Unemployed Again

Unemployed Again

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Grandmother's suicide (said the spider to the fly.)

I never thought my grandmother was the type of person who would kill herself. She was too self-absorbed, too spirited, and much too selfish to take herself willingly out of the game. Or at least that’s what I thought.

I had always seen my grandmother as someone who was both cunning and artistic; not unlike a spider. I do know that she spent a lifetime spinning a web that while beautiful, had a soul purpose of trapping prey. But I didn’t know how many fell victim to her silky ambush until I was much older.

As a child, I considered her a larger than life sort of character. She wasn’t like my friend’s grandmothers; there was no grey bun or dowdy clothes. In fact, we couldn’t even call her grandmother; we had to call her “Gogo” which was originally my sister’s attempt at saying her first name Dorothy.

My grandmother considered herself quite fetching, and loved to dress the part. She was a Cracker Jack seamstress, certainly the best I’ve ever seen. Not only did she make all of her own dresses, but mine and my siblings as well. She rarely needed a pattern. She would lay the fabric on the floor, and like a mad artist clutching a pair of scissors, she would quickly snip out the sections she would need for her creation, take them to her sewing machine, and hours later would present the most beautiful creations. Perfect tailored suits for the boys, custom fitted dresses for the girls. She herself always looked stunning. She preferred tight dresses, sometimes backless. With a perfect hat and gloves to match, and her rather tallish frame, she would make quite an entrance into any room. She thought her long slender legs were her most valuable asset, and she loved to hike up her dresses as high as possible whenever she had the chance, and would revel in the attention she received for her striking gams.

When I got older, she’d make regular shopping trips to Europe and would buy clothes for me. She’d bring me back the tightest pants and skimpiest of halter tops to wear. “Show it off, Duckie,” she’d tell me. “Show the world just how fetching you are. Be a heartbreaker.”

My grandmother came from England. With her thick cockney accent, and the gift of story-telling, I could listen to her for hours. Some days, she might regale me with tales about World War II in England. “Yes, there were strict rations. But I bought me butter and me eggs from the black market. I wasn’t having any of that nonsense. I had a husband I wanted to keep happy.”

Other days, she’d tell me about the poltergeists she believed lived amongst us. “Don’t be frightened,” she’d tell me when something mysterious and peculiar would happen, which was a regular occurrence whenever I was with her. Things would disappear and reappear; cigarettes would go out cold, and once her dress flew up. “They’re just having a bit of fun with you. Be grateful that their existence proves that there’s a world beyond the one we know.”

She also believed in ghosts. Deceased members of her family would often visit her, even more so as she grew old. “Duckie, come quick,” she’d yell at me as I lay asleep in bed. “Look at this imprint on the bed. My brother was just sitting here, real as life he was. He was welcoming me to the other side. I couldn’t make up that imprint, now could I? Do you see it? Feel it, it’s still warm.”

One day she told me about a flying saucer that flew right over head. “Big as life it was, Duckie. As real as you standing there. It was a total eclipse of the sun. I could smell it.”

My grandmother was on a steady diet of methamphetamines. Although the medication was prescription, we all knew that what she was taking was speed. “Oooh, I love my tablets, Duckie. I get so depressed sometimes, you know. So sad. And all I need do is take one of my tablets and the world is right again.” When she took her tablets, she was full of piss and vinegar, and had boundless energy. She would do hours and hours of yoga, an activity few people had ever heard of back then. She would play the piano and sing. She would paint landscapes and flirt with young men.

When I was younger, she would usually make me a cup of English tea to sip while she told me her stories. When she put the kettle on the stove, I knew she was in the mood to talk. “You must SHOCK the tea bag,” she’d tell me as she’d pour the boiling water into the cup. “Otherwise the tea will be just dreadful.” But when I got a little older, her choice of beverage changed. “Vodka Orange?” she’d ask me, when I was only 15. I would never say no. “Let’s have ourselves a chat then, shall we?” she’d say as she poured me my drink over the rocks.

Over cocktails, she’d often talk to me about sex. “I believe in enjoying sex to the fullest,” she’d tell me, almost getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. She was always very dramatic. “Me Grand Mum couldn’t enjoy sex at all. Her and my grandfather’s sleeping costumes had holes cut into each of them, in the strategic place, so they could have relations without touching or seeing each other, do you understand?” she’d ask me and I’d nod. “And it wasn’t just me Grand Mum. Me own Mum thought it a rather dirty activity herself. When I was going through puberty, she talked to me about sex, told me how disgusting it was. She advised me just to lie there and think of the Queen,” Gogo told me. “But I wasn’t going to have any of that nonsense. I enjoy the passion, do you understand Duckie?”

My grandmother left her husband, my mother’s father, when my mother was only a little girl. They met in the 1920’s when my grandmother played piano in a tavern, and he was hired to sing. “He was a lovely man,” she’d tell me, “but he was too proper English for my taste. I have always been a bit daring, if you understand,” she’d say with a lift of her eyebrows. But she didn’t just leave him, she left him for another man. “But when I first laid eyes on Spishek, oh Duckie, I could have fainted dead on the spot. He was so dashing; he nearly took my breath away.”

My grandmother met Spishek, a Polish air force pilot, during World War 11. A good 22 years her junior, she immediately lied about her own age when she met him. She went so far as to lie about my mother to him as well; she didn’t want him to know she was old enough to have a daughter my mother’s age. Whenever Spishek was around, she forced my mother to say that they were cousins. She would do anything to have him; she would do anything to keep him. She would tell any lie as long as it supported the fantasy she was trying to create.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. The spider was dropping down her web at an alarming speed. The silk was unraveling out of her abdomen faster than I could imagine. But my grandmother’s silk was so sticky, that Spishek never had a chance.

In their wedding photo, you can hardly tell the difference in their ages. My grandmother stands tall, wearing a slim-fitting dark dress; I have always wondered what color it was. Although the picture is black and white, I have always imagined that the dress was red. Wearing red on her wedding day would be something my grandmother would do.
The dress hugs her figure tightly until just below the knee than flounces in a frilly skirt at the bottom. Her legs are still visible in very high heels. She has an explosion of white flowers which dance over her left breast, and atop her curly hair she wears a wide brim hat, with a jungle of white flowers around the lip. Her painted mouth is smiling widely, and her expression is just like a spider that snagged an unsuspecting fly into her web.
"Will you walk into my parlor?" said the spider to the fly;
"'Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you may spy.

The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,

And I have many curious things

to show when you are there."

But Spishek looks a tad more innocent in the photograph. He has a dazed expression on his face, and he is looking off camera somewhere, as if he’s thinking, “What have I done?” He wears a loose fitting suit with a white flower and a white kerchief peaking from the breast pocket. He holds the fingers of my grandmother’s arm with his left hand, which she has tucked underneath his right arm.

"Oh no, no," said the little fly; "to ask me is in vain,

For who goes up your winding stair

can ne'er come down again."
We called Spishek “Beba”, and to me, he was my grandfather. To the children in the house, we thought Gogo and Beba looked like Ricky and Lucy Ricardo from the “I love Lucy” show. Gogo, like Lucy, had the same curly hair-do, and they seemed to dress in similar styles, with the most dramatic of hats. And Beba, with his thick accent and handsome swarthy looks, could be a dead ringer for Ricky.

In front of the children, my grandparents were just like Lucy and Ricky, affable, tender and funny. But their marriage more resembled that of Lucy and Desi Arnez; it was passionate, volatile, and explosive. I could never understand what the dark cloud was that seemed to follow them around. But that is because I didn’t know the truth. That they had put a burden on their marriage that few couples could withstand; they shared a secret. But more importantly, they shared a lie.

My grandmother had coerced my mother into giving her a child.

My grandmother would have done anything for her young husband. He eventually forgave her for lying about her age, but he never gave up on the idea of having children. My grandmother, in her 40’s, tried and tried to conceive, but she never could get pregnant. She feared her young husband would leave her, and find a younger woman who could bare his children.

She was desperate. She asked my Mom for her only child, her daughter, Chris. My older sister.

“You can have loads more children,” my grandmother told my mother, trying to convince her. “Just give me Christine. Spishek and I cannot conceive and he wants children so badly. Please.”

My mother refused. My grandmother begged. She fainted. She pleaded. My mother would not relent.

“Then have another one for me, Duckie. Have a child and I’ll raise him. We’ll never tell a soul. The child will be known as mine and Spishek’s. Please.”

My grandmother eventually wore her down, and my mother became a surrogate for her own mother. And the day she gave birth to my brother George, she immediately relinquished him. My mother never even held him. The doctor handed over her first born son directly into her own mother’s arms. My father had not wanted this surrogacy, and even as my mother was in labor begged her not to give their son away. He left my mother after that; he couldn’t live with the lies. But he didn’t leave until he impregnated my mother with me. Then he was gone for good.

I was told my brother was my Uncle, and he was told his Mother was his sister. We all lived in one big house where they had to be reminded of their deceit every single day. From that day on, our family home, became a house of cards. Our foundation was no more solid than a floor of Jack’s, Queens and Aces. Our family was based on a falsehood, and thus everything that went on in our home was a sham.

We were in a web of lies. And in the center of that magnificent web, was a spider. A black widow.

My grandmother.

She had spun a silken masterpiece, a symmetrical tour de force, with threads that were nearly transparent, save for their sliminess, which glistened in the morning sun. Which gland had my grandmother used this time? Was she merely spinning thread to make a safety line, or was she making sticky silk for trapping prey. Or today might she be producing the finest of her threads to completely wrap and envelop the fly?
I’m still trying to understand the web that she wove over time. She created netting so complicated and coarse, that she was ultimately trapped in her own trap, and she became her own prey. She was strangled by the complex maze of threads that she herself created. She had become the fly.

It was truth which was the real super hero in this story. At first, the truth only barely seeped out; it was a trickle, if that. But soon thereafter the trickle became a flow, and that flow grew in strength and magnitude, and it became a river, which overtook the banks of our reality. The truth has a way of doing that. You can suppress it for a time, but it has a strange way of wriggling out; it is a little like a Houdini. And this truth was eventually set free, and one by one we learned the facts about who my brother really was.

Eventually, we all knew. But we didn’t let onto my grandmother that we knew. We grew up in a house of lies, so it was easy for us to protect her delusions for a time. Besides, my mother begged us not to let her know that we had learned the truth.

My brother was still living alone with her, that winter that she died. He came home one day from college to find her sobbing. “Mum, what’s wrong?” he asked her, scrambling to his knees and grabbing both her hands in his. But he knew what was wrong. He had known what was wrong ever since he learned himself about the truth of his identity. He knew that she cried nearly every single day because of the secret she held inside; because of the lifetime of lies.

It was the same pain I had seen in my mother’s eyes my entire life.

It was that day that the final bits of truth at last came out. Spontaneously, my brother confessed that he knew. “Mummy, I know. I know. I know the truth. And I love you.”
My grandmother’s tears stopped and her gray eyes glanced upwards to his face. A look of recognition took over her expression. Perhaps there was just a flicker of relief, as if she’d been unburdened at last. But soon her face expressed a look of horror and shame.
The next day, Gogo called my mother. “I won’t be making the English Trifle for Christmas this year, Duckie,” she told my mother. “Be a good girl, won’t you, and make it this year? Your trifle is every bit as good as mine; why I taught you of course. Be a dear?”

The next day she called me. “Don’t buy me a Christmas present this year, Duckie,” she told me, her voice sounding weak. She was only 74.

“What do you mean?” I cried. “I already bought you one thing, and it’s wrapped and under my tree.” I had bought her a book about Princess Di’s wedding, which had only just happened.

“No ducks, take it back if you could. I won’t need any presents this year. Tell your sister too.”

The next day, my brother came home to find her about to swallow a mountain of pills. She had dozens and dozen spilled into her lap, and she was staring down at them. She had always liked her tablets, here and there, but her doctors had long cut her off. And to make matters worse, she had just gotten out of the hospital from a bad case if pneumonia. They had put her on steroids, and she was forbidden to have any other medication whatsoever. “Mum,” George yelled, grabbing her arm. “What the hell are you doing? You’re not supposed to be taking any pills! Are you trying to kill yourself?” My brother took her pills away from her and she burst into tears. It was too late. Her fantasy had all fallen apart. Spishek was gone. Her shame was plastered onto each of our faces. “You promise me you won’t take any more pills?” my brother said, scolding her. She nodded as if to promise that she wouldn’t. But the next day, she would swallow as many pills as she could.

I was driving alone that day in my white mustang, speeding down the coast highway toward Half Moon Bay. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, my hood came loose and flew up with a terrifying jolt, and blocked my vision. I skidded to the side of the road, shaken, but relieved that I was able to stop safely.

But then I realized my heart was thumping for a different reason. I knew. I just knew. I knew the hood and my grandmother were connected. For some inexplicable reason I knew that the hood flying up was my grandmother, saying good-bye.

I raced home. By the time I reached my front door I was sobbing myself. I spotted her wrapped gift under the Christmas tree as I reached for the phone.  I called her apartment over and over and over, but there was no answer. At this point, Gogo rarely left the house. I became frantic.

At last someone picked up. It was her next door neighbor. And when I identified myself, she promptly hung up on me.

It took several tries before the woman would talk to me. She was breathless and teary, and explained how she’d seen my grandmother through the window, lying motionless on the floor. Neither loud knocks nor frenzied screams seemed to rouse my grandmother, and eventually the neighbor broke the window and crawled in to help. She thought she had felt a pulse and had called paramedics. “They’re here now,” she told me. “They’re trying to resuscitate her right now,” she said, as she hung up on me for the fifth time.

I knew my grandmother was dead. She died when my hood flew up.

I never thought my grandmother was the type of person to take her own life. I thought her too self-absorbed, too spirited, and too selfish to take herself willingly out of the game. But everything she had worked so hard to create, was gone. Even the illusions.

My grandmother was a spider caught in its own web; she was nothing but a corpse enveloped by yards of her own slimy textile. She had become tangled in her own web of lies.

I learned that day that lies can kill us.

An itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout. Down came the lies and washed the spider out. Up came the sun and it dried up all the pain, and the itsy bitsy spider lives in our hearts again.
I apologize for being gone so long...life can just get too busy sometimes.  Please feel free to leave a comment below.  Happy Labor Day Weekend!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

James Brown and Me; Harlem, N.Y.

The only white faces on the street belonged to me and my companions. All of the other faces were black. They smiled at us from behind their paintbrushes as they painted broad brightly colored murals on the storefronts. They leered at us as if we were a curiosity they had never really seen before. They nodded at us with shy respect as if they thought us brave to visit their neighborhood at all. But mostly they just smiled.

The only other white faces were on tourist busses that rolled up and down the street, carrying drivers who described Harlem culture over loud speakers. The white faces peered out of the glass in long rows. Their eyes were both probing and inquisitive, yet they told of fear. It was as if they were on an African Safari, and wouldn’t dream of getting out of the vehicle to join the natives and wild animals in their habitat. They preferred the safety of something on wheels.

I could only laugh. I had always wanted to go to Harlem. I had long imagined it like a brightly woven tapestry of culture. From the art, to the gospel, to the jazz, I had always been intrigued by this jewel of Manhattan.

I was intrigued by the Apollo Theater which had featured jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, as well as reputedly being a hangout for Malcolm X.

I was intrigued by the restaurants, spilling out the smells of Soul Food into the gritty streets. I could imagine cooks boasting of hot ribs which fell right off the bone, and pork chops that induced finger licking.  I heard the black eyed peas sizzling in bacon fat.   I could smell the sweet potato pie, and the Rum and coconut cakes baking on every corner.

I was intrigued by the churches. And I was intrigued by the art; the murals of their culture painted on every storefront. All of it spoke to me. And I wanted to go.

My family didn’t think it a very good idea.

I remember that when I expressed my desire to go to Harlem to my family, many of them discouraged me from going. I had been born into a family of left wing liberals, open minded and intellectual folk who fought against racism at every turn, and I could hardly believe my ears. “We’re just afraid for your safety,” they told us. “It’s a fact that Harlem is full of crime.” I believed they had succumbed to the fear mongers who exaggerated stories to create drama for their news shows.  I was not deterred in the slightest.

 In fact, I made the pilgrimage to Harlem twice, and both trips were unforgettable journeys.

I remember attending a gospel service at a downtown Baptist Church one Sunday. My companion and I were the only white faces in the church that Sunday morning, and as the Ladies arrived, I had never seen in my life such a dizzying array of costumes. They wore every color of the rainbow; one might be dressed head to toe in orange, with an enormous orange hat perched on their head and orange right down to their orange shoes. Another would be in lime green, and the third in purple. Each hat was more outrageous than the next; reminding me of Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. I noticed there were very few men, only women and children. They preached hard about the black men abandoning their families. But mostly they just made music. The band made you want to jump out of your seat and dance in the aisles, which most of us did. And the singers raised the roof.

I remember visiting the Apollo. I touched the walls as if to soak in the history. I remember buying street art from street vendors. I treasured that art for years to come.

But the best moment of all was the night we went to the Cotton Club.

The Cotton Club called me like no other place in Harlem. Even the name evoked romantic feelings inside of me, and I could almost taste the history when I said the name of the Club out loud.

The Cotton Club.

Since its inception in 1923, The Cotton Club has gained worldwide notoriety for booking the finest musical entertainment in the country. It has been home to numerous legendary greats, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. I found that the thought of going was irresistible.

But even the locals warned us we might not want to hang out in Harlem at night. “You’re fine during the day,” our new friends would tell us. “But after dark is another matter.”

But it didn’t stop us. We were determined to go. And that night, we jumped in a cab and entered the Cotton Club just after eight o’ clock in the evening. It was already packed.

A few eyebrows rose as we found our way to our table. It was apparent that the regular patrons were a little surprised to see a group of white folk enter their club, but mostly, all I remember  were smiles. Smile after smile. A sea of smiles.

“Excuse me,” I said to the cocktail waitress. “I hear it is not at all uncommon for some big names to wander in here on any given Saturday night.”

She smiled big. “Well, you’re in for a treat. Rumor has it that James Brown and his entourage is coming in tonight.”

We were all stunned. Our eyes got as wide as saucers. “THE James Brown?”

She laughed. “Yeah, yeah, that’s what they’re sayin’. I’ll keep you posted.”

But she didn’t need to update us. When James Brown entered the Club, he would have been pretty hard to miss. His presence alone filled the room with energy. His black cape made a dramatic twist to his velvet suit.

Standing beside him was the Reverend Al Sharpton. Beside the Reverend stood the X Mrs. Sharpton.
Behind him stood a half a dozen body guards, all sporting black suits and sunglasses.

Behind the guards we spotted the actress Clarice Taylor, who played Anna Huxtable, the grandmother on the Cosby Show.

The cocktail waitresses fell all over this tribe of Greats, and ushered them to the very front row of the Club, directly in front of the stage. But they weren’t far from us, and I watched James Brown like an eagle hunting it’s prey; I was glued on every move he made. I was literally bubbling over with excitement.

The band called Rev. Al Sharpton’s wife to the stage almost immediately. I really didn’t know much about her at the time, but she turned out to be funny and engaging, and she had a powerful singing voice. She wowed the crowd with a James Brown song, and as she performed, the crowd went wild.

But I don’t think anyone went as wild as I did.

I was beside myself, singing at the top of my lungs, dancing on my seat. I was swept over by a passion I can hardly explain.

When Mrs. Sharpton finished her song, she pointed in my direction, and said loudly into her mic, “Yo sho look like you’re having one hell of a good time!”

The crowd at the Club burst into laughter. I looked to my left, and then to my right, wondering who she was talking about.

“I’m talkin’ to YOU!” She said, pointing directly at me.

“Me?” I whispered pointing to my chest.

“Yes, YOU. You got the spirit in you TONIGHT! You sound GOOD. You know any James Brown songs? Why don’t you get up here on stage and sing him one.”

Suddenly, my reality snapped out of focus. I was dreaming, certainly, and Mrs. Sharpton’s voice started sounding as if it were underwater. This surely couldn’t be happening. My cheeks were hot.

My friends all started shoving at my shoulders, pushing me out of my chair. “They want you to sing,” they’re all whispering. “Go.”

“But why?”


It was one of the craziest moments of my life.

To this day, I can’t remember which James Brown song I sang. I was in some sort of delirious auto pilot as I took my place on the stage and told the band the song I would like to sing. The music started in earnest, and I found my way to the mic.

But what gave me chills was seeing James Brown himself, seated directly in front of me. He removed his sunglasses and stared me down, eyeball to eyeball. And then he winked.

And I began to sing. I was in Harlem, New York at the Cotton Club. I was singing a James Brown song to James Brown himself. And when James Brown got up to sing after me, I realized that in a way, I had just opened for James Brown. It was an ethereal moment. I can’t remember finding my way back to my seat. I was utterly limp.

I often think that people who live their lives in fear miss out on all of the best stuff.

I can still hear the pianist tickling the ivory and doing a tap dance up a ladder of sound. I can still feel the saxophone blowing kisses on the back of my neck as I cried the blues to the moon. I can still smell the sugar on the streets of Harlem. They smelled like cinnamon buns. Hot and sticky.

I can still remember that hot summer evening in Harlem. It smelled like caramel.
Please feel free to leave a comment down below.  And thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pickle Nose

During the summer between my Kindergarten year and First Grade, my mother moved my sister and me to a rural town called Half Moon Bay, an isolated hamlet which hugged the Pacific Coast and a bay the shape of a crescent moon. We were moving in with my step-father Ray, a man my Mom planned on marrying. He had found us a cottage near the beach, and rent was only $60 per month.

It was a house that is difficult to forget, as each room was painted a bright vivid jewel tone. Living there was like living inside of a Kaleidoscope, and I would roam from a purple room to an orange one, through a yellow one and into the green. It was the 60’s and the house only matched the hues of an era, where love and peace had taken on new meaning. But the coast side seemed far from the revolution that was happening in San Francisco only 30 miles away. Remote, inaccessible and secluded, the town felt more like an island, with a low moaning fog horn as our only reminder that we were a part of the world.

That summer I only had cypress trees and the succulent plants which lined the bluffs to keep me company. For the most part, my sister and I stayed indoors and played records; she was determined to teach me all of the latest dances before I started “real school.” I remember long afternoons where I struggled to learn The Twist, or The Jerk, watching my sister’s white go-go boots teach me the tempo. But that summer isn’t a joyful memory for me; I remember feeling scared. The world outside of those fluorescent walls seemed ominous to me. I was certain there would be death or dismemberment if I explored the town too thoroughly. The farmers in their tractors, the fields of artichokes and Brussels sprouts, the hermit crabs in the tide pools all intrigued me. But I felt frozen with fear. I dreamed of the suburban street where we had just moved from, where lawns were all identical and there was a sense of order in a neighborhood. But Half Moon Bay felt more like chaos to me; I saw ghosts everywhere, from the haunted trees to the rusty boats in the harbor.

That summer seemed endless, the way that summers do when you’re very young. I was painfully lonely, and I began to look forward to the first day of school with excited anticipation. I wanted to make friends. While I enjoyed spending time with my sister, we were too far apart in age to be fit companions, and I needed someone who spoke my language. I chose a very proper dress for my first day, a red knit dress my grandmother had made which sported a big yellow school bell over the heart. I felt very grown up as I walked into a brand new school that morning. But my excitement turned into anxiety almost immediately.

I saw a huge girl in the corner. She was at least twice the size of any of us, maybe even more. She looked out of place, and it took me some time to realize that she was both retarded and older than the rest of us, even though she was in our class. She was pleasant enough in an awkward way, and I found her to be more of an oddity than anything else. But the other children teased her, calling her “Pickle Nose,” and taunting and bullying her. I thought it was horrible what they were doing to her, and it filled me with profound grief.

I was too afraid to try and befriend her. Not that I wanted to pal about with the big girl, I only wanted to say something nice, to soothe her somehow. She was often in the corner crying, but I didn’t dare approach her to pat her comfortingly on the arm. I couldn’t go against the crowd. It was a pack mentality, and I didn’t want them to know I didn’t agree with them.

It was then that I noticed a girl named Linda. Linda wasn’t afraid to go against the crowd at all; she walked right up to Pickle Nose and asked her to be her friend. I was startled by her bravery, and her maturity. I wished I could be so brave. But I knew the consequences of taking such a stand.

Within a matter of days, the children had turned on Linda for befriending the big retarded girl. And now it was this brave girl named Linda who was being called Pickle Nose. In fact, they hardly bothered the original Pickle Nose anymore. They’d found a new victim. And they were relentless in trying to make every day a living hell for her.

I admired Linda for the way she seemed to brush it off. Where I would have been terrified, she just went about her day as if the taunting children didn’t exist. She would spend her days with the original Pickle Nose, or would spend time by herself. I often noticed her. And it seemed that she noticed me as well. And one day, she had come up to me and introduced herself. “I’m Linda, do you want to be friends?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond at first, if I were willing to link arms with the girl who had cooties. I looked around to make sure that the other kids weren’t watching. I wasn’t sure what might happen to me if they spotted me talking with her. But it was then that I noticed the red ball in her hands.

I learned almost the first day of school that in order to be cool, you had to have a Super Ball. A small red rubber ball with a dramatic bounce was all the rage that year, and I begged my parents to buy me one. I, like all of the kids, would take our super ball out at recess and play a variety of games. But I noticed the ball that Linda was holding didn’t look like all the rest. “That’s not a Super Ball, is it?” was how I responded to her request.

“My Mom told me she didn’t have any money to buy a Super Ball. But I found this, and it’s close enough.”

Well, it wasn’t nearly close enough, I thought. In a time when everyone had to be exactly the same or face being ostracized, her huge red rubber ball didn’t fit in. Just like the original Pickle Nose, it was at least twice the size of all the others. It seemed to me she was breaking all the rules.

She threw it on the ground to show me, and I watched it hit the pavement like a bag of rocks. She laughed, knowing how ridiculous it looked.

“But it doesn’t even bounce,” I said laughing.

It was then that the ball rolled over to reveal a face. I didn’t believe what I was seeing at first, and bent down to retrieve the ball so I could study it more closely. On one side of the ball, she had carefully glued two eyes, a nose and a mouth that she had drawn on paper and glued. And then she had glued real hair to form a mustache and a beard. She took the ball from my hand and started squeezing it, and making a funny voice. “It doesn’t bounce,” Linda said, “but it talks. Watch.” Soon the ball was talking a mile a minute, making me laugh as loud as I could.

I was mesmerized with Linda and this ball. “Yes,” I said. “I would like to be your friend.” And so it began.

But I wasn’t brave enough to befriend Linda in the open. I carefully explained to her that because she was so intensely disliked at the school, that our friendship would have to remain private. We couldn’t let the children know we were friends, or else I would have to face the same ridicule as she did. She said she understood, but I always remember the pain in her eyes. And while we played together every day after school, and began sleeping over at each other’s houses almost nightly, we pretended not to know each other during the school day.

Every day at lunch Linda and I would sneak into the girl’s bathroom. We would take turns standing on the toilet so that only one pair of legs was visible underneath the door, should someone peek beneath to check for occupancy. We would eat our lunches that way, whispering and giggling, until we heard the bathroom door swing open and we’d eat in silence until the intruder left. We maintained our relationship like this for a long while.

Each day as we drove the big yellow school bus home, Linda and I would sit separately. I would fight back tears watching Linda when it was her stop. She would always begin to get out of her seat before the bus came to a complete halt; she was intent on getting a head start. Because once the big door swung open and Linda sprinted down the street toward home, she’d be chased by a gaggle of twits who would scream pejoratives and hurl insults toward her. The bus driver never did a thing about it. I would watch her until she turned the corner and I couldn’t see her anymore, praying every day she wouldn’t be hurt. But more important, I was struggling with my conscience.

It took me a long time to have the strength to face my guilt and make some changes. I’ll never forget the day when lunchtime came, and I said to Linda, “Let’s eat at the picnic bench today.” I remember the look of surprise and relief in her eyes. I remember how wonderful it felt to sit in the sunshine, laughing and eating peanut butter sandwiches together, while the kids surrounded us with looks of shock on their face. And I’ll never forget returning to the classroom that day after lunch and being pelted with chalk board erasers by all of the children, and the vicious screams of “Pickle Nose” in my direction.

But that was the end of it. I was well-liked, and my boyfriend was a popular boy who told the kids to shut up. And no one tormented me, or Linda, or the Original Pickle Nose ever again.

Years later Linda admitted to me that she resented me during the period when I hid our friendship behind a bathroom door of shame. And I told her how sorry I was, and that I did the best I could at the time. I’m still sorry it wasn’t enough. But despite that, Linda’s and my friendship has endured for forty-five years.

She didn’t invite me to her last birthday, for the first time in our lives. And she has spoken with me in soft tones how our lives have taken different directions. While we’re not estranged, it feels as if we are, as if I’m losing another sister.

I can still hear our laughter echoing over the rocks near our favorite blow hole at the beach. I can still hear the whir of my bicycle wheels as I chased her bike through the hay fields and through the cypress trees. I can still feel the sting of the salt air on my throat as I tipped it back to let out a roar of joy.

I had thought I was being a hero. But I only added to her shame and humiliation. Linda was the real hero. She had strength in the face of adversity that I’ve never forgotten. And she taught me to never hide how I feel just because it’s different. And I never have again.

To this day, I cannot look at a pickle without hearing those vicious taunts. While I try and enjoy this crisp cold snack, pickles will forever remind me of hatred and prejudice, of injustice and small minds. But worse, and a pickle reminds me of my own failures. And I choke on it.

Please feel free to leave a comment below!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Go Ask Alice

Even after they knew she was dead, they continued to shove birthday cake into her open mouth. It’s an image that will forever haunt me. But that’s not how it started.

My friend Siobhan was a personal chef to Alice Kent, a wealthy living legend with a history that could fill volumes of gold gilded manuscripts with fascinating tales. Kentfield, a quixotic little town in Marin County, California, was actually named after her family. She was born both wealthy and powerful, and lived a life that most of us only dream about. Her husband, Roger Kent, was a powerful attorney, who had Richard Nixon as his client. And Alice, a staunch democrat, was known for rubbing shoulders with Jimmy Carter. They knew artists and writers and famous people from around the globe. And they had lived the glamorous life that only a few, and very rich, can even imagine.

But by the time my friend was hired on as her personal chef, Alice was approaching the final days of her life. Alice was old, and her husband was dead. She had long ago given up her mansion and most of her belongings, and moved to a modest condominium in Kentfield. She used her money to surround herself with a variety of talent; she hired astrologers, masseuses, psychiatrists, writers, Professors, and live-in caretakers to fill her days. And my friend Siobhan cooked for her; filling her mouth with every delectable treat that she might have a yen for. “This morning, only a raspberry scone seems palatable,” she might say. And soon the kitchen filled with the sounds of Siobhan’s laughter, and the smells of rising yeast and butter.

Siobhan mentioned to me that Alice was looking for a writer, and I applied immediately. All of my life, I’ve dreamed of making my living as a writer. Of course, for the most part, this was just a pipe dream, imagined by a little girl who believed she would always have a mountain of opportunities at her feet. Life never turned out that way for me, and it seems I’ve always struggled in a career I detested. But occasionally, because I enjoyed writing so much, opportunities came my way. With my friend’s wonderful references, I was hired.

When I met Alice, I realized her body was on its last legs. She was so hunched over, I don’t think she stood over four feet tall, if she could stand at all. For the most part, she got around in a wheel chair, and for much of the day was hooked up to an oxygen tank. Her day was scheduled and regimented; a reflexologist might come to massage her feet at 9:00 a.m., and a holistic healer might be scheduled to give her nutritional recommendations at 10:00. But while her body was withering, her mind was sharp, and she had stories to tell. She asked me to help her tell those stories.

So my days at my new job began.

My shift was 6 hours, which took up most of Alice’s day. Certainly we might break for one of Siobhan’s exquisite luncheons, or to take tea on the veranda. But for the most part, my instructions were simple. She wanted me to talk with her. She wanted me to converse with her for hours and hours, while all the while I would be taping the discourse. Then using a transcriber with a sticky pedal, and her archaic apple computer, I would transcribe our entire conversation.

Following that, I would turn her words into prose.

I loved this job. Alice Kent was a fascinating spirit. She regaled me with stories about the Kennedys, rejoicing in little quips about what Jack or Bobby might have done as children, recounting her memories of the First Family with a wistful look in her eye. She captivated my attention as she told how she helped to start the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. “I had a vision, it was that simple,” Alice told me in her no nonsense way. “So I set out to create that vision. I’ve always had money.” She had met the Beatniks, including Jack Kerouac himself. “He was devilishly handsome,” I remember her telling me, her eyes lifting in a flirtatious way. I was mesmerized by her stories, and was always egging her on to go deeper and deeper into her rich history. I was fishing for golden material that I could use later that day when I turned her stories into living fairy tales.

In the mornings we would talk about anything and everything, from her Jungian Therapy work to her belief in astrology. Sometimes we’d have other guests, from Theology Professors to Historians, sitting in on our chats. It was always a far more difficult job to transcribe conversations when there were more than two people talking. I can still hear the whir of the tape and the clicking of the pedals, as I stepped on them rewinding and forwarding and rewinding again, to catch every phrase and nuance. Sometimes I would take a little respite and sneak into the kitchen to giggle with Siobhan, and poke a spoon into her aromatic concoctions. Then, in the afternoons, as Alice was having her massage, I would sit at the dusty Apple, turning her words into paragraphs and then into chapters, creating until it was time for me to go home for the day. I felt happy.

I hardly noticed the months passing, or how rapidly Alice’s health was deteriorating. She began to take to her bed more and more, and we began to have our taped conversations while she lay flat on her back, staring at the ceiling. She became incontinent, and our conversations often took an unpleasant turn to her urine concerns. Soon, a little potty was set up right next to my work station; and as I tried to create paragraphs of lyrical prose, I was treated to the sight of a bowl filled with yellow liquid, that didn’t have a particularly good smell. The condominium became more like a hospital to me as time went on, and it became more difficult to find my inspiration.

One cold winter morning in December, I arrived at work to find her alert and sitting up in her wheel chair. “Good morning, Alice,” I started. “You look well.”

“We need to talk,” she said gravely. “Please wheel me into the parlor. Siobhan is preparing our tea.”

I did as she asked, and was soon seated directly in front of her on a pink French Chintz chair. Siobhan came in and served us tea, and she and I exchanged a meaningful giggle as we always did. “Enough carrying on,” Alice warned us sharply. “I need some privacy with Cathy please.” Alice’s live-in caretaker ushered Siobhan from the room.

Alice didn’t waste any time. “I am about to die,” she told me. The words hung in the air as if they were heavier than most. As if they were incapable of dissolving.

“Of course you’re not,” I quickly assured her, the way we do even when we know we’re lying. “Look at you today! You look well.”

“I will be dead, in my estimation, in approximately a fortnight. In fourteen days, give or take a day or two. I’m not sure of the exact day,” she said, sipping on her tea and looking placidly out of the window.

I saw no sense in arguing with her. “In that case, I’ll miss you.”

“I know you’ll be flying to Washington D.C. next month for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I should have really done this sooner, but I have arranged for you and your companion to have a special invitation into the Presidential Ball, and two tickets to sit in the V.I.P. section when the President is sworn in. These are highly coveted tickets, and worth a mint. They’ll be arriving by mail.”

I was both overjoyed and touched, and I fell all over myself trying to thank her properly.

“Thank you so much, Alice. You’re too kind.”

“There’s more.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. With great difficulty, and with her fingers shaking, she unfolded it, and then held it out toward me. I put down my tea and reached over to fetch the paper she was holding. It was a check. And for a pretty healthy amount of money.

“What is this for?” I asked, astounded.

“I wanted you to have that. It’s too late to put you in my will, and my family would battle you for the money for years. Just take that and use it for something that would help you in your writing. Perhaps a magical trip somewhere. Perhaps a writer’s retreat. Whatever you think best. Perfect your gift. Hone your craft. Follow your passion.”

I was stunned. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome,” she said quietly. “But you mustn’t tell anyone. For instance, I am not leaving anything to any of the staff. And that includes Siobhan.”

This hurt me to my core. “But I don’t understand. Why not?” Siobhan had worked for her for years, while I’d barely completed thirteen months. Not to mention, she’d gotten me the job.

“As liberal as you know me to be, this might come as a shock to you. But the way I grew up, the cooks were merely servants. Your services are on another scale. You are an artist, and your efforts must be supported. You are not my employee. I am commissioning you for your talent. Do you see the difference?”

“Not really,” I told her. “Siobhan is an artist. She is a chef. What she creates in the kitchen is mind blowing.”

“And I agree with you,” she told me. “It’s just not the way I was raised to believe. I hope you don’t think less of me, and that you use this money to further your craft.”

“I will,” I said, folding the check and putting it in my pocket. “Thank you.”

“Because I can’t pinpoint my exact moment of death, it is impossible for me to know if I will die on your shift or not. It could be in the middle of the night, while you’re sleeping at home. But if at all possible, I would like you to be here.”

“I hope I will be.”

“Thank you. And once I’m gone, I’d like you to publish this book you’ve been working on for me. This is the legacy I want to leave behind. I’m certain my family will try and prevent it. I hope you’ll persevere. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Good,” she said loudly clapping her hands together. “Then let’s get busy. We have a lot of work to do. We need to come up with a viable ending for this story that has become my life. Go grab the tape recorder. I am ready.”

For the next two weeks, Alice and I worked tirelessly, my six hour shift stretching to eight or ten hours per day. In the evenings I would type away next to her bowl of urine, working as quickly as I could to write my conclusions to her life story. Time was running out, and Alice wanted to make sure it was completed.

The last day I saw Alice, it was her birthday.

She had been doing well during her last few weeks of her life. But when I arrived at work that day, I found her stretched out in her bed, moaning into her oxygen tank.
“Happy Birthday, Alice,” I said softly, as I stood at her bedside.
Alice took the oxygen tube out of her mouth for a moment, as if she was struggling to say something to me. I waited, but no words came. She put the tube back into her mouth, and began breathing slowly and methodically. The sound reminded me of snorkeling under water.
“Are you up to doing any work today?” I asked.

She shook her head vehemently, indicating that she was not. Then she took out her tube and spoke.

“You finish.” She said in a labored way. She raised her eyebrows as if to ask if I understood. I nodded. “I will lie here and listen to you type. I love the sound. It sounds like rain.” It took her several moments to get those three short sentences out. I didn’t want to tire her, so I took my place on the computer and began to write.
I wrote for hours, with the slow labored sounds of her breathing my only company. Once in awhile I’d look over and smile at her and she would only nod, as if to say, “Keep working.”

The afternoon slipped by, and by the day’s end, I felt as though I finally had a finished draft. “Alice, I think we have a book!” I shouted excitedly. “Would you like me to read you the end?”

She struggled to take the oxygen tube out of her mouth. “No,” she almost choked. “I. Trust. You.”

I smiled. “My shift is over .Would you like me to go home?”

“Not. Yet.” She struggled over every syllable. “Sit. With. Me.”

I pulled a chair near her bedside and took her hand. “Funny we finished the book on your birthday,” I said.

“Yes.” She tried to laugh. “And. My. Death. Day.”

I didn’t argue; I just held her hand tighter. We sat in silence for at least fifteen minutes.

“You. Go. Home,” she said at last. Her breath had become even shallower.

“Are you sure?”

“Good. Bye.  Good.  Luck.”

“You sure you don’t want me to stay?”

She shook her head again, although this time it seemed a bit sad. I grabbed my purse and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. The last words she said to me, as if with a sudden burst of energy, were “Do you hear the sounds of the birds singing?”

I strained my ears, but there were no birds. It was utterly silent. I nodded yes, and then left.

Alice died later that night.

After I left, her children came over and joined Siobhan for what was supposed to be a birthday celebration. Siobhan had just put the finishing touches on Alice’s birthday cake as the family arrived. But when the family went in to say hello to Alice, they realized it was only a matter of time.

They gathered around her bedside, and held hands with Alice, in a complete circle. Siobhan recounted later that they had called her in to join them. “It’s any minute now,” they had told her. “Come join our circle and say good-bye to mother.”

Siobhan wasn’t sure what to do with the birthday cake, but she wasn’t a chef that would allow one of her stellar creations to go to waste. With shaking hands, she put candles in the cake and lit them. Then she brought in the flaming dessert to Alice’s bedside. She was singing “Happy Birthday.” The family joined in, and they all serenaded her as Alice slipped away.

A final gasp was heard before she passed over to the other side. The family, along with Siobhan, continued to sing; they blessed her spirit as it filled the room, and just as quickly vanished.

To this day, Siobhan isn’t sure why she did this. But she broke off a piece of the birthday cake, and opened Alice’s mouth and laid it on her tongue. Of course I joked with her later that she was too conceited over her creation for Alice to die without even tasting it. But the real reason is a mystery to us all. All I know is that she continued to shove bits of birthday cake in Alice’s mouth as she lay dead, and as her children continued to sing. Soon the mouth was too full, and crumbs began falling into the crevices of her neck. It is an image that has always haunted me.

By the time I went to Clinton’s inauguration that winter, the VIP tickets and invitations she had promised me hadn’t arrived, and I left to D.C. without them. But when I returned home, I found them in my mail. Sadly, Alice had procrastinated a little too long in getting them to me on time, but I still treasured them. I framed them, and hung them on my wall as a remembrance.

A few days later, a funeral and wake was held in Alice’s honor. Both Siobhan and I attended this event, and felt quite honored to be there. The guest list was long and distinguished; from politicians to actresses to writers. The event was featured on the Society Page.

At the wake, I pulled aside Alice’s son to tell him how sorry I was to lose her, and how much she had taught me. He met my smile with reproach, and ignored my offers of sympathy. Instead, he told me that he had heard of my “little endowment,” as he called it. “I hope you didn’t take advantage of my mother and her money,” is what he told me. “In her diminished state, I’m sure you could have convinced her of anything.”

I was hurt and offended. “I never asked anything of Alice, except my paycheck. She offered me that money.”

“If you say so,” was his sharp reply. Then he scoffed. “Enjoy it.”

“Her only request was that I finish and publish the book the two of us have been working on.”

He laughed and tipped back his glass of champagne, letting the last few drops of expensive effervescent bubbles fall onto his tongue. “There will be no book,” is what he said, wiping his mouth and wearing too big of a grin.

“That was her last wish.”

“Let me make this clear,” he told me. “I’m an attorney. There will be no book.” And with that, he turned on his heel and left me standing there.

And there was no book. I contacted the rest of the family following the funeral with parts of the manuscript, and her dying wish to have it published. I was ignored, rebuffed and even threatened. I eventually dropped the idea.

But I think of Alice and her stories often. I’ve always wondered what birds Alice heard that winter day when there were no birds. All I know is that she heard them.

I, too, often hear birds that aren’t there. They are the sounds of ultimate peace. And with them I am able to pull an entire blanket of stars over my shoulders like a blanket, and for just one minute, I am reminded how things never really die. And how if we listen very carefully, the birds are always singing.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Valentine to Remember

It was almost Valentine’s Day, 2001, and I wanted a man. In fact, I was positively hungry for one. I wanted something steamy and romantic for the day of hearts and roses. And I was intent on making it happen.

I had just ended an insane relationship with a crazy man, and I wanted to wipe all memory of him out of my brain stem. I wanted to replace him with a masculine distraction. I had barely been dabbling in meeting men at bars, but these chance encounters had yielded some frightening results. So I thought I might try my hand at finding a man on the Internet.

I liked the idea of putting what I wanted in a man out into cyberspace, and then sitting tight while they pursued me. And in the end, I would have the power to choose among them. I felt powerful.

So I set out to go about it. But before I began, I made a decision that  I would meet two men. No more, no less. And if neither worked, I’d drop the idea for good.

I knew that I didn’t want to spend the money to join an official dating sight, so instead I placed an ad on Craig’s list, which was absolutely free, and the ad length had no limitations. In other words, you could wax poetic about yourself for a couple of pages, if you so desired.

And I did desire. I wanted to say as much as possible about myself, in an effort to really show the potential candidates who I was and what I wanted. I was as honest as I could possibly be, and I put it all out there for anyone to read. I had no idea if I’d get a response or if anyone would even read it.

The next day I turned on my computer, and I was utterly shocked to see that I had hundreds of responses. And the next day, this was followed by hundreds more. At first I was rather happy about it, until I realized how much time it took to look at them all. I remember remarking to friends that weeding through the responses was like a part-time job. It would have been one thing if I were dazzled by the countless emails I received, but it was quite the contrary; I disliked every single response I got! I was horrified, and let almost all of them dangle, without even a word from me.

Reading them all was arduous. I learned quickly how to identify the spam responses—and those had been simply cut and pasted and distributed by lonely hearts to every single available ad. Those were first to be deleted.

But the other responses were hideous as well. I had mentioned the word “boyish” in my list of attributes that I appreciated about the opposite sex. What I meant by this more than anything else was a man’s physical appearance; I had never gone for the rugged Marlboro man kind of guy...I went for the cute ones with a big mop of hair. Although I think Paul Neuman is unbelievably handsome, I’d take Paul McCartney over him hands down. It’s their appearance, but it’s also a quality too. Sort of playful and full of life.

But the responses I received around this one little innocuous word sent my head spinning. The way men interpreted that response was far and wide, and to me, a little shocking. Men would tell me that they still lived with their mother, and were relieved to find someone that would finally appreciate their “boyishness.” Many interpreted the word to mean that it was okay if they were out of work, and not financially responsible. Some very young men responded, looking for an older woman. “I’m VERY boyish,” I would read. “I’m 20 years old!” The interpretations about what I meant were far ranging and funny. But what was worse, was that it seemed to attract countless dolts, the uneducated and ignorant. I also found that countless men would respond without a picture, and wouldn’t forward one if I requested it. This was blind dating enough; at least I needed some sort of visual to proceed.

I was tearing my hair out, but I didn’t give up. After all, I had promised that I would date two men, and this is what I would do. The entire occurrence was a tremendous learning experience, and I learned slowly that I needed to be even more specific than I thought I already was. I decided to edit my ad. I removed the word “boyish” from the text, and I added at the end “PhD’s ONLY.” I still laugh when I think back to it. Finally, I said “Do NOT respond without a picture.”

When I published the edited ad, I felt content. I was sure that this would bring me better responses, and I was right. The next batch was far more reasonable. I still had a lot of work to do, reading all of the emails, conversing with the possible candidates, and blocking the stalkers. But after weeks of work, I finally weeded all of them down to two men. And I must say, I was pretty excited about both of them.

One of them was an impossibly good looking bicyclist from San Francisco. Italian with “boyish” good looks, he was also obviously intelligent. He graduated with an English Literature degree just as I had, and enjoyed literature—something that was a big plus for me. In fact, he enjoyed many of the same things I did—the Beatniks, and espresso, and Italian food... poetry, The Beatles, and Independent films. We conversed for weeks, and finally I agreed to meet him in person.

The second was wildly intelligent, and every letter to me was so wonderfully crafted, that I felt as if I was talking to a fellow writer. It was his words that kept me coming back to him, because damn it, he’d broken one of my rules.  He never sent a picture.

But I couldn’t stop talking with him. And soon letters turned to phone calls. He was so witty; he’d have me bent over laughing every time we talked. He was so intelligent he would wow me with his angles. I loved his voice; I found it so sexy my stomach would do flip flops every time I heard it on the other end.

I was certain that he would be the second man that I would choose to meet in person. But when he’d ask me to make a date, I’d say, “Not until you send a picture!”

“Oh come on,” he’d complain. I don’t have one! If I had one, I’d send it. Look, I told you I’ve dated models right? I mean, how homely could I be?” I didn’t really like his comments about dating models, I found it pretentious. Not to mention, I was certainly no model. And I found the fact that he couldn’t find a single picture  of himself to send a bit strange. Still, with his charm, he eventually wore me down, and I agreed to meet him.

Both of these gentlemen lived in San Francisco. I have never enjoyed driving around the city by myself; I prefer to be driven. I get lost very easily, and driving there by myself has always seemed like a challenge. On the other hand, I really didn’t want either one of them to know where I lived. So I agreed to meet them in the city.

But there was a kicker. I agreed to meet them both on the same night. I had one date at 7:00 p.m. and the second date set up for 10:00. These dates were to take place on Valentine’s Day, of all days. It was a little surreal.

I didn’t feel at all bad making both dates on the same night, although others might find that a bit rude. First of all, it would save me from driving to the city twice, and I believed that first dates that are blind dates should be kept somewhat short. I believe one knows in the first five seconds of meeting someone if there is even a chance of it continuing. So why prolong the potential horror for an entire night? I thought I was being smart about it.

But where I wasn’t smart, I suppose, is that I agreed to meet them both in their apartments. Internet dating was still fairly new at that time, and there wasn’t the protocol that has since been developed-- advice like meeting your date in a public arena, like a coffee shop. I was a little nervous about it, but felt I had talked to both of them enough to rule out either being a serial killer at least.

I spent the afternoon bathing and luxuriating and getting ready the proper way. Then I set out for San Francisco that Saturday night, feeling nervous, but hopeful. I really believed either man could be a real candidate for my next significant other, although secretly it was my second date that I felt had the most potential. The one that claimed he didn’t have a picture.

I had difficulty finding the first man’s apartment. But I felt proud of myself when at last I found it, and even found a parking place. I smoked a quick cigarette; knowing I would want one, but having already decided I wouldn’t smoke on this first meeting. Following that, I took a deep breath, and with a muttered, “You can do this, girl,” I marched myself up two flights of stairs in a beautiful Victorian apartment building.

He swung open the door before I even reached the landing. He was smiling a huge grin, and I couldn’t help but smile back. He was every bit as handsome as his picture depicted, and he had that boyish quality that I found irresistible. “Hi,” he said, and quickly kissed me on the cheek. From behind his back, he pulled out a rose. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

I loved it. “Thank you. A blind date on Valentine’s day, imagine that,” I quipped.  It felt a little romantic.

“Do you like espresso? I can make you a cappuccino.”

“I would love one, thank you.” I thought a little caffeine might be just the thing I needed, especially with a second date later that night.

I entered his apartment and I was impressed. It was quite adult, nicely decorated, and had beautifully framed prints on the walls. He had a picture of Charles Bukowski; a poet I had long admired, on top of his stereo. It was the perfect opening conversation, to share our love of the poet and of literature. And soon we were sipping our coffees on the couch talking easily and animatedly, and I almost wished I didn’t have to leave so soon for my second date.

“Excuse me for a minute, will you? I have to hit the restroom,” he said, standing up. Being a bicyclist, he had a beautiful build. I nodded happily as he disappeared down the hall.
A few minutes later I heard a door open and knew he was returning. I stared at the hall entrance with a big grin on my face, waiting for him to come into view.

When he did, he was stark naked.

He saw my look of shock and dismay, and tried to deflate the situation, as if this were possible. “I know, I know,” he said coming toward me with his hand up as if to stop me from talking. “I know this seems a little odd, but please don’t freak out or anything. Give me a few moments to explain.”

I could hardly believe what I was seeing. My first thought was to find my car keys and sprint toward the door. My second thought was one of curiosity, wondering what on earth this man planned to say. “What are you doing?” is all I could think of to say.

He took a seat beside me on the couch. “Listen to me for a minute,” he started. “For spiritual reasons, and for artistic reasons, I have been celibate for four years. I have been taking a sexual coaching course, and we learn how we give away our power and our creativity through ejaculation. Not only must we endure a period of celibacy, we are not allowed to have an orgasm by our own hand either. We are allowed to masturbate, and are even encouraged to do so, but we learn how to stop it just before the moment of fruition. This practice, over time, gives us our power back. Do you understand?”

I couldn’t even respond. I was in utter shock. What on earth was this speech all about? “I understand, but I don’t care,” I finally spit out exasperated. “Is this supposed to be some sort of justification for this behavior? I’m going to leave.”

“Don’t leave,” he said grabbing my arm. “When you came in tonight, I realized that it was time for me to break this fast. I had never planned on being celibate forever, or never having an orgasm. Tonight is the night I want to be reborn again, and I want to be reborn with you.”

I looked behind his naked body and noticed a fire escape outside of the window. I grabbed a cigarette and a lighter, and climbed out the window and lit my cigarette. He scampered after me and kneeled in front of the window. “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know you smoked.”

“And I didn’t know you were going to be naked. I guess we’re both surprised,” I answered.

“Please come back in.”

“If you go get dressed, I’ll come back in.”

“Don’t send me away. I see you as my future wife!”

“That’s not going to happen,” I said as I rubbed my cigarette butt against the metal to put it out. “In fact, I have to get going. I have another date. Put your clothes on.”

“You made another date on the same night we made a date? I don’t think you realize how much potential I think the two of us have. Let me explain. All of my life I’ve been a real Mama’s boy. Every girl I’ve dated I’ve told them the same thing. I’ll never get married as long as my Mama is alive. But once she dies, I’ll want to marry whatever woman I’m with, because it would be too lonely to be single. My Mama is very ill.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, crawling back through the window. I grabbed my purse off from the couch and fished its contents for my keys. “Thanks for the coffee. It’s been an interesting night,” and with that I ran toward the door, imagining him trying to block my escape. Thankfully he did not.

With my ears burning I ran into the night and to the safety of my car. It was quarter to ten, and time for my second date. My stomach was in knots and I felt so anxious. I hadn’t yet recovered from my first date, and didn’t know how emotionally ready I was for a second. I was frightened to go to this other man’s apartment, so late at night. But the plan was for me to call from my car once I arrived in the city, and he’d talk me through the directions as I drove to his house.

I grabbed my cell phone and dialed his number. “Hi it’s me. I’m on Geary Street. Where to?”

The minute I heard his voice, I relaxed. He took charge, and seemed to know the city like the back of his hand. Surely, this was going to be better, I thought to myself. And really, this was the date I was looking forward to the most. “Okay,” he said, “so you must be in front of a pink building now, do you see it?” He knew every street and every landmark that I passed as if he were in the car with me. But he was also making me laugh uproariously as he always did. I hardly noticed where I was going as I was whizzed through the streets easily, guided by my human GPS. And soon I was led safely and easily right to his apartment building. “I think I’m here!” I said as I hovered in the middle of the street.

“Yes, I can see you. Park right in front of the green truck. I’m on the third floor. I’ll buzz you in.”

“What apartment number?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t worry. You can follow the sound of my voice,” he said laughing, and then hung up the phone.

It felt eerie that he could see me and I couldn’t see him. Not to mention he had seen countless photos of me, and I had never seen a single snapshot of him. I imagined him watching me as I got out of my car and crossed the street. I glanced upwards at the apartment building, wondering if I might get a glimpse of him. The windows looked dark.

When I reached the stoop, the door was already buzzing. I ran to push it open, and I entered the dimly lit foyer. The door slammed behind me. I stood in the quiet.

“Helloooooooooooo,” I heard from high above my head. “Follow my voice.” It echoed strangely in the muted dusk of the hall.

I began climbing the steps, and I surprised myself to feel myself smiling. This man and I had been having the best rapport for weeks, and I was excited. Even though I had no idea what he looked like, I mused, how bad could it be? As I climbed the second set of stairs, I fantasized about finally seeing him, and how we would fall into each other’s arms for a passionate kiss.

I climbed the third set of steps. “Down here,” came his voice. “Walk toward me.” I did as I was told. “Turn the corner and here I am.”

I turned the corner.

And there he was.

I’ve never been one to be overly shallow about a person’s appearance. I find beauty in most people. But there are very few individuals I find so repulsive that I actually recoil in their presence. This was one such person.

His bald head was large, and seemed to sit on top of folds of loose flesh that served as his neck. His skin was so white that it was translucent, and I could see blue veins in his neck, cheeks, and arms. His body was huge and shapeless, and he looked more like a ball with a bowling pin on top. When he saw me he laughed, and his entire body undulated in a blubbery orgasm.

He was dressed in beige from head to foot. He wore beige conservative slacks and a beige conventional shirt. He had beige socks.

We exchanged a glance. I smiled weakly. The idea of kissing him flew away as if it had wings.

He opened the door wide for me to enter. His living room was beige with wall to wall beige carpets, and a beige couch. There was not one piece of art anywhere. The walls were blank. The coffee table was empty. The only thing in the room were bookshelves upon bookshelves of VCR tapes, all labeled. “What are these?” I asked.

“Tapes of my lectures. I’m a Professor, remember?”

I just nodded. I looked out the window to see if I might see a second fire escape I might crawl down. But I was distracted when the mood suddenly took a sudden, almost violent detour.

“See this wine?” he said, pointing to a bottle on the counter. “This is the best there is. This bottle cost hundreds of dollars. HUNDREDS. And I bought it for you.”

“That’s very nice of you. I’d love a glass,” I told him.

“Well, you don’t get a glass. You can have some water.”

“Excuse me?” I said laughing, thinking he surely must be joking.

“I’m not going to open this wine for you. Don’t you think I saw your face when you saw me? You looked as if you might vomit. Am I really that hideous? The only reason you even came inside was to be polite. Why would I share something so expensive with someone who will never give me a second date?”

I was so stunned, I couldn’t respond. He lumbered over to the beige couch, and with great effort, fell into it. Then he lay down, as if he were ready for a nap. “I could turn on the T.V,” he said dryly.

I might have just turned on my heel at that moment, and walked out. But I didn’t.

To this day, I really don’t know why. A part of me felt sorry for him; I had never intended to be so obvous about my distaste, although the truth would have reared it’s ugly head soon enough. There was also a part of me that really liked him; I had been enjoying his mind for weeks. But more than anything, I was so angry at him I plunked myself down and started yelling at him.

“Do you know what a rude ass you are?” I said. “I drove all the way into the city to meet you.”

“Pity I turned out to be such a hideous monster, isn’t it? I have no interest in anyone as shallow as you.”

This conversation would end up continuing until 2 in the morning. He might not be my cup of tea in the romantic department, but he was a potent adversary and could throw a mean intellectual debate. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy that evening on some level.

When I climbed into my car that morning, dazed and exhausted, I decided I would never venture into the world of blind dating ever again. And I kept that promise. But a week later, I went back to trying to meet men in bars. I met a dandy of a man my first time out, or so I thought. I followed him to his lovely home and took me outside to show me the view from the deck. He disappeared for a moment, he claimed, to open a bottle of wine. When he returned, he was stark naked.

Men really seem like a different species at times.

I could only start laughing, thinking back to my blind date on Valentine’s Day. My laughter embarrassed him, I was sure of that. I poked his nude body with a giggle, on my way out the door.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Turning a Gay Man Straight

I still remember the phone call that changed my life; the call which set off a flurry of unfortunate events and sent my life into a tailspin. It was my friend Tommy on the other line, and by the breathless way he was talking, I knew he had big news for me.

“I’m getting married,” he told me. I could envision him literally beaming through the phone lines. “And I want you to be my Maid of Honor.”

“I’d be honored to be your Maid of Honor!” I answered him laughing. “Brent is a lucky man.”

Tom was gay and single. He was the 7th member of our tiny troupe of friends, and he had always been the odd man out; the third wheel as it were. The rest of the six were in pairs. Tom had been searching for love since I met him, but he could never find the right guy. I was thrilled to see him so happy.

We had all met his betrothed, of course. Young, handsome and boyish, Brent was the life of the party. He loved to drink, he loved to laugh, and he loved to shock. Our first impressions of him were pretty good; he wasn’t shy in the slightest, and had us all in stitches in the first hour that we met him. He was loud, flamboyant, and quick witted. I thought they made a good pair.

Brent asked my boyfriend to stand up for him as Best Man. He had only just met him, of course, but he explained that all of his friends were on the other side of the country. He had come to San Francisco on a vacation; he had long been curious about the Castro District of San Francisco, and he came out for a fortnight and an adventure. But he would never use his return ticket home, as it turned out, because when he met Tommy in a gay bar one night, it was love at first sight. And least that’s the story they loved to tell, while holding hands and smiling. They ended up framing his return ticket and later hung it in their marital home.

The marriage took place on Twin Peaks. A perch high above the ivory buildings of San Francisco, it has a panoramic view that rivals any other place in the city. On a clear day, which their wedding day was, it can be positively magical.

I wore a black sequin gown and white orchids. Brent was very insistent as to what I should wear, and as I got to know him more, it seemed he was always trying to dress me. He loved picking out clothes for me, but he often went with six inch high heels and a dress befitting a Diva. His choices were never really my style, but when I was with him, it always felt like I was playing, and when it came to clothes, I felt as though I were playing dress up. When he wanted black sequins on his wedding day, I didn’t even blink, and bought the dress he asked me to buy. I was sipping on cold champagne, staring out into the view when the first sequin fell off of that dress. By days end it would have completely disintegrated right off of my body.

The wedding went well. Brent and Tom wore white tuxedos with purple orchid leis. They wrote their own vows and both shed tears as they made promises to each other that should have lasted a lifetime. My boyfriend and I stood at their sides, while the rest of the wedding party fanned out in front of us.

I remember a tourist bus pulling into the parking lot. In a moment we could hear feverish shouts from its inhabitants; “It’s a gay wedding! Oh my GOD! We ARE in San Francisco,” they bellowed, when suddenly dozens of flash bulbs began blinding us. When I stared out into the sea of faces watching, all I could see were cameras everywhere. I felt for a moment as if we were movie stars surrounded by the paparazzi.

Following the ceremony, we bid our adieus. Brent and Tom had rented a limousine for the rest of the day, and Brent had made it clear to everyone that the Newlyweds wanted to leave directly after the wedding with only my boyfriend and me, for an afternoon and night of drinking and revelry. “I just want the four of us,” Brent said over and over as others tried to join our fun. And in a moment we had made our getaway, and the four of us were speeding down the hill toward the city, pouring champagne and laughing.

Our first stop was the Top of the Mark, the famous restaurant and bar that turns slowly like a planet on its axis, for stunning and ever changing 360 degree views. When I got out of the limo at that first stop, I noticed the seat was covered in sequins. “I think my dress is falling apart,” I said laughing. But that didn’t stop me at the Mark, nor did it stop me at the half a dozen or so bars we visited after.

Our last stop was to be the Castro, for a drink at the very bar where Tom and Brent met. When I climbed out of the limo, the seat was covered in sequins. The driver was incensed; he began sweeping the shiny circles from the back with a noticeable grumble. “Damn it,” he mumbled under his breath, shooting dagger looks in my direction. “You’re making a mess,” he told me.

“My dear,” Brent said in his lowest baritone, “your entire rear end is now exposed.” And it was true. There was nothing left of my dress behind me except a few bare threads. “Thank god I’m wearing underwear,” I said as I laughed out of sheer embarrassment. Brent immediately wrapped me in his tuxedo jacket, and told the limo to rush us to his house. There he gave me a pair of jeans, and let me to continue to wear the tuxedo jacket. It seemed he always wanted to take care of me. And soon the party made its way to Uncle Bert’s Saloon, in the heart of the Castro District.

Brent and Tom were the toast of the town that night in the gay district of San Francisco. They seemed to epitomize the dreams of many a lonely gay man in that town; men that were sick of the rather sordid and prolific sexual encounters that many of them enjoyed; one night stands that went on nightly into infinity, without the love and commitment they craved. Tom and Brent were happy and healthy; robust and obviously in love, and their union seemed to give hope to so many. I was welcomed into their community with open arms; and it was a neighborhood I would end up spending a lot of time in.

We had a grand time on their wedding day. I still remember the moment when Brent left the bar briefly and when he returned, he had roses for me. This was a gesture that he would repeat many times in the future; whenever we were all out together he’d leave and bring me back flowers and gifts. “Are you trying to make me look bad?” my boyfriend would joke, who didn’t make these gestures toward me nearly often enough. And in truth, it did make him look bad, because I so obviously enjoyed the attention. But all of it was in good fun. No one at first raised so much of an eyebrow of Brent’s fondness of me. He was gay, after all, and we were nothing more than friends.

The wedding day came and went, but Brent’s gestures toward me didn’t stop with flowers and gifts; he worked overtime to befriend me. He would call me constantly, and he continually suggested we spend a day alone together. I didn’t feel I knew him well enough at first, and I resisted his many requests, but slowly he wore me down.

At the time, I had every Tuesday off from work, and it eventually became our ritual to spend that day together. I would drive into the city, pick Brent up at their Twin Peaks apartment, and we’d spend the day in the Castro at the bars.

I really had no idea that Brent was an alcoholic at the time. I knew he drank a lot, and it took me a long while to get used to the idea of plunking myself on a bar stool at nine in the morning and ordering my first drink. But I followed his lead, and this is what we would do; we’d do shots of hard liquor and we would drink all day and all night, roaming from bar to bar, and getting ourselves in all kinds of trouble.

The community loved me. I was known everywhere by name, and they’d call out my name when I’d enter a venue and holler with joy. The two of us had become the life of the party; we would dance, sing, engage with everyone, and fully participate in their worlds. At one place, they named a sandwich after us. At another they’d have our drinks made before we even ordered them. The lesbians wanted to kiss me, and the boys wanted to do my hair. I can’t tell you how many times I sat in one of those bars, my hair all rolled up in curlers, with several boys fussing around me with brushes and bobby pins. We had become quite popular.

Tuesdays seemed endless, and for good reason. Our days together would stretch out into nearly 24 hour marathons of drinking, misbehaving, and carousing. We would find ourselves in all sorts of dastardly situations; we found ourselves in the middle of sex, drugs, and just about everything in between. Some of the things I saw at that time in my life I couldn’t possibly repeat here, but it all fascinated me. Our times together became increasingly wilder, and we’d stay up later and later. Eventually, we’d crawl back to Brent’s house at dawn, still giggling and carrying on.

Tom would just shake his head when he’d see us walking in at 5 in the morning. “I’m getting up for work,” he would say to us as we stumbled in the door. “Instead of me making up a bed for Cathy, why don’t you both just sleep in our bed for a few hours?” he would suggest.

And that is what we would do. We would get into bed together and sleep for an hour or two, before I’d jump up and head off to work.

My boyfriend became increasingly annoyed by this growing alliance between Brent and me. I would write off his concerns as hogwash; there was nothing to be jealous of, the man was gay for goodness sake. I would tell him he was being ridiculous, and I’d look forward to the next Tuesday with increasing anticipation.

Brent kissed everyone, so when he began kissing me, I didn’t think much of it. Fueled by alcohol and fun, we would often kiss; sometimes even driving up to Twin Peaks where their wedding took place to smooch. I was kissing a gay man after all; a man who would kiss strangers right in front of his husband. Tom never seemed to care; he would only laugh at his antics. I believed it all was perfectly innocent.

Months later, the four of us decided to take a trip together to Vermont, to Brent’s home town. It wasn’t until that trip that I began to wonder if Brent’s flirtations toward me meant much more than I had thought. His friends and family treated me more like his wife than they treated Tom like his husband. It was as if they all knew that I was going to be Brent’s next victim, even before I did. Because they knew him, and they knew his patterns; and they knew he’d chosen me to circle like a hungry hawk after its prey.

But my life didn’t fall apart until we returned to California.

Tom and Brent had a party at their house, which my boyfriend and I attended. The party began to thin out, one by one as parties do, but we were having such a good time, I didn’t want to leave. Tom suggested we stay the night, and eventually both Tom and my boyfriend took to their beds, leaving only Brent and I up and alone.

We didn’t do anything bad that night. I have a vague recollection of us playing horsey. We were both wearing bathrobes and Brent took the rope of his robe and wrapped it around my neck, like a halter. He was standing up with his robe untied, and I was on my hands and knees in front of him, with the rope around my neck, when my boyfriend came into the room.

He didn’t say a word. He got dressed, and with a slam of the door, left me there.

Not for even a minute did I really believe this was the end of our relationship. I loved my boyfriend more than I could possibly love anyone; what we had was rich and deep. This alliance with Brent was just for laughs; it was a distraction and nothing more. Besides, my boyfriend and I had been together more than 16 years, and when you reach those kinds of milestones you know it’s for life. I believed it was for life with all of my heart. But shockingly my relationship did end that night.

There were phone calls and tears; promises and regrets. But he left the key to my house on my kitchen table, and he told me it was over. I don’t think it really would have been, but I believed it at the time. I was so distraught, I asked Brent to run off to Mexico with me.

Within three hours of making the decision, Brent and I were sitting in an airplane awaiting take-off to Cabo San Lucas for 18 days. We didn’t tell a single soul we were going, except for my boss whom I called from the airport.

If I hadn’t run off to Mexico, I’m sure my boyfriend and I would have found our way back to each other. But that little trip sealed the deal. No one knew where we had gone; Tom came home, discovered Brent gone, and being the sleuth that he is, he hit redial on the last number we called from their phone. It was Mexican Airlines. When no one had seen or heard from either of us for days, word spread like wildfire that we’d gone off to Mexico.

When I think back to that trip, I can still smell our cheap hotel; I can still hear the thump of the music playing; I can still smell the odor of enchiladas, tequila, and exhaust fumes. I can still remember the horror as it dawned on me at last that Brent was a raging alcoholic.

Brent went on a bender for 18 days, the likes of which no one has ever seen. We would take a boat every morning to a bar that was on an island, and the bar owners would scream “Borracho” as he got off the boat and headed toward the bar. Borracho means ‘drunk’ but Brent was proud of his title and began referring to himself that way.

When we returned from Mexico, Brent moved in with me. Tom didn’t want him back, and I had broken my boyfriend’s heart. It felt as though we had no one but each other, and out of need more than anything else, we became a couple. I began to wake up in a nightmare that would last six years.

I’ll never forget our first visit to Uncle Bert’s, our favorite bar in the Castro. We approached the door, chatting happily, when the bartender came out from around the bar and ran up to the door. He shoved his hand in my face. “Brent can go in,” he told me. “But you’ll have to wait here.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, still laughing, and pushing his hand down. I assumed he was joking and tried to go around him. He grabbed both of my shoulders and pushed me backwards. “What are you doing?” I said, growing angry.

I looked behind him and noticed something had changed about the dart board that I had seen so many times hanging above the bar. I squinted in its direction, trying to make out an image that had been placed in the center of the dart board.

The picture on the dartboard was me.

As of that day, I was blacklisted from the community. Brent would argue with them loudly, saying that if anyone should understand prejudice, it should be the gay community. And aren’t they now ostracizing us because we’re straight? We had many heated discussions on the streets of the Castro, but I was no longer welcome there. It took me years to be able to return and not be noticed.

From that point onward, my life only endured. The idea of saddling up to a bar and drinking all day sickened me. I found myself living with a full-fledged alcoholic, which is a story unto itself.

It is interesting to me how we can look back on our lives and see the precise moment we went around a bad corner. I never got back what I lost that summer, but my life moved on from there. It was a chapter where everything that I knew I trusted blew apart in smithereens, as though hit by a bomb.

For years, I felt that episode had been the biggest mistake of my life.  I had made so many mistakes; my behavior was selfish and I hurt so many people.  But whenever I’d share the sad saga with people I met, they weren’t interested in my pain or my regrets.   They weren't interested in the pain I caused, or what I had learned.  They were really only interested in one thing.

It always began the same; they’d stare at me as if I had some kind of magical power; as if I were a Siren of unbelievable proportions. I would begin to feel they were no longer listening to my story; they only had one thing on their minds. And staring at me with a creepy look of admiration and awe, they’d bring the entire relationship down to one question. “What’s your secret?” they would titter.

“My secret?” I’d ask.

“How did you turn a gay man straight?” they’d ask me. I would only smile in response and stare down at the ground. 
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Saturday, January 2, 2010

The New Year Good-bye

It had been a great New Years, and I faced the prospect of returning to work with my usual dread. My thoughts were still wrapped up in tinsel; my memories were lit up with party hats and noise makers, and it felt nearly impossible to leave the brilliant fireworks of the season behind me. January is always a tough month for those who do accounting work, and each New Year I would find myself despising the ledgers that called me back and extinguished the festive lights of the holidays. And this January was no different.

As I headed to work that morning, I felt depressed. But the last thing I expected on that winter dawn was that death was coming to my day. But death was indeed coming; with its bony fingers, it was scratching the back of my neck, warning me of its presence.

I found an empty space in front of my office and parked, and then I looked up at my office window and sighed.  Because while January is a time I most wanted to hibernate in the comfort of my heaters and quilts, it was also the busiest time for me at work. The year had ended, and it was time to send out W4’s, 1099’s, and begin the arduous task of closing out the fiscal year. There were accounts to close, journal transactions to be entered, and new books to open. And that morning as I arrived at work, I felt like I was a helium balloon that had just been popped, and all of my joy was hissing out like a sorrowful gas. It was Monday morning.

I got straight to work.  It has always been my goal to get out W2’s and 1099’s as soon as humanly possible. It has also been my belief that employees have the right to know, once the year ends, what their prior year earnings were so that they might plan for their taxes. But I have also always done them first thing for selfish reasons. I had learned over the years that the longer I would delay this task, the more phone calls and questions I would receive from my co-workers. So, in part, I cranked out the forms quickly as a way to give myself a little more peace; as a way to keep the hoards of curious and anxious employees at a distance.

It was a busy morning. I spent hours that day reconciling the 1099 accounts and I finally began printing the forms out on the printer. This particular task always filled me with stress; because if the forms moved even a millimeter, they would print incorrectly and render the rest useless. I stood by the printer, my heart in my throat, and watched the forms like a hungry cat; I pawed at them from time to time to guide them in the right direction, and I was ready to pounce on them should something go terribly awry. But on that morning, I had few problems, and soon enough I was stuffing the forms into envelopes and was ready to distribute them.

At the time I worked for a Real Estate office, and most of the employees were Independent Contractors, who worked strictly on the commissions they received from selling homes. Only the office workers were on payroll, so when I produced the 1099’s that morning, the vast majority of them were for people I worked with every day. My office was on the second floor, and I had a little balcony, and if I peered over I could see the entire ground floor of the office and an overview of all of the agents in their cubicles. Rather than wasting money on stamps, I began passing the 1099 forms to my co-workers as I spotted them, running up and down the stairs to bring them their envelope. I felt like the Grim Reaper; because although people wanted these forms as quickly as possible, they didn’t like receiving them. As the Accountant, I have always noticed the looks on faces as I hand out the forms; it’s a pinched, barely discernable expression of scorn and dread.

Directly below my balcony sat a nice man named Rob. Since his office was squarely below mine, I often would stare at the various pictures and things that he hung on the walls of his cubicle. He had children, of that I was sure; as I often saw childish scrawls in bright colors tacked beside his computer. And I would also peruse his photographs and the bits and scraps that made up his life. He seemed like a kind fellow; a sentimental fellow. He was always supremely polite to me.

On this morning as I was staring down, I saw Rob scurry by, and rush into his cubicle. I watched him as he hurriedly removed his coat and I noticed he looked unusually anxious to begin his day. He might have just sold a house, I mused to myself, because he looked particularly harried.

“Happy New Year Rob,” I yelled down from my perch.

He looked up like a skittish rat, obviously unnerved by my outcry. “Yes,” he said, slowly smiling. “Happy New Year to you too.”

“Morning. I finished the 1099’s,” I called back. “I’m going to toss it down there; are you ready to catch it?”

I saw his face fill with a slight twinge of pain. “Those are what we need to file taxes, right?” he asked me.

My face scrunched up without my even realizing it. I was frankly a bit surprised that he didn’t seem to know what a 1099 was. “Yes,” I called down. “Let me know if you need any help deciphering it,” I finished, smiling. He nodded, and I flew the envelope toward him like a paper plane.

He didn’t thank me. They never thanked me. They unknowingly treated me more like I was a cop handing out speeding tickets. At best, they seemed to accept my New Years gifts with polite loathing.

He caught the envelope and looked up and nodded. I smiled then returned to my work.

I don’t know how many hours had passed, but I had been working steadily all day, completing one dreaded task after another, going as fast as I could so that I might be finished with it. But when I looked up, the sky out of my office window had gone from light to the darkest black. It was winter, and the days were shorter, but I suddenly felt as though it were the middle of the night. I looked over my balcony, and noticed that Rob’s cubicle was empty, and then as I allowed my eyes to wander around the entire ground floor, I noticed that most of the agents had gone home for the day, and only a few lamps were burning. I had decided it was time to pack it up and head home, just as my phone began to ring.

I answered with my usual nonchalant greeting; the name of the company followed by my own name. I was tired, and didn’t feel like dealing with anything more that day. “May I help you?”

“Hey, this is Rob,” the voice on the other end said. He sounded frantic and hurried, and he was strangely out of breath. It alarmed me a bit.

“Evening Rob,” I said, listening with only half an ear. I was busy turning off my computer and shutting everything down for the night. I was ready to go home.

“Okay, can you explain this 1099 to me? What exactly is it.” His voice was rough; accusatory.

“Well,” I said, stopping to grab a pen and begin doodling, “it’s a report of your gross income for the year. When you do your taxes, you’ll take this number, and depending on many factors, such as dependents and deductions, you will use it to determine what taxes you owe. I assume you’ve been paying quarterly?”

There was a pause. “Paying WHAT quarterly.” He almost yelled it, and his voice scared me a little.

“Your taxes? It depends on your income, but most Independent Contractors have to pay their taxes quarterly.”

“And how in the hell am I supposed to know that?” he asked me. He was getting angrier. “Why didn’t you mention this to me before now?”

I didn’t like his tone, and I pushed back. “Listen Rob, I’m not in charge of your income taxes. I’m in charge of the company’s income taxes. Your income taxes are your responsibility. What did you do last year? Is this your first year as an Independent Contractor?”

He let out a long seething sigh. “Yes. My taxes have always been taken out in the past. I thought you were taking my taxes out.”

“No, that’s not how it works with commission,” I answered him. “You pay your own taxes. You’re not technically an employee. You get all of your money gross.”

There was a pause. “GOD DAMN IT,” he screamed into the phone.

“Excuse me?”


I was becoming increasingly annoyed by his attitude. “Rob, this isn’t MY fault,” I said softly, trying to steady my voice. “I’m sorry this came as a surprise to you.” I noticed my hands were shaking.

“OH WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO DIE,” he screamed in the phone, and then I heard a deafening click as he hung up on me.

I sat there for a moment dumbfounded as his voice still rang in my ears. When I looked down, I saw the doodles I had created while talking to Rob; I had pushed the pen so hard that I had made holes in the paper. My doodles were overly dark and angry. The way he had talked to me had shaken me to the core, and as I gathered up my belongings and shut off my lamp, my heart filled to the brim with nagging sorrow. I knew that I wanted to cry. I knew I hated my job. I knew that I hated January. And that night as I got into bed, I tossed and turned for hours, going over every last word that he said to me, wondering how I would face him the following morning.

But I wouldn’t have to face Rob.

When I awoke the next dawn, I dreaded going to work even more than I usually did. I decided that I would give myself a little treat so that I would feel better, so I went in a little early so that I could enjoy a cappuccino before work at the coffee shop across the street. On this morning it was bustling with patrons, and I spotted at least five of my co-workers talking excitedly in the corner, their eyes dancing wildly, their voices frenzied.

I smiled hello and walked toward the counter to get my coffee. But the group waved me over; it was apparent they had something urgent to talk with me about.

“What’s going on?” I asked as I approached them.

“Did you hear about Rob?” they asked, almost in unison.

I felt a black shadow pass over my heart. “What about Rob?” I asked.

“He killed himself last night,” was the answer.

It was one of those moments that time seems to stand still. It was difficult to believe what I was hearing; I almost felt as if I were dreaming. I was stunned into silence, and couldn’t speak. The group of agents continued to talk. “Apparently he left the office last night and killed himself. He never spoke to anyone after leaving here last night.”

I didn’t want to say it, but I had to say it. “Yes, he did. I talked to him last night.”

The group of agents stared at me, their collective eyes as wide as saucers. I heard a gasp. They wanted every detail; every last word that was uttered. But I didn’t want to talk about it; it felt strangely private. I knew now that I was the one who had witnessed his grief; his final hour. I knew what I had heard on the phone the previous night was his last good-bye.

But I also felt a horrific sense of guilt creeping over my extremities. I felt somehow responsible, as though it could have been my words, and my actions, which pushed him over the edge. Or at the very least, I knew that in those final seconds before he took his life, it was me who he blamed.

I felt connected to him, and strangely protective of him. My throat was dry. But the group continued to hound me for details. “The family will want to know what he said to you,” they scolded me, trying to coerce the truth out of me. “And probably the police too. Because if you have a clue as to why he did this, you have to tell. So you might as well tell us. What did he say? Come on. It’s important.”

Their voices were shrill, like cackling hens.
Nosey bitches.
I felt sick.
But I couldn’t get the words out that cold January morning. For just a few more hours I was going to allow this man his privacy. I was going to allow him to rest in peace.

Instead, I was treated to a diatribe of what had occurred.

He must have been at home when he called me. There were no cell phones back then.

After he spoke with me he gathered several necessary items from his house, and then packed them into his car. He drove for over an hour, to a remote cabin that his family owned.

But he didn’t park in the driveway of the cabin. He parked about a mile away, and left his car hidden in a grove of trees. His car couldn’t be spotted on the road; he made sure that no one driving by could see that he was there, and surprise him.

He walked a mile to the cabin. And once inside, he gave himself the triple cocktail of death. First he swallowed a bottle of pills. Then he covered his head with a plastic bag. And if that wasn’t enough, he took a gun and blew his brains all over the gnarled walls of his family log cabin.

There would be no mistake. He took every possible precaution. This wasn’t a cry for help, a dramatic gesture; a plea for someone to find him. He made sure he would die. Triple sure.

When my co-workers finished telling me the story, I could taste the poison. I could feel the plastic sticking to my sweating face. I could smell the gun powder.

I was not self-absorbed enough to believe I caused this man to take his life that evening. Nor did I think his suicide was my fault. But I do believe I might have been the final straw that snapped the back of the proverbial camel. And for that reason, I have always felt connected to him; it has always felt as though my left hand holds his, six feet under the damp earth,  and I touch his corpse with compassion.

On a cold January evening, when the year was brand new again and ripe with possibilities, and when smiling people were still wishing each other a Happy New Year as they passed by on the street, this man let a monetary reality determine the value of his life.

I am still saddened that he felt that the numbers on that form were of greater value than his own soul. Because I am assured that whatever that number was, it was only a fraction of his worth.
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Me in Kindergarten

Me in Kindergarten