Monday, October 26, 2015

Everything Intolerant

My little-girl self comes to my big-girl self and tells me something I already know: I don’t feel good, she says. I look at her standing next to me with a bloated belly, the green plume that has been trailing behind her for weeks now swirling between us. I light a candle.

“What do you think is the matter?” I ask. She has been refusing to eat her favorites.

I’m everything intolerant, she says, rubbing her eyes. I see that she has scabs on her ear and on her nose, a rash on her eyelids, and a cyst that looks like a small hornet’s nest growing out of her chin. How awful.

I take her to the bathroom for a closer look. I notice a bald spot on her head, an array of medicinal lotions on the vanity, and an empty bottle of fruity chewable antacids. This is her bathroom and the paint is peeling. I try not to be frustrated, but I just painted this bathroom last summer.  I pour some anti-everything into a thousand splendid cotton balls and dab at her weeping sores. I put fresh sheets on her bed.

I give her a snack of ultra-super-duper pasteurized chocolate milk and a bowl of Rice Krispies.

I ask if she’s ready to go outside and she is; she always is. She runs off to hide; the new game is to find her by smell, Hide and Reek. She likes me to take a long time and pretend that I have forgotten about her, so I do. I’m eager to inspect the oleanders, which for many years bore the brunt of my boozy pruning, but which now live in splendor as they greenly rise from thick, low-cut wood. We are all starting over.

“Hi Ole,” I say, squatting in front of my favorite bush, a fast grower.  He recoils slightly, as he’s done before, and I don’t blame him. A few years back, he was a fine, healthy, tall person-plant. Now he feels like a stump. “You are much bigger and prettier than a stump,” I say.

Look what you did to me, he says, when you were drunk.

One pulse of adrenaline stabs my heart, then a brief washing-over of shame, but I have been through this with Ole before.  He knows I’m sorry. I raise my garden scissors and whisper “Sorry buddy” before relieving him of one individual stem that is too thin to support its leaves effectively if we’re to continue our pursuit of optimal growth. Poisonous oleander juice sprays onto my clothing and I am unable to block from my mind a story I recently read where a ranch family made their little girl slaughter a sheep for her birthday. She was wearing her favorite jeans. I wave the thought away like a swarm of black flies and try to concentrate on Ole because this is supposed to be Relaxing Time.

It’s time to look for the little girl of me. I find her hiding underneath the rosemary bush, and we are both glad for it. I watch her skip towards the house trailing her streak of intolerance, her bald spot shining in the sun, knowing I will give her anything she wants tonight.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Hostess

“I’m having a party,” you tell your brother, the phone pressed to your face with one hand, a tiny paintbrush in the other. You have purchased the artisan brushes from Home Depot to put the finishing touches on your bathroom, which you hope your guests use a lot when they come over. You hope they notice behind the toilet especially, and up in the corner over the shower.

“What kind of party?” your brother asks. He’s a contractor in Maine; he has talked you through the removal of mirrors glued to the walls of your house and living with hallucinogenic blinds (“They’ll air out, don’t worry”).

“A clothes-swap,” you say. “It’s just for girls. Everybody cleans out their closets and brings the clothes and shoes they don’t wear anymore. Then you lay it all out and people walk around, drink wine, and try stuff on.”

You dab at the baseboard, which is standard white, careful not to get any on the wall, which is Brown Teepee. You wonder how other painters tell the difference between wall and baseboard: where does one stop and the other start if there’s no real seam, and no caulk? Where should that sharp line really be? It is no help that you can’t even see what you’re painting because you are too new to old age: Should you take your contacts out and wear your glasses? Will you be able to see better close-up, or should you just not wear anything? Should you try your readers? Is this one of those times when they’ll help? You wonder if you set the magnifying glass up, like if you stuck it in your roller skate and pushed it along the tile….

“A clothes-swap?” your brother says. “How does that work? A bunch of girls walking around in their bras and underwear trying on each other’s clothes? Oh my God, that sounds awful.” In one fell swoop, your brother shuts down your party like it’s the worst idea ever.  Your feelings are hurt immediately because you are overly sensitive. This is why your mother made all of your older siblings attend the masses you held in your bedroom during Super Bowl half-times. You used pieces of bread for hosts, pressed flat, and Triscuits for hosts one time after you liked the homemade wheat hosts at church earlier in the day. “I would never go to a party like that,” your brother finishes, but then adds, “And for the love of God, I’d never have one.”

Your brother’s passionate negativity regarding your party idea stirs the pot of reality: not everybody thinks like you do. You start thinking about the situation logically, something that always takes up so much extra time. “Why is that idea such a turn-off?” you say, dividing one bump of contour in half with the tiniest brush so that one half serves as top-of-baseboard, and the other as bottom-of-wall.

“The awkwardness,” your brother says. “Having to be almost naked in front of people you don’t know. It makes me prudish just thinking about it.”

You sit back on your heels, the tiniest of paintbrushes in your hand. “Nobody has to be naked in front of anybody,” you say.

Your brother is having none of it, and conveys several tortuous situations he would rather suffer through than a clothes swap party. 

You have to get going. You hang up the phone and hang upside down on the empty shower rod in your cave of a bathroom, lights out, barely flapping your wings. The quiet helps.

You imagine that people might have many good reasons for not wanting to attend a clothes swap party, all of which would be out of your control. You remember the years it took to pry yourself out of your own house. And it's not like you're everybody's favorite. You clearly remember the day when a former colleague said to you in a staff meeting, “’Hate’ is not too strong of a word for the way I feel about you.” This from the same lady whose tag was sticking up earlier before you had kindly tucked it in, only to find that she had turned it up on purpose to hide a neck mole the size and shape of a tarantula. You had taken her job, yes, but you had remained ever-gracious.

You climb down later and turn the lights on. You’re ready to finish painting. You think about calling your brother back to ask how to figure out where the wall ends and the baseboard begins, but it seems like too basic of a question, and you’ve been bugging him a lot lately. Sometimes you have to figure it out on your own. You decide to keep going, doing your best, knowing that however it turns out, it’s going to be better than before.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Do You Think He Ever Loved You?

Do you think he ever loved you?  I get this question a lot when people hear my marriage story.  It’s often followed by, Do you think he did that to you on purpose?

I got married on March 10, 2002, at the Royal Palms Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.  I put in five thousand, my parents put in five thousand, my husband put in five thousand, my husband’s mother put in two thousand, and my husband’s father put in three thousand, with a promise of two thousand more if we managed to seat him as far away from his ex-wife as possible for the entire event.

Why such a fancy place?  Because that’s what my husband wanted.  I had always thought that if I ever got married, I would have my wedding at my parents’ house in Minnesota.  We would have a white tent in their huge backyard, which was really ten acres of manicured woods, and I would walk down a deer trail that my dad had cleared himself.  We would party afterwards with kegs of beer and a local band who would humor my family’s penchant for karaoke.

Not that I complained about the string quartet.

Six months into this marriage, my husband started acting oddly.  I should have known something was wrong on our honeymoon when he spent the whole first morning looking for a Wells Fargo bank where he could make his mortgage payment; I should have also realized that he used the money we received as wedding gifts to pay that mortgage.  When the most easygoing man in the world complained about cat hair on a pile of clean clothes and the way his house reeked of pot roast when he came home at night, I had to ask him what was wrong.  He retrieved a brown paper grocery sack from somewhere in his closet, stuffed with receipts and unpaid bills.  By the time I finished going through it, I saw that he was seventy thousand dollars in credit card debt.

And he didn’t have a job.  He’d been pretending about that.  He’d been pretending about a lot of things.

Of course I gave him all the money I’d made from selling my own house; that’s what you do when you’re married.  I was proud of the fact that I made enough money to cover all of our expenses, and that I eventually got his interest rates down from 22% to 1.9 by transferring all of his debt into my name.  I found him a job working first as a groundskeeper, then as a convenience store clerk.  And I did smell up the house with pot roasts sometimes, so I wasn’t perfect myself.

I was decidedly imperfect on the day he called to let me know he’d been fired at the convenience store for selling alcohol to a minor, because that was the day I told him to pack his clothes and get out.  It came a year and a half after the grocery-bag-full-of-debt incident, and capped off several months of my pacing the house, asking myself, Am I in, or am I out?  If I was in, I would have to let go of my resentment and love him the way I’d promised to.  If I was out, it wouldn’t be fair to him for me to hang around being angry.  Countless times I was in.  Only that one time was I out.

I had given him a Valentine’s Day card the week before: before he got fired, before we separated.  On that last night, as he was packing, I remember him walking slowly by the kitchen table where I was sitting and sliding the card in front of me, open to where I had written “I love you.”

“What about that?” he said, pointing to my words.  I didn’t have a response.

Divorce proceedings would last over a year and end the day before we were scheduled to join the 1% of married people in Arizona who actually have to go to trial before they can get divorced because they can’t reach an agreement on anything.  I couldn’t fathom putting more of my life on hold to spend more money to get rid of this man when I had absolutely nothing more to lose except if he was granted the spousal support payments he wanted, and half of my retirement.  Did I want to settle?  Hell yes I wanted to settle.

So when people ask me now, Do you think he ever loved you?, I still really have to think about it.  When we were dating, he would make me a drink and have it ready when I got to his apartment on Friday nights.  He bought me the same bedding that Carrie Bradshaw had.  He found and printed out all of Steve Martin’s columns in The New Yorker for my 35th birthday.  We’d play cutesy sometimes early on, his Dr. Evil to my Mini-Me.  With evidence like that, yes, I feel that he did love me, at least when we started out.

But did he take all my money on purpose?  Did he search for me online—that’s how we met in the year 2000, when I was a paying member of and he had a free trial membership—and plan to drain me?  I don’t think so.   I always say to whoever asks that I think he got caught up in a financial mess and turned desperate.  The last complete sentence he ever spoke to me was, “I have to watch out for myself now.”

He was only doing then what I do now.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Why I Cut My Hair

If you have ever seen me or met me, or if you’ve ever seen a picture of me, you know that my hair has always been long.  That might not be the first adjective that comes to your mind, but it’s probably one of them.  In recent years, more colorful adjectives have been used to describe my hair, such as “stringy” and “coarse”.  I complained of this texture to my doctor—what a difficult job this woman has, keeping me healthy—and she patted my knee.  “The hormones are leaving your body,” she said sympathetically.

I have no memory of hair care before the age of ten; up to that time, my mother was in charge, and she kept my hair short.  After that, however, one of us decided that my hair should be long, so my fourth grade picture shows me in barrettes, and my fifth grade picture features my first ponytail.  In sixth grade—1980 to be exact—all the girls were getting “layers”.  I had no understanding of “layers” as they pertained to hair; I knew we sometimes wore layers of clothing, I knew about chocolate layer cake, but beyond that, everything in my world was apparently solid and indivisible.  As for hair, it was either long or short, straight or curly, and sometimes someone would have “bangs”, but bangs just came down over your forehead, and then the rest of your hair was either short or long.  There was also talk of “feathered hair”, which I understood that Scott Baio and Farrah Fawcett had, and that made sense because I could definitely see the “feathers”.  But how hair ended up looking like that was beyond me—I had never used a curling iron or hair spray, my older sisters were grown and gone, and my mother got perms.  Nevertheless, I  clearly remember the day I walked across town from our house to the hair salon with my mother’s money in my pocket for an appointment to get my hair cut like everybody else’s.  I didn’t know what kind of magic the haircut lady was going to do, and I was both excited and nervous.

I did not know what to ask for when I got to the salon that day.  My dark brown hair was long and straight, all the wave weighed down.  When the lady asked me how I wanted it, I’m sure I said something like, “Long in back, shorter in front.”  I probably said something about bangs, but probably not “layered” because again, since I could not see any layers on anybody’s head—wasn’t hair just hair?  A bunch of hair growing all at once out of your head?—I probably didn’t ask for them, or feathers either.  In truth, I don’t remember what I said or what I asked for.  I only remember trying to fix it the next day and ending up with what looked like two different hairstyles: short, parted down the middle and curled back in the front and on the sides, with two feet of long straight hair hanging down my back. 

This absolutely did not look like my friends’ hair at all.  Everybody else’s hair matched: the front blended into the back.  Nobody had sausage rolls of hair on their forehead, certainly not clumps over their ears like Bozo.  Even Bozo’s hair was at least uniform; mine was short and wavy in the front and on the sides, but long and straight in the back.  I was using a curling iron for the first time in my life; this was obvious to anyone who saw me.  No matter what I did, time and again I went to school with big floppy wings of hair coming off the front sides of my head, and a sheet of glossy dark hair hanging down my back.  I remember going downhill skiing with my sixth-grade class that year, and wearing a beanie hat pulled down over my forehead and ears.  When I took that hat off after coming inside the chalet the first time, my hair exploded—except for the two feet of long, shiny hair I’d kept in a ponytail.

I could write forever about trying to fix that particular haircut, how my hair finally grew or was cut so that the front blended into the back, how I finally got it right in time for my own perms and big hair and high school.  I could talk about being given a free zig-zag perm in college by a local chain salon in exchange for posing like a mannequin in the window, motionless, for four hours one Saturday afternoon at the mall.  That perm fried my hair so badly down to the roots that I took to snipping the crusty parts off the back, essentially reversing the first bad 6th grade haircut so that my hair grew long and glossy in front, but cropped and jagged in back.  I was about 21 when I finally developed a smooth cap of dark, shiny hair again—my mother’s long-lost Mexican boy-child returned from third grade—but this recovery was short-lived.  Soon I would move to Arizona where in 1991, the top layer of my hair started to burn off naturally.

And there was that word again: “layer”.  I knew by looking and could not deny that the top layer of my hair—the one that everybody could see—was light brown and crunchy, while the rest of my hair, the hair underneath, was soft and dark.  I felt that the sun must be doing this to me, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.  I kept my hair long and trimmed the ends constantly, in hopes that the icky outer stuff would grow out.  I conditioned the outside of my hair with expensive products, then with beer and eggs.  I slimed my hair with leave-in products, leaving it falsely shiny.  At home, I would gather together all the damaged hair on top and in the back and hold it to the side, just for a minute, to gaze upon the healthier, glossier hair underneath, always wondering why I couldn’t get all of my hair to grow like that, most especially on the outside.

And yes, there were times when people tried to help me.  My best friend from high school has tried to reason with me for thirty years to get a haircut—do something—but I always refused, saying I would when I could grow a full head of healthy hair.  Hair stylists have made suggestions and asked me what I wanted, but I’ve always said I like it long, so just a trim.  In this way, with some days better than others, years turned to decades and I continued to sport a dry, fuzzy, light-brown coating of outer hair on my head, hiding the fresh, wavy, dark-brown hair underneath.

But something changed this year.  Turning 47—the sketchy prime number between the evenness of 46 and 48—has made me bolder.  I had promised myself before the summer started that if my hair situation did not improve by summer’s end, all the unhealthy stuff was getting cut off before fall.  But 47 has also made me more impatient—there is no time to waste because the hormones are leaving my body—so out came the scissors again, the snip-snip of dead hair.  This time I wasn’t trying to remove 45 degree lightning bolts permed into two feet of long hair, a geometric afro; I was removing what amounted to a large worn-down Brillo pad.  I didn’t grab it and cut it off like one of my sisters kindly suggested I do a couple months ago back in Minnesota, right after she asked me if my feet could get any bigger; rather, I cut small pieces off the outside wherever I noticed crusty parts sticking out, much like if a child tried to cut a thousand splendid wads of gum from her hair.

Interestingly, I remained calm through this process, even optimistic, because I could see that underneath my pale, frizzy outer coating of hair there was quite a bit of smooth, dark, healthy hair.  This had always been the case, all the way through my life, but I had never figured out how to make it look like that on the outside.  I was determined not to give up or retreat this time, and I obviously wasn’t going to be able to wait until fall. 

Over the course of two days, I cut my own hair.  I would cut some in the morning, go about my day, then perch on the sink in the bathroom before bed, and cut some more.  At first, the hair that fell from my head was brittle and dry—the icky stuff—but soon, the hair I was cutting off was dark and rich.  I knew that was the good stuff, and I wanted to retain as much of that as possible.  It was time to see a professional.

The first hairdresser I saw was aghast.  “There are so many short layers!” she said.  I had no idea what she was talking about, so I asked her what she meant.  “Look,” she said, lifting a piece of hair off the top of my head with her thumb and index finger, like it was poop.  “This is so short, and this,” she picked up another piece of hair, “is twice as long.  It’s all different lengths.”  I still didn’t know if this was decidedly bad, or if I might still be commended for taking such a naughty risk.

“I just want my hair to look healthy,” I said.  “Do what you can to even it up.”

That first day at the salon, I learned what it means to have layered hair: you just get the top layer trimmed short and blended into the rest.  I learned that you shouldn’t try to cut the bumps out yourself because those bumps are where your curls curl and your waves wave.  I finally understood that for my first 46 years, what I wanted was long, layered hair, which nobody could ever give me because I always insisted that I didn’t want layers.  My personality is such that I’m sure I put the fear into hair cutters across America, sitting confident and smug in their chairs, laying down the law: cut my hair, but don’t cut it.  I had given stylists permission to trim the ends of my hair, but demanded they not touch the careful nest of tortured fibers on top and in back, for which I was forever waiting to grow out.  I owe apologies at Great Clips across the western states, and thanks to those stylists who I assume took the plunge and gave me layers anyway when I had insisted they not, leaving me with the two or three good hair months I’ve had in my lifetime.

I made four trips to the salon last week, interspersed between the little trims I continued to give myself at home, still oblivious to the physics of hair.  When all was said and done, I had a pixie, and I loved it. 

While there is a certain security in having long hair, like a baby with her blanket, unless you are a pilgrim baby who prefers coarse rugs made from buffalo hide, you would not have kept my long hair for as long as I did.  Why did I keep it that way?  Ignorance, stubbornness, and fear.  If someone ever suggested I cut my hair to frame my face, I paid no attention because obviously they didn’t realize how much my low-maintenance natural hairdo meant to me, even though it routinely took fifteen minutes every morning to simply get it under control.  A “frame” of hair would most certainly get in my eyes, too, so it was always out of the question.  I was loath to blow-dry, curl, or straighten my hair; I had to be steeled for a week with no electricity at a moment’s notice.  I could not risk having a hair style that looked funny when I removed my astronaut’s helmet.  I had to be Ms. Natural Hair U.S.A. even if it meant having the suckiest natural hair in the world.

So why did I finally cut it? 

I wanted hair that I could run my fingers through, like a man does when he’s frustrated.  I wanted to rake my hand through tousled locks and look rakish, not homeless.  I wanted to go to the gym and lift weights without having to look left or right every time I put my head against the bench because my hair clip was back there.  I wanted to do everything a regular guy does.

But the main reason I cut my hair is that I wanted my outsides to match my insides.  It was time.  I have long walked this planet looking disheveled, not quite sober, not quite insane.  I have tried to look presentable—to simply pass as someone who takes care of herself, who basically knows what she’s doing—knowing full well that if anyone could see my guts, they would be about as inspired as my surgeon was when my fatty liver photo-bombed my gall bladder during emergency surgery a few years back.

The hair I had—in all its scraggly length, hiding the shiny happy hair underneath—was a perfect match for feeling very messy on the inside. The bad hair was more tolerable when I was feeling dispirited, but now with my spirit up—floating midair, untethered, like a little girl at a magic show—only good hair will do.

And it’s not an illusion; it’s real.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Home for Good

It is morning time, just getting light; I’m still in bed.  My eyes are still closed when I hear a thud and the tinkling of glass close to my head.  I imagine that one of my cats must have knocked over a picture frame on the dresser, but since it’s over there and I’m over here, spooning with my oldest cat Sara, I don’t get up; we fall back asleep.  A short time later I wake again and look around: sure enough, there’s a broken glass on the carpet next to my bed and water pooled on the nightstand.  I move Sara, still in full-spoon position, to the other side of me, but before I can sit up and get all the covers off, a sharp pain stings my foot.  I yell and move my leg, but it seems like something is biting me—something that won’t let go.  What could be in my bed?  I rip back the covers and bring my foot as close to my nose as possible: there, sticking out of my heel, is a dagger of glass, a miniature icicle buried deep in the sand of my skin.  I howl a little more, then slide the glass out; I look at the mess of broken glass on the carpet, hoping my other cats had the sense to stay away from it.  I half-sit on my mattress, leaning down to pick up the larger pieces when I notice dark spots on the carpet nearby.  I finally turn on a light and see that blood is dripping down my foot and pooling on the carpet underneath.  I grab a t-shirt as a compress and hop into the bathroom, where I am soon cleaned up and bandaged.  I return to the bedroom, blot the blood and spray the stains, pick up the rest of the glass, throw it out, vacuum, then strip the bed and take the sheets out front to shake them.  It is 6 a.m. 

I make coffee and wonder if my foot injury will prevent me from working outside later; I have ten tons of crushed granite piled in the driveway that needs to be spread evenly over my 4000 square foot yard.  The whack I gave myself across the forearm a couple weeks ago with the sharp side of my saw resulted in a trip to Urgent Care and a tetanus shot, so at least I don’t have to worry about lockjaw.  I stand at the open front door, looking out; I bounce up and down a few times on my toes, coming down firmly on my heels, especially the punctured one; it doesn’t hurt that much.  I’m sure that many people far worse off than me practically forget about smaller aches and pains when really big ones come along.  Slaves come to mind, then soldiers, then I turn to something else before I make too big of a deal out of nothing again.

Four hours later I am standing in my back yard surrounded by mounds of crushed granite.  I have worked out a deal with my neighbor, Nabe: for a reasonable sum, he will use a shovel and a wheelbarrow to dismantle the huge pile of rock in my driveway, distributing it throughout my property.  My job is spreading the rock with my hoe.  Nabe is wearing ear buds and singing, hardly breaking a sweat and not getting dirty.  He occasionally switches from listening to music to chatting with friends, responding kindly to questions and gently offering his wisdoms as he dumps load after load and returns for more.  I am smudged with red dust and streaks of sweat where I have scratched at new mosquito bites; I’m sunburned and bruised; there are ants on my ankles and rocks in my shoes.  I suck down warm water from a plastic bottle covered in bits of gravel; Nabe’s roommate drives to Circle K to get them each a fountain drink.  I am asked if I would like one, but I stick with the warm water; it’s more in keeping with my pioneer mania.  I veer in and out of foliage, spreading the granite with my hoe and feet, occasionally washed over with waves of remorse for chopping down my oleanders an entire month after prime pruning time.  If they were children, they would be taken from me.  I push gravel up next to a flower bed and notice a beautiful moth I raked to death last week, its body still perfect, its wings crushed and bent.

The idea of living in this house for the rest of my life—as in, not planning to move anywhere else and calling this house and this yard my home for good—is finally sounding right to me.  That’s my mailbox out front where the IRS can always find me; that’s my female Brazilian Pepper, considered a nuisance tree in Florida; that’s my fruitless olive, the one with all the fruit.  This is my tenth year here, and on my sentimental days, when life seems better than good, I start feeling like I should commit to this place, like we’ve been together for so long that we might as well make it official.  I dally in one of the far corners of my yard where a bush I neglected for years is now high-fiveing the breeze with a few red blooms.  I admire the way the small bushy part sits on top of the many bare stalks, a green afro with delicate red blossoms.  This is not in any way what the bush is supposed to look like, but this is what it has become under my care, the sun and the water I was able to arrange for it when the need crossed my mind.

My back begins to send out warning signals, so I prop my hoe against the house, brush off, and head to the patio door.  I’ve locked myself out again, so I walk around to the front, where the garage door stands open.  Nabe is in the driveway, shoveling more rock into the wheelbarrow.  He has noticed that the piles he was making for me earlier were too big, necessitating my use of another shovel to break them down further before using my hoe.  I watch as he pushes what must be 200 pounds of gravel across the yard, tips the wheelbarrow, and makes his initial deposit.  Then he pulls it back and tilts it again; he repeats this three times to make three easily spreadable small mounds.  He smiles at me on his way back for another load.  “Teamwork, right?”  he says.  I smile and nod.  Nabe has been on my team for ten years.  We’ve seen each other at our worst.  We are finally at our best.

I tell him I’m hanging it up for the day; he stays to work a little longer.  I head inside and close the front blinds so I can peel my clothes off immediately.  I dump them all in the washer on my way down the hall, including one bloody sock.  I’d forgotten about the glass.  I’d forgotten about hurting myself at all.

Monday, May 11, 2015

When a Semester Ends

A colleague retires and I talk to a guy at the party who I haven’t seen in forever, who mentions the name of another guy who used to be married to an old friend of mine who committed suicide about twenty years ago.  She was a teacher too, and one of the last things we talked about on the phone was getting our cars fixed over the summer with new used tires before all the driving we’d have to do in the fall.  
In the morning I start spring cleaning and find a four and a half month old piece of cat poop under the cats’ bed—sorry about that—and notice I must be in better shape because I spring up from the floor, poop in hand, in about one second, as compared to the many seconds it might have taken me in January.  I do a couple pull-ups on the Iron Gym bar I’ve been hanging laundry on.  

I listen to voice messages on my home phone for the first time in weeks.  A woman named Christy tells me I’m in trouble with the IRS.  I call Christy’s number and someone picks up immediately, a man with a thick accent.  He says something about a felony; I tell him I can’t understand what he’s saying. He gets upset and warns me about the trouble I’m in; I tell him to mail me something official.  He starts telling me that this is business that can’t be conducted through the mail. I hang up on him, and turn around to open other bills in envelopes.

I drive to meet a former student for coffee and wish I could be friends with all my former students, that my existence did not mean something negative for six thousand people.  I give myself the drive to think about yesterday, the last day of school, when I finally talked to that girl.  I should have talked to her sooner.  I need to order new business cards.  I need to buy candy.  My 2001 Hyundai Sonata moans its way into the parking lot in front of Starbucks, groaning like a wounded elephant as I turn the wheel.  It’s on the list.

I go home and put my winter shoes away, keeping the sandals and heels out.  One of my sisters tried to wear my shoes when I went home last month. “Oh, that’s right,” she said as she slipped one of them on, and then quickly slipped it off, “you have big feet.”  La la la.

I make my bed and stand back, eyeing the bloodstains here and there, the one jagged rip I have folded together and stapled.  My cats and I have been living much of our lives on this bed for twelve years, a fact that I conveyed to my brother on the telephone yesterday, to which he responded with several horror stories about why mattresses weigh so much more after you’ve owned them for a few years.  I will buy a new mattress this summer, and new pillows too, but for now I will put these fresh sheets onto my five million pound teeming bed. I glance out the window and am reminded that my decorative gravel needs to be replenished.  On the phone with my brother again, he advises me against moving 20 tons of crushed granite from the street into my yard with my wheel barrow.  I’ll be on the phone with him a lot this summer.  I’ll go to see him.

I end the day with a sunburn across my shoulders, a new tetanus shot and a saw bite out of my left arm from the saw I was using to remove a mesquite limb.  Urgent Care isn’t busy on Mother’s Day, so I am in and out.  I go to the gym and walk on the treadmill, my usual workout truncated.  I punish myself by only buying sugar-free ice cream at the health food store; I feel sorry for myself and buy pistachios too.

I watch the sun set through the leaves and branches of the trees that I have planted on my own land here in my own neighborhood, noticing now that the mesquite limb is gone that one of my other trees is leaning precariously close to the neighbor’s house, and another limb is growing precariously towards my own roof.  

I have no excuse for not calling somebody to come and take a look at all this, somebody professional.

Sunday, May 3, 2015


The neighbors’ dog had been barking for hours, through supper and kitchen clean-up, through the pictures we took of my nephew and his prom date, through the opening of my mother’s birthday presents, the sharing of her birthday cake, and the massaging of parental feet. Nighttime medications had been consumed and nightclothes donned—my father happy with his potpourri of sherbet, chocolate brownie and pumpkin bar in a bowl, my mother with her black jellybeans—and still the dog barked, all the way through the world news.  The dog barked as I helped my parents to their separate beds, as I pulled their doors closed behind me, but not all the way—and kept barking as I pulled out the sleeper couch, made my bed for the night, and opened the front door for some fresh air.  Of course, then the barking was louder.

If I would have been at my own house in Arizona and this was my own neighbors’ dog, I probably would have gone to investigate.  I might have left a nice note, in hopes for a better tomorrow, then I would have walked backed home, stuck in my ear plugs, and gone to sleep.  I might have ignored the situation altogether if I only had four and a half hours to sleep anyway before getting up at 3:30 a.m. to catch a flight.  But since I was in Minnesota and my parents had complained about this dog before, I pushed the screen door open and walked in my bare feet down their front walk, across the boulevard, across the street, and up to the neighbors’ house, where a very nice dog was tied to the porch railing, barking.

“Hi,” I said, and we played together in the front yard for a few minutes before I climbed the front steps and knocked.  There were lights on inside and other signs of life, so I hoped I would have the opportunity to let the owners know in a cheerful way that their dog had been barking all evening and all night, and while I hated to complain, I was hoping that they could take the dog in so my elderly parents could get some rest, thank you so much.  That was my plan.

I knocked on the door and waited, but nobody came.  I tried the bell, but it didn’t work.  I knocked again, a little more assertively, but there was still no movement in the house—I could see that plainly through the front windows.  I balled up my fist and banged on the front door like a police officer might.  I did that twice.  Nothing was happening, so I turned around and looked at the dog.  I glanced across the street to my parents’ house, glowing its peaceful glow. Then I untied the dog’s rope from the railing, opened the front door, and put him inside, rope and all.

I walked quickly down the porch steps and across the neighbors’ lawn, already wondering what I could do to make the situation right if the dog decided to defecate inside the house, or worse, pee and poop everywhere, and then rip all the furniture to shreds.  That’s what dogs do, right?  I mean, that dog was outside for a reason while his owners were gone.  What if he ate something out of the garbage and got sick?  What if his rope got tangled and he choked to death?  Where were all the coping skills I had learned in rehab?  My left thumbnail was still growing out from where another patient’s seeing-eye dog had accidentally bit me when I was roughhousing with him on the basketball court, the black spot a constant reminder of where I had been, and why, and why life was going so well now.  I knew better than to act on impulse like that, had known it was wrong as I was doing it.  I thought briefly about going back and at least taking the dog’s rope off, but it was too late.  I would only make it worse by returning and getting more fingerprints everywhere. 

I brushed off my feet before opening the screen door to my parents’ house, and stepped inside.  My mother stood on the other side of the pull-out couch in her floral nighty.  This could easily have been a Saturday night thirty years ago: me tumbling in drunk with mud on my shoes, her waiting for me on the couch before turning on all the lights with one flip of a switch.  Tonight, though, I wasn’t drunk, and she wasn’t in the dark.

“Where have you been?” she asked.

“At the neighbors’,” I said.  “Their dog was barking.”

“Well, I certainly hope you didn’t raise a ruckus because we have to live here,” she said.

“No, it was fine,” I said. “I just asked if they could take the dog in because he was barking, and they said okay.  Don’t worry, we do this all the time in Arizona.  People are always nice about it.”

This lie made itself up and came out of my mouth without any effort on my part.  When she asked who answered the door, I hesitated only slightly before answering, “A young man.”  She nodded and said a man’s name.  I nodded too.

I got my mother’s walker—she is forever without it because she’s not used to having it yet—and helped her back to bed.  I walked through my parents’ little house and triple-checked all the windows and doors.  I stood by my dad’s bed for a minute, making sure he was breathing, and finally slipped under the covers on the pull-out.  In three hours I would be up and gone, long before my parents awoke.  What would they do without me, I worried.  How would I protect them?