Friday, August 28, 2009
Sometimes my birthday has a tendency to attract bad news. Last year, for example, when Sarah Palin officially took the national stage and cast a shadow of worried speculation over my pizza party. A few years before that it was Hurricane Katrina.
And years ago, back in the Philly non-profit days, my co-workers and I were gathered around the break room table, ready to dig into my cake. Until we noticed that Ingrid wasn’t there. She still hadn’t come back from her vacation. After a confused huddle and an excruciating conversation with our Jim-Ignatowski-meets-Grandpa-Simpson office manager, it became clear that she’d quit unexpectedly the week before without telling her boss and just, well, left town.
I’d had a sometimes-intense and always-confusing friendship with Ingrid, although she’d wanted very little to do with me during those last few weeks. Her disappearance took the breath right out of me. I wondered and worried for months. Where did she go? And why? (And I’ve written about this in greater detail before. Maybe I’ll re-post the story on my archives page one of these days.)
But the “bad news birthday” that stays with me the most happened about eight years ago. Mr. Black and I were planning our fall wedding that year, so my birthday was practically an afterthought as I tallied RSVPs and designed the programs. The day before my birthday was a slow day in cubicle-land. We weren’t allowed to use the Internet for anything besides gleaning talking points on the various products our stores sold. But I’d take a peek at the local paper’s Web site once in a while. No one seemed to mind.
That day, though, my casual peek at the news froze me in my tracks. The section of I-5 closest to my house was closed. A woman had stopped her car on the Ship Canal Bridge – which is tall, people. Tall enough for a ship to sail under it. She was just sitting there on the railing, her legs dangling over edge. Ready to jump.
From the Seattle P-I
If I didn’t consciously remember Ingrid, the feelings were still exactly the same. I must have gasped, because Suze in the next cubicle asked me what was wrong. All morning, we both followed the story online as little bits of information were added. Apparently she’d been on her way home from her boyfriend’s place at around 6:00 a.m. I don’t remember if I read or just surmised that he’d ended the relationship the night before. But one of the police officers was talking with her. She seemed responsive. Maybe she’d come out of this safely.
The police officers decided to close both lanes of bridge traffic because all those supposed latte-sipping bleeding hearts of Seattle were leaning out their car windows and yelling at the woman to jump! Cursing at her. Telling her to get it over with. I’d known for years that Pacific Northwest “niceness” was a myth, but I had no idea things could get so ugly just because of a little traffic.
And then. She jumped.
I told Suze the minute I read the headline. We were both trying not to cry. Then I read a little further. The woman survived! She was in critical condition, but alive.
We went back to our jobs with resignation, writing and designing our little “how to sell the new lawnmowers” articles for the stores. But I kept thinking about that woman on the bridge, the woman I didn’t know but somehow completely knew.
Most of us aren’t suicidal, thankfully, but I think most of us can remember a time when we felt the cosmic rug so thoroughly ripped out from under us that the thought might have crossed our minds – if not actual suicide, then maybe just disappearing like Iris did. I could imagine so vividly her drive home from the boyfriend’s house, rejected. I’ve made that drive. I never pulled over on a bridge, but I remember pulling over at some interstate rest stop and sobbing my guts out for a frighteningly long time. Getting back in the driver’s seat seemed about as likely as sprouting wings and flying away.
Because I had the privilege of not being clinically depressed, eventually I was able to get out of my car, buy a Twix bar from the vending machine, and get on with my life. That woman on the bridge wasn’t so fortunate. Here’s the deal, people: Suicidal depression is not a choice. It’s a physiological condition. Getting mad at someone for being suicidal is about as useful as getting mad at someone for having cancer.
All that day, I kept remembering the drivers who’d taunted that woman on the bridge, cursing at her and urging her to jump. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. If only I’d taken I-5 to work that day instead of Aurora, I might have been there. And I would’ve given them a piece of my mind, boy howdy. I spent most of my drive home imagining what I would have said.
The next day was my birthday. Mr. Black took me out for a fabulous dinner and margaritas at one my favorite restaurants. We even got a table on the patio to enjoy the summer night. It should have been lovely.
But the family at the table next to us kept talking about the woman on the bridge – not with the pathos with which Suze and I had followed the story, but with the gossip-swilling enthusiasm that compels people gobble up tabloids. It was a young couple and a fancy older woman who was probably one of their moms. I’m going to go ahead and assume she was visiting from North Jersey, not because I’m one of those anti-Jersey Seattleites, but because I’ve lived in North Jersey myself and I recognized the edge.
Anyway. Fancy Jersey Lady was pissed. She ranted at length with great self-righteous indignation, crabbing that the woman tied up traffic for three hours. She should have just jumped and gotten it over with! People were late for work!
I was trying not to hear it. But I kept thinking about those drivers the day before, telling her to jump and feeling perfectly justified in doing so. As if they’re any better than she is. As if their needs are the ones that really matter, and being late to their lame little corporate hamster-wheel jobs renders them thoroughly incapable of empathy even when there’s a human being suffering right in their path. How could they possibly compare their privileged little traffic frustrations to the pain she must have been feeling?
So there I was, face to face with the very callousness I’d been mentally screaming at all day. At my damn birthday dinner, no less. I had to act. My inner Lisa Simpson wouldn’t have it any other way.
We’d paid the check and were standing up to leave. “Just a minute,” I said to my poor unsuspecting fiancé. And I sidled up to Fancy Jersey Lady.
“Excuse me,” I said. She smiled patronizingly and I almost lost my nerve.
“I overheard what you were saying about the woman on the bridge and it really hurt my feelings.” Apparently I’d regressed to grade-school speak. She looked patiently amused, ready to tolerate the crazy person. The young man at the table was barely repressing a sneering grin. So I upped the ante.
“I knew that woman,” I lied. “I went to school with her!” Ah, there was the shock and remorse I was looking for. Watching that lady’s face change was almost worth seeing the horrified embarrassment flash across Mr. Black’s face at the same time. Thus encouraged, I went on. “It doesn't matter that people were late. A traffic jam is never more important than a human life,” I snarled at her. “Never.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, eyes wide with genuine repentance. I said goodnight and was on my way, mortified fiancé in tow. I heard the young man snicker as we left. Screw him.
I was a little embarrassed and sorry I’d lied. But on the other hand, someone went to school with the woman on the bridge. She was someone’s daughter, someone’s lover, someone’s best friend. So I decided to consider my lie more of a speaking-out on their behalf. If nothing else, it was a reminder that we are connected to the other people in our world and we are accountable for the harm we put out there. All that anger, all that resentment toward those who do not conform . . . it’s not doing anybody any good. So, even though I felt a little foolish at the time, I was glad I took my little mini-stand. Because if we keep acting like this stuff is okay, well, sooner or later it becomes okay.
Every birthday since then, I think of that woman on the bridge and wonder how it all turned out for her. I remember reading a blurb in the news that she’d gone home from the hospital several months later, so at least her body had healed. I can only hope the rest of her healed, too.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Mostly I had my eyes on my feet, watching them slosh across a bed of dark brown sand under the icy water, my coral-painted toenails flashing among the bits of seaweed. Even in August Puget Sound is too damn cold, but an evening slog through the freezy-cold surf was just what I needed at the moment. Between the seaweed, salt water, and the pumicing effect of rough sand on my feet, it was like a spa visit – but with a silvery sun getting ready to set over the waves in the distance. Not too shabby.
A young couple further up the beach caught my eye. There are lots of couples at Golden Gardens at sunset, of course, but this one stood out. No cuddling or sunset gazing for them. They were busy at work placing stones in the shape of a huge heart with their initials in the middle. I couldn’t guess how young they were. Old enough to have mastered irony; young enough to believe they might be the only ones who had.
It was obvious that they were madly and probably recently in love, but I can’t quite put my finger on what gave them away. Surely there weren’t actual hearts and singing birds flying around their heads, but there may as well have been. Their smiles were wide. Somehow they managed to keep their eyes on each other almost constantly, even as they gathered and placed the stones.
The woman was tall and pale with hip glasses and dyed red hair, fluttery in a sort of Renaissance-Fair-meets-Gidget outfit. The guy was truly remarkable, just outstandingly, gorgeously dork-tastic. Pasty white skin flabbed out over his red bathing suit, which was pulled up past his belly button. He wore his wild, curly brown hair in a long pony tail. And glasses, of course.
And I have to say . . . this is about the most perfect couple I’ve ever seen. Poster children for love itself. The beauty of it all: those two very ordinary souls simply transcending their superficial imperfections in a moment of earnest mutual bliss. Romeo and Juliet, nothing. These two are the new icons of young love in my mind. Every chick flick should be about them.
They were joking about their project, laughing as it became clear that the tide was starting to nip away at it. “Don’t judge it, it’s a work in progress!” the guy called to me merrily.
“Have you ever been in love?” the woman asked me.
Have I? It’s kind of what I do, I wanted to say. It was my major in college, the subject of my Masters thesis, a turbulent 20+ year career. I simply nodded.
“Then maybe you can give us your opinion!” she smiled. I appraised the stone heart and initials for a polite moment, expressed my approval, and moved on, still soaking up the glow of their happiness.
After an eleven-year relationship, two kids, countless homeowner mishaps and money woes, the kind of bliss that inspires heart-shaped rocks in the sand tends to elude you. (Case in point: as I’m writing this Mr. Black is in the kitchen attempting to put away the groceries and cursing a blue streak because my overstocked OTC pharmaceutical supply keeps falling on his head, one box at a time. But I digress . . . )
So, yeah. We haven’t made too many heart-shaped anythings lately. But here’s the cool part: The heart-shaped love is still there, and we both know it. There was a time when we grinned endlessly in each other’s presence and spent every possible minute of free time together. There was a time when we felt incredibly lucky and amazed just to wake up together. Our day-to-day mayhem of family life is built on that initial infatuation. That’s what makes it possible to do any of this without intentionally maiming each other on a daily basis.
That night on the beach, I walked back and forth until my toes were numb with the cold. Each time I passed the stone heart, the tide had encroached a little further, lapping at its edges. And then, on my last pass, an extended family of at least three generations was joyfully descending upon the stone heart, delighted at their find. They were gathering rock samples and talking excitedly amongst themselves. You could still kind of make out the letters.
Surely there’s a metaphor in there just yearning to be extended, but I’ll leave it there for tonight.
“All my good wishes go with you tonight,
I've been in love like you.”
– Rodgers & Hammerstein
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Following is a comparative study of the healing and destructive natures of the Summer Fling. Grab some orange popsicles and lemonade and enjoy:
“Seven weeks of river walkways, seven weeks of staying up all night . . . ” – Belle and Sebastian
From ages 16-22, I was all about the serial monogamy. But after my first year of graduate school, my long-distance college boyfriend put our sad, limping little long-distance relationship out of its misery – mercifully, of course, but at the time I was devastated. It happened over the phone, seemingly apropos of nothing. No closure, no hugs, nothing.
I did what had to be done: Made sad-chick-music mix tapes. Went on a brief ersatz Thelma and Louise road trip with another heartbroken friend. Dyed my hair and went shopping. Standing in a dressing room, appraising a powder blue bra/panties combo, it suddenly occurred to me that someday – maybe even someday soon – there might be some future paramour who would see me in those undies. That thought had honestly not occurred to me before. I still loved the old boyfriend like Nancy loved Sid; the possibility of new freedom was only just dawning on me.
But this was a perfect time for it. Fed up with the Skinner-Box aesthetic of SUNY-Binghamton’s campus housing, my roommate and I had just moved into the apartment of our dreams across the river in the old part of town. It was on the first floor of a crumbling olive-and-mauve house, complete with faulty wiring and a lime green wood-paneled living room. We were Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda for the 90’s! (You guessed it. I was Rhoda.)
My roommate was working for a local non-profit that summer, and I met my very first I-Have-My-Own-Apartment fling at one of their outrageous house parties. He was a grad student too, visiting his parents from UC Santa Cruz, standing out in a room full of SUNY kids with his California tan and tangled golden hair. Not usually my type, but he also had a pair John Lennon glasses and a wicked flair for irony, so he was in. He was there with a group of Gen-Xish boys of the most delightfully geeky variety. While my roommate hooked up with a very tall cowboy-hatted gentleman, his group and I bantered.
One thing led to another. Fling One and I found ourselves alone together in the backyard under the pretense of waiting our turn at the keg. I said something self-deprecating and he responded with genuine surprise. Told me he didn’t agree at all. Took a step closer, so I lost my footing and had to lean into a fence. “You’re perfect,” he said as he went in for the kiss.
I’m going to go ahead and believe that the young man was extraordinarily perceptive rather than go with the more obvious “what a cheesy line!” route. Because, hey, we all need to hear “you’re perfect” sometimes, don’t we?
Anyway, Fling One was only in town for a few weeks. We had some montage-worthy fun: visiting the Tioga County fair, seeing a Gilbert & Sullivan play, swimming at the base of a waterfall near Cornell’s campus. As the days went by, I got a vague but nagging sense that he might be cheating on someone with me. In retrospect, I’m almost certain of it. But at the time I filed it away in the “it’s just a fling” drawer. I had no expectation of ever seeing this dude again. Turns out I was right. Still, it was a happy few weeks that jet-propelled me out of Missing My Ex-Boyfriend Land and into the beginning of a long and mostly happy single life.
“I cried at the corners of the squares, and everywhere I go Eli’s coming.” – Laura Nyro
Five years went by. I’d been in Philadelphia for most of them. Summers were often a time of loneliness and transition as friends left the city to start law school or seek their fortunes in more exciting locales. That summer I’d just broken up with my bike courier boyfriend and left my non-profit job for my first-ever corporate job – which would eventually yield a vibrant social life, but that first summer was stark and alienating.
Enter, Fling Two.
He was in my writing workshop: a divorced artist/bartender ten years my senior who looked like Larry Bird. He was extremely intelligent and arrogant . . . two of my favorite flavors. One night at the bar after class, I found myself sitting across the table from him. At the time, I thought I was flirting skillfully. Looking back on it now, though, it was probably more like Sally from “The Peanuts,” complete with little pink hearts flying around my head.
The warning signs were all there, but I filtered them out willfully. He droned on about his own insecurities and the general stupidity of others. He overshared about his most recent relationship with a woman he simply wasn’t attracted to, sparing no details about her red bra that had made him so sad because she didn’t have the physical appeal to make it work. I should have run screaming. Just thinking about it makes me want to run screaming right now.
But instead, we moved to a booth alone and kept talking. Right in the middle of the conversation he just planted this huge kiss on practically my whole face, boa constrictor style. We kissed walking down the street. We kissed on someone’s front steps. We kissed furiously in an alley, hips and hands everywhere. We finally made it back to my apartment and made plans to see each other again the very next night.
The fling started out all hot and promising, but faltered pretty quickly. Something was off. I didn’t quite trust him. And he didn’t quite find me much more appealing than the red-bra woman before me. That should have been the end of it right there.
Instead, we agreed to keep each other company as a sort of reprieve from the vast loneliness we were both feeling that summer. I think that plan worked a little better for him than it did for me. I felt so depleted on those mornings after, sleep-deprived and out-smarted, while he’d stretch out contentedly and drone on about how my attention made him feel so good and energized. Not me, mind you. My attention.
I used to joke with him that he was going to kill me, sucking my energy away like that. Some joke. I used to wonder how he could be so callous as to take from me like that, renew himself on my comfort and affection without the least bit of regard for its source. I used to hate him for leaving me hollowed out, waiting for that nurturing part of me to grow back so he could come and feed off it again, only to leave again.
The worst part was, I was 27 years old and I knew better. I suspected I was dealing with some sort of sociopathic narcissistic depressive who just couldn’t help himself; he had to exploit my vulnerabilities in order to suck up the attention he craved, barely aware that there was even a “me” to destroy. I talked about it with friends, wrote about it, rolled my eyes over it, WTF’d to myself again and again at my inability to kick this monster out of my bed. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to kill the thing off. In spite of it all, somehow I still yearned for the guy. It dragged on for the rest of the summer, raising its irresistibly sinister head every time I was sure I’d seen the last of it. Oh, it was awful.
I’m not sure I remember how, but eventually the whole miserable situation dragged itself to a halt. Autumn came, I started socializing with my new co-workers, and things just gradually got better. That winter, I met Mr. Black at a friend’s party. Intelligent, attractive, and kind-hearted. Jackpot!
Fling Two kept lurking around, though. I’d catch him walking by my building, peering up into my windows and waving cockily if he spotted me. He hovered around me at the bar one night, even as I did my best to alienate him by conversing almost entirely in “South Park” quotes with the other guys. I almost made it out safely, but he called me over as I was leaving. “You’re so cute,” he said in my ear. I’m pretty sure I left a me-shaped hole in the wall as I fled. I’m pretty sure he considered that a victory nonetheless. But it didn’t matter. I was free.
He’s so vain, I’ll bet he thinks this post is about him. But it’s not. It’s about . . .
(That’s right, this whole post was just an excuse to share the sweet Legoy goodness. Happy summer, everybody!)