Unemployed Again

Unemployed Again

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Christmas Story

When I was 14, I worked in a convalescent hospital.

I was too young to legally work, but the word about town was that St. Catherine’s was so desperate for Candy Stripers that they would look the other way. All of my friends jumped on this opportunity, and the best part of that job was that we were all together.

I remember the staff asking me for my social security number, and I had no idea what that was. “I’ll have to call you back,” I told them, then ran to ask my big sister. “Just make it up,” she counseled me. “It’s three numbers, then two, then four.” Her words were reassuring, and I got the job.

My friends were all hired as Candy Stripers, and wore red and white striped pinafores, like candy canes. Candy Stripers were underage girls hired to attend to all of the patient’s needs. To me, the name “Candy Striper” and the duties they performed had a ring of prostitution about it, and I didn’t like the idea at all. Not to mention, I have always been squeamish about nursing. I don’t have that nurture bone that makes it palatable to clean up feces and sponge bodies; and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.

So instead, I asked if I could work in the kitchen. And I was the only person who did.

I’ll never forget my first day of work. I was met at the door with a time card, and was shown how to “punch in.” It was very mechanical; the whir of the machine as it spit out my card with a blue ink time stamp upon it. It felt robotic. I felt robotic.

The smell was overwhelming. It was a noxious odor that was a combination of medicine and vomit; cleanser and urine. I was led down the hall to sign my paperwork, and I was suddenly accosted by a patient; an elderly lady who was sneering and hissing at me as I walked by. Suddenly she grabbed the back of my collar and pulled me toward her. She stood there posed like a fragile gorilla; arms outstretched as if about to pounce, exposed white legs covered in blue veins, her mouth angry. “For you, my dear,” she said in a guttural malevolent way, and then she squatted over my shoes and urinated.

I’m not sure if I was more horrified or terrified.

“The bathroom is right there,” said the nurse who was leading me toward my destination. “You can clean your shoes.” She was so matter-of-fact, that I wanted to scream, is that all I get? That woman peed on me! I wanted sympathy; but there would be none of that.

I rounded the corner to the bathroom and was stopped by another elderly woman in the hallway. “Last payment on the welfare check,” she told me. I nodded impatiently, and she continued. “Yep, it’s the very last payment. The LAST payment of the welfare check.” In the coming months, I would learn that this was all she said. Over and over. All day long.

Once my shoes were clean and my paperwork signed, which included my false social security number, I was led to the kitchen. I was introduced to my boss; a very tidy woman, with pert lips and a perpetually tight neck. She was a nutritionist; and she went on to instruct me on how to prepare the food. Before each meal, the carts would be wheeled into the kitchen, which were bright silver and all metal. The carts were bunk bed style, and came with about fifty trays per cart in rows which went about as high as I could reach. On each tray was a patient’s name, their food requests, requirements and restrictions. Each meal I would aid her in preparation; the regular patients got things like meatloaf, mash potatoes and frozen peas. A few could even request wine with their dinner, which was served in tiny wine bottles with a plastic wine glass. But many patients couldn’t eat this or that, and we had to prepare a variety of dishes. The worst were the Mechanical Soft patients, who could only drink liquid. For those patients, I would normally just throw the meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas in a blender and serve it to them as a meaty milkshake.

My other job was to wash the dishes. I would stand before the industrialized size stainless steel sinks, and a steady stream of trays would come toward me, moving on a conveyer belt. Each plate was capped off with a white marbled plastic lid. I would remove the lid, wash that and the plate under hot water, and then put it into a big washer that would slide it through like a car wash. It was hot, and I would always sweat as I performed this particular task. I didn’t so much mind doing the dishes, but the patients would often leave me little surprises under the white marbled lids. A pile of feces was their favorite gift to me. But a pool of vomit was an equally popular donation.

When I finished with the dishes, I would have to count all the trays, and if I was short, I’d have to roam the hospital and look for them. I remember entering one woman’s room, and I was pleased when I spotted the one missing tray and the white marbled lid on her bed stand. “Good evening Mrs. Wilson,” I said, as I walked in to retrieve it.

“Good evening,” she said in a wicked voice that made me shudder. Then she pulled up her white nightgown, and began extracting bits of salad from her vagina and tossing it in my direction. She was screaming pejoratives as she did this; it was like a scene from the Exorcist. I ran from that room as if I was a soldier running from shrapnel, ducking the pellets that were flung toward my head and the few that landed square on my cheek.

I thought of it like an insane asylum. And I hated every single second of every single day there.

But I had it easy compared to my friends, who were forced to deal with the patients all day long, as well as wash the bodies of the dead, and prepare them for pick up. My best friend begged me to stay in the room with her the first time she did it; as she was so frightened. I’ll never forget the thud as she turned the dead man over to wash him, and revealed his back which looked like raw red meat, and was covered in bruises, scabs and blood. “HE’S ROTTING!” I almost choked. The smell was putrid. “WHAT IS THAT?” I screamed. But she knew what it was, as part of her job was to give sponge baths, and had seen them regularly.

“Bed sores,” she whispered. I was often educated during my tenure there. And the sound of ambulances in the parking lot was the lullaby by which I worked.

There were three levels of patients there. Group One consisted of patients who were almost comatose; sitting in wheel chairs or lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and without any recognition of the world around them. We rarely needed to tend to them at all; only the doctors and nurses fed and bathed them. Group Two were the patients that the Candy Stripers and I would deal with the most; the ones who hid salad in their crotch and like to urinate on young girl’s shoes. They were by far the most difficult, and it was a regular occurrence to see one of the Candy Stripers in the lunch room in tears.

But it was Group Three that broke my heart every single day.

The patients in Group Three, to me, didn’t look as if they belonged there. They looked like someone’s jolly grandmother or grandfather; wise and lucid, laughing with crinkly eyes that would light up anyone’s soul. Whether it would through circumstance or poverty, the reason they lived there I never knew. And most disturbing to me, was that few of them ever had visitors from the outside; and it would always be a big deal if they did. “Mrs. White is having her daughter here today,” I would be told. “Put some flowers on her tray, would you?” It always made me happy when the visitors came, but these occasions were rare.

Group Three would dine in the dining hall, which was right outside the kitchen where I spent most of my day.

It was Christmas Eve and I’d been forced to work. I remember being resentful, and I had done everything humanly possible to be excused. I would need to work until 9 p.m., and would miss many of the festive Eve traditions that my family would do at home. But the management made it clear; either work that day, or lose my job. So I went.

I remember that the dinner was a little more special that evening. The nutritionist and I roasted many turkeys in the gigantic ovens, and I was busy preparing stuffing and cranberry sauce. They had piped Christmas Carols through the entire building, and I was singing as I worked; and I was determined to still find my spirit in a situation that was less than optimal for me. We had dozens of pecan pies ordered; and they came in piles in big pink boxes. This wouldn’t be so bad, I thought to myself.

I remember swinging open the two sided kitchen doors and running into the dining room to set the table. I saw around the corner the community room, and I smiled to myself as I took in a moment to drink in the Christmas tree that the staff had put there. But it wasn’t the tree that kept my attention; rather it was the sight I saw below the tree.

I saw two of the Group Three patients sitting in their wheel chairs in front of the tree, holding hands. I had never seen any physical interaction between the patients whatsoever; and the sight of it held me spellbound and curious.

I dropped the pile of napkins I was carrying and walked over to where they sat. They were both smiling broadly; their eyes crinkling like Santa Claus; and they were holding hands so tight that their fingers were red.

“Merry Christmas,” I said, tapping the man quickly on his hand.

“Merry Christmas, my dear!” he answered enthusiastically. “And what a magical night it is!” I looked around at the gray room, and breathed in the familiar rancid smell, and could barely muster a smile. I couldn’t fathom how this man could be happy; not in the situation that he was in.

“Yes, it is,” I answered weakly.

“And I’ve got my best girl at my side,” he said, squeezing and shaking the woman’s hand in the air. “And she’s my Christmas Sugar Plum.” With all of his might, he struggled and leaned toward her and kissed her on the lips. He was shaking almost violently as he did so. She giggled like a girl and laid her head on his shoulder. “Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to sit next to Mrs. Roth at supper,” he continued. “And it was love at first sight, I tell you. Love at first sight.”

“Oh, you do go on, Mr. Jenkins,” the woman giggled, snuggling into his white issued nightgown.

“I’ll shout it to the rooftops Mrs. Roth!” he yelled, and then laughed so robust he could have been Santa Claus himself. I smiled but neither of them were looking at me; they only had eyes for each other. Without a sound, I went back into the dining room and continued setting the table.

But it wasn’t the last I’d hear from Mr. Jenkins that evening.

I was preparing the trays for Group Three which be served in the dining room that evening. I always had to check each patient’s card, which spelled out their meal requests and restrictions, to make certain they were given what they wanted, and were not given what they couldn’t have. On Mr. Jenkins card, under the category for alcohol, he had circled the word “wine” in thick red felt pen, about a dozen times, until the circle of urgent red took up half the card. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was a big red arrow pointing to the circle. Just to make sure I wouldn’t miss it. It made me laugh.

But I was sad, too, as Mr. Jenkins was not allowed any alcohol in his diet. “Mr. Jenkins is requesting wine tonight,” I said to the nutritionist.

“Well, he knows he’s not allowed alcohol. That is the worst possible thing for his condition. Go out and tell him that he can’t have any,” she instructed me.

I walked despondently out of the kitchen and back to the Christmas tree where the happy couple still sat. I didn’t want to interrupt them again.

“Mr. Jenkins,” I said. “Sorry to disturb you. But you requested wine tonight and that is not on your diet. I just wanted to let you know we can’t give it to you.”

I never expected what came next.

He lingered for a few seconds more on his lady’s blushing face, and then turned to me with a look that meant business.

“I want you to listen to me, dear, are you listening?” he said. His eyes pierced into mine.


“I’m 86 years old. I have no living family or children. It is Christmas Eve. I am dying. I am in love. Are you listening?”


Then he motioned for me to come closer. He beckoned me with one bony finger, and continued to beckon me until my ear was right to his mouth. “So, if I want some god damn wine, I’ll have some god damn wine, do you hear me?”

“I understand,” I answered. “But I’m not allowed. I can’t.”

He took his hand and gripped my arm as tight as he could. “You CAN,” he said sternly. There was a pause. Then he whispered, with as much passion as I’ve ever heard in my life, “Please.” I stood up and stared into his eyes for several seconds. There was a world of conversation held captive in that stare; a monument of understanding.

That night, I told my boss that Mrs. Roth and Mr. Jenkins had requested to eat in the courtyard alone, rather than dine with the other patients in the Dining Hall. “They’ll freeze,” my boss said, in an annoyed tone. “But I don’t have time to argue. Take a couple of T.V. trays, will you, and wheel them out?”

I nodded.

Her annoyance at this request was like looking in a mirror, and my soul filled with guilt and remorse at how I had felt about these people since I began work there. They weren’t people to me. They were just problems.

I chastised myself for my heartlessness. But just as quickly, I began to forgive myself. I knew I had distanced myself from feeling compassion, because down deep the entire place was more depressing than I had tools to bear. It wasn’t that I couldn’t feel; the problem was, I felt too much. And it was time to give myself permission to feel.

That night I wheeled Mrs. Roth and Mr. Jenkins to the chilly courtyard, which was strung up with Christmas lights. “You two will have dinner out here tonight, okay?” I said as I grabbed several blankets from the linen closet and draped them over both of them, so they were snuggled in together. They nodded enthusiastically.

Then I brought them their trays and their roast turkey. I had carried the trays right from the kitchen, so there was no wine on the trays. When I put the trays down, Mr. Jenkins just stared at them. His disappointment was so palatable that it brought a lump to my throat. He looked up at me with eyes that screamed his anguish; eyes which asked me why. “I’ll be right back Mr. Jenkins,” was all I needed to say. I gave him a knowing look. He didn’t need to speak, he only nodded and smiled.

I went back to the dining room and grabbed a full carafe of wine off one of the tables, along with two plastic wine glasses.

I hurried down the hall, as if I was a burglar escaping the scene of a crime. My heart was in my throat as I rushed past the nurse’s station, carrying the carafe as low as I could so no one would see.

When I reached the courtyard, they were kissing. I felt my eyes fill with tears, and I waited for them to finish. I placed the wine carafe and glasses between the wheel chairs, beneath the blankets. “My shift is over, I’m going home. I hope you have a merry evening,” I said, winking at Mr. Jenkins.

“Indeed we shall,” he said winking back. And then in a whisper he mouthed the words, “thank you.”

When I walked out that evening, I worried for a moment, wondering what would happen when the inevitable discovery of the wine carafe occurred later that evening. I tried to comfort myself with the notion that perhaps it wouldn’t be noticed; that it would just be swept up with the rest of the dirty dishes, and carried into the kitchen without raising an eyebrow. But I also worried that when the wine carafe was found, I would be found out as well, and I would lose my job. But the worry only lasted a moment.

I walked out of the hospital and stared into a night sky filled with Christmas stars. And suddenly I didn’t care. It had all been worth it.

It was a Silent Night that night. All was calm, and all was very bright.
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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Why I Believe in Santa Claus

I have always been giddy about Christmas. Since the moment I realized that Christmas existed, the season has energized me in a way I can scarcely explain. For an entire month, I feel like a child with my nose pressed against the windowpane, staring into a snowy landscape of inexplicable joy.

I know it doesn't fill me because of religion, or because of Paganism. Or because of the conglomeration of traditions and rituals that dozens of cultures bring to the holiday. Its roots spread out farther than the strongest tree, and each root contributes its own piece to a culmination that is different to so many people. There are countless cultures, faiths, ethnicities and societies that have contributed to the modern concept of Christmas, but that’s not why I love Christmas.

I know it’s none of those things that make me love Christmas, but I do know it’s because of all of those reasons. I love the risqué and utterly hedonistic undertones that the Pagans lent us; both riotous and lusty, which still makes Christmas feel so merry. I love the reverence that the Church brought to us; the somber and haunting elegance, the Christmas Carols, and the undeniable charm. The magical, dark and joyous conglomeration of what Christmas is. Whatever the hell it is, I love it. And I believe the reason I love it, is the sense of wonderment and awe that was inspired in my tiny soul, when I was barely old enough to understand that Christmas existed. And that stupefaction, I believe, was inspired by my grandmother.

My Grandmother was the Grand Dame of story telling.

Gogo, as we called her, had a keen imagination. Until she died, she mesmerized us with long detailed stories about anything from her history to the fantastical. We were told about World War II in London, England; how she and my mother were so tired of spending their days in the dark, damp bomb shelters, or in their house with the curtains drawn, that one night they decided to brave the streets and go to the movie theater. That night, not only was the back of the theater bombed, but when they returned home, their house had been as well. “If we hadn’t gone to the movies that evening, you all wouldn’t be here, Duckies,” she’d explain in her thick cockney accent. And she would tell the story in such detail, that some nights I felt as if I had been there. I could smell the rancid margarine they were given to eat on rations, and I could taste the cold tea. I could hear the whistles of the bombs as they fell from the sky, and then the dreaded silence, only seconds before they detonated. I could feel the explosion all around me.

But those aren’t the only stories that Gogo told. Gogo believed in the spiritual, the unexplained, the paranormal, and about everything else odd that you might imagine. And in turn, we believed it too. The combination of the fact that she believed in these things herself, combined with her breathtaking narrative, imprinted these ideas in our minds as truth.

Gogo told us about poltergeists; an entity she really did believe in. When we’d be around her, strange things would always seem to be happening; things would disappear then reappear in the oddest places. It always frightened me, and sometimes I would cry. “Don’t worry Duckie,” she’d tell me. “The Poltergeists are mischievous, but they won’t hurt you. When you encounter one, just count your blessings, and let it bring you comfort. Because they give us proof that there is more to this world than we can imagine.”

She would also tell us yarns about ghosts and being visited by her dead relatives; but this wasn’t fantasy, to her this was all true. “My brother just visited me in my bedroom,” she’d tell me. “Look ducky, you can still see the imprint on the blankets where he sat beside me. Don’t be silly, of course a dent that perfect could not be made any other way. When he sat, I could feel his weight, tugging at my top sheet.

She told us once about a Flying Saucer which had flown right over her head, as she was sipping on tea on her porch. She described in dizzying detail every single facet of what she saw; the way the air smelled when it passed overhead, similar to that strange metallic smell right after a rain. She told us how its enormity covered the sky and appeared to eclipse the sun; she described how  theforce of its velocity blew back her hair, and the wake of its tremendous wind nearly pushed her over. “Of course I didn’t imagine it, Ducky. I saw it as clearly as I see you right now.”

Gogo also had out-of-body experiences. They always began in the twilight between sleep and awake, she explained, when her body would begin to violently shake. Suddenly she would hear a sort of a pop, and she’d find herself free of her physical restraints. She would rise slowly to the ceiling, until she could see every speck of dust and fragment of cobweb only inches from her eyes. Then after years of practice, she was able to push herself through the ceiling and into the world. Eventually she could go anywhere she wanted. “I visited my sister last night in England; I did you know. I could see the frock she was wearing; it was brown plaid cotton. She was making herself a cup of tea, and I kept touching her, and she would swat the air like a fly. This morning I called her, and I told her I liked her new brown dress, and she almost fell over, Duckies. Because she didn’t know how I knew.”

She believed it all, and we did as well. So when she began to stretch the truth a little, and tell us stories about fairies, especially one little fairy named Joey who lived in our fireplace, I had no reason to doubt her. The stories she told us about Joey were as complicated and as full of imagery as any of stories. But she also would provide physical evidence that Joey existed; if one of our toys broke, for instance, all we needed to do was leave it in the fireplace for Joey to fix. And sure enough, when we awoke the next day, our damaged toys were good as new, and sitting in the fireplace.

So when Gogo told us about Santa Claus, she did it in such a magical way it was clearly plausible. Santa was as real to me as Hitler was in World War II.

We weren’t given the American version of Santa Claus. The corpulent white man in the cheap red suit wasn’t a part of my upbringing. Father Christmas was somebody that Charles Dickens might describe; a cross between a hippie, and the God of Wine, Bacchus. He was tall, gaunt; with long flowing hair. In fact, I think he had a little bit of Jesus in him. He wore a Victorian crown of mistletoe and holly; and he wore tattered velvet suits of red and green; his shoulders were dusted with perpetual snow. I preferred his solemn sweetness to the other Santa Claus’ obtuse jolliness. I loved his wise Victorian manner; I loved the winter plants that wound around his forehead; I loved the cane with which he walked.

Of course we weren’t spared a single solitary incredible detail. How his leather boots were a bit charred, because he wore them too close to the fire. How he had a burn on his green velvet sleeve, from an accident with a bit of soot. How his brown satchel, tied up with brown twine, could hold enough presents for all the children in the world. And how, exactly, this sorcerer, this magical elf, possessed the powers that he did; and how Santa came to be.

My grandmother would have never been so silly as to try and pass off a department store Santa as the real Santa. We would never have fallen for that rouse; we saw their plastic boots and synthetic beards, and we couldn’t fathom how other children believed such nonsense. Those charlatans, we were told, were just men hired by the stores to pose as Santa Claus, to sell merchandise. We also knew that the slightly drunken fool that appeared at various holiday parties wasn’t Santa either. Santa was dressed in real velvet and fur and leather; and he was an elf. No taller than four feet. He wouldn’t look like a man, she explained. He would look like a mythical creature; something we’d never seen before.

But we would never see Santa.

When we would ask her how she knew for sure that none of those imposters were the real Santa, she explained it was because no one had ever seen the real Santa. He existed only in legends and stories; passed down by elves and Santa himself. Even if you tried, you’d never catch a glimpse of the real Santa, because the moment you opened your eyes to try and catch him, he’d disappear. And this mystery made it all the more spectacular.

Just as most of my friends were told, Santa came down the chimney and filled the stockings that the children had hung there on Christmas Eve. But in our house, Santa would come and bring them to our individual beds, and would lay them across our sleeping feet. Just knowing that Santa would be in my very bedroom that night was more excitement than my heart could stand.

But the oddest tradition we had, was there was absolutely no sign of Christmas in the house when we went to bed on Christmas Eve. There wasn’t a tree; there wasn’t as much as a wreath or poinsettia. There was nothing; not a stitch of anything that would remind anyone that it was Christmas Eve. And when we hung our stockings in the bare room on the night before Christmas, it was a simple and strange event; almost haunting and unreal. The anticipation of it all would make my heart beat so fast, I could hardly catch my breath.

But that was nothing compared to what it was like in the morning.

We’d awaken to feel the weight of our laden stockings, which had been laid across our ankles. With every slight movement we’d make with our legs, the stocking would shift, and the paper on the packages would rustle and crunch. I would always reach down first with my eyes closed; I liked to peruse the contents of my stocking first utterly blind, with only my fingertips. It didn’t much matter what was in those packages; only that a magical elf had visited me in the night and left them. And when at last I would open my eyes to see the colorfully wrapped packages in Christmas colors, it felt as though a little fairy dust had been sprinkled on my shoulders.

Then when all the presents were open, and I was sitting in bed surrounded by torn paper and presents, it was time to creep downstairs.

Of course the reality was I was being knocked over by my older brother and sister. My brother would step on me to get downstairs first. But in my own mind, I was silently creeping; slowly; almost too afraid to take it all in.

I was afraid to look, because as we slept, dreaming of sugar plums and the rest, something miraculous had happened. Something magical and unbelievable.

The naked house which was devoid of any Christmas spirit had been transformed overnight. By fairies. There was fairy dust in front of the fireplace. There was fairy dust on the stairwell. There was fairy dust on the presents.

A fully decorated tree had appeared as we slept, and was surrounded by every bit of garland, tinsel, trim, and Christmas joy that a child could possibly imagine. Everything sparkled and shimmied; lights danced everywhere, Christmas music filled the room, and the smell of mincemeat pie wafted from the kitchen. Santa had come. He’d really come. He’d really been here. And with the help of dozens of busy fairies, Christmas had come to our house.

I hardly remember any of the presents I ever got, only a few stand out in my mind. What lingers is that feeling; that thrilling and enchanting joy, where I knew for one day that all I needed to do was believe, and I would discover that the world was truly a magical place, filled with miracles.

Since that time, my life has taken many devilish turns. I wouldn’t say I’ve become jaded, but I’ve adopted a healthy wallop of cynicism over the years, and I am sometimes filled with doubt and mistrust. But when I see the first Christmas lights go up on my block, or when I sing Christmas carols or decorate the evergreen I just fetched in the cold, all of that goes away. I am suddenly that child again, with my nose pressed against the windowpane, staring into a snowy landscape of inexplicable joy. I am once again transported back to a time when I believed that life was both a marvel and a phenomenon; to a time when I trusted the world and everything and everyone in it.

And that is why I love Christmas.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gun To My Temple

I was fast asleep, dreaming the dreams of the innocent. I was 13 years old.

But something interrupted my dream. I awoke when I felt a cold metal object being shoved with some urgency into my temple.

It was a gun.

I have always been an extremely light sleeper. With even the slightest unwelcome sound, I can go from a dream state to completely alert in a flash. A simple sigh in the corner of my room can startle me. So feeling icy steel press against my temple awoke me with a start.

I had never seen a gun, much less felt one, but somehow I knew for certain that it was a gun being pressed against my head. I was utterly frozen with fear. I laid there with my eyes closed, my breathing was shallow. I tried not to swallow; I tried not to make a sound.

I heard the gun being cocked. I recognized the sound from television; that horrid lifeless click that readies the gun for release.

I opened my eye into an imperceptible slit, and I could see a man’s pinky finger hanging languidly next to my cheek. It was adorned with a bright gold ring that sported a jewel of some sort; possibly a diamond. It was a man’s hand, of that I was sure. I had never seen such a fancy ring on a man’s hand before. His other fingers were curled around a metal handle. I could see a finger on the trigger.

The steel was shoved harder into my temple. I could feel my heart beating in my throat; I was certain that my pulsing veins were visible. I prepared myself for death, or even worse; torture.  I waited.

I had always been a weary child; I was terrified that one day I would be kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. I would run from a car if I saw a man driving it; and black cars especially terrified me, because that was the color of the car of a kidnapper who took a child in my neighborhood, when I was five. Black cars and strange men spoke to me of unspeakable horrors; and I vowed to do what ever I needed to do to never get caught in a predator’s web. Each day when I came home from school, I would check the entire house thoroughly; I would check behind the shower curtain, in every closet, and in every possible hiding place for an intruder. It was a ritual I did every day before I could settle down in my own home. It was as if I had always known a terrible time was coming, and here it was.

Suddenly the man bellowed with laughter. I sprung upright and leapt from my bed in an instant, and saw my sister’s boyfriend standing in my dark bedroom, a revolver in his hand. The gleam of the silver pistol looked luminous in the moonlight and only that and his teeth showed up in the dark. “What are you doing?” I choked. While I felt relieved that I knew my midnight intruder, I hardly felt safe. I didn’t trust this man, not even a little bit. He laughed again.

“Do you like my gun?” he asked me.
“No,” was all I said. I was shaking like a leaf.

He flicked on my bedroom light. “Check it out baby. It’s a Ruger Redhawk, cocked and ready. Pretty cool, huh?”

“No. You scared me.”

“And check out my new ring baby!” he said, wiggling his pinky in my direction. It was the same finger I had seen dangling near my cheek when he held the gun to my head. “That diamond must be a carat at least. Ever seen anything like it?”

“No. Where did you get it?”

“Get up! Get up!” he screamed excitedly, “You’ll want to see this.” And in a moment he was hollering and shouting and turning on all the lights in the house. He was bellowing for my sister to wake up; she was still fast asleep. Unlike me, my sister slept like the dead. He entered her room and started shaking her, while singing a Rolling Stones song as loud as he could. Finally I heard her sleepy voice, asking him what he was doing. He could hardly contain himself; he sounded like a little boy on Christmas morning, anxious for us to share in his bounty from Santa Claus.

It was only my sister and I in the house; there was no adult supervision. When I was close to being a teenager, my Dad decided he couldn’t tolerate living with two girls in their teens. “I know what goes on with girls your age,” he would often tell us, and frankly I didn’t know what he was talking about. It felt as though he was accusing me of doing something I wasn’t doing; it was as though we were suddenly bad girls, and he could no longer tolerate us. My father decided to build a new house for the family, but this time he built two houses; one for my mother and him, and the other for my sister and me. They were completely separate units, with a courtyard in the middle.

Our unit had no kitchen, but most everything else we might want. We each had our own room, and shared a living room and bathroom. It was the early 70’s, and the room had a water bed that served as a couch, a black and white television, and a good stereo. The rug was a thick white shag carpet; a popular look in the day, and we had a hanging wicker chair, and multitudes of hanging plants in macramé plant holders.

I never felt safe there. While I was only in 8th grade, my sister was a senior in High School, and once her friends caught wind that we had our own place, it became the hang out for seemingly every young person in a ten mile radius. Since we never locked our doors, the kids would gather there even if we weren’t home; and I would often come home from school to a living room filled with older kids, smoking marijuana and drinking beer. There were days I would long to come home to an empty house; perhaps turn on the television and have some cookies and milk. But instead I was faced daily by a rowdy scene; raucous music, drinking games, and unruly behavior.

One of their favorite things to do was to torture our pet rat. They began by blowing pot smoke into his cage, until he went insane; he would no longer stay in his cage and would roam the house looking for marijuana. If he found a bag, he’d eat right through the plastic baggy, seemingly addicted to the stuff. They also liked putting him in the freezer and leaving him in there almost too long, or putting him in a hanging plant, and twisting the macramé around and around until it was wound up tight, then releasing it and laughing as the rat went for a dizzying ride. I hated it. Even more, I hated that we had no parents present to stop some of the behavior, especially when it seemed dangerous to me. And it often did. But I never let on how afraid I was, and began partying with the older kids, which was much too soon.

My sister’s boyfriend had begun to have his fun with me on a daily basis. His favorite game was to lie in wait for me in the bathroom. Everyone knew that I got up several times in the night to use the bathroom, and he would hide in the shadows; usually behind the shower curtain. And when I’d come in sleepy with my eyes half shut, he would pounce on top of me, and would do everything he could to feel me up. His hands would be everywhere; down my pajama pants and up my shirt. If I were to complain, he’d shove me up against the wall and put his hand over my mouth. Then he’d whisper deep into my ear, and the sound would make me cringe. “You don’t want your sister to hear us, do you? Don’t you think it would hurt her feelings if she knew how much I wanted you?” He would hold me there until I nodded, and then he’d release me. Then he’d laugh silently and allow me return to my bed.

This became a nightly ritual. I was very developed for my age, and I began to wear bras and panties to bed, underneath my pajamas. I would do anything to create one more barrier between his wandering hands and me. But that didn’t stop him. Eventually I began to go into the back yard to go to the bathroom. But he was a light sleeper too, and the minute he heard movement in my bedroom, he’d find me. My sister, on the other hand, slept through anything.

One night I was sneaking out to go the bathroom. I opened the front door as quietly as I could, and I dashed into the night. I hovered in the darkness, looking for a corner of the yard in the shadows, when I felt his arm grab me by the neck. His breath was in my ear; it smelled of beer. “I love you, don’t you realize that yet?”

“Please, please, please leave me alone.”

“I can’t. You’re all I think about, night and day. I want you so bad. But you can’t tell your sister. You don’t want to hurt her, do you?”

“No. Please let me go back to bed. I won’t say anything. Please.”

He let me go.

He terrified me. So on the night he held a gun to my head, I really couldn’t be sure of what his intentions might be. And even by the time my sister finally awoke and crawled out of bed, my heart was still thumping loudly in my chest. I had never seen him as erratic as he was that night, turning on every light in the house, and yelling excitedly, as he began to move a large array of items through our front door. I walked into the living room and watched him; he had radios, stereos, jewelry, records; I can’t remember all that he had, but he began piling it into the center of the room, all the while talking excitedly.

“Look at this stereo, baby!” he said to me, patting its sides. “Is this a beautiful machine or what? Huh?”

My sister emerged from her bedroom, rubbing her eyes and hardly conscious. It always took her forever to wake up and I could tell she wasn’t really registering what was going on. She finally asked, “What is all of this stuff?”

“We ripped off a house, baby, we ripped off a house! And we scored BIG time. Look at this ring; that’s a diamond. Check it out! Man, it was a rush. What a night! We cleaned those suckers OUT!”

My sister stared dumbfounded. Then she woke up. “ARE YOU TELLING ME YOU ROBBED A HOUSE?” She yelled this, and I felt relieved; she was the closest thing to an adult that I had. I needed some guidance; I needed a firm hand. I needed someone to yell.

“Yeah, baby, don’t get all uptight on me now,” he said, and then he went over and languidly kissed her neck.

She pushed him away. Hard. Unlike I could ever do.

“DON’T TOUCH ME,” she screamed. “And I want this stuff out of my house NOW.”

“Hey baby, where am I supposed to take it? My Dad is a COP,” he said laughing, appreciating the irony of the situation. “I have to stash it here for awhile.”

“NO!” my sister screamed, and her voice meant business. “YOU’RE TAKING IT BACK.”

“Taking what back?” he asked.

“YOU’RE TAKING IT BACK TO THE HOUSE WHERE YOU GOT IT FROM,” she said. By now she was fuming.

“But look at this stereo! Is that fine, or what? I was going to give it to you, baby!”

My sister walked over to where the stereo was lying in the middle of the floor. We both stared at it. It was stunningly beautiful; the owner had encased it in a striking wooden case, which had obviously been handcrafted. Each detail was perfect. My sister broke into tears.

“Someone made this!” she sobbed. “Someone made this wood case! Someone spent hours and hours on this! They made this with love! And you just go and STEAL it? YOU MAKE ME SICK. You take it all back or I don’t want to ever see you again!”

“How can I take it back?” he asked. “You want me to break in again? I was lucky I didn’t get caught the first time!”

“Then leave it on the porch. Leave it at the front door. I don’t care, but YOU’RE TAKING IT BACK RIGHT NOW.”

I had never seen him look so sheepish. And he did take it all back. In my life, I have often wondered what it must have been like for those people; to come home to find everything valuable they owned on their front porch.

I was mesmerized by how she handled the situation; she had a force that I did not have. She had a strength that I did not have. And that night after he returned from taking back his loot, I heard them arguing for hours in bed, and he doing everything in his power to charm his way back into her good grace. And eventually he did.

After that night, he seemed to change his tactics with me. While he still told me he loved me daily, he began to treat me more like a big brother might, or even a father; he began to pay an inordinate amount of attention to me. He would always ask me what was going on in my life; he would listen to me drone on and on about all of my problems, and he always seemed interested and willing to help. I never really trusted him, but I began to confide in him little by little, and just like my sister, he began to charm himself back into my good graces.

I was very much in love with a young boy in my class, named Barry. Our relationship was innocent and sweet; and even at that tender age he was romancing me. He brought me a dozen red roses to class one day, and had recently even bought me a gorgeous opal ring. Up until that point, I had never really trusted any man. But I trusted Barry with all of my heart, and although I wasn’t ready for anything too sexual yet, we had begun experimenting a little. My sister’s boyfriend would press me for details, and would warn me all about young boys and their hormones, and what they REALLY wanted. “He loves me,” I’d tell him. “He would never pressure me. Besides, neither of us is even CLOSE to ready.”

“Well, if he does pressure you, you come and tell me, okay? And I’ll put him in his place,” my sister’s boyfriend would say. I began to believe that he really might have my best interests at heart, and since my step-father never spoke to me in a protective way, I began to crave what I believed was love.

It was a few weeks later when we were all at a party a few blocks from home. Our friend Kim didn’t have much adult supervision either, and on this night a rather wild party was going on at her house. I was sitting in the backyard when my sister’s boyfriend came over and began talking to me.

We were joking and laughing, and he was trying to wrestle with me. I never enjoyed when he’d become physical with me; he was a huge boy and on the football team. But on this night, he wouldn’t stop.

Suddenly he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder.

I didn’t want to make a fuss, so I laughingly asked him to put me down. But he didn’t. He headed out of the back yard and started walking down the dimly lit street. I kicked and screamed, still laughing, but as he continued his march down the street into the darkness, I became afraid. “Put me down,” I said sternly. “I mean it.” But my commentary was only met with silence, which filled me with dread.

“PUT ME DOWN, LET ME GO!” I wailed. But he was like an android, marching every forward, without ever acknowledging me at all.

The beach was only a block and a half away, and soon I could hear the crashing waves and feel the salt on my lips. He climbed over some rocks that blocked our entrance, all the while holding me in a tight grip, and not saying a word. When he reached the sand, he threw me down and climbed on top of me. I began to sob. “GET OFF ME; LET ME GO BACK TO THE PARTY.”

Still he said nothing. He put one beefy arm across my neck to hold me in place, and with the other hand ripped off my jeans with such force that he broke the zipper. I had borrowed the jeans from my sister that night, after much begging. “I don’t want you to wreck them,” she had told me.

“I won’t wreck them! Please!”

And this is the only thing that was going through my head as he began to rip at the rest of my clothes. I screamed as loud as I could, and he took his hand and covered my mouth. Then he raped me.

I don’t remember much that happened the rest of that evening. All I remember is going home, and going into my parents unit. My father wasn’t home, and my sister was in bed with my mother crying. And I got into bed with them and started crying too. I had assumed that somehow my sister knew; and it was too painful to talk about. But she really didn’t know. We never spoke about it again; not at least, for many years.

Then I went into my room and grabbed a pen and paper. Grabbing a pen and paper was something I did almost on a daily basis in those days; as I was constantly writing poetry. But as I stared at the blank sheet of paper, no poetry came. Only one sentence came to my mind, which I scribbled down. I wrote, “I am still a virgin.” I stared at it, and the words helped me somehow. This didn’t count, it couldn’t count. I wrote the words again. “I am still a virgin.” And then as tears streamed down my cheeks, I wrote it again and again and again. And soon enough I needed a second piece of paper, which I filled up with the same sentence, written ad nauseam.

I broke up with my boyfriend Barry the following morning. We had been whispering sweet nothings in each others ears for so long; we had decided we would lose our virginity together, sometime later down the road, and eventually we’d marry. That dream was now dead, and I couldn’t face him. I broke his heart.

My sister’s boyfriend continued to prey on me after that, always threatening to tell my sister if I ever told. I had decided it was my lot in life to do what he said, and to carry that shame. When I was 15, I fell in love and once my new boyfriend caught wind of it, he told him in no uncertain terms that if he ever laid a hand on me again, that he’d kill him. The abuse, finally, stopped. But it took me years to realize that none of it had been my fault.  And even more years to realize that the gun he held at my head that night was symbolic of my entire relationship with him.

I was an adult before I connected to my sexuality again. To me, it was something you did like an actress on a stage, because that’s all it had ever been for me; a game of pretend. Instead of learning how to fight back, I learned instead how to take it. Men could hit me, men could lie to me, men could rape me; but they could never touch my soul. And whenever a man treated me badly, I’d rise above it, and I would say to myself, “go ahead and give it to me. This doesn’t hurt me. You can’t touch me. The only person this hurts is you.”

Of course that’s not true. It’s a defense mechanism we learn in order to cope. And I suppose I’ve developed many of those in my journey through life.

But the secret of shame is always stamped upon your soul; a faint, indelible watermark. My child will always be face down on the floor; a little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear, her face red with panic, her tiny fists bloody from pounding on a cement wall. The sheets still grow heavy with the thought of a lecher’s kiss; and the sin, the sin, flicks on and off like a nauseating fluorescent light, outside of the dive bar of my mind. There will always be a permanent smell.

I know life deals us blows. But I know that every morning when I wake up, I’m still singing. I’m still laughing. I’m still dancing. There is a place inside of each of us that is untouchable. It is where the angels swim, and the stars swim too.  And sadly, where indifference swims as well.
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Homeless in Panty Hose

I was homeless, once. For six months. I was 24 years old.

I will understand if that statement causes you to have a particular image of me. I think most of us create a picture of what we perceive a homeless person to be; perhaps someone who is lazy, or simply chooses not to work or be productive. Perhaps you imagine frail, dispossessed bums sleeping under plastic bags in subways and doorways. Perhaps you imagine beggars who reach out a shaky hand for coins, or the insane screaming out profanities while searching through dumpsters. I suppose those are the obvious images. But I promise you that there are homeless who walk among us we would never recognize.

I was one of those. I thought of myself as homeless in panty hose.

I left my husband in the middle of the night. The truth had finally come out that I had fallen in love with another man, and my new relationship was controversial to say the least. Hardly anyone approved, and I was seemingly ostracized over night. It had been an exhausting weekend; my new lover and I met with parents, siblings and friends who screamed, shouted and cried about our choices, begging us to come to our senses. But there was no going back for either of us; we were in love.

This emotional spectacle culminated Sunday night when I went home to tell my husband. It was a draining marathon of heartache and arguing, and I was so exhausted from emotional stress that I wanted nothing more than to get into my marital bed and fall asleep. It was about midnight; I had come in earlier and awoke him to tell him my news. After hours of tears, my husband was still in our bed, covering his face with his hands. As much as I wanted to suggest that we continue the discussion in the morning, I knew that it would be cruel to prolong his agony. I opened the closet and pulled down a suitcase, hurriedly stuffed it with clothes and toiletries, zipped it shut, then softly said “Goodbye.” I wanted to tell him that I loved him and that none of it was his fault, but the words never came. I waited for a moment to see if he’d respond, but the room was quiet. I walked out the front door and never looked back.

I used a joint credit card to fill my tank with gas as I sped away from town. It was the last money I would use of the funds I shared with my husband; I left with only my clothes and nothing else. I never fought for 50% of our assets, and I signed off on property that we mutually owned. That night after I filled my gas tank, I cut all of our credit cards in two. Then I put my key in the ignition, and when the engine came to life, I felt I had sprouted wings, and that I was flying to freedom. I had no idea where I was going. But soon I had turned up the radio loud, and I was singing.

The future was unknown, and I was excited to begin a new life. The only problem was, I had nowhere to sleep and I had to be at work by 8:00 a.m. And I had no watch.

That first night of homelessness is as clear to me as any other memory of my life. I parked my car at a rest stop at the beach, and then sat for a long time on a chilly precipice, staring out over the ocean highlighted by a blue tinged moon. I had no idea the time, but I knew it was very late. If I wasn’t so exhausted that first night, I don’t think I would have ever fallen asleep. But I climbed into the backseat of my car, rolled some clothes into a ball to serve as a pillow, and covering myself with a jacket, I soon fell asleep.

When I awoke, it was daylight. I jumped out of the car and started going through my suitcase, hurriedly looking for my work clothes. Soon I was sitting on a rock; the sand blowing in my face, and the ocean crashing loudly beside me. It was cold and the wind was whipping through my hair. But I laughed as I realized what a comic sight I was. I was struggling to put on my panty hose; one foot at a time, and trying not to rip them as I stood on the rough terrain of the cliff.

In those days I wore skirts, hose and heels to work; it was what was considered to be appropriate business attire. I detested panty hose with a passion, and the heels would make my feet ache by the end of every day. But on this morning, it was more disturbing than usual, I remember, trying to crawl into them on the beach. I was homeless in panty hose.

I turned on my car engine and the radio, praying that they would announce the time so I had some idea as I slipped into a business suit. It was later than I had thought.

Needless to say, I was late for work that morning, as well as other mornings thereafter. The ironic thing was I had always been exceptionally prompt; but waking up in a car without a time piece made arriving at work on time somewhat difficult. When my boss called me in to his office to complain about my tardiness, I spat back that I was homeless and living on the beach. He was a lot more lenient after that. It was my first accounting job, and I worked in the Accounts Payable department. Earnings were meager, but I was saving every available penny I could toward first and last month’s rent for an apartment of my own.

Well, not every penny. I made a very important allowance. On weekends, I would meet my new lover at hotels. It was a big expenditure, but a necessary one, as it was the only time I was able to shower. It was also a reprieve from my every day existence, which was more than surreal. For two days I would have love, luxury and soap, and for that brief time I could distance myself from my cruel reality. But Monday morning would come too soon, and my new boyfriend would return to his family home, where he still lived with his parents. I would go off to work, and once again become the lonely waif sleeping in the salt air by night, and working at a job I despised by day.

My dinner routine was the same most evenings. Down the street from my office was an upscale bar and restaurant. They featured a fabulous happy hour, which featured a complete spread of delicious appetizers. I would order water with lime with a straw; so no one ever suspected I was eating for free. I realized that looking well dressed and coifed offered me many advantages that other homeless people did not have. And I took advantage of it whenever I could.

But that wasn’t the only way I got food. I remember one painful night when I spotted a group of patrons leaving a pizza parlor with nearly a half of a pie left on the table. I watched them through the open door of the restaurant, still certain that they would end up packing up the pie and taking it home, but they all got up from the table and just left it there. I wanted that pizza so badly; I think I could have done nearly anything to have a slice of it. I was literally salivating at the thought of a hot meal. It was a moment of truth; I knew I wouldn’t have long to take it before the waitress cleared the table; but doing what I was contemplating doing was mortifying. At the last possible moment I dashed in and scooped up as much pizza as I could in a napkin, and skulked out the door like a thief in the night. I disappeared into an alleyway to eat my score; and it was so hot and delicious I couldn’t eat it fast enough. At that moment I didn’t feel that different from the homeless that search the dumpsters. The only difference is that I had a camouflage, and could sneak into an establishment without raising an eyebrow. I think that was my first real lesson in compassion.

Although most of my family and friends had washed their hands of me and my choices during that period, I had a few friends that stepped up whenever they could. My best friend at the time was planning on going to Europe for a month and offered me her room in her flat in San Francisco. She lived with two roommates I had never met; both gay psychiatrists. It was a difficult decision for me, because she didn’t offer me her room for free; I would have to pay her share of the rent for that month, which would delay my saving up money for own apartment, which was a priority. But I was so desperate to have a bed, shower, and a kitchen, that I took her up on her offer.

The first night that I arrived, I was shown to my room by my new roommates. Being that they were both psychiatrists, I was excited to meet them; and I also felt it might be soothing to be in the bosom of trained professionals who would understand my stress, and maybe even help me. But I was wrong. “We know what is happening in your life, and frankly we don’t approve. So we know Sheila is your friend, and you’ll be here a month, but we want to see the least of you as possible. Tonight we’re having a party, and we don’t want you to come out of your room. So if you need to buy something for dinner, we suggest you buy it now. There’s a market across the street.” Their words stung me to my core.

“Is there a television I could borrow for the evening then?” I asked. I thought a television might make it somewhat tolerable. I felt on the verge of tears.

“No,” was all they said, and with that they turned a very effeminate heel toward the door. That evening was painful, as I sat on the bed trying to read some silly magazine I found in her room, with the sounds of frivolity right outside my door. I was starving and didn’t have fifty cents in my pocket. I wondered what delicious appetizers might be displayed in the next room. I would have loved nothing more than to have a cocktail and mingle with people and laugh and forget. But it wasn’t to be.

The first two weeks in that house were a nightmare. But it all changed the day my biological father called me there. He asked me what my address was, and after I gave it to him, he informed he was coming over to kill me.

I suppose on most levels, I knew he wasn’t going to kill me. He was a passionate Sicilian after all, and he was angry with me. But I still didn’t know him very well at that point, and there was a modicum of doubt that crept in my psyche. I burst into tears.

The two doctors overheard me, and for some unknown reason, they were suddenly gushing with empathy. They sat on either side of me on my temporary bed, and flung their arms around me; and they told me it would be okay. They urged me to open up about my side of the story; why I had left my husband, and the controversial relationship I was now involved with. Because my new relationship was unusual and rather taboo, they related their own experience of being chastised for being homosexual to mine; and we talked long about prejudice. And by the time the three of us heard a hard angry knock on the front door, we had become the best of friends. “We won’t let your father kill you!” they announced, and ran down the stairs to confront my father. They protected me like fierce kittens; and wouldn’t let my father inside the house until he agreed to behave himself.

I had two weeks more in that house, but after that, I was back on the street for several months in a row. I remember I had one delicious respite in all of that time, and that was the evening that my friend Linda offered me her beach house for one moonlit night. She and all of her roommates were leaving on an overnight trip; and she gave me the key to her house. It was a lovely sprawling home; sitting right on the cliff, with the ocean crashing against the enormous picture windows that lined the living room. She had left me a series of notes all over the house, leading me on a virtual treasure hunt of delights. My first note was on the dining room table next to a bottle of red wine, a corkscrew, and a glass. It read, “It’s time to kick off your shoes and transport yourself to a world of tranquility. Begin by enjoying this wine.” Next I was sent toward a group of candles and a box of matches. “Light these candles, sip on your wine, and listen to the ocean.” Following that, I was instructed to turn on the stereo, where my favorite artist was playing. My hunt then led me back to the kitchen where a gourmet meal was waiting for me. “Pop this in the oven at 350 degrees, and enjoy. There’s a salad in the fridge.” The last note led to my bed. I laughed when I entered the bedroom; I encountered an enormous bright pink velvet bed; something you might find in Cinderella’s castle. It was piled high with pink silk pillows. I felt like a fairy princess, and I didn’t much care where I’d left my glass slipper. The crashing of the waves sounded very different that night than they did when I slept on the beach, and I learned a lesson that night about gratitude. But when I awoke the next morning, my carriage had turned back into a pumpkin, and the only bed I had was the back seat of my car.

My last reprieve came after about five and a half months. Another friend had a room that had become vacant, and she said I could move in for awhile. For free.

I was thrilled with this opportunity. I was so close to saving up enough money for my own place, and this would give me the last push I needed. I decided I was going to be the best house guest ever; I would leave my room every day as if no one lived in it, with the bed made and my suitcase hidden in the closet. I would arise before my friend, have my coffee and leave no trace, and allow her the morning to herself. On weekends, I would disappear entirely, to spend time with my new lover. I behaved the way I would want a roommate to behave. As if they weren’t there.

But interestingly, she wasn’t pleased with me at all. She had wanted me to move in with her to be her girlfriend. She wanted a gal pal to drink coffee in the morning with, and to share our trials and tribulations. She wanted a friend with whom she could spend evenings cooking dinner and weekends hitting the bars.

I sensed that she was unhappy with me. But at this point, I had possibly saved enough money for first and last month rent for a place of my own. I knew I wanted to live in Mill Valley, about an hour away, and I scoured the Marin newspaper as often as I could.

That week, I came down with an illness; I was sick and dizzy and had a terrible sore throat. I was lying on her couch covered by a blanket, making phone call after phone call, answering want ads for apartments. At last I found something I could afford. It was a one-room “tree house,” or at least that is how the ad billed it. I was intrigued. Coughing and gasping, I talked to the landlord that evening. I told her I was very sick; could I come and see the apartment the following evening. She agreed.

But I never would wait until the following evening. My friend came home that night and said that her mother had been helping with her mortgage, and she had said that unless I left that evening, that she would cut her off. She apologized vehemently, and she felt even worse that I was sick, but I had to pack my bags immediately. I called the landlord up again and said I had to leave my current residence that evening, and would it be possible that I see the room that night, and hopefully rent it immediately. I think she took pity on me and agreed.

That night I packed up my suitcase for the last time, and armed only with a roll of toilet paper for my leaking nose, I thanked my friend and stumbled into the darkness, for a long hour drive toward my new home.

I’ll never forget climbing the stairs to my tree house that first night. It was difficult to see, and it looked like the stairs led straight up into a tree. She flung open the front door, and switched on a light. And there it was.

It was tiny. Much smaller than a hotel room. It had enough room for one double bed, but not much else. The kitchen went against one wall; and there was a separate bathroom and shower. But it was charming; all wooden and nestled in the trees; the kitchen cabinets were beveled decorated glass; and I found it to be very sweet. “I’ll take it.”

“The phone works,” she told me. “But it will be cut off this week, so get it transferred into your name immediately, okay?” I nodded.

When she left, I called my half sister. I told her I had found a place, and I was located only about a mile away from her. I was deathly sick; and I needed some comfort. “Could you bring me a blanket and a pillow?” I asked her. She agreed.

When she arrived, she was also carrying a bottle of wine. I had no glasses, so I remember us both guzzling it straight out of the bottle. That would be the start of many gatherings in the tree house, which we later dubbed the cubicle. I had a sign near the front door that read, “Cubicle sweet cubicle,” and I eventually got a free couch that folded out into a bed. When I was alone, I would leave the bed out; I could make a cup of tea in the kitchen while sitting on my bed. And when people came over, I’d turn the bed back into a couch, and we’d all sit on the floor, drinking wine and being perfectly happy in this little square that we could call our own. Being homeless had taught me that I would never need much in this world. And I’ve always been grateful for what I have.

I lived in my cubicle for three years, as I once again saved money for first and last on a larger home. I was grateful every day; for the warm bed, and the heater. My boyfriend stayed with me on the weekends, and I always felt like we had our own private haven, a sanctuary far from the noise of judgmental friends and family. I was happy.

I saved my money in a little box that was on the shelving that was built in on one wall of the tree house.

In retrospect, I realize it was very foolish to save money that way; I had a bank account; but I didn’t want to know exactly how much money I had saved. It was a little game I’d play with myself; shoving every spare dollar I had into that box; but never really knowing how much I’d saved. After a few months I’d count it and would be delighted with the results.

One night I came home and there was a note on my door from the landlord. “Your toilet broke and I had to let myself and the plumbers into your house today.”

My toilet wasn’t broken.

I immediately sensed that something wasn’t right. I walked into the cubicle and went directly to the bathroom. I kept a dizzying array of decorations on the back of my toilet, and I knew at first glance that my toilet hadn’t been touched. It would be impossible to work on it, and not disturb everything I had surrounding it. I felt something else in that room; something smelled of a lie. I immediately ran to my box on the shelf. I opened it. It was empty. The money was gone.

I took a deep breath. Every instinct I had told me that my landlord had stolen it. She had decided to snoop in my house when I was gone, came across the money and had created the plumbers as a diversion, and as the possible thieves.

I marched down to the main house and told her that my money was gone. She feigned sympathy; she was beside herself telling me what a terrible thing it was; and that it must have been the plumbers that stole it.

“May I have the name of the plumbers you called?”

She gave me every excuse under the sun as to why she couldn’t give me their number, but I wasn’t listening. Because I already knew there were no plumbers. I went back to the tree house and called the police.

I never did recover my money. But the police gave her an exceptionally rough time; I could hear her screaming and crying below. “Do not call me a thief in front of my kids!” I heard her cry, and I felt glad. The police told me that they believed it was her, but nothing could be done. I had been kicked back down to square one, with nothing to show for myself but an empty box.

The next chapter in my life wasn’t much easier than this one. But I embraced my hardships gladly, as I was living truthfully and following my passion. I no longer felt like a fraud. I was wildly in love, and that relationship would endure happily for sixteen years. And as I had always known, the difficulties made me more and more prolific; I was inspired to create poetry nearly daily. I had absolutely nothing. But I was still living my dream.

I had always known that suffering opens our minds. When things come easily, we only learn a fraction of what we learn when they don’t. I know that the more possessions we want, the less freedom we will have. I know that the more we can bear, the more fearless we become. And I wanted to be fearless. I wanted to be a bald eagle surveying the countryside from the highest peak, and then I wanted to spread my wings, and to dive into freedom. I still feel that way.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Instant Karma

When I was 13 years old, I decided to become a Buddhist.

That decision lasted about three months.

I was raised in a household that didn’t believe in organized religion. My mother was a staunch atheist, and while my father was a spiritual agnostic, he made no secret of his disdain for most holy convictions. Of course, with regards to my religion, it was always my decision. My parents took me to at least a dozen different churches, to expose me to them, and encouraged me to follow one if any took my fancy.

I found these sojourns into various churches utterly fascinating. Each was unique; from the baroque seriousness of the Catholics, to the festive exuberance of Gospel; from the glazed serene looks of the Born Again Holy Rollers, to the dancing and chanting of the Hare Krishna’s. I still remember one hippy church that used the 60’s “God’s Eye,” a weaving of colorful yarn over branches laid in a diamond shape, as their focal point. It was odd to “pray” to something I had hanging all over my bedroom at home. Flower children danced up and down the church aisle to folk music. And part of the church was making art. I enjoyed it. But I had no idea why I was praying, or to whom.

I was baptized Catholic when I was 11 years old, but this was only because I was embarrassed to be the only child in school without a faith. Most people I knew were Catholic, so I just blindly chose it. But what they said seemed illogical, and shortsighted. When they told us that on judgment day that everyone who hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts would go to hell, I knew their outlook made no sense. Surely, I thought, the entire country of China couldn’t be sentenced to eternal damnation, because they didn’t worship Jesus Christ. I decided a genius such as God must be would never commit an entire population to burn for eternity.

I loved the church field trips with my parents, but I never felt the need to embrace any of them. I did, however, listen to all view points, and the subject of religion fascinated me.

My friend Linda told me about a Buddhist Group that had just started in our neighborhood. She had already attended one meeting, and had found it intriguing. She urged me to join her, and I quickly agreed. I have always been hungry for new experiences.

I immediately went to the library to study this creed, and could find none of their teachings to be contrary to what I believed. Buddhism seemed to be more of a philosophy than a religion; and a viewpoint that I could support. It seemed to avoid the usual dogma and theology of other religions, and instead centered on the discipline of continual awareness. I could find nothing wrong with teaching myself to be more aware; especially when no one dictated what I should be aware of. I enjoyed the teachings of Karma and Dharma; of non-attachment and humility. Even better, Albert Einstein, someone I idolized and had pictures of in my bedroom, thought Buddhism had the “characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future.” It sounded like a religion that transcended the undeveloped ideas of sin, shame, guilt, and the rest. I was prepared to go.

That evening I told my parents about the Buddhist Group, and asked permission to stay out past my bedtime. It was also a school night, so I had to discuss this with them first. I thought for certain that they would support my decision to go; but it was quite the opposite. “This sounds like some sort of a CULT,” they told me, their eyes large with fear. “We don’t want you to go. They’re going to try and brainwash you.”

I did everything I could do to argue with their decision. I told them how I had been studying Buddhist doctrine, and that it intrigued me. I told them the location of the meeting, and that I wouldn’t be going alone. But most importantly, I assured them that I could never be brainwashed. I was a thoughtful, curious child, and not easily coerced. I just wanted to go and listen, I told them, with an open mind. And at last they agreed.

Linda was friends with an older boy; he must have been at least 19 years old at the time. It was he who had told her about these meetings initially, and it was he who agreed to pick us up and drive us to the meeting. My mother had assumed a parent would be picking me up, and when she learned it was just a teenager, she followed me out to the driveway to have a word with this boy. It was one of the most animated times I can ever recall my mother behaving; she grilled him on everything, from the Buddhists to the mechanical safety of his car. She was clearly concerned about my welfare, which made me begin to rethink my decision. Exasperated and embarrassed, I begged her to return to the house, and soon enough we were on our way.

The meeting was held at the home of a slight fragile woman, who was introduced as the Leader. When we arrived, we were asked to remove our shoes and take a seat on the floor. There was a strange shrine in the front of the room; I noticed a piece of parchment paper covered in Japanese lettering which sat center stage, surrounded by a variety of offerings; fruit, evergreens, incense, and candles.

The room was filled with guests. Our Leader picked up a stick and hit a large metal disc that was beside the shrine, and the sound echoed through the room and carried for a long time. When the endless note withered away, finally into silence, she spoke. She uttered words I had never heard before, and she said them slowly. “Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo.” I heard a collective sigh from the group, and soon they all joined in with this strange chant, and the room filled with sound; low tones from the males, high notes from the females, all blending together in a mesmerizing harmony. Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo, Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo, Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo. The incantation that filled the room was beautiful, and soon enough I found myself joining in. It was akin to singing, which I enjoyed, but this mantra went on forever. Eventually I began praying it would stop. The incessant hymn must have gone on for forty-five minutes.

I was thrilled when the leader eventually rang the bell again. The followers said one more round of the chant, but very slowly, holding out the final “kyo” until they had no more breath. It was over, thankfully. The Leader looked around the room beaming; I believed she was trying to appear serene and at peace, but it didn’t ring true for me. I pinched Linda’s knee so that we could share a giggle, but she looked stoically forward.

“Good evening,” the Leader said at last. “I welcome you all here tonight, and I especially welcome the two young girls that have joined our fold,” she said, giving a nod to Linda and me. “You will need to see me after the meeting so that you can purchase your prayer book, beads and other items you will need, okay?” I hadn’t realized this enterprise was going to cost me money, and I was immediately put off, but I only nodded. I had no desire to be singled out.

“At this time, I would like to hear from the group about all the benefits you received this week from chanting. As we all know, as we recite the precious words Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo, we are to focus on a wish that we have for ourselves, our loved ones, and our lives. And those of you who practice this discipline religiously know that your requests are always answered. Who would like to start?”

A woman behind me was flailing her arms excitedly, beseeching the Leader to choose her. Her exhilaration was a tad over the top; so I was assured that I was about to hear philosophical musings about how this discipline had led to something important; a new awareness, or inner peace. Perhaps she had wished for something to benefit her fellow man; or had learned how selflessness leads to the greater good. I spun around so I could see her as she spoke. “I chanted for a new pair of shoes!” she squealed, “and I got them. We really couldn’t afford them, but after I spent a day chanting, my husband came to me and told me to go ahead and buy them. Thanks Buddha!”

I raised an eyebrow in disgust. And I fully expected that her trivial selfishness would be rebuffed by the group, and looked around, expecting to see narrowed eyebrows of distaste. But on the contrary, the room was beaming; just as our Leader had been when she began the meeting. And to my horror, the crowd began to applaud, and a few yelled out “way to go,” and that sort of nonsense. It was all so painfully ridiculous to me that I wondered if I was on Candid Camera.

The room filled with cigarette smoke, which was perfectly normal at that time. Even at that tender age, I too, smoked—and I asked a young man beside me if he had an extra. Unfortunately for me, however, my quiet request was overheard by the throngs, and as the man handed me a cigarette, the Leader broke into applause. “Our new friend just received a benefit! She wanted a cigarette, and after chanting this evening, her request was met immediately. You will see that chanting effects big change in your life; it will create miracles!” Her speech was met with a round of applause, and several congratulatory rubbings of my shoulder. I wondered if my parents were right; that this was some sort of a cult. I began to think they were all a bunch of dolts.

But I didn’t quit.

Most of us, when we are young, haven’t yet learned to set appropriate boundaries for ourselves. And following the meeting, when Linda and I were brought to a back room and given a list of items we needed to purchase; some mandatory, and others optional, I agreed to make the purchases. I only had enough money with me for one item; a small blue Buddhist chanting book. Inside was one long chant that went on for pages. “Please begin memorizing this immediately,” I was told. “And next week, bring enough money to buy the rest of the mandatory requirements.” I only nodded, but I felt I had gotten myself involved with something that was a bit more than I could handle. Strangely enough, I can still recite that entire prayer, syllable for syllable, to this day.

I did return the following week, and I brought enough money to buy the items required. And I returned the week after that, and the week after that. And although I was highly skeptical about all that went on, I tried to keep an open mind; I was willing to wait and see what transpired.

The Leader informed me that to have full effect from the chanting, that I would need to be baptized into the religion; and once the ceremony was performed, I would be given my own Gohonzon.

I had learned all about the Gohonzon; which was a scroll of rice paper, covered in Japanese symbols. This was what sat in the middle of everyone’s personal shrine; and it what the followers hung on their walls at home and sat in front of to chant.

When you looked at the front of Gohonzon you would see the characters of Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo. But if you turned the Gohonzon on it’s backside it was blank. “Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo is the written law,” we were told. “But you can't see it. You can't point to it, or identify it. It is a power that exists. Gohonzon is the mirror of your life. When you look at a mirror you think you are looking at yourself, but it is only an image of your physical self that you are looking at. You can't see inside yourself -- your thoughts, your spiritual aspect. Gohonzon is the mirror of your heart--the mirror of your life. You need a mirror so that you know what you look like in your heart.” I grasped the concept of the Gohonzon. But what I didn’t understand was why my fellow Buddhists didn’t seem to mirror or grasp what Buddhism was all about. They were like children, begging Santa Claus for a plethora of unneeded toys.

But apparently this piece of paper was very important. “You can not receive full benefits until you receive the Gohonzon,” the Leader told me. “And you cannot receive the Gohonzon until you are blessed officially into the church.” And with that, I was taken in the back room, and I was scheduled for a baptism.

The following Saturday, I was driven in a van with other worshipers to a church somewhere far away. I was thrilled when we finally arrived, and stared out the window at the huge modern building that rose from the parking lot. The temple was called “The Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” named after a popular novella written the year prior; a fable about a seagull learning about life and flight, possibly reincarnation; and a homily about self-perfection. The book was extremely popular, but I giggled to myself over the name. It struck me as trite.

The church was large, and to my surprise, filled to the rafters with parishioners. And as I tried to find my seat, many of them seemed to barrage me; beaming that familiar smile at me, offering me everything from candy to illegal drugs. I didn’t want to judge anyone, but many of them seemed a bit off-kilter to me, and there were multitudes of homeless, addicts, and the like.

The service quickly got under way. It began just as the smaller meetings did, with the familiar strike on a metal disc, but at this church the disc was enormous; it was a large gong, and it was hit with something the size of a baseball bat. Immediately the congregation broke into the familiar, “Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo,” but this time the chant was sung by a group of hundreds; and the effect of so many voices together was stirring.

The chanting always went on for too long, for me, a child of 13. But on this night, I didn’t mind, because I had been instructed that immediately following the opening ceremony, that the baptisms were next on the agenda. I dreaded it.

Soon enough the chanting ceased, and the Leader asked that all people who were being baptized into the church that day to line up in the back. I obediently made my way there, and was pleased to see I wouldn’t be alone; I joined a half a dozen other people who were to receive their Gohonzon that day. Suddenly, music filled the large hall; strange, eerie music. “Get down on your knees!” I was instructed.


“GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES. You must crawl in humility to receive your Gohonzon.”

Well, I didn’t much want to crawl on my knees for anything. But with a hall filled with people watching, I did just that. I crawled. I crawled all the way down the aisle on my hands and knees, and rather than feel humble, I felt humiliated. At the end of the aisle, a man in robes spoke a chant over my head, and then lastly, handed me my Gohonzon. It was rolled up in a scroll, and tied with a narrow red ribbon.

But the humiliation I suffered that day was nothing compared to what happened a week later.

After receiving my Gohonzon, I was instructed to leave it in scroll form until members of the temple could come to my house and help me to set up my shrine. There were many regulations regarding this altar; it had to be housed on a Southern wall, it had to be encased in wood, and it had to have a way to close shut. I was told a wooden fruit cart would even do until I could find something better, and a makeshift cloth could be fashioned to serve as a curtain that could be closed. But regardless, this process had to be supervised, and it had to take place only in conjunction with a ceremony.

The last thing I wanted was for these people to come to my house. But they were so persuasive I felt I had to relent, so I agreed to the following Saturday. I have never regretted anything more.

My family were all at home; my parents, my sister and her boyfriend. Imagine my horror when suddenly we all heard the chanting of a dozen or so people coming down the street toward our house. They were loud, and everyone in the neighborhood could hear and see them walking toward our house. My sister’s boyfriend found the whole thing utterly hilarious; he opened the front door to our home and laughed in their direction, pointing to the group and snickering. I looked out the window and saw them; they were coming to my house; they were chanting loudly and with earnestness; I could see my neighbors across the street peek out of their windows to see who had created such a ruckus; and I had never felt such embarrassment as I did as this troupe walked right up my own driveway. I wanted to disappear.

They knocked on the door, but the chanting never stopped. My mother opened the door, and without an intelligible word, the worshipers swept right by her, pushing her aside, then found me and encircled me. My mother was mouthing to me over their heads, “I want these people out of my house,” and I could only give her a look as if to say, “What can I do?” They stood around me in a circle, chanting louder and louder; and at this point my sister’s boyfriend was on the floor, giggling and pounding the carpet. Then the Leader whispered to me that I should lead them to my bedroom.

I began to walk and the group followed me; their chanting getting ever louder. My sister’s boyfriend was in hysterics, yelling out slurs and calling them names, making fun of everything about them. The Leader whispered that I needed to chant as well, but I was too embarrassed. Instead, I pretended to have a coughing fit until all of the church goers were safe in my bedroom. But I wasn’t safe in the slightest; the laughter never stopped.

My Gohonzon was enshrined in a wooden box and nailed to the proper wall of my bedroom. The church people brought fruit, incense, candles, flowers, and everything I needed for a proper alter. I continued to feign a coughing fit throughout; if only to block out the laughter right outside the door. My face was hot with mortification. I wanted them to leave.

But the final nail in my Buddhist coffin came about a week later.

While at our weekly meeting, we were told that we were going to go knock door to door that evening in an effort to coerce more sheep into their flock. We were also supposed to ask for money.

I walked several blocks with the church goers as we knocked on door after door. I let the others give their speech; I usually hid behind the nearest stick of shrubbery. All I could think of was the countless times we’d encountered the Jehovah Witnesses on the other side of our own door, dressed in their black suits and white shirts, carrying stacks of the “Watchtower” and preaching about their version of God. If we saw them walking toward our door we’d hide; and if we accidentally opened the door, it often took at least twenty minutes to get rid of them. I always thought what an imposition it was; I’ve never enjoyed solicitation in any form. And now, here I was with my brethren imposing the same brand of nuisance.

When they knocked on the next door, I hid behind the garage. And then I walked away. I walked until I couldn’t walk anymore, until I found a phone booth and called my mother to pick me up. “I’m done,” I told her on the phone.

“Thank God,” was her answer. And the irony of her reply was not lost on me.

As my mother chastised me in the car ride home, telling me that I was gullible, I hardly listened. Because I hadn’t been gullible; I had been open-minded; something that she wasn’t. But I decided on that car ride home that while I would always seek spirituality, it would never again be in an organized way. I would form my own church called the Church of One, and I would be the only member.

The concept of Karma followed me to my Church of One. I find that when I smile, people often smile back; it seems true that what you put out is what you receive. I know that I choose to live this life with love. And in turn, I am loved.

I don’t know what God is. But if there was an artist who designed the Universe, I stand humbled before him, and thank him for the purple mountains, the sunsets like scoops of sherbet, and the gushing green muscles of the ocean. It is nothing short of magnificent.

I don’t what God is. But I do see repetitions in nature; such as the marijuana leaf that is repeated on the shell of a sand dollar; the branches of trees which resemble our own veins, or the atoms and molecules which are replicas of the solar system. When I notice these patterns, there seems to be order in the chaos. Sometimes I think God is order in the chaos. Sometimes I think he might be a mathematical equation.

I don’t know what God is. But I know there isn’t a place with pearly white gates, and angels with harps sitting on fluffy white clouds. And I know there isn’t a spot where men are tortured with fire and brimstone; a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth for eternity. These concepts are too rudimentary for an artist creative enough to fashion something as inspired as the cosmos. But I do know there is heaven and hell on earth; in every single moment of our lives and in every single choice. Everything is a compilation of Yin and Yang, half black and half white. And the notion of heaven and hell can only be a metaphor and fable, for the dichotomy of being alive. Along with everything positive, comes an equally powerful negative.

I know that science explains much of the mystery of our world. But I also know we don’t know everything. To believe that we do is arrogant and supercilious; it is hubris. We only have a piece of the puzzle, of that I am sure.

I know that the only perfection is in imperfection.

I don’t know what faith is. I don’t trust much of what I see around me. But I have faith that I will never know. I have faith that I will die.

I don’t know what miracles are. But my body is a miracle. My heart pounding in my chest is a miracle. I marvel to be awake every day, and I honor that gift with being as aware as I can.

I know that whether or not there is an afterlife, or some sort of eternal existence, is not the point. Because I am certain that we have to live this one as if it’s all we have, regardless of the truth. To forfeit what is right before you for some blind faith as to what might be in front of you, seems irrational. We need to live as if there are no second chances; as if there are no rewards or retributions. Heaven and Hell are right here, right now. We have our gifts and we have our punishments, right this very moment.

I know that Judgment Day is today.  You be the Judge.
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Monday, October 26, 2009

Secrets, Lies, and Family Ties

I didn’t know I had a brother until I was thirteen years old.

It wasn’t like my brother was some alien kin who had been shipped off to adoptive parents for financial or other reasons; some stranger that I never knew. I grew up with my brother. I had lived with him in the same house until I was 6, which, at the age of 13, was about half of my life. And when my mother remarried and we no longer shared a home with him, he was still my constant companion.

They just lied about his identity.

As a child, it never occurred to me that my parents would ever lie to me. I knew they had their surreptitious adult whispers; I knew they did things in the bedroom that they didn’t want me to know about, and they spoke in French sometimes, when they needed a private conversation. But it never crossed my mind that what they DID tell me wasn’t the absolute truth.

I remember the first time that the thought of parents ever being deceptive even entered my mind. I was about 10 years old, and it was all over the news that two children had died after eating their Halloween candy. A posse of interrogators canvassed the surrounding neighborhood, confiscating uneaten confections from people’s homes, and cross examining anyone who might have come into contact with the deceased children. But as it turned out, it was the children’s own parents who had slipped the arsenic lased chocolates in their children’s plastic Jack-o’-Lantern that Halloween night. Now, that’s spooky.

This news story horrified me, as it was long before the Susan Smiths of our world. Today we are used to hearing stories of parents drowning, stabbing and slashing their own children with alarming regularity; but the thought parents hurting their own children back then was almost unthinkable. I couldn’t stop thinking about these parents, who intentionally poisoned their children’s bag of candy. I stared at my own candy and down the hall to my parents closed bedroom door, with my first suspicious thought. For the first time, I wondered if my parents were really who they said they were.

As it turns out, they weren’t. I was poisoned just like those children that fateful Halloween; the only difference was the poison they fed me wasn’t arsenic, it was a toxic lie. They told me my entire life that my brother was my Uncle. They told me that he was my mother’s half brother, and the biological son of my grandmother and the young Polish stud she had married, 20 years her junior.

George was only three years older than me, so as children we played together constantly, and as we grew older became friends. He would often tease my sister and me by slamming our Italian heritage, as our biological father was Sicilian. And we would slam his Polish heritage in return; all in good fun, of course. We teased each other relentlessly; we were all very much alike. George and I could pull funny faces that looked identical.

I had never met my biological father, Tony. He had left my mother while I was still in the uterus. I didn’t really know why he had abandoned our family, and I had only seen one grainy black and white picture of him, which my step-father glued at the end of a very long tube; so the only way I could see it was in the distance.

In my mind, Tony was almost a mythical figure; a swarthy romantic, living somewhere in Italy; perhaps on a boat. When I was a child, I was told my father was a sailor. Although I later found out that he just owned a motorboat which he enjoyed taking out on the lake, in my mind he was always a salty mariner, sailing alone somewhere in the Mediterranean; his vessel creaking from the muscle of the Atlantic, his hands and face weathered from the elements, his eye keen on the horizon. It wasn’t so much that he had abandoned me, I decided, but rather it was his intense wander lust which led him away from me. His heart was set on a perpetual adventure; he had a passion for solitude, exploration, and living with the fury of nature.

Although I had never met my father, I had always longed for him. My feisty Italian behavior was pleading for a kindred spirit; and even more so, it begged for the source. I could feel him inside every cell in my body; I always knew he was a part of me; and I ached to gaze into his eyes where I knew I would see my own eyes staring back at me. There was always a hole where I knew he should be.

I was determined that one day I would find him.

When I would ask my mother of his possible whereabouts, I would get cautious or flippant replies; or sometimes a vague answer. “I’m sure he’s somewhere in Italy, darling,” she would say. But somehow I didn’t believe he was. It wasn’t that I thought my mother was lying; I thought she just didn’t know.

But I was like a little detective, and I was intent on figuring it out.

I was born in Chicago, and I had heard all of my life how it came to be we lived in California. They would recount endless stories of how we got here, and everything which led up to us eventually making the trek west permanently. My grandmother would tell me stories how she wouldn’t do anything back then unless it was a step toward going west. “Will buying these shoes get me to California? This is what I would ask myself. And if they didn’t, then I wouldn’t buy them,” she’d tell me. My father, Tony, had also apparently waxed poetic about the Golden State; and he had planned on moving out with us, before he left our family forever. So it occurred to me that he might have moved to California, after all.

I had always searched for him. There was no Internet back then of course, nor had I any money to hire a Private Detective. So instead, wherever we’d travel in California, I would find a phone book and scan the contents for my Italian surname. When my parents took us to Disneyland, I scurried away with the hotel phone book, wondering if Los Angeles might have been my father’s ultimate destination. If we were in Monterey County, or Mendocino County, I would always find a way to sneak to a phone booth, where the telephone books hung on chains, waiting for my perusal. But book after book after book, I never found my surname in any of them. At some point, I had almost given up on ever finding my father; and looking in phone books became more of a compulsion than anything else.

One afternoon my parents took me to Mill Valley, to their friend Fritz’ house.

My parents were drinking and playing music downstairs, and I was amusing myself, wandering around the house and gardens. I came across a phone book in the hallway, and half heartedly opened it. I had never looked in a Marin County phone book before, so I knew I couldn’t pass it by. I flipped to the “S’s” as I always did, and scanned the contents for my surname. But this time, I had to blink twice to believe what I was actually seeing. There it was. The sight I had dreamed of my entire life; a half a page listing of nothing but my somewhat rare Italian last name.

I skimmed through the first names quickly, looking for the name Tony, but I couldn’t find it. I almost gave up; after all, it wasn’t inconceivable that this list of people were not my relatives, even if we had the same name. But suddenly I spotted the name Mike, and then the name Renato. I swallowed hard, as I knew that those were the names of my uncles; my father’s brothers. That couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought. I felt dizzy.

I looked down the hallway to make certain that Fritz and my parents were occupied and I could still hear them laughing downstairs. The coast was clear. I picked up the receiver from the phone and slowly dialed the number that was next to the name Mike. I will never forget how loud the ringing was in my ear; it was as if time was standing still. “Hello?” Someone had answered. It was the voice of an adult male, and he had a thick Italian accent.

“Hello. My name is Cathy. And I believe I might be your niece. My father is Tony?”

I heard a “click” on the other end of the line. I could hardly believe my ears. I yelled out “Hello? Hello?” several more times, but the phone had gone dead. He had hung up on me.

Undeterred but angry, I scanned the names again. Maybe my father wanted the fact that he had a family to remain a secret; maybe his brother knew he never wanted to be found. But as I pondered this, I saw it, under the “A’s.” Antonio. Of course. My father was listed as Antonio.

My heart began to thump loudly, and I felt a strange tingling sensation go up my neck and toward my face like slowly burning lava. I knew it was him. But I was frozen. I couldn’t make the call; I was too scared, especially after the way my Uncle had just treated me. So instead, I found a pencil and paper, and jotted the number down. It was a long drive home from Mill Valley that evening; as I never revealed to my mother or my step-father that I had found my biological father at last. But I held a very special secret, on a little scrap of paper in my pocket, and I checked to make certain it was still there at least a dozen times.

It wasn’t until the next day that I revved up enough courage to make the phone call. I sat for at least an hour on the floor, the phone between my legs, and that little scrap of paper sitting on the floor just above the phone. I must have picked up the receiver at least a half a dozen times preparing to call him, but I would always hang it up at the last second. Then suddenly, with a burst of adrenalin, I found my fingers dialing the number. I didn’t hang up, but my throat was so dry I couldn’t swallow. The phone was ringing. And someone was picking it up. I held my hand over my chest to try and quiet the thumping that was that was so intense it was scaring me.

“Hello?” It was the voice of a little girl, about 10 years old. I couldn’t fathom who it might be.
"Hello. Is Tony there, please?”
There was a pause on the other end. “Yeah, who is this?”
Then it was my turn to pause. I was trembling all over. “I’m his daughter.”
The little girl laughed into the phone, and it startled me. “No, you’re not,” she said. “I AM.” And then I heard the familiar “click” and the phone went dead. These people certainly knew how to hang up a phone, I thought.

His daughter? This was impossible. My father was a lonely skipper, navigating his vessel toward distant lands. His only daughters were my sister and I, whom he left behind long ago in order to pursue his dreams.

I felt irate that I had been hung up on a second time; so without hesitation I called right back. I was prepared to have a fight with this little girl, who was pretending to be my sister. But this time, an older gentleman answered the phone. He sounded exactly the way Mike did, with a thick Italian accent. I knew it was him. And the way he said hello was so full with grief that my soul darkened like a gray cloud. It felt as though the whole world was crying. There was a lifetime of regret and grief in that hello.

“Hello?” I said back, almost inaudibly. I felt tears rising in my nasal passages and in my throat. For a minute there was only breathing. I could hear my father’s breath. And he could hear mine. We both knew we were connected.
“Why do you say you’re my daughter?” he finally asked.
“My name is Cathy, and....” but I didn’t have a chance to finish my sentence.
“Catherine Anne, yes? Hello Caterina. This is your Papa’. I’ve been expecting this call for many years. But this has to be a private conversation, do you understand? My son and daughter do not know I had a family previously. Capish?”
“Yes.” I hardly knew what I was saying. I had just learned I had a half brother and sister. That he had remarried and had a family.
“I cannot believe this is you,” he said, his voice filled with pain. “I cannot believe I am talking to my daughter. Do you know I love you? I have always loved you.”
“You have?”
“Si’ Bella. I must ask you, are you robust?”
I thought it was an odd question, and I began to giggle. I wasn’t even sure I knew what the word meant.
“What do you mean, am I robust?”
“I saw a girl on a bus one day. She would be about your age. She looked like my daughter. Very robust. I mean healthy, you understand? Vigorous.”
I laughed at this. “I guess so, but the only bus I take is the school bus,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said sadly, seemingly disappointed. “How is your sister?”
“She’s here but she’s not sure she wants to talk to you. Maybe later.”
“Oh,” he said sadly again. “And how is your brother?”
His last comment echoed like a menacing statement in the back of my subconscious. “Brother?” I said. I had no idea what brother he was talking about, but a part of me knew that he must be telling the truth. He is my father, and he would certainly know if I had a brother. But surely he must be mistaken, I thought to myself. “I don’t have a brother,” I finally answered.
“Oh,” he said sadly again. “Hmmmm. They still haven’t told you, eh? I always worried they might never tell you. That’s why I had to leave, do you understand? Capish?”

I can’t remember what happened after that moment, or how the phone eventually got hung up. I know my sister eventually came to the phone and spoke with him as well. But the only thing I could think about was this strange confession he made. It was a concept I could hardly wrap my brain around, this idea that I had a brother, and if I did, I wondered where he was.

When my sister got off the phone, I asked her if he had mentioned a brother. When she said that he hadn’t, I excitedly repeated everything that Tony had told me, and asked her what on earth he might be talking about. She looked as stunned as I, and in moments we were practically screaming, shouting back and forth dozens of theories and possibilities. Suddenly my sister said, “I KNOW WHO IT IS!”

She ran back to her room, and a moment later emerged carrying a picture of our Uncle George, the boy I had lived with half of my life. She held his picture up next to her face. We had always known they looked exactly alike, my sister and my brother; in fact people often mistook them for twins when they were very little. And throughout our lives we’d all remarked how our noses were the same, or our curly hair. “GEORGE IS OUR BROTHER.”

When the truth is presented to you in black and white, which it literally was, there are no longer any questions. This revelation was like a giant puzzle piece which had always been missing, which suddenly snapped into place with a tremendous thud. All of the questions we raised about George’s origins all of our lives came sharply into focus.

I remembered the time George came into my bedroom, looking as though he were about to burst into tears. “I found adoption papers,” he told me. “I’m adopted. I’m not related to any of you.”

“That’s impossible,” I told him. “We look exactly alike. We have to be related. You must have misunderstood what you saw.”

I also remembered the time George and I were reading the Guinness Book of World Records, and we came across the oldest woman to have ever given birth at that time. George said, “This is strange. My mother was only a few years younger than the oldest woman to have ever given birth. Is that right?” We both narrowed our eyebrows in disbelief, and we started trying to figure out exactly how old my grandmother was when she gave birth to George. And it seemed a bit remarkable.

I also remembered a lifetime of funny looks, every time a stranger would think we were all siblings. When we’d argue back and tell them he was our Uncle, a strange look would come over their faces; a look of disbelief. Now I know what those looks meant. They were thinking, “He is your brother but they’ve lied to you about it for some reason. What a pity.”

All of these thoughts filled my brain and I knew my sister was correct. “Let’s go wake up Mom and ask her,” my sister suggested. And that is exactly what we did.

In a moment we had dragged my mother out of bed and sat her down in front of us. There was no mistaking our exuberance and our horror; I believe she knew what was coming. Her face was greatly pained, as if this was a moment she had expected for a long time. She weakly lit a cigarette and her hand was shaking. We had something important to say. And we had no time to waste in explaining how we knew what we knew; there was no mention of the fact that I had found Tony or that I had called him. Or that Tony told us we had a brother. We just came straight out with it. “Is George our brother?” we asked her.

My sister and I have often recounted the way my mother took a long drag off her cigarette and let the smoke out in the slowest steady stream we had ever seen. Then she took the deepest breath, and said only one word. “Yes.” She whispered it.

My sister and I were verging on hysteria. The questions tumbled out of our mouths faster than we could ask them; but we were filled with anger and regret and suspicion. My bubble of innocence popped so loud it was almost audible. I was certain I would never trust anyone, ever again.

“Let me explain,” she said. I looked at my mother and she seemed strangely peaceful; almost relieved that the secret had been revealed at long last. “My mother, your grandmother, married a much younger man than she. You both know that Beba is 20 years younger, don’t you?” Beba was like our grandfather, even though he was only a couple of years older than my mother.

We nodded. “My mother was too old to have children, but her husband wanted a child very badly. And my mother didn’t want to lose him. She first asked if she could adopt you,” my Mom said, looking at my sister. “But I wouldn’t hear of it. And then she began to beg us; Tony and me. My mother begged us to have a child for her that she could raise as her own. I became a surrogate for her. We gave George away the moment he was born; I wasn’t even allowed to hold him. Tony was never happy after that. He managed to impregnate me with you, Cathy, and then he left. My mother swore me to secrecy, and I agreed never to tell her secret. And now I have to ask you girls to never reveal this secret. You cannot tell your brother what you know, EVER. And you can not tell your grandmother that you know either. Do you both promise me? Swear to me.”

This moment became another crossroads of my life; an instant where, in retrospect, I know I had sold my soul. I had agreed to lie.

My sister and I both nodded. My mother stood up. “I haven’t even told my husband this. I’m going to tell him now.” Even my step-father didn’t know. I was in such shock, I could hardly comprehend it all.

It took me four years after this incident to go looking for my father in person, which I eventually did. The reason it took me so long was that I needed to process the news I’d been given in that first exchange with him; I didn’t have the room in my psyche to handle any more. I had been asked to keep a secret; a secret that was much too big to keep; and I wrestled daily with it; from the morality aspect, to the shame and the guilt. There was a dark shadow in the back of my mind that constantly mocked me and every day that I kept mum a little more toxic poison was released into my blood stream.

I actually wrote to “Dear Abbey” at the time, to ask what I should do, but Abbey never responded or published my letter. Every time I saw George, I felt as though the secret would literally rip my skin apart, as if I was sewn together with seams. I was going to burst. His continued jokes about our Italian heritage suddenly struck me as painful; and he would cock his head and wonder why I had stopped laughing.

To this day, I abhor secrets. And I abhor lies. Secrets will eat you alive. When you keep a secret, your soul becomes a dungeon where you bury the truth; and it begins to fill with spider webs and dust. One lie causes you to tell another lie, and soon they begin to pile on top of each other, and there’s no room for anything else. And every day your psyche feels a little bit filthier, yet you know there is no way to clean yourself. Your innocence has been shot like a hapless victim in the back; your gullibility has been fatally injured and it’s stumbling away from you, running and bleeding. Your soul begins to smell like toxic fumes and its stench begins to leak into your nostrils and onto your taste buds. Yet you have no choice but to keep on dancing; you must dance in a world of pretend, you must dance to the beat of deceit, and you must plaster a disingenuous smile across your lips, so that no one will ever know.

This secret changed my life irrevocably; because I have never really trusted the world ever again. People lie constantly; and they are just as constant about justifying why they do so. Perhaps it is to protect another, or to spare someone else pain. People lie to get a job; they lie about where they’ve been; they lie about what they’ve done. And if you question them, they always recite some vague reason as to why it’s acceptable. But I don’t think there is ever a reason, and ultimately there is never a purpose. And the irony is, the truth will always come out. And it isn’t until it does, that you will ever be free.

The only thing that kept me sane was writing. Writing, to me, seems to be the antithesis of keeping secrets. I needed to express everything; I needed to reveal what the world was trying to hide.

We never told our grandmother or George that we knew, but we told everyone else. Even his girlfriend knew. Soon, everyone in George’s life was forced to keep this toxic secret. He was the only person who didn’t know who he was; a birthright, I should think.

It was Tony who eventually told George, many years later. My brother walked into his father’s house that evening as one man, and he walked out as quite another. He had just met Tony for the first time; years after my sister and I were in constant contact with him. Eventually Tony would tell his own children about us, and we became one big family. I constantly urged my brother to pay him a visit, but he had little interest. “He’s not MY father,” he would tell me, “why should I go?” But Tony begged us to keep on trying.

The night George finally agreed to go, the door opened, and Tony stood there, staring. “Georgio,” he said. “Let’s go take a walk.” We all knew what was coming. I shook my head in Tony’s direction, pleading with him not to reveal the secret. But Tony ignored me. I knew George was confused as to why they needed to leave the minute we had all arrived at his house for dinner, but George left with him. And when he came back, he looked like a different person.

My brother used to laugh easily; his eyes crinkling in an adorable way that always made me smile. But after he learned the truth, I never saw him laugh as easily again. Certainly he still teases, and still makes jokes. But I can always see the shadow in his eyes; a darkness and melancholy that first appeared the evening he learned the truth.

Some days, I think that they should have just put arsenic in our Halloween candy. It might have been easier than what they did do; and that was to release deadly venom into the bloodstreams of our souls, a toxic poison that still kills us all a little bit every day.

Yes, maybe the arsenic would have been better. At least it’s a little more honest. Capish?
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Me in Kindergarten

Me in Kindergarten