things that scare me

Things that scare me:

1. Being unable to protect my children from bad people, risky behavior, terrible decisions and freak accidents.

When you bring a baby into the world, that mama bear love overwhelms you. You hug the tiny person close and swear you’ll never let anything hurt the unbearably precious creature. And you mean it, but it’s an unkeepable promise because – unless you live in a remote, armed, stocked fortress, which I totally support – eventually bullies will push your kid around on the playground and men will grope your daughters and bad drivers will crash into them and politicians will make shitty policies and if those are the worst things that happen, you are still lucky.

The news is filled daily with stories you can’t even think about, the kind that involve children going missing, being gunned down – and these events are rare enough, you try to find some comfort or maybe stop reading the news, but then the children themselves toddle into the street, into parties, into cars, into dysfunctional relationships and you realize it might be easier to protect them from the world than from themselves. You’d hoped they would learn from your own experiences – someone should, right? – but no. They will go down the wrong path, sometimes willfully, sometimes innocently, and all you can do is pray to the God you don’t believe in that they come back intact.

2. Drowning.

3. Living too long. It sounds exhausting.

4. That when I hurriedly tug on my surf bootie I’ll immediately feel bugs writhing all over against my feet and it will take at least a minute to get it off because you have to tug hard and then a hundred sow bugs will tumble out because I guess leaving my booties on the deck for a week wasn’t a good idea and I’ll never be able to put them on again without thinking wiggling bugs trapped against my foot flesh.

5. That sexual harassment, assault, rape will never stop because not enough men care enough to stop it.

6. Related: That stupidity will emerge victorious. (See Idiocracy, anonymous commenting, no one giving a fuck.)

7. Heights.

8. People jumping out at me from behind doors. Or shower curtains.

9. That I won’t realize my own foolishness in time.

10. Drivers who don’t bother moving over or slowing down when passing me riding my bike on the highway or over the bridges. I envision myself tumbling broken into bramble or over the concrete barrier into the bay. This is not how I want to go out.

 

Things that don’t scare me:

1. Spiders.

2. Taking a stand.

3. People acting like jerks because they don’t like your opinion or because they devalue your experiences. Take your friendship and go, jerk.

4. Diplomacy and compromise. Which is different than kowtowing and caving. We’ve all got to get along in this world, more or less, and although letting one’s defenses down enough to find that common ground can be frightening – Oh my god, I’ve got things in common with that person?! – it’s less scary than living an us vs. them life.

5. Public speaking. (Usually.)

6. Tsunamis.

7. Traveling alone.

8. The threat of eternal damnation.

9. Gay marriage.

10. Committing to the drop. Wait! I am often scared when paddling into a wave outside my comfort zone, big and steep and fast and gut clenches up and I have to yell at myself in my head to paddle, goddamn it, and go! But I’m trying.

in which I offer up an excruciatingly emotional post of questionably redeeming value!

photo (2)

The problem with keeping a journal, a friend and I were discussing, is we tend to write when we need to decompress, to vent, to sort through unhappiness via the therapy of words. “People,” I’d said, “would have thought I was the most depressed, angry person in the world” if I’d hung on to those sad collections of my darkest adolescent thoughts.

Social media has changed that – in private, we may still pour out grief, bemoan our lives, but online we want to be liked, are literally rewarded by how many likes we garner, and so our posts lean toward love, vacation, sunsets, gratitude.

And that’s okay. Celebrating the good, acknowledging what gives us joy reinforces our awareness of how much joy permeates our lives. (Sure, sometimes certain friends come off as bragging or in denial. We’ll give them a pass for now.)

Sometimes I look back at this blog, which has variously served as a place to record playlists from my radio days, chronicle my parenting experiences, attempt meaningful observations on social issues, note what books I’ve read, track my surf sessions and insomnia, and occasionally to serve as a place where I work through hurt – sometimes a combination of the above.

All this is just preface. Or, in unkinder terms, bullshit.

I’m reminded of my creative writing classes, how I would turn something in, some exercise, and and my teacher would cross out the first few lines, paragraphs, pages, then write a note with an arrow pointing out, “This is where the story actually starts.” So much of writing is a feeling out of direction, is timid in the face of the audience. Sometimes I can dive in. Sometimes, like right now, I grovel, disclaim, excuse, explain. I need you to like me first. Because if I started with, “I hated everything tonight,” would you still come along?

Because I hated everything tonight.

All day, disparate obligations pulled me in different directions. It was the mental equivalent of being stuck in traffic, hand on the stick, foot on the clutch, shifting up, shifting down, unable to ever get past second gear. After work I finally followed the path that usually proves cathartic: I tossed my board, wetsuit and wax into my truck and aimed for the beach.

But it didn’t help. Instead, everything bubbled up. “You’re in the ocean,” I told myself. “Be here. Stop thinking. You have such a good life. Look at you.” But my brain wouldn’t quit. I hated my knees because they hurt and are making me look like a beginner all over again when I stand up. I hated my wetsuit because the holes in it are going to prove problematic once this summery weather turns. I hated myself for not getting enough education to have a better paying job, for not saving enough money when I did. I hated how lonely I feel sometimes. I hated that no one will just magically make my life easy. I hated that life has peaked and it’s just going to be struggle and scramble forever. I hated all the stupid racist, misogynist people. I hated wars. I hated all the various men who have put their hands on me against my will. I hated that I never reported any of them to the authorities because it means the offenses aren’t official and therefore are only my opinion. I hated all my so-called friends who are unbothered by the assaults on my person. I hate this delayed-but-profound anxiety I feel over it all. I hated being abandoned, in various ways, by various people once important to me. I hated that I could not protect my children from the world’s callousness. I hated that I always have to plan everything, care for everyone, even as I knew “always” was an exaggeration. I hated being unsure of my place in life. I hated being 44 and not having life better figured out. I hated how embarrassingly self-indulgent I was in hating. I hated being out in the ocean, which I love, full of all this hate.

Eventually the darkness encroached enough that I had to make the last wave I caught my last wave. I wanted a better one, to tap into that energy that makes everything else recede, that one magic ride that lifts me out of the mortal world and gives me a taste of the sublime. Instead I found myself dropping off a fading right and paddling against the current, the shore questionably distant. What if I just gave up, I thought for a moment, let the sea pull me out? I could just rest my head on my board, my cheek against the wax, inhaling that sweet crayon scent. Except I couldn’t. I’m not a quitter, not really, tempting as it sounds sometimes. So I kept paddling. Reached shore. Trudged to my truck, aware, despite my mood, of the pink glow dimming along the horizon. Very pretty. I flung my board into the back, started to tug off my wetsuit, except the zipper caught at the end, trapping me in neoprene. That’s when I burst into tears.

See how pathetic I sound? Good grief, my life is just fine – I cringe to recall how two hours ago I was sobbing, tears falling on the sand as I twisted the hubcab locks free.

I arrived home, all deep breaths and shuddering sighs, hid in the hot water of the shower until the crying stopped. Toweled off. Comfy pajamas. Oh, how I love pajamas. And then I had sharp cheddar cheese and decent bourbon and buttery tortillas with hot sauce as an excuse for dinner, and Slice of Humboldt apple cider pie for dessert. And took photos of the cat for my middle daughter because she likes her daily Skimble picture. And wrote a venting email to my dear girlfriends who would understand the emotional throes I’m thrashing about in. And answered an email from another friend who has utterly had my back in an aforementioned situation, reminding me that I’m not crazy, that some people do think I have value and, hell, a lot of people do, and I am lucky in that, even if a few have removed themselves from my life over the years. So, as happens, the hate ebbed, the gratitude flowed in.

Sharing this seems almost ridiculous – perhaps it would better serve, greatly reshaped, as fodder for some other type of writing not so blatantly confessional? But I know people and I know people hurt from time to time and sometimes misery is eradicated by company, so please, if you are in the thick of despondency, hold on. Breathe. Cry. Eat some cheese. Or pie. Write. Reach out. Find your own reasons to be grateful and wrap them around yourself until your heart is warm again.

writing exercise #50: one-syllable words, “From the back of the truck…”

From the back of the truck, the view was all sky. Jill lie there for a bit, sun near the edge of sea. She had to sit up to watch it drop. She set her eyes to the left of the bright orb. Heard you had to, to see the green flash. Myth, some said. She knew it was real. Half the sun was gone. Her eyes kept to the side. And then, there it was. A ghost, the green flash, so fast it was like, did her brain trick her? Did she see it for real? She thought so. 

Some nights she did not feel sure. Like on the night of the full moon. Jill swore she saw Mike lean in on Trish, kiss her, tongue deep, hand on her chin. Mike said no, trick of the light. That he had just told her a thing. A thing that made her laugh. And Mike had bent to her in jest. Jill said, sure, but did not feel that way.

The last time she saw Trish, at the school fair, she felt her eyes turn to the ground. She meant to look up, but her gut won. She did not say hi. Trish did not say hi. The smell of pork lit up the lot.

Jill had her truck that night. She drank pop, since she had to drive. The sweet taste stuck to her mouth. At the end, she drove home, just her. What else could she do? Ask Mike to come with her? Ask some dad whose wife had left? Bad news. They want a lot, she thought. They act as if they’re cool, just there for the sex, but they want love, like us all. They’re just worse when it comes to the words.

“The one thing I know for sure,” Mike had said, “is you are good. Good and true and my world is best with you in it.” Jill cried when he said that. It was the sort of thing a girl could not look at straight on. She had kept her heart to the side and hoped it was true.

 

writing exercise #49: What I talked about when I was 13

I was 13 and I didn’t know much. I knew all the songs from that series of dragon-rider books I was into. That didn’t do me much good in junior high. Some places, those years are middle school. I don’t know if it makes much difference, but middle school sounds more appropriate to me – I was in a middling place. On one side, the height of excitement arrived in the form of a Christmas sled perfect for racing down the hill our house sat two-thirds of the way atop. On the other, the realization that genetic inheritance had granted me the ability to be popular. In middle school, boys would creep up behind me, snap the strap of the bra I’d embarrassingly acquired. In high school, they’d kiss me first.

But back to 8th grade. I had this science teacher, Mr. West. Which was hilarious, because he was also a cowboy. With a ranch and everything. Twice a year, at the end of each semester, he’d have barbeques for his students and their families, plus a group of faculty members that encompassed, but did not exceed, those we all thought were “cool.” Mostly younger female teachers, the sort the boys all had crushes on and the girls all wanted to be.

Mr. West would have inevitably caught a rattlesnake early on, skinned it, tossed it on the grill. The smell would make us sick, but the boys and girls like me would insist we wanted a taste. Later, he’d bring out his guitar by the campfire, start sing-alongs, then wander into an old Johnny Cash tune, which he’d wrap up on a fade-out, as if he’d forgotten the words or maybe remembered what he’d wanted to be.

Only 8th graders were invited, which made it a sort of rite of passage. In 7th grade, my friends and I, and everyone else, would note those days a certain subset of 8th graders weren’t at school. They were at Mr. West’s BBQ, excused from classes for the day. “What do you think happens there?” we’d ask each other. Janine’s brother, a junior at the high school, told us that girls got naked and jumped in the river. Holly’s cousin, a senior, said that after all the kids were supposed to be asleep, Mr. West put out lines of cocaine on his guitar for all the female teachers to enjoy.

That seemed ridiculous to me even at 12. At 13, at the ranch, I could imagine neither nudity nor drugs. The fact that I would use “neither” and “nor” tells you what kind of child I was, but, well, that is the sort of child I was.

What I did not expect was the scandal to come from within my own ranks. My best friend, Lanie, whose parents were these kind of weird leftover hippie types – her mom taught step classes at the gym and her dad had some corporate job he hated – were closet pot smokers. I had no idea. I just thought they were really into air freshener.

“What’s going on?” I said, walking into the room behind the kitchen at the ranch. I don’t know the right name for it, the place where you’d come in to take off your boots and jackets all muddy from, what do they call it, breaking the horses? I guess.

“Nothing,” Janie said. She looked at me, but didn’t look at my face, not in my eyes, you know? I read somewhere once, well, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or maybe Restaurant at the End of the Universe if you must know, that the trick to outwitting your opponents is to focus on the space between their eyebrows. It will seem as though you are looking them in the eyes, except not, but they won’t be able to quite explain it. I told Janie that after I’d read the books. We were 10 then, but she was doing it to me now.

“What’s that?” I said, noting Mark Garner passing something to Brent Clunich. Both of them were football players and bra-snappers, the sort of guys Janie and I hated.
Mark laughed and his laughing turned into coughing as smoked sputtered out from his face, which was bent towards his somewhat advanced six-pack of a belly. Brent, on the other hand, stayed cool, reached out what looked like a sloppy cigarette.

“It’s a joint,” he said. “Want a hit?”

Everyone looked at me. I could feel every bit of skin on my face. “Uh,” I said.

Janie put her head in her hands. “She doesn’t want any, Brent.”

He laughed and passed the joint to the girl next to him. Lori Schiminski. Long blonde hair held back with a clip, red lipstick that left an imprint on the paper that she passed to Janelle, the black girl that went to our school.

I looked at Janie. She looked at me. Shrugged.

I left the room. Outside, Mr. West had brought out the marshmallows and chocolate bars. Miss DeWitt stood by with graham crackers. I took a seat on a bench made from logs Mr. West had, undoubtedly, chopped down and carved with his own hands. Douglas Wilcox, class geek, the guy that everyone remembered from when he was in second grade an picked his boogers and ate them, leaned over to me.

“What are they doing in there?” he asked.

I leaned back, making sure that anyone watching would understand I was revolted by him.

“Nothing,” I hissed. “Nothing at all.”

Miss DeWitt flounced up to us. “Graham crackers,” she trilled.

Mr. West passed us sticks and marshmallows. “You want to catch it on fire, then put it out right away,” he said. “You slide off the burnt skin and the inside is perfect.”

“Here,” he said, handing us squares of chocolate.

I tried, but I was looking at the house instead of the fire.

“Oh, dear!” Miss DeWitt cried.

Mr. West came over and smacked my arm. Apparently my sleeve had caught fire. I dropped my stick and the marshmallow fell into the flames.

“Shit!” I said.

Douglas gasped and pointed.

Mr. West and Miss DeWitt glanced at each other. “That’s not appropriate language,” Miss DeWitt said.

“But under the circumstances,” Mr. West followed.

I hung my head.

Douglas reached over and patted my hand. “Here,” he said, offering me a perfectly sandwiched s’more.

I jumped up. “I’m fine!” I yelled. I marched off to the house, ignoring Miss DeWitt’s commands to come back.

Through the kitchen, into the back room, everyone giggling.

Janie looked up, met my eyes for real this time.

“Wanna hit?” she asked, holding the smoldering, sweet-smelling piece of paper.

I took it, held it between my fingers like she’d done. “Help me,” I pleaded, silently, the way best friends can say things without words.

“Like this,” she said, reaching to hold my hand, press it to my lips. “Inhale. Okay, stop. Hold it.” We looked at each other. “Exhale.”

I did.

When the joint came around, I did again, no help necessary.

The next day, I told Janie what kissing Brent was like. Tasted like smoke, I said. But soft. Better than that rattlesnake.

We laughed.

That was when I was 13.

writing exercise #48: She realized that the person in front of her in line was the defeated candidate.

She realized that the person in front of her in line was the defeated candidate. In his jammies. He looked unshaven by at least a few days. His jammies, camo green, had elephants on the pants and the button up shirt matched the color, turquoise, of the pachyderm print. This made her feel especially bad that she’d been out of town during the election and hadn’t bothered to send in her absentee ballot. Shit. He’d only lost by a few hundred votes. And he was so cute.
Their eyes met.
“Hi,” she said.
“Oh, hi,” he mumbled.
Asking how it was going seemed insensitive, so she opted for, “Sure is sunny out today!”
He agreed. Added something about the drought.
“Right,” she said. “The drought. It’s terrible.” She tried to remember how she was supposed to feel. What she was supposed to do. Probably not take such long showers.
He accepted his gluten-fee double chocolate muffin and shuffled to a table. She ordered her soy latte, 16 ounces, and joined him.
“So,” she said.
Their eyes met again. Like something out of a romance novel, she thought.
What the hell, she thought. She sat down next to him.
“I thought you were a great candidate,” she said.
“Oh, thanks,” he responded. He looked down at his attire as if noticing it for the first time.
“It’s my face,” he said. “It’s not a good face.”
“Soy latte? Grande?” the barista called. She stood, picked it up, returned.
She examined his forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, chin, cheekbones. “I think your face is fine,” she said. “Pleasing, actually.”
He chuckled, glanced at the ground. Then, without moving his head, tilted his eyes at her. “Want to come over?”
What was she to do? Poor guy, had been crushed by the opposition, except not crushed, exactly, but overwhelmed. And so they shared a moment of skin on skin, kisses, the reaching of hands across bodies.
Immediately after, she felt that familiar need to race to the door. Why was it such a challenge to find someone who felt the way she felt, emotionally, politically, physically? Was she asking too much?
I hate this, she thought. It’s all so corny, cliché. Who cared? The voters, she thought. They were the ones who got robbed. Their apathy, their busy lives, wait, she thought, I am one of those with the busy life. Just a couple hundred votes and he could’ve been a winner, earning an upper middle class wage and leading constituents into the future. Instead, here he was, with her, awkwardly preparing for a moment that wouldn’t matter immediately after and there ya go.
Afterwards, he turned to her. “Do you think I have a chance?” he asked.
She paused. “Maybe 2016,” she cooed. “That might be your year.”

(Failure to) Disconnect

It was too grand a plan, this idea of mine. I was embarking on my annual trek to visit my brother in New York and thought, How grand would it be to not only take a vacation from work, but heighten the sense of escape by staying offline? I would be unreachable (except in case of emergency). I would chronicle my daily experiences in Word instead of WordPress, upload one or two quality blog posts at the end, old-fashioned-like. I would be free.

Even before I arrived, I imagined how proud I’d be for committing to be more present when visiting. I would let moments exist in their own space, savor them, and then move on. Not everything needs to be documented – “Hey, look at me!” – all the time, I remembered. Nor do I need to always see what everyone else is up to. I would reciprocate the excellent company of my brother and my sister-in-law by giving them my full attention.

The morning I left, I deleted the Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, Hangout and Instagram apps from my phone. I spared Paper and Tumblr since I use those mostly just for reading. (I kept WhatsApp because Kaylee’s in Europe and that’s how we’re communicating, so, of course.)

I would use my laptop only to work on my novel, freelance assignments or otherwise write offline.

I confess, I also had a bit of ego in the game. I wanted people to miss me.

Here’s how it went:

“On vacation!” I posted to Facebook in the form of an out-of-office auto response. Before I could log off, a friend noticed that I’d typed “back Thursday, June 10,” which put my return several years in the future instead of one week away on Thursday, July 10. People riffed. It was pretty funny.

My attempt to disconnect from work failed. Despite pronouncing myself “unavailable,” I ended up checking my email because I needed some key piece of information, a flight time or receipt confirmation or such. And then I would notice meetings being scheduled. Flyers being made. Questions about events arising. A mistake I needed to fix.

To be clear, no one forced me to respond to all these emails – emails were going happen regardless of what I was doing away from the computer and disregarding my vacation assertions by answering them was wholly my fault. But once I’d entered into dialogue, I had to see the conversation through. I ended up on email daily.

I needed to get online to plan my days. What would the weather be like? (Hot and muggy was a given, and really, I could’ve just gone with that, but no – let’s look at the exact temperature and percentages.) What would the surf be like? (This proved to be critical, as I was able to catch an early bit of Hurricane Arthur out in Long Beach.) Did we want to try to get tickets to a show? (Yes, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch was sold out.) How much money did I have left in the bank? (Yikes. Also, oops.)

Where I succeeded, the first couple days, was in not using my phone as the sole source of comfort and distraction. I people-watched. I eavesdropped. I took photos as something to remember the trip by instead of using them to holler, “I am here! Right now!” at my online friends. I was not that person only half paying attention to the world around her and that felt great. As one should do in New York. Or life.

The world contracted to be whatever Tag, his wife Jen, and I were doing, saying, making happen. This included visiting the Transit Museum, driving out to Long Beach for the aforementioned surf experience, fireworks over the East River, bicycling out to Rockaway for a day at the beach, East Coast-style.

It was during the Fourth of July party that I first slipped. Inspired by all the America-themed face paint adorning the people around me, I made a little Vine. They loved it.

And because I was trying to coordinate with a few friends via Facebook messaging (using Paper, which is Facebook, but almost totally not), I couldn’t help but notice messages from other people on various topics. Upcoming shows. Questions about references. Etc. You know how Facebook tells the sender when you’ve read their message? I hate that because once that’s noted, I feel like I have to respond. So I responded. (Note: Not everyone suffers the same sense of obligation.) In the course of these interactions, I’d see something someone posted that I liked. So I would “Like” it.

Then my daughter texted me, “Why aren’t you liking my Instagrams?” Good question. I missed keeping up with her journey and the comfort seeing her photos brought. So I reinstalled Instagram. And then I uploaded a photo. And then another.

My music column was due. I went back online. Finished with a minimum of fuss and far too many puns. Took a breath. Rented a bike. Rode alongside my brother through Brooklyn, Queens, out to Rockaway.

Despite all this, my internet use, especially that of social media, was notably less than usual. Yes, I’d posted to Vine and Instagram, but neither of those accounts provoke conversation, just the occasional quiet cheer. Staying off Facebook was huge – no newsfeed to get sucked into, no back-and-forth about the photo or topic du jour. I appreciate the ways in which Facebook allows me to keep in touch with people far away, to promote events, but not using it reminded me how much time using it takes up.

Then the holiday weekend ended and everyone but me went back to work. Staying off social media when alone proved much harder, especially when waiting for things as one does in New York. Facebook and Twitter are my go-to time killers. Instead I opened Notes and typed out things I wanted to remember when I wrote about my trip.

Until the moment when I found myself cycling over the Brooklyn Bridge. I caved. I was excited about what I was doing and wanted to share it with someone, so I did: I selfied and posted.

I also decided I wanted to write about biking in New York City versus biking in Humboldt, which rekindled my internet interactions. I could’ve waited to write the post, but I knew that the inspiration would probably flag if I didn’t take advantage of it.

As could have been predicted by now, I did not look away in time and found myself immersed in comments instead of turning wholly to the other writing assignments I’d given myself. This was my last day in the city and I’d planned to spend it combining two rare opportunities, one being in New York and the other having uncommitted hours to string words together.

Sitting in a Manhattan park, using the free wifi, listening to the two guys beside me workshop their poetry/rap/beats illustrated a good fortune I should’ve better utilized.

Little by little, my disconnection never quite happened. But I did shift from habit to thoughtfulness. If I’d been staring into my phone, I would not have caught the sunset between buildings as the train whisked by. If I’d been checking in to Facebook during brunch at The Sea Witch or dinner at The Pickle Factory, the conversational flow would’ve been more sporadic. Instead the constant flow led to the kind of dialogue more likely to happen face-to-face than over chat. Eye contact is awesome.

That’s what I hope to hold onto – the streamlining. I did not reinstall Facebook or Messenger on my phone and I’m thrilled at the lack of notifications. Again, I realize some people can leave things unread, but I suffer from a sense of responsibility to those trying to contact me. As it is, I decide when I want to access Facebook (via Paper), which allows me the power over it. And because Paper encourages reading outside of one’s newsfeed, I find myself intrigued by headlines announcing creative endeavors, social justice rulings, etc.

I plan to hold on to that power.

The benefits of shutting up

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” ­ – Mark Twain

Sometimes, when you make a mistake, what you need to do is to shut up and not make it worse.

Hard lesson to learn.

It’s counterintuitive, after all, because we often believe if we keep talking, keep explaining, that we’ll make ourselves understood.

People say to share your feelings, don’t keep them bottled up.

But people would rather chance losing everything than appearing a fool. In a civilized country, looking stupid is one of the worst things that a person can do. And yet, we find ourselves splayed out, slathered in emotion, exposing ourselves and regretting it even before the consequences unfold.

So my advice, like all other good advice, is to put a sock in it. Walk around the block instead of broadcasting your heartfelt feelings on the matter. Do some pushups. Write in your journal instead. Reinforce that wall around your heart until someone worthwhile breaches it with love, kindness, understanding. Never assume they are worthwhile. Let time pass. Remember you are not who are you in your lowest moments. Remember you deserve more.

You will make it.

Stop. Back away. Sit down,

Forgive yourself.

Breathe some more.

I thought I needed religion, but the only church I considered following lacked confession. And then I remembered, all I need is writing.

writing exercise #47: “I only remember the dogs’ names”

I only remember the dogs’ names. The children’s, those escape me.

No wonder, when I think about how often Sophia called the dogs. “Buddy,” she’d wail. “Trigger,” she’d cry. “Lucky,” she’d holler out in such a way the name took on three syllables. “Luh-uck-eee.”

Goddamn dogs. Yes, no wonder I could remember their names.

Buddy wasn’t anybody’s. He bit my youngest daughter when she was two. Lunged at her when she toddled past his food bowl. Didn’t break the skin, thank God, but Lula screamed whenever she saw a dog until she was 10 or so.

And Trigger? The only thing more disgusting than how fat he was – seriously, what was my sister feeding him? – was how determined he was to, a.) stick his nose into your crotch; b.) hump your leg. I’ve had gynecologists less invasive and boyfriends less single-minded.

Lucky was the worst. Part golden retriever, part God-knows-what, the creature could never relax. “Stickstickstickstick!!!” he would convey through the power of wagging tail and focused stare. He shed like every hair on his constantly trembling body needed to be off and off now.

I remember one day, early spring, the day had broken with the promise of summer and her oldest daughter, who was still no taller than my waist at the time, had set up the Slip’n’Slide, no one to help her, no need. Johnny, my sister’s husband, of course he was named Johnny, coming after Dwayne and Mickey as if they’d lined up in order of cliché, was barbequing, hollering at the kids the whole time, “Hot! It’s hot over here!” Meanwhile, their daughter continued to organize the children. I saw them through rippled air.

And then the slipping and the sliding drew the attention of Lucky. Whatever instinct kicked in caused him to go after each child in turn. The kids, being kids, didn’t realize what was happening, didn’t make the connection between his lunging and their sliding until he’d chewed through their pants and two of the younger children had run screaming to their mothers.

My sister’s child, the one who had commanded everyone to play this game, charged Lucky with a stick, an erstwhile mother to her lost siblings. Lucky lunged for the stick, locked onto it, knocked her to the ground and let go the stick long enough to clamp his teeth around her scrawny eight-year-old arm, shaking it like this was a game and by the time we pried him off, my own husband forcing his jaws by blows to the head, her flesh had been gnawed to the bone.

“My baby!” my sister shrieked. She meant the dog. Lucky was, indeed.

My niece, not so much. She still trembles when we visit.

writing exercise #46: It’s good to be cold sometimes

She slid out of bed, turned off the alarm before it could wake her husband, slipped downstairs with only the slightest click of the bedroom door giving her away. Dawn had broken, turning the kitchen pink. She watched the teakettle. Boil, already. Achieving verticalness was always the hard part of getting up early, but once on her feet, Maddie owned the morning. Waiting around as the sun rose higher and the wind threatened to kick up sent her searching for ways to keep busy.

She folded the laundry, sliding her hands along her son’s jeans to ensure the crease would be in the proper place.

She slid on a hoodie, sneakers, fetched the mail, tiptoeing out the door to the street and back.

She pulled off the hoodie, kicked off the sneakers, emptied the dishwasher, setting each glass and pan down so gently only the slightly clinks and clanks made it through the kitchen.

The teakettle threatened to whistle. She shut off the flame and poured the near-boiling water over two tea bags of Irish breakfast. Checked her phone. They were supposed to meet in 30 minutes.

Maddie texted. “Still on for this morning?”

Five minutes passed. She killed the time with lunges, plies, leg swings, random yoga moves she’d read about in some magazine while getting her hair cut. O, maybe.

“Yeah!” he texted back. “On my way!”

She was glad he used exclamation points.

She pulled the tea bag squeezer thing from the drawer, pressed the tea bags flat, discarded them into the compost bucket. Added a splash, pause, splash of milk. Sipped. Smiled.

Maddie went back outside, shivered, tugged her beanie on with her free hand. The wind threatened through the trees, rustling the eucalyptus until the cat-piss smelling pods dropped. She checked the tire pressure. Seemed full. Her tea was half gone. She would need her red windbreaker, helmet. Gloves.

She stepped into her house. The warmth of last night’s fire lingered. She padded upstairs, grabbed her gloves, brushed powder onto her face, mascared her curled eyelashes, kissed her husband, mumbled something about being back soon and left as he mumbled something back. “Love you, too,” it sounded like. The light had changed to gold, slanting in through the skylight.

As she pedaled away from her home, tea forgotten, helmet donned, red windbreaker announcing her existence to passing cars, the gold faded to the usual blue, a pretty enough color, Maddie thought, but totally predictable. It was only in the beginnings and endings of the day that the surprises happened.

The morning chill hit as she rode over the bridge, the breeze racing across the water, up her sleeves, across her ears, into her throat. She could be home in bed, pressed against her snoring husband, their shared comforter agreeably heavy across her legs. He’d painted the walls sky blue last year, her favorite color, because it was her favorite color. Blue, blue, blue, she thought, looking at the expanse above her. Another stupidly beautiful day.

She dodged a Honda, a Ford, a Toyota, what was wrong with people? She was on a bicycle, not invisible, not with her red windbreaker advertising I Am Here, I Am Here. Her fingertips tingled as she twisted the combination on her bike lock, smeared gloss across her lips. Someone had told her once that the temperature usually dropped right after dawn before warming up again. Maddie hadn’t validated the information, but right now she was sure her former coworker had been correct.

Marcel sat with his back toward the door. He was not watching for her, not waiting to welcome her. She moved into the line. Ordered a bagel, a coffee. Marcel still hadn’t noticed, too busy with his phone. Who was he talking to, she started to wonder, then caught herself. It doesn’t matter, she reminded herself. “Oh, hey,” he said as she slid into the chair across from him.

“Hey,” she said back.

He finished typing something on his phone, looked up.

“Hey,” he said again.

“Hi,” she said.

He gestured to his laptop. “Want to see a video?”

“Right now?” she said.

“Yeah!” he said, clicked play. She watched two South African musicians rage hip-hop style in various stages of undress. “It’s brilliant, right?” he said.

“I guess,” she responded. She held his gaze, talk to me, she thought. His hand rested large and smooth on the table. She longed to stroke it, settled for a quick pet while nervously glancing around the café.

He glanced at his phone, pulled his hand away to type something, set the phone, then his hand, back down. “Maddie b-baddie,” he sangsong, tapping on the table.

“Maddie?” the barista announced, sliding a bagel laden with too much cream cheese and a cappuccino weak with foam across the counter. Maddie retrieved them, sat back down, shoved the bagel into her mouth, each bite consisting of too much bread and spread to do more than nod at Marcel as he kept tapping and typing.

“Well,” he said as she finished her last bite, used yet another napkin to wipe away crumbs real or imaginary from her mouth. “I guess we have to get to work.” He raised his hand for a high-five.

A high-five? Maddie thought. She raised her own hand, slapped his. They walked out together. He waved bye as he climbed into his car, sped off. She unlocked her bike, pedaled over the bridge, the wind once again reminding her what being cold felt like.

Back home, she peeled off her shoes, socks, bike pants, sports bra, T-shirt, windbreaker. Shivering, she slid back into bed, pressed against the warmth of her husband. “How was your bike ride?” he asked, eyes closed.

“Fine,” she said. “Cold.”

“Poor thing,” he responded, reaching out for her. Feeling her nakedness, he opened his eyes. “Mmmm,” he said. “Your butt is freezing,” he said.

“I know.” She wrapped her leg around him. “It’s good to be cold sometimes,” she said. “It reminds me how nice it is to be warm.”

 

writing exercise #45: three prompts

Tall things that vibrate with life

Krista emerged from the subway exit into the sunlight. Noon in New York. Sunlight battered her into a crevice between doorways, just enough shadow falling across her phone so she could read the map. Two blocks that way. But which way was that way?

She stepped out, squinting in the glare. Why did she not have sunglasses? She did not have sunglasses because she was visiting from a land of fog, where one didn’t need shades unless driving inland from the coast and why would she do that except to visit the river and if she were visiting the river, she’d have her wide-brimmed sunhat on, the one her girlfriend had bought her at that cute boutique on the Plaza, one of those stores she never went into because she knew she couldn’t afford anything inside. But her friend was wealthy and kind and able to give expensive gifts without making her feel small.

Sometimes they hiked together, marveling at the mushrooms sprouting through the forest floor and even more at the birds fluttering the upper branches of the redwoods. “I wish we could climb them,” Lisa said. “I’ve read stories about all the life up there in the canopy, what a whole nother world it is. Seeing it would be amazing.”

The skyscrapers towering above Krista would have dwarfed those redwoods, she thought. The life that teemed within intrigrued her in a different way than the birds, the salamanders. She imagined thin women in black pencil skirts, high heels and perfect hair. The sort of women that would look her up and down, note she was no threat and then take her under their collective wing, teach her how to handle the boss, how to demand equal pay, maybe set her up with their pathetically artsy friend. She inhaled, the scent of Lisa and the forest faint. Her brain abuzz with honking horns, screeching brakes and the scent of fresh bagels wafting from the storefront nearby, Krista set off, watching as the blue dot on her smartphone map app launched its way toward her new life.

Habitual things that create triggers for lifelong happiness

“Eight things super successful people do before 8 a.m.”

Krista squinted over her coffee cup, shifted it to her left hand so her right could scroll down.

1. Exercise. Krista set her mug down on the desk, stood up, stretched. Sighed her way into lunges, four on each side, which didn’t seem like a lot, so she did 10 squats and 10, no 8, no seven pushups, then stayed in plank position for what very well could have been 30 seconds. Settled back into her desk with her coffee.

2. Map out your day. Easy enough. She looked at the time. Noon. Shit. Each lunch. Look for job. Go to library. The New York Public Library was amazing! Go to Grand Central Station. Wonder if the people trying the whispering wall were whispering something romantic. Shrug it off. Meet her roommate for happy hour. Spend more than she had. Go home. Pass out.

3. Eat a healthy breakfast. Krista looked at the sad banana on the counter. Brown spots. Pass.

4. Visualization. Wasn’t that the same as mapping out the day? Krista reached for the banana. Peeled it. Took a bite. Too soft, ugh, she thought as she chewed, swallowed, scrolled.

5. Make your day top heavy. What the fuck? she thought. Oh, do what you least enjoy first to get it out of the way. Okay, she thought, here goes. She picked up the phone, started to text, deleted it. Dialed. “Hello?” the voice on the other end hesitated. “Hi,” Krista confirmed.

Painful things that aren’t as devastating as the horrifying things with which others contend

They’d agreed to meet for lunch. Cliché, Krista thought, having to meet on neutral ground, but for the best. “I don’t want to see your apartment,” Lisa had said. “I’ll only find things to hate about it.” Krista had nodded, the thickness in her throat impeding speech. “So,” Lisa had said, “can we just meet somewhere easy for lunch?” Krista had murmured assent. Easy turned out to be a block from Grand Central, a bagel joint, because New York and bagels, Lisa had to try them, Krista insisted. There she was, Lisa, wool beanie and battered peacoat standing strong against the spring wind.

“Hi,” Krista said. One look at Lisa’s face and she kept her arms at her sides.

“Hey,” Lisa said. “So, should we order?” She glanced inside. “It seems kind of intense.”

“You just have to be commanding,” Krista said. “And you want an onion bagel with lox and cream cheese, toasted.”

“Oh, I do?” Lisa raised an eyebrow.

Krista started to say, Yes, I know you, but Lisa had already turned, marched inside. The line moved quickly. “French toast bagel, walnut cream cheese, not toasted,” Lisa asserted.

Krista sighed, ordered the onion with lox and cream cheese. They squeezed into seats at the counter. Lisa unfolded her napkin, then folded it. Then unfolded it.

“Are you okay?” Krista asked.

Lisa turned to lock eyes with Krista. “Seriously?”

Krista looked away. “I’m sorry.  I know it’s been hard.”

“Hard?” Lisa said. “No. Being a Syrian refugee is hard. Losing your job and your home is hard. Finding out you have cancer is hard. Your best friend moving away without warning, well, that’s just an inconvenience.” She glared at Krista.

“Here,” Krista dug an envelope out of her purse and thrust it at Lisa. “My half of the rent I owe you. Sorry for sticking you with the lease. I just,” she paused. “I just had to leave.”

Lisa took the envelope, looked away. “Thanks,” she said. “I miss you.” She stood up. “I can’t eat this bagel,” she said. “I hate all the sweetness.”

“I know,” Krista said. She pushed her untouched bagel at Lisa. “Take mine.”

They regarded each other.

“I got it for you,” Krista pleaded.

Krista watched as Lisa glanced around absorbing the move-move-move of the bagel shop, the sunlight beating the air outside into submission, the newspapers trumpeting death tolls and political betrayals, then gathered the bagel, fat with lox and cream cheese, into a napkin.

Lisa left without looking back.

Only fair, Krista thought.

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