tylenol Three do I have stored away? and Does Vitamin Water really work? You start to hate yourself and bemoan fate -- no hell as joyful as the one you create. You serve yourself for dinner, head on a platter, bits and pieces all around as garnish. You start to get to know yourself and what a treat that is! Eventually there's nothing left except for an empty gleaming plate, a mirror into your soul, if you haven't already finished that off already.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"The more you are of the moment, the faster you are of the past." Gia
Drinking short story collection: Revenge of the Lawn Richard Brautigan
Benedictions and Maledictions
56 Days until The Sopranos airs!
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Here's some Sunday fiction! This story first appeared in Blue Mesa Review.
Let Nothing Disturb You
My husband’s brother has hair like Jesus, and I slept with him three times a week for a year. He was not the most attractive of the two brothers, not by a long shot, but his wife Amanda had left him, and I depressed him into having sex with me one afternoon by telling him that his mother had cut Amanda out of all the family photographs with an exacto knife. I had spent the morning with Joyce while she doctored no less than forty pictures. That afternoon he’d offered me vodka straight while we talked about Amanda, a woman who had insisted that they turn all her stuffed animals to face the wall during sex. After we’d finished, he asked me if I knew that Amanda meant beloved. I refrained from saying that information could be found on any goddamn key chain at Six Flags. He told me that I had the most unusual name, and asked me if I knew what it meant. I said I didn’t know. Because I don’t.
That day marked an anniversary, four years since my mother died. My father died two months after she did. Sometimes I dream that I dive in a lake and collect their body parts, one by one. What more is there to say? Most of the lakes around here are man-made so blaming God is out. I’d had the dream that night so I decided to go to Joyce’s house for the morning to raid her pain pill collection and see if she’d take me to lunch. When I got there, she’d set out her tools for redoing the family pictures, careful as any doctor about to perform surgery. She said, "That bitch doesn’t need to be in the pictures anyway. She’s as good as dead to me."
I couldn’t tell if she was drunk or just in a bad mood. Her husband had a job that kept him away for weeks at a time, and Joyce would wear the same housedress, drinking out of her gas station thermal cup, chain-smoking Virginia Slims. I liked her best during these phases when she didn’t bother hiding her habits. I ate two stale bear claws and excused myself to the restroom to throw up. Joyce keeps her house neat. Even so, I saw vomit stains from my last visit that made me feel queasy. I like things to be clean. After I rinsed out my mouth, I found the Vicodin Joyce had leftover from what she referred to as her female trouble. I didn’t ask her what that trouble might be because she would have told me. I swallowed a pill and took a couple for later, rearranging the remaining ones so that it would look like none were missing. When I rejoined Joyce at the kitchen table, she didn’t ask what took so long. She appeared deep in concentration as she made her cuts, trying to save her son’s arms.
The afternoon I’d slept with my husband’s brother, I got home and showered. I needn’t have bothered. When my husband got home from work, he didn’t have anything to say, so we didn’t go into the bathroom for a conversation. He’d run the shower as he spoke, to make sure no one might be listening to what he had to say except me even though we lived alone. His work as a pharmacist had led to a nasty morphine addiction, a love story that never has a happy ending.
He kissed me on the cheek and dropped a small white bag containing birth control pills on the kitchen table. He turned on the television and told me that work went pretty well considering the spies around and started to watch a rerun of Seinfeld. What he didn’t know is that I’d stopped taking the pills, missing a day or two at first, then not bothering at all, my own weak version of Russian Roulette. I kept the pills tucked in a dresser drawer under some t-shirts, along with my wedding ring which I’d stopped wearing as soon as I could claim that I was too thin and needed it resized. There are so many places to hide things, no matter how small the place you live is.
I sat down on the floor and spread my tarot cards and he gave me a look like I’m the fucked up one, like poor you. I suspected that’s why he married me. I knew that he stole more than morphine from work on a regular basis and with one phone call, our lives would change.
I’d already lost my job at the North Texas Savings and Loan. Many people had been laid off over the past year, and I didn’t envy those who hadn’t. Collecting unemployment had not lost its appeal for me. When I was a bank teller, I saw too many people, had multiple marriage proposals, had people scream and cry and yell at me because they’d overdrawn their meager accounts. One man sent me two Taco Bell burritos through the drive-through tube when I was working the window. He told me that he wanted me to have something to enjoy during my day.
Money makes people crazy. The women I worked with depressed me. They put up pictures of their loved ones, even though we didn’t have anything resembling offices. I never took so much as a coffee cup to work, knowing that the day would come where I would leave, and I didn’t want to gather up all my stuff and see how pathetic it looked in a small cardboard box. The women gossiped with each other, shared secrets, applied each other’s make-up, as if intimacy meant adding color to someone’s eye. When I was at work, it seemed as if the bank and the people in it were all that existed. By the time I’d drive home in the evening, I couldn’t remember any of their names.
That’s not to say that I never felt the bleakness that comes with having empty hours. Days when I was feeling low, I talked to the new priest at Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Father John. Father John is younger than me by two years and wears Doc Martens with his priest collar and soutane. I told him the situation with the brothers. He did not blink when I laid bare the facts in the reconciliation room. It’s nothing like a confessional except for a screen that sits in the middle of the room like a prop for a high school play. Father John said I should be gentle with myself. I suspected this made him different from other priests, but not knowing any, I had no way to tell.
During one of his talks, I realized that all the symptoms I’d been feeling every morning that week meant that I was pregnant. I had no way of knowing who the father might be. All the days had drifted into a fever dream of alcohol and pills and bad dreams that I tried not to remember when I woke up in the morning. Father John gave me a card with St. Theresa, the Little Flower. Sometimes I would read the prayer – Let nothing disturb you. I might, I feared, have that part down.
For my thirtieth birthday, Joyce gave me four halter tops, each a different color, the black one without a back. I’d seen them on young girls at the mall, sexy and trying hard to be. I told her that I thought every woman should get such halters for her thirtieth birthday. She said that I had the figure to wear them, that I might as well flaunt myself before things started to fall. This sounds depressing, but what would have been awful is if she’d done something truly lovely, something that had reminded me of what I’d lost. I did not allow myself to imagine what my parents might have given me. She offered to take me out for a drink. I didn’t know what to say.
She’d rarely done anything that required her to get out of the housedress. I’d been drinking all morning, small capfuls of gin that didn’t seem like a real drink. That morning, I’d bought a kit containing three pregnancy tests. Two were positive and one was still in the wrapper. After the tests, I called a nearby clinic that I had once passed in a strip mall and scheduled an abortion for the end of the week. I printed the consent forms out over the Internet and waited for my day.
I’d read my tarot cards for the year, but I still didn’t know what to expect.
I picked up Joyce in the afternoon, a time I’d often see her son, the one that wasn’t my husband. She’d invited both sons to join us for dinner at Mercado-Juarez, a restaurant on the edge of town known for margaritas the size of small fishbowls. A person could sit for hours in such a place without drawing notice. I noticed Joyce had put on a lot of make-up, that she’d pressed her slacks.
In the car, I turned on the air-conditioner. Despite my skimpy sundress, I felt hot. My breasts hurt. I could not imagine feeling this way for nine months and felt a wave of relief that I wouldn’t.
"I’m cold," she said.
"Should I turn on the heat?" I asked. Sunshine filtered into the car, making it hard to see.
"Try nothing," she said.
I wanted to ask her why she looked so much better than normal, but once she told me that her husband was coming home tonight and would be joining us at the restaurant, I knew.
"I didn’t think to ask you if there was anyone you’d want to invite tonight. I’d be happy to meet your friends."
I shook my head and kept going through a yellow that was turning red. I thought that the only person I’d want to see was Father John, but I’d never seen him in a social situation and it would sound weird to Joyce. And I didn’t really like to think of him outside the confessional. I felt happy there, no matter what, and I didn’t want to ruin it.
After we ordered our drinks, Joyce told me she’d helped my husband pick out a present for me. Dear God. I wondered whose child I was carrying, about how I would never know and that would be one more mystery that my life would not allow me to solve. The waiter came and set our glasses in front of us and asked us who we were waiting for.
"Three more. My husband and sons," Joyce said.
The waiter nodded and left. I traced the salt on my glass.
"That’s a pretty dress. I’d be afraid to do anything in it," Joyce said.
I’d bought it at an antique shop. It had tiny seed pearls sewn all over the top and the bottom was torn silk. I do not think I would have had the nerve to wear it without all those capfuls of gin. I thought about my body, about how it would never be just mine anymore.
By the time the boys got to our table, I’d gone through one big drink. Joyce didn’t lag far behind.
I watched other families and tried to imagine myself as a member of one of them. My gorgeous husband didn’t say a word. I couldn’t tell what might be bothering him. I went through the possibilities. He hated his mother and didn’t want to see her. He didn’t think his father would show up, and he’d be left with Joyce crying and hysterical, pleading with him to take her handgun so she wouldn’t blow her head off, the way she had a few times in the past year. He knew I was sleeping with his brother. He’d lost his job because of the stealing. I wouldn’t even be able to tell him about the abortion. I would have to go it alone, even though the woman on the phone told me I would need someone with me to drive me home. I could call a cab. I ordered another drink.
"Do you need that?" the brother asked. His divorce papers had been finalized yesterday. A large part of our dates consisted of him asking what went wrong. I had nothing to tell him, especially now. His brother and I got married on the 100th anniversary of Wounded Knee. I didn’t plan it that way – we were supposed to get married the day before, but the chapel was booked. For a moment during the service, I was sure that I saw my parents sitting on my side. And then just space, an emptiness where they would have been. A person without a past is dangerous. I do not have to be anything to anyone. And yet there I stood, promising to be everything to one person. For a moment, I might have meant it. Then again, for a moment, it’s easy to mean anything, do anything. Once I slept with a person who pretended to strangle me until I became a corpse.
"Oh, leave her alone. It’s her birthday. That’s why I let her choose the place. You two never want the same thing, so it’s better if you can’t argue," Joyce said.
We ordered after it became clear that nobody was coming to join us. Joyce started to smoke and offered me a cigarette. I took one, even though I never inhale. Cigarettes meant dependency in my husband’s mind. He hated it and didn’t waste any time saying so.
"Those things make you sick," he said. "Mother, I could kill you for giving her one."
"I wish you would. Save me the trouble," Joyce said.
"Not this again," my husband said. He looked around as if help were coming. I wanted to say, don’t bother, it never does.
"I think I see our food," I said. I wanted to get away soon so that I could go to the bathroom. I liked the bathroom, especially since I’d started vomiting without trying to every single morning. It gave me a place to hide, a respite. Everyone in this fucking family would be better off if they only limited their thinking to the next minute and then the next, because that’s all there is. My husband zoned out into the future, his brother stewed in guilt about the past. He threatened to end our affair a couple of days ago, and I said, I guess that means I can confess to your brother?
As much as I hated to admit it, I liked having someone trapped under the harsh glare of the truth. Once a girl in the office had left her husband, who had been dying of cancer at the time. When everyone offered their collective sympathy, she said don’t. She told us, he didn’t die soon enough for me. Don’t be sorry. I did what I wanted to do.
The waiter brought our orders, telling each of us individually that our plates were too hot to touch, not making the assumption that we would learn from anyone else’s instructions. As soon as I ate a few bites, I excused myself. When I came back, I forgot about the plate and burned my finger.
"Let me see," the brother said. "Looks like it’s going to leave a mark."
He plunged my finger into his drink and asked me if it felt better. It did. He picked up the cigarette that I’d been smoking and took a long draw. My husband looked over, and I knew he knew. He slammed his glass down, sloshing margarita everywhere. His eyes darted, liked he’d been caught in a trap and wanted to know who was to blame, the people still at the table or those who’d already had the good sense to never show up in the first place.
"You are truly wretched," my husband said. I couldn’t tell if he was addressing me or his mother.
I’d dropped one of Joyce’s Vicodin into my new margarita and watched it dissolve because I didn’t want to swallow it whole. It looked like an Alka-Seltzer, fizzing away in all that salt and alcohol.
Joyce asked what had happened. She’d been arguing with my husband about how much time his father didn’t spend at home and why that was.
"I didn’t realize how hot the plate was," I said. One of my seed pearls had fallen off my dress into the refried beans as if it were going to take root and grow. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I felt so sad, like sadness might overtake me, and I would not come back from the other side of it. I thought about the baby I would carry for four more days and as sick as it was making me, how I would miss it. Sometimes something you don’t want is better than nothing.
"Honey," Joyce said, as if something sweet would bring me back.
The conversation I had with my husband that night in the bathroom wasn’t really a conversation at all. He asked me what I had intended by sleeping with his brother. I still felt wobbly from all that I had done to myself in my delicate condition. And it occurred to me that I never actually had slept with his brother; our time had been limited to the hours at the end of the afternoon, the period people usually spend killing time at work, the slowest part of the day. There should be a word for that kind of time, all those hours you wish you weren’t where you were. I thought about telling him what I was going to do, about how there was a baby that would not be, that would be a ghost forever, that might haunt me, might give me strength when I didn’t expect it.
But more to my husband’s point, I can’t say that I really meant anything at all. He kept saying, I don’t even know you. Who are you? I had no comfort and no explanations and therefore could offer him none. I thought about all the things I had been, someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s lover, and how none of those definitions would fit anymore. I knew I would never sleep with his brother again. I knew that my marriage, such as it was, was finished. I could have been someone’s mother, but that was not to be. Father John once explained purgatory as a state of waiting, waiting for God to choose you and give you meaning and that’s who I was, a lonely soul praying for the courage to wait for my next life.
On the morning of the abortion, I woke up and dressed in a loose, ugly dress, something I would never wear again. The clinic sat above a nail salon, next to a dentist. The same door led to both places. I could have been having my teeth cleaned.
I expected protesters, but there were none, only a few young girls and their mothers, waiting for the place to open. An Asian couple sat sobbing, leaning on their car for support. When we were all let in, I realized that besides the lone Asian man, this was a place filled with women. I read the framed thank-you notes that lined the walls while I waited for my name to be called. I didn’t worry about anyone else having the same name. My mother had been thinking ahead on that one. Before long, the nurse came to the waiting room door and said, "Quinby," and I rose slowly, like the pregnant woman I was, like the pregnant woman I would soon no longer be.
I had opted to be knocked out for the abortion, even though it cost a little more. When I sat down to fill out the forms, a film played on an endless loop, and I walked in as a woman was saying in a well-modulated voice that you may experience regret and depression after the abortion. Regret and depression were where I lived. I didn’t listen to much as I signed paper after paper without reading a single one. After so many forms and tests, the moment where I was on the table came without warning. The anesthesiologist put the shot in my arm and there was a long moment after I felt the prick of the needle, but before I passed out. The doctor introduced herself and told me that I could change my mind. Instead, I focused on the ceiling where I could see my parents alive again and I smiled because they were back to take care of me and all the pain that came before this moment seemed worth it and this was the last thought that I had before a nurse said my name, telling me that it was all over, that I would be ready to go when I felt strong enough to stand, something that might take a little time.
The clock read noon. My husband would be home in five hours, but I could page him at work. Some of the girls around me were moaning, one vomiting into a miniature trashcan. I felt more awake than I had been in weeks, as if I’d gotten off some horrible ride that I hadn’t realized was going to last so long. Before the abortion, I thought I would be able to pretend it had never happened, but I couldn’t muster up the energy for that kind of deception. My husband would find out, and I would not care. In some way he felt more dead to me than my parents, and all the hope and damage that I could inflict upon him would never bring him back. When I called him to come pick me up, I could only think of Daddy-Long-Legs, the most venomous of all the spiders. Nobody fears them because their mouths are too small to release any of that potential no matter what their intentions are. Depending on your mood, you let them crawl all over you, set them gently outside, or you pull them apart, leg by leg, until nothing remains.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"A violent order is disorder." Wallace Stevens
Drinking music suggestion: Berlin Lou Reed
Benedictions and Maledictions
57 Days until The Sopranos airs!
Saturday, February 10, 2007
A few months ago, I went for a massage at the school where my sister interned. The student I was assigned to was a talker (a no-no according to my sister -- you're supposed to perform your work in silence), but I didn't mind. He told me about his training -- the class was all chicks, man, estrogen city, but I learned to listen. I used to tune my girlfriend out with all that trivial crap, but now I really hear her because it's easier than making it up to her by seeing some crappy chick flick. I had to agree -- even being a chick, I only have so many of those in me and pride myself on never having seen Beaches or Titanic. Both theme songs from these films make me feel slightly suicidal, and I think it would be more fun to mutilate myself with a pair of rusty tweezers than sit through these epics.
Mercifully, the conversation took a happy turn to basketball and the sad loss of Big Ben to Chicago and how we both disliked Shaquille O'Neill. But then conversation turned back to class and the different forms of communication. We had to do an exercise, he said, where we sat facing a partner and asked that person, Who are you? The other person answered right away with a simple word or phrase and then asked us back. We were supposed to go for five minutes, but people couldn't stand it past three minutes. How in the hell would I have answered that one, I thought. The masseuse continued to talk, and I listened as he told me that his instructor said you had to learn to love the person on the table. I thought about my students who are always on the table when they write about who they are. One student years ago wrote an identity paper for his final assignment. It was sealed in an envelope with a note asking me to please, please burn the paper after reading it and tell no one. I did as I was told, of course. But he had answered the question for a moment, even if there was no evidence save for the ashes.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Maybe you're rich or something . . . with a secret life that you won't tell anyone about -- no matter how lonely they are, or no matter how pretty they are -- you just won't tell. Doesn't matter -- I guess I'll tell you about yourself." Robert Frank
Drinking short story collection suggestion: The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg At the Maidstone Club Julia Slavin
Benedictions and Maledictions
58 Days until The Sopranos airs!
Friday, February 09, 2007
Besides my repeated rants about Valentine's Day, there are also other things I hate. I love to rant and almost never do because, well, it's not my chosen form. But since it's been evil wicked cold and it is Friday, the day of the sorrowful mysteries, I think it might be high time to recount some of the following: fireworks, being forced to spend time outside, earnest people who try to get me to "bear witness to my pain without judgment," almost all polka except Brave Combo and maybe even them although they are from Denton, Texas and have been on The Simpsons, mimes, theater, plays of any form and fashion except for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, people who dislike Lou Reed, killjoys that refuse to acknowledge the curative power of Dr. Pepper, people who insist on bringing macrobiotic food to every party in baggies in order not to gain weight, sunshine, Celine Dion beating her evil, skinny little chest, people who feel obligated to express their feelings through bumper stickers, regardless of whether or not I agree with the sentiment -- from the recent weeks --My Boss Is A Jewish Carpenter, Don't Pray In My School and I Won't Think In Your Church, Smile -- Your Mother Was Pro-Life, I Share the Road with Bicycles, and perhaps the most perplexing, I Am My Own Grandpa, etc, people who insist the Confederate flag is "just a symbol, not racist or anything," people who claim to never gain any weight and eat anything they want, douchebags that tell me to smile, life's not that bad, and the list could go on, but I will not.
On the flipside, there are lots of things I adore that drive many people out of their collective minds. I like people who talk about themselves in the third person -- it's just creepy enough for me to get behind. I love oysters and guns and poetry and Woody Allen. I like decaying houses and dying plants and restaurants that serve drinks from long-ago days, like Pink Grasshoppers. I love Tony Soprano. I like watching "Web of Faith" on the Catholic Channel late at night where two priests answer questions they receive off the Internet. I love the Virgin Mary. Once I was at a dinner party and a writer that I once admired (note the past tense) asked me in a contemptuous way what exactly it was that I liked about the Virgin. All that unconditional love, I said. As I am so full of it as you can see from the first paragraph. Hey, I've got to start somewhere.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"I love; I hate. Who can say why? I only know that I am tortured just the same." Catullus
Drinking movie suggestion: The Believer
Benedictions and Maledictions
59 Days until The Sopranos airs!
Thursday, February 08, 2007
The first present I remember receiving was a doctor's kit that my day brought me back from Holland after a three month long business trip. Attached to my dad with a devotion that mostly is reserved for heroin by heroin addicts, my parents decided not to tell me he was leaving. So he slipped out one morning before I woke up. I knew he'd died, but was too afraid to ask. So I spent most of those months in a daze of sorry and anxiety, subsequently developing a stomach ulcer. I'd never been a great eater to start with -- colic as a baby, followed by a propensity for non-political food strikes, i.e. -- I refused anything that wasn't meatloaf or KFC. Hours could pass at the table with nary a bite going into my mouth.
The ulcer made things worse. Hence, the doctor's kit. I loved its sturdy red plastic and especially loved the stethoscope. When my dad gave it to me with a pair of wooden shoes, I looked at him as if the dead had returned! Cried and cried in that way of great relief. My ulcer remained, though, because my fear never left. I'd put the eartips of the stethoscope into my ears , but I didn't care about checking anyone else's hearts. I'd check my own and listen carefully, asking anyone who was around, Do you hear anything strange?, because I couldn't hear a sound, nothing at all.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I can't take quiet desperation! " The Lost Weekend
Drinking movie suggestion: Big Bad Love
Benedictions and Maledictions
60 Days until The Sopranos airs!
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
I once hid a beautiful pair of diamond earrings so I wouldn't lose them. Sequestering them into no fewer than three tiny boxes, I put them in their final resting place. I say final because I have never seen them again. No Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs for me -- like the good China that nobody ever uses, I didn't think I couldn't think of any occasion special enough to warrant them. I kept thinking that I would stumble upon my little friends one day and shriek with joy, but no. They remain as hidden as the heart, no construction paper cut-out, but a bloody fist heart, their edges and the subsequent loss sharp enough to cut glass.
In voodoo there are sorcerer's bottles that contain spirits of the dead, zombies if you will. Zombies in movies always have bodies but no free will -- only the desire to create more of themselves. But a real zombie, like a genie in a bottle, brings you luck and love. They once had a life, but they no longer have access to it because they are captured and surrounded by mirrors, jewels, sequins, scissors, and ornaments to weigh their souls down. Of course, we have these people too, but like in the movies, these women walk among us, weighed down by what has been lost more by our own hand, if not our souls, then some gleaming representation for which we have given a piece of them up.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"The map makes itself; I follow, no choice, like exorcising the Darkness come too early." Robert Frank
Drinking movie suggestion: Let's Get Lost
Benedictions and Maledictions
61 Days until The Sopranos airs!
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Whenever a friend expresses a desire to reunite with an ex, I tell the following story. The confessional poet Robert Lowell and his fiction writer girlfriend Jean Stafford were in a bad car accident because Robert L. was not known for his good judgment when it came to drinking and driving. Jean S. broke her nose and needed extensive surgery to fix it. They were in a rocky patch of their relationship as Robert L. was not an easy man to date -- a manic-depressive with a drinking problem and a sex addiction that earned him the nickname Cal (as in Caligula). These two crazy kids broke up and got back together the following year. After a long night of drinking, Robert L. punched Jean S. in the nose, the one that had finally healed, and broke it in the exact same way. Is this, I then say, how all repeats are at their core? Then I start humming "Reunited and it feels so good . . " because I am a smartass. Nobody, I might add, ever listens to this advice. If he or she is already asking the question, whatever you say falls under the category too little, too late.
Damage repeats itself with or without our help. I'm a klutz, the kind of person who falls so often that people are always saying Careful, careful. I almost fell into a man on crutches the other day in line. He laughed and said, You're just like my daughter -- Beautiful everywhere except the knees. I sewed up one myself -- all that time in Vietnam will teach you how to do it cleaner than a doctor. I left less of a scar. I nodded and smiled, happy that I didn't have falling onto a Vietnam Vet on crutches on my list of things I can do to help myself get into hell. I have two big scars from two different falls beneath my kness. When I cleaned them out, I promised I'd be more careful. I swore it! After all, if I really want to hurt myself, I can go on a relaxing ride down a road I already know.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise don't even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs. And maybe your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery, isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance. Of how much you really want to do it. And you'll do it, despite rejection in the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods. And the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is. " Charles Bukowski
Drinking movie suggestion: Barfly
Benedictions and Maledictions
62 days until The Sopranos airs!
Monday, February 05, 2007
There's a liquor store in Detroit called The Stardust. The sign, meant to emulate The Stardust in Las Vegas, has seen better days. Its small attempt at glamour and beauty makes it even more of a pit stop of despair. To add to the sadness, The Stardust in Las Vegas no longer exists. Its depiction of days gone by makes me think of the difficulty in a breakup, a subject near and dear to my heart as we approach VD (Valentine's Day, people). A college sweetheart got the three weeks in, this isn't really working out phone call from me in the dread that is February and hung up on me. Those were the days that you could really hang up on someone with the satisfying thud of the receiver. You didn't have the cell phone with its continual drops to blame. Before hanging up, he said, I stole flowers from a cemetery for you. I can't believe you're leaving me. And then a dial tone. I thought the flowers had looked a little worse for the wear. Call it women's intuition or the sense that God gave a goat, but you do not want men around you stealing flowers off people's graves and pretending they went to FTD.
Three weeks is a terrible time to break up with someone, truth be told. You haven't even begun to get on each other's nerves in all the predictable ways so there's always the person searching for the door before things get too serious and the other is picking out the wedding china. I've always loved the French Country pattern, don't you? You know I always thought about a honeymoon somewhere warm. The searcher is saying things like, I don't really know what I'm going to do on Saturday, I might not be around because of work, even though he or she has a nine to five office job. I really need to find myself. Shit like that, meaningless even to the least discerning soul. But like the Stardust sign, we find beauty and hope in the least likely places, and sometimes things do work out. If not, you can always go inside the store. There is more than one form of salvation.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that." Molly Ivins
Drinking reading suggestion: A Changed Man Francine Prose
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Monday! Keep warm!
63 Days until The Sopranos airs!
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Here's some Sunday fiction. This story was first published in Hayden's Ferry Review.
You Either Have It Or You Don't
I'm sitting at my desk, trying to spell "surprise." I think I've got it right, but the longer I look at it, the more wrong it seems. Instead of being the receptionist this morning, I have to take pictures and write a story about our center, a non-profit, church-owned social work outreach program on the eastside of Detroit. Each year, every center turns in a story that the head branch pieces together for a booklet called A Day in the Life. I got the assignment because nobody else has the time or desire, and I'm considered a writer, because I'm working on a thesis in English, documenting examples of the process by which people make entire stories about secondary characters or plot pieces of larger narratives, like John Gardner's Grendel. Like everything else, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But now that I've moved two thousand miles away from my university and haven't so much as looked at a book on my subject since I got here three months ago, I'm not so sure.
"Hey, do something useful. I need a picture," I say to the bookkeeper, thinking about how photography was another degree I'd tried and not finished.
"United Way: people helping people," he says in an over-sincere announcer voice, then makes to put the petty cash in his wallet.
He's not too bad. I call him Tandy Boy because he uses the only computer in the office, an antiquated PC years behind most office technology. Before I started working here, he was the only one in the office who knew how to use any computer. The rest of the social workers type everything on ancient IBM Selectrics. I've learned how to load correctable tape. We aren't allowed to use Liquid Paper because our boss says that shows we saw the error, but it doesn't make it look better. This is the non-profit, social work equivalent of "we were poor, but we were always clean."
Tandy Boy and I work on the second floor with all the main offices: home health services, drug counselling, medication vouchers for the elderly and low-income. Directly below us is an adult day care center that specializes in dementia patients. Near the end of the day, I lean over the balcony feeling like Olivia de Haviland in The Snake Pit and watch the clients sit and watch television, some days Sesame Street, yesterday some political funeral on CNN.
"So, have you decided what you're going to write about?" he asks.
"I can't even spell today, much less write."
He interrupts. "Take a picture of Dolores. I'm supposed to unplug her toilet today if she'll let me in."
In addition to keeping the books, Tandy Boy works chore service, and today he must see Dolores Pringle, a notorious repeat recipient of said service, a middle-aged schizophrenic with long black hair, pale skin, and a voice that drops from normal to registers best described as spooky in a matter of seconds. Once she came in for a medication voucher and saw me. She walked by my desk and in the most certain of tones said, "I don't like the way you look. You never know what's going to happen," and I thought, Finally, someone who knows me.
Sometimes what you leave behind is as telling as what you take. When I moved here three months ago, I didn't want to pack much. Instead, I gave almost all of my possessions away. It was a variation on my favorite childhood game: pretending I was dying and making lists of my toys and who would get them when I was gone. My mother never made that kind of list even when it was clear she needed to.
That was nine months ago, so my boyfriend Stephen never met her. He hasn't met my father, either, a man I've seen with increasing irregularity for the last nineteen years. I started dating Stephen four months before he was scheduled to graduate and move to Detroit to start his new job as chairman of an English department at a frou-frou prep school in Grosse Pointe. It's a long way from Texas, where we met and where I've lived my entire life.
On our first date, we went to the movies. We were there at the perfect time for only one showing, a movie in which Kevin Costner delivers mail after a massive nuclear war, restoring faith in America. My first thought was, Everyone's dead or maimed and you're still getting your Discover bill and this is supposed to make you feel better?
But after it was over, he said, "Boy, if we can make it through that movie, we can make it through anything."
There's a rebellion of sorts downstairs after Tandy Boy leaves. One of the men, Bill, beats a table with his cane because a program aide spelled macaroni incorrectly. He's yelling,
"Goddamnit, I've lived ninety-five years, I know how to spell macaroni and that's not it, black girl."
In the background, Frank Sinatra sings "Witchcraft" and two women wander about, both clutching dolls. Many of the patients downstairs have dolls they take care of and give names to, words that aren't really names, like Sweetheart and Baby. For some of the patients, the dolls are more real than the program aides who take care of them. There is a Tibetan word for this, a word I can't remember, for the belief that objects can be animated by living people.
I hear someone crying, saying, "My baby. She's dead."
"That's okay, she's just sleeping. Your daughter's gonna be here in a minute," one of the program aides says.
Bill continues to beat away with his cane.
"What's going on down there?" asks one of the social workers, a thirty-something anorexic with honey-blonde hair down to her waist.
"Semantics discussion," I say.
Since I've arrived here, I have gotten almost as thin as she is, but it's not the same. I start to eat, but get distracted and nervous and the food turns cold. I can't force it down. My lack of appetite is a failure of will, not a triumph.
This woman with her beautiful hair will say, "God, I'm so hungry, but I don't know what I want." She'll pace around the food at office parties, eating the tops off cupcakes, then throwing the rest in the trash when she thinks no one is looking.
There was one other time I became thin enough to be worried. My mother took me to her doctor who talked to me for a long time. I don't remember what I said, only that I convinced him I was happy and healthy without a care in the world.
"She does these cartwheels and handstands all over the house," my mother said. "I can just see the calories fly off her."
My mother was trying to diet at this time herself because the thyroid medication left her metabolism sluggish. Radiation implants buried deep inside her, she'd recovered enough to worry about the way she looked.
"Do me a favor, okay? Teach your mother to do cartwheels," the doctor said on our way out the door.
Trying to get away from the phones and noise long enough to write, I lock myself in the student intern office. Like everything else here, I feel like I'm stepping back in time twenty years. Even the books in this office are from the seventies. There's some illustrated children's books: Free to Be You and Me and You Have the Right, stories about kids breaking through gender lines and becoming self-actualized. And there's an old textbook I've looked through to kill time called Deviancy and Social Behavior with studies about religious cults and specialized populations, like prisoners of war and EST participants.
When I set all of my notes in front of me, I feel like I've pulled out everything in my closet, and I don't have the energy to figure out how it all fits together. Dementia patients watching Wishbone, a show about the adventures of a talking dog. Medication vouchers for oncology drugs so expensive I would have to save a month's worth of paychecks for a refill. I don't know where to start. It's this feeling of being overwhelmed that makes me get rid of things. My boyfriend is the opposite. He saves everything, but has none of the necessities. When I offered him a frying pan once, he was aghast, saying, "I'll never use that," as if I were trying to give him heart-shaped muffin tins or corn-cob skewers. Once upon a time, this lack of commitment to the things of this world would have seemed to me a bad sign.
But graduate school changed me. I stopped wanting traditional arrangements, including the one I had. In graduate school, we had basement offices with no windows, completely sealed from the rest of the world. This office is not so different. Second floor, but still no windows, no suggestion of the outside.
Even so, it's not the worst work I've ever done. People here have a sense of perspective lacking in the university. One of my first days here I stayed on my knees for the good part of eight hours, filing in bottom cabinets. An older women with a cigarette-ruined voice looked at me and said, "Honey, you're not supposed to get on your knees for anyone but your boyfriend or your husband."
And I mean, really, how can you argue with that?
The longer I spend not writing my thesis, the more I think about this: you have two jobs in life -- to do what you have to do and to explain why you are doing it. The easier the first part is, the harder the explanation. Nobody asks you to justify being a heart surgeon, but a receptionist? I think by not writing my thesis, I am defining myself, much the same way people who don't drink anymore want to call themselves alcoholics.
My whole life is like this in some ways. When friends from home ask if I'm meeting people, I say yes, which is true, but not the answer to the question they mean to ask. I don't want to meet people; I know some already. The difficulties of explaining behavior, personality, the whole why I do what I do, it's just not something I want to think about here. But I do think about a job I was offered before I moved, a tech writing job that offered a lot more money than I've ever made, a nice-sized office instead of a cubicle, and something I could say I did at the end of the day when I went home. It was more tempting than I've confessed.
In the middle of the afternoon, we get a person to come in and help, someone we refer to somewhat oxymoronically as a court-ordered community service volunteer. This young man shows up in a pair of long cut-offs, a shirt that says "Mudhoney" and bulky socks that don’t quite hide the tether strapped to his ankle. The first thing he asks is, "What's the ordeal here?" and it's my job to manage his time for the afternoon because my boss is away attending a meeting at the downtown office.
We get lots of court-ordered community service volunteers, about one a month. The question we always ask is, Why are you here, followed by, How much time do you have to do? I've been asked the same questions, more subtly, and I envy the volunteers their direct answers, the way they know what they did and how much time they will spend before they wipe the slate clean. Today's volunteer possessed ten ounces of marijuana and was caught driving under the influence. He has twenty-eight days before he's free. I take out the list my boss left concerning his duties, reach into the supply closet. I hand him a toilet scrubber and some Comet. I direct him to his task.
"It's my thirtieth birthday today," he says. "I didn't think it would be like this."
Last week was my twenty-seventh birthday. Two weeks ago my ex-husband called to tell me he was getting married on my birthday to a girl he met in a conversational English class six months ago, the kind of class structured so that native speakers could learn a foreign language while speaking English with non-native speakers.
When I got off the phone, Stephen asked me who it was.
"My ex-husband is getting married to his Thai sweetheart at a Buddhist retreat outside of Denton on my birthday and wants to know if we want an invitation."
"You'll come over to my side about not having a phone," he said.
I called my best friend and told her about it. I knew she would understand because her ex-fiancé Jim had e-mailed her on her birthday to tell her he was getting married.
"I thought Jim was about as low as you could go," she said. "The crown passes."
"It was the day the Thai calendar ordained," I said, repeating my ex's tentative explanation for the hostility of the date.
"He said that? So where is he marrying his war-bride, his Saigon bar girl, his Gary Snyder fantasy?"
I told her it was the same Buddhist retreat where our friend Andy Furlow had gone to dry out. Andy couldn't afford rehab so he decided that two weeks with only vegetarian meals and meditating might set him right. He lasted a day before he and everybody else at the retreat thought that he definitely should have a drink and that his not drinking only made everybody suffer. As for myself, if I gave up drinking now, I'd be forfeiting a major source of calories. When I go to the store, I think of mixers as a way of getting vitamins orange juice with calcium for screwdrivers (early precaution against osteoporosis), limes and lemons for gin and tonics (a sure cure for scurvy), and cranberry juice to mix with vodka (that time-honored preventative for the dreaded urinary tract infection).
As for my birthday, I got what I wanted.
I'd hinted that what I really needed was a good medical reference book, and Stephen didn't ask why, he just bought one. I looked up the final cancer my mother had, uterine, a second time around with that particular kind, and the operation she'd had. The book reads, "Total exoneration involves removal of all pelvic organs. Instruct the patient about postoperative procedures: I.V. therapy, central venous pressure catheter, blood drainage system, and an unsutured perineal wound with gauze packing. Make sure the patient understands that her vagina will be removed."
I put the book down and didn't read anything else for the rest of the day.
Once my mother bought me a make-up kit for my birthday. The lipstick didn't match my skin tone. But there was another lipstick in the packet designed to change the shade of what you were wearing if you didn't like it. The lesson seemed to be that everything is salvageable if you put in the effort.
In the afternoon, Tandy Boy returns from his chore and sits at the computer, downloading Star Wars files from the Internet. Without the boss here, things are slow so we make up names for Barbie Dolls based on our clientele. Senior Citizen Barbie says, "If I could do it myself, I would." Court-Ordered Community Service Ken says, "It wasn't my gun in the car; it was my son's, but the fucked-up part is that the police can nail you on that just like it was your own." Tandy Boy's favorite: Psycho Barbie and Walked-On Ken. Psycho Barbie says things like, "Does this dress make me look fat?" and "Let's just be friends." Walked-On Ken has only one line: "Yes, Dear."
I forgive Tandy Boy his slight misogyny which I attribute to what I call his "gay no more" classes. He's in therapy to become a practicing heterosexual, or perhaps more accurately, to remain a non-practicing homosexual. But when we had to throw a breakfast for the office and he said, "Not many people like kiwi, but you need it on the fruit tray for color," I told him that he might want to step up his classes to twice a week.
"Are you going to the circus?" Tandy Boy asks.
"Hadn't thought about it. Not much into the big top, I'm afraid."
"It's going to be cool because there's going to be that family of trapeze artists that died here all those years ago and they're trying the same trick without a net," he says.
I know of that which Tandy Boy speaks. The Wallenda family. They interested me because I read an interview with them last week and one of them said, speaking for the second and third generations that would be performing this terrifying human pyramid on the high wire, that all their life was just spending time waiting for the next performance. The person claimed that everything else was just killing time. And I think now that maybe it's time for me to do the same, make a commitment. Take a leap.
When I want to cry and can't, I think about my mother as a child riding in my grandfather's pick-up truck, her teeth full of cavities. Every week she went with him to get gas because the filling station attendant would give her a handful of hard gum, something she desperately looked forward to even though the gum made her teeth ache, the sweetness inseparable from the pain. Looking back, she'd say, "I loved it even though it hurt," and I think I'm starting to know what she meant.
On my way home, I see a billboard for Chivas Regal, with the caption "You Either Have It Or You Don't." The picture displays a man and woman at a party, done in what I call "Harlem Renaissance" style. Of course, I never see anybody in this neighborhood who looks like they're having this much fun.
What I do see driving home are a bunch of stores charging too much for things people don't really need, words on a burnt-out theater marquee announcing community events like open houses at various parochial schools, and the Thomas Jefferson branch of the Detroit Public Library system.
Reading is one of the things that marks time for me here. The library sits only two blocks from where I live, and if the neighborhood was safer, I could walk. As it is, I drive and stay for hours, looking at books I'd never think twice about anywhere else. Most of the material is outdated -- first aid books from the sixties, old books about photography and psychology and weird sports stuff like You Too Can Canoe. Five copies of the Billie Holiday biography. Surprised by how much I liked that one, I finished it all in one sitting.
Sometimes I check the books out. Once when I was getting in my car, I saw a man with a crack pipe in the alley. He looked at me, and I held up a copy of Scuba Diving Now to show him I didn't have anything of value. He went back to his escape, and I got into the car with mine.
When I get home, Stephen sits on his chair reading a copy of Henry James' first novel, Roderick Hudson, his recreational reading.
"You're home. Yeah," he says, putting down his books and kissing me on the cheek. "If you didn't have that job, you'd be here more. You should quit."
"And do what?"
"Anything you want."
He doesn't say finish the thesis. He amazes me by being the first person who ever loved me and never demanded that I be or do something extraordinary. He's content to pass the time with me watching bad movies, drinking, trying to get me to eat a little something now and then. When my mother would get on my case about "getting my act together," I'd defend myself by saying, "Other people don't have . . . " and she'd cut me off with, "You're not other people."
Once he asked me to tell him something about her.
What's to say? Given a choice between a beautiful dress or one that fit better, she'd insist on getting the dress that fit. I have a closet full of things I can't wear because I bought them thinking I would grow or lose weight to fit them, always seeing myself as I wanted to be, never as I was. So when I started talking about her, I end up telling about me, which may have been what he wanted.
Tonight, Stephen grades papers in the back bedroom, and I sit in front of the television with a notebook, trying to piece together the article for tomorrow. I can't come up with anything, and I think writing my thesis is easier than this and that I really should quit this stupid job, and try to go on from here, quit thinking about going back to school or leaving Detroit, or any of the other options I've kept open by not working on the thesis or thinking about anything else.
On a local cable access channel, there's the circus, and I think of Tandy Boy being there and how he's so devoted to his anti-homosexual classes because he feels he needs to change and how he told me he's acting from a place of courage, not fear like everybody thinks. He thinks he's being brave by giving up something he feels, and I think he's being stupid. It's easy to make that distinction for someone else.
"Hey Stephen. Come out here for a minute. This is going to be incredible. They're going to pyramid without a net."
"What's the big deal, little girl?" he asks, coming out of the back room, pulling the drawstring on his sweat pants tighter.
"It's the Wallendas. They're going to do that trick without a net. Lots of them died last time they did it. It's the second generation now. They're trying it again."
"Why would they do that?" he asks.
But I shush him as they climb on top of each other, one by one, until the last girl climbs on top and positions herself on a chair held by the rest of them, perfect and still for a brief moment, just as they'd envisioned in all the practices. It's something of beauty, the moment where they're doing something other than killing time. They're exactly where they want to be. I'm happy for them.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Suns may set and rise again: for us, when our brief light has set, there's the sleep of perpetual night. " Catullus
Drinking music suggestion: The Re-Up Eminem
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Super Bowl Sunday!
64 Days until The Sopranos airs!