Friday, August 24, 2012

Never Say You're Sorry

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So I say to my neighbor Nabe as we sit on my couch after my first day back to school, “I got into an accident this morning! Some guy rear-ended me in the parking lot and I was almost late to my first class!”

“Can I have a cheese stick?” Nabe says, using his usual low-key approach to eliciting more information out of me.

“Go ahead,” I say. I raise my voice to tell the rest of my story, addressing the back of Nabe’s head and t-shirt as he pokes around in my refrigerator. “So like everybody’s racing around these parking lots trying to find a spot because nobody wants to be late to class. I come up behind this kid getting into his car, and I motion to him, asking if he’s gonna pull out. He motions yes, so I just sit there waiting for him. All of a sudden I feel this bump and my car starts bouncing. Somebody hit me!”

“Yeah?” Nabe says, back on the couch, peeling his string cheese and dangling it into his mouth. I’m encouraged by this show of interest on his part, so I forge ahead.

“Well by then, the kid wants to pull out and I have to back up, so I motion to the guy who hit me and he backs up, then I back up. The kid drives off and I pull into his spot. I get out to go talk to this guy, and here he’s another teacher!”

“Teachers make mistakes too,” Nabe says in hopes of ending my story. I know he hopes this because I tell long stories and Nabe always tries to hurry me along. But there’s more to tell, so I continue.

“So this teacher guy, somebody from computer something, I don’t know, he’s all dressed up for the first day of classes and he says to me, “Didn’t you see me?’ Didn’t I see him!? He flew around the corner like a bat out of hell and was sitting on my bumper! I didn’t even get a chance to see him!”

Nabe partakes of our semi-legal substance, which I take as a cue to continue: “So I said to him, ‘You were going way too fast.’ I almost said ‘I’m sorry’, but then I remembered that you never say you’re sorry when you’ve had an accident because that sounds like you’re admitting guilt.”

Nabe thinks this is uproariously funny. “The things I’ve been guilty of don’t even compare to this! Ha ha ha!”

While I know that Nabe has many colorful stories involving broken laws and accidents, I really want to finish my own. I push ahead before Nabe takes over. “So we call campus security and exchange information, take some pictures, and then I just took off. I mean, I had to teach!”

“So it wasn’t that big of a deal, right?” Nabe asks.

“I guess not, not in the large scheme of things,” I say. “But it almost made me late to class.”

“‘Almost’ doesn’t count,” Nabe says, leaning forward to work on a refill of our substance. “I’d forget about it. I remember flying past a stop sign in the middle of the night one time when me and my friend had been partying on the west side and this cop came right up on my….”

And with that, my story is over and Nabe’s has begun.

One nice thing about Nabe is that he puts everything into perspective. If something doesn’t matter very much, it’s not worth talking about. If something does matter, it’s only worth talking about for a little while. Nabe’s problems are sky-high; my problems are knee-high, if that—anklets compared to Nabe’s tsunami robes. And still, he is relaxed.

I don’t get a chance to tell him about the rest of my day: the three classes I taught, the interesting students I met, how tired but happy I was when I walked off campus at the end of the day. This used to bother me about Nabe, his not-listening habit, but I keep in mind what Annie Dillard once wrote about her parents’ habit of not paying attention to her: “Mother...gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be [fawning over my biology experiment in the basement]. She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee) and I had mine…that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself….I had essentially been handed my own life.”

I like to think of Nabe in this way, always handing me back what I naively offer up so we can talk about mutually interesting topics instead, like the video game in which he lives, and his philosophy on people.

Sometimes thinking about Nabe is even better than actually spending time with him.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

My Freshmen

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School starts tomorrow. For me, that means going back to teaching college freshmen: a group of beginners who have changed dramatically since I started teaching in 1990. One major difference is that my freshmen don’t mush their sled dogs to campus anymore. That was in Fairbanks, Alaska.

This is Phoenix, Arizona, where I’ve spent the last twenty plus years welcoming students to their first college classroom and then trying to keep them there as the pull of work, family, perhaps love, perhaps drugs—as the pull of real life tried to disrupt their studies. In the course of My Great Endeavor (otherwise known as “my career”), I’ve developed my own song and dance and my own personal jokes.

And I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes.

I remember my first major mistake in teaching, when I was still a student myself. It was at Arizona State University, in a tiny classroom in a tiny building where the air conditioning barely worked. My students were elbow-to-elbow and I was a caged ballerina up front. We were all hot, all the time. When the day came for me to return graded papers for the first time, I squeezed into the classroom and pushed through the crowd, my tutu hitting people in the face.

After I set down my book bag, my water bottle, and the seat of my bike because I still didn’t have a car, I turned to face my students. They were eager to see how they’d done on the first paper.

“WHOSE IS THIS?” I shouted, holding up a stapled-together piece of crap paper that had a big red F on top of the first page, but no name. I mean, I had to ask, right? The author of the paper raised his hand, scowled, and took the offending item.

“LISA!” I called out again, holding up another paper with a big red D on the first page. It wasn’t passing, but it was better than bozo’s. The people up front handed Lisa’s paper back to her as if it was a dead baby. The atmosphere in my classroom had turned dark, and it stayed that way all semester long.

In this way, I learned to put grades on the last page, not on the front.

Then there was the time I caught one of my students flirting with me. “Greg” was a little older than average, maybe 25—my age. I had put everyone into small groups to work together on some questions, but instead of working, Greg was winking at me. Winking and winking. I smiled back and made a mental note to stay far away from this one.

Suddenly there was a ruckus and I turned to see Greg waving his arms, then crashing to the floor, taking the desk with him. Greg was not flirting with me: Greg was having a grand mal seizure. The only other time I had dealt with this was back in high school at a mall: I was in a store when a woman grabbed my purse and wouldn’t let go. My girlfriend yelled out, “She’s trying to steal from you!” as mall security burst onto the scene. I remembered that they got the lady flat on the floor and put a bunched-up jacket under her head.

My other students pushed their desks away from Greg and stood against the classroom’s walls. I pulled Greg out from under his desk, sat next to him on the floor and put his head on my lap, the only soft surface I had. Nobody wore jackets in Arizona, and this was before cell phones.

“GO UPSTAIRS AND CALL 911!” I yelled, cradling Greg’s head. His eyes rolled back and he thrashed around. A few students dashed out while the rest stood back, unsure of what to do.

In this way, I learned that not all students are the same.

There have been other mini-disasters: An irate student blowing out of my classroom, slamming the door behind him. (I resumed speaking: “The person who needs to hear this isn’t here anymore, but…”). Making my standard reference to gazelles, as in “When you learn some of these basic rules, your writing will fly like a gazelle!” and finally getting told by a student one year, “Gazelles don’t fly.” I had to look that up and damn if she wasn’t right. Gazelles were antelopes, not birds. This particular experience totally changed my approach to teaching: I had to know what I was talking about.

When I was low man on the totem pole, I got sent to teach in classrooms so far away from the English Department that I took a cab once, unwilling to walk a quarter-mile in 115 degree heat. We would be assigned to these makeshift classrooms—trailers, actually, with one AC unit stuck in a window—while real buildings were built. I left my class once in the middle to find a bathroom—it must have been an emergency—and returned thirty minutes later, having found that the closest bathroom was in the English Department. All of my students were gone.

The only other time I ever left a classroom was to blow my nose. I couldn’t let my students see me engage in such a messy human act.

I was back in the classroom right after I had my gall bladder out, wearing my pajamas and teaching the art of persuasion, my mom waiting for me in the library. I was there when the third shooter at Columbine turned in a lengthy written confession: “Class, today we have a guest speaker from the F.B.I.” (That student took creative writing a little too far.)

When the desk in the middle of one classroom kept being empty instead of occupied by the nice B average girl who usually sat there, I started to worry. She'd been killed in a car wreck. I carried her homework in my bag for a long time.

I’m higher on the totem pole now, and my students are no longer parka-covered, frostbit kids like they were 22 years ago in Alaska. They are Arizona war veterans, grown adults laid off from work, mothers taking classes online, young people just graduated from one of the worst education systems in the country, and people whose first language is not English. I always tell this last group, “You should be proud that you have two languages! You’re fluent in the first one, and now you’ll get better in the second one. We’ll work on that together.”

A new school year starts tomorrow, and I’ll be there with bells on. When we’re twelve weeks along or so, I’ll tell my students like I always do, “We’re in our twelfth week already! Can you believe it? It’s almost time to start picking out names.”

Sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t, but I always think it’s funny, and that’s what counts.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How to Talk to a Handyman

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Like most men in my life, handymen come and go. One showed up to create a new outlet in my kitchen; he accidentally cut all the way through the wall, knocking out the shower tile in my bathroom. We ended up dating for two years while he ruined other parts of my house and threw temper tantrums until eventually I had to change the locks on the doors that bore his grubby handprints.

Another came to my house after I’d just moved in to remove a bathroom towel rack then patch the holes, plus install a toilet paper dispenser. The spackle where the rack used to be looks like a relief map of the Grand Canyon, and the screw holes behind the toilet paper dispenser somehow grew as big as gopher holes. The handyman had to glue the toilet paper dispenser to the vanity, and even then the two pieces that hold the tissue roll are so far apart that the rod always falls out, followed by the toilet paper, which then usually rolls out of my reach.

That handyman was my dad.

This past weekend, a real handyman came over: one with a professional web site, business cards, and his own tools. He had even come to my house several days before to take a look at the work and give me an estimate. We both knew exactly what needed to be done, and we had agreed on a price. His name was Joe.

Joe arrived exactly 45 minutes later than he said he would, not 44 and not 46, so I thought we were off to a good start. He had my list in hand for quick reference: he would fix the rust stains in my bathtub, replace a shelf in my laundry room, hang a 200 pound mirror, etc. I sat down at my computer to work while Joe listened to his daughter screaming on the phone. I peeked at jobs in various stages of completion while Joe talked his daughter down from the ledge on the phone. I was glad I wasn’t paying Joe by the hour while Joe helped his daughter select a rehab center, again over the phone.

Joe was a little guy, a little older but fit and spry. I knew he was married and of course there was that daughter. He was definitely not dating material (briefly considered as all men are, but quickly dismissed), so I figured he must be my handyman from heaven: he was unavailable romantically, a family man, and he didn’t cut any gaping holes where they didn’t belong and then try to hide them (sorry Dad).

When Joe finished up the jobs on my list (fix latch on back gate, replace underwire in favorite bra), he asked me if I wanted to look over his work again to make sure it was all done correctly. Of course I did! Unbeknownst to him, that’s my job in life: to review other people’s creations and rip them apart. I’m a teacher; I get paid to do that.

Everything Joe had put his hand to looked great; it was what he had ignored or forgotten that concerned me. The back garden hose situation was the first that caught my eye.

“What about the inlet hose?” I asked, pointing to the faucet with a vintage 1984 piece of hose attached, corroded and full of holes from the heat, twisted to a point that I didn’t have the strength in my hands to straighten it out or unscrew it. Every time I watered my plants out back, a small lake formed by the patio.

“Oh, I forgot about that,” Joe said, quickly untwisting and disconnecting that section of hose and handing it to me. “You go buy another one and I’ll come back to hook it up, no charge.”

Hm, I thought. Handyman supposed to fix, handyman not fixing, handyman making me do work—this banner got pulled through my brain by the tiny monkeys who fly planes in there. “Okay,” I said. “That sounds fair.” And the Holocaust never happened, you unfocused worker person.

Next we walked around to the front of the house where my motion-detector security light has been burned out for a long time. I looked up and there was the same old light way above the garage door, still not detecting motion, still unlit. “What about that?” I asked Joe. “That was definitely on the list.”

“I just said I’d look at it,” he said. “I did that and it’s definitely broken. It’s got juice, but the light fixture needs to be replaced.”

“You looked at it?” I said. “But you didn’t fix it?” Was I paying Joe to inspect the jobs that needed to be done in my house? Did I ask someone to examine the faulty lock on my doorknob and the cracks in my walls? No. The monkeys turned their plane around and towed the banner across the busy sky of my brain: Handyman supposed to fix, handyman not fixing…. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked Shirker-Joe-whose-daughter-was-resting-comfortably-in-a-nearby-detox center. I knew that much.

“Take a picture of it to Home Depot and they’ll help you pick out one that’s similar. You can get it when you pick up that length of hose. I’ll come back and install it for you, but that would be considered a new job.”

Tiny-Joe-who-moved-quickly-because-he-was-the-size-of-an-ant looked at me. I could tell he considered the work at my house finished, whereas I did not. I could tell he wanted his money, but I didn’t want to give it to him. Why did it always come down to something like this with every painter, roofer, landscaper, and handyman I hired?

“Okay,” I finally said, unwilling to protest further. I wrote Joe a check for $250 to cover labor and supplies, and he drove away, probably to the rehab center to see his daughter.

In hopes of feeling better about paying money for a job not done, I tried to believe that Joe’s life must be far more difficult than mine, his suffering a mountain compared to my molehill. Somehow, this attempt at excusing his defects with my near-perfection didn’t work.

Before going back inside, I did some jumping jacks in the driveway under the motion detector, checking one last time to see if the spotlights would come on. Nope. I wondered how I would get the old fixture down without electrocuting myself.

Maybe I would like being electrocuted.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

One Day at a Time

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I stand in front of the display of coffee pots at Walmart, paralyzed for too many reasons. My own coffee pot—a free one from Gevalia that worked great for two years—has stopped working, so I need a new one. For the past two mornings I’ve been boiling my coffee in a big pot that I usually take camping; this is called “camp coffee”. My dad taught me to make it about 30 years ago: that’s how we made it in deer camp, and then for one full year when I was in college, I made camp coffee in my studio apartment. I didn’t want to waste money on a machine when I could boil it for free. That was a no-brainer.

Now that I’m an adult, I’m used to dealing with machines. I know how to get rid of a broken clothes dryer and arrange for a new one to appear in its place. I can unplug the cords from my computer, actually take the tower someplace else for repair, then bring it home, hook it back up, and it works. That in itself is a small miracle. I even have a car that I’m in charge of.

So I’m my own super, like Schneider on One Day at a Time, though I don’t particularly enjoy wielding my super-powers. That’s what a man is for, but every one of those I had went on the fritz too. I used to be more afraid of a broken garage door than I was of a broken heart, but not anymore—I toughened up because I had to. Despite all of that, picking out new appliances is still daunting. They’ll probably last longer than any boyfriend, so the pressure is always on to buy the right one.

All of this runs through my mind as I stand in Walmart, looking at the coffee pot display.

I’m also conflicted about shopping at Walmart in the first place. I’m an educated woman and have listened to bright people bash Walmart for years: “I refuse to shop there! They treat their employees like slaves. No benefits, long hours, no chance to advance—I’m not supporting that!” I know other people who won’t shop at Walmart because of the customers who shop there: low-income women with a gaggle of screaming kids, dirty men just off work picking up beer and a pizza, fat people. God forbid they insert their expensively clothed bodies and good manners into the fray of Walmart.

Whatever. Since Walmart is a half-mile from my house, I shop there. I’ve Chatty-Cathied employees before about whether or not advancement, raises, and benefits were available, and they all said yes. What’s the difference between shopping at Walmart and eating at McDonald’s? Who do you think makes the uniform your server is wearing when he hands over your kid’s Happy Meal? That’s right: the starving garment workers in Bangladesh. Get over it.

The coffee pots sit in a row at eye-level, looking relatively the same but for different prices.

They wait for my inspection, my tentative touch. Are you my new coffee pot? Is it that one? All I want is a machine that makes a pot full of drip coffee. I don’t want any fancy features. In fact, because I am me and this is my luck, the one I want is on display and out of back-ups: this is the only one left, the one that has been handled by millions of people with grubby hands, breathed on by cigarette and dollar-menu breath, sneezed into, germy for sure. Pregnant women and unemployed men have picked up the carafe to imagine what it would be like in their own kitchens. Carless apartment dwellers with dandruff have cradled this coffee machine in their arms, wondering if it’s light enough to carry home.

That’s the one I want, the one on display, because that’s how I build my immune system: by exposing myself to as many toxic things and situations as possible, hoping to become stronger and more resistant. I heard yesterday that one quarter of the patients after an Ebola outbreak end up being the nurses and doctors who care for the patients. I can totally relate to that kind of commitment, having abandoned myself to fate long ago.

I pick up the display model and carry it awkwardly up to the check-out, making sure not to trip on the cord or drop the carafe. I place it on the belt and it moves into the check-out lady’s line of vision. She looks at it and says, “Where’s the box?”

“It’s the display model,” I say. “It’s the last one left. I don’t care if it works; I’ll bring it back if it doesn’t.”

After conferring with the assistant manager—more proof, incidentally, of one’s potential for moving up the ladder at Walmart—the check-out lady tells me that I can’t buy the display coffee pot.

“Why not?” I ask. The Mystery of the Unavailable Display Model is about to unravel.

“Because it could be defective from customer handling,” she says. “It could be cracked. We don’t wanna be responsible in case it leaks and you get burned.”

I push out my lower lip, say thanks anyway, and leave without the coffee maker. I am sure that this particular machine—a plain Black and Decker—is the one meant for me, but there’s no way I can have it. I drive across the street to Target and find another Black and Decker that is brand new and still in the box, but it’s not the same model as the one at Walmart. It’s a couple steps up. I give in and buy it, and in a matter of minutes, something fancy is coming home with me.

I’m more nervous about this than I should be.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Stealing Away

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Thieves are so often demonized. You can get drunk and offend everyone, have the junkiest yard on the block, or blow off an important event, but as long as you don’t steal anything, you’re usually forgiven. Thieves on the other hand are considered the lowest of the low: people who take other people’s possessions must not have souls.


An incident of thievery was recently brought to my attention, something that happened many years ago that I may have forgotten if the thief hadn’t popped back into my life to confess. The crime went down like this: I was working at a large university, running a tutoring center for students who needed to learn how to write well overnight, or at least by the time their paper was due. How many times did my staff—students themselves—explain to international students the difference between “a coffee cup” and “the coffee cup”? How hard did we try to explain to them why we lived “on a street” but “in a city”? And why were we teaching white kids from Phoenix how to write in complete sentences? Our job was stressful, and sometimes it brought out the worst in my employees: patience ran out, tempers flared, and sometimes they just didn’t show up for work.

I couldn’t blame them.

My favorite student employee at the time was a lovely young woman, a girl really, who did everything that I didn’t want to do: she set up databases on the computer, entered huge amounts of data, then created reports for The Big Guys. She collected and processed time cards for payroll; she created and posted everyone’s work schedule.

I sat behind my computer and played with this new thing called “e-mail”.

In fact, I was so entranced with e-mail and this other new thing called “the World Wide Web” that I rarely left my desk. I drank pot after pot of coffee and kept a supply of energy bars in my drawer in case I got weak. I was glad the bathroom was right down the hall.

Sometimes—without taking my eyes off the screen—I would reach into my desk drawer for one of the three energy bars I knew were inside, and there would only be two. It was always my peanut butter bars that disappeared, never my maple. After awhile, I figured out what was happening: my favorite student employee, the senior who did half my job, was stealing them.

I didn’t think a thing of it because it reminded me of when I used to steal when I was a college student.

That was even further back; we’re talking the 80’s. I rented an upstairs room in a small house, with kitchen privileges. The owner, a nice elderly lady, lived downstairs and was rarely home. She enjoyed regular Coke, whereas I usually drank Diet. She enjoyed carrot cake from the bakery; I couldn’t afford carrot cake, nor was it on my rigid diet. She also liked milk—big jugs of it—and I did too, but milk was too heavy for me to carry home from the store, and I didn’t have a car.

If there had been a fly on the kitchen wall during the nine months I lived in that house, he would have seen me holding my roommate’s two-liter bottle of Coke up to my mouth and sucking it down, enough to give me some much-needed calories and a sugar rush, but not enough to be missed. He would have seen me slice off a small wedge of carrot cake and eat it from my hands, stuffing it in my mouth like I’d never had a dessert before. He would have seen me glugging milk straight from the jug at 2 a.m. when I got back from a kegger, maybe crinkling open a piece of Kraft cheese and folding it into my mouth. I would keep the cellophane wrapper in my room so my roommate wouldn’t see it in the garbage.

So, as a thief myself, I knew exactly what my favorite employee was doing. I didn’t say anything though, just as my former elderly roommate never called me on drinking her Coke or scarfing down her carrot cake. I know she would have gladly shared anything from her fridge with me, any food at all, like I would have shared my energy bars with this girl.

Now that the World Wide Web has something called "Facebook", we can all get in touch with people who stole from us and people from whom we stole. That’s how my favorite former employee found me, and she confessed immediately, even before she told me about her new baby girl and the master’s degree she eventually earned. She just had to tell me it was her who took those bars, and how guilty she felt, and how she felt even guiltier now, knowing that I knew the whole time.

I hope she reads this and understands that we are all thieves, taking things that don’t belong to us every day. We steal away when we want to; we rob people of their time. I think today that the thief inside me is most sorry for robbing my best friends and loved ones of their peace of mind, leaving only worry behind. I’m kind of on a mission to make up for that, which is a lot harder to replace than an energy bar.

So no worries, my former favorite employee. I always saw myself in you.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Nasal Spray Virgin

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The first time I used nasal spray, I was seventeen and it was 1985: my hair was big, my eye shadow rainbowesque, my harem pants a bright yellow. That day I was a shining example of what every girl aspired to be at the time: my own version of Cyndi Lauper. My hunky, popular, older god of a boyfriend Angelo was on his way to my house to take my virginity (my parents had foolishly left me alone once again). I was wildly excited, but I had a sinus infection that prevented me from breathing through my nose, so I had to breathe through my mouth.

How would I French kiss!?

Panicked, I called my best friend Gina who lived across the street. With my head completely stuffed up and sounding like a whiny librarian—decidedly unsexy—I asked her what I should do.

“Do you have any nasal spray?” she asked.

“Nasal spray!? How’s that going to help?” Though I worked as a cashier in a small superette and had checked out customers who bought nasal spray, they might as well have been purchasing a jar of pickled pigs’ feet for as much as I knew what they were going to do with it. I was a nasal spray virgin too.

“You shoot it up your nose and it lets you breathe! Meet me outside and I’ll give you some.” I quickly closed the open mouth of my frog phone—the equivalent of hanging up—and ran downstairs. I pushed open the screen door and flew down the railroad ties that my dad had used to make our front steps, meeting Gina in the middle of our dead-end street. How many times had we met like this? A million.

She gave me a little white bottle with fluid inside. “I already took the cap off,” she said. “Just spray it up your nose on both sides—do it now because it’s my mom’s and you can’t have it.”

“Spray it up my nose?” I said. “Whaddya mean?”

“Just put the pointy end up your nose and spray!” she insisted. “Just believe me!”

So there we were, standing in the middle of our street on a bright sunshiny day, Gina with her blonde hair teased to the clouds, me with a plastic bottle up my nose. I did each side several times, fluid coming back out and running down my face, bitter spray trickling down my throat.

“Ugh,” I said. “This is gross.”

“I know, but it works,” Gina said. “Give it a few minutes. Are you nervous?”

Gina knew very well that Angelo was on his way and that I planned to go through with "It". We were both as excited as two little kids waiting for the ice cream man, but Angelo was far better than ice cream. I’d been dating him for a little over a month, and was still unsure why he had picked me to date over all the other cute girls in town. He had been the most popular guy in high school—the most attractive, the most athletic, the most unattainable because he was always dating Supergirl—but now he was single, and he was mine: a sexy college football player, more man than boy.

Was I nervous?

“I’m like totally freaking out,” I said. “I gotta go back inside and fix my makeup. Thanks!” With that I ran back up the railroad ties, back into the house and up the stairs to my blue carpet bedroom with the slanted walls and my huge poster of Billy Joel. I loved my room; I loved my frog phone. I loved Billy Joel, but not as much as Angelo.


Now, 27 years later, I think of Angelo every time I get a sinus infection, which I currently have. I’m prone to them, as much as I'm prone to still fall apart in the presence of tall, dark, handsome quarterbacks. Nasal spray, Angelo. Nasal spray, I can French-kiss again.

Nasal spray, so much potential. I’m back in the game, ready to go, go, go.