Just Fine

IMG_0096The horses were indifferent. They were the chance offspring of chance offspring. They were here and so they grazed. Tip-toeing around ping pong piles of equine droppings and the foot pricking remains of dead sea oats, I’d wandered inland and alone from the beach. The horses I found there are called “wild,” which seems imprecise considering their nonchalance. I’m serious. They really don’t care.

Last summer, my significant other worked on a certain reality t.v. show that has recently become the darling of tabloid covers. The episodes he did were set “on vacation” at another NC island touting Iberian Stallions as a prime tourist attraction. The female lead, normally a shrew of Shakespearean proportions, suddenly began to wax Snow White: “Oh they’re so free,” she crooned. “Those are the happiest horses in the world.” If one didn’t know better (but believe me, one did know better), one might have thought the Wizard of Oz had bestowed upon her a soul.

In contrast, my findings held that those horses weren’t happy. They weren’t unhappy. They were just eating grass to fill the time until there was no more time to do so. They were fine with that.

Looking for a spot clear of biowaste stacks, I settled into the sand 10 feet from them. Apparently, this was their boundary. I tested 9 feet, but they took a few steps away now placing me at 13. I stepped again closer but stopped at the estimated 10-foot force field. They seemed fine with it.

The island was vast, as islands can be. Something about the spotty patches of grass and low lying shrubs evoked memories of Cape Cod. I closed my eyes to better hear surf, grass chewing, and big bugs who were far less motivated to feed on human juices than I’d feared. I half fantasized that the most elegant of the herd, sensing our kindredness, would allow me to jump right up, grab some fistfuls of mane and ride him bareback like Alec in the Black Stallion. But I couldn’t remember the timeline required for Alec to step across the 10-foot personal space barrier. The horses didn’t know me.

So, I just was and I just watched.

The stillness made me need more stillness.

Just over the bank lay long bare stretches of beach, bayside and seaside. And beyond that lay “the line-up.” On my walk to the horses, I briefly met “David,” a stereotypically sun-bleached, sanded-down surfer who instructed, “Enjoy the day; that’s what it’s all about.”

“Really?,” I asked. “I thought the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about.” We watched one of his wet-suit be-clad friends glide through North Carolina’s version of the “tube.”

“Hope I’ll see you again,” an inspired David called back as he took off toward the water. “You’re the King of the Waves,” I called back doubting that he could hear me.

He was the third in a week to tell me to live like the horses. Another man in a weathered red ball cap was grabbing take-out from the all-locals cafe in Beaufort. The cafe manager ordered him to have a nice day. “Every day is a nice day,” He said. “Isn’t it?” he asked looking directly to me for an answer. Do I really look like a completely harried non-profit director weathering the worst economic crisis in US history, even when I’m vacationing? Do I look like I need to be reminded to enjoy my day? Do I look paranoid about people reminding me to enjoy my day?

For the surfers and the horses, problems are not problems. Chasing happiness is just something people do to keep themselves unhappy. There’s no difference between good and fine. They are fine with being just fine. Now that I’m back inland doing non-profit management (something often akin to indentured servitude) with no horses or surfers in sight, I hope I can be too.

Fini and Fine.

On Leaving: Never Speak Ill of the Dead

“Oh, doesn’t she look lovely?”
“Yes, they did a really nice job.”

We all searched for something original to say, but this was all we mustered. And it was meaningful in that the deceased would sigh relief to know that she was decomposing in style and carefully coordinated accessories. It helps to have a decorator in the family. Truly.

But now, how to be truthful without being mean? How irreverent is it really to mention that while her make-up lent color to her cheeks, the beige foundation on her hands made her seem waxy and dead? Her bright coral manicure was flawless but her fingers long as a concert pianist’s and spotted as a Florida snowbird’s. The sight of the shining pointy nails combined with the dark mahogany coffin could only make me think of Ann Rice. Telling the unglamorous gospel about sacred experience is aptly distancing, providing the perfect emotional defense when one is already well-defended.

“Eileen, you look lovely,” my Grandmother said directly to the corpse. Eileen lay permanently resting in the pink chiffon, pearlescent beads, and white sequins often brandished at ballroom dance marathons. She’d worn the dress to her daughter’s first wedding,” my step-sister explained. Since the groom turned out to be a scoundrel, and a homo-sexual scoundrel at that, it wasn’t the happiest moment of the woman’s life. Still, she had asked to be buried in pink, and in a pinch, this was all anyone could find.

Surprising even myself, I gasped. “I thought her favorite color was purple,” I told my substitute sister. “No, it’s definitely pink,” she informed.

“But she has that purple room in her house.”

“That’s just the guest room.”

“I’ve been giving her purple all this time,” I accused like I’d discovered some long-standing practical joke. “Purple pendants, purple flowers, purple hand towels with reindeer on them.”

Since I graduated college, Eileen had begun sending money: $100, sometimes $500. It embarrassed me. I rarely sent a thank you note; sometimes I forgot to make the deposit.

My sister added, “They had a pink casket. We thought about it; we almost got it, but it was too . . .”

“Mary Kay?”

Briefly smiling, pseudo-sister nodded. This was one of those rarely achieved moments of kinship that made us each feel great, though we never said so aloud.

We met when we were six, and our first fight was over how to fill our time. We were at her grandmother, Eileen’s lake house. I had discovered that if we looked, we could find dusty, broken quartz rock revealing smooth pinkish, sparkling contents. Chelsea wanted to make our Barbie and Ken dolls make out.

“Why do you want to look for rocks all the time; rocks are stupid,” she said.

“Rocks are interesting,” I replied disregarding someone I had already deemed an inexplicable alien life form.

“Rocks are not intestering.”

Dropping my most recent find, I looked up at her. “It’s ‘interesting,’ not intestering.” I said it pretentiously and a bit too loudly.

We fought until we were sixteen. She told me that Jewish people were going to hell. Scornfully, I asked, “Really? Haven’t they been through enough?” Her mom told my dad that Chelsea was afraid of me. This made me feel guilty and not just a little self-satisfied. From there, Chelsea and I simply avoided one another.

From the age of thirteen, we lived in the same house, but ten years was an exhausting battle for us both. At age sixteen, I stayed in my room and read or spent time with friends’ families until I could escape to college. She stayed in our hometown, had kids, and decorated people’s living rooms. I went away, searched for more cool rocks, and went home as infrequently as possible.

I was standing closer, but my brother-in-law noticed my Grandmother’s tears before I did. He rushed to slide a simple wooden kitchen chair behind her as I watched the 95-year-old matriarch’s shoulders shake. I suddenly liked him better, which was a relief because I wanted a reason to like him. I wanted him to be good the way I wanted Darth Vader to turn out to be good in the end of the Star Wars Trilogy. But I was scared and thrown off guard. I thought I was closer to Eileen than Grandma was, and not even I could cry. At least I couldn’t until I saw her cry. Then I cried, but only a little. She collapsed into a chair too small for her and her grief.

Grandma and Eileen weren’t related. Did the two of them even get along? I’m fairly certain they didn’t get along. In recent years, they would share an hour or two together post-dinner in the living room, Eileen reading US Magazine while Grandma’s chin rested on her chest in slumber.

Once during their seven-year courtship, my dad broke up with Lana, Chelsea’s mother. Soon after, my Grandma and I bumped into Chelsea and her own Grandmother at a downtown Travelogue. It was about the Smoky Mountains, and in the lobby, one could sip Cool-Aid from paper cups while touring an exhibit of Appalachian taxidermy. We stood by a red fox with rigor mortis and pondered what to do. My grandmother encouraged me to exercise southern grace by saying, “hello,” but Eileen shot us a look and steered Chelsea quickly away. Clearly, we had entered enemy camp.

The funeral home carpet was so mauve it made me feel my spaghetti dinner. I excused myself to find the ladies room, that ever welcoming and generous space so available when one must hide alone to pull one’s flailing self together. I closed and locked the stall door and “breathed to my knees,” as my yoga instructor challenged me to do in such moments. This was not enough to curb my runaway internal dialogue. I imagined what it will feel like to see my own Grandmother lying dead, waxy, and made over by the local king cosmetologist to the rich and cadaverous.

Was I wallowing or just preparing myself?

I wiped my nose on thin, rough toilet paper. Funeral homes should have Charmin. Is not their purpose to provide comfort and gentle, squeezable softness?

So selfish of me – to be only thinking of my own impending loss as my – sister? Is that what she is? As Chelsea’s greatest comfort lies lifeless and gone. Eileen was one of the three – five people in the world who loved my sister most. I knew this wholly, and I wished I could feel more for her and for the woman who had been both mother & grandmother to her the way mine has been to me. But I suspected that my lack of appropriate feeling was genuine.

(As pittance, I would at the very least self-flagellate for being a bad person.)

I did care, but I didn’t know what, if much at all, I felt for them. I kept trying and I kept pretending. I kept trying to convince myself otherwise. As my aunt told me once, “You’re an only child, and she’s the only family you’ll have one day.” I know that this reality weighs heavily on my sister too and that she also tries and pretends and sometimes convinces herself that things are different.

If only they would have at some point slid a chair beneath my crying kin, perhaps everything would have been the way we keep trying to make it. I never thought they liked me either, and I was always trying so damn fruitlessly hard to please. Despairingly contrasted we were, then and now.

I’m not a smoker, but for some reason I briefly visualized myself a sullen observer in the corner of the parlor, taking drags off a cigarette and turning my head to exhale. Imaginary addiction, a merely moderate black sheep’s coping mechanism.

My step-mother stood far from my father. He looked like this did not come as a surprise. Come to notice it, my step-sister stood far from her husband too. This did surprise me.

Soon, when I’m in this very same funeral space again, I thought, I’ll be clinging to Elrond’s arm like a broken and pathetic creature. But Eileen was like this with Frank. She seemed embarrassed to be with him. She was too Republican to be feminist, and yet men were the enemy. All of them, no matter how kind. Well except for my brother-in-law, but he’s a doctor. And he’s charming, never revealing a hint of vulnerability.

Eileen acted proud of her marriage. Frank was from prominence, but her disappointed heart permanently adorned her sleeve. Nevertheless, their family remained steadfastly united by their common belief in God’s will, predestination, and low taxes. I wanted to feel the same poetry & romance as others when my sister announced that Eileen died on the same date and at the same time as her husband had six years prior. Again, God clearly wanted it that way. But I was skeptical.

From where I stood, it always seemed that Frank was around to swat spiders and fix hinges on broken cabinets. Eventually, he became (or was he always?) the sort who incessantly talked at and never listened to. I see the same thing happening to my father as he learns to shut out the world, an ineffectual defense from constant harping abuse.

“No one wants to listen to you talk about war, James. Stop scratching your bald head, James. Do you want to go more bald?”

One time, we were traveling in Texas. My dad and Lana got into an argument over the volume control on the t.v. set. Dad lost some of his hearing when he was a navigator in Vietnam. Like quarreling siblings, like me and Chelsea pre-1986, one would turn the volume up before the other would grab the remote and turn it down. They went on like that for a while; I sought refuge in the restroom.

Then, there was the time that Dad’s commuter van got hit by a Dodge Caravan. I watched the two of them talk on the stairs. Lana wouldn’t go to the hospital with him b/c she had an appointment at the Acura dealership. She was in the market. Dad had a concussion.

Chelsea defended her mother; I defended my father.

(But he’s an engineer, and how else are they supposed to get his attention?)

On the one hand, I can kind of understand it, these patterns and ruts, but this is the real story about why I don’t visit. I suppose it’s not that uncommon once one leaves.

Not knowing how to deal with disbelief, my sister compliments me on my dress. I compliment her too. Dolled up in madras, her seven-year-old son sits well-behaved, showing signs of knowing and not knowing enough to know. His name is Chaplain, a title really more than a name. He’s a cute kid but like most of the men in his family, starving to be noticed and appreciated. His sister is too young to be there. Their dad’s mom is home with her, watching Kung-Fu Panda.

I smile and try to notice when and who needs space. I’m determined not to go until I make myself feel something more. I briefly converse with my step-mother’s cousin who, over dinner, clandestinely revealed that she’s an Obama supporter. I let her know that it was safe to unleash her secret to me; it even provided me a sort of catharsis as though we might suddenly lend one another, even as strangers, the courage to brazenly announce our political preferences. As if everyone didn’t know. It wasn’t a good time.

I grab gift baskets of high-quality coffee items and give them to Lana and Chelsea. I say it’s to get them through the next few days of relentless estate management and funerary ritual. Lana hugs me and tells me she loves me. I say it back and really want to believe us both.

My sister and step-mother depart together in a large, black Toyota Landcruiser built not only for transportation but also as a potential dwelling should the latest election, in fact, be the dawning of the apocalypse. I leave with my dad and Grandma in her 1991 sea green Buick. Dad tells me that the downtown neighborhood we’re in is being re-developed by Lexington’s nouveau hippie elite. Surrounding the mortuary are food coops, crack houses, coffee shops, and tattoo parlors. He knew I would approve of this, and he transparently hopes I might move back. I never knew Lexington had craftsman-style housing.

I watched the night time through the car window and tried to figure out why Eileen would take her last breath at the same minute that her husband, so seemingly disconnected from her, would take his. I didn’t really believe in God, but I was the only one who noticed a custom, back-lit business sign outside a bridal shop. Cosmically, it bore one word: “Frank.”

Lemon Custard: A Victory Story

So, Baskin Robbins discontinued my favorite of the 31 flavors, lemon custard ice cream. I first sampled its wonders when I was four years old. My dad had taken me there after we watched Pete's Dragon on the big screen. I wanted a big pink dragon for my very own in the worst way, and I was saddened by the movie's end to realize that one had not yet materialized for me. So, the lemon custard, in all its tasty splendor, provided comfort that would last a lifetime.

Recently panicked to note that lemon custard was no longer listed even as a "seasonal" flavor on the Baskin Robbins website, I began calling every franchise I could find in the Yellow Pages. I even got Elrond to call a few. We were told that no one liked Lemon Custard, so they stopped making it.

Desperately, I set out on a letter writing campaign. I created countless email accounts and aliases to inflate the aura of public demand and outrage. I know I'm not the only lover of the lemon custard, so I was merely representing the disappointed masses who lacked the metal to stand up for what they believe in. Lemon Custard makes the world a better place and humanity a little more pleasant.

Then, my summer miracle arrived. I talked Elrond into a spontaneous raid on the Northgate location of BR. "You're just wallowing in denial," he told me. Still, their chocolate is one of the stickiest, creamiest to be found, so it couldn't be a total bust.

He spotted glory before me. I lingered over the yellowing vat of French Vanilla, willing it to be a labeling mistake. That's jaundiced enough to be the custard, I thought. He took my arm and lured me toward my salvation. It's back!!! They've read my passionate pleas for mercy. On Friday night, side by side, Elrond and I each savored a single scoop of maalox-inspired citrusy goodness.

Life could not be any sweeter.

Remembering the King

“I met my soul mate,” I announced to my roommates and a couple of friends. “We talked all night long, and get this: when he was a kid, instead of making his G.I. Joe men fight, he made them have peace talks.”

“Is he gay?,” Lisa queried.

I paused at least 40 seconds before answering. “He’s sensitive,” I defended defensively.

(Eight years after the fact, I discover this: at a subsequent gourmet dinner cooked for us by the alleged soul mate, my friends passed a note under our faux finish oak table. It bore tiny check boxes below the fateful questions, “What do you think? Gay or Not Gay? Check yes or no.” The result was a 50/50 split.

He was gay, but that’s beside the point.

Will was one of those ill-fated romances that fades into unforgettable, um, friendship leading to hilarious road trips, mischievous scheming, and treasured mixed tapes. I still listen to his mixed tapes: the Sundays, Morrissey, Erasure. Okay, Erasure. I know, all right?

For our first date, he drove me downtown in his beat-up Honda Accord that he’d worked really hard to buy. Conversation was running smoothly, but I was nervous. We were at a stop light when we wrecked into our first awkward silence. I panicked.

Think fast, I said silently to myself. Okay, you know that he has a cat. You can either ask him how long he’s had his cat, or you could ask him how old his cat is.

What I said was, “So, how long is your cat?”

40-second pause. He looked at me and set his palms about 2.5 feet apart to illustrate his precious feline’s measurements.

We’re bonded for life then, and I was relieved to find that I could be safely and openly nervous with him.

We were heading downtown because of my freak pheromone. I’d told him about it, but he didn’t believe me. “Stick around,” I’d warned.

He believed that if there’s some freak pheromone experience to be had, it would definitely be in downtown Greenville, SC. He was spot on.

We visited the one and only thrift shop on Main Street in 1993. This was pre-Falls Park, before Greenville embraced the creative class. I bought a ring that looked like an abacus, and Will bought a fedora. I asked the clerk if they had a public restroom. He informed that it was for employees only but sent us up the street to the Hyatt Regency. I liked the Hyatt for its waterfalls and decorative pools. I took my shoes off to wade briefly, but this exacerbated my urgent need for a ladies room.

We entered at the second floor and heard a ritualistic drum beat. At the Hyatt Regency. We leaned over the balcony rail to see a flood of figures dressed in black robes. They were beating the floor with long, wooden staffs. Together, we looked to our right. There stood a hard-bodied female wearing a black leather bikini and spiked dog collar. She held a whip and looked quite sure of herself.

“See?” I looked to Will for acknowledgment that the freak pheromone was not merely mythical.

“Let’s go before we get strapped to the sacrificial alter,” he replied.

We crossed the street to Fudrucker’s. Will scooted into a booth; I walked briskly and awkwardly to the rear restrooms. I noticed more darkly attired devil worshipers, but I didn’t have time to worry about it.

I heard a ruckus. When I departed the lavatory, I saw that Will was ashen and seemed to be in some sort of trance.

I shook him by the shoulders and asked, “what happened to you?”

He pointed to a robed renegade in the corner.

“You see that guy over there?” he implored.

I nodded. “Of course I see him. He’s as solid as my pheromone.”

“Okay, now. You see that group of people over there?”

“Yeah. Just tell me,” I said, noticing that two of them were wearing t-shirts innocuously advertising a sci-fi convention.

“Okay. Well, that guy yelled, ‘Give me a K!'”
“They all chanted, ‘K!'”
“Then, he yelled, ‘Give me an I!'”
“They all chanted, ‘I!'”
“Give me an ‘N!'”
“They all chanted, ‘N!'”
“Give me a ‘G!'”
“They all Chanted, ‘G!'”
“Then [like a cheerleader], he called, ‘What does that spell?'”
They all yelled, “ELVIS!!!”

Will and I got chocolate chip cookies to go and left.

Pachelbel played over sidewalk speakers.

“Oh, do you like Pachelbel?,” he asked.

I thought he’d said, “Do you like Taco Bell?” I was hungry, and the cookie was not enough to satiate my growling stomach’s demands.

“Yeah! I would totally LOVE one of their beef burritos right now.”

He stares at me quizzically.

As we stand at the street corner waiting for the light to change, another freak stops his car, leans out, makes a grotesque face, and exclaims, “Moowaaaaaaaaaaaa” at us.

“See?,” I said more than asked.
Will and I were friends for a long time after he came out. Before then, we’d almost kiss, but something felt not quite right. One of us would always interrupt the moment. We talked about this later, how I’d look at him and feel raw unbridled attraction, but when I got close enough to smell him, there was nothing. No spark, no young adulthood, over-sexed need to grab him by the shirt and stick my tongue in his mouth.

One night, a week after Will and I had argued and stopped talking to each other for no real good reason, my friend Kasey showed up at my door with a bottle of Boone’s Farm Blackberry wine. “It’s from Will,” she tells me. “He sent me here b/c he needs to tell you something. He said you should have some of this first.”

I know what this is about. I drink straight from the bottle.

A bit later, I hear a pebble strike my apartment window. Then another. And another before I reach my front door to greet him. Will asks if we can go for a walk.

We head across the street to campus. He tells me, and I feel relief. Relief that we’re talking to each other, relief that we know each other, and relief that this typically “open as a book” guy can be fully open about this.

I remember a time at lunch when a bunch of Sigma Nus were at our table. They weren’t with us. They were just at our table. I loved eating in the dining hall. It had huge windows from floor to ceiling, about three stories high. You could see the full span of the lake, the swans, the miniature marsh that was forming from partially submerged cedar trees. The year before I matriculated, there’d been a MASSIVE food fight in there. White Merita rolls launched from wall to wall. Leftover mystery meat casserole hit students square in the face. I was mad at my parents for not conceiving me a year sooner so I could have been there.

But times were not so bright in the Furman cafeteria this semester. The frat boys (not my favorite of campus populations, as I established in “Far More Fond of Cabbage”), were discussing their views on homosexuality. Like the stereotypical bible beating, sorority-scamming cad he most surely was, one “brother” declared, “If I ever find a fag around here, I’ll make sure he transfers and never comes back.”

Proud and self-righteous, I slam my silverware down on my tray, stand up, and stomp away in indignation.

Will stays and commiserates like nothing said there is offensive.

As we stride toward the lake, I think about how lonely that moment must have felt for him.

Will tells me that he’s always had a girlfriend. Always.

His father is a Baptist minister.

He says that he’s had some sense of his sexual orientation since he was about six. I think back and guess that I have too. Well, come to think of it.

He’s tried experimenting sexually with women, but it felt so unnatural that he got physically sick.

“Seriously. I actually threw up. I always thought I could change. I’ve been going to Sunday school for a long time, and I didn’t think that God could possibly want me to be this way. He wouldn’t want me to be anything that would hurt my parents as much as this. I’ve tried now, and I’m ready to stop.”

Will is an environmentalist, a liberal, an animal rights activist, an obvious subversive.
Will is a devout man of faith.

I was the one who transferred. My dad lost his job. I only had a tiny scholarship, and private school was expensive. Will and I visited each other. We were only a few hours apart.

By that fall, he had a boyfriend named, Stephen. They stopped to kiss as we hiked somewhere on Paris Mountain. It seemed completely natural to me. How surprising that their affection didn’t phase me at all. But I still felt a tinge of jealousy when other women would flirt with Will. I let my mind settle on this only briefly and abstractly.

I was glad this happened during a weekend I was there. Stephen and Will enjoyed another PDA session in the Piggly Wiggly while we were there grabbing our traditional bottle of Boone’s Farm. His dad walked past our aisle. By then, Will and Stephen were only standing close and holding hands. We weren’t sure that his father, the preacher, had seen them. We waited and hoped that his dad would leave before we did.

We didn’t see the Reverend again, but the next morning, we found a yellow sticky note taped to the steering wheel of Will’s Honda. It read, “Will, I want you to know that I love you. No matter what. Dad.”

Will and I once discussed starting our own night-time poetry readings. Again, Greenville hadn’t yet become the mecca of underground, artsy coffee shops and riverwalk galleries that it is now. We would call these cutting-edge cultural offerings “Moonlit Musings.” I went on to start this series in Charleston. Will went on to make an important difference in the world. I thought he would.

Bobbypins Before Bedtime: Not Your Typical Grandma Story

eve-and-mortality1 I realize it’s trite, taboo even, for one to write stories about her Grandmother. My Grandmother’s not your     typical  Meemaw or Nanna though. She’s complicated. A woman to be reckoned with. A drama queen of grand proportions. Scarlett O’Hara combined with Mother Theresa to the third power.

Here are some accounts from the year 2001:
“Why, they’re still here,” she puzzles, glaring down at her ever more ample bustline.  Befuddled from the anesthesia, my grandmother forgot that she had checked into the hospital for gall bladder surgery instead of the breast reduction she had dreamt of for the past thirty-two years.  “I declare;  I still look like a Double D.  That won’t do.  I can never get the buttons on my blouse to meet, and it’s such a bother.”  Her words fall somewhere between pride and annoyance as she elegantly sweeps her hand in front of her bosom the way a “Price is Right” girl graces her manicure across a newly won ten speed blender.

Eve is a living cliché straight out of every novel dedicated to portraying the infamous and elusive southern matriarch.  But the matriarch label doesn’t even begin to cover all the qualities enshrouding the entity that I call “Grandma.”  Actually, “The Force” comes closer, but it’s still too plain.
As the effects of the anesthetic gradually diminish, she instructs me to get my hair out of my eyes and then asks, “Don’t you have a good hairdresser there in North Carolina?”  I want to ask the nurse anesthesiologist if we can get another round.  Grandma’s been nagging me about my hair since I was thirteen.  She begs me to “pull that mess back with a pretty pink bow.”  One time, I did.  I got the biggest, most hideous pink bow I could find and wore it on the side of my head for an entire day of public gatherings.  Grandma found the gesture embarrassing but not persuasive enough to put an end to her entreaties.  Even though I’m twenty-eight now, it doesn’t matter.  I magically wither down to twelve when in grandmother’s presence.

My eyes fix on a nurse as she gently adjusts the hospital bed to a comfortable position.  I stay silent a moment, brooding a bit that I sacrificed a year’s worth of New Year’s Eve plans involving a raucous reunion of college friends in Charleston to come here and feel harassed.  But these thoughts dissipate when Grandma suddenly transitions into her ever powerful and disarming “sweet elderly widow” disposition.  She reaches up to touch my face and says, “Be a good girl now,” just like she did every morning when she’d drop me off at school when I was a kid.  She often does this in my adulthood to produce a connection between us, a mutual remembrance of the special bond we formed following the early death of my mother.  She’s also acknowledging that I’ve entered womanhood and that, though it pains her, she recognizes my right to wear my hair in my eyes if I want to.

Still groggy from the Morphine, Grandma grows disoriented again.  Never abandoning her southern graces, however, she thanks the nurses for attending her “party.”  “Do you think Dr. Lyons (the surgeon) had a nice time?,” she asks one of them.  The petite, perfectly groomed nurse, who looks just like the sort of person Grandma would invite to a party, assures her that he did.

I spend the next couple of days keeping Grandma company at the hospital with my father and my uncle.  After the men go out in the hallway for a break, she shows me a bunch of tape on her stomach covering three tiny incisions.  “One’s right here in my belly button.  You don’t suppose they sucked my gall bladder out through there, do you?,” she seriously wonders. (When I took her to Cinema Six to see The Titanic, the first movie she’d since the early days of Cary Grant’s career, she also asked me how many people had to die to complete the disaster scene).

After we get word of her official release, I pull Grandma’s gray Oldsmobile around to the patient pick-up exit.  My uncle helps her from her wheelchair into the passenger seat.  He then waves goodbye to us before heading to his own car and guest room at my dad’s house.  As we pull into the driveway of her retirement community, she instructs me to temporarily park the car at the entrance.  She wants to make a quick break for her apartment so she can fix herself up before anyone can see her looking like she’s just gotten out of the hospital.

We almost reach her doorway undetected, but her neighbor emerges from her own cramped dwelling space before we have the opportunity to turn the doorknob on ours.  Expressing genuine concern, Vera points out the “Welcome Home” posters that she and Grandma’s menagerie of women friends taped to her door.  Grandma is clearly delighted to have a group of people here who care enough to make that much fuss.  (Later, she also received numerous notes and a card signed by all of the residents.  By that time, my rumor of her post-op behavior had successfully traversed the proverbial grapevine so that her cards bore such smart remarks as “Hope your blouses fit better now.”)

“Now, tell me what I can do to help you.” Vera demands, following behind us as Grandma directs her into the apartment.
“Oh, Vera, you don’t need to worry about me.  I’m doing just fine.”  Grandma endures the rest of the 30-minute visit poised in her favorite chair just to prove that she won’t take this surgery bit lying down.  Like any proper southern belle, Grandma never airs her dirty laundry.  Putting on one’s happy face for the public is more imperative than the Golden Rule and the 10 Commandments combined.  “No one likes a whiner,” she says.

Though this is a wise philosophy on some level, as with many proper southern belles, it sometimes leads Grandma to express her feelings in more toothy-smiled passive aggressive ways, some of which could reduce Pol Pot into a weeping heap at her feet.  Most of the time though, humor serves as her emotional outlet of choice.  For instance, she keeps my very first stuffed animal, a brown koala bear my dad brought back from Thailand, in her guest bedroom.  Every time I return to visit, I get a welcome home letter from “Bear.”  Right after I got married, I returned to Tennessee to find one such letter.  It read:

“Dearest Svets,

Welcome Home.  It’s so wonderful to see you, and oh, how I’ve missed you.  I remember all of our good times together when you were a little girl.  You used to hug me and carry me everywhere you went.” The note was, up to that point, heartwarming as usual; then Bear spiraled into a jealous rage:

“We just grew up so fast, didn’t we?  Now, you’re married, and all you pay attention to is that husband.  I don’t like him one bit, and you can tell him I said so.  I fix myself up to look nice for you, and you don’t even notice. P.S. I’m much cuddlier than he is.”
Grandma is every good Freudian’s dream case.

To ease the pressure of holding conversation off of Grandma, Vera asks me how school is going.  I’ve never met her before since Grandma only moved to the retirement community a few months back, but Vera already knows a good bit about me.  We talk a little about my current thesis project, then Vera tells me how much I look like my grandmother.  Grandma repeats, as she has many times, that she and I have been very special to one another.  Then she smiles and says, “I guess she turned out pretty well, didn’t she?”  Translated: “I did a good job of raising her, and I deserve some credit.”  And she does.  So, I get a little choked up at this.  Despite the generation gap and the frequent “differences” that result, I never stop seeking my grandmother’s approval.

After Vera leaves, I help Grandma to bed so that she can rest a while.  Later she gets up for dinnertime, puts on her make-up, and encourages me to “make myself look nice.” Next, she parades me down the corridor like it’s a runway for her prize heifer.  I smile sweetly.

Grandma struggles to walk for a bit until we reach the cafeteria.  She’s supposed to be taking her meals in her room until she recovers a bit more from her surgery, but she insists on making an appearance at what I call “the cool table.”  She has worked hard and fast to win her rightful place as leader of the “inner sanctum,” and like a dictator rumored to be in bad health, she must prove the steadfastness of her constitution in order to suppress the clandestine plots of her potential successors.

My youthful naiveté grows apparent as I marvel that such a socio-political hierarchy even exists among this age group.  In my current worldview, old people are supposed to be wiser, more enlightened beings.  They’re supposed to be like Buddha.  And the social configuration of a retirement community cafeteria should certainly not resemble that of a high school.  But all this innocence is felled in one quick epiphany; alas, it dawns on me that every place in life, whether it be church, grad school, a major corporation, or a retirement home, has it’s A-crowd.

Then the introductions begin.  I’m relieved to find that after decades of severe virtue, Grandma has fallen in with a gang of rowdy octagenarians who are, at long last, helping her progress with her very own sexual revolution.  I’m told that she now occasionally sleeps in the buff.  “I’m wicked, just wicked,” Grandma says.

Ella, the most assertive of the women, grabs me by the elbow and yanks me downward to whisper in my ear:  “I’ve been teaching your Grandmother to appreciate the male form.  She’s so repressed sometimes!”  I nod as I silently recall a boastful moment when Grandma declared, “they didn’t have French kissing back in my day.”

“Poor, poor Granddad,” I mutter.

Next, I meet Gladys.  Plastic vines of purple morning glories from Michael’s Crafts twist around the rails of her walker.  I comment on this and Gladys replies that she recently organized a “Christening Party” for everyone’s walking aids.  At this gathering, everyone had to bring his or her cane, walker, wheelchair, etc.  Then the group helped pick names for one another’s transportation tools as though each were a beloved pet.  This was followed by another hour dedicated to decorating the freshly christened bipedal support devices.  Gladys informs me that while she preferred a pretty floral motif, another woman with a fancy electric wheelchair went with a tougher, more Harley-Davidson-inspired theme.  “Well someone has to plan something fun to do around here,” she says.  This is the first of several ensuing hints that their current Activities Coordinator falls short.  They’re disappointed because they “always envisioned someone a little more like that energetic, little cruise director on the Love Boat.”

Now, I’m shaking hands with Anne, a trim, elegant, self-effacing woman who was once the sister-in-law of a famous Hollywood film star.  She tells me what a close friend Grandma has been to her.  It’s a fascinating group really.  These women became friends when they were even younger than I am now.  Then, one by one, they married and lost touch.  Today, they are all widowed and have reunited in this slightly dreary but generally comfortable place.

They spend the first few minutes of our meal trying to determine which Golden Girl they are most like.  Everyone agrees that Grandma closely matches the Betty White character.  I, on the other hand, would be played by Estelle Geddy.  This oddly flatters me.  I am, for the first time in my life, suddenly fitting in with the cool kids.  By the expression on Grandma’s face, I surmise that this pleases her.  She never understood my choice of friends.  In her youth, she consistently reigned as Homecoming Queen, and she could only hope I would enjoy the same glory.  To her dismay, I gleefully embraced my place within the scholar’s bowl nerd clique.  When our far more celebrated peers were partying around a keg, my high school friends and I were playing Trivial Pursuit around the Yearbook Editor’s kitchen table.  If we felt really wild, we’d usually break out the Twister.

Ironically, it was here in her twilight years, that Grandma, for the first time in her life, initially failed to mix with the in-crowd.  As newcomers, this circle of lovely, well-bred ladies bravely faced the unfamiliar: bottom rung social stations.  After learning that they hadn’t made the invitation list to a well-hyped football party, they bided their time until Halloween.  Conventional as Grandma may be, she’s also a savvy strategist.  Riverdale residents were abuzz about the upcoming costume contest, and she keenly noted that this could spell her salvation.

On that fateful All Hallows Eve, people entered the recreation area in typical garb: a witch hat here, a fairy wand there.  Grandma paused a sufficient amount of time before making her grand entrance as Dr. Ima Pain.  Her persona came complete with a long, black Elvira Mistress of the Dark wig, bloodied scrubs, and a stethoscope.  As legend has it, she was utterly unrecognizable as she approached retiree after retiree with “Gee, you don’t look so good; let me listen to your heart and make sure it’s still ticking.”  She won first place, and ever since, folks have been holding their breath to get invited to her football party.  I guess that joining a retirement community can be sort of like going to prison.  You have to be tough to earn the respect of your fellow inmates.  In the end, it really all boils down to pure alpha dog psychology.

Somewhere between cube steak and mandarin orange Jell-O salad, Ella asks if I’ll load them all up in a van and take them to Savannah to see the Lady Chablis next time I’m around.  “The Lady,” as Ella calls her, is the drag queen diva featured in the film version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  I tell her that I’d love to share such a tantalizing adventure with them.  At this remark, Anne pats me on the leg and says, “You know, you fit right in.  It’s like there’s no age difference at all.”  I’m not sure how to feel about this.

Jeanette, our cafeteria server, refills everyone’s coffee cup.  She automatically knows that Ella is the only regular at this table who takes her coffee caffeinated.  Then Evelyn wheels up to greet us.  I’ve met her previously when my grandfather was still living.  Never married, she was once an accomplished concert pianist.  The other things I remember about her are that she’s older than my grandmother and very well read.  We usually had plenty to discuss.  Noticing that we’ve already eaten, she takes a seat at another table.

Grandma tells me that Evelyn has recently returned from the adjacent nursing home, where she has been recovering from a broken back.  Gladys adds that it’s hard to reassimilate after something like that; people don’t like to see sick people around here.  It reminds them of death and of their own frailty.  This explains why Grandma is so much more hell bent on appearing perky than on complaining about her stitches.  Apparently, the staff didn’t think Evelyn would last much longer, so they weren’t planning to move Evelyn’s piano back into her apartment.  Too much effort involved, so they were wanting Evelyn’s niece to come and haul it away.  But Grandma and the gang rallied in Evelyn’s favor until the establishment yielded to their collective will.

Changing the subject, Ella invites us all back to her place for after dinner tea.  Grandma looks tired to me, so before she can graciously accept, I request a rain check.  Ella says that she would really like us all to get together again before I leave, and she suggests that we come over after breakfast tomorrow.  The other ladies briefly scan their mental calendars and conclude that this should work. They’ve clearly never had their gall bladders removed.

Grandma, striding behind her walker, moves even more slowly than usual.  I calculate that I should have time to detour from her side long enough to look at the aviary for about two minutes and then meet back up with her in the hallway before she makes it to her front door.  Like a small child starved for stimuli, I am utterly captivated by the twenty or so multicolored finches housed in a glass case by the wall.  On the way back to my stroll with Grandma, I note the copy of “Modern Bridge” resting beside a halfway completed jigsaw puzzle on a nearby table.

Back at “the room,” we both put on our pajamas, and according to the usual custom, Grandma gets in bed with her bowl of bobby pins.  I don’t think Grandma’s missed a single night of rolling her hair into pin curls since I first moved in with her when I was four.  I always thought the gentle clinking of hairpins was a sound unique to my childhood, but I discovered otherwise during a conversation with my own group of southern gal pals.  It turns out that we had each fallen asleep to the comforting cadence of this activity, long believing it was solely ours to cherish.  But pin curls universally united our grandmothers in much the same way that double pierced ears distinguish us “Gen-X” females from women of the Depression Era.

I’m casually seated next to Grandma and nearly fall off the bed when she says, “Molly, I know that you young women are more educated these days, so I hope you won’t mind me asking you this.”  She pauses to muster up some courage.  “How do gay people have sex?”  I consider whether or not to draw her a diagram but decide that this would just be too much for her heart condition to handle.  So, I give her a very matter of fact lesson in homosexual intercourse.  Predictably, this is followed by silence and a short lull in the evening’s pin curl effort.  Finally, Grandma speaks:  “I thought that might be it.”  And that was all she had to say on the subject.

A few pin curls later she states, “You know, some of my favorite customers at the bank were gay.  They were just as nice as they could be.  Well, except for one.”  Grandma worked seventeen years for Valley Fidelity Bank in the Safe Deposit Department.  She entered the work force to help secure a college education for two of her three children. The third opted out.

As is often the case in discourse with Grandma, there’s hardly a break in conversation for at least another twenty minutes.  She proceeds to explain how she found meaning in a job that might have otherwise been quite dull.  Apparently her official title was “Vault Custodian,” but she managed to use her position to launch into her undercover role as super hero.

She tells me first about a man who was a dignified local teacher at a school for the deaf.  Grandma diligently guarded his safe deposit box for many years.  She developed substantial rapport with her clients, and she vividly remembers the day that this man surrendered his status as upstanding community leader only to become an untouchable.  “He was so well-educated and interesting,” she recalls.  The man’s wife had died, and he suffered a stroke shortly thereafter.  His speech and mental faculties were greatly impaired, but that didn’t stop him from coming to the bank.  To help him better communicate with the tellers, a relative would send notes of instruction in a small change purse that the man carried.

One day, the frail retired educator entered the bank “looking like a hobo.”  His pants were unzipped, “and he was hanging out, you know what I mean,” Grandma informs.  Grandmother approached a male employee and asked if he would take the gentlemen to the back and “help him.”  The employee replied, “Not on your life, Lady.”  She addressed the problem with another male employee, who also refused.  Finally, she took the man into a corner and discreetly did the job herself.  Her coworkers told her that no one could have paid them enough to do such a thing, but she just couldn’t bear the thought of sending him back out on the street like that.  “I just kept thinking that something like this might happen to me some day.  I think a lot about that now,” Grandma says.

She grows quiet a brief moment as my eyes scan over the framed photo collection on her dresser.  It includes the usual suspects: my cousins and I in our high school graduation garb, a wedding photo here and there, and of course, the shot of my aunt and cousin in glittering formal gowns with a gaping white space separating them.  My uncle used to be standing in that spot, but Grandma took the scissors to him following what he called his “obligatory mid-life crisis.”  Initially, she had simply covered up his countenance with a piece of index card – “just in case he returns home begging for forgiveness,” she claimed.  But once all hopes of that faded, she just chopped him out of the picture altogether.  I look closely at my graduation snapshot and then at myself in the mirror trying to count how many wrinkles I’ve developed in ten years time.

My mind wanders as Grandma continues another story, which I miss without realizing it until later.  I’m feeling frustrated that she lacks a framework for understanding anything I’ve done professionally.  Most of my adult life, I’ve held that the term “career” means something entirely different to Grandma than it does to me.  For Grandma, a career is something bearing a prestigious title like “banking,” “medicine,” or “law.”  Conversely, I define a career as something equivalent to a life’s calling.  Success is finding a paid pursuit about which one is passionate and for which one also possesses talent.  For me, this purpose falls under the headings of documentary work, folklife, and ethnography – all terms completely absent from Grandma’s vocabulary.

The only job I’ve had that impressed her was the job that held the least overall satisfaction for me.  I worked in a clerical role for a music publishing company at a friend’s home in my neighborhood.  It turned out that the company was originally the brainchild of one of Grandma’s favorite composers, Norman Luboff.  She has several of his albums in her vinyl collection.  My friend was once married to this man, who long unbeknownst to me, wrote for Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day.  One morning, I noticed a small trophy topped with a bronze Victrola.  It was exactly what I thought it was.

Suddenly, it occurs to me that Grandma made banking a calling.  Because of the people she grew to know and whose interests she guarded over a seventeen year period, her job grew to be a career, something for which she developed both passion and talent.

I’m looking at the yellow DNR certificate hanging in a cheap plastic frame by the door when I realize that Grandma’s stopped talking. I begin to reach for the PARADE section of her Sunday paper so I can read “Ask Marilyn.” I stop as Grandma grabs my hand and begins telling me about Miss Florence Rule.  “She was eccentric, and people laughed at Miss Rule, but I got to know her real well,” Grandma’s saying.  “She was just a lovely woman.  She used to wear those long, ankle-length Victorian dresses with the high collars.  Her hair was pulled back in a bun, and I never saw her without a hat.  She lived across the lake in Blount County.  Each week, she would row her canoe across to come into the bank.”  Grandma pauses to take a breath, and more clinking noises emit from her bobby pin bowl.  “This was all back when TVA was flooding everything.  The lake just kept getting bigger and deeper, and Miss Rule’s dog would wait for her on the shore.  She couldn’t always see very well, so she would stand up in her boat to get a better view.  Her neighbors just knew that she was going to drown, so they eventually stole that boat and hid it.”

Grandma glances up at me for a second and then returns her gaze to the wall as she concentrates on coifing and talking at the same time.  “Florence was over eighty years old, you know.  After her boat went missing, she’d catch a ride across the bridge when she needed to get to the bank.  She asked me for a favor one morning.  She wanted me to make her funeral arrangements.  I did and she died not long after that.  When I worked, I learned just how much loneliness people survive,” she tells me.

Before tucking myself into my cozy sofa space, I kiss Grandma’s cheek and tell her I’m proud of her.  These little life reviews of hers prove a bit unsettling for me.  Living seven hours away from my extended family, I dwell in fearful awareness that fifty percent of the people closest to me are in their late eighties.  Sometimes the phone will ring in the middle of the night, and my stomach tightens as my heart pounds.  It’s always a hang up, a wrong number, or a friend in a Pacific time zone, but I know that one night it’ll be my Dad or someone beckoning me back to Tennessee for a funeral.

Flipping my pillow over in search of a cold spot, I try not to think too much about these feelings.  Instead, I attempt to recall things that Grandma does to irritate me – like criticize my friends for their choice of what she deems “frivolous” college majors or nag me about needing to wear more make up and dressier clothing.  Sometimes thinking of Grandmother’s shallow traits helps take my mind off the morose.  But this doesn’t get me far.  I have seen Grandma work far too many wonders.

Long before she landed in this place, she grew the healthiest roses this side of Appalachia.  Several times a week, she would bring them in glass vases to the patients at the nursing home here.  Ironically, in her younger years, Riverdale was a regular haunt for Grandma.

One Christmas, she entered the room of a woman who hadn’t left her bed in seven years.  People had tried to roust the spinster out to grant her a little change of scenery, but she had refused their offers.  For some reason though, she accepted Grandmother’s invitation.  So, Grandma bundled her up in a pink, fleece robe and wheeled her around the corridors to look at all the twinkling holiday decorations.  The woman smiled and gasped as she repeated, “Oh how beautiful!”  She ventured forth from her room regularly after that, so my cousin and I now refer to this event as “Grandma’s Christmas Miracle.”  Satisfied with the cool spot I finally locate on my pillow, I drift out of consciousness longing for those sorts of marvels to continue.

The next morning, Grandma’s voice lifts me from a repeat dream I frequently have when experiencing anxiety.  In the dream, my best friend and I are co-piloting an airplane.  My friend abruptly steers the plane off the runway and onto Interstate 40.  I wonder why she has done such a thing but decide that she must have her reasons.  However, as we approach traffic, I panic from worry that we might squash some folks.  So, I grab the throttle and attempt to pull us into the air.  Unfortunately, this action does something wonky to the landing gear.  Very calmly, my friend looks at me, left eyebrow raised, and says, “You break it, you buy it.”

“Damn,” my lips mouth as I slowly return to consciousness.

Grandma’s on the phone with the desk attendant.  Upon wake up, Shannondale residents have to call in and inform the establishment that they’re not dead.  I choke down a pre-packaged bowl of Golden Grahams that I snagged from the cafeteria at dinner and then get ready for the day long ride back to Chapel Hill.

While I’m brushing my hair, the Activity Coordinator’s voice squeaks at us from the PA system: “May I have your attention please.”  Grandma sighs.  “I just wish they’d do something about that woman,” she says.  “She just doesn’t know a thing about old people.  She makes us play bingo in the sanctuary, and she lines us up in the pews where we have to stare at all the white heads ahead of us.  Old people don’t like bingo, and we don’t need to be reminded that our hair’s white.”  I hadn’t really considered this and found it interesting.  Still, forced bingo competition seems a small price to pay to live in a place where you have your laundry done and your meals cooked for you.  I puzzle at why recent college grads aren’t scrambling to put their names on the waiting list to move in.  If I’d thought of it when I had graduated, that’s what I would have done.

There’s a knocking at the living room door. She’s here to check on Grandma and perhaps to scope out my caregiving skills a little. Our quick greeting is broken as the Activities Coordinator takes charge of the intercom once again.  “May I have your attention please.  May I HAVE your attention please.”  It’s a question spoken more like a demand.  “There’ll be bingo in the sanctuary at 2 pm.  There’ll be bingo in the sanctuary at 2 pm.  Thank you.”

The two women take turns impersonating her.  Anne pinches her nose to get just the right effect as she says, “May I have your attention please . . .”  Peels of laughter ensue.  Apparently, this is an ongoing competition among this group, but Anne consistently wins.  As Ella says, “It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for.”

Thirty minutes later, I announce that I need to pack my things and get on the road so that I don’t have to drive too long after dark.  Anne rises to leave. We hug and say our farewells.  I promise to return for a visit soon.

Grandma announces that she can tell how much her friends like me.  She’s proud, and this makes me happy.  I go the restroom, brush my teeth, and pull my hair back into a ponytail. She calls to me, “Svets, I sincerely hope that you’ve gotten into a good church there in North Carolina.”  She knows darn well that I haven’t.  Grandma often does this – picks an argument just before I get ready to leave.  I know the pattern, and I recognize it as a ploy to delay my departure.  If she can embroil me in petty disgruntlement long enough, I’ll give up and stay an extra night.

“I have comps next week, Grandma.  I can’t stay any longer this time.”  For a moment, she looks frail.  The effect of her surgery is apparent, but I try not to think about it.

“I know,” she says and smiles.  We hug, and I kiss her cheek.  I’ve almost successfully made it to the door when she calls my name again.  I sigh and roll my eyes expecting another jab about my hair or for her to remind me to “be a good girl.”

“Yes, Grandma?,” I ask in my breathy, exasperated “holy mother of God, what is it this time” tone.

But all she says is, “Don’t get old.”

What’s a girl to do with glitter but no special shoe?

Fighting the Power
Fighting the Power

So, as the blog rolls, you’ll learn that Shannon, Amazon of the first-grade recess war, served a significant role in my life far beyond the tipping see-saw. Sometimes she served as friend rather than foe. Sadly for me, friend and foe weren’t antonyms in her world.

During snack, I confided to her that I wanted to fly, like Wonder Woman or Isis. I carried my Wonder Woman action figure to school every day, and Chip Baker and I were frequently scolded for talking Super Friends during nap time.

Shannon told me that my dream might not be so unattainable as I believed. She had “the Secret.” I just needed to put my desire for flight out there into the ether, and the universe would provide. As long as I poured glitter on my arms. That’s what Wonder Woman and Superman did, she claimed. And she, herself had flown many times. Many times? Many times.

She just seemed so confident about it all.

I couldn’t concentrate on classroom exercises that day. We were to learn to count to 100. I still blame Shannon for the fact that the neighbor’s dog is a better mathematician than I am. Freestyle, open-air aviation offered far more intrigue than learning to regurgitate numerals in a sequence. So, all I could think about was soaring, arms outstretched, body hovering stiff as a board above fountain, stream, and skyscraper. Oh, what freedom — that feeling of wind against skin and the profundity of scoring eye contact with fairy tale bluebirds flying parallel paths with my own crime-fighting trajectory!

My grandmother (the Old Testament one — we’ll get to that in subsequent entries) retrieved me from the schoolhouse at 4:30 pm. Such a long time to wait! I’d never been so grateful to see that green LTD with dark velour seats smelling of musky, musty old Aunt odor.

Back at Grandma’s house, I ransacked my craft drawer for gold glitter. Might as well go with the blingiest batch.  I kicked off my Miss Piggy-themed sneakers and stripped down to my flammable Wonder Woman Underoos before scaling our velvety antique sofa. Barefoot with toes curled over the wide arm of my perch, I doused myself and Grandma’s carpeting with magic sparkle. I drew in a deep breath, squinted my focus on blind ambition, and took the leap. There was to be no gliding airborne through the house, along the underbelly of ceiling, effortlessly rotating my body sideways to squeeze gracefully through doorways. There was a belly flop on bare floor.

The next day, I confronted Shannon with my wounded rib and shattered pride. I felt so betrayed. I thought she was my friend. Incredulous, she stared at me doe-eyed and asked, “Well, did you wear the special shoes?”

What special shoes? She swore that she had mentioned them. And she just seemed so confident . . .

Far More Fond of Cabbage

eddie_vedder1 They called her “the Grunge Girl” because she was the only female on campus who regularly wore flannel. She had long, curly red hair like Eddie Vedder,  and she knew more about rocks and Seattle rock music than anyone I’d met.  She was my hero, so refreshing amongst the typical mobs of head-banded sweatshirt and pearls girls so feverishly protesting requests for the infirmary to distribute condoms and birth control.

I too had been told that I didn’t fit the typical Furman mold. My English professor said this to me in our first advisory meeting. She added, “That’s a compliment.”

Lisa was a geology major, and she lived on my freshman dorm hall. Somehow, she detected that I might be someone who could halfway understand her. It was because I had a forest green comforter instead of the matching Laura Ashley bed sets that our other hall mates coordinated & purchased before move-in. Plus, she’d heard me playing Rush’s seventh studio album, Permanent Waves after dinner one night. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but she was feeling desperate.

Soon, we found a third kindred, a prankster named, J-Ro, daring enough to wear hats to class. Not a pearl nor add-a-bead necklace in sight.

Though both blonde and relatively square, J-Ro and I reveled in feeling separate from the conservative, high-income Aryan hegemony. We felt that the situation allowed us to move more efficiently through the cumbersome task of locating the college soul mates who would stick with us from dorm to assisted living (for what’s the difference really?), where we would someday sip Pina Coladas and motion for Cocoa, our cabana boy, to come give Mama her back rub. Some treated us like we were wicked pariah’s, the Dark One’s minions, communing in the night plotting untoward sexual activities that would require frequent visits to the infirmary for latex. But at least we didn’t have to sit around doing cross-stitch on a Friday night.

We were all about locating adventure and reviving the American disco movement, which we did. We valued the fact that our hats and mismatched bed covers acted as beacons drawing us to those like ourselves with whom we bonded quickly and firmly. Plus, we were twisted, and we were pretty sure we were having more fun than a lot of folks. Todd’s exploding duck incident proved that.

Furman has a famous lake. It’s really just a large pond, but it’s impressive for a small college campus. Visitors like to picnic on the banks after church on Sundays. Todd, whose television must have been broken, grew bored and decided to craft a decoy duck. He filled the faux fowl with explosive material, lit it, and set it afloat on a Sunday in November.

Though entertaining, dynamite ducks and disco were no consolation for having to live among homophobes and listen to Hall & Oates waft through the hallways. Lisa’s patience wore thin in an academic establishment where college radio shows were modeled after Limbaugh’s “The Right Perspective,” trumpeting broadcasts by young college males who de-contextualized scripture to support their belief that God intends women to be subservient and for man to exploit nature. Lisa knew she had chosen the wrong school, and there was to be no pussyfooting around that realization. She was not to deny the absolute wretchedness of the experience, and she hated disco.

Once she faced facts, Lisa grew more and more badass.

I remember a night when we were sitting, legs crossed on my dorm room floor snacking on tasty bear-shaped choco snacks. We’d just been to see The Last of the Mohicans and were bemoaning the evils cast upon humanity by humanity. “That’s just the sort of thing that makes me want to live in a cave, eat grass, and kill bad white people,” Lisa lamented. Righteously, I began to craft an essay about the virtues of trees vs. humans. Trees smell nice; they produce oxygen; they protect small woodland creatures from the cold; they only kill living things when they fall on them, and that’s almost never intentional. Lisa loved trees and small woodland creatures too, but that was momentarily overshadowed by her freshly inflamed inner misanthrope.

Then the University discovered the summer prior to our sophomore year that they didn’t have room for us in the dorms. That went for all three of us: Lisa, JRo and me. Coincidence? I dunno. But we were excited to be the only sophomores living off-campus. This boosted us to a whole new level of notoriety. We’d be in charge of paying our own rent, making our own dinners: mac & cheese with Lucky Charms on the side. We could have alcohol if we wanted. We were women now.

We hadn’t counted on the challenges posed by living across the courtyard from the Sigma Chis. From our kitchen window, we could see straight into their alpha bachelor pad while we washed dishes. Strange and unsavory things transpired there: activities that often incorporated male bonding, nudity, and peanut butter as early evening as 6:30 pm. Even we, the rebel minions, were a bit shocked.

One night during pledge week, Lisa was cramming for a Geology test while I was suffering through my first Experimental Psych paper. This paper marked the end of the Skinner Box phase of the semester, which also marked the end of my positively conditioned rat, Sherlock’s life. I was mourning; Lisa was panicking, and the energy in the apartment felt heavy and oppressive. Things worsened. The Sigma Chis stationed their own reinforcements, twelve prideless peanut butter pledges, in the courtyard. They might have been safe from harm if only they’d not been aligned in rows single file, serenading the residents with lewd, lecherous limericks of a rather sexist nature.

Lisa’s lizard green eyes rose from her rocks for jocks text. Full of calm and resignation, she stood, pushed back her chair, and began removing the contents of our refrigerator: a jello salad, some processed cheese slices, left-over mac, tuna casserole, chips, salsa. She hid behind the barrier provided by our walled second-floor balcony and began hurtling neglected leftovers at the enemy. Some targets spewed profanity; others laughed nervously attempting to conceal their fear and trembling.

Fueled by triumph, Lisa shot a head of iceberg lettuce, like a canonball, toward the front lines. Her impulse was met by the thud of vegetable matter on abdominal muscle followed by a piercing man-shriek. As with only the finest dramatic climax, there was a brief moment of silence. Lisa slowly stretched upward from her knees to survey the carnage. She knew the skirmish had spiraled slightly south of where she had initially anticipated. It might warrant dialing EMS. Maybe, with a little luck, this might get her expelled.

I’m certain from their lowly vantage, Lisa’s spirals of red, grunge-coifed curls were unmistakable to the Sigma Cheese. The silence broke: “I-I-I see you, you dirty little cabbage womaaaaaaaaan!” shouted the garden veggie casualty.

These are the moments that stick with you, even a good 16 years into graying strands and the newfound drive to sample every Oil of Olay product on the market. This is what makes that four year transition between adolescence, when one dreams of how she will handle political upheaval, cyclic economic downturns, and social injustice with utter heroism, and the period when one actually handles political upheaval, cyclic economic downturns, social injustice, not to mention complicated adult relationships with whatever metal she can muster,  seem packed with richness. It’s moments like these that make one far more fond of cabbage.

In case you’re wondering where the “dirty, little cabbage woman” is now: http://podcast.radionz.co.nz/ocw/ocw-20100819-2106-Rapidly_Rising_Young_Rocks-048.mp3. SO proud of her and SO coveting her life.

We thought it was a pot roast

Sometimes I feel narcissistic for believing that weirder things happen to me than to other people. Surely, we all have morose encounters of a nerd kind. Some of us are just more thin-skinned about them than others, yes?

“No,” my friends say. “More bizarre things happen to you and with FAR more frequency than what befalls most sentient beings.” It’s my freak pheromone, they tell me. Like a drag queen to Coty’s Emeraude All Over Body Spray, it attracts odd cosmic coincidences, general catastrophe, crazed stalkers, and the sort of items, left by previous apartment tenants, that no one should ever have to discover in one’s freezer.

My friend, JRo once promised to write a biography about me and my famed pheromone. She was to entitle it, “At least You’re not Svetx: The ‘I’m Okay, You’re Okay’ Book of the Nineties.”

At the time of the pot roast incident, I was getting a divorce. Our house was on the market, but I wanted to remain in my cozy, quirky berg by the river.  There was a rental available, one of the original mill houses on the far side of “town.” There was no central heat or air, but there was a wood stove, a lovely back porch perfect for a hammock, and a retro charm that dwarfed the fact that little barrier separated home dweller from wilderness dweller, including some Rodentia but mostly exoskeleton bearing biting beasts — crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside.

Several of my friends had lived there previously. Rugged pioneer, green-living sorts whom I immensely admired. “That’s a tough house,” one of them told me. “The bathroom’s the coldest indoor space I’ve ever experienced,” warned another, one accustomed to sleeping on the open ground at bus stations as a way to afford navigating the more travel advisory laden zones of South America. The house had loads of character, however, and terrific neighbors with good taste in beer. To live in a great place, one must make concessions.

I hadn’t known the previous tenant. I’d only heard distasteful rumors, but since there had been no recent abductions or disappearances reported, I had never suspected that my predecessor was the Blair Witch. Dust bunnies the size of pregnant hippos rolled across the floor like giant tumbleweeds. Black handprints and crayon scratches covered the walls. There was a used, stained mattress on the back porch. Three of the six windows were either outright broken or significantly cracked. You don’t want me to tell you what the bathroom was like.

In the backyard, I found half-buried action figures strewn randomly through what may have once been flower beds or vegetable gardens. Sticky, rotting trash littered the patchy expanse. Odiferous refuse floated on three feet of standing water held stagnant by a large blue garbage can.

I called the landlord and offered to paint, clean, and, of course, smudge the place if she’d reduce my rent for two months. I didn’t plan to move in for another three weeks, and this would keep my mind occupied as I avoided dwelling on my separation — the expanding sense of void that made me feel like I’d just lost an arm and was learning how to live without it.

She agreed, so I set to work. I went bold — reds, greens, and aquatic blue wall colors that relished the outdoor adventure theme the house exudes. Neighbors helped. I was contented until we finally decided to open the freezer. The power had been off for an entire month. What we found there topped all freak pheromone-induced encounters I’d experienced to date. It was a bleeding, rotting pot roast only loosely wrapped in thin plastic. My neighbor, Kerry, slammed the door closed. We simultaneously wretched at the lingering stench. She continued wretching for a full six minutes.

A nurse, she managed to keep her wits about her following her wretchcapade. Kerry walked to the counter and pulled out some rubber gloves and a new hefty, hefty cinch sack. “You wanna grab or hold the bag?” She queried. Acknowledging my weaker constitution we agreed that I should go with bag holding. Fortunately, I had a truck well-suited to hauling rotting pot roasts to the downtown dump.

After we returned, I was not yet ready to confront the freezer with Clorox. I didn’t think I would be ready for at least another 72 hours. I wrote to the landlord and informed her of the undesirable condition of her kitchen appliance. I apologized all over myself for not thinking to check the freezer sooner. I was so sorry that I had discovered a rotting pot roast in its cavernous depths. I just didn’t want her to think that I had been the one to do this to her freezer.

What I received in reply was forwarded from the previous tenant. It read (brace yourself. Really, be sure you’re seated with barf bag in ready reach): “DO NOT THROW AWAY THE POT ROAST! IT’S NOT A POT ROAST. It’s my five-year-old son’s placenta.” Her phone number followed. I refrained from calling.

There it had lain: an ephemeral human organ, a bio-hazard. Right there between the ice trays and the t.v. dinners. I thought recovery had been difficult when it was still just a pot roast. I tried to imagine what Jeffrey Dahmer would do. He’d probably wretch too. Then he’d say something like, “Oh yeah, Doll, you have GOT to get rid of that fridge. That’s too gross even for me.”

It’s a small town, and how could I not alert the neighbors? What would they do if I offered them ice for their sweet tea or mint juleps some humid summer afternoon?

It took me 5 hours of pacing and ranting to neighbors for me to formulate an emailable response explaining to the Blair Witch that it was too late for her to preserve her giant, rotting block of biomatter for the ol’ scrapbook. She had moved to DC. What? Did she want me to put the thing on ice and have it helicoptered up to her? And how does one keep moving one’s placenta from apartment to apartment over the span of half a decade and then just walk off and forget it one day?

Moreover, who the heck does this kind of thing happen to? I bet you don’t know ANYONE else who’s found a human placenta in their new freezer. The only thing weirder is when my friend, Mel got bitten by a bat at her Grandma’s house in Michigan.

My landlord claimed that the fridge was salvageable with a little disinfectant and elbow grease, but I wasn’t woman enough to handle it. I went to the nearest Habitat Home Store and purchased a replacement appliance. God knows what had lain dormant in that used contraption, but whatever it was, at least I hadn’t smelled it.

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