Christmas Mood Swings

In the magical weeks before Christmas, I seem to have the mood swings of a fourteen year-old girl, and I wonder if it is my own weird cross to bear or if it is common. Christmas is so freaking beautiful; white lights twinkling on trees that line the sidewalks, colored lights on the houses up and down my street, Christmas music in the stores, wreaths on the doors and anticipation in the air that is palpable. It is as exciting and wonderful as the songs say, and I still get a warm fuzzy, excited feeling in my chest like a kid.

But there’s a part of me that might, in the midst of all this happiness, think to myself: But the trees have no leaves! They’re just bare, and they look a little mournful! Or: Some of those houses on my street with lights on the roof have people in them who are SAD or have CANCER or are getting DIVORCED and it makes my heart ache to think of it! And sometimes the Christmas music in the stores is not the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams that I grew up with, but Ariana Grande or some awful group called 5th Harmony belting about having a sexy Christmas. (These may not be the actual lyrics of their songs but it is definitely the message.)  Instead of making me think of holly and sleigh rides, I suddenly think: How will my daughters’ generation ever reconcile the fact that we tell them they are not objects, but the pop music of their time tells them a woman’s role is to be both promiscuous and victimized? To demand both equal treatment and special treatment? To look and act provocative and be angry that it works?  Holly and sleigh rides would be a much easier thing to think about. 

Sometimes, right in the middle of making gingersnaps, (see recipe for life-changing gingersnaps here), I might hear Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and I’m overcome with melancholy. Or, worse, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, the saddest Christmas song ever. I have to fight it like a soldier, strapping my apron strings tighter and switching the song to, say, Michael Buble’s version of  White Christmas, the catchiest Christmas song ever, and refusing to be overcome. I have to shake my head a little like a boxer between rounds and think like a winner: Okay, Christmas, BRING IT, we’ll see who’s boss.

My mother once said to me, “Oh, kid, you feel too much. It’s gonna be a rough road for you.” (She grew up in 1950s Hollywood, literally, and talked like it sometimes.) I wondered about that, and years later realized I must have gotten my over-sensitivity from her, but she’d toughened up a little. Motherhood’ll do that to you. I can’t help it any more than I can help having allergies; I just feel things too much. As I kid, stray dogs and homeless people and even trash on the street made me overcome with a wave of sadness, like nausea. When ET nearly died beside the creek, and when Luke Skywalker had to hide in the body of that dead yeti-thing called a Tauntaun, my sister had to carry me out of the movie theater and drag me back home, sobbing. (I didn’t really care about Luke but I cared deeply about that poor dead Taunton.) If I saw an old person eating dinner alone in a restaurant, I couldn’t eat my food. My mom once found me watching Bambi on a rented VHS tape and shouted at my sister like someone in an action scene, “Stop the movie! Stop the movie! SHE’S NEVER GONNA MAKE IT!”

I don’t know if other people feel this way. I know Christmas is hard for many people, that depression rates are higher than any other time of year. But I am not depressed, and “sad” isn’t even the right word because I’m also immensely happy; I’m just experiencing great joy and deep awareness of the painful beauty in this world. My teenage daughters call it having “the feels,” which is awkward and apt.

It occurs to me that God intended for us to feel all those pangs of joy and sadness, sometimes even at the same time. I probably do feel too much, and it is a bit of a rough road, but everything about Christmas is both ends of bitter and sweet: the king of the universe, highly anticipated with great joy and some fear, but also in danger from the moment of his birth, outranking every king and emperor in the world but born to peasants and raised to work with his hands, rising to some fame for his holiness but destined to die like a criminal, only to be raised from the dead in the most fabulous, glorious event in the history of the universe. You’d have to be made of stone to not feel an emotional roller-coaster just thinking about it.

I knew a poet once; a philosophical, brilliant, long-haired actually-published poet  who forgot to tie his shoes and carried around a pocket-sized works of Rilke. His name was Hansi, which he said was Sri Lankan, though he was not. He was whip-smart and odd, and he intimidated me because he spoke in riddles and threw around grad-school words before the rest of us had learned them: tautological and Proustian, hermeneutic and hegemonic, Derridian, dystopian, and dichotomy. One evening after class when it began to snow, another student remarked that the snow was really pretty, except that it just turned to gray slush in the streets. Hansi waved to us, walking in the direction of some other parking lot or place, and said over his shoulder, “Love the dichotomy, man! Love the dichotomy!”

The weird poet was right, all you can do is embrace it. Get the feels and love the ups and the downs for their particular beauty. It’s probably exactly what God intended when the King of the World was born in a stable and laid in a manger.  

 

If I Could Eat Anything for a Day

 

If I could eat anything–if calories didn’t matter and the normal laws that govern human  stomachs were revoked–I’d start my day with pie. I don’t know why Americans are so rigid about breakfast food. We seem to have acceptable breakfast foods, like eggs and toast, various meats and very specific starches, but not, say, a hamburger. A hamburger makes a very good breakfast, but it’s not acceptable to ask for one at seven in the morning. Pancakes, waffles, danishes and doughnuts are fattening but acceptable breakfast foods, but not, say, snickerdoodles and milk. Snickerdoodles and milk can’t possibly be as bad for you as some of the garbage at iHop and Taco Bell, but nobody ever serves cookies for breakfast. The thing is, my snickerdoodles are light, fluffy pillows with Madagascar cinnamon and just a dash of nutmeg; they are so lovely that they really ought to be given to people with clinical depression, just to help raise their endorphins. They would make a very encouraging breakfast, but not a culturally acceptable one. Lasagna is also taboo in the morning. Eat cold lasagna for breakfast and your husband, all smug with his greek yogurt and coffee, looks at you like he found you at the kitchen counter picking lint out of your toes.

Pie, though, seems to me to be a perfect breakfast food. Sweetened, baked fruit, cuddled by a buttery blanket and served warm! On a fantasy day, I’d start with pie and a cup of tea. Not a store-bought pie; this would be homemade pie I would eat when I woke, up, the peach pie I made the summer my husband built the playhouse. It was 2003, we had two small kids and a baby on the way and he spent several weekends in the heat, building a playhouse in the backyard, the kids fluttering around him and in his way every moment while they pretended to be Peter Pan and Wendy. I made a peach pie without using a recipe, crust and all, sprinkling in turbinado sugar and nutmeg on instinct. I sat outside and fanned myself while it baked, listening to them chatter (“Come on, Wendy!  We can fly to the lagoon and see mermaids and alligators!”), named it Peter Pan Peach Pie, and then served it to everyone with cold milk. It was the best peach pie in the history of the world, made even better by my fondness for my strong, clever husband and outrageously winsome children.

I’d follow up the pie and reading with protein: grilled salmon, the way my husband does it. He is not a “foodie,” though people sometimes call him that. He enjoys food and cooking but really dislikes name “foodie” because foodies are often people who class-signal by advertising their affinity for branzino or truffles or anything with the word “confit” in it. People who own cookware that costs as much as a mid-size Toyota, and have their dairy products delivered by an “organic” farm so that they can feel virtuous and slightly better than the rest of us without actually admitting they feel this way.

My husband buys groceries at Walmart so he can buy batteries and lighter fluid at the same time. His favorite pot is a cauldron in which to make jambalaya over a fire, and he named the pot Adalida, like the George Strait song. His grilled salmon is the best salmon in the world. He seasons it with salt and pepper and honey, then grills it on an old garage sale grill til it’s perfectly moist and golden, and I like to eat it a couple hours after pie. With a caesar salad. And a diet coke.

After the salmon I’d be temporarily full, and I’d do some things, like go parasailing. I went parasailing once, and it was one of the more memorable experiences of my life, up there with bringing home each of my babies, seeing the Pieta, and going on the To Fly! ride at Disneyland.

Then I’d take a short hike near a waterfall of some size, maybe read a little more of a great novel–I might re-read All the Light We Cannot See or Bel Canto or begin Jane Smiley’s Hundred Years Trilogy, and then it would be time for a snack. I’d snack on honeycrisp apples and potato chips. Potato chips are terrible for you, if you’re going to eat them you might as well start smoking and drinking too, so I would pair them with apples. I don’t normally buy honeycrisp apples, since they are roughly five bucks per apple, they spike your blood sugar as much as Skittles (it’s true) and are about as addictive as crack. But they are sweet and crunchy and beautiful. They are the pretty, popular, rich cheerleaders of apples, and I tend to buy the band geek apples that cost less, but honeycrisp are my fantasy apple; biting one is like taking a bite of happiness.

Then I would go see a Broadway musical.

I have a friend who thinks musicals are so weird they are surreal, what with the characters bursting into song and dance, and this friend is beautiful and cool and wears clothes from stores that aren’t a chain. She is witty and casually sophisticated, and if I’m honest, a little jaded about everything, and she cannot stand musicals. I think they pain her a little with their dorkiness. But I like the bursting into song, the goofy, unapologetic old-fashionedness of it all. And Broadway isn’t our parents’ Broadway anymore, they’ve modernized. Now there are musicals where famous colonists rap about the Declaration of Independence, and musicals where the plot revolves around a suicide, but somehow it’s funny and uplifting. But I would go see a classic, one where you laugh and cry and get transported back in time, like Carousel or Camelot. I want to cry a little when Julie Jordan’s ghost is singing You’ll Never Walk Alone to her daughter, or when King Arthur tells the little boy to go tell everyone that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory that was known as Camelot. And if I can’t see it on the actual Broadway, I want to at least be at a performing arts center where the soprano lead is so good that I can’t even be jealous.

Then it would be dinner time, and I would eat Vietnamese infusion food. American food is where my heart is–I’d be fine with a great burger, or chicken pot-pie made with herbs and white wine, or maybe a garlic-rubbed, roast pork loin with peach-rosemary gravy. But if I’m going to pay for dinner at a restaurant (which I probably will after seeing a Broadway show), I want to be wowed. I want to eat something I would never make myself, and that would be something like  “Bo Xao Vit,” or “flank steak and scallops with gingered haricot vert and cilantro-peanut sauce, served with coconut rice and caramelized onions,” which is served at a local restaurant called Sunday in Saigon. I like that name, and Vietnamese food is so yummy, I think if our soldiers and Marines had been introduced to it during Vietnam, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. I’m never going to make bo xao vit, but I would love to have it served to me with some not-too-minty green tea, in a restaurant with soft, pretty music, sitting on a cushion that is not under the air conditioning vent.

I’d be full at that point, so I’d go home, get into pajamas, and curl up with a movie about time travel or space travel or aging backwards; a movie that really grips you and takes you on an emotional journey and has you still thinking about it the next morning. Interstellar, or Benjamin Button, or A Beautiful Mind. Something like that, where I am completely sucked in, and I’d watch it with a warm homemade brownie (the things you make from a box are not as good, don’t fool yourself that they are) with a small scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a cup of earl grey tea. Decaf, but black, not some herbal nonsense.

That’s it. That’s how I’d spend a day where I could eat anything. If there was time, I might squeeze in a couple more things: a bowl of gnocchi from a restaurant we discovered in Florence,  the “Duke of Windsor” sandwich like the one my aunt bought me at the mermaid bar in Neiman Marcus in Dallas when I was nine, or a cup of warm “vanilla milk” like my mom made me when I was thirteen and came home crying because John Lambert, the class heartthrob, did not want to go to the dance with me. I think it was just a mug of warm milk loaded with sugar and vanilla extract. It was comforting, and my lady-like mother served it to me on a saucer and said John Lambert was “kind of a butt-head anyway,” which was also comforting.

 Of course I can’t eat anything I want, I’d weigh three hundred pounds and I’d fall into a glutenous rut wherein I wouldn’t appreciate food anymore because I’d be eating whatever I wanted. But a girl can dream. People who think food is just fuel and should not be tied to emotions has never eaten Peter Pan Peach Pie for breakfast. 

Birthday Pedicure

 

I get a pedicure about three times a year: once on my birthday, once when summer is beginning and my toes are about to start going naked, and once or twice on some other day when I declare myself down in the dumps. Today I got my birthday pedicure, and it was a disappointment. I didn’t get the girl I wanted, I got the mean woman instead, and I didn’t ask to wait for the girl I wanted because I don’t know her name and felt awkward about saying I’m waiting for HER and pointing like a five year old, and also the girl I wanted was doing someone else’s toes; an old lady with crazily bent toes and thick, yellow toenails . I like pedicures, but not enough to wait thirty minutes before even starting.

The mean lady is the owner I think, and I don’t know how since she’s so bad. She gave me cold water in my foot tub and seemed  annoyed that I wanted it hotter, she clipped one of my toenails crooked and used the razor thing on my heels without even asking me. I hate the razor thing, it scares me. Also, she never brought me the hot towel like the other ladies do. Plus, they were playing a soap opera on four TVs and she seemed interested in that, not my feet. (I watched for a while and was amazed that there were characters named Marlena, Beau and  Hope, so they appear to be the exact same characters, played by the same actors, as when I briefly watched that soap opera in high school IN THE LATE EIGHTIES. Even creepier, they do not seem to have aged.)

Also, the massage chair wasn’t relaxing this time, it did this thing where it jiggled my upper back violently, so in the mirror next to me I noticed that it looked very much like I was having a seizure. I couldn’t find the remote to try to change the settings, but I didn’t look very hard because of the mean lady. How can I be in my forties and still be irrationally afraid of the mean pedicure lady? (Incidentally, I am also afraid of my hairdresser, and I always tell her I love my hair even if I don’t.)

But then it occurs to me that from where she sits, literally below me and clipping toenails for twenty bucks even though she’s older than I am and owns a business, maybe the only way to have a little dignity is to be kind of mean and aloof. Because maybe this was not her dream.

Years ago, I used a gift card at a very fancy spa to get a pedicure while pregnant, and the eucalyptus cream they rubbed all over my lower legs caused itchy welts that made the proprietor call an ambulance, probably so the pregnant lady wouldn’t sue him. But he was also mad at me for having an allergic reaction in the first place, and he was so mean to me, in that disdainful, Frenchy way, that I cried. This pedicure wasn’t as bad as that one, at least. At nobody had to call an ambulance. Which is really a good way to think of anything mildly disappointing.  

Magical Jumper

I have felt big my whole life. Not fat–although I have often felt fat, too–just big, like Sully the Pixar monster. I think it may have started when I was four or five and people told me I was a “big girl,” meaning grown up of course, but I took it to mean large. In elementary school, my friends happened to be a bit younger and much smaller than I, those tiny little girls with ski-jump noses and frail limbs whose doctors are forever asking if they are eating enough. I was robust and ate plenty. Also, I had an obsession with cute things–the small forest animals in my books, the small glass animals I played with and made tiny houses for, even the tiny shoes of the babies I saw at church made me swoon, and I felt enormous in comparison.

In high school and college I felt big, even though I weighed about 115 pounds. I remember wearing a size 4 pair of jeans, having gone up from a size 2, and thus thinking I should not try out for the cheerleading team. I could even do handsprings and flips, but I didn’t have the requisite cheerleader personality, and now here was another reason–I would look big in that tiny skirt. I’m sure there were actual cheerleaders on the team that weighed more than I did and were taller and more ungainly, and they looked fine to me, but when I imagined myself in that outfit I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I did not have an eating disorder, I ate plenty and didn’t think of my weight very often, I just felt mildly goofy and awkward in clothes for humans. 

But I had a magic outfit, when I was seven, and it changed everything.

It was a dress, made by my mom as most of my clothes were. She called it a jumper, and it was sort of like dressy overalls that finished out into a skirt instead of pants, and she made it out of blue velour that was sort of a cross between cobalt and turquoise. The most shocking, bright blue, velvety fabric you have ever seen, and even though an overalls-dress sounds ridiculous now, it was the height of little girl fashion at the time. I know because my mother made it from a Butterick Girls pattern and those, I felt, were very stylish. Jeniffer Connelly modeled for them, though I didn’t know her name at the time or that she would grow up to be a famous actress.

Jennifer Connelly modeling for a Simplicity pattern, circa 1975. My sister and I wanted to look like her. This is kind of like my jumper, but mine was shimmery and blue and more wonderful.

It draped beautifully and swished when I twirled and didn’t stick to my legs or tights, and the color looked great on me. People always said so when I wore it. People stared at me when I walked by, for real. There was nothing quite like it in any store I’d ever seen, and I imagined I looked like some kind of almost-royalty in it, like Sarah Crew in A Little Princess, mixed with a dash of the very sophisticated Nancy Drew, the version in the books where she is older and wears lipstick.

No outfit ever came close to that jumper in making me feel beautiful, though there were a few that made me feel sort of pretty. There was a purple sweater I wore in high school that caused a boy I liked to say, “You, um, you look, um… wow.” There was a pale blue wool jacket I wore as a newlywed that was expensive in an understated way and inspired an Italian waiter call me beautiful lady with pretty eyes, and there was a maternity dress my husband bought me because I complained when I was seven months pregnant that I had nothing to wear, and it somehow took my hilarious beach-ball body and hung in such a way as to look a tiny bit sexy. I have no idea how.

But there was never another outfit like the magical blue jumper, maybe because I was never seven again. I learned to doubt myself even when I think I look great. And this is not because of anything society has imposed on me about female beauty, this is just because of an inner voice that is analytical and critical and finds humor in everything, which also makes me a good writer, so I guess I wouldn’t give it up. I do try, though, to conjure up that feeling the blue jumper gave me; that light-as-air, pretty, not-big feeling that swooshed down me as soon as I put it on. And I hope my daughters had that feeling in some little dress from their childhood, or have that feeling in their wedding gowns and in many outfits they will wear as grown up ladies. I wish it for everyone, actually; I think we’d all be a lot nicer, a lot more benevolent and magnanimous if we felt lovely in our clothes. Not powerful, not sexy, not “on trend,” just light and air and possibility, of all that we might become.

Surviving Joshua

I once spent four days with peanut butter in my hair and cabbage in my bra, while wearing a pair of overalls made for a husky little boy. It was a bad week. But when I think of that week now, a tiny little smile always shows up at the corner of my mouth, just the tiniest of smiles, because honestly, despite the grief that smothered me like a heavy, murderous blanket, the whole event also had an I Love Lucy quality to it. I was a sad Lucille Ball, shuffling around my weird little apartment in clothes meant for a child farmer, with my hair sticking up and the leaves of a cruciferous vegetable stuck to my boobs.

In July of 1998, my baby died in utero. I have to say it that way, “my baby died,” as part of my ongoing therapy assignment (I am my own therapist) for two reasons. First because it irrationally annoys me when people die and we say they were lost, like they went to Ikea and took hours finding their way out. (This is a real issue that we need to open a national dialog about at another time.) Second, because that’s what people always say when you have a miscarriage: she lost the baby. Again, a weird little semantic difference meant to sound softer, less painful than the truth, and more acceptable in public, but instead robs the person grieving of even getting to say the terrible thing that happened. Also, I did not have a miscarriage, I had a fully formed 30 week old baby boy with a name in there, and he died because the cord was in a knot and nobody knew it. He had blond hair that stuck straight up and a round face and he could wear clothes, so that was not a miscarriage. In some ways that would be  harder than what I went through; it is hard to fully grieve for something teeny-tiny, especially if you don’t know if it was a boy or girl and may not have named it and cannot really hold it. That would be harder for some people than what happened to me, I acknowledge that.

But that is not what happened to me, and this is my story, and if modern culture has taught me anything, it’s that when people tell their sob stories, you gotta butt out and let them blab and respect it. And then you have to talk a lot about their journey, and make a big deal out of the thing that happened even if it’s not a big deal. But this kind of is.

I was twenty-six, newly married, and living in an apartment right over a massive freeway. The apartment we were renting was not the apartment we were shown when we signed the lease. Whether this was deliberate deceit on the part of the shifty lady with crooked lip liner in the leasing office or some miscommunication due to the language barrier, we do not know, but we were shown a quiet two bedroom facing East, and when we went to move in, we were shown that our key was actually to a noisy, one bedroom directly over the Capitol Beltway. And the boiler room. Meaning that for the first six months of our marriage, we were feverish and shouting and sleep deprived. It was 88 degrees in the apartment, the noise of tractor-trailers whizzing by on 495 meant we couldn’t hear each other sometimes–our pillow talk was screaming–and drifting to sleep was like trying to sleep while hovering over the Jersey Turnpike.

We were both working full time and in grad school, we both had terrible commutes, and it turns out pregnancy makes me really, really sick, like Kate Middleton gets, only she gets to be pampered when she has it and I had to wake up at 5:30 and drive an old Corolla to Rockville Maryland to teach high school girls. (They were sweet and full of concern when I periodically puked in a trash can while explaining the importance of the Magna Carta.)

When I was six months pregnant, we’d only been married about seven months, but this baby was wanted. I had maternal instincts oozing out of every pour in my twenties: I stared at babies in restaurants and named them in my head, I teared up at adorable pampers commercials, I tried to take in stray animals whenever possible. I loved my husband and our cute little life, despite the horrible apartment and old cars and bad commutes and tight budget. So this baby was anticipated and talked about and yearned for, and the nursery was decorated with denim and gigantic sunflowers. (It was still the 90s.)

And one day at about eleven in the morning, on the day of a grad school final presentation, I realized I hadn’t felt the baby kick in a couple days. I remember delivering my presentation anyway, in denial about my fear and hoping to feel the baby kick while I showed a powerpoint on Victorian realism. When it was over, the professor told me in front of everyone that the content was okay, but the delivery was a little dull, which she found “very disappointing.” I remember nodding and walking out, and that she called for me down the hallway but I kept walking, went straight to the doctor, alone, where he did an ultrasound. (I didn’t call my husband and tell him to meet me there, because if I was wrong, he’d lose time at work and I’d seem a little hysterical, and I wasn’t ready to believe I was right. Also, this was in the days before young married women made their husbands do every damn thing that has to do with child raising, including baby showers and routine OB GYN and pediatric visits, in the name of co-parenting, which I think is a stupid modern way of thinking of parenting, but that’s another article for another time.) I remember my own doctor wasn’t there, so I got the other guy, and I watched his kind face go from I’m just going to humor this worry-wart to Oh…crap… His eyes did a slow blink as his brain composed what he was going to have to tell me, and I knew. He told me it was a fluke; that I could still have other children. Unfortunately this well-meaning man chose these words to say to me: “You can try again, it’s going to be okay… we’ll get you a good one next time.”  I hope he heard the way that sounded coming out his mouth and never said that to anyone again. Ever.

I will spare you the details of the next forty-eight hours, and jump to the part where I had cabbage in my bra. But I will say this: I believe every women in the world needs either a mom or a sister or a best friend, preferably all three, but at least one of them. Because that is who you call when you are in shock or your grief is so acute that you cannot even speak and you are unable to move your limbs or function. You call the people who knew you when had braces and a crush on Ralph Macchio, the people who stayed with you when there was a really cool pool party but you had chicken pox, the people who encouraged you through that rough audition for the town musical when you were fourteen and sang Second Hand Rose and your voice cracked. I normally cringe at anything that smacks of girl power, it’s so corny and demeaning, to both women and men, but there is something to that sisterhood thing; that camaraderie in those movies about quilts and magnolias and traveling pants. There is something strong and real and tough and binding about moms and sisters and girlfriends, a bond like Navy Seals must have. So after I called my husband at work and broke him into a thousand pieces with my sobbing, I called my sister, who called my best friend, and I don’t remember anything else from that day.

I had to wait a couple days to deliver, because “the hospital schedule was real tight,” and I cried a river. I mean I literally got dehydrated and salt-deprived so I had to have an IV, and the little narrator in my head went “damn, that’s impressive.” And I will say that my sister became my hero all over again when she marched into my delivery room and took charge, insisting I get as much pain killer as I wanted, which for some reason they were being stingy with. Anything I wanted, my sister the Naval officer made it happen. And when I looked up at her and said, “I don’t think I can do this,” she leveled me with her navy blue eyes and said, “Yes. You can.” Because she knew the stupid way younger sisters believe older ones, having learned from convincing me I could lay an egg when I was five. And so I thought, “Oh, okay, I guess I can.”  

There was a funeral, and I am grateful to this day that there was. Since I was pretty much a zombie at the time, walking around with glazed eyes and only eating or showering when told to, I’d have skipped a funeral if someone had told me to. But my dad, still grieving for my mom (as was I, which is a whole other story), told me we must have a funeral, for my sake, and our kind, wonderful priest agreed. My husband had to go pick out a little coffin, a thing which I could not have done and still could not ever do, for any child, ever. But he is a Marine, so he put on his battle face and did it, and we found out it had already been paid for. By our church, meaning our priest called them up privately and said, “It’s on me,” as was the plain but lovely marble gravestone. Whatever we wanted it to say, we were to just tell the church and they took care of it.

Some things a person must do when someone has died are hard beyond hard, and associating them with a cost is repugnant–much less taking out a wallet and slapping down a credit card like you’re paying for a sweater or a cheeseburger–and so when the grieving person hears the phrase “it’s been taken care of,” it is a balm. That priest, who then gave a homily about how our little Joshua was  tiny like a sparrow, but beloved by us and by God more than sparrows or riches, and how even though he didn’t get to live on this earth he mattered so very much. He didn’t say God had a plan blah blah blah or even remind me that I’d see my son someday in Heaven, he must have known those platitudes are not especially comforting to a stunned, grieving parent. When your child has died and someone tells you God has a plan, you kind of want to say screw you, even though of course God does have a plan and probably disapproves of that phrase in general. (Be careful what you say to the bereft. When my mom–who happened to be gifted at sewing– died in an accident years before, a friend of the family told me “God needed an angel in Heaven to make clothes for all the other angels.” It was stupid–the creator of the universe couldn’t make some freaking robes himself? Did He have a factory up there? Were the wages good? And it was theologically unsound, since people do not become angels when they die. I had to cut her some slack, since she was grieving too, but when you are raw and someone tells you something stupid, it’s like lemon juice in a million paper cuts.) This priest, though, said my baby was small but he mattered, his life mattered as much as a king or a prince, and he was beloved by God and knew that we loved him. I want to find Father Stanley Krempa and thank this kind man who knew what to say, and what not to say.

But back to the cabbage.

When you have a baby and your body goes through the bizarre miracle that is producing another human, your milk comes in. Nobody thought to prepare me for this, not even a nurse. Maybe someone thought of it but didn’t have the heart to tell me. So when I woke up after that first night of sleep, it was bad enough to realize it wasn’t just a horrible dream, but I also discovered my boobs were the size and texture of cantaloupes. I got a lot of weird phone calls that day that would later strike me as funny: someone from the development office of the school I taught at, appointed to call and express sympathy for my loss and say something like “by the way we do hope you realize we cannot offer you your position back, we filled it, but maybe someday you can apply here again,” and I said thank you when what I thought was screw you; a nurse at the pediatricians’ office I had chosen for the baby, calling to say they deeply regretted my situation, and I said thank you when what I thought was you don’t even know me, and the obgyn who’d told me we’d get me a good one some day calling to ask how I was feeling. “Fine,” I told him, because I am a pleaser, “except I think there is milk or something in my boobs and I’m not sure what to do about that.” He got off the phone quickly.

It’s a catch 22, see, because if you “express” the milk with a machine, it’ll just come back like crazy, so you essentially have to wait it out, lugging around two leaky cannonballs. My doctor said one homeopathic remedy to dry up the milk is to put cabbage up against your breasts in your bra. He gave no real scientific reason for this, he even said there was no proof it would work, but he felt compelled to let me know about it, and since I was in horrible pain and my husband has the need to try to fix problems, even unfixable ones, I put cabbage leaves in my bra.  

Cabbage is itchy, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t even taste good, not even when it’s served with bourbon chicken and fried rice, but it definitely doesn’t dry up milk in your boobs. So the physical pain I was in was considerable, and my clothes didn’t fit. Not even maternity clothes, which are big around the waist but not in the boobal area. What did fit were a pair of overalls my friend Aimee brought me, which belonged to one of her brothers but she wore all the time with a tight t-shirt. It was sort of a 90s, Jennifer Aniston look when she wore them but more of a fat-lesbian- construction worker when I did.

I wore those overalls for about four days, days I barely remember. My husband took off work for three of them, and I slept a lot; we took walks and went to see movies in the middle of the day. I craved peanut butter, for some reason, a food I normally dislike, and at some point on about the fourth day I got peanut butter on the counter, bent down to pick something up and banged my head on the counter, smearing my bangs with the peanut butter. I didn’t have the energy to wash it out, and a shower would have made the milk flow freely and negate the cabbage benefits, which I was still holding out hope for. There was a knock at the apartment door; a friend had stopped by to see how I was doing. Not a really great friend, but a well-meaning, well-dressed, wife of a colleague of my husband’s who “heard about my situation.” She was holding a casserole, as one does. Chicken, as it always is. I saw her look me up and down, take in the overalls, the huge boobs and wet spots down my shirt, something gooey in my hair, and the slippers. (And she didn’t even know about the cabbage.) I saw it register that she was dealing with a crazy person here, and I saw the effort it took to compose her face into cheerful sympathy instead of horror.

I said something, she said something. I don’t remember. She asked me what I needed and I said nothing. If’ I’d had other children, maybe somebody would have made a meal train, like they did years later when my husband got deployed. If I’d had surgery or was undergoing treatments, maybe somebody would have organized rides to doctors. But I was young and healthy and, though sad and jobless and a broken, slimy mess, I was essentially okay. Nothing really to be done. So a few days later when I got home and there was a small gift bag on my doorknob containing earrings, I thought it was a mistake. Two days later, a loaf of exquisite banana bread on the doormat, and a few days later, a scarf with small pink flowers and a sympathy card that said you are stronger than you know. I don’t even wear scarves, I look like I’m auditioning for Driving Miss Daisy when I wear scarves, but I love the look and feel of them and the point is, somebody got me a present. It continued for a couple of months.

I think it was the friend of a friend who gave me the earrings, possibly the older lady in the apartment upstairs who made the banana bread. I’m not sure, and they clearly didn’t want or need to be thanked. (Which just shows you, in the case of the well-dressed colleague’s wife, that people can be really good and nice, and you shouldn’t judge them for being decked out in Lilly Pulitzer and Gucci and looking like a human country club.) And I guess my point here seems to be that we should all give presents when something has gone wrong, but what I really mean is this: Give. Don’t judge, just give. Whatever. My sister gave the gift of bossiness when I needed her to in the delivery room, and in the weeks to come when she called to make sure I’d showered that day or got a sitter to come take me to lunch. Our priest gave funds for something we didn’t have the heart or to pay for, and the exact right words to say. My friend Aimee gave the gift of showing up with overalls and making me laugh–letting me laugh at how bad this thing was that I was going through. I wanted to laugh–it was ridiculous! The grief! So, so bad, and so close to the tragic loss of my mother (see, I couldn’t even type “death,” I said “loss” after complaining about the word) that it was funny in a dark way, and Aimee got that. And some people I will never be sure of gave me earrings and banana bread and a scarf, and the gifts were like tiny shots of an antibiotic to my sadness infection.

My point is that I hope I remember to give. I’m not naturally as good at it as some people, I think because raising four kids is a constant exercise in selflessness, but I forget to give to people who don’t live in my house. But it seems to me to be what we were put here for. And also this: grief can be funny. We feel badly about that, like noticing humor in tragedy makes us kind of wicked, kind of evil and disturbed. Our culture is so judgy now, you can’t react to anything the wrong way or you’re insensitive, even your own grief. But I say embrace it. If it’s funny, laugh. If it’s doubly funny because it isn’t supposed to be, laugh harder. It’s okay. In everything there is a season, a time to laugh and a time to cry, and sometimes the seasons get all mixed up; it’s raining when there’s a blue sky, or we’re in a hurricane with the sun peeking in and surprising us all, and those are the healing moments. We should savor them.

Dorothy’s Party

 

They had chosen Kate to come get her and take her to mass, because her sons were too embarrassed to come into her room anymore. They waited in the lobby. Kate was Joe’s wife, she reminded herself. His new wife, not Catherine. She liked Catherine better. It was an unfortunate coincidence that they both were named Catherine, though the new one spelled it with a K and went by Kate. Dorothy didn’t like Kate very well, the name or the wife, though she didn’t know why. The girl was nice enough. (Well, woman, really. Kate was forty-six years old, but Dorothy never did like saying ‘woman’; it sounded sexual somehow, so she called everyone a girl until they were near her own age, and then they were a gal.)  But the name: it was pretentious; it evoked movie-star arrogance. Katherine Hepburn insisted on being called Kate, Dorothy once heard.

Kate was sent because of the one time when Dorothy had needed help in the bathroom. David and Marjorie were taking her to church; one of those Sundays where they’d called ahead and said how about we take you to mass and then to Dixon’s for brunch after, and she was supposed to be grateful. The truth was she didn’t like Saint Boniface church. She didn’t like Father Bob, who insisted on being called Father ‘Bob’ instead of Father Whatever. No one even knew his last name, and he tried to be everyone’s friend. He had a little beard that made him look like a hippie. His homilies were always about justice and mercy, and he had an i-Phone and one of those bigger thingies. He apparently even had a Facebook page, of all things, and not for the church, for himself. He shared his ‘thoughts’ on there; little witticisms and jokes that were self-deprecating on the surface but really meant to show off what a great guy he was. Dorothy had looked. Everyone thought she couldn’t use a computer but they were wrong. She just didn’t like them. Easy enough to get one of the girls to look up Facebook for her. She’d asked Tina, the little Hispanic one. She looked like a child, and she wasn’t as bossy as the others. Didn’t ask a lot of questions.

Dorothy also didn’t like going to mass with David and Marjorie because her daughter-in-law, Dorothy felt, was a prig. Marjorie was one of those women who acted just so: made meals for Christ House and had Father Bob over for dinner dutifully once a month and took Dorothy to lunch every week, bringing her the Prevail undergarments  she knew Dorothy preferred, because Belmont Ridge housekeeping staff used Depends, and Dorothy hated them. Prevails were better. Marjorie even brought Dorothy the particular brand of lemon cookies she was fond of. True, none of the boys did this, not David himself, or Joe or Jamie, but Marjorie always made Dorothy feel she was supposed to say how grateful she was for the visit and the cookies and the undergarments, which were just a precaution. And Marjorie wore a mantilla to mass. Dorothy had worn one herself in the 1950s when everybody did, but nobody wore them now, especially not at Saint Boniface where people came to mass in beach clothes and rubber shoes. Which of course was terrible, too. But Marjorie and David and their brood usually attended Saint Mary’s, where the priests went by their last names and on Fridays they even had mass the old way, with the priest facing the same way as the people. Well, she liked that better. Presumptuous, when they were turned forward. Too casual. But Marjorie was too pious. It was showy. St. Boniface was closer to Belmont Ridge, Dorothy’s home now. An upstairs room, she was quick to point out, not the first floor where they called it ‘assisted living.’ The first floor was all the droolers in wheelchairs.

Everyone was driving out for mass and brunch this time: Joe and Kate and their kids, David and Marjorie and their kids, and Jamie. Jamie would have that girl with him. That Stephanie. He would meet them there, he said, and Joe and Kate were the ones picking her up. Now Dorothy would have to sit by them in the church so they could all feel good about themselves for taking old Dorothy to mass, and then go to Dixon’s for omelets that were never all the way done in the middle; the fellow made them too fast. The bread basket was good, though. Cinnamon raisin.

Kate knocked now, and then opened the door, smiling. Why did people do that: knock, as if you had a choice, and then open the door without being told to come in? A formality, but not formal at all. Familiar. Pointless, if they weren’t even going to wait.

“Hi there,” Kate said, leaning down to kiss Dorothy’s cheek. She always said hi there, not hi mom or hello Dorothy, and always the breezy air kiss on the cheek. Dorothy knew it was because Kate didn’t know what to call her. Mom? Dorothy? Certainly not Mrs. Bowers, Kate herself was Mrs. Bowers now, too.

Kate looked pretty, actually, if a little tired. Always trying to look glamorous, that one. Soon she wouldn’t be able to pull it off anymore, Dorothy thought. Just wait. She was wearing a turquoise scarf with her jacket and her hair was down, but Dorothy looked away and heard herself say, “They brought my coffee cold, and I never even got to go to breakfast.” Kate seemed to have this effect on her; she was always complaining when Kate was around.

“Well, you can’t leave on an empty stomach,” Kate said, opening the cupboards as if she owned the place, already looking for something for Dorothy to eat. As if Dorothy would want anything in there. “You get ready and I’ll find something.”

“I can’t eat now, mass is in less than an hour and I’ll want to receive. And I am ready,” Dorothy said. She was. It was mass, not a fashion show. She was wearing her good wool skirt, too.

“Oh. Well, great!” Kate said, too brightly. Then, “Hey, why don’t you wear that green sweater we gave you for Christmas? That would go great with that skirt!”

“Fine.” Dorothy shuffled to her dresser to get the sweater, though her blouse was fine, if a little wrinkled. It looked like real silk, and it was still a nice shade of rose, though not the pink it once was. It was a perfectly good blouse; she didn’t like how Kate said the sweater would “go great” with her skirt. It wasn’t even correct grammar.

 

Joe Jr. had gotten out to open her door, smiling and giving her a good hug. “Hi, Mom,” he said, and she thought for the millionth time what a handsome man Joe turned out to be. A surprise, because he’d been an odd-looking child. Teeth too big for his face. He was turning fifty next year, but he’d stayed slim, and the gray hair looked good on him. Catherine-with-a-C was a stupid woman, to let Joe Bowers go, although he could be a bit aloof. Prickly, even, if you caught him at the wrong moment. And he was too caught up in his work; Dorothy always thought so. When his first child was born, Joe Jr. took only two days off. They didn’t have this ‘paternity leave’ back then, though they didn’t have it in Dorothy’s time, either, and she’d had four children without Joe Sr. ever having even one day off and she’d done just fine, thank you very much. But that first Catherine expected more, from day one, and Joe was always working. When the baby was two, Catherine-with-a-C put him in some silly music class where the child whacked around a tambourine or maraca, Little Maestros, it was called, and both parents were supposed to come, but Joe never wanted to. Dorothy knew this, because of the one time Catherine-with-a-C stood before her, teary, right before they’d announced to the world that their marriage had fallen apart, and asked her, “Did Joe Sr. ever come to things? You know…the kids’ things? When they were little? Because Joe never does. He says he can’t take time off during the week for things like that, and he doesn’t want to use time on Saturday for a music class for a two-year-old. As if Harper’s age were the issue.” One tear had escaped then, and she’d blown her nose loudly.

Dorothy had wanted to tell her that no, Joe Sr. never came to things like that, because she would never have expected him to, and she would never have put a two-year- old in a three-hundred dollar class just to shake around a cheap maraca. She had another child by the time Joe was two-and-a-half, and they could play in the yard with sticks for free. You could make a maraca type of thing with a jar and some rice. But she just said “those were different times,” a phrase she thought made the point without too much blame, or not enough to take issue with. The marriage ended a month later. Little Harper was so young, they thought he wouldn’t know a thing, but that child didn’t use a toilet until he was four.

That was her first grandson’s name: Harper. A last name, and not even the first Catherine’s maiden name. Not a family name of any kind, just a name they “liked the sound of.” This was back when the only people who gave their children last names were southerners using old family names, and wealthy people wanting to establish a child’s patrician roots with a first name like Anderson, Bentley, or Greer. Now everyone used last names, it meant nothing now. By now, it was probably considered lowbrow. Her grandsons were Harper, Forrester and Cole, and the girls—the girls!—were Darby and Ryan. She would never get used to Ryan for a girl, and Darby was, well, not even a name, really. Thank goodness she was a pretty child, when she was not acting sullen, or absorbed in sending messages on her phone with her thumbs.

Ten o’clock mass was packed as usual; it always amazed Dorothy that this many people showed up, the same people who just the day before got drunk or cheated on their taxes or their wives. But they came. Some of the couples who showed up were not even married, but living in sin. Like Jamie. Father Bob turned a blind eye. Though Jamie didn’t belong to this parish and probably only went to mass when he went with the family. The girl, Stephanie, wasn’t any religion at all; she had a tattoo on her ankle, and was some kind of new-age veterinarian who gave acupuncture to dogs. She adored Jamie, was always holding his hand. Sure enough, she was there, too, in a dress that precluded wearing any sort of bra. She made Dorothy nervous. Clearly it was mutual.

After mass–Father Bright, the young one–gave an earnest homily about grace, and what it lacked in substance it made up for in sincerity–they all drove to Dixon’s, where they were given the back room. Dorothy didn’t want the back room, the back room was all booths. You had to scoot in, and then ask everyone to get out if you had to use the ladies’, or else you had to ask to sit on the outside in case you need to get out, which just caused speculation. And you couldn’t hang your purse over your chair. The light was better in the front room. Why didn’t anyone care about light anymore? “What’s wrong with up here?” she asked. There were several free tables.

They all paused, looked at Joe. “C’mon, Mom,” he said, putting a long arm around her as if she were a child. “There’s more room in the back. And I think I see some people I know back there.”

Oh, wonderful. Some people he knows. From what? From his job that she still didn’t understand, selling advertising on web sites? A ‘senior manager,’ he was called, but the time she tried to call him at the office and interrupted him, she’d said she thought she would reach his secretary. He’d said he didn’t have his own secretary, exasperation in his voice. So he couldn’t be very important there. In her day, an important man had his own secretary. These friends in the back room were probably computer people or slick advertising folks. And nobody told her! She would have done her hair better. It was a little flat on one side. Maybe worn a different blouse under the green sweater. This one was fine for every day, but not to meet your son’s friends, even if they were slick computer people. There was a little bit of something on the collar, she saw now; food or make-up or something. Nobody told her. She started to say you go see the people you know, I’ll wait up here, but the waitress or hostess or whatever she was had already walked ahead, and Joe was ushering her to the back room. He could really be so pushy when he wanted to be. Just like his father, before he got sick and became a big baby again.

“SURPRISE!”

Dorothy looked around. Why, there was something going on here already. They could move to the front room. She started to turn from these people, saw the look on her son’s face: delight, with a shadow of something else over it. Hesitancy, or nausea.

“Joe?”

“Look, Mom, all your friends are here.” Dorothy turned again, aware of her easy spirits hugging the floor, making her feet heavy. What was this floor, linoleum? Slippery, and almost…magnetic, at the same time.

“See, Mom?” Joe was saying, Kate smiling by his side, David and Marjorie nodding vigorously, as if she’d said something clever. At least Marjorie had taken the lace off her head in the car. Her dress was quite nice, actually. A little too nice for Dixon’s. “See?” Joe was saying. “Penny and Stuart Miller are here! Hey Stuart!” He was looking around the room. “And Dr. Masterson and his wife, and Karen and Bob are here! And look, your friends from the old street: the Andersons, and Pete and Didi Heckman! And there’s Dutch Beckerly…everybody’s here, Mom!”

Dorothy looked around the room. Why were they all here? That was Didi Heckman, though the old neighborhood was two hours from here. Her hair looked awful, too. A bad dye job. Karen and Bob were really Joe’s friends, not hers. Why were they here? What was Dr. Masterson doing at Dixon’s? They expected her to say something.

“Oh, my!” she mustered. “What’s going on?”

There was a smattering of laughter. Joe grinned but there was that shadow again, like all the times when he was young and Joe, Sr. would tease him in that way where you didn’t know if he was kidding. If Joe brought home a B+ on a test, his father would say, “Whatsa matter, that the best you could do?” A joke, of course, a B+ was just fine. Or if one of the children made Joe Sr. a gift; a crooked clay pot or ashtray–this is back when it was okay to smoke–he’d open it and say, “What, is this all I get?” Teasing, of course, But not entirely, so the kids always looked confused. Joe looked like that now.

“Your birthday, Mom,” he said. Then, brighter: “Everybody came to celebrate your birthday!” Some clapping, a little cheer, and then both Andersons started in with Happy Birthday to Yoooooo, and everyone joined.

“Goodness, how nice!” Dorothy ventured when it was over. Kate seemed to relax a little, and they made their way to a table, Marjorie saying let’s get you off your feet. “My birthday’s not for a month or two yet…” she said, shuffling. She was aware that she was shuffling. Was it her birthday? Or, had Joe forgotten the date?

“It’s next week, Mom. We picked a day everyone could come,” Joe was saying as he scooted in her chair. It didn’t scoot well on this floor. Was it some sort of tile?

“Dorothy!” Dutch Beckerly clapped her on the back, as if she were a man, Dorothy thought. “Happy birthday, Old Gal,” he boomed, and then shuffled off the omelet bar. That was shuffling. She wasn’t that bad, she just walked slowly. Dutch looked so old! Surely she didn’t look that old. And she did not shuffle.

“May I see a menu?” she asked Joe. A reasonable request.

“Well…sure Mom. Sure. But don’t you want to talk to people? To your friends?”

She hated how he pronounced it “dontcha wanna.” He didn’t get that from her. Then Marjorie piped in, “People want to talk to you, Dorothy…” She’d appeared out of nowhere, as always.

“Well, I’d like to eat!” Dorothy said, and just at that moment, Kate appeared with plate of food from the buffet for her, setting it down with a flourish. Loaded with potatoes, just the way Dorothy liked it.

“Oh, but the buffet is expensive, and I only get the one pla–“

“Mom! The price does not matter!” Joe said, in a fierce whisper.

“No, it doesn’t matter one bit,” Kate said smoothly. “They know this is your party, Dorothy. In fact the whole thing is paid for, and you can eat one plate of food or ten. Doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it!”

As if she would eat ten plates of food.

“Heh-ey, look who’s here,” she heard David say, and she knew without looking that Karen had come. She feigned surprise anyway when Karen leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Hi, Mom. Happy early birthday.”

There was a bit of a scuttle as her brothers all looked for an empty chair to pull up to the table, as though Karen were elderly herself. Of course, she wasn’t young either. Karen was no spring chicken. She’d be, what, fifty-something now. Strange, a daughter so old. She looked good, and Dorothy meant to say so, but what came out was, “Did you come alone?”

“Yes, Mom. I am alone. Nancy’s in Florence. You have me to yourself.” Karen smiled a wry smile as she put a napkin on her lap, a nod to one of her brothers that yes, she would like the buffet, just give her a minute. They were serving her, too, but leaving distance so the two of them could talk. Dorothy remembered now that ‘Nancy’ was in Florence. She worked in international marketing, Dorothy had been told several times through the years. Whatever that was. Pretentious; she would have thought so no matter who it was. “She says to tell you happy birthday.”

“Well.” Dorothy had no response, no message to pass along to the woman who was, as she still explained to people, her daughter’s roommate. As if they were twenty-two and sharing an apartment.

The bread basket was filled again (they put other kinds of bread in there now, probably it was cheaper, everyone was cutting corners these days, but there were still two pieces of cinnamon raisin), and nearly everyone had made their way to Dorothy’s table to say hello, even Penny and Stuart Miller, who both called her Dot. Stuart was pushing a walker that was too tall for him and made him look as if he were holding the bars of a cage, and Penny was prattling on and on. As usual. Dorothy decided to sit back and watch. Dixon’s was just the same as it had always been, except for the employees. They all recognized her now, but none of them really knew her. She’d been coming here for years and there was a time when they knew her, knew Joe Sr. and that he liked his coffee with milk and she took hers black. Now they knew nothing. She supposed it was nice of the boys to give her a party. Joe’s idea, probably. David would think it cost too much, or Marjorie would anyhow, and Jamie wouldn’t have thought of it. A big heart, that one, but no foresight, none at all.

Dorothy remembered another party, the only other party given just for her. She was nineteen, but everyone thought she was twenty. Her mother, not normally a vain woman, made Dorothy rinse three times with vinegar so her hair would be shiny. Her mother had known. And in her insistence on new stockings, a vinegar rinse, there was a tacit consent given. Dorothy’s mother disapproved of Jack Campbell, for his two-tone, cap-toe shoes, the flamboyant red of his silk tie. But she was a pragmatist; Dorothy had her father’s strong nose and eyes just slightly too close together. They couldn’t afford to be too picky. Jack Campbell was a war hero, they said, and a man who liked a challenge. He didn’t mind Dorothy’s height, and he said she looked like Marie McDonald. Which she did, at a certain angle.

Dorothy stared at the people, at nothing, and let her mind turn inside to the place where it slipped sometimes now, the way your foot will slip off a curb if you aren’t careful and sometimes even if you are. Only now she let it slip there, willed it, looking around this back room at Dixon’s, smelling the burnt oil of old hash browns, until it became something else entirely, and she could hear Frankie Carle playing, smell the sweat and the punch and the Brylcreem the boys had in their hair. Jack Campbell was dancing with her, his hand  low on her back, his hips pressed against hers, even with hers, she was so tall. She’d met him there, as requested, and when she walked in the door, the band played “Happy Birthday,” and she had looked over her shoulder to see who they were playing it for. Surely not her? Jack Campbell laughed and took her hand, walked her out on the dance floor. Her birthday wasn’t until the next week, but she didn’t say so.

Jack Campbell thought she was beautiful and so she was. He had a Hudson Super 6, inherited from an uncle, parked outside. Later he would tell her the car didn’t really belong to an uncle, but to his cousin, Georgie, who died somewhere in Northern France, in something called ‘Operation Norwind.’ Such a pretty name, Dorothy thought, when so many of those things sounded ugly. Only eighteen months ago, Jack said. A great guy, but his time was up. Georgie loved that car.

He would tell her this and then wipe at his eyes with the bottoms of his palms, nearly his wrists, though his tears never spilled over, only turned his eyes a fierce blue. She’d remember that, the clumsy way he wiped at his eyes, like a school boy or a farmer. It made her feel motherly for a moment, which confused her. She knew nothing then of how you could feel different ways towards a boy, a man. But then he had shaken his head a little, as if to clear it, and smiled at her, the old Jack Campbell smile. He was talking about California now, a job waiting there for him. “Come with me, Kid,” he’d said, the emphasis on with, because he was going either way. It made Dorothy weak, how he called her ‘Kid,’ though years later when she thought of it–the rare times she allowed herself to think of it–it sounded absurd. They were in the corner, sitting out a slow dance, talking. Flirting. It was like speaking a language you weren’t entirely fluent in: you might understand the words, but only guess at the meaning.

He went on. “You’ll like it out there. Palm trees, pine trees, take your pick. Lemons. Limes, big as your fist. Year round.” He took her hand then, gently curling her fingers into a fist, then putting his hand around it. They both starred at their hands for a moment, a thing separate from them. “The ocean’s right there, blue sky, and it never rains.”

Dorothy couldn’t imagine a place where it never rained. The look Jack Campbell had in his eyes frightened her a little. He was in love with a place, and she understood in that moment that he belonged to the place more than he ever would to her, or to anyone else; that he was part of it already, and he wasn’t even there yet. Still, he wanted her to come. He didn’t say whether he meant for them to marry. She could not ask what he meant, it would reveal her uncertainty, spoil the moment somehow, the way planning the logistics of a trip spoils the daydreaming about it.

He knew anyway. He knew by the way she glanced down at her cup of punch, at the floor, instead of at him. He drew back, just barely, to look at her face, to make sure he’d seen correctly, then leaned in close again. A sigh, barely audible. His hand, still covering her fist, gave it a little squeeze as the band picked up, couples darting out to the dance floor again. A jitterbug, which the band always played when the sexual tension in the room got so thick you could feel it, taste it, suffocate in it. He didn’t lead her out to the dance floor gradually, he stood suddenly and grabbed her arm, almost shouting over the music, a sudden merriment in his voice when he said, “C’mon, Kid, let’s dance!” Shouted, really, because by then he was halfway there.

“Mom?” Karen was looking at her, the waitress holding the coffee pot over her cup. “No, thank you, I’m fine,” and the waitress disappeared. Dorothy could tell from the sharp turn of her heel and the posture of her back as she walked away that she’d been thinking ‘crazy old lady,’ or ‘boring old lady,’ or something that ended with old lady. They may have known it was her party, but they didn’t care, which was worse than not knowing. In fact the party was irritating the wait staff, it was clear.

Foot off the curb again, only it won’t go, even when she tries. But she can remember it, which isn’t the same as going back there; smelling it and tasting it and feeling nineteen, being nineteen, every sense heightened so much that she felt nearly dizzy all the time. It isn’t the same, but it’s close enough.

She remembers not just Jack Campbell, the red silk of his tie, wide-leg trousers since the war was finally over. There are other things, too: the blue of the sash on her dress the time her father took her to see Meet Me In St. Louis, the taste of the dill pickle he bought her in the lobby. The smell of starch on a hot iron,­­­­ because her apron had to be cleaned and starched every night, Boeing insisted on it. Peach pie, in the red ceramic pie dish, because company was coming. Her mother, in a rare good mood, humming the Texaco Star Theatre theme song, singing the words out loud when she got to Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief… The sum of all these things together rose up in Dorothy’s throat and drifted out in front of her, becoming a thing she could almost touch; sepia-toned, and just out of her reach. She tried to tell Karen this once, years ago, when she had had too much wine. She wanted to tell somebody, to say this is how it was. She tried to tell her about the movie and the pickle, the starch and the peach pie, those handsome Texaco men, but Karen had rather absently said, “Huh…is that movie the one with Judy Garland, with that ‘clang-clang-clang’ song in it? I always thought that one was kind of boring.” Dorothy had given up then, rolled her eyes and said, “It’s nothing you people would understand.”

Karen waited a minute, two, and then said, “We have our own things, Mom. We do.” Dorothy couldn’t imagine what they were.

Now Dorothy is looking at people moving slowly around the omelet bar, but she is seeing those couples on the dance floor. The band has picked up even more, a Lindy Hop, so one moment the girls are stomping to the music, nearly leading, nearly in charge of the whole thing, but the next minute they are crushed against the boys’ torsos, limp. The dance so violent, the boys, even the agile ones, the best ones, are heaving with the effort, and the girls’ spines seem about to snap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Certain Something

 

Debbie Simms turned fourteen the year that she got fat and fell in love with Jason Sanders and got thin again. It also happened to be the year her father died, the obvious catalyst for the weight gain, though not the crush. The crush was normal. Every girl in the eighth grade was in love with Jason Sanders. But Debbie would always think of her father’s death as separate; a thing floating near her fourteenth year but completely detached, existing in a realm exempt from the normal restrictions of space and time. Her mother, Janice, said the weight gain was hormonal, that it was her slow metabolism, that Aunt Maureen had thyroid problems, too. Aunt Maureen was three hundred pounds. Now that was fat, Debbie would think, at first, when it was only ten pounds, then twenty. But she knew she was well on her way.

It may have actually been Debbie’s hormones or slow metabolism or thyroid that betrayed her, or it may have been the Mallowmars and King Dons and Hostess fruit pies that she ate, one after the other, while she flipped between Ellen and Austin and Ally. She liked Ellen, and it was especially good if Ellen had on somebody funny, and even better if it was somebody funny or talented but also overweight. Or if she had that little girl on, Brielle, who was, like, a genius. Debbie couldn’t hate Brielle; in fact she loved her. All that bright-eyed cuteness. But even then, she flipped to Austin and Ally a lot because she was in love with Austin, the Austin of years ago when they filmed the show. He was played by Ross Lynch, who was in his twenties now, an actual adult, and not as cute as when he was seventeen. The Ross Lynch who was sixteen and who played Austin Moon was perfect. Easily the most perfect boy in the world, and way better than Brielle, no matter how cute she was.

Sometimes she also flipped the channel to a weird 90s show for kids called Power Rangers, to see what they were up to. She was pretty sure that the brown haired guy and the blond girl liked each other. She thought the show should do something with that plot but they never did, probably because the show was for little kids and all. She told herself that she would only watch for a minute, that she actually needed to relax after a long day at school, and she would watch Ellen and Austin and Ally and eat Little Debbie snack cakes, especially the pink powder puff ones that tasted like marshmallows and cotton candy together. She felt a strange significance in the fact that they were Little Debbie snack cakes, like they were made especially for her.

She had to hide the snack cake wrappers by four-fifteen to be safe, because her mom got home at four-thirty from her real estate job. She wouldn’t get in trouble, exactly, if her mom knew that she spent her baby-sitting money on her snacks, but her mom would be disappointed and give her that look, and a little talk about how they both needed to start taking walks and eating healthy. Debbie knew it made her feel better to say “we both need to…” only that was dumb because her mom was naturally thin and Debbie didn’t really want to go for walks with her anyway.

She hated that her mom’s name was Janice, that they were Debbie and Janice.  She wanted their names to be Elise and Maddie, or Diane and Caitlyn, or just about anything, but they were dumb old Debbie and Janice, which were not good enough names to be in a story or a show or movie. Her Dad’s name had been Mike, which was an acceptable name for a man, though not as good as Connor or Alex. Mike was fine, though. It didn’t embarrass her. In fact, her dad was pretty good all around, except for when he wore his Lee jeans that were too-dark blue and had a waist that was too high. She had hated those jeans. But most of the time he wore pretty good clothes and he laughed good and he didn’t embarrass her in front of her friends. Well, in front of Judy, her only main friend. Especially after she got fat.

Debbie went to the mall with Judy sometimes. She ate lunch at school with Judy, who was so small she looked like a fourth-grader and had thick glasses and carried a purse with covers that buttoned on and off. Judy had matching purse covers for all her outfits: little girl outfits, like red corduroy jumpers with strawberry appliques sewn on, with a red corduroy purse cover to match. Her mom made them. Debbie thought they were dumb and embarrassing, but it was better than eating alone and sometimes old Judy could be pretty funny. Like she would say, “if Mrs. Coakly’s bun gets any tighter, its going to pull her eyes back and she’ll look Chinese.” Then they would laugh a little and feel the cool superiority that she knew the other kids felt; the kids who sat at the big table in the back. Kids like Meredith Lancy and Jason Sanders. Sometimes Debbie laughed more than the situation called for, just so it would look like she was having a really good time with tiny, weird Judy. And it wasn’t so bad. Yeah, for a quiet little girl with dumb purse covers, Debbie thought, Judy could be pretty funny. Only she never seemed to notice the funny stuff about herself, like her stupid homemade outfits with little bumble-bees and strawberries sewn on, and her thick glasses. But they had a tacit understanding: Debbie said nothing about Judy’s clothes or resemblance to an old lady, and Judy never made fun of Debbie’s increasing size and never asked about her dad.

Mostly they talked about people in Hollywood, which Debbie was an expert on, or about Jason Sanders. Or, rather, Debbie talked and Judy ate her perfect turkey sandwiches on wheat bread with one little piece of wilting lettuce coming out the side exactly a quarter of an inch, and looked at Debbie through those huge glasses. “Specs,” Debbie’s dad had called them one time, which Debbie thought was kind of cool for a dad.

Debbie ate her snack cakes or fruit pies, or maybe one of the honey buns you could get for seventy-five cents that were so sticky you had to pull them out of the cellophane wrapper with your fingernail, and maybe part of a sloppy joe or whatever they were serving, so it wouldn’t look like she only ate sweets. She would laugh a lot and be really animated with old Judy, and talk about what actresses looked better with long hair or how she heard that Jason Sanders fooled around with Summer Banks at a party with high schoolers at it. She didn’t know if that was true or not, but she had heard it, or something pretty much like it, when she was in a stall in the girl’s bathroom and Meredith Lancy and Tiffany Peterson didn’t know she was in there. She knew Meredith and Tiffany liked Jason Sanders, just like Debbie herself liked Jason Sanders, because he was so cool he seemed much older than fourteen—almost fifteen—and she liked the way part of his hair fell over one eye. There were rumors that he drank, that his older brother got him beer and maybe other stuff, too, and that he went to high school parties and did stuff with girls. This both repulsed and fascinated Debbie and made her watch him out of the corner of her eye all the time.

Plus, Jason Sanders talked to her sometimes. Like once they were at their lockers, which were pretty close because there weren’t too many names in their class between Sanders and Simms, and his bag was in her way so she just stood there, but then he saw and said “oh, sorry,” and moved it. And another time they had to sign an attendance sheet when they had a sub in history, and he handed her the pencil that was going around and said, “here.” She had liked the way he said it, and sometimes she would think about it over and over in her head: oh, sorry and here, over and over. And she would imagine that he said other stuff, too, or that he looked out from under his hair at her and smiled, just slightly, or that they were at a dance and he was kissing her neck. She even dreamed that once: that they were at a dance or something, and Jason Sanders was kissing her neck and touching her hair, which was longer in the dream, but then all of a sudden her dad was in the dream in his green Eddie Bauer shirt saying Deb? Debbie? Wanna go with your ol’ man to the hardware store? We can get some ice-cream on the way home… but then he disappeared and she couldn’t find him, and then Jason Sanders turned into her dad only different, without one of his arms, and she woke up sweating.

Her dad died in a car accident. He was at the Billing’s house where he was doing a dry wall job. No, supervising  a dry wall job. The Billings were some rich Mormon people they sort of knew because Sarah Billings was in Debbie’s girl scout troop when they were in elementary school. Sarah was pretty and had blond hair and got good grades and was nice to Debbie, but only up to a point. Debbie decided that Sarah was of those people who was just nice enough that they could think to themselves how great they were because they were so nice. Debbie always wished she had hair like Sarah’s, though, and was annoyed and fascinated that Sarah politely refused to drink Coke or Pepsi because of her religion. But at least Sarah was only Mormon-rich, not country club rich. The kids who were country club rich had names like Cooper and Summer. They wore clothes that were nicer than the other students. Debbie couldn’t put her finger on what it was that made the clothes nicer, but the belts and things often had tiny whales on them, for some reason, and she knew they didn’t come from TJ Max and Khol’s. Sarah Billings was rich, by the looks of her house, but they didn’t belong to the country club, and she might have gotten some of her clothes from Khol’s.

It had been Saturday, so Janet and Debbie were home, and Debbie got the phone when it rang. It had been Mrs. Billings only her voice was high and pinched and breathy when she said “Debbie, get your mother…” and she was sobbing. For some reason Debbie had said, “What? Why? What’s wrong? Is my dad the— ?” But her mom, who was wiping the counter after making banana bread, suddenly seemed to know without being told that something was wrong, and her eyes got huge and scared and angry and she started screaming What?! What?! no…no…no before anyone even told her. She crumpled down on the kitchen floor when she started talking to Mrs. Billings, who must have told her that there had been an accident right out in the Billing’s driveway, and Debbie’s dad had been hit–mangled, maybe–by one of his own dry wall guys backing the truck up. Mrs. Billings probably told Debbie’s mom whatever else happened, but even now Debbie didn’t know if he was mangled or if he broke his neck or something or if the truck just hit him in the head and killed him. They thought she didn’t need to know and she never asked. The smell of bananas still made her sick.

Debbie started eating a lot right after the funeral. They were Methodist, or at least they went to a Methodist church sometimes. Debbie wasn’t really sure what Methodist was or why her parents chose that, because she knew there were some other kinds you could choose, and when the minister met with her and her mom before the funeral, he said, “now, as you know, Debbie, we Methodists believe in the communion of saints, with a small s, and the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. You can take comfort in that,” she said okay but it didn’t really make sense. She didn’t know why it mattered how you wrote anything, or what was comforting about “the life of the world to come.” They meant Heaven, and she knew all about Heaven, but it sounded boring. Harp music was annoying. So when she got home after the funeral, she ate. She ate a lot.

It was summer and she had fifty-seven dollars saved up, and she got more every Wednesday night when she babysat for the little boy down the street. Peter. He had Down’s Syndrome. He was nine but he seemed more like four, and he always had a runny nose and seemed oblivious to Debbie, just listening to his little yellow radio and swaying his head back and forth with his eyes closed. His own parents smiled at that–like it was cute or something–and called him Stevie Wonder, whoever that was.  It was an okay job but  Debbie was glad she didn’t have to take him anywhere. She just watched TV and kept an eye on him and waited for her ten dollars. You could buy three boxes of snack cakes with ten dollars, or two packages of mallowmars, which had more in them. There was almost nothing better than the squish of a mallowmar when you bit through the waxy chocolate coating and through the marshmallow, and the tender snap of the graham cracker bottom. Debbie could make a package of mallowmars last a pretty long time—maybe even four days.

So by the time school started, Debbie Simms was fat. Janice took her shopping, which was one of the activities her mom liked best, because you could hide in the manufactured happiness that went with shopping. Janice would get all excited about their “girl’s day out” and chatter the whole time, and Debbie knew her mom wanted her to get excited, too, and be all into getting new outfits, and talk along the way about school and which boys she liked and who was having a party on Friday night. Like Meredith Lancy or Tiffany Peterson or even old Sarah Billings would, if they were Janice’s daughter instead. But even before she was fat, Debbie didn’t really get invited to parties, and now that she was 184 pounds, it was hard to get excited about shopping for school clothes. So Debbie coped by being sullen and only conceding to buying one pair of jeans, which she would wear with old sweatshirts. She tried for sort of a grunge look. And when her mom “treated” her to a haircut on the way home at a really nice place where they offer you tea or soda while you sit there, the lady said “Now, if we layer it through here to frame her face, it’ll really make those pretty brown eyes stand out.” Eighth-graders were not stupid; Debbie knew that was a very deliberate way of not saying anything about her weight, of trying to point out that she noticed something else. The b-word would probably think how nice a lady she was, like ohh, I was so nice to that fat girl, I complimented her eyes.

Her eyes were just boring brown and not that great.

Debbie stayed fat through the Christmas holidays, and managed to smuggle her snack cakes to Oklahoma, where her mom’s sister lived with her three bratty sons.  Janice told her it would be good for them to get away for Christmas, to a place where there weren’t so many memories of her dad, and Debbie said whatever even though she wanted to hold on to those memories like a life preserver and felt a shaky pain when she thought of leaving her own house for Christmas. But she blocked them out and went grudgingly to brown Oklahoma where it didn’t even snow and her cousins acted like she wasn’t there. The only good thing about the trip was the weird structure that traveling provided: Debbie liked airports, the necessity of having to walk down a long thing called a concourse–she liked the sound of that word–and find your gate. She was allowed to pick a magazine at the little store in the airport, and there were articles about kissing and sex in there and she felt a rush of adrenaline, reading stuff like that right next to her mom, who probably thought she was reading about new fashions or fun crafts or something. And on the plane, she could watch people as they walked by to go to the bathroom, carefully evaluating their outfits and their general attractiveness, picking out the good ones, scoffing silently at the dumb ones, and loosing herself in the bright staleness of it all. She seldom looked at her mother, who didn’t seem to feel the same odd security in airports, and wore a look of vulnerability that Debbie hated.

They came home for New Year’s, and Janice went to a party at the Billings; a grown up party so Debbie wasn’t invited, but her mom said she could come, she wasn’t a baby and they’d be happy to have her. Debbie said she had a party to go to, but she didn’t, and she couldn’t go with her mom because Sarah Billings would hear about it, though Sarah was going to Meredith Lancy’s party. Meredith’s parents were rumored to be so cool that they stayed up in their gigantic bedroom watching TV when Meredith had parties and didn’t even come down to check on people. Meredith’s parents each had their own bathroom.

Debbie didn’t want her mom to go to the Billings, who, she thought, were only inviting Janice because they felt sorry for her, so Debbie said she had a stomachache and wanted to stay home. Janice put her coat on, slowly and deliberately, and then turned to Debbie with a look Debbie had not quite seen before, and said, “Then stop eating all those sweets.” She looked like she was going to cry. Debbie slumped towards the TV.

So Debbie stayed home watching boring TV shows, and on her fourth Mallowmar, she got a bitter taste in her mouth and felt a sudden anger surge up inside her, and without thinking she crushed the sticky cookie in her hand and threw the little mess at the wall. Then she sat silent for nearly two minutes, surprised at her outburst, and went upstairs to bed, leaving the little white and brown cookie body on the floor where it fell.

Six weeks later it happened. Debbie and Judy were sitting at their lonely, wobbly lunch table when Jason Sanders himself walked up, casually, hands in his pockets and hair over one eye, and asked Debbie to the spring dance. All he said was Hey. You wanna go the dance? and Debbie could feel her heart beating in her neck, and almost turned to make sure he was talking to her. She managed a “Yeah…” and he said ‘Kay. Meet me at Meredith’s at eight on Friday and was already sauntering away before she could answer. Judy’s eyes, behind the inch-thick glasses, were as big as dinner plates.

For two days the possibilities raced through her mind. Had he secretly found her cute and attractive all year and was only now getting the courage to tell her? Was it the thirteen pounds she lost? Was it her new way of slinging her backpack over her shoulder after history class—did he suddenly think she was cool? She did feel cooler; she was starting to have…something. Not the cool confidence of the popular crowd, but the very beginnings of something she couldn’t put her finger on or words to. Just something. And her life had changed: Tiffany Peterson had even said “Hey, Deb. You can sit with us if you want” at lunch the day before. Debbie had felt a little badly about leaving Judy alone with her perfect sandwich to eat quickly and then go to the library to pretend to do research, but she had to. Judy would do the same thing if they’d invited her to the big table; everything was different now. And Janice noticed a certain openness about her daughter, who ate her salad at dinner, and not much else. It was too good to be true.

So when Friday night came, and Debbie sat in her room in her seventh outfit, her mind bubbling with possibilities about the night: a charming Jason Sanders (who looked even more like Ross Lynch in the daydream), and her future, she tried to ignore the sinking dread in her stomach when she heard an urgent knock at the door.

It was Judy, whom she hadn’t spoken to in five days, her hair stringy and damp from rain, her glasses fogging up when she came into the warm house. Part of their tacit understanding, their odd friendship, was that the two didn’t go to each other’s houses. They had not been the type of friends to do that, only necessary lunch table sharers and occasional mall companions, so when Debbie heard Janice say “Hi, honey. You’re Judy, right? Debbie’s in her room. Go on upstairs,” she was filled with rage that made her arms hurt.

“What do you want?” Debbie said. It was almost a shout.

And Judy, in a glistening red raincoat with ladybugs printed on it, took off her glasses and began to wipe them on her sweater sleeve.

“It is a joke,” she began. “This whole dance thing is just a joke. He’s going to get you to drink a lot and then he’s supposed to…you know, do stuff with you, because he bet Meredith and Tiffany and some other people that he could. He doesn’t really like you.”

Debbie’s arms really ached now.

“How do you know?” she almost yelled, her voice tight and her throat suddenly sore. She was thinking absently that she had never seen Judy with her glasses off, and that without them her eyes were very small and mole-like, and had no lashes.

“I found out from Sarah Billings. She wanted to warn you but didn’t want to tell you herself because of…everything. She was really nice about it and told me to tell you she’s really sorry. So then I spied on Jason and heard him laughing about it with some people. It’s true. It’s just a joke,” she finished matter-of-factly, putting her glasses back on.

Debbie was suddenly enraged, thinking of Judy spying on Jason for her, thinking of Sarah Billings with her sickening sweetness and perfect blond hair saying she was sorry for her, and she stood and screamed at Judy “Get out! Get out of my house! Get away from here! I don’t need you to help! I don’t need you!” And then, one last time when she could still feel Judy standing outside her closed bedroom door and heard her say through it “Debbie, you can’t actually go…” she screamed “GET OUT OF HERE!”

Janice Simms was wiping down the counter after baking for the first time since her husband died (apple muffins, not banana bread), when Debbie came down the stairs and she heard a car horn beep in the driveway. She stopped herself from asking is that what you’re wearing?  when she saw Debbie’s frayed jeans and short shirt, which was pulling so tightly across her that you could make out fat bulges pushing out under Debbie’s bra line. And she stopped herself from saying that whomever was driving the car outside—this Meredith person or her older brother or whatever—should come inside and be introduced, because she knew that kids didn’t really do that anymore.  And she stopped herself from giving Debbie a hug, or insisting she be home by eleven, or finding the cause of the look in her daughter’s eyes; the look that left Janice cold because it spoke of change and grudges and innocence that was somehow already gone. Janice ignored that. Debbie needed this, she thought. Things had been so hard, and this was better than her just eating and watching TV, and anyway, what could possibly happen? They were fourteen for goodness’ sake. Probably at the dance the boys would stand on one side and the girls on the other, too embarrassed to talk or dance, just like in her day. And maybe later, they would go to this girl’s house and watch a movie that might have some bad language or something. But that’s not so bad, really. Debbie probably heard those words before. And she needed this, this party with other kids; the beginning of a social life. At least it was…something.

“Goodbye!” she called as the door slammed, feigning cheerfulness, and turned to face an empty living room, sorry that Debbie wasn’t wearing a raincoat.

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