Monday, February 25, 2013

Somebody's Baby

For my Floss.

1. I slice my finger open, the moment marked as I speak with one of my sisters on the phone.  I have reached my hand into sudsy water, and there was a knife.

“Oh my God!” I say, my dishwater turning pink.

“Wuddja do?” she says.  She is one of my four older siblings, and I am the youngest.  What I did means different things to both of us.

My fingerprint once again altered, I look into the wound and see the meat of me.  I think the meat of us should stay on the inside of the body, not outside, unless it’s needed for grander purposes, such as lunch for your former seatmates in the Andes on a snowy day.  I know that when your insides are on the outside, it stings.

I opt not to get one or two or five jillion stitches in my finger.  Instead, I live officially cloven.  I try to keep the two sides clean and pressed together with Band-aids.  I expect regeneration and nothing less.

My Band-aid is not on when the larger piece of finger hanging off of me snags on an afghan. Pain rips through my heart before exploding down my limbs and out my fingers and toes.  I have just finished Elie Weisel's Night and am deep into a slave-era narrative for my school’s book club, but still, I think that my pain must be greater.

2. And just so you know, I'm still with Jackson Brown.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Puppy Option

With 97 of my Facebook friends from my high school class of 1986, one would think that I had a fairly positive experience back then, especially since there were only 125 of us to begin with.  However, my family had moved to this little Pennsylvania town in the middle of my freshman year, and my new girl exoticness wore off by the first summer.  The nice girls at my school had grown up together and had already formed their cliques; the mean ones must have seen me as easy prey, and always threatened to deck me.  I remember that phrase: “You’re gonna get decked.”   These tough girls in flannels and boots followed me, intimidated me, drew hairy wieners on my locker.  One particularly tough girl actually did hit me—a couple blows to the side of my head in a parking lot, for saying to a mutual friend that the guy I had a crush on would never go out with her.  It was the truth by far—I was just stating a fact—but it was a good reminder-lesson that I didn't always have to say everything I knew.
My point here is that I am “friends” on Facebook with eight women who used to torment me.  They’re grown women like me now; I’m sure their memories work just as well as mine, if not better.  I’m sure they remember inventing sexual nicknames for me, like one that rhymes with Kate (use your imagination, and yes, that’s a hint).  I didn’t mind that one so much as the one that rhymed with “punt” with “head” put on the end and my name, Katie, put on the front.  I know I should look back at that and laugh, and part of me does, but part of me just shakes my head for how lost I felt at the time.
I’m basically the same girl I was back then; I look inside myself, up and down the hallways, and all I see are versions of me, nobody else.  I see more troubled versions of the girl I am right now, but I love them all.  It is only now in my life that I realize my body is like my child—a wonderful and delicate and promising child—and I should treat it as such.  Just as I would not give a child a choice between a pencil, a pillow, or a puppy, I do not allow myself similar types of choices, not anymore.  Best not to have the puppies around as an option in the first place.

So I look through the Facebook photo albums of these tough girls from my high school and wonder what kind of women they grew up to be.  I see their pictures and they look fine; they look the same, to me, even after 27 years.  I recognize them instantly.  I wonder when they friended me if any of them remembered shoving me into the lockers?  Why are they all of a sudden pleasant?  What could their excuses be for making my sophomore and junior years full of fear?  The only reasonable excuse I’ve ever heard for kids bullying others at school is that the bully herself is being abused at home, but I don’t think that gets you off the hook in court anymore.  I never told anyone at the time how much these girls terrorized me; what would have been the point anyway, since my parents’ inability to do anything but punish me for drinking probably equated with their parents’ inability to do anything about their daughters’ bullying habits.  Maybe their parents were completely unaware. 

I think about the girls we all used to be, those of us who were a little prettier, with parents who made a little more money, in white leather Nike sneakers with the blue swoosh, maybe with matching blue eye shadow and a blue polo.  Maybe the mean girls didn’t envy us at all; maybe they thought we were the ones who looked strange in our rainbow shirts and mullets.  I see them on Facebook now; they look like good parents and good people.  I message one of my best friends from high school: “I find it kind of weird that I’m now friends with at least five people who physically assaulted me in high school.”

“What!?” she messages back.  She has no idea I went through any of that.  Her own high school experience was so joyous that she remembers nothing but all the fun she had.  I tell her the story quickly, and she quickly gets it: now she remembers these girls and how mean they were.  “Why don’t you ask one of them why they did that to you?” she writes.

I consider that option for a moment—actually stirring up old affairs and asking a few of these girls why they made my high school experience a living hell.  What was it about me, the new girl, that they hated that much?  Did I want to relive the face-whitening feelings of not knowing if I was going to get punched or not? 
“I don’t think I can do that,” I message back to my friend.  It sounds like a good idea, but to be honest, I am already full up with confrontation, violence, and negativity.

“Why not?” my friend demands.

Just in time to rescue me, a thought forms in my mind that comes together by way of an old and favorite Tobias Wolff essay: the idea to forgive the young versions of the people you know now, including yourself.  Let them go, and appreciate the versions who are here in your life today.  I’ve been considering this idea for a long time, I realize that now—maybe since Christmas.  But today, on Valentine’s Day, it crystallizes.  It kind of goes together with the babying myself idea.

I offer my forgiveness idea to my friend, hoping she’ll like it, but she never plays the Pollyanna.  “I totally disagree,” she says. “I mean, that’s very grown-up and nice of you, but I’d still ask.  You deserve to know.”  Hm.

We type our goodbyes, our X’s and O’s, and she is off for dinner with her husband.  I return to grading a stack of student essays, occasionally glancing at the computer screen.  I see another Facebook friend’s post float by: a political thing with cartoon boys pissing on “anti-gun groups” and laughing.  This friend knows that I recently protested at a gun show, so in his mind, I belong to those groups.  And he supports boys pissing on us.  He “likes” them on Facebook.  He shares them.  He gets a real kick out of those boys.  

How can I be friends with this person?  He still shares cute family pics and writes about the progress he’s making with weight loss—and we are all very supportive, Like!—but then along comes a demeaning cartoon of President O’bama, or a thinly veiled threat to anyone who supports any restrictions on any guns.  This friend shares paranoia and hate and ignorance, along with his kid’s homemade Valentine’s box.

The Valentine’s box catches my eye. The box is for a Jack, and I remember that one of the kids who was killed in Sandy Hook was also named Jack. I don’t have children, but that would be a name I would consider for one.  It is quite a box indeed, a very colorful monster with arms and legs made out of paper towel tubes, eyes and nose painted on, and a big open smiling mouth for lots of Valentine’s day cards from his classmates and teachers.  People might even put candy in there.  A girl might like him and today he’ll find out!  I’m sure Jack loved it.

I think of the kids from Sandy Hook Elementary who won’t ever have to suffer through the heartbreak of not having enough Valentines in the box they made in art, or—even worse—not getting the right one.

The most fun and most calming part of my day is sitting at my crafts table, carefully cutting up some photographs of me and my friend from high school into large puzzle pieces to use on her birthday card.  I’m not the artsiest or craftiest of people, but I appreciate the personal touch myself, so I try to do the same when I can. I trace around the pictures of me and my friend first, using a bare razor blade and a Reader’s Digest to slice them out.  I try not to cut over either of our faces.  That would be bad luck.  I already have a Band-aid on my pointer finger due to an earlier encounter with a sharp edge, so I am being extra-careful, using my weight to make the razor slide, not my arms with the fiery joints.  Then I tape the pieces onto the card so the puzzle comes together.  It looks cool, but it’s taking me longer than I thought it would because I’m trying to get the tape not to show so much.  I’m getting tired.  I wish I had glue.  Glue would have worked a lot better.
Arts and crafts, my mind free to wander or pay attention, my hands busy, my eyes seeing everything.  A candle burning because I’m finally old enough to have one if I want one.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Woman Scorned

Nabe, my neighbor, is over one morning; he’s been good lately about listening to my stories.  This one is about how I always mix some physical with the mental when I’m working at home:  “I don’t want to get my back all twisted up or my arms all numb by sittin’ in front of the computer for too long.” 

“Yes?” says Nabe. 

“So I take breaks from it.”

“What kind of breaks?” he says, always tryin’ to trip me up. 

“I call them ‘physicals’,” I say.

“What consists of ‘a physical’?” Nabe asks.  Always poised to mock me, always taking a drag off a cigarette in his mind.

“Like vacuuming the house or mopping the floors,” I say.

“Oh,” says Nabe.  Score one for me, I have just won a conversation: Nabe cannot disagree that these tasks are indeed physical, for he loathes both of them for just that very fact.

“Good for you,” Nabe shrugs.  I bet he was hoping I’d say “paying bills”. 

I wonder sometimes if my interpretations of my and Nabe’s discussions are 100% accurate all the time.


I’m on the road later, running errands.  I notice that I’m low on gas, and end up pulling into the station closest to my house.  First I hop out and remember to pop the gas latch before closing the door.  Score!  I can do no wrong today. I unscrew the gas cap and only then see the large red signs taped onto the gas pumps at my station: Out Of Order.  Ohhh.  Well, since I’m so smart and strong, I’ll just reach around to the other side of the pump and drag the hose from that side to my car.  

I start to do this before noticing two large red signs taped onto those gas pumps, too.  No way!  So far at this gas station, all I’ve done is stand on the divider, turn from one direction to the other, and wring my hands.  I hop back into my car and move it to an entirely new gas pump, which happens to be just feet from the front door of the convenience store.  I am thinking this must be against code since I could literally reach in and fill people’s cups with gasoline if someone wanted that.  I am also being trampled by every person coming out of this store.
Later, I go in for a chocolate bar and find not only that but a basket of ripe bananas for forty-nine cents apiece on the way back to the front counter!  I have a girl-fit right there in the aisle.  “Oooo, banananas!  I can’t believe you have theeese!  The CVS and the Walgreen’s across the street never have fresh fruit!  This is excellent!”  This is so unlike me, but I go with it.  I’ve told a few people that ever since getting back to Arizona from Minnesota this last time, I have felt an ebullience of sorts, a weight lifted, like my anti-depressant is suddenly working super-duper well, with my moods most often ranking in the “no worries” zone (unless unkindly harpooned, of course). 

I get to the counter and the boys are ready for me and my purchases: a chocolate bar and the banana.  “And that’s all I need!” I say, grinning, quoting one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies. 

The boys stare at me, their natural smiles waning. Perhaps they haven't seen my favorite movie.

I am slightly embarrassed after my unpremeditated antics.  I can make up for that with a donation!  I put my change into what I want to be just a cup with pennies for the customers, so maybe my silver coins shine on top: a selfish donation.  But my eyes aren’t that bad, and I know long before I drop my coins into the plastic donation box that it's not for customers in need of a couple pennies, but for needy children.  I’m donating to needy children in exactly the way I teach my students not to: the wrong way.  

Taken aback by my own unabashed bad donation choice, I say “thank you” to the boys and start towards the door.  Then one of them sings out to me, clear as a bell, “I never heard any of those kids say thank you!”

The dagger through my heart.  And I must look stricken because the boy who says it immediately backpedals: “I was just kidding….”

I shake off the stupidity of me and regather my meanness.  “I’ll see you boys again,” I say, smiling, backing out through the in-door.  


I am home later in the afternoon, grading at my desk.  I have been doing so for more than an hour straight.  I hear a demanding female voice inside my brain, and it’s either my fourth grade teacher, one of my sisters, my mother, a former camp counselor, a former roommate, that lady from the video, or a degree of me.  I have to listen:

“Weren’t you gonna do ‘a physical’?” she says.  Mocking, always mocking.


“What was it?”

Fold the laundry.

“Fold the laundry!?  Can that wait?


“What else were you gonna do?”

Vacuum my room.

“Can that wait?”

We both knew the answer to that one: I had put that off for more than a month one time last semester when the going got rough.  It could definitely fall lower on the physical priority list now.

Okay, you caught me!  I say.  (I hate mopping the floor and the floor hasn’t been mopped in months.)

“Get that bucket!” she yells.

Okay!  I got it!  I’m getting it!

“You’ve gotten it before, then you put it back without washing the floor.

I recognize her now.  That's my woman scorned.  

She never forgets a thing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

T-shirts for Me

After the weekend, now that my super-sexy male guest has gone home, I stand before my t-shirt shelf determined to make a difference this time.  The twenty-year-old t-shirts with holes in the pits have to go.  I was lucky enough not to be caught wearing one of these by my super-sexy guest—I’d made a separate pile of t-shirts labeled “okay for the weekend with Super-Sexy”.  No, what SS caught me in was a fifteen-year-old sweatshirt that had been given to me by my murderous boyfriend of ’98.

“No one can see your beautiful shape in that baggy thing,” SS had said.

“I don’t want my beautiful shape to always be seen,” I said back.

But old t-shirts with claw marks over the shoulders—from every cat I’ve ever walked the floor with at night—don’t need to be so handy when I have piles of other t-shirts that are newer with no holes.  If I can’t bear to throw my old ones out—which I can’t now, I’ve decided, because it would take too long to figure out which were the keepers, and why all the rest deserved the trash—I need to at least put them into a new pile, separate from my good ones.

I stand there unfolding and shaking out Bruce Springsteen, Mickey Mouse, Minnesota—all holey and baggy and soft—and think about all the people through my life who have commented on my personal presentation choices.  One who sticks out is Pigeon Man, another murderer I dated in the 90’s.  We were in his truck, on the way to dinner, and I mentioned I’d gone shopping that day.  I’d bought some new clothes.

“Well, didja wear ‘em?” said Pigeon Man, who could plainly see that the answer was “no”.  “Why not!?” he demanded.

“Because I like what I have on,” I remember saying.  I was wearing this long sleeveless silk vest that I wore all the time, with a cinched tie in back.  I wore it like I would a very short dress, with black tights underneath and high strappy heels.  I puzzled for a long time after that, wondering why Pigeon Man would care more about my clothes than I did.

I continue to separate and fold, t-shirts just for me, and t-shirts suitable for the outside world.  I still have a lot that came from my ex-husband’s brother’s store in San Francisco; that was twelve years ago, and these shirts have stood up well, I have to give them that.  It's not the t-shirts’ fault that my ex-husband was a freak. They go in my “for the outside world” pile.

In general, but more specifically since Christmas, and most acutely right now as I stand in my closet going through my clothes after my weekend with Super-Sexy, who I might never want to see again and who might never want to see me, I am wondering again what keeps people together.  My mom got the flu when I was home for Christmas, and the first sign that something was wrong was that she didn’t emerge from her bedroom.  My father and I sat at the kitchen table for a long time drinking coffee and visiting before he finally looked at the clocked and said, “Where’s your mother?”

“Still in bed, I guess,” I said.

My father gazed at me, his jaw set, all business.  “In the fifty five or so years that I have been married to your mother, I have never, ever, seen her get up this late.”

He was slightly more at peace when he knew it was just the flu and nothing worse, but still, after a couple of hours, he became agitated again.  “I’m going down the hall to see your mother!” he said, as if he suddenly realized he could.  He was gone for so long that I went to look for him too, as I had gone to peek in on my mother earlier.  There he was, sitting on the edge of her bed, his walker off to the side.  My mom was curled up under the covers, a small shape under her chenille bedspread.  I wasn’t there to eavesdrop, but I could hear them murmuring back and forth, my dad leaning towards my mom, his arm around the curve of her hip. 

I keep folding my shirts the way my mother taught me, smoothing and stacking them, piles for me and the piles that will make me presentable to the world.  My parents’ kind of love, the kind they have now, has nothing to do with t-shirt or sweatshirt approval—even though these issues remain on the table—but everything to do with time.  I always wanted to be married for 50 years, and so far I've only managed two.

I better hurry up.