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.

writing exercise #44: A deli technician and the too-long to-do list

(I’m falling behind in posting!)

_______

MONDAY

“What is a deli technician?” Marlene asked Sean.

“A person who works at a deli, I guess,” Sean answered.

Marlene twisted her mouth to the side and gave Sean The Look. He was digging around in the fridge and failed to notice. She frowned. “Sean!”

“What?” he turned to her, soy milk in one hand, yogurt in the other. “Do you think the expiration date really matters when it comes to yogurt?” he asked.

“Omigod, Sean.”

“What?”

Marlene narrowed her eyes and gave him another look.

He elbowed the fridge shut and took a step backward.

“What?!” he said.

“Nevermind,” she sighed and returned to scrolling through help wanted ads.

 

TUESDAY

“Sean!” Marlene barged through the door.

“Marlene!” Sean yelled from the couch, four feet away. He pushed the bag of Sriracha-flavored Kettle Chips aside to make room for her. “Sit!” Sean said. “I’m on my fifth episode of Louie. You’re just in time.”

“Sean!” Marlene flung her purse on the couch. “Listen!” She stomped her feet.

“Oh, fine,” Sean said. He punched the remote and the TV went dark. He pulled the bag of chips to his lap, stuck his hand inside. “Yes?”

Marlene rolled her eyes, then flopped over the chair arm, landing next to Sean. “Chip me,” she ordered as she leaned into him.

Sean pulled out two chips and placed them in Marlene’s open mouth. “There you go, little bird.”

“So,” Marlene crunched, “Hang on.”

“No worries,” Sean said. “I have all the time in the world.” He placed his feet on the combination of plywood and milk crates they used as a coffee table, leaned back and started whistling.

Marlene swallowed. “Do we have any beer?” she asked.

“Um,” Sean answered.

“Sean!”

“I’ll go to the store, fine.” He swung off the couch, stood up.

“Wait!” Marlene said. “Guess what?”

“You’re not pregnant?” Sean hazarded.

Marlene reeled back. “What? Why would I be pregnant? Are you insane?”

Sean shrugged. “Who knows anything with you?”

“Sean, that’s not even funny.”

Sean laughed. “What is it already?” He leaned down and grabbed her shoulders. “Tell me!”

Marlene laughed and pushed him off. “I have a job interview! The deli technician!”

“Hooray!” Sean jumped in circles around the apartment, then stopped. “What is a deli technician?”

“I don’t really know,” shrugged Marlene.

 

WEDNESDAY

“Hello?” Marlene eased through the door of the Stay and Shake Delicatessen. Four bare bulbs cast a bluish light from above. Four white tables with two silver chairs each lined the plate glass windows. From the deli case, color burst forth. Various cuts of raw meat stood draped into piles, dark greens arranged at their base, the green emphasizing the orange-red of the, what was it? Marlene thought, leaning closer. Oh, pepperoni, of course. She identified the chorizo and salami, figured the whiter meat had to be chicken. But the other six, no seven, no nine other meats, some pink, some almost purple, those she could not define.

“Hello?” she called again. The bottom of the deli case held cheeses. Cheddar, swiss, pepper jack, fresh mozzarella balls. Flowers, too. Orange and yellow blooms floated in shallow glass bowls.

Next to the deli case, a counter held the cash register, a stack of menus, an almost empty bottle of sangria-flavored soda. “Hello?” Marlene called again. Behind the counter, a door marked “Employees Only” was closed. Marlene pulled the corners of her mouth down, wrapped her cardigan more tightly around her polka-dot blouse. She stepped around the counter and knocked on the door. It swung slightly open from the pressure. No handle, she noted. Nothing to hold it in place. “Hello?” she called, softly.

Through the inch of space the door had opened, she could see the edge of a desk, papers, the soft glow of a lamp. She swallowed and pressed the door open further. “Hello?” she whispered, leaning forward. Now she could see the entirety of the room. Bookshelves lined one wall, floor to ceiling. Filing cabinets another. Then the wall with the desk, on which stood a lamp, green and brass, illuminating little but the papers strewn about. Marlene pushed the door open as far as it would go and stepped in.

The topmost paper on the desk, she couldn’t help but see as the handwritten title was two-inches tall and in Sharpie, read “To-Do.”

She picked it up.

“To-Do

decide on wording for deli technician job

place ad on Craigslist

interview applicants

hire the best candidate (or a cute girl)

train technician

get money from safe deposit box

buy plane ticket

ditch car

set house on fire

leave country

make YouTube video laughing at them all

write autobiography

jump out and surprise cute girl applying for job”

Marlene shrieked as the hands landed on her waist.

 

 

writing exercise #43: “She was starting to believe in God, but for all the wrong reasons.”

She was starting to believe in God, but for all the wrong reasons. The foray into faith began with the toaster. No matter what setting she twisted the knob to, her toast came out crispy. She didn’t like crispy toast. She preferred the slightest browning, just enough time to transform the bread to toast and then stop! and softened butter because cold butter would tear the bread, or toast, rather, and a smidge of jam, a thin layer, membrane-like, of sweetness. The delicacy appealed to her, the gentle blend of flavors, the way a crisp bite would yield to softness

But now the toaster turned every slice of bread into a hard brown square that even a half-inch thick smear of jam could not fix. Because she could not bear wasting food, she had to eat it. The process invoked suffering. Each reluctant bite followed by dutiful chews until finally the wafer-like hunk could be swallowed, digested.

As she chewed, she pondered what had led to this. The obvious connection was how she had recently burned her best friend by applying for the same job and getting it. They’d pretended the competition was friendly. It had been friendly on her part, she was sure. Of course, being friendly about competition came easier when you had the advantage. She pulled her fingers through her artfully tousled hair and swallowed.

It wasn’t just the toaster, of course. A lifelong dedication to atheism couldn’t be undone by a standard household appliance. Her potential conversion to belief was also triggered by the car, which, despite being only two years old, had started having problems after she’d passed the hitchhiker. She never stopped for hitchhikers – the rule had been embedded into her womanly psyche early on. She didn’t stop for hitchhikers, she didn’t walk alone to her car late at night and she didn’t write letters to incarcerated men. These were basic guidelines all women should live by. But this one particular hitchhiker. He stood at the base of the bridge, his long locks blowing Jesus-like – she actually thought this at the time – “Jesus-like” – and his smile encompassing his eyes, unlike most hitchhikers who barely smiled and seemed more menacing when they did – this guy, his smile lit up the air like sunbeams through a raincloud. She had smiled back and was still grinning when their eyes met. Her foot eased on the gas and her hands on the steering wheel shifted slightly to the right before she shook herself back into enough awareness to reapply the gas, keep going. No matter how appealing, she thought, one should not pick up hitchhikers. She knew this to be true and yet. And yet. A certain guilt settled onto her shoulders and his imagined face appeared before her, disappointed.

The next day her car overheated. Redlined a block from her house. She waited, tried to drive again, cranked the heater full blast in hopes of staving off the damage. Five minutes later, she was back on the side of the road, calling Triple A. While she waited, she could’ve sworn she saw the hitchhiker go by, comfortably ensconced in the passenger seat of a Nissan Armada, his eyes connecting with hers in the millisecond between rain drops. Of course it was raining. She had shivered. She had waited. She had convinced the tow truck driver to stop at the grocery store – they were passing right by it, after all – so she could run in and grab a bottle of cheap red wine. “Please?” she’d cajoled. “I mean, after all” – giggle – “what a crazy day! Am I right?” She’d twisted her fingers around a lock of hair. “I’d love to buy you a six-pack as a tip.”

The driver had laughed and declined, but he had laughed, so she’d known she’d had him. She kept up the chatter the rest of the way home, a way of thanking him.

The final blow, or inspiration, depending on one’s perspective, arrived in the mail. A parking ticket. For her no-longer working car, which had been working long enough for her to illegally park long enough to sneak into a bar and have two quick cocktails before taking a sauna that, she hoped, would detox her into perfect sobriety before her volunteer shift at the twins’ Animal Action night. Actually that wasn’t the final blow. The final blow, or inspiration, depending on one’s perspective, was the pregnancy test. The one she’d taken after an impossible one-night-stand with, Mary swore, a guy named Joe. She was sure that was his name. And the thing was, they hadn’t even quite had sex. Bringing someone home was not something she did – don’t pick up hitchhikers, the mantra repeated in her head. But the twins had been having their first sleepover at a friend’s and in the rush of freedom, she’d gone dancing – dancing! – and one thing and then another and suddenly she and Joe were on her bed and her skirt was up and his pants were down and then – oh! – he’d made a mess between her thighs before she could even ask about a condom. Jesus Christ, she’d said, not meaning to embarrass him further, but shocked, who wouldn’t be caught off guard. And apparently she hadn’t cleaned up fast enough.

So here was God, she had determined, punishing her for not being generous enough, for being vain, for lustfulness. She was pretty sure these were at least some of the deadly sins. She thought about the others as she scrolled through the list of churches in town. One of them would have to take her in.

writing exercise #42

PROMPT: The problem with puppets – and dolls and ventriloquist dummies – is that they occupy what’s called the uncanny valley. That’s the valley between alive and not alive, real and fake.

* * *

When she first arrived, he admired her eyebrows. It sounds strange to the uninitiated, but eyebrows challenge even the best designers. Too bushy and their woolly presence distracts. Too sparse and the artifice becomes obvious. This was true, too, of actual human women. His ex-wife would pluck to near oblivion, bleach the surviving hairs, then draw her version of what a woman’s eyebrows should look like using a makeup pencil more expensive than the ones he used for storyboarding. Which was saying something. But at least his work had brought in income. Still brought in income. Much of which went to his ex-wife. So it goes.

The puppet laid on her back, eyes unblinking beneath her perfect brows. If she could have seen, which, of course, she could not, she would have noticed the way the man’s lip twitched on the right side every time he raised his hand to make a note on the paper-laden clipboard he carried. How archaic, she might have thought, to use paper. She would have also noticed his thinning hair and the way his own eyebrows unfurled as though desperate to escape his face. Although, being a puppet, she may not have thought in such poetic terms.

And what of his eyebrows? If they could speak for themselves, perhaps they would confirm their desire to flee a face such as they’d been consigned to. After all, the sweaty forehead, the broken blood vessels strewn across the nose and upper cheeks – these were not signs of success. Neither was the wax built up and flaking from the ears. If the eyebrows could determine their own fate, they might choose more wisely. Plenty of successful men had unruly eyebrows and, truth be know and if were to come to this, they would not resent sacrificing a few strays for the sake of grooming if it were to mean greater peace for the many.

He lifted her from the box, tugged her dress smooth across her chest, settled her onto his knee. As he shifted her, her eyelids fell, rose, fell, rose again. “Hello!” he said.

“Hello!” she said, or rather, he said in a falsetto voice.

“How’s it going?” he asked. He immediately regretted opening with such a clichéd question. He’d read recently that asking someone how it was going was evidence that one had failed to pay attention. What a person should be able to do, the blog post – titled 7 Ways to Cultivate Charisma – explained, is ask specifics. Such as “How was your trip to Zimbabwe?” or “Did Susie’s surgery take care of things as you’d hoped?” or “Did your daughter get that scholarship to ABSuccess Preschool?” What the post failed to explain was how, especially if you were the sort of person who could barely retain the name of the person you actually knew, how you were also supposed to remember the names of their respective people and those people’s goings-ons. If he could be that charismatic one-on-one, he thought, would he have turned to the stage?

She wanted to answer him. Or rather, she would have wanted to answer him if she’d been real. But of course, she was not. If she was, however, what she would have said would have been, “I’m elated! Despite the fact that a strange man has his hand up my dress, haha, I’m happy to be out of that box!” And then he might laugh and ask if he was really so strange and then she would say, “Have you looked in the mirror lately? Are those eyebrows or confused caterpillars?” Which was not the best joke, she knew, but what did they want from her? She was new to this world, to this role, and had only the input of her masters to work from.

The box, if it was sentient, might have resented her quick dismissal. Had it not cradled her safely from an outpost in China, across the sea, over the dull patchwork of the Midwest to this relative palace? She thought her role was limited, the box might have thought if boxes could think, which of course, they cannot, but if they could, the box might have pointed out, rather petulantly, that it was to live but a brief life, mashed into being, rudely shipped away, soon to be flung on the fire.

He turned her toward him. “I’m sorry, that’s a stupid question,” he said. “Let me rephrase. Are you tired from your long journey?”

She smiled, although since her lips were frozen into the expression they’d given her, she was always smiling, so telling the difference was impossible. “I am tired!” she said, he said. “But I’m so pleased to be here and make your acquaintance.”

 He smiled back at her. “Would you like a tour of your new home?”

 “Yes!” they said.

He walked her through the house, pointing out the art, the hot-water-on-demand, the bathroom window he left open because the salt air wafting in from the ocean was too sweet to shut out. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I don’t suppose you understand.”

 She wanted – if a puppet could want – to reassure him. Maybe she couldn’t smell things, technically, but she liked the idea of it.

 “It’s fine!” she, he enthused.

They continued the tour in companionable silence. When they reached the bedroom, he tucked her in before changing into his pajamas. Normally he slept naked, but with her, dummy that she was, being naked felt inappropriate.

If she was real, she would have thanked him. The eyebrows were bad enough.

The eyebrows, if they had eyes of their own, would have rolled them. “Really?” they would have said. At least we’re real. At least, they would have said, we’re real.

insomnia #21 aka 2013 Year in Review

If I were to make a list of things I’d most like to leave behind in 2013, insomnia would be up there. I blame the evening’s red wine this time, but the cause could just as easily be falling asleep too early with too much on my mind. It’s a horrible thing, thinking.

My arsenal of sleep aids – herbal teas and tonics, Tylenol PM, relaxation apps – are failing to do the trick tonight. Rather than lie in bed kicking my husband every time he nears snoring, I’m here in front of the computer, writing.

It seemed potentially more productive. New Year’s Eve. Why not take stock?

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January: Our sweet dog died, my younger daughter was detained in London en route to Ireland, I wrote my first Five Things, and a friend and I attended the Presidential inauguration.

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February: My older daughter turned 23, my husband and I relived the ’90s by seeing Soundgarden in Oakland’s Fox Theater, I moved into The Link and I went on an epic surf-work trip to Central Cali, the first of many excursions I’d take with my dear friend Casey.

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March: Spent another week along the central coast, my younger daughter turned 19 and I wrote my first (and so far only) cover story for the North Coast Journal.

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April: My first Five Things column ran in the NCJ, I tripped to Sacramento and Santa Cruz, and I helped coordinate a memorial service and paddle out for John “Moose” Mason, a man whose sudden death brought forth such beautiful tribute from so many people that I found myself thinking, “We should all be so loved” – and that we should all be so kind and good as Moose.

May: Some idiots filming an ad at Moonstone high-centered a Dodge truck on a rock, launching me into Surfrider mode and ending with me being named a “Humboldtian of the Week” on Facebook, a work trip took me to D.C., we attended my fabulous brother’s fabulous wedding in San Francisco, where I stayed on for a conference after – four hotels in 10 days.

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June: Traveled to Long Beach for work and some time with my older daughter, stepped in as the NCJ’s music columnist, spent Summer Solstice at Shelter Cove, wrote about the dead whale that washed up on my beach and was given a six-month layoff heads up.

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July: Played cornhole and bocce ball for the first times and failed at neither, took a vacation to Seattle that included a whale watching tour through the Puget Sound and a stop in Portland on the way back that included visiting a friend with whom I shared a room when we were 18 – and all the required reminiscing that implies, and wrote my favorite Five Things so far.

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August: Threw a most excellent birthday party for my husband’s 50th, was hired on to do part-time outreach for Humboldt Baykeeper and moved my younger daughter to Santa Cruz.

September: Played a small role in Humboldt Made’s big premier, guested on Sherae O’Shaughnessy’s Late Night gig, traveled with Casey to San Diego for the annual Surfrider conference, helped cover the arrest of alleged crossbow killers in Manila, helped clean up around a homeless camp for Coastal Cleanup Day and wrote about it.

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October: My kickball team raised $2,697 for Six Rivers Planned Parenthood and came in second in the annual tournament, Casey and Kj joined me for my second excursion to a foreign country, this one a long-anticipated trip to Manzanillo, Mexico, where we spent six days surfing, swimming, reading, drinking and eating tacos – best vacation ever – followed by a closer-to-home excursion to track gray whales and see humpbacks, a transcendent experience.

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November: My son turned 18, my friend Grant and I took off to New York for a week, where I stayed with my brother and his wife and celebrated my own birthday – 44! – at The Comedy Cellar, and upon returning home, my husband and I moved into the upstairs master bedroom after 11 years of downstairs living.

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December: Held what was likely my favorite Ocean Night ever, wrapped up my job with Ocean Conservancy, made plans for a next chapter with the Northcoast Environmental Center, tripped down to Santa Cruz to visit our younger daughter, reminisced about a time I almost died, and trekked up to Crescent City for an especially memorable surf safari due to cramming five people in a Honda CRV, finding fun waves under endless sunshine, a rescue by me of a person drifting out to sea, stinky sea lions, piles of fish and chips and hours of excellent conversation.

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In between and throughout all that, a million photos of sunsets, sunrises and various bodies of water. Also, surfing. My wonderful writers’ group. Parties. Music. Books. Movies. Food. The requisite ups-and-downs and various heartbreaks involved in being a human people who spends time with people. Most importantly, a ton of love and good best friends. I aim to transform this list of things done into something larger and life-useful at some point, but for now, what a reminder that I am a lucky, lucky girl.

writing exercise #41

OK, this is a little silly, but I just went with it.

***

The waiter set the crepe in front of her, the slice of lemon twisted upon itself, the powdered sugar shaken to the edge of the plate. “Anything else?” he asked. Lisa shook her head and smiled. He stepped backward, pivoted and turned his attention to another table, a four-top, two couples made up of people most likely in their 20s, she thought. Early 20s. She listened to the guys order for their girlfriends – wives? – as if they were rehearsing for the role in which they had already been cast. “She’ll take the, uh, the one with the sun-dried tomato?”
The waiter knew his trade. “Does the lady want the sun-dried with the goat cheese? Or with the pesto?” he asked the man, then smiled at the woman. Respect appropriately given, the girlfriend – wife? – was free to answer without seeming as though she was correcting her husband. Boyfriend?
Lisa smiled again. Used her knife to slice a bite of crepe and her fork to tuck it into her mouth. The lemon tanged on her tongue even as the sugar sweetened it. She closed her eyes, let the flavors meld a moment longer before swallowing. She opened her eyes, pondered the wisdom of eating her food as if she was in some sort of Italian food commercial, decided she should save the sensual indulgence for somewhere other than the middle of lunch hour at the most popular restaurant in town and so settled down to eat her crepe in a more American manner.
Lisa sliced the remaining crepe into triangles with her fork, eating steadily, not making eye contact with the other customers, although she couldn’t help but overhear the couples, whose food had arrived by this point.
“Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere, they’re in each other all along.” The woman with the sun-dried tomato crepe – goat cheese version – recited the Rumi quote adorning the back wall. The quote provided a flourish to a mural that featured a sort of water goddess whose legs turned into trees rooting deep into the top half of planet Earth.
Lisa could hear the men exchange glances and she knew without looking that those glances carried the opposite message than the one the two women were likely exchanging. She smiled to herself as the last bite of lemon sugar butter dissolved on her tongue. Women were so predictable, as were men. What she wanted, what she longed for, what she looked for, was that place where all the learned behavior fell away. We have all emerged from the darkness, birthed from sea to cave to a place on land where we’re forever reaching for the sky and imagining some sort of other resides within, she thought as she set down enough cash to cover the check plus a 20 percent tip. The math annoyed her. She figured it was easier to just always leave too much. Not fiscally prudent, but fuck it, she was a poet, not a professor.

The waiter set the crepe in front of her, blue cheese crumbled onto apple slices so thin paper would ruffle with envy. “Anything else?” he asked. Black eyebrows framed eyes so blue that Sonia couldn’t speak. Instead she smiled and shook her head, turned her reddening face to her plate. The waiter faded to the next table, one where two couples sat facing each other, the women chatting and pointing at the menu as the men shifted in their seats saying nothing until the waiter asked if they were ready to order. Sonia pulled out her phone despite her earlier promise to herself to not be that woman sitting alone in a restaurant fiddling with her cell phone. Four more emails from students claiming confusion over the most recent assignment. Sonia skipped ahead to the fifth email, the one from Marcus asking if she was attending tomorrow’s brown bag lunch seminar on Motivating Millenials: A Guide to Today’s Generation. If you are, she thought. If you are and I can sit next to you and our legs will not quite touch and I’ll touch my hair too much and worry that I’m oversmiling every time you whisper some smartass comment in my ear. Her crepe arrived. This time Sonia didn’t blush, just said thank you as the waiter set her plate down. Her gaze wandered over the wall. She’d seen the mural a hundred times at this point, the creperie having captured her business years ago. The ocean goddess was hokey, she’d decided, and the whole tree-Earth thing contrived, but she couldn’t help but agree with Rumi’s observation that “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere, they’re in each other all along.” She had so much inside her, after all, and couldn’t wait to meet the person who manifested her best self in his own, preferably blue-eyed and slightly French, way.

Mexico: Day Five

I don’t have a graceful or subtle way to say this. Of course, what happened wasn’t graceful or subtle: I’d started my period and was bleeding to death. Cramps galore! Why my body has to kick in this way every single time I travel mystifies me. No matter where I am on my cycle, something about getting on a plane apparently alerts my uterus that it’s time to shed that unwanted lining. I wanted to cry. Not that I can’t surf while bleeding to death and falling over with cramps, but the situation is hardly ideal for flinging myself over pitching slabs of swell. So I sat on the sand at Paraiso and watched everyone else alternatingly tear it up and get munched. So it goes.

A boat tour through the mangroves cheered me up – and the value of having good friends along can not be understated. Even under the circumstances, gratitude to have two such lovely, kind, fun, responsible traveling companions along infused every bit of my being.

The days had grown in heat since our arrival and this one seemed the hottest as we left the turtle sanctuary. The ocean called. We leapt in. I swam out past the breakers (Everclear echoing in my head, natch), dove and let the waves roll me. The joy of being in this warm ocean buoyed me, brought me back to myself. Refreshed and rejuevenated, we departed for another taco shop. More fish tacos, more laughter.

Detoured at a Starbucks to jump on the wifi and check in with my poor, abandoned husband. Everything was fine. No emergencies. Having a great time. Love you.

Back home, we finished the tequila and I finished Peter Heller’s Kook, the story of a middle-aged guy determined to not only learn to surf, but to go from beginner to big wave surfer in six months. I’d been unprepared for how funny and poignant the book would turn out to be. The story peaks in mainland Mexico – I kicked myself again for not charging Pasquales – and was a lovely note to end vacation on.

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