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.

writing exercise #40: “What a time to start daydreaming”

Not sure what this is exactly. Not a story, just a collection of characters, a variety of vignettes. Happy to deviate from my relationship/dialogue standard in any case.

***

What a time to start daydreaming, flying down the coast highway, sunlight turning the Pacific gold, fruit stands and vacation condos lining the roadside. Then again, what a perfect time to start daydreaming. Anything was possible with a view like this. She laughed out loud, the wind ripping the sound from her throat to deliver elsewhere, miles down the road perhaps, to someone, she hoped, someone who could use it.

The wind tousled his hair, tickled his ears. He could have sworn he heard laughter on the breeze. He could use a laugh after a day of selling strawberries to tourists. The worst ones wanted to barter, as if his brown skin eliminated the need for the American tradition of paying what the price tag read. “How about $1.50?” they’d say, hungry to save that 50 cents. Sometimes he’d play along, say “No habla ingles,” and shrug. Game over, they’d throw down the two dollars and stomp off. He remembered a particular woman from earlier in the day, a tall blond in an oversized sun hat, god forbid she expose a single cell to the rigors of aging, who’d been dragging her Ken doll husband around the stand, poking at the melons, tsking at the oranges, beginning every sentence with, “When I was on the mainland…” She’d come up to him, tossed her hair. “Como esta?” she began. With her, he took an opposite approach. “Sorry, Miss, I don’t speak Spanish. Habla ingles?” He spoke in the clipped Boston accents of his Harvard schoolmates, the ones who’d have been shocked to see him helping out at his family’s fruit stand. What could you do? Family. The blonde’s face had dropped, her chance to show off her comfort with the natives destroyed. “Oh,” she’d said. “Just the strawberries.” He laughed, remembering how distraught she’d been.

A few miles north, the road twisted into a canyon, funneling the breeze into something heavier, a weight that blew the smoke backwards down the chimney and into her living room. Goddamn wind, she thought. Why do we live here? As always when that thought occurred to her, she took a look around, absorbed the fine wood architecture of her home, windows opening to endless pine trees and a small but bright flower bed, the boys’ treehouse and knew, again, she was doomed. She poured more Chardonnay, laughed without mirth.

He shivered as a gust blew leaves about his feet. Stupid wind. Making everything cold. Tricking a person into thinking the day was warm because the sun was out but nuh uh. Cold. And now he had to rake up the stupid leaves because he’d told his mom to shut up. He looked up as she opened the door. Maybe she’d take pity on him, but no, she was just letting his dog outside. His dog who bolted straight into the pile of leaves raked into a perfect pile, now, suddenly, perfectly destroyed, leaves blasted into the sky and drifting back down to settle into his hair, onto his shoulders, around his shoes. His dog skidded to a stop in front of him, tongue out, tail wagging, ready for love, unaware of the mess made. He had to laugh.

She hit the brake as the sun touched the ocean. Parked to face it, looked not quite exactly at the bright circle making its way into the Pacific. Turned the car off. Shut the radio down, sorry Paul McCartney, because yesterday, all my troubles seemed much closer, but today, they are so far away. The sun had passed the midway point. She looked to the side of it, above it, below it, careful to avoid direct eye contact. Lower, lower. The tip, she saw through her peripherals, hovered. This is it, she thought, please. And then the last bit of bright slipped below and bam, she saw it. The green flash. Dream into reality right before her eyes. She hollered, actually whooped with delight. And then started the car, eased back onto the highway. Hit the gas. Grinned big, giggled until the giggling erupted into peals of laughter, rolling back on the wind, mile after beautiful mile.

So, 2013, yada yada yada, Mexico

It’s been a while.

Between Facebook and once again writing regularly for the North Coast Journal, I don’t turn here as often as I once did. And since my children have – for the most part – grown too old to use as fodder and since I am no longer chronicling my surf sessions, well, what would I write about?

It’s been quite a year.

But aren’t all years? Not one year of my life has passed after which I thought, Oh, wow, what a nice, dull time. This one started with our wonderful yellow mutt reaching the end of her 14 years. The following month marked the termination of a decade-long friendship. An important family relationship turned inexplicably distant. My youngest child graduated from high school, the middle one moved on to Santa Cruz and college. In June, I received notice that my beloved job will officially cease to exist as of Dec. 31. Another friendship fell apart. The endodontist says I need two root canals and the dentist found nine cavities in my son’s mouth and I have no idea how I’m going to take care of all this when the insurance only covers a percentage in the first place and time before losing what little coverage I have is running out.

Insert obligatory #firstworldproblems acknowledgment.

Of course, a stream of good things happened, too – they always do, preventing me from sinking too far into self-pity. Foremost, my children are alive and relatively well. I reconnected with old friends during one visit to Long Beach, another to Portland and yet another to San Diego. We reminisced, as people do, about the crazy things we did – that trip to Ensenada where she ended up in the closet with my future husband’s roommate and I broke the top off a Cherry 7Up bottle in my desperation to quench my hangover-induced thirst. That time I was super stoned and pulled what I thought were eyedrops out of my purse, but it was lotion and I didn’t realize it until I’d squeezed globs on top of both eyeballs – a story that apparently never gets old in the retelling. Those days we stayed past close in the bar, too blown away by some great band that had played to stop drinking – or because we needed to vent about how shitty the band was and how annoying the NA crowd could be with their ceaseless demands for coffee refills and emptied ashtrays.

Despite differing political and social views, visits with family members were lovely and free of debate. My previous writers’ group stopped meeting years ago due to the demands of children, husbands, jobs, life, but the women who made it up continue to be on the other end of late night/early morning emails most notable for being pleas of Help! How do I cope with this crisis? How do I get through another day fraught with too much to do and people going nuts? They always have answers – or for the unanswerable, comfort. I needed a lot of that this year. My new writers’ group delights me. Who am I to deserve such an abundance of smart, kind, funny, creative people populating my world?

From the people I work with – at all my various endeavors – to the people who showed up for my husband’s ridiculously fun 50th birthday, I am, for lack of a less hackneyed word, blessed. (Thoughts on friendship distilled here.) My job, albeit ending, has provided a leg up in the world and experiences I never expected: Taiwan, for example, adventures in D.C., even more intimate knowledge of our coastline, a hand in creating concrete protection for it. Health care. Experiencing what being able to pay one’s bills is like. I’ll miss it desperately, sure, but future opportunities are promising and for the time being I’m still privileged to write, occasionally, for both the Lost Coast Outpost and the NCJ. Those days when keeping all the magic going threatens to send me sobbing into anxiety-riddled nervous breakdown, I can still walk out my front door to the beach. Life is so very much work and yet continually proves to be worth it.

And I’m leaving for Mexico tomorrow.

This trip will be only my second out of the country (not counting ill-fated teenage trips to Baja), made possible by the generosity of a friend with a house there and judicious use of frequent flyer miles. To say I’m excited is to say a hummingbird is bit of a speedy creature – my heart is beating faster than those wings with anticipation. I wanted my husband to come so that we could have a shared adventure, celebrate this dawning new phase of our lives in which our children are grown, but alas, his desire to avoid flying supersedes his desire to trip along with me to exotic locales. The consolation option is no less wonderful, however – lieu of romance, I have two of my best girlfriends accompanying me, both so easygoing that my only concern is now I’m in danger of being the uptight one. I’ve wanted to travel forever. And I’m leaving both cell phone and laptop behind, so ready to disconnect that keeping focus through the day seems nearly impossible. I have a stack of books. Oh, to read novels again!

I fear I’m too happy about this.

Sometimes I’m compelled to reiterate, it’s not easy, this life. It’s much easier now that I’m not working 60 hours a week between two jobs that still didn’t pay enough to cover life’s expenses, fun as they were. A living wage directly improves one’s world, no question. But a lot of struggling and stress existed between finding myself pregnant at 19 and finding myself landing a dream job 20 years later. (I’m always finding myself!) Even under ideal circumstances, raising children challenges the most patient of adults. Our circumstances were far from ideal, lacking in both family support and cash, our son diagnosed with an as-yet incurable disease. And I am not patient. But – to get hackneyed again – love keeps getting us through.

So I can’t write about my kids very much because they’re adults or very nearly. (Also – disclaimer – because I hope to contribute a column to the NCJ’s new “Offsprung” series, so I can’t go on too much about how, despite what a vast number of well-intentioned people say, having adult children does not, in fact, make a parent “done.”) The nearly-adult status of my son also means I can’t write about my son’s diabetes like I used to. For the record, it’s still scary. Scarier in some ways because he’s opted to take on more responsibility for his care. He now inserts his own sets, checks his blood sugar on his own even in the early morning hours. I have not stuck a needle in the kid for months. Hardly a thing to miss – but like all aspects of letting go of controlling a child’s life, one that brings anxiety along with the relief. Who will take care of him if not me?

And since, for the first time since I began surfing, I’ve stopped counting my yearly surf sessions, I have no obligation to chronicle them here – by permitting myself the freedom from tracking, I inadvertently did away with a steady writing prompt. Alas. I have surfed and not surfed. Weeks pass and I freak out and suddenly I’m zipping down the spit, truck loaded, blood racing, my need to be in the water as primal as hunger. I don’t do things for a while and then worry I’ve forgotten how to do them. Surf. Make pancakes. Read. Write a blog post.

Thanks for bearing with me.

writing exercise #39: “It’s complicated”/bowling ball

The ball whirled down the lane, marbled pink rotating toward the waiting pins. I held my breath. Please, I thought. No, I thought, as the ball’s angle shifted from parallel to the gutter to inching toward it. I was spared, this time, not spared as in a spare, that would have been cool, but spared from the humiliation of another gutterball. My pink 8-pounder knocked into the far right pin, which dominoed into the pin next to it. Two pins down. Better than nothing.

 

I rubbed my bicep, sore from the morning class at the gym. I’d overdone it on the medicine ball slams, picturing his face on the ground, motivating me to slam the ball hard, harder, hardest, until I feared it would pop.

 

My pink ball popped out of the return. I stuck my fingers and thumb inside, wondering if I should have chosen something heavier. The old guy at the desk practically insisted I use this one, one of many they kept around “for the ladies.” But I’ve been working out. I can do push-ups, 15, and five pull-ups on my better days. I launched the ball down the lane, imagining that something heavier would better stay the course.

 

It was my fault. It was my fault. It was my fault. I’d been daydreaming of love for months, was primed to crush on the first guy who feigned interest in me. The fact that he happened to be entirely full of shit was a risk I should have better assessed. He talked up my wit, my popularity. That second one should have clued me in that I was about to get involved with a guy who’d fuck anyone vertical and breathing with more than four friends on Facebook.

 

So it goes. And there went my ball, truer than I expected, smashing into the remaining pins so hard they flew. A spare. I whooped, I’m slightly embarrassed to say. Threw my shoulders back, grin twisting my face, bowling shoes an inch above the ground.

 

That’s when he caught my eye. He raised his pint at me. Nice, he mouthed. I curtsied back, my success making me magnanimous. He was lucky. A gutterball and I would’ve smashed his perfect smile into bits. That pretty pink marbled 8-pounder would have been just the thing.

writing exercise #38: the taste of orange

The sink exploded. A geyser erupted from the hole left from the disengaged faucet and handle now lying impotent in the basin. Water rushed across the counter, puddled on the floor. Fuck, Matt thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He threw a dish towel over the spray, pulled open the cabinet doors, shoved the trash can, the dishwashing detergent, the four thousand smashed up plastic bags aside and twisted the knob until the water slowed to a trickle, stopped.

Lanie had asked him, told him, to fix the faucet. He’d said he would. He’d said, of course. He said, I’ll get to it. He’d said, no, you don’t need to hire someone. He said, I’ll take care of it. He’d said, maybe if you would stop nagging me for one goddamn minute I’d remember to do it.

I’m sorry I said that, he’d said.

And now. Here he was. What a mess. He stood, backed up to survey. Water, water, everywhere. Matt pulled more dish towels out of the drawer, mopped up the counter. He lifted the faucet up to the light. Stripped and cracked. OK, so he could just run to the hardward store, get a new one. Lanie wouldn’t be home till after six. He still had time. Car keys in hand, door pulled tight behind him, Matt left.

An hour later, he returned, replacement faucet in a paper bag handed to him by a clerk whose skepticism rode so close to the surface that Matt had to fight to keep from assuring him he knew what he was doing. Not that he knew what he was doing. But how hard could it be? He twisted the new faucet into the place of the old, ducked back under the sink, held his breath as he released the water. Above the counter, the water poured out orderly, as water should.

“Yeah!” Matt yelled, fist-pumping his way through the kitchen. “Yeah!” Hey, he thought, if he cleaned up quickly enough, Lanie would never know about the semi-disaster that had prompted the at-last sink repair. Water mopped up, dishtowels in the laundry, he should make dinner, he thought. A complete diversion.

Onions, garlic, pinto beans, corn into the skillet. Blood red tomatoes, brilliant orange serranos  into the blender. Salt. Grated jack. Chopped cilantro. Corn tortillas or flour? He could never remember which kick Lanie was on.

Six fifteen. Burritos assembled – he’d gone with the flour tortillas – presented with a spicy orange smear across the top and a sprig of cilantro tucked underneath. Lanie adored cilantro, couldn’t believe some people didn’t like it. It’s a genetic thing, Matt had said one time. That’s stupid, she’d said.

The door opened. Hey, she announced, kicking off her shoes, hanging up her coat. The air behind her rushed in, chilling the house, smoke from the neighbor’s fireplace flavoring the air. Matt held his breath. Ugh, Lanie said, what a day. She strode to the bedroom. He closed the front door, waited. She returned, sweats on, bra off, hair let down. You look so pretty, he said, reaching for a kiss. Please, I’m disgusting, she said. What’s for dinner? Burritos? Huh.

They’re really good, he protested.

I’m sure they are, Matt, she said, it’s just. Nevermind. She sat down, poked her fork into the hot sauce he’d made. He watched her bring it to her mouth. He’d tasted it repeatedly, so many times he’d lost sensation in his tongue. She licked the fork and smiled. It’s great, she said. Thank you.

After, she cleared the dishes, piled them in the sink, turned on the water. Hey, she said, did you fix the faucet? I did, he grinned. Wow, honey, that’s great. She twisted to him, wrapped her arms around his neck, pulled him close. Thank you.

Matt watched as Lanie finished the dishes, loved the way she kept pushing errant strands of hair behind her ears, how she kept singing Beast of Burden because he’d mentioned the Rolling Stones to her earlier and the smallest mention or snippet would cause a song to occupy her for hours. He loved that he knew that about her. He loved the way her ass looked in her sweats and more how it would look when he tugged them off, which his hands were doing now.

Hey, she said, but not in that way that meant stop. He slid one hand between her legs, the other one across her stomach, pulled her tight. Her breathing quickened. Matt, she whispered, then Matt! Jesus! Stop! She shoved him away, bent over, hands clenching between her legs. Jesus! Oh my god, do you still have hot sauce on your hand? Oh, god! she cried, grabbing a dishtowl from the freshly laundered pile and reaching for the sink. She yanked the handle to cold. The water burst forth.  She stuck the towel into the stream just as the faucet shuddered, tipped, popped off, the geyser returning as the faucet gleamed useless on the bottom of the sink.

Lanie shook her head and sobbed against the fridge. Matt eyed the damage, stuck a finger in his mouth. Beside the taste of Lanie, he loved the taste of Lanie, the slow burn of serrano etched its way orange across his tongue.

writing exercise #37: There was no other option

The sun glinted off the river. She stepped up the rocks, reaching a hand to steady herself, wishing she were the sort of person who could just skip up and down mountain trails and stacks of boulders with equal ease. But she was always reaching to steady herself.

Just yesterday she’d grasped the shoulder of a man in the elevator when the lurch to a stop had sent her off balance. “Whoa, there!” he’d said as he removed her hand from his suit jacket. “You okay?”

“Sorry,” she’d mumbled, the red heat swelling into her face. She couldn’t make eye contact, could only glance in his general direction as she affirmed her apology once again. He responded with some words she couldn’t make out over the blood pounding in her ears, but they had a certain tone of reassurance. She didn’t breathe until he’d stepped out of the elevator and it had continued on its way.

The rocks stacked against each other, a stone staircase or, in some places, a stone ladder or, in some places, she discovered, a stone slide, impossible to climb up except several people had come this way and continued skyward so the journey must be possible. She hovered on her toes, fingers clenched into a crack splitting one rock and the other hand pressed against a waist-high rock. The heat moved through her in waves, the rock under her hand alive with it.

He’d spoken in awe of her heat, the first few times. “Your whole body,” he’d said. “It’s like your temperature goes up ten degrees.” They’d been lying naked on the bed after, sweat-drenched and exhausted. She couldn’t stand him twining around her, couldn’t handle covers. She was a supernova. He tugged the duvet over his waist. “Good night,” he mumbled. The breeze shuttled in through the window, ocean cool and salty. She closed her eyes. Months into winter she would still leave the window open, a different heat radiating from her body, her arm curved around her belly.

She placed a foot on the lower rock, pressed upward, balanced on her knee as she clawed her way over the hump. From here the rocks merged with the cliff into a trail that slanted at an angle that gave her pause, but was a trail nonetheless. She picked her way forward.

He was born two weeks early, healthy, but a touch on the small side. The best, one of the nurses whispered. “It’s that much easier,” she said, “and you don’t have to feel any guilt because look at him! He’s perfect.” She noted his worried expression heightened by his barely-there blonde eyebrows, his arms flailing as if still unused to having this much room to move. “Shhh,” she said, drawing one thumb softly, butterfly softly, across the bridge of his nose, smoothed his brow to make him appear less vexed, calmer. “You’re close enough to perfect for me,” she whispered. Love rocked through her, more than love, a fierceness flooding her and she knew she would die rather than let him suffer, ever.

The last few steps were the easiest or at least the gentlest. The path leveled off at the top. She found herself poised a good twenty feet over the river. A group of kids laughed among themselves, the sound nearly drowned out by the river’s murmur. Her skin blistered in the sun, her vision blurred, heat waves emanating off the rocks, the world distorted into a haze green, gray, blue. She closed her eyes until the moment passed, imagined her center of gravity low, in her ankles. Don’t fall, she told herself. Don’t fall.

She used to tiptoe into his bedroom to make sure he was breathing. When he was a baby and again when he was a teenager. She’d wake in the night needing to pee or fetch a glass of water and then worry would doom her to insomnia, her imagination taking her down the very worst of roads until nothing but seeing him in the flesh, mouth gaped open, sheets moving up and down with his breathing, would reassure her that her panic was silly, the tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, useless. She’d inch downstairs and breathe herself slowly back to sleep.

Someone else was clambering up the rocks. The plateau did not offer room for two. She couldn’t think about it any longer or she’d find herself crawling down the cliff face, a failure. Deep breath, arms outstretched, a shriek she didn’t mean to happen, she jumped. 

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