Thursday, August 26, 2010
Nearly twelve weeks in I figured it out and four pregnancy tests confirmed it. I was thirty, married, educated, employed, and keen on motherhood so pregnancy should have been just the right thing. Of course I was newly married to a man who was already sleeping with another woman. He was once – divorced already. He had a beautiful daughter from his first marriage. I fell in love with her, which I now understand was all part of his plan. Once I married him, he stopped courting me and started looking elsewhere for things much more thrilling than our newfound mundane domesticity. The thing is, for me, domesticity is thrilling. I’m good at and I make it fun and I was happy to share it with someone I loved. I envisioned lots of love and laughs and a great adventure. I am not sure what he envisioned, if anything. I do know that we didn’t envision together and we didn’t have some really important conversations about who would pay the bills and who would mop the floor.
In some areas, I am a slow learner. So, it was not until our second child was three that I left. We were living, at the time, way out in the country in what should have been a very romantic hundred-year-old one-room schoolhouse. Life was bleak, as I think it is for many families as the last days are eked out of a weak and unhappy partnership. We left him, the three of us and moved into town and started our girlfamily in half of a duplex only a block from the school the girls attend and where I teach. We all began breathing again and smiling again and laughing again. The girls also cried and raged and sometimes I did too. I paid his bills and mine for exactly months and then one day he returned home and it was all dark. I imagine him driving the long, winding, rutted road out to the schoolhouse and walking to the front steps through the tall, tick-filled, un-mowed grass, and entering a home bereft of warmth, light, and full of utter emptiness. Nights were back as pitch out there. I don’t feel malice or pity at the image. It is what it is. When you don’t pay the bills, the lights go out.
We’ve been eating a lot of peanut butter lately. For some reason, likely a sale, I am sitting on about three jars of it. We have had peanut sauce on rice, peanut butter cookies, and tomorrow morning there will be peanut butter and jelly muffins for breakfast. It is the end of summer and the start of the school year and summer travels and fall activity registration have both depleted my funds. So, good for me for hoarding the peanut butter when I did.
Sometimes, for moments, I am still mad at him. When it is late in the evening and I am making peanut butter muffins because I am a the only bread winner for my family and I am careful with our money and health and I remember that my mammogram results came in the mail today and I close my eyes before opening the envelope because two people depend on me for everything; I think of him, now living back in Chicago where we first met. He lives alone, visits once a month for a few hours at a time. He Calls rarely, never asks if I need anything, antagonizes, and takes care of himself and only himself. He does not have days which include three people getting their teeth cleaned or two daughters watching you get your annual pelvic exam. He does not try to conduct a professional life, parent two children, and run a household simultaneously. He doesn’t think about reading and writing skills, piano lessons, braces, hurt feelings that require late night cuddling and talking, or 20 ways to feed your family on peanut butter until September 1st. I do. The anger is fleeting though because that domesticity I so enjoy? I have crock pots full of it in our little family.
Friday, August 20, 2010
After all those nights lying awake upstairs listening to them fight, she had finally kicked him out. Told him he had to stop drinking or not come back.
Drinking? I didn’t know he had a drinking problem. Really? Was that what all those fights were about?
Many years later she remembers that I told her she was mean. That she should let him come home. Please let him come home.
He did come home. A week or so later. Sober, but not really that much more present. I thought we had recovered. Isn’t that what it’s called? Recovery? Recovered from what, I don’t know. But I thought it was all ok. A bad few weeks, but now we were all better.
Turns out we hadn’t recovered at all. Twenty-some years later I’ve been married thirteen years and my husband and I are on the verge of ending things. Terrible fights. Things we never thought we’d say to each other. Even a fist through the wall. I tell him he has to stop drinking or I will leave him.
Thank God (and I’m only beginning to even consider that God could possibly maybe have a hand in anything to do with me and my life, so to thank God does not come lightly) that my husband doesn’t want me to leave him. Thank God that he will do as I ask. Step 1. To talk to a counselor.
And that’s where it happens that I become enlightened. Because as it turns out we weren’t recovered back then when my dad came home all sober and apologetic. Turns out we are quite far from recovered, actually.
I am told I am co-dependent. I am acting the martyr. I am the oldest child of an alcoholic. The dependable one. I got straight A’s and never scored a fake ID. I write thank you notes promptly (or I used to before I had three kids) and I volunteer for all sorts of wholesome stuff at our prim little catholic school. I was doing everything right. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
So how is it now that I am learning that I am doing everything wrong?
I learn that all that perfectness is part of the disease. Could it be that one person’s alcoholism has infected me – so insidious and sinister and silent… silent… silent …until now when it come charging out into the open like one of those bulls in Pamplona? Could it be that the moment when he said good-bye was the moment that slipped by. My chance to right myself. My missed opportunity to face my real self and my true family.
I am blown away by the fact that I am not who I thought I was. I am overwhelmed by the fact that I now need to relearn so much. And so I am making plans for a trip to Europe. Because that same counselor that said I am acting the martyr. The one that told me I am co-dependent. She also told me that I need to believe that I am important. Really, in my gut, accept that as true.
I like that idea. It’s a good place to start. A trip across the ocean to regroup and figure out who this woman is that has been living in this body for the past 37 years. I will put these skeletons in a rucksack and throw them over my shoulder. And as I spend some time away from all of the everyday distractions, I will start to shed them. I will toss them away one by one until the only thing left is me. Me with my own skeleton. My own skin. My own self. I think that’s enough for one person to carry.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
"Lie still!" I admonished.
We took turns playing dead, posing each other and taking pictures with the camera my mother had given me for my twelfth birthday. I'd brought it along on this trip – our first and only visit to our newly-divorced father in this particular Ohio apartment.
He was on a work call, so we'd wandered out into the patch of woods behind the apartments. I peered through the camera's viewfinder and tried to decide which set of windows belonged to his new home, but they all looked identical. Then I told my sisters to pose for a picture. They put their arms around each other and fixed smiles on their placid faces. But the posing – the pretense – was too much for us. We were sixteen, twelve and ten.
So amid the dying leaves, we imitated death. It felt more….real. We positioned ourselves precisely under fallen logs and snapped photos of each other's still, pale faces. A closeup of a hand. Limbs arranged unnaturally. And we laughed until tears streaked our faces.
I come across the pictures in a pile of old photos of un-remembered celebrations. Birthdays, graduations. Anniversaries. The death pictures appear there, vivid and tangible behind so many forgotten moments. I study them for a long time. Replace them carefully.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
In our mandatory high school swim class, they had to use the long pole to rescue me from the diving pool before I went under for the third time. That's probably why I had trepidations about starting water aerobics at my local health spa. Luckily, no cute swim jocks were around to see me flailing about in the water this time. The pool is women only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, so the only people there at 5:45 a.m. that morning were a few other sleepy-eyed women, all overweight like me. Among us we probably displaced enough water to fill the Jacuzzi. I actually felt slim and vibrant by comparison. Maybe this would be an ego-boost along with physical therapy for my bum knees.
I walked down the steps into the shallow end of the pool. Friends had tried to convince me to try the deep-water aerobics, but I wanted to keep my feet solidly planted on the pool bottom until I felt comfortable moving down to the deep end. I'm not sure I entirely trust those foam belts to keep me suspended. Even the shallow end was pretty deep, I thought. Four feet to a five-foot tall person like me comes to just below my chin. As we started jogging in place, the wave action splashed against my face.
The exercises seemed pretty easy, every movement created a little bit of resistance from the water, and I felt almost weightless. The skinny little bitch of an instructor was too perky for 6 a.m. and insisted on playing 70s disco music, but at that time of the morning any music would be annoying. After we warmed up a bit, she passed out barbell-looking apparatus made out of foam. I thought, "Good, floaty things! This should be fun!" I was wrong. They actually increased the resistance of the water and made the movements harder. I started to sweat, and wondered, "How can I be sweating underwater?" It made no sense. She then asked us to put the barbell between our legs like we were riding a horse. If I'd wanted to ride a horse, I thought, I wouldn't be in a swimming pool, but I shoved the barbell down under the water and between my legs. It floated me up and whooshed my legs out from under me, tipping me forward and planting my face in the water. I started thrashing about trying to get my balance and my feet back on the pool bottom. By the time I got that damn barbell out from between my legs, I had gone under three times. Needless to say, I was a little disruptive to the class. The instructor looked relieved when I put the barbell on the side of the pool and finished the class without it. After the class ended, the instructor came over to me and snarkily asked, "Are you OK?" as if to imply, "If you're going to drown, don't do it on my watch."
When he got home, my husband asked me, "How did water aerobics go?" I told him, "Don't call me Nemo. I'm more like a Flounder." Other than feeling totally out of my element, I did enjoy the exercises and they helped my knees, so I was determined to go back on Wednesday and try again.
For the next class I decided to try wearing a buoyancy belt, even though I was the only one in the shallow end of the pool wearing a belt. I didn't want another mishap. Right away I figured out the design flaw of the buoyancy belts—the foam part that makes you float is around the back. Trying to hold yourself upright in the water, the belt makes you tip forward like one of those tippy drinking birds that drink out of a glass of water. And what's worse, the belt suspends you higher in the water, so my feet were up off the pool bottom. I couldn't control my position in the water, or where I went. I just bobbed along totally at the whim of the wave action in the pool. As I did the various exercises, instead of facing the instructor, I'd twirl around in random circles (the instructor glaring at me) or would drift over and bump into one of the other women (oops, sorry!). Not a great way to make new friends. I think trying to stay in one place, upright and facing one direction is exercise enough, and it certainly is what takes the most effort. Gaining strength and going with the flow—it's worth the effort and frustration both in and out of the pool. Besides, now I'm determined not to let that skinny bitch get the best of me!
Thursday, July 29, 2010
To say my breasts are lumpy like saying the Empire State Building is tall or the South is hot in the summer. In fact, if not for lumps, I’m fairly certain I’d still be wearing the same cup size as the batteries in my digital camera. I wouldn’t mind these knotty boobs of mine if not for the fact that once a year someone in the medical profession tries to scare me with them.
“We found a lump,” a technician will tell me after my mammogram.
“I bet you did,” I’ll reply nonchalantly. She’ll stare at me as if I’m a sarcastic teenager who just rolled her eyes and muttered “Whatever.” Not that I haven’t been tempted.
I was the firstborn and my dad wanted a boy. So the fact that I didn’t “develop” until I was almost seventeen (even then, the “development” wasn’t any more noticeable than a mosquito bite) makes sense. Boys don’t have breasts. Well, they didn’t back then. These days with so many kids so overweight you’re just as likely to see boys in need of Victoria ’s secret as girls. I didn’t even know what a fully developed female breast was supposed to look like, not having a mother in the picture when my curiosity peaked. I assumed Barbie represented real womanhood. Can you imagine how shocked I was when I discovered that real women’s nipples do not fall off somewhere along the line.
When I was in high school, I bore the brunt of jokes about not having breasts. “If you didn’t have hands, would you wear gloves?” I was teased. After shaking my head, no, the bully of the moment would continue, “Then why do you wear a bra?” These days, I’d answer with “Since you don’t have a brain, why do you have a head?” I’m snarkier now. Like my boobs, snarkiness took a while to come in.
I lived in fear of getting undressed to shower after gym class. Or worse, having a boy remove my bra and find nothing. Fortunately when you are both the debate team and the slide rule squad, the latter wasn’t likely to happen. When a boy finally did remove my bra, he later became my future first-ex-husband. A physics major in college, I remember walking into our bedroom in a nightgown and him quipping, “Your right breast oscillates more than your left.” Ah, always the romantic.
Bra companies want me to celebrate my breasts. My most recent ex-husband wanted me to get a breast lift. I told him I would if he’d get a ball lift. See, that snarkiness comes in handy. It’s hard to know what to feel about these icons of femininity on my chest when someone’s always trying to cut a little piece of them away. I was surprised that following my last lumpectomy – during which the surgeon removed a cyst the size of a Silly Putty egg – that I wasn’t left with a divot. Apparently, fat senses a void and rushes in. Like so many other things in life.
Leigh Anne Jasheway
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
My parents moved a lot and fought a lot, and I got new brothers and sisters a lot, but our kitchens became one kitchen through the magic of making the same recipes in them. My mother baked her own bread, cookies, cakes, and pies. She scoffed at children who had to eat cookies store-bought. Why would anyone even bother? They taste like old shoes. I had to admit that she had a point. Her soft, melting, wafting cookies were technically in the same category as mass-market boxes of dry wafers studded with preservatives. But.
They were not made with me at my mother’s elbow, my little sister up on a stool beside me, all of us sporting matching corny calico aprons. They were not made on top of floury counters, vanilla next to the yellow bowl, containing the endless conundrum of heavenly smell and godawful taste. They were not rolled out while my mother’s bosom rose and fell, her arms strong but also soft and fragrant. I didn’t get to eat them before they made it to the oven. They didn’t come from the easily granted request: “Let’s make cookies!” or from a whim on mom’s end.
My mother’s cookies were varying sizes and shapes. They baked on homely, old and scratched cookie sheets. They alchemized in different ovens. They never lasted more than a day because we ate them all until they were gone—for dessert, breakfast, furtively, for snack, when it was cookie o’clock, when bells rang and I opened my lunch box.
“My mother never made me cookies from scratch,” said mom. “My Greek grandmother made me koulouriakis, though. Butter cookies rolled and shaped into S’s and C’s. Brushed with egg, pressed into plates of sesame seeds.”
I think it skips a generation. I love to bake but I do it relatively rarely. Given that I grew up in a house where cookie batches were either in the oven, in the cookie jar, or forming into a ball of dough in the yellow bowl. I currently won’t bake with my kids, because they will not keep their hands out of the bowl, and yet will not keep their fingers out of their noses. Repeat.
I am by nature a solitary baker, although I grew up with the most nurturing and inclusive baker mother. I know it is a betrayal of all that is wholly maternal, but there you have it. I read recently that it was okay to accept that about myself, to not start out with the bowl and the ingredients and then slowly lose my patience as small beautiful children swipe and spill and elbow. I am a mother who does not like to bake with my kids. I am a mother who would like to enjoy it. Somewhere in between those two canyon walls is a pathway. Maybe it will come with age. They might get better at hygiene, self-control, stealth. I might chill about boogers, impenetrably dirty fingernails, raucous limbs. I might be able to mail-order an extension for my short fuse. In the meantime, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from Trader Joe’s are not half bad.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
ON THE STREETS WHERE I LIVED
Downtown Milwaukee was a “ghost town” at night, my mother would say. Not like the downtown she had known as a teen, where she went to the “movie show” or to the drugstore for malts. Met sailors with her girlfriends, shopped.
By the time I was 21 the White Flight and race riots of the the late 60’s which had gutted the city and made the division between north and south, east and west so blatant, had left a no man’s land in the center. Certainly the banks and businesses remained struggling against the boom of the suburban malls. But nightlife died except for the sailors, whores and drug dealers. And then us punks.
We walked into this zone one summer night to see Die Kreuzen in a sequestered basement club. Denise and I were as pale as moonlight refusing to tan, a juvenile reaction to the “natural” decade we were leaving behind. We wore black like burglars. Smoked and drank.
It was 1980, late summer was gently becoming fall, when we stepped out of the club at 3 a.m. to catch the last bus to the east side. I ‘m not sure if we were still lovers at that time or not yet lovers. If we were in one of the safe zones of “just friends” that sandwiched our short bristling affair. We were better as friends and we knew it.
We were the only ones at the bus stop. Wisconsin avenue was dead silent except for an occasional vehicle, a group of blind drunk sailors, 2 black teenagers on bikes.
Then one tall black man who wandered the wide sidewalk in great arching zig-zags. More gracious than a drunk , but obviously altered. He wandered to the curb. Was he looking for a cab? For the bus we were waiting for? He wandered to the shop windows, muttered at things beyond his reach behind the glass and the accordion-pleated caging that doubly closed the store. He seemed to be looking for something.
Then he found me.
Denise and I had not felt unsafe like most Milwaukeans would have at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night in downtown Milwaukee. We were waiting for the last bus, if there was a last bus, as if we were waiting for the first bus of the morning to go to work. We leaned against the brick store front. We laughed at the drunk sailors nearly our age but boyishly cute and floundering and kidded about taking them home. We marveled at the speed with which the black kids road through the red lights. But we took little notice of the solitary man in his casual zigzagging search for something.
Until he got close. Daringly close. Sociopathically close.
“ You’re too white.” I could feel the droplets of alcoholic saliva hit my face.
Then he lifted his arm and the knife he held.
He flipped open the switch blade before my face.
“You’re too white.”
I was too white. I sunburn easily, that was probably more the reason why I didn’t tan, than any punkish reactionary fashion statement.
“ I can’t help it, I born that way, “ was my stupid response.
“ You’re too white,” the repetition began to make him seem more psychopathic than sociopathic. This was not only the liquor talking, there was something jacked up behind his dulled decision making.
Denise and I had had our own calculated mix of uppers and downers. We were in a delighted, trustful and vulnerable state. We were having fun and it was suddenly being stripped away by one angry black man and the fact that I was too white.
“ You’re too white.” I don’t know if it was the idiocy of his repetition, my drug altered mind or fear, but I smirked. It held back a laugh.
“ Are you laughing at me?” He raised the knife to my throat.
I knew even at that moment that the knife was not held against my throat. Not Danny Mount’s throat. Not my 21 year old throat still smooth as pre-pubescence. It was the throats of all the white teachers that sent him to the principal’s office, all the bus drivers that would let him board, all the white cops who hand cuffed him. I knew also I was not personally responsible “ Black Problem” in America. But I also knew that I was not helping the situation either. I knew I could easily be the innocent victim of a hate crime.
But I didn’t want to be.
I had grown up safely in a white-faced, blue-collared neighborhood where the only point against me was effeminacy. But it was the 70s and androgyny was in, even on the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had coasted through high school lathered with a cool.
Here I was lathered again, but in the sweat of fear this time. Cool had dripped off me and puddled somewhere below where I could not look. I could not look at Denise either whose silence left me feeling very alone. I knew I didn’t deserve to be a sacrifice for all the innocent blacks that died over the last century. But I also knew it would be justified. Eye for an eye. Tit for tat. The way of the world.
Maybe the drugs helped.
Maybe they didn’t.
But I tried a new angle as he pressed the blade against my thumping jugular vein.
Maybe the pack of Pall Malls I smoked that day had helped, lending a husky Tallulah Bankheadishness to my voice. I tried seduction.
Giving in I said, “You’re right, I am too white.”
He was having none of this wishy-washy reverse psychology crap. My agreement with his mantra made him suspicious. He could focus his stare but the blade pressed tighter against my suddenly precious and very white skin.
“ The bus!” Denise finally spoke up.
She was still there I wasn’t alone with this strange man on this god-forsaken street at 3 a.m.
He swirled, maybe he was actually waiting for the bus, his arm and the knife fell to his side.
But not without leaving a zinging dent in my too white skin that lingered even after we got on the bus.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
I wanted to look like a 60s cat burglar, a heroin addict, an Edward Gorey cartoon. Any-thing other than what I was. An unemployed failing college student, from a blue collar neighborhood.
No one was in the apartment but me. My activities were totally secret. I wetted a towel, wrapped a paring knife in it, and wrapped it all with a black garbage bag. Tucked it under my arm and headed out as the sky’s blue began to turn green with night’s approach.
I walked nearly 6 miles, most of it along railroad tracks through the rusty industrial belly of the city. I was merely another shadow among the many. Quiet and oily.
I had let unemployment sneak up on me, nab me that summer. I was liberated and penny-less. Plenty of time to wander, imagine. Even imagine a crime. Then perpetrate it.
I reached the back of Holy Cross cemetery, long after night had fallen. It was darker than I imagined it would be. Nearly impairing my task. I squeezed through a break in the cast iron fence, spiked by Victorians 100 years earlier, to keep gravediggers out. I had noticed this break in the fence a week before, when I walked this same route to my parents house in daylight. I stood among the oldest headstones in the cemetery which were lost in the darkness and knee deep grass. I groped at shadows,a shadow myself until I contacted them.
Hundreds and hundreds of day lilies, naturalized into this neglected corner of the cemetery. I set the plastic bag, removed the wet towel, unrolled it, search for the knife with my hands, my eyes being nearly useless. I fell forward in my grasping for the solid stems of the day lilies and began to cut, and cut and cut. With quick just strokes I search through the blue black night toward the muffled orange of the flowers. And I cut, and cut and cut.
Suddenly spooked by my own weird behavior, I stopped. I gather the 100 stems I cut wrapped them in the wet towel with the knife, and wrapped it all in the plastic bag. I slipped back out of the break in the fence, exhaling a huge breath as if I had just come up for air. This was no doubt a silly crime. Maybe no criminal act at all, though I im-agined myself a thief somehow, even if all I was was stealing were flowers planted years ago on graves that were no longer visited.
I followed an abandoned street car track to where I could catch a bus home. The over-growth on both sides of the track made a dark tunnel in an already dark night. I sped up, nearly galloping to escape the crime scene. My weighty booty, 100 day lilies slung over my shoulder. I understood why criminals ran.
Suddenly my shadow flashed before me, as if a spotlight was blasting me from behind. I turned and saw indeed it was a spot light from the small overpass that workers had taken to the factories in the valley below. Though this light blinded me I could still see someone, a shadow someone not unlike me resting on the railing with a gun pointing toward me.
I know, I know, never turn your back on a gunman.
Yet I turned to find another spotlight coming from the road ahead. I wanted it to feel like a crime, my little flower thievery. I wanted to make a few bucks selling them the next day on a posh city street lined with cafes. I dressed like a cat burglar, in a sort of old time movie way. But I never imagined cops. Guns pointing at me from 2 directions. Mil-waukee cops not known for withholding fire.
“ Drop it.”
I did. The bundle of plastic wrapped day lilies hit the ground with a corpse like thud, re-sounded in an atmosphere from which I could not draw a breath.
“Hands on your head. Walk slowly to the road.”
I did. Wondering why I hadn’t shit my pants. But even more why snitching a few posies from a dilapidated cemetery warranted such a reception.
As I move forward another gun ready cop passed me to check out what I had dropped.
When I reached the road I was pushed up against the squad car.
“Spread your legs.”
One cop held a gun on me while another frisked me. I’d like to remember it as teasingly erotic, but at the time every pore of my body gaped for breath, every cell of my brain questioned. Why all this? Over a few dozen flowers?
“What were you doing back there?” Though the cops were so close I could smell them, their commands and questions remained as disembodied as when they first broke the silence of the bright white light, burning a hole in the darkness. My secret.
I spoke. Did my voice tremble? Were my words rattled with saliva? Did they quaver be-fore a dam of frightful tears?
I lied. Actually, I did not lie. I had no skill at lying. Someone lied for me. Someone inside me who I did not know. “I was cutting flowers for my girlfriend. We had a fight because I’m unemployed. I wanted to make her happy.”
Just then the other cop came back to the car tossed the paring knife, he carried in a gloved hand, on the hood of the car.
“What is it?”
“ Flowers,” he said not without some disappointment.
They took my address. I gave them my parents’ who I knew would be out of town for another 2 weeks. I gave them a girlfriend’s name from high school. Yet I gave then my real name.
And then as if my dopey innocence had drawn on their confidence one of the cops told me, “A guy all dressed in black, just shot a cop a few blocks from here. Less than a hour ago. You nearly got yourself killed.”
“Go get your flowers.” They were still barking orders, as they crawled back into their cars, disappointed.
Before they drove off one of them wished me good luck out the window, as they sped off flashing.I sold the flowers the next day. And read the papers which I rarely did.A cop was shot, not dead but critically. And they never caught the assassin.
And I was never convicted of aiding and abetting. Though my little crime let him get away.
Monday, February 1, 2010
So, a Thursday in late November, after the buffet dinner at my aunt's house. My little sister wasn't with us, but as a preschooler, she wouldn't be. We were to going to visit my father, because it was a holiday, the most family-oriented one of the year. My dad hadn't been with us for the dinner, but we knew where he was, a marked improvement over most of the spells when he wasn't living with us.
My mother and I were driving the brief route from my aunt's house in Santa Fe Springs to the Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk. The Met hospital was a locked down facility for the state's mentally challenged and incapacitated citizens. My dad wasn't one of these, no matter how often my mom might hiss late at night that he was sick, crazy. And unlike the overwhelming majority of residents at the Met's main campus of buildings, my father was not in lock-down, or held against his will. Rather, he had enrolled himself for a volunteer stay into a building on the outer edge of the hospital's grassy, tree-filled acres: a place deemed Cider House, for men struggling with addictions, namely alcohol. The Cider House building was an actual house, a tall two-storied, flat-fronted sort of saltbox, with a peaked roof of dark wood. There was a fire escape of stairs from a second story door, but the house looked charming to me, old-fashioned, compared to the pastel stucco houses of our own neighborhood, and it seemed homey, especially in the twilight hours of this Thanksgiving, when there was finally a slight chill in the air and even a hint of woodsmoke.
Inside the Cider House was a men's world as manly as any exclusive club lounge. It was dim and there were televisions on, and already someone had tacked up a hopeful string of Christmas lights around the doorway between one sitting room and another. For that was evidently the main occupation of the men at Cider House: sitting around, waiting. Hours to spend, without a drink. One Day at A Time, and all that. I already knew about all that. There was cigarette smoke in the high rafters, smoke in the tattered tired sofas, cigarette burns in the massive console television in one room, burns and coffee cup rings on the low table before the portable TV in another. The men were polite, the men were quiet and respectful and seemed not a little abashed to be seen here on this holiday by an attractive mother and her adolescent daughter. The same could be said about my father, himself.
Still, there was a sense of openness, of generosity, queries if we were hungry, for there was still plenty of food to be had: coffee, pumpkin pie, the rich dark brown aroma of long-simmered barbecue baked beans. There was a brief tour: here, the sitting areas and their motley TV's, here was the dormitory, rows and rows of plain beds where, like the famous little girls in the French convent, they brushed their teeth and went to bed.
There was alone time, precious on this day. Hello how are you, how is school, how is work, your little sister. Perfunctory words to to glaze over moments, chafing all of us in the worn leather chairs. A joke: my dad handed us a cup, a coffee mug that he had molded, painted and glazed in some unimaginable Craft Hour, some therapeutic working of clay by men unable to quite make the shape of their outside lives fit the mold, take a sturdy and useful permanent shape. The joke, from me, the smart-ass cracker of jokes learned at the knee of the professional wise-ass himself: What's next, Daddy? Basket weaving on the lawn? And then the sought-after chuckle, the wry twist, as another cigarette was lit. Everyone in their places, everyone in their roles. All is right after all, within our small unit, behind a chain-link fence and the guard booth at the parking lot entrance off Bloomfield Avenue. Not many years later, my dad would work as a bartender again right down the same wide, industrial road, driving past the same long chain link fences each late afternoon and later evening, going to and from another job of pouring drinks, being a wise-ass. Decades later, the mug with its painted desert sunset glaze remains in the hall closet of my parents home, holding dry pens and lost keys.
On this Thursday evening, the twilight giving way to the sudden dark of late autumn, my mother and I said our goodbyes and crossed our arms for warmth as we returned to the Pinto. Into a crack on the dashboard, my mother had stuck a metal button: I Used to Be Disgusted, But Now I'm Just Amused. I don't remember the words we spoke as we passed by the guard, passed through the gates and sat at a traffic light. But, this: the oldies station, K-RTH, playing the Beatles “All You Need is Love.” Right, my mother breathed out slowly, as we merged back into the sparse stream of holiday traffic.
By Kelly Shire
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Her placid face was that of an angel’s, not like one of a live, squirming, fussy baby, pinched in hunger or glowing with wonder. I looked at the girl, quiet in death, and understood why man believes in heaven, the afterlife, or reincarnation. The thought of something so beautiful and pure floating into nothingness is not something we want to understand. I imagine the man holding the baby thinks heaven is a farce as I did when I held my own lost infant. No, I had thought, the world is unfair and cruel. And no one could convince me otherwise.
Cruel and unfair, until I looked at Ada. Cruel and unfair to take her away, but miraculous to have given her to me in the first place. Forever I was tied to middle.