Sunday, December 20, 2009

Chasing the New Year’s Eve Dream


Which is worse? Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve? Both holidays involve culturally mandated fun. Both are loaded with unrealistic expectations. Both measure the success of one’s social life and tend to make you feel like a loser if you’ve got no plans.

In my earlier single days, I would have been quicker to say Valentine’s Day was my least favorite. There’s all that pressure to be coupled or, if you are seeing someone, all that pressure to validate the relationship with the perfect box of chocolates. Still, it’s easy enough to eschew the pink-hearted mushiness if you choose. Chances are there’s a group of like-minded friends you can join for ice cream or martinis and share the “We Hate Valentine’s Day” sentiment. One of my friends used to throw an anti-Valentine’s-Day party every year (ironically, one or both of us typically ended up hooking up with someone afterwards).

New Year’s Eve is trickier. It takes more than a dinner date or a cynical cocktail with friends to feel like you’ve met the cultural obligation of The Biggest Party Night of the Year. You’re not required to have a partner; you’re required to have a wild bunch of fabulous friends to help make it a night to remember. It’s supposed to be the most incredible, over-the-top fun you’ve had all year. The New Year’s Eve myth is harder to deconstruct, because it’s not as obvious as the couple-centric Hallmarky Valentine’s Day myth. Cynical as I am, I spent a good part of my 20’s chasing that New Year’s Eve dream.

I suppose it all started in the mid-1970’s for me, attending the Hickory-Farms-cheesiest New Year’s Eve party ever at my mom’s friend the Avon Lady’s place. I was only 7 or so, and I thought her house was the height of elegance because it was filled with fancy Avon knick-knacks and had those white fake fur things draped over the pea-green sofas. I remember settling into the comfy shag carpeting and gazing enviously at her bright blue eyeshadow, imagining she was a queen. The concept of New Year’s Eve was new to me, but I was instantly captivated by the romanticism of it all. You stay up until midnight and a whole new year begins, right there in front of you! And there’s fondue!

Unfortunately, my mom was keeping a close eye on our snack consumption. At our usual bedtime, we were sent to her friend’s daughter’s room with the rest of the kids. We all thought it was incredibly unfair. At first, we kept sending my littlest sister out to the party to sneak chips back to us, but the adults got wise to that pretty quickly. As the Avon Lady’s daughter played her Captain & Tennille and Donny & Marie records for us, I grew more bored and frustrated by the minute. The grown-ups sounded like they were having so much fun out there.

Every disappointing New Year’s Eve I’ve had since then has been some version of that first one – stuck in a dull room while the real fun appears to be happening elsewhere, inaccessible. I’ve attended several parties where I was the only female guest in a roomful of my hapless buddies and their bitter “Women Don’t Like Nice Guys” friends. Then there was the time my boyfriend and I were feeling too vaguely sick and weary to go see Poi Dog Pondering like we’d planned, so we ended up watching SNL reruns on his crappy old couch instead. We watched the VCR clock turn over to 12:00, but he thought kissing at midnight was too lame or “establishment” or something and flat out refused me.

Even those times when I did manage to scrape up some conventionally fun plans, it kind of left me cold. One year, for example, I spent hours waiting for my friends to call and tell me where to meet them. They finally got around to remembering me at 11:30 and it was shortly after midnight by the time I made it to the club.

The place was packed, smoky, and sweaty, but I found my friends easily enough. These were people I’d been going out with that whole year, and every time was such hilarious fun. But not this time. I had one guy nagging me to talk about my Problems so he could Help me with them. Two more guys were drooling all over themselves thinking my friend and I were a lesbian couple. Meanwhile, another friend staggered off to make out with some random dude. He tagged along with us to a diner after closing time, and you could tell she was already kind of sick of him.

Come to think of it, this wasn’t much different from any of our other nights out. I don’t know why I remember all those other nights so fondly but regard this one as being kind of lame. Expectations, I suppose. If this had been a spontaneous night out in March or August, it might have seemed more exciting. Maybe it was the “Amateur Night” factor, being out on the streets with all those neophyte partiers from the suburbs bumbling around trying to hail cabs and walking six-abreast down the narrow sidewalks. Whatever the reason, I still hadn’t found the elusive euphoria of New Year’s Eve. Not in parties, or clubs, or quiet nights with a boyfriend.

Until 1998 – my first New Year’s Eve in Seattle.

Mr. Black had been living here for a few months, and I was in town finalizing my plans to join him. I’d just signed the lease on a new apartment that morning. I’d be heading back to Philly in a few days to pack up my old place, get my cat, and join my love in Seattle once and for all. The whole thing felt so blissfully surreal. It was every moment in every romantic comedy that we’ve trained ourselves not to believe.

We’d been so wrapped up in our rain-soaked apartment hunting, New Year’s Eve was more of an afterthought. We went to the gritty U-District Safeway and bought a bottle of cheap champagne, poured it into a thermos, and walked down the Burke-Gilman trail to Gas Works Park.

That night was cold and remarkably un-rainy for a change. Boats adorned in Christmas lights sailed along the ship canal toward Lake Union. The closer we got to the park, the more people joined us on the path, heading down to Gas Works for a great view of the Space Needle fireworks. But it wasn’t crowded or obnoxious; just casually merry with a friendly neighborhood feel. We found a good spot to cuddle up, enjoy a perfect skyline view, and share our thermos champagne. Mr. Black’s not much of an “establishment” guy either, but he had no problems kissing me at midnight.


Now that’s what New Year’s Eve is all about. What could capture the true spirit of welcoming a new year more than that – standing on the brink of the biggest change in your life, next to the person you’re taking the plunge with, on the edge a lake full of festively-lit boats and fireworks. I haven’t even tried to top that one. How could I? That was the one time in my life when ringing in a new year really meant something.

This year, we’ll be flying home from Pennsylvania on New Year’s Day. I expect our New Year’s Eve activities will involve little more than packing up the suitcases, watching a DVD, and sharing what’s left of my dad’s Sam Adams holiday beer sampler. And as long as my guy still kisses me at midnight, that’s good enough for me.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Big Three

It’s funny how a visit to the hospital still brings on the pregnancy déjà vu. I had a moment in the parking garage on Monday, checking to make sure I’d left enough room next to the other car to get my big belly through the door. Oops.

No big belly here. My “baby” turns three today, in fact, and I was only at the hospital for my “Hey, You’re 40!” routine mammogram. Nice to know that even though the baby factory is closed, there are still plenty of opportunities to slip on a hospital gown and get probed. Standing there at an awkward angle while the tech carefully spread out each breast on the cold surface like a homemade pie crust, it really wasn’t much different from all those ultrasounds and blood tests of yesteryear.

Except, of course, it was completely devoid of that deliciously giddy prospect of a new baby, which takes the edge off of just about any unpleasant medical procedure. Even now, walking around that hospital is like flipping through a photo album of precious memories. (Aw, there’s the waiting room where I downed that bottle of noxious orange stuff for the gestational diabetes test! And there’s the hallway where I had all those contractions while waiting to be admitted!)

Did I mention my baby girl is THREE today? Three. Older than her big brother was when she was born. I wrote about her baby days for her birthday last year, and I’m so glad I did. Reading back over it now, there are so many details I’d already almost forgotten.


Where did that baby disappear to? This past year she’s grown so beautifully into her child-self, from the full head of hair to the full-fledged love of Bill Nye the Science Guy. She speaks in complete, thoughtful sentences now, always with a pressing story to tell. She attempts jokes and responds to them with a finely honed fake laugh. She can sit next to us at Taco del Mar and chomp down a black bean burrito with no help at all. There are plenty of tears and tantrums, of course, but for the most part she is sunshine itself. Everything about her shines – her mischief, her imagination, her absolute joy in her favorite things.


I thought I would be missing babies by now. And I do, sort of. I’m always happy to see one bobbing along in his Moby wrap or flapping her arms joyously at something shiny. But at the same time, I can definitely feel my own baby window closing. In a good way. I can look at another baby without the compelling biological impulse to swoop it up and care for it. When I hold someone else’s baby, it doesn’t instantly zap me back to my own postpartum days anymore. It just feels like . . . holding a baby.

What I really miss is my babies. Or, rather, I miss the time I spent with them. I miss when it was enough to bundle them up in ducky pajamas and just sit around listening to each other breathe. I miss heading out for long, dreamy walks with a baby snoozing contentedly in her wrap. I miss when the “firsts” were innocent and easy. Baby’s first laugh. Baby’s first ride on the playground swing.

Mostly, I think I miss that intangible bliss of the transition to parenthood itself. Yes it was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done, and I wouldn’t want to go back to the sleepless nights. But the stretch of it all . . . realizing we were capable of raising a newborn at all (and then another one!), and finding those little corners of pure happiness amid the chaos . . . I’ve never experienced anything quite like that. I used to tell people it felt like getting pushed off a cliff at the very moment you discover you’ve had wings all along.

The Christmas season is already so evocative, with its twinkling lights, carols, and whatnot; ready-made for nostalgic warm fuzzies. And each year I realize a little more just how truly amazing and special that first Christmas season was, welcoming our new baby. Our daughter. Little sister. The final member of a nuclear family which, for a long time, had been largely hypothetical.

The previous years had been a rapid current of transitions – the move to Seattle, new jobs, the new house, the marriage, the miscarriages, the birth of our first child. And now, with this final tremendous change, with the nights getting longer and our loved ones gathering to celebrate the holiday, we were finally ready to settle here for a while. Things would still keep changing constantly, of course. But at least we’d established a setting and a cast of characters. And with that, a new chapter was ready to begin.

And here we are. Three years of driving a station wagon with two car seats in the back and saying things like “Don’t ‘But Mommy’ me!” without irony. Three years of gathering them both into my lap for stories and silliness. Three years of being a team with these incredibly smart, funny, constantly evolving little people. They never cease to amaze me, and these have been some of the happiest years of my life.

Happy birthday, Little Girl.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Very ACLU Christmas

There was a so-called “war on Christmas” long before Bill O'Reilly and friends went mainstream with it a few years ago. I should know. I worked in the ACLU’s Philadelphia office in the mid-1990’s, and it was my job to open the hate mail. Most of it arrived during the month of December in the form of Christmas cards. Nice picture of Mary and the Baby Jesus on the cover. Scrawled scathing message encouraging us to burn in hell or die painfully on the inside. Joy to the world, indeed.

It was all because of that pesky “separation of church and state” which, at least in those days, typically meant your courthouse couldn’t have a crèche on its front lawn. (Unless you went 
this route.) Our lawyers were much busier with other pursuits -- helping the woman who'd been evicted over her boyfriend's race or the man with Down syndrome who wasn't allowed to ride a merry-go-round at a local amusement park. Crèche-busting typically required a few phone calls in the middle of a hectic afternoon, then they’d move on. But that’s what gained us the most notoriety.

Our lawyers didn’t mind the hate mail. Some of them thrived on it, in fact. These were people who loved a good fight; being told to burn in hell just meant they were doing their job. I didn’t take it personally either. But it did make me think. I’d just be sitting there at my cluttered desk in my little hippie skirt making my little $20K a year and listening to my little mix tape, wondering what sort of Christian would think I deserved endless pain just for showing up and doing my little support staff job that day.

And what a job it was. Our office of ten people served all of Pennsylvania. There were two or three lawyers in Philly, another one in Pittsburgh. Phones rang all day long. Mail poured in. I did everything from photocopying to event planning to producing a newsletter. There were some exciting days, being in the midst of important cases and press conferences. There were downright degrading days, dealing with big egos and unkind words from our superstar freedom fighters. But there were plenty of slow, peaceful days, too.

That’s how it was right before Christmas Eve that year. My major projects were finished for the time being. No fires to put out. My mom was coming that night to take me out to dinner and give me a lift home for the holidays. I was clearing up some of the months-old clutter on my desk when I heard some bustling in the foyer area.

I saw Frank, our long-time senior citizen volunteer receptionist, sitting at his desk and speaking earnestly with a young man wrapped in a coat while two small children, a boy and a girl, squirmed in our uncomfortable waiting-room chairs. Each child was holding a gorgeous oversized mesh plastic “stocking” stuffed with toys, clearly yearning to open them but showing remarkable restraint.

Except for the children, it was a familiar scene. All sorts of folks dropped in on our office from time to time, seeking help. Frank would listen patiently to every word of their stories before he would purposefully explain, in his Jim-Ignatowski-meets-Grandpa-Simpson manner, that the ACLU does not handle such cases and refer them to an agency that did. Sometimes they’d get angry, but Frank took the verbal abuse stoically, patiently listening again before restating his position. And listening. And restating. Eventually they’d move on.

But this family was different. From what I was overhearing, this was clearly not a situation the ACLU could help with in an official capacity. But Frank didn’t give him the speech. He kept listening. He kept asking questions. The children got antsier and louder as the conversation continued. Some of us came into the waiting area and tried to keep them entertained with whatever random toys we had on our desks. Stress balls. A Marge Simpson doll. Finally, their dad gave them the go-ahead to open the stockings, and merry chaos broke out.

In the midst of all that, our Legal Director and chief crèche-buster came blustering out of his office on some unrelated matter. He asked Frank what was going on, and Frank discreetly explained. This family had nowhere to sleep tonight. They’d been staying with a friend of the dad, but they couldn’t go back there now. The friend molested the little girl. The lawyer’s tone shifted in a way I’d never heard before, from busy and important to sincere kindness and concern. He invited the young dad into his office.

Which left the babysitting to the rest of us. But no one seemed to mind. Children rarely made an appearance in our office, and they lightened the mood considerably. They pulled crayons and containers of Play Doh from their stockings, and we all got creative together. We made up games and let them run up and down the long hallway.

The meeting went on for most of an hour. Our Legal Director was on and off the phone, networking with his colleagues in social services, tracking down a place for this family to stay. Finally, he was able to line something up. We helped the children gather up their stockings, got them into their coats, and off they went into the Philadelphia winter dusk. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat as I picked the squished Play Doh bits from our waiting-room carpet. Sweet little girl. Who knew what was going to happen to her? It broke my heart just to think about it. But at least she had somewhere safe to go on Christmas Eve.

The “Very Special Christmas Episode” message here is probably pretty obvious, but it bears repeating: The ACLU may have caused the relocation of a few plaster Mary-and-Josephs that year. But an ACLU lawyer also found this real-life unfortunate family some room at the Inn. And with all due respect to Mr. Schulz, I’d like to suggest that that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Dedicated to the memories of Stefan Presser, Larry Frankel, and Frank Kent.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"What the Oh?!"

Well, here we are: the 10-year anniversary of the WTO’s ill-fated meeting. Does anyone outside of Seattle even remember or care? For that matter, do many of us in Seattle remember or care?

Well . . . yes, I expect. I mean, it was no 9/11 or 2009 Iranian election. But it’s probably the biggest thing to happen right here in our city, at least since I’ve lived here. Some of us got harassed by police or even sent to jail just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The city itself was a punch line for weeks, maybe months afterwards, and is still a one-word cautionary tale to other cities hosting controversial events: “We don’t want another Seattle.” The news media tied it up in a neat little package called “The Battle in Seattle” – that rhymes! (Incidentally, the movie of the same title does a great job retelling the story.)

I remember being very excited about the whole thing in the weeks leading up to it. Everyone knew it was coming. The local papers brought us up to speed on what the World Trade Organization even is and why people were organizing protests in the first place. On our annual Thanksgiving drive home from Oregon, we passed a bunch of Seattle-bound activist hitchhikers. One local news station was running a promo with footage of the pre-meeting protests and a goofy voiceover better suited to a dog food commercial saying “Protests! Traffic! Changes in your bus route! What the oh?!!”

I was tempted to participate in the AFL-CIO’s rally but, in the ultimate irony, I really couldn’t miss a day of work. Mr. Black wasn’t planning to participate either, but some of his fellow law students were donning gas masks and “Legal Observer” t-shirts to jump into the fray. I couldn’t help feeling like I was missing out, driving over the bridge to complacent Kirkland to work on my little magazine layouts while history was being made just a few blocks from our Capitol Hill apartment.


I kept checking the news all day, reading about the marching sea turtles and French dairy farmers handing out raw cheese samples in front of McDonalds. Somehow, the activists had actually managed to shut the WTO opening ceremonies down. A little less amazing and a lot more cynical: some protestors were smashing shop windows and looting downtown. Where was this going?

Mr. Black and I snapped on the news the minute we got home and watched the massive, unmoving crowd facing down police officers downtown. Huge white waves of pepper spray would inch the crowd only slightly backward. Another face-off. Another burst of pepper spray. And another. We watched with near-simultaneous feelings of “Power to the people!” and “Oh shit, here come the people!” Because we could see the direction the police were pushing the crowd: right up the hill, east on Pine Street. Right up the hill to our neighborhood.

photo by Eric Draper
Photo by Eric Draper

Surely the police would let up before they got that far, we agreed. There was a curfew in effect downtown, but not all the way up in Capitol Hill. I set off for my writing workshop in Eastlake without giving it much further thought.

Driving home just an hour or so later, I realized I’d made a big mistake. Two blocks from our building, a lone specter of a man stood right in the middle of Bellevue Street holding a rag to his nose and mouth, surrounded by a spooky haze. I inched cautiously along the road and found the next block swarming with neighbors and protestors packing the sidewalks in front of the mini-market, laundromat, and apartment buildings.

I parked the car in the little lot behind our building and impulsively hurried down the hill toward the action, ready to shake my rolling pin at somebody. Because, seriously, get the pepper spray out of my neighborhood. We live here. All at once, a misty cloud of hot peppery goodness wafted up the street and hit me in the face. Quick little sneezes came one after the other, followed by an unbearable burning in my eyes and throat. I was livid and wanted to kick the ass of whoever did it, but instead I ran watery-eyed back to our apartment. (Luckily, that news report we’d been watching earlier had told us what to do if you happen to get yourself pepper-sprayed.)

When I’d sufficiently doused my face and the noise outside died down, Mr. Black and I went up to the roof to see what was going on. The neighborhood was now eerily desolate, except for a group of police officers in full riot gear marching in ominous formation down Bellevue Street.

My suburban co-workers wanted to hear all about it the next day, especially the conspiracy-theorist guy who was always hepped up on “coffee.” We were driving to a meeting together and he talked excitedly about it all – how President Clinton was due to arrive that day and that’s why the city cracked down so hard on all the protestors last night. He enthusiastically insisted that Clinton wasn’t really staying at the Westin downtown amid all the chaos; he was probably right here in Kirkland. The words had barely left his mouth when we saw two low-flying helicopters, apparently departing from the nearby big fancy waterfront hotel. The guy nearly peed his pants with tinfoil-hat vindication.

The big boss sent me home early that night to beat the next round of neighborhood riots. Mr. Black and I sat cooped up in the apartment, uneasily watching TV, when we heard helicopters overhead. And lots of angry-crowd sounds. And more helicopters. And . . . gunfire?

The most unsettling thing was that the noise wasn’t coming from downtown or anywhere near the newly imposed “No Protest Zone.” The noise was coming from Broadway, east of our apartment and further up the hill from downtown, well outside the WTO area. Why? More helicopters. More gunfire. More shouting. Explosions. We didn’t dare go outside after my little pepper spray incident the night before, so we kept changing the channel in the hopes of finding a news report. Nothing. Hours later, we found out the gunfire and explosions were actually rubber bullets and concussion grenades fired by police in a riot whose origins are still unclear.

We never did see much about the Capitol Hill riot in the news, but there were lots of first-hand accounts from our neighbors suggesting there’d been nothing unusual going on that night until the police showed up and started sweeping the streets. Matthew Amster-Burton sums it up nicely in his essay:

A police helicopter buzzed overhead, and as we looked down the street, a line of riot cops materialized from out of the gas to look back at us. They were three deep marching up the street, flinging countless canisters and grenades at everybody nearby. A pair of armored personnel carriers pushed through, four cops hanging off each side. . .

[N]ot only was there no evidence of civilian violence, but I didn't see any protesters at all. . . . We watched out the windows as the police parked an armored vehicle on our corner and flanked it with officers. When our neighbors started to gather on the sidewalk across from them, we went back out to join in shouting for the police to leave our home. Ten minutes later, the police pushed back down the street, again beating and gassing as they went. The last battery of gas and grenades didn't end until 2:20 a.m. . .

An officer kicked a pedestrian in the groin, stabbed at him with his baton, then shot a beanbag point-blank into his chest. . . A man came out of his home to shout, "We are residents here!" He got a heavy dose of pepper spray to the eyes, courtesy of his local peace officer. A cop ordered two art students with a video camera to roll down their car window so he could talk to them, then sprayed them directly in the face.

Anyway. Things unraveled pretty rapidly in the days that followed. The WTO talks failed. The protestors and bystanders who’d been imprisoned were released. The police chief resigned and the mayor went on to lose an election. City council meetings were held, committees were formed, lawsuits were filed. But a few days after it was over, I was Christmas shopping downtown as if the whole thing had been some sort of vacation; the Disneyland version of life under occupation.

At the end of it all, I have no firm conclusions. The whole mess was just ten different flavors of bad. Egregious violations of civil rights, police officers thrown headfirst into a dangerous situation that they’d barely been prepared to handle, citizens attacked on their own streets. In a way, it strikes at the heart of what human beings are really capable of. All that ferocious insecurity and conviction. And where does it leave us? It ends with confusion and a series of anecdotes, and then it’s all but forgotten. What the oh.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Shambling After Kerouac


Jack Kerouac almost caused me to drop out of graduate school. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. I wasn’t chasing any falling stars or yearning to follow some holy road. Not really. I just didn’t want to write a paper about the guy. And by “didn’t want to,” I mean I was seized with anxiety and self-doubt about the damn thing. (Ah, graduate school.)

I’d never read On the Road before. Somehow in my dreamy, bookwormy adolescence, I’d missed it. Maybe it’s not the sort of book a high school English teacher hands to a promising girl-geek. Flannery O’Connor, yes. Kerouac . . . better save him for those awkwardly brilliant golden boys. Somehow Kerouac and I never crossed paths in college, either, although I’d picked him up on my zeitgeist radar by then.

So, my first encounter with On the Road was in one of those early-1990’s hardcore take-a-book-you-love-and-obliterate-it classes which was the style of the time. It was a lot easier to do this with old familiar favorites like Shakespeare and Hawthorne. With a book that I’d never read before – especially this one – it was a frustrating venture.

Sure, there’s plenty of against-the-graining to be done in On the Road. But on some level I just had to say “so what”? There’s misogyny all over that book, upside down and backwards. You know what else? That book is printed on paper, too. And sold in bookstores. The misogyny just seemed so obvious, was all. Pointing it out felt redundant. Maybe if I’d kept at it I could have come up with a more interesting angle. But something else was holding me back.

Yes, I was a woman reader; a feminist reader. But somehow I couldn’t write about Kerouac without writing about myself. I knew there wasn’t a place for me in his late-1940’s world of gritty Benzedrine-and-jazz-fueled spontaneity. Heck, there wasn’t even a place for me in the 1990’s version of that world where scores of Gen-X boys wandered off to find themselves, leaving us girlfriends to heal our broken hearts and make our mix tapes. Forty years later, men still left and women still waited. And in my own way I was as screwed as Camille or Galatea or any of those On the Road gals.

“[She] would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop . . . I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”

Still, I identified with the protagonist in spite of myself. Kerouac’s Sal Paradise – Kerouac himself, really – was drifting, brilliant, and stuck; trying to be a writer but coming loose at the seams; struggling to find his voice as he “shambled after” his mad and wildly inspiring friends from one road’s end to the next. Minus his actual talent, there was a lot there that reminded me of myself.

I went to graduate school straight from college because I had no idea what else I could do. It was a safe choice, prolonging studenthood for another two years while enhancing my employability. I thought it was a passionate choice, too. I loved literature. I loved being a student. This was exactly what I thought I wanted to do. But the minute I set foot on that campus, it all came crumbling down.

Everything – the classes, the people, the unfortunate architecture on SUNY-Binghamton’s campus – felt so stark and alienating. I couldn’t focus on my reading or pay attention in class, and the slightest setbacks would fill my eyes with tears. I was as strong, wise, intuitive, and spiritual then as I am now. But it was all so raw, so wild, so untested and full of self-doubt. I had no idea how to be in the world quite yet.

So what did I do? I drove. I had my parents’ old Oldsmobile sedan and I was behind its wheel at every opportunity. I’d drive three hours south to visit my parents or three hours north to visit my boyfriend, planning different routes every time to keep it interesting. I’d drive to other SUNY campuses to track down the books I needed in their libraries. I’d drive to Ithaca for cute-college-town window shopping. I’d drive nowhere in particular, through the hills and trees until it felt like I could be anywhere. Everything felt okay as long as I was in motion.

At the end of October my boyfriend set off to follow a road of his own, slacking westward toward Austin. I couldn’t quite follow him, but I couldn’t quite let him go. I wasn’t ready to embrace my new independent lifestyle, but I had no desire to abandon it, either. Months of limbo lay ahead. And driving. Lots more driving. The weather was rainier and colder, snowy at times, but that didn’t stop me. I could go for hours in my merry Oldsmobile, maps on the floor and cassette tapes all over the seat – REM, Throwing Muses, Morrissey, Lush, Jane Siberry, Concrete Blonde. Somehow I managed to pull off good grades anyway. Don’t ask me how.

And that’s pretty much the state I was in when I decided to write a paper for my “Narratives of Travel” class on On the Road. Given my current state of drifting, it seemed like a perfect fit. Unfortunately, I found myself enjoying the book way too much at face value to successfully pull off some “colonizer/colonized” reading. I’d sit down to work on it and get swept away by the wild, seamless flow of words; mired in the fantasy; outraged by the foreshadowing of 1990’s male angst bullshit depicted so unapologetically.

Still, I didn’t have an academically useful word to say about the book. The more I learned about Kerouac himself, the more I found myself genuinely liking the guy. I can’t say that I loved the book. But I loved its spirit and mythology, and at the time I wanted desperately to believe in that mythology even as the narrative itself eventually dispels it. My deadline drew nearer, the workload in my other classes increased, and I started to panic. Driving back from a weekend at my parents’ place one freezing cold afternoon, I felt my throat seize up with anxiety and a fierce impulse to drop out of school once and for all. Instead, I decided that I was simply not going to write that paper. In fact, I decided to drop the class altogether.

My only regret was that my On the Road experience was muddled in all that unpleasantness. Any enjoyment I might have found in the book was overshadowed by my gawky attempts at scholarship and a steady undercurrent of anxiety and doubt. I promised myself I’d read the book again someday, purely for entertainment this time. My old copy of On the Road is one of the few books that’s moved with me to every subsequent apartment and city with the best of intentions.

Well, here we are – seventeen years later – and I finally got around to picking it up again. The funny thing is, when I decided to blog about it I found myself just as blocked as I was back in grad school. I certainly wasn’t expecting that. What is it about this book? Maybe it just doesn’t want to be written about.

I’ll tell you one thing, though. Reading it now . . . oh, it’s incredibly sad. So sad. All that madness and frenzy; the starving; the left-behind children and women and friends; how it all goes zooming by with barely a pause. Time and again the protagonist himself gets left behind in a broken heap while his friends move wildly on. And then there’s this heartbreaking bit of insight about how children see their parents:

“I realized these were the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road.”

How did I miss this sadness the first time? Too mired in my own story, I suppose. Too wrapped up in my nascent scholarship and too eager to believe the mythology and dream of some magical “road” unfolding endless possibilities in my own life. I was more hopeful then, in spite of all the chick angst. How could I sense the weariness and regret in this book when I’d barely ventured into the world myself?

On the Road is simply a beautiful narrative and I’m glad I finally read it again. I’m also kind of glad I never tried to turn it into a paper. I mean, look at this guy. How can you academic-paper that?:

Monday, October 26, 2009



I’m with T.S. Eliot: April is the cruelest month, forcing us back out of our cocoons like that, stirring us from our cozy hibernation. But I love, love, how October gathers us up and folds us in from the cold. Spring may be all about blooming and rebirth, but there’s incredible sensuality in the autumnal withdrawing and turning inward, too, yes, absolutely there is. Fall is my time of year, and I’ll take butternut squash over a damn peach any day of the week.

For a student, fall is the real time of rebirth and renewal. Summer was your hibernation – drawing back into your nuclear family, replacing poetry classes with minimum-wage jobs, sorting out what went wrong over the past school year and how to improve it. And (unless you’re one of the fortunate ones who got to spend the summer traipsing all over Europe or something) it’s September that draws you back out into your larger world of peers, relationships, and challenges. September can be shaky, but by the time October comes around you’re just managing to get your footing in the new context – just in time for that burst of fall color and crisper, colder air, which somehow heightens the whole “You’re gonna make it after all” sentiment. I don’t know how. It just does.


It’s strange how, as a parent, I find myself living in this school-year paradigm again. Although honestly I don’t think I ever stopped. Nearly every 12-month lease in every single-girl apartment I ever had began in September, and I’d unload my books and Urban Outfitters knick knacks from their boxes with fresh optimistic resolve. As the weather got colder and darker, on some level I’d be telling myself “Okay, this is where I’m going to stay for a while,” and I’d seek small comforts as if storing them away for the winter.

In Binghamton I used to take long walks through the old part of town by myself, past all the junk shops, sometimes stopping at one of the glorious old-school diners for a grilled corn muffin and no-frills diner coffee. In Philly I’d wander from the Schuylkill to the Delaware, pausing in shops to gather Suddenly Tammy CDs or cozy sweaters before strolling home, wet yellow leaves under my feet (and ginkgo berries. Oh how I don’t miss those one little bit).


Fall can be a bit more heartbreaking in Seattle, since it heralds the next nine months of rain. But there’s a kind of beauty and optimism there, too. We seem to spend our summers anywhere but home – visiting my family on the east coast, exploring the northwest mountains or beaches, spending all day at the wading pool. Fall summons us back to the comforts of home and routine. And fall means the start of a new school year for the kids.

Up until now they’ve always attended cooperative preschool, and the transitions have been pretty much seamless. Preschool meets only a few half-days a week, one of which is my day to work in the classroom. Separation happens in small, manageable doses. You get to see your child in action among their peers (for better or for worse!), and the teachers are so incredibly generous with their time. But this year, things are a little different.

Last month I dropped The Boy off for his first day of full-day kindergarten at the big public K-8 school. I’m not sure I was completely aware of it at the time, but I was an absolute wreck those first few weeks. I couldn’t focus on anything. I could barely even eat. I don’t know what was so unnerving about it, exactly. Maybe just the feeling that Something Big Has Changed. He belongs just a little bit less to me now, and a little bit more to this imperfect world. Which is terrifying.

But I found some comfort in the faces of every other parent and child in that schoolyard every morning, because each one of them looked every bit as shell-shocked as me. Some kids clung to their parents. One mom stood outside her daughter’s classroom window until a teacher’s aide came out and asked her to leave. A girl clutched her teacher’s arm and wept steadily, while a particularly clever boy decided to just make a break for it and ran out of the school building after the final bell. And there was The Boy, taking it in and swallowing it down, trying so hard to hang in there.

“He’s doing fine,” his teacher reassured me, looking weary after her first full week with the newbies. She showed me his special chair where he knows to sit if he needs a break. She acknowledged that he gets upset sometimes. But she said he’s been so good at knowing how to calm himself down, and so good at articulating his feelings.

I like this teacher. She’s warm, smart, and positively fearless about feeding frozen mice to the class’s pet corn snake. Best of all . . . she truly doesn’t see my son as a problem. Her attitude has been so refreshingly positive and welcoming. She speaks openly with a bright and helpful tone, rather than in the hushed and worried tones of some other teachers he’s had.

And I can see The Boy responding. Not only is he making friends and learning new things at school, but he’s excited and actually proud to be a part of his class in a way I’ve never seen before. He seems to feel safe there. He seems to feel like he belongs. It’s a little sad, but a little wonderful, too, to see how positively he’s responded to a teacher who knows what the hell to do with him. What a difference a bigger pond makes.

And now it’s October. The fall color on the school playground has been positively stunning this week. The Boy used to insist on going straight home after school, but now he and his sister love to stay and play for another hour or so. Looking up at all those vibrant reds and yellows on the trees, I have the strangest sense of school-year déjà vu. This could be my old college campus; those old waves of anxiety, peace, and delight have barely changed even when I’m not the student anymore.

And as I said before, October is that time of year when the new context is just becoming joyfully familiar. I don’t want to jinx it, but I think we’re there. Oh yes, there will be challenges upon challenges ahead of us, I’m sure. But I’m also sure that we’re on a good path.

Happy fall.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Mere minutes from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it felt like I was the last soul left in the world as I steered my way through the gloomy country night. If the Headless Horseman happened to sidle up to my old Volvo, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised. I was already feeling haunted, though it was entirely of my own making.

I just couldn’t bring myself to admit it to my mom over the phone that afternoon – after Josh left; after we’d spent the last 18 hours gazing teen-style into each other’s eyes, telling our stories, holding each other as closely as we could – I couldn’t bring myself to say out loud that I might be falling in love (at last!) with a guy who was about to move far away (again!). Because this was getting to be embarrassing. I’d been in this situation so many times before, it was beginning to look like I was doing it on purpose.

But I wasn’t. Really. Josh was my co-worker’s roommate (well, he was crashing on my co-worker’s couch, but I didn’t know that until later), and we met at a work-related happy hour at some brew pub in trendy Manayunk. I was sitting with another co-worker and his frat brothers, one of whom was picking a fight with some dude who’d set his beer down on our table. When I slipped away from the drama to join the first co-worker at his table, I found myself sitting next to this adorable guy with glasses, a Phish hat, and a smirk to match my own. Practically upon introduction, we launched into one of those amazing conversations that makes you realize how much work most ordinary conversations usually are. It was seamless. He was witty and warm. I swear there was an actual twinkle in his eye.

He was also about five years younger than me, but I barely registered that fact. Who knows where things might have gone that night if the situation at the next table hadn’t escalated to a fist fight, getting us all kicked out of the bar. I got on my train back to Philly and hoped he’d call.

But he didn’t. I agonized over it for weeks, wondering if I should ask my co-worker to give him my number or not. Then one day at lunch, during a lull in the conversation, I suddenly found the nerve. My co-worker was so genuinely delighted to help, it warmed my heart. He was sure Josh would be happy about it. He’d talk to him. And then he mentioned that Josh was moving back in with his parents in Cincinnati at the end of the month. Was that a problem?

Maybe I should have slammed on the brakes right then, but I decided to go the carpe diem route. And it was wonderful. Every moment with that guy was pure dessert – rich, decadent restaurant dessert. We savored every minute of each other’s company. We talked and hugged so much; practically memorized each other’s faces. We spent one miserably cold October night cuddled up in my apartment – a mostly-clothed, relatively chaste encounter, but easily one of the most romantic nights of my singlehood.

It was early afternoon by the time he finally left, but I could already feel the darkness encroaching. We had one week left, and then he’d be gone for good. Incredible sadness poured in. Somehow, my mom knew to call me at that precise moment. And even though I just wasn’t able to tell her any of this, I think she got a general sense of my despair.

“Come to the pumpkin party tonight!” she urged. It was going to be so much fun! Her folk artist friend Barbara hosted a fabulous open house every Halloween featuring her fall paintings and a house full of jack o’ lanterns carved by the local high school students. I’d been hearing about it for years, but never attended one. From my lonely Center City apartment, it seemed like a world away. Which is exactly why I decided to go.

So there I was, driving down a deserted country road on a pitch-black night, haunted by the impending loss of a love that had barely blossomed. Somehow I was able to read my scribbled directions and navigate my way to the artist’s home. And there it was: A big old farmhouse overflowing with gleaming jack o’ lanterns. Every window exuded an amber glow that seemed to warm the chilly black night, and I could hear the sound of fiddles (actual fiddles!) and general merriment within.

by Barbara Strawser
Painting by Barbara Strawser

Apparently, I’d just missed my mom singing folk songs with the fiddlers. Every room was full of paintings and conversation with an eclectic bunch of local artists, family, and art lovers. I found my mom and Barbara in the kitchen and set to work helping them peel and core apples to bake with brown sugar and raisins. Working late most nights, living alone in the city within a block of falafel and Mexican take-out places, I hadn’t had much use for the kitchen lately. But it was comforting to find that my hands somehow remembered what to do with a baked apple.

I drifted from room to room just looking at the paintings and occasionally chatting with someone about my job. Josh barely crossed my mind. I felt so blissfully out of context as I wandered the pages of this storybook landscape. As the evening came to a close, Barbara approached me. Was I driving back to Philly tonight? Could I possibly give her friend Sebastian a ride? Sebastian lived only a few blocks from me, and it would make driving through that Sleepy Hollowesque gloom a little nicer. I agreed.

Sebastian, it turned out, was a little on the haunted side himself. Way more than me, actually. He’d recently lost his wife to cancer, and it was all so raw and vivid for him, still. He loved her so much, he could barely fathom that she simply wasn’t there anymore. He wanted to talk. I’m not much of a talker myself, so that was fine with me. And as we drove back to the city, we turned the Halloween hitchhiker paradigm on its ear as this lonely, deeply haunted man spoke of his lost wife and his various thoughts and philosophies about it all.

She’d wanted a dog, he said, toward the end when there wasn’t much more to do but huddle up at home to ride out the disease. She’d wanted a sweet little lap dog to give her that uniquely canine rush of pure, joyful love that the grieving humans in her life just couldn’t provide. But when they went to the local animal shelter, the only dog available for adoption was a big, goofy mixed breed with a scraggly coat. And that was it. She fell instantly in love with that dog. “Honey, Honey, are you sure?” he’d asked. She was sure. So sure. That was her dog, and she poured every ounce of love she could spare into the big furry guy. Sebastian had never been a fan of big dogs himself, but he loved that dog still, as much as she had.

I drove. I listened. It broke my heart and renewed my faith in love and humanity all at once. It was right out of Wings of Desire or something. And then he asked me about myself. What do you say after a story like that? “Boo hoo, I just met this cute guy who’s about to leave the city”? Hardly. So I tried to answer his questions as breezily as possible, but I think he still got a sense of the sadness I’d been holding. “Life is process,” he said thoughtfully. I’m not sure if he said that to comfort me or to comfort himself. I’m not even completely sure how he meant it. But for some reason, I did find that phrase incredibly comforting, and it’s stayed with me for years. Life is process. Indeed.

Back in the city, we went our separate ways. And a few nights later, I saw Josh for the very last time. It was a Halloween party, appropriately enough, at my co-worker’s place where Josh was still couch-crashing for a few days more. He dressed as Waldo from Where’s Waldo. I dressed as Velma from Scooby Doo. (Neither costume was much of a stretch for us.) The party was hilariously fun, but I found myself a bit distracted and sad.

When it was over, Josh and I wrapped ourselves in a sleeping bag on the living room floor for our last night together. The next morning, we had breakfast at a diner with the other roommates. Then we returned to the house alone, put on a Cowboy Junkies CD, and got right back in that sleeping bag for one last afternoon of soul cuddling. Still in his Waldo shirt, he told me he was so happy we’d met. It seemed like he was going to say something more, but his voice cracked, almost like a sob, and he just held me. He drove me home in the dark, reaching over to grab my hand at every opportunity. I watched as his car disappeared into the night. Gone. As if it had never happened at all. And I was alone again with the rest of the city’s lost souls.

I suppose I’d hoped, maybe even expected, to see Josh again. He hadn’t been very forthcoming about future plans, and after all my years of dating I’d learned to tread lightly on such matters. I did send him one letter, but I never heard back. I kept a widow watch at the mailbox for about a month before finally letting go.

I tucked the memory of Josh away like a memento; the perfect jewel of our experience just dangling from a strong, simple chain. We never would have made it as a couple. He was only 23 and we weren’t that much alike, really, in retrospect. Him leaving right as we were beginning to grow fond of each other somehow created the illusion that it was this Great Love. But the fact is, all relationships start out with this level of intense early bliss. They don’t typically end right at the crescendo like that.

Sadly, the very best relationships end like Sebastian’s. One partner fades away and the other is left with an overflowing heart of memories, sorrows, and joy. Haunted. It’s his story that I always remember this time of year. The truest, saddest, most beautiful ghost story I’ve ever heard. And it’s his insight that gets me through the gloomy patches of my own. Life is process.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

“And You May Find Yourself Living in a Shotgun Shack”

October 13, 2001

I can’t believe our wedding was almost eight years ago. I’d love to regale you with all the hilarious mishaps, but the thing is . . . there weren’t any. It was deliciously perfect, complete with autumn leaves gently fluttering about as we walked down the aisle to This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren.” We said our own vows under an archway of branches and sunflowers by a river in New Hope, Pennsylvania. My sister made our rings; my other sister gave the funniest, most moving, Oscar-clip worthy toast ever; and my uncle’s jazz quartet played on. Everyone important in our lives was there, from Mr. Black’s old grunge bandmates to his 90-year-old grandmother to our parents, cousins, and all the various best friends from each stage of my crazy singlehood. “Happiest day of my life” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

And then. Marriage.

In the beginning it was all beach trips and restaurants and joining the throng of bespectacled couples like ourselves at Scarecrow Video on Friday nights. Then one day, you wake up and this is outside your living room window, right where the driveway used to be:


No, I’m not speaking metaphorically. This actually happened. An 8-foot-deep, oil-contaminated, festering pit took up residence on our property. And, okay, it didn’t exactly happen overnight. But it happened pretty quickly, and at the worst possible time.

Our marriage had already taken a bit of a bruising from a little miscarriage situation, one after the other during that first year-and-a-half. But just when we least expected it, I got pregnant and the darn thing decided to stick around this time. We were cautiously ecstatic.

When my company closed its Seattle office and I lost my job, it felt like a blessing in disguise. I’d been waffling over whether to return to full-time work after I had the baby; now the decision had been made for me. We had some money saved up to support a single-income lifestyle for a while. And I’d have two months all to myself until the baby would be born. Everything was comin’ up Millhouse.

Sort of. Even with no job, there was a lot of work to be done . . . particularly on the “property management” front. We were having an incredibly rainy winter (even for Seattle), and our basement was flooding almost daily. Then, just when I’d lined up a contractor to install drains and a sump pump, our ancient furnace started going out on a daily basis. I kept calling the oil company to fix it. Finally, we discovered that rainwater was getting into the underground oil tank and putting the furnace out. And if water was leaking in . . . well, then, oil must be leaking out.

What happened next was a series of phone calls, questions, arguments, and procedures – the details of which I’ve mostly blocked from memory. I remember the removal of a frightfully decrepit oil tank along with a few tons of contaminated soil. And I remember struggling to make sense of all the information coming in, scribbling it over and over again in my notebook, trying to put it into some kind of order. As an amateur property manager, I was in way over my head. But I must have been faking it pretty well, because Mr. Black was always asking me questions and getting irritated with the answers (as if I knew what I was talking about in the first place).

What it all boiled down to was this: The contamination was extensive and predated our ownership of the house by many years. The company that removed our tank wanted to just keep digging and digging until the soil tested clean, but we’d blown through a significant portion of our savings to pay for the few tons they’d removed already.

Eventually, we would hire a geologist and an environmental lawyer and find a more efficient way to get it cleaned up. But during those first confusing weeks, with our savings dwindling and my due date approaching, neither of us was in a clear enough frame of mind to arrive at a good solution. Mr. Black wanted the previous owner to pay for the cleanup. I wanted to hide under a pile of coats à la Homer Simpson. Out of our league, frustrated, and scared, we fought like a sack of cats.

I’d like to say that the arrival of our son made everything all better, but anyone who’s lived with a newborn baby for even a few hours will recognize that for the damn lie it is! Oh, don’t get me wrong – we were amazed and joyful and madly in love with the little guy and all that good stuff. But there wasn’t a whole lot of sleep going on, either. We were in those clueless days of early parenthood when it takes both parents and a Dr. Sears manual just to change one diaper. And the crying. Oh, the crying.

Meanwhile the pit lived on, baffling all the friends and well-wishers who stopped by to see the baby. One afternoon I was standing at the window with my friend Ana, explaining the whole absurd situation for the umpteenth time, when we saw a large orange hamster slip through the chain link fence that surrounded the pit. It waddled closer and closer to the edge, sniffing.

Ana ran outside to divert the little bugger, but it was too late. We braced ourselves for the worst and peered into the bottom. No sign of the hamster. Before there was even time to look at each other helplessly, we heard children’s voices calling down the street.

“Daisy Mae! Daisy Mae!”

Gulp. I held my three-week-old baby close, hoping it would buy me some sympathy. As my neighbor and her two grandchildren approached, I blurted out my confession.

“I’m so sorry. Your hamster fell into our hole. Oh I feel just terrible. Please let me buy you another one. I’m so sorry.”

The grandmother, who’d been carrying Daisy Mae in her purse when she’d made a break for it, seemed suspiciously not disappointed by this turn of events. She just smiled and insisted it was okay, wouldn’t hear of me replacing the hamster. Meanwhile, her grandchildren pressed their faces up against our chain link fence, looking for their lost pet.

“Look! There she is!” one of them exclaimed. And there, swimming furiously through the pool of oily rainwater at the bottom of the pit, was Daisy Mae. We watched in amazement as she made it to the water’s edge, where she dug herself a little hole and huddled inside. What now?

Ana tried lowering various items into the pit for the hamster to crawl into – an old hanging basket, a bucket on the end of a pole. No deal. More and more neighbors kept coming over and trying different hare-brained schemes, but Daisy Mae wouldn’t budge. Ana called the fire department and the Humane Society, but rescuing a hamster was apparently pretty low on their priority lists. A few neighborhood cats hovered like vultures around the edge of the pit while Daisy Mae huddled tighter into her hole.

Finally, I called the company that dug the pit in the first place. I explained the situation and waited for the guy to tell me to take a hike. Instead, I heard him yell to a co-worker “Hey Bill, we got another pet rescue!”

Within a few minutes, Bill arrived at our place with a ladder, rubber overalls, and hazmat gloves. By now quite a crowd was gathered around our pit. The children had climbed our neighbor’s tree to get a better view. Bill climbed down into the pit, scooped up Daisy Mae and put her in a bucket, and returned to the crowd’s triumphant cheers. He handed the oily little rodent to the grateful children and their less-than-thrilled grandmother. Right about then, Mr. Black arrived home from work with a giant question mark over his head.

Yes, we were a long way from that perfect October afternoon by the river. It would be months before the pit would be filled back in; years before our soil would be clean and even longer before we’d reach a settlement agreement with the previous owner. Meanwhile, there were money problems, more miscarriages, and the uniquely terrifying challenges of parenthood.

With all we’ve been through, it’s hard to believe it’s only been eight years. Even though we were in our early thirties when we got married, it’s sort of like we’ve grown up together. We’re not done with life’s challenges, not by a long shot. But together, we learned how to do this “grown up” stuff at all.

We’ve come out on the other side still very much in love, but a little scrambled. Maybe a little wounded. Maybe a little more benignly detached than we want to be. But there’s such a strong, simple, understated fondness here. We simply belong to each other. We’ve seen each other bleed, cry, and suffer humiliating defeat; we’ve given each other our imperfect best; and we belong to each other. In other words, we’re family.


Sigh . . . look at those crazy lovebirds. Happy anniversary, honey.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When Quirky Met Stalky


It had all the trappings of a Hollywood romantic comedy: Quirky twentysomething with a disappointing job and a stoner boyfriend moves into her new apartment. The downstairs neighbor, a thirtysomething nerd, is instantly smitten. Initially repelled by his hilariously clumsy over-the-top romantic gestures and inept guitar playing, Quirky Girl is eventually won over and finds a kindred spirit in this odd fellow. It’s “Eleanor Rigby” meets When Harry Met Sally meets Punch Drunk Love. I’d buy a ticket to that!

Just one problem: This was real life, and in real life you don’t suddenly become attracted to your stalker. It just doesn’t happen.

Yes, I was that quirky girl. And, okay, maybe the term “stalker” is a little unfair. Yes, sometimes “Father Mackenzie” seemed to have an uncanny sense of timing, knocking on the door just as I was about to step into the tub. Sometimes he’d hover around while I was waiting for a friend in front of the building. Sometimes he’d change whatever song he was attempting to sing and switch to a love song as I came down the stairs past his apartment door. But it could have been a coincidence, right?

Mack wasn’t a bad looking guy at all. Blue eyes, shoulder-length brown hair. I was actually a little titillated when he first invited me to his place for a beer. I had a boyfriend, but it wasn’t terribly serious. A little mutual platonic crush on the new neighbor might be fun, I thought. I took more time getting ready than a casual beer really requires, and crept down the stairs with anticipation.

But any hopes I might have had evaporated the minute he opened the door. His eyes were wild with anxiety. He showed me his cat’s toothpaste and a photo of his parents with the Clintons. He told me a story about how he’d gotten locked in a hallway at his new job, reliving the anger a little bit. He asked me my favorite radio station and went to great lengths attempting to tune it in on his stereo; hunched over so his shirt crept up his pale pink back; twisting knobs and dials in a kind of frenzy; ignoring my pleas to not bother, really, it was okay.

I was terrified. I sat upright in my chair with every limb crossed, clutching my beer in one hand and my keys in the other, trying to think of an excuse to leave. At the earliest opportunity, I fled. Not just back to my apartment, but all the way to South Philly to spend the night at my boyfriend’s place.

Maybe I was being unfair. So the guy had a little crush on me and was nervous. What was so scary about that? Surely I was in no position to judge. I’d had more than my share of unrequited crushes and was never exactly smooth about any of them. Seriously. These guys used to see me coming and dive into the bushes with fear. I think some of them joined the Witness Protection Program. You’d think I would have been more forgiving when the shoe was on the other foot. Nope.

I did my best to avoid him, but it wasn’t easy. It was a small building, with each apartment taking up a whole floor. Our upstairs neighbor lived in the suburbs and kept his apartment for occasional overnight trips to the city. Tenants in the building next door used our laundry room, but Mack and I were the only ones actually living in the building.

Every time we bumped into each other, he’d ask me out and I’d politely decline. He’d ask if I still had a boyfriend and I’d say yes. He would practice his guitar and sing all the time, straining to reach the high notes on “With or Without You” or slooowly strumming the chords of “Cinnamon Girl” over. And over. And over. Sometimes I’d vacuum just to drown it out.

And, as I mentioned before, he had a knack for showing up at my door whenever I was running a bath. When I tried not answering the door, he’d just keep knocking. If I still didn’t answer, he’d pound hard on the door with his fist, calling my name over and over with a note of worry in his voice. I told my co-workers, only half-jokingly, to please make sure to search this guy’s apartment if I ever turned up missing.

Over time I learned to live with my neighbor’s eccentricities, just as I learned to live with the mice and the unreliable heating system. He seemed to gain a better sense of boundaries, although it’s just as likely I gained a better sense of how to avoid him.

My boyfriend and I broke up the following summer, launching one of the loneliest periods of my life ever. I didn’t miss the boyfriend much; the relationship had clearly run its course and we’d parted amicably. But I missed the companionship. One of my best friends had moved to another city. I’d just started a new job that was taking up lots of my time professionally, but not socially. A disappointing summer fling followed by a series of romantic rejections chipped away at my already vulnerable self esteem.

“You should hook up with that neighbor!” my relocated best friend suggested during one of my long-distance whining sessions. I nearly reached through the phone and slugged him. We laughed about it at the time, but the notion started haunting me.

I’d see Mack hanging around the neighborhood parks and coffeehouses, always kind of looking around. Just like me, I’d think miserably. How were we any different, really? Maybe I’d learned how to hide my nerdish leanings a little better than he had, but we were both socially anxious misfits. And we were both alone.

It was closing time on a freezing cold December night, and I was walking home from the corner bar with some new friends. One of the guys had his arm around me and I was feeling extra gregarious. So when I saw Mack headed in our direction, I didn’t try to avoid him. I looked right into his face and sought eye contact, ready to offer a cheery hello. He stared straight ahead and blew right by us, his face fixed in a fierce glare.

That’s the face I would remember a few weeks later on New Year’s Day. The buzzer woke me at some ungodly morning hour. I tried to ignore it, but whoever was down there was buzzing relentlessly. I got up and fumbled my way to the intercom.

It was the city mental health department, or so the guy claimed. And he was asking me to let them in.

Half suspicious and half hungover, I tried to direct him to the property manger’s office. But he wasn’t having it. His tone changed from forceful to pleading. He was here with my neighbor’s parents, who’d driven up from DC and were waiting outside in the car. They were worried about him. They’d tried contacting the property manager, but the office was closed for the holiday. All he needed was for me to let them in so they could knock on Mack’s apartment door.

I still wasn’t sure I believed him, but it seemed too strange not to be true. I found my glasses, threw on an extra sweatshirt, and went downstairs to let them in. Two huge guys filled the door frame, holding out their city ID cards. Okay, so it was legit. They thanked me sincerely as I showed them to Mack’s door. They pounded. They called. No one answered. Where had I seen that before?

They started asking me questions. Were we friends? Had I seen him lately? How did he look? I remembered that night coming home from the bar and told them honestly. Not good. Had I seen him since then? For such tough-looking men, they both seemed so earnestly sad, so resigned.

“Maybe he went out of town for New Years Eve,” I offered lamely. But none of us really believed it.

They went back outside, presumably to come up with a Plan B, while I shuffled back up to my apartment. How incredibly sad it all was. I wondered what had happened. I felt some impulse toward guilt, but that felt selfish somehow. This wasn’t my story. And there was no way I could have saved him. Love of a Good Woman might have been a nice diversion for the guy, but it doesn’t cure a damn thing. Not when a worried parent can summon the city mental health department to the guy’s door.

Whatever similarities Mack and I shared, we were parallel; never meant to intersect. He wanted me simply because I was there. And I was afraid of him -- not just because we lived alone in the same building and he was bigger than me, but because he was the living embodiment of what I feared I was becoming. Not much of a romantic comedy, was it?

The good news is, Mack turned up a week or so later none the worse for wear. I never did find out what had happened, but I was relieved to hear that crappy rendition of “Cinnamon Girl” floating through the floorboards again. I guess that’s about as happy an ending as a story like this can have.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kindergarten, Baby!


I’ve been making The Boy’s lunches every day of his life (or at least since he learned how to chew), but for some reason it felt like an insurmountable task this morning. The added step of packing his sandwich into that shiny new Clone Wars lunch box was just too much for me. I needed to take a few deep breaths before I could get started.

“I’m really nervous,” I admitted to Mr. Black, who was stoically scrambling some eggs.

“Don’t be nervous. You don’t really have to do anything,” he said in his nonchalantly reassuring manner. Then he smirked and added “It’s just a test of everything you’ve done so far.”

Love that sarcasm. In a sad way, though, he was spot-on. This past week leading up to The Boy’s first day of kindergarten, I’ve been walking around with the same mix of vague optimism and sheer dread that I’ve felt before every new job I’ve ever started. Is my work going to be good enough? Only in this case, my “work” is a zany little five-year-old boy whom I love ferociously and have done my damnedest to prepare for this day.

I’ve been battling kindergarten doubts since last year, but I decided to forge ahead. Depending on who you talk to, there’s either something Very Wrong with my son or I’m a Very Fretful Mother and he’s Fine. I suppose the truth lies somewhere in between. Some days I don’t even know what to believe myself. We have a diagnosis of “anxiety and depression” from a therapist who, it turns out, has a reputation for over-diagnosing. But as long as no one’s trying to shove medication down the kid’s throat, I appreciate having a diagnosis in my pocket. It can be a useful tool; good shorthand to explain his quirkier behavior.

The day before school started, I scheduled a meeting with both kindergarten teachers (the kids aren’t assigned teachers until they’ve had a chance to get to know them all and get a sense of group dynamics). Both women were very kind, smart, and reassuring, but it seemed pretty clear that they’re coming out on the side of “Very Fretful Mother.” Oh well. We had a productive meeting anyway, and it’s always a plus to find out that your little Good Will Hunting’s behavior and anxieties are considered relatively typical by his future teachers. (For now.)

So, today was the big day. It’s a short drive to the Very Special public alternative school we were lucky enough to get into (thanks to Seattle’s “school choice” lottery). Little Girl insisted on listening to her new favorite song the whole way – Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Coming,” which set a strange mood to say the least.

“So I have to do this two more days and then I get a break?” The Boy asked from the back seat. Great. Already he’s workin’ for the weekend, I thought. But mostly I was trying to remember my favorite route through the school’s neighborhood to find super-awesome street parking. I’d had such good luck with it in the past when I’d been in the neighborhood on other business. I turned up the hill, hoping for the best.

Big mistake. It was like that scene in Thelma and Louise when the cops finally catch up with them. Charging right toward us down the narrow street, illuminated from behind by a blast of blinding sunshine, was a convoy of school busses and a very confused looking minivan trying to get around them. The street I’d planned to turn down was blocked with more confused minivans. There were cars behind me and a woman getting into a wheelchair from the street side of her car. Fortunately this bumper-cars situation resolved itself with unexpected grace, but clearly I have a lot to learn about drop-off parking.

The schoolyard was just as chaotic. Kids swarming in every direction, parents trying to figure out where to go, teachers trying to hand out name tags. Little Girl refused to get out of her stroller, scowl firmly in place and occasionally howling “I want to go hoooooooome!” The Boy vacillated between huddling by my side and tearing around the playground, bellowing to no one in particular.

He was a few feet away from me, chatting with a boy he’d met at one of the school’s summer playdates, when they started moving the kindergarteners into the building. The crowd changed from a wild mob to an efficiently moving line so fast, sweeping The Boy right along with it. I caught up with him and tried to give him a kiss. He squawked and ducked, and a few of his classmates moved between him and Little Girl’s stroller. Not wanting to mow down the little ones on their first day of school, I stayed behind and watched the group fold itself into the building. Some parents went inside, too. They were gathered around the classroom windows in the hallways, watching the kids singing songs.

“I want to go hoooooome!” Little Girl wailed again. I made that my pretense for leaving. But the truth is, I didn’t really want to stay any longer. It was out of my hands. In a daze, I pushed her stroller across the schoolyard and down the street. A whole day with just me and a two-year-old. I haven’t had that since . . . well, since right before Little Girl was born. It was so nice, but a little strange for both of us. Kind of like that Seinfeld episode when Elaine and George try to hang out without Jerry. It will take some getting used to.

As far as I can tell, The Boy’s first day went as well as could be expected. He’s extremely put out by the fact that he’s expected to make new friends (“I already have friends!” he said, tearing up a little). He doesn’t care for the chaos of recess and lunchtime. But he’s proud to be learning some new things and is excited about the classroom’s cool blocks. Tonight he told Mr. Black “They taught us how to walk single file. But they call it a ‘line’.”

And that’s about all we could get out of him. He spent most of his after-school hours talking excitedly about Bionicles and bouncing off the walls, calling himself “The Amazing Great-O.” Everyone told us how exhausted kids are after their first day of school, but I thought we’d never get this guy to bed tonight.

So, that’s that. Now tomorrow, we get up and do it all again . . .

Friday, August 28, 2009

Birthday and The Bridge


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

Beach Tale


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

Fling One and Fling Two


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!)
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