Oregano. Green flakes that float atop an oily slice of boardwalk pizza. Yet they are wild vines in miniature; a sheath of plump green velvet: aromatic as a forest, strong like a drug. The smallest leaves, herbaceous explosions that numb the tongue.
You rub its velvety leaves and it stains your fingers with the smell of Sunday dinners at your grandmother’s, with the smell of pasta with marina, meatballs and love, with the smell of a nostalgia that never really was.
Just One Story for Why I Write.
Mule Creek Prison is a maximum security prison in Ione, California. Driving there is tranquil, blue highways roadtrip—windmill farms, burnt yellow hills, and old frontier towns selling tschotkes to tourists. As you draw closer, if your eyesight is not very good, you see a tower, and mistake it for a college campus.
Then you see the guns.
I was a new attorney, there to see Geronimo Pratt, an ex-Black Panther convicted of a crime he did not commit. This was to many, including me, a dream opportunity: working on a case to free the wrongfully convicted, working with legal issues that allowed me reach out and touch the words written by our founding fathers.
But the details numbed me into a stupor. I didn’t want to read pages of testimony and then conduct hours of research to craft a legal argument. I wanted to hear about Mr. Pratt’s youth in the south. I wanted to hear about the early days of the civil rights movement and the palpable sense of revolution that caused so many people to act against the government. I wanted to hear his story of the Panthers’ descent into drugs and criminality. I wanted the experience of prison visits and to observe, well, everything. More so, I wanted to write about it.
This posed a problem. An admitted perfectionist, I knew what it took to be the kind of lawyer I wanted to be—tirelessly curious about legal minutia. I didn’t want to be less than a crusader (idealistic, I know), but I was just so much more interested in story.
Sure, in law school, while on Law Review, while working for two professors on their research, while working at a firm, I took a fiction writing class and wrote the first draft of an adventure novel. But now, saddled with student loan debt, was I truly going to eschew the stability hammered into me by my professional parents and go for something I had only dreamed about? The answer was yes.
I began the long process of leaving practice. I wrote freelance—finding legal writing gigs and journalism gigs where I could. The social activist in me still strong, I continued to represent indigent defendants on appeal in my own practice. After all, there were parts of law I loved: helping people, writing, thinking and legal reasoning.
I took creative writing classes. I realized that while stories might come freely to me, writing was difficult. I had a lot to learn. More workhorse than prodigy, I changed my life so I could write in the mornings, the only time I could do so without the inner critic mocking me.
That was more than fifteen years ago. I no longer practice, but the rest? Still true today. I loved (and still do) the rewrite, of matching writers’ intent with reader experience, that struggle of language until the story drives itself. The decision meant less money, less stability and a different kind of life than the one my parents envisioned. I brazened forth and redefined my worldview. It was worth it.
Rose’s Drive Home
Jake – Father
Rose – Daughter
Two chairs on a stage, facing forward. We’re in a car. Rose, a woman in her late twenties, is driving, looking straight ahead. Jake, an overweight man in his early sixties, looks out the window.
JAKE: That was unnecessary.
ROSE: We had bad service. I don’t see the problem.
JAKE: Writing a thesis on the back of a check?
ROSE: It’s better than leaving no tip without an explanation. Then the waiter just thinks you’re an asshole.
JAKE: And you think this waiter wants to ask you out on a date?
ROSE: Okay, parse my words. The waiter will just think you’re a cheap asshole.
JAKE: I paid.
ROSE: It’s the principle of the thing.
JAKE: It’s always the principle with you.
ROSE: Waiters need to take their jobs seriously, like everyone else. When I waited tables, I took it seriously.
Silence. Rose looks over at Jake.
ROSE: You don’t think I took my job seriously? Jeez, I got laid off.
JAKE: Rose, watch out! You swerved into the other lane.
ROSE (she swings the car back:)Yeah, sorry.
JAKE: I just get the call, Rose is out of a job. Again.
ROSE: Is that what you think? That I quit?
JAKE: What I think is that you had two mojitos or whatever they’re called.
ROSE: And a bowl of pasta. I’m fine.
JAKE: I think you’re weaving.
ROSE: I’m weaving because I’m angry.
JAKE: You’re always angry.
ROSE: Not in Boston. Not there. Only here. Jersey. Home makes me angry.
JAKE: Boston is an anger free zone? That’s an interesting fact, Rose. We should send your grandmother up there.
They both chuckle. Silence.
ROSE: You don’t understand, Dad. I’m not angry like you forgot my birthday. I am just angry, trapped angry.
JAKE (sarcastically:) This is a horrid place to be, I know. Feel free to move out. No one is stopping you.
ROSE: You just don’t get it. It’s so much more complicated than that.
JAKE: That’s been the broken record since you turned 16. I don’t get it. You should look in the mirror, Rose. What do you understand? Maybe look around and see the world outside yourself for a change.
ROSE: There are no such things as broken records any more.
JAKE: (shakes his head:) You think you’re a riddle. You’re not that unique.
ROSE: What am I? A limerick.
JAKE: Always a smartass.
ROSE: Thought I was always angry.
Jake rolls his eyes and looks straight ahead. They drive for a time in angry, awkward silence.
ROSE (angrily sighs:) Limericks. I learned about those in the seventh grade. I had such trouble coming up with them. It’s the only time I remember you helping me with my homework.
JAKE: I worked. That’s what I did.
ROSE (shakes her head and slowly remembers:)
There once was a woman in Greece
Who had a very filthy niece
She had grease in her toes
And lice up her nose
For she washed with the liver of geese.
JAKE (laughs:) That’s disgusting. I helped you write that?
ROSE: Yeah, you did. I love it. I got an A.
JAKE: Always did.
JAKE (turns around:) There are cops behind you.
JAKE: Yup, lights are on. Pull over.
JAKE (reaches in his pocket and pulls out a dirty penny): Here. Suck on this.
ROSE: I am not sucking that! It’s filthy!
JAKE: Just in case, Rose. It’ll screw up the breathalyzer.
ROSE: How do you know these things?
JAKE: I’m a dad. (Pause.) And I was a cop.
Rose pops the dirty penny in her mouth and sucks.
ROSE: I’ll probably get Hep C.
JAKE: Always the drama queen.
Rose pulls over. They wait.
**The stage goes dark for a few moments.**
ROSE: You sold me out.
JAKE: Jesus Christ, Rose.
ROSE: That stop sign wasn’t visible!
JAKE: Are you kidding? You weren’t paying attention.
ROSE: Do you see that tree? How it blocks it? You threw me under the bus.
JAKE: You’re lucky I gave you the penny.
ROSE: Really? Really? That’s all you can say?
JAKE: You passed the breathalyzer, didn’t you?
ROSE: I didn’t need that gross penny, I would have passed anyway.
ROSE: And now I have a moving violation. I’m going to fight it.
Rose stands up as if she is getting out the car. She walks around and stands on the other side of Jake –as if she is outside the passenger door. She begins taking pictures with her cell phone.
ROSE: These trees totally hide the sign. How could I see the sign?
JAKE (gets out of the car and walks toward her): Those people who fight tickets are crackpots.
ROSE: Who are “those people”?
JAKE: Don’t start calling me a class-ist, Rose.
ROSE: You’re the one going there, not me.
JAKE: I worked along side all different kinds of people in my line of work. Not like you.
ROSE: Me? Are you kidding? (She takes a picture, looks at it, takes another.)
JAKE: You sequester yourself in a bubble.
ROSE: A bubble? What bubble? I went to college. I waited tables. Then I worked at a nonprofit.
JAKE: And then another. (Jake pauses a moment and in a lower voice:) …and then another.
ROSE: Bubbles? Working to save the environment is a bubble? How exactly?
JAKE: Did everyone you work with go to college?
ROSE: I guess.
JAKE: And everyone was white?
ROSE: No, I don’t think so. Not at all.
ROSE: How am I supposed to remember! I don’t take a census when I start a job.
JAKE: Are you friends with anyone who didn’t go to college?
ROSE (thinks for a moment: ) No. You sent to me to college…what did you expect? I’m friends with people I met in college. Your friends with people you worked with. It’s not like I have some checklist—Fun at parties? Check. Forward thinking? Check. College? No? Well, sorry. No friendship with you.
JAKE: That’s a bubble.
ROSE: And you’re not in a bubble? Please. I have to get a good shot of this stop sign with the tree in front of it.
JAKE: No, I was never in a bubble. I wasn’t privileged. Entitled.
ROSE: You think I think I’m entitled? Wow. I take you to dinner to thank you for letting me crash here while I look for a new job, and first I have to suck a filthy penny, and now, I’m being name called.
JAKE: Such drama, Rose. Always.
ROSE: I don’t think I’m entitled to anything!
JAKE: How many jobs have you quit?
ROSE: I got laid off!
JAKE: The others?
ROSE: They were toxic work environments! Dad, you don’t understand—
JAKE: I do. You think work is supposed to be fun. With casual days and retreats and feel good projects. You think it’s all about the personal journey. You think it’s camp. Sitting around a bonfire. With the smell of campfires in the air. And s’mores for dessert. Work is not supposed to be fun, Rose.
ROSE: So work should smell of rank fish and rancid meat? Work should be a place where you don’t learn? A place you hate going to day after day? It should be prison?
JAKE: That’s privilege talking. Some people don’t have a choice.
ROSE: You don’t understand. Never did. At one job, my boss asked if I would dance on a table for him. You think that’s fair? You think I shouldn’t have quit? …Sorry, I am not going to feel bad for sticking up for myself. And you’re the one who taught me to do it!
JAKE: It’s a job. You just don’t seem to respect money.
ROSE: I am fighting this ticket because I respect money!
(Rose’s cell phone beeps.)
JAKE: What’s that?
ROSE: My alarm.
JAKE: For what?
ROSE: Daily call to mom. It’s three hours earlier there.
JAKE: You call her everyday?
ROSE: Yes, yes I do.
JAKE: I worked.
ROSE: Yes, yes you did.
ROSE: For me to work in a bubble.
ROSE: And suck pennies.
ROSE: They could go well with mojitos. Lime flavored.
JAKE: Always joking.
ROSE: Always optimistic.
JAKE: You’re never going to win.
ROSE: But you’ll be my witness.
JAKE: Maybe I can make a call.
ROSE: Do you smell it? It smells like Christmas. In June.
JAKE: It’s the pine tree.
ROSE: Always practical.
ROSE: I do wish life was more like camp.
JAKE: …Me too.
I got flowers for my birthday. Again. She sent me a vase of purple tulips with a little smiley card with the message, “Happy Birthday, Dad! Love, Lila.” It was typed in all capitals, like she was yelling at me.
Yes, yes, yes, I know it’s okay for a man to get flowers. I was born in the 30s, I don’t still live there. Her gift is certainly better than getting a tie or a sweater or tote socks to keep my feet warm. But still, I turned 75 and now suddenly I’m a man who has everything? All I have now is a golden parachute that morphed into tin on the way down.
And as this pertains to Lila, this causes me great stress. Not that I’d ever tell her that. You know I stopped judging her and her stupid decisions several years ago. I no longer say, “Are you kidding? You want to quit acting to own a restaurant? Do you have investors? Business skills? Do you know how to make more than mac and cheese with tofu hot dogs?”
No, I don’t say stuff like that anymore. And she hugs me more because of it, but that doesn’t make me feel as good as you think it would. I’d feel better knowing she’s leading a productive life and will carry on the family name with a modicum of pride.
Don’t get me wrong. I gave her all the tools to be a successful, productive adult. Good schools, exposure to culture, college. I even paid for that MFA in acting. She can hang the diploma in her restaurant … that, by the way, never happened. When my wife and I argue about Lila, she says I didn’t give Lila the tools to be a happy adult. Her kids, she says, are happy and productive. This is a little too true. A doctor, a lawyer, and a firefighter. And not just any firefighter, a smoke jumper. The young man jumps out of planes to fight fires. He might as well be a super-hero. Or an idiot.
Excuse me, a happy idiot.
So one night a few years ago, after watching Lila’s face crumple when I asked her whether yoga instructors got health insurance or did they all depend on their parents forever, I decided to stop judging. Yes, I had had two martinis and a fight with my wife who said dinner with my daughter and two martinis is two martinis too many. But eventually, it was my decision. So I announced to my wife that I would no longer judge Lila’s decisions or to explain how her new fangled get rich scheme will not succeed without hard work … the thing she most avoids.
Now I just listen, and I say, “that’s nice, honey.”
But Lila’s pushing me to the limit. Now, she’s going to marry a man to keep him in the country. I did mention to her that this was illegal, just in case she didn’t know. She shrugged. What I didn’t mention was that he was an idiot and shouldn’t be allowed to stay in this country. No, no, no. Not like that. You liberals get all jumpy way too fast. I have no problem with immigrants—we’re a country made of them. My problem is with morons.
And Lila’s faux-fiancé is the epitome of moronic. And he’s Canadian –don’t look at me that way, I don’t have anything against Canadians—but this is not some man she’s saving from a despot. This is my daughter hanging out with a man who says “supposably” and “libary” and looks at you in a perplexed way when you correct him, as if he’s thinking, “but I just said that.”
No, no, no. I didn’t say any of these things. I told you I stopped judging her. Okay, yes, not telling her about my judgments is, in fact, more accurate. When Lila told me it was a good deal because she could share his apartment in Williamsburg and he’d give her discount on the rent and they’d certainly pass the fed interviews because they actually would live together, I took a deep breath and said, “that’s nice honey.”
Don’t get me wrong, I do think Lila is smart. She’s suspicious about my sudden acceptance of all her plans. I mean, I tell her, “I just don’t judge you anymore, honey. I just want you to be happy.” Isn’t that a comforting thing to say to one’s child? Don’t you wish you had heard that from your father?
She is just not satisfied with that answer. Instead, she has informed me that my brain has not stopped working and so I must still be thinking. And if I’m still thinking, I’m still judging. Then she told me judging is just how reasonable people organize information.
Yes, yes, yes, I know. I told you, she is smart.
But then yesterday happens. She called to tell me wants to start a dog washing/skype café. She asked me for my opinion. And I said, “Sounds like an interesting idea, honey.” And she said, “Interesting good? Or interesting you’re pretending not to judge me because you want me to love you more than I did when I was a kid.”
She can’t have such a ridiculous idea. I think she’s testing me. She’s always done that. Trying to shock me into paying her special attention—like she was the middle child instead of an only child who got near constant attention from her stay-at-home mother who refused to work even when money was tight because we agreed when we were 22 and stupid ourselves that she’d be a stay-at-home mom.
I digress. I used to call Lila Miss Shock and Awe well before there was a war branded with that slogan. When she was 16, she dropped a condom on the dining room floor in front of my very Catholic mother. And yes, it spurred a loud conversation about teenage sex and virginity. But then my very Catholic mother asked my daughter if she was familiar with Herpes and asked her how it compared to the Clap.
No, no, no, I didn’t want to know why my mother has so much personal knowledge of gonorrhea. And my daughter simply reveled in making everyone at the table uncomfortable. This was the 80s. She wore her hair in some ugly way—short on one side, long on the other. She once tried to go to the opera with her bra on the outside of her shirt. So this is what I mean by judging: I told her she looked like a dime store hooker.
That, in retrospect, might have been harsh. I do recognize that I might have been too hyperbolic in my criticisms. Which is what led me to cease judging.
But she did look like a cheap hooker.
And so now she seems to be testing me again. She wants to shock me into saying something judgmental. Now don’t you agree? I mean, who thinks that people want to wash their dogs and talk on skype at the same time? I told her, “That’s a fine idea.” And I told her I was happy she shared it with me. Do you know what she did? She didn’t say, “Thanks Dad, you’re the best.”
What am I supposed to do? I have no idea what I’m doing with her, she has no realistic plan for her life, and time, at my age, is of the essence.
So I think my Dad has dementia. To be continued…
The Teenaged Boy. Are you listening to this? I mean, do you want to
a) slit your wrists,
b) poke your eardrum out with a knitting needle, or
c) kill the person playing that FUCKING song AGAIN.
Perhaps it’s d) all of the above.
My father has gone fucking insane. Right now I’m thinking my Dad is the one who needs therapy. Not me. His new girlfriend just dumped him. They weren’t that serious because we only did the dinners here at home and not the field trips we usually do when he’s getting super-serious. You know, like ‘let’s go to a Broadway play’ or ‘let’s go to the opera,’ or ‘let’s go to that new Chinese place on Springfield Avenue,’ or ‘let’s explore Ironbound.’ You know all the things we NEVER do unless he’s trying to IMPRESS a woman by PIMPING OUT HIS SON.
GET A DOG, DAD.
If I have to listen to Alexandra Leaving one more time, I’m gonna kill myself. Leonard Cohen, fuck. My friend likes Leonard Cohen. He plays ‘em at parties when he thinks it’s time for everyone to leave. DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I MEAN, DAD? It’s a downer. YOU ARE BRINGING EVERYONE IN THE HOUSE DOWN.
But it’s only me, so why would he care?
My dad has played this song 121 times. 121 TIMES. And it’s really more, because the first few times he played it I wasn’t counting because I said to myself, “oh, Pops is listening to shit. He must have been dumped. AGAIN.”
Have you listened to the song? First off. We’re atheist. So when Dad comes to his senses I am going to point out that he is fucking with my fragile adolescent belief system by telling me that the Lord is going to take someone away. The Lord is as Casper my father used to say. Not that I fuck knew what that meant. But really, you are going to ROT IN THE GROUND.
Second off. My dad went out with this woman for a month. A MONTH. She hadn’t even slept over here yet.
You know how it plays out in the movies, where the teenaged son sees a sexy older lady coming out of the dad’s room with a towel? HA! Never happened. They are never coming out of the room with a towel. They are never sexy. Those movies LIE. My Dad’s girlfriends are fucked up single mothers who reek of low self esteem. He’s the high school science teacher for fuck’s sake; he wears tweed on purpose. I suppose he can’t attract much else. He plays up the whole I could-have-been-a-professor-but-I-chose-to-work-in-the-trenches-that-are-our-public-schools-thing. And that’s cool. Really. He can be cool. He’s patient, blah blah blah. He’s supportive, blah, blah, blah. He’s there for me, blah, blah, blah. And these women, they line up at his desk at Parent Night when they don’t even have a kid in his class. Only single dude in town, you’d think. Maybe he is, how the fuck would I know. Then he takes them on dates that makes me think he could be a player. You know, like Play-ya. Seriously. Like the zoo. He takes single women to the Central Park Zoo and buys them a lemon ice. Their little suburban panties get all wet. They see him as a man who knows how to yearn. It’s all Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. They’re moon eyed on fucking moors. Even in fucking New Jersey.
Then something happens. I have to tell you, I don’t know what the fuck it is. But it’s something. These ladies see something soft in him, the underbelly of a kitten or something. Maybe they smell it—his softness. And then they’re gone. He just meets women, woos them and weeps. Yup. I meant the alliteration. Fuck my English teacher. Women, woos, WEEPS.
DO NOT. NO, DAD. NOT AGAIN. Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me. FUCK ME. Here we go, the woman’s head lying on a satin pillow. YOU DON’T HAVE A SATIN PILLOW. She never even had her head on your shitty cotton one.
I am going to be SO FUCKED UP. I have to tell you, I was okay when my parents got divorced and they told me I was going to live with my Dad. He was the funner parent. Emphasis on was. My Mom, she traveled too much to be primary caregiver. She’s a big pharma rep. She sells happy pills to doctors who don’t want to deal with their patients’ aches and pains. That’s what my Dad says. My Mom says my Dad is just mad because he flunked out of med school. They both laugh when they say this to one another. Ha ha ha. Tee hee hee. They’re teasing, they tell me. They have one of those healthy co-parenting relationships my therapist tells me. But this, THIS. How is this healthy for a teenaged son. If I don’t fall far from the tree, MY LIFE IS GOING TO SUCK AND I AM NEVER GOING TO GET LAID. DAD, TAKE PITY ON ME, YOUR ONLY SON. PLEASE. Please.
I have to tell you, I have a girlfriend, you know. I haven’t told my Dad about her. It would jinx it, I think. Her name is Annie.
I love it when she tucks her hair behind her ears. I’m working up the nerve to do it for her one day when her hair falls in her eyes. She likes the lemon ices my Dad keeps in the freezer. I have to tell you, I’m fucking trying not to yearn.
This actually happened…
Small dinner party of four hyper-articulate people in their early to mid-thirties. Upper-middle class. FRANK AND ANGELA’s apartment is urban. Stylized—dimly lit.
Several empty wine bottles sit on the table. And they are still drinking with the exception of KIRSTEN who is visibly pregnant. SCOTT and KIRSTEN are the other couple.
KIRSTEN: It’s an anti-feminist idea.
FRANK: So what are you saying? Let the kids die?
KIRSTEN: No, don’t be sarcastic. I am talking about the “women” in “Women and children first.”
ANGELA: I agree, it’s patriarchal.
SCOTT: I theoretically agree.
KIRSTEN: What does that mean?
SCOTT: I just don’t think I’d be getting onto a life raft before a woman.
Kirsten stands up, and both Scott and Frank stand slightly up.
ANGELA: Kirsten, what do you need?
KIRSTEN: More juice.
ANGELA: Get that for her Frank, will you?
Frank stands up and heads to the kitchen.
FRANK: (Mumbling:) Women and children can’t be first, but men get the juice.
ANGELA: (Calls into the kitchen:) Yes. Exactly. Who did all the cooking tonight?
ANGELA: Scott, you have a kid and another on the way. We don’t have children. You would step aside so I could get on the raft?
SCOTT: I should get on ahead of you, but I wouldn’t get on ahead of you.
Frank returns with a pitcher of juice. Pours it into Kirsten’s glass. He bows and sits. Kirsten nods her thanks.
KIRSTEN: I would have less trouble if it were mothers and children.
SCOTT: But that’s still sexist, isn’t it? Anti-feminist, you say.
KIRSTEN: You’re right. Parents and children?
ANGELA: That doesn’t seem fair. All parents before those who don’t have children? I’m not comfortable with that.
FRANK: Not comfortable? This is life and death—it’s not a matter of comfort, Angela.
ANGELA: What if one of those childless … no, childfree … people was a brilliant scientist who would cure cancer? What about going by age? Youngest to oldest.
Angela sips wine and looks around as if she’s solved the problem.
KIRSTEN: That would be a little problematic in an emergency. Everyone getting out their IDS. You would have people lying about their age.
SCOTT: That would be a cluster fuck. Here’s a dilemma you girls can tackle. If we go by women and children, where do transgendered people fit in all this? Have you thought about the transgendered?
Frank pours himself more wine. Frustrated. He looks around the table. Gluttony. Platters of food still half full; plates are empty—stained with food.
KIRSTEN: I’m the one who started this conversation. So the question is, honey, do you have a problem with the transgendered? Would you step aside to let a transgendered woman on the life raft?
FRANK: This is getting ridiculous.
SCOTT: Don’t trick me into saying something homophobic. I’d let on anyone dressed as a woman.
ANGELA: So what about a woman dressed as a man?
SCOTT: Fuck. You win. I think it should be primary caregiver and child.
ANGELA: Right, and people need to get out their tax returns? I see that happening on the Titanic.
SCOTT: (Laughing:) No, couples would just be fighting about who does more around the house.
ANGELA: Anyway, if only primary caregivers were saved, and everyone else died, who would drive the economy?
SCOTT: It’s a ship sinking right? Not the planet.
ANGELA: Could apply to the planet. Armageddon and all.
KIRSTEN: Yeah, who gets on the rockets to go to the biosphere on the moon?
SCOTT: Then you have all the people who just want to go to the moon.
FRANK: (Drunkenly but seriously:) This is ridiculous. What is so wrong with chivalry?
ANGELA: There’s chivalry and then there’s chivalry.
FRANK: That makes no sense. I can open the door for you, but not let you get on a life raft or moon craft first?
KIRSTEN: One is tradition and politeness. The other is life. It matters.
FRANK: (Pounds the table:) Exactly! Women give birth. They are the life force of the planet. It’s beautiful. Special. And that gift …that gift of giving life …it should be protected. That’s not a bad thing.
Awkward silence. Kirsten, Angela and Scott look down, waiting for the first one to burst out laughing.
SCOTT: Well then, what about sperm? Me thinks the swimmers might actually give life.
Kirsten, Angela and Scott burst out laughing.
FRANK: Fine. Sperm and children first. Fuck all of you.
ANGELA: With cloning around the corner, maybe it should just be women and children-
KIRSTEN: Women scientists and children!
SCOTT: Wait, now there’s no men in the biosphere.
ANGELA: Are we actually going to need them?
And so the conversation continues…
You have to wear the black dress. You look elegant and hot. I know it’s the one you wore on your first real date with him. That’s the point. Don’t you want him to hurt? I know, I’m not going to say anything when we’re there. So I’m not going to say something to him like I did at the package store when I saw him buying a bottle of tequila—cheap tequila—and told him that he was a fucking Voldemort for leaving you in the manner he did. I’m going to ignore him. You are too, right? That’s our pact.
No, don’t wear those pearls. Pearls don’t say fuck you. Pearls say I think I’m something I’m not. My grandma always used to wear pearls. She had an eighth grade education but liked to act like she was a WASP. Once she took me and my sister to a restaurant for lunch—a place where you sit in wicker chairs and order quiche and iced teas. We had to wait and she flirted with the host and gave our name as Selby rather than DePalma. I just remember fidgeting because she giggled the entire time. Just picture a woman with a colostomy bag tee-heeing over a man overdressed in a pin-striped suit. I suppose he did look better than my grandfather who I never saw wear anything other than his blue mechanics uniform. So when I graduated the eighth grade, my grandma gave me the pearls. I remember I was wearing a pink argyle sweater with a purple turtleneck and purple cord skirt. I loved that skirt.
Can I try on that silver lame dress? I know it might give me a greenish hue in the black light of the club, but I love the way it swirls. We can both look totally beautiful tonight. You’re going to strut right into that club he acts like he owns and make him regret the very day he told you, “you aren’t the one.” I know, I know, he didn’t say that to you. That’s what Kevin said to me. But that’s what he meant, right? When any guy breaks up with you, that’s the message. You aren’t loved by me. So I know he went, “I’m not ready for something serious,” but that’s really an I-don’t-love-you.
You look so good in that dress. I wish I could look like that in a dress. I got my mother’s thighs and my father’s belly. I’m more meant to be a dirt farmer in Sicily than a patron at a club in the Meat Packing District. You know, my father’s father worked there —before it was trendy. He butchered meat and he beat my father. That’s why my mother says my father doesn’t communicate. I don’t get it. They should get divorced. No kids left in the house, they’re barely Catholic and she’s always complaining about him. Every time I talk to her on the phone, she says, “ Your father is growing roots and smells of blue cheese.” Promise me, if I ever sound like that about any man, you’ll shoot me.
I think without stockings. You have great legs. You’ll make him jealous for sure. No. He won’t have a date.
So I know I shouldn’t say anything about him, but he was completely clueless, right? I mean just another bridge and tunnel in khaki pants.
I’m sorry. Don’t cry. He has his good points. I’m not saying you totally wasted your time. I know I shouldn’t say anything, but you always go for those earnest types. You shouldn’t. They always break your heart. You know why? Because you don’t expect it. You expect a guy like Kevin to drink too much, to cheat too much. Generally to be an ass. But Jasper? You were blind sighted. Or is it broad sided? I forget. Funny. It applies either way.
He isn’t worth it. No man is worth all that crying. You’re going to mess up your make up. I didn’t cry at all when Kevin left. People say there are seven stages of grief. I think two, anger and fuck you. You’re not even in anger yet. You need to get there. I mean we do all this shit for men. My mother says we don’t have to; that our generation doesn’t even need men. But look at all those magazines: Keep your Man Happy, How to Stay Slim for Him, Twenty Ways to Improve Your Dating Life. Then all those books, The Rules, Finding Love that Lasts a Lifetime, Making the Most of Internet Dating, Getting to Yes, Getting to the Second Date, Meet Your Astrological Match.
And then the break up books? I brought over a couple for you. Getting to Love Again, Saying Goodbye without Anger. I even bought a divorce book—like I’m preparing for my future.
Who’s the audience for those relationship books? I am. I fucking bought all those books. I read all those magazines. I know you do too even if you act like you don’t. I see the New Yorker on the coffee table, but I see Cosmo by your toilet.
Do you think men buy those books in the same numbers women do? Kevin bought comic books and called the “Graphic Novels.” I wanted a relationship, he wanted to be a super-hero.
No, no, no. There’s nothing wrong with wanting love. I mean, sometimes I feel totally pathetic. We’re both college graduates with good jobs and shiny futures and we are sitting in this apartment in Chelsea waiting for the next step. And that step—even though I spent years planning otherwise—seems to have taken the shape of a man.
I know. I know. You believe in love. It’s a Beatles song, la la la all you need is love, all together now. So get over Jasper and believe. Wear the platform boots. I’ll wear the heels. Maybe someone will love me.
I’m not supposed to show you the house. The realtor told me explicitly; she said, “I am the only one allowed to show this house to prospective buyers.” Just like that, with no contractions. I’ve lived here my whole life. Wouldn’t I be the best person to show you this house? But I follow the rules. I can’t remember ever breaking one.
You can wait for the realtor here in the living room. She told me the house should smell of cookies. I told her it should smell of Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings. She said, “that might offend potential buyers who are vegetarians.” I told her, I am not selling to vegetarians.
Just like that, with no contractions.
Now of course, I don’t really care if you’re vegetarians. People do whatever they please.
I see you both stealing glances at the urn on the mantle. It’s okay. Look. Obviously, the gilding was a bold choice. That’s my husband Vincent. He died seven years ago. I know it’s morbidto keep an urn in the house. I am not unaware of this, but like I told the realtor, I’d sell him with the house if I could. It’d sell faster without it, she told me. Well, I baked the cookies and took down the knickknacks. But the urn stays, I told her. I don’t know why she thinks I’m in such a rush to get to the retirement home. They call it an active adult community these days. But I was never all that active and it’s where I’m going to die, so why not just call it what it is. The Waiting Room.
That’s a picture of him there, in his uniform. He fought in Korea. Yes, yes, like in M.A.S.H. I liked that show too. I had a crush on Hawkeye. Didn’t everyone?
Oh, I see. You liked the hippie. BJ, was it? He reminded you of your dad? You’re a different generation after all. Well, I should have had a crush on the rich one. The balding one with the rich-snooty accent. Why are so many rich men bald?
It didn’t matter. I was never pulled toward the rich ones. I liked the ones with the hair. Hawkeye had that thick brown hair that was just a little too shaggy.
My husband, his hair was like Hawkeye’s but wavier. Even at the end, thick and wavy and lustrous and so black. Black like he was an Oriental. I’ve been coloring my hair for years. I had really dark hair too once upon a time. Now I have this orange-blond frizz. It looks like I went for Bozo the Clown. I didn’t. My hairdresser tells me this color is kinder to the gray. So I do it, even if it’s not kinder to me.
Do you work at Cornell? Most people do here in Ithaca. It’s not like there’s much else to do. Oh, you’re both doctors? Did you meet in medical school? I met my husband at Cornell. He was studying to be an engineer. He wanted to be an architect. He ended up a building inspector. He could never grasp what he wanted. Although I didn’t know that when I met him.
I was just the school’s receptionist when we met. I was wearing a tweed skirt and a pink blouse with pearls. You think I remember because it was romantic moment in my life, but I remember it because I wore that outfit every day. I’d press it each night and sprinkle talcum in the armpits. I used to know all those tricks to make good clothes last. Now I just buy cotton that washes and wears.
I wanted to be a doctor. Well, I didn’t actually want to be a doctor. I didn’t even think I could be one, you know? The doctor I went to growing up had a bulletin board of Christmas cards and pictures of kids. What I wanted was to get cards like that every year. I know now that seems silly. You see it on a million television shows. Anyway, women didn’t become doctors back then.
Yes, I love the fireplace against the brick wall too. That wall, it’s real brick, not like the facades they put up in the mcmansions at the edge of town. You can run your fingers down the brick and some of it might crumble in your hand. On no, not enough to worry. Just enough to know the clay is real. When I was little I would hide little things –like a locket or a ring—in the cracks between the bricks. I used to imagine a loose brick would reveal a secret passageway. There are none, I know now. My husband inspected the house when we refinanced. He had the habit of sucking all the magic out of my head.
My husband loved this house. After we married, he moved in. He had quit Cornell in some huff about a grade he thought he didn’t deserve. Sometimes, I think he planned it all that way. When he met my parents the first time, he’d go on and on about the crown moldings, the archway from this room into the dining room. He talked all about house’s lines. He never talked that way about me.
My parents, when they passed, gave him the house. You’re too young to remember, but those were days when women couldn’t even have credit in their name. So I suppose it wasn’t too cruel of my parents to do that. And well, my father was old fashioned, disappointed he had two daughters.
My husband talked big in those days. Before we met, he had traveled all over the world, and I hadn’t left Ithaca. He talked of moving to California. I know it sounds calculating, but I thought he was my ticket out. I imagined we’d have little towheads running in the surf even if neither of us were blond.
My two children live there now. California, I mean. They’re living my dream, I suppose. I’d whisper to them each night after their bedtime story, leave, leave. Well, they did. I succeeded. Now it’s just me here in the house. They don’t visit. They say it’s cheaper for me to visit them now that it’s just me. Just me. Vincent went quickly right before he retired, right before we were going to take a cruise—he had a heart attack while inspecting a house. Lucky he died in someone else’s attic or I would have to disclose that to you. I would have to tell you that. And I would. I follow the rules.
Essay #1: To Be Reconciled
I study a recent picture of the two of us: Eric and I standing on a deck high above San Miguel de Allende. He leans into me slightly, his arms around me. He is smiling and looking straight into the camera. I think he looks beautiful. On the other hand, my eyes look too small, my nose too big. But I am grinning. So I put it on Facebook. Does he look happy enough, I ask myself.
I worry our friends, my friends, are looking at us, examining. Does he look trapped? Does she look truly happy?
I contemplate writing a caption explaining that Eric has always hated snapshots, but that he was the one who insisted on finding a ledge high enough on which to set that camera, he was the one to set the camera’s timer and take this picture. I don’t and click publish.
I am a reconcilee. It’s not even a word, but it’s who I am. It wears me like a worn overcoat that has been patched and repatched until it looks like a new fabric altogether. Strangers and new friends don’t even notice the overcoat. We converse and the pertinent part of the chat might go like this:
New friend: So how long have you and Eric been together?
Me: About twelve and a half years.
Plus the one we spent apart, I finish in my head.
That year I don’t discuss with new friends. Why would I? It’s not as if they share the year they suffered from clinical depression or the year they dated a burgeoning cult leader, or even that off year they spent not bathing for a cause. That intimacy, any intimacy takes time. That year is the year I grieved. He walked out, handing me a note written in Times Roman 11 point font; he needed to find himself.
This omission in fact is the easiest part of walking through the world as a reconcilee. It is with my friends and family that this status weighs me down. For it was with them that I was not silent, that I listed Eric’s traits, labeled them as shortcomings, and mourned each and every sad moment of our twelve years in order to disengage, detach. It was them who cheered me with, “I know you had a great twelve years, but the next twelve will be even better.”
Me: He could be so stoic, I never knew what he was thinking.
Friend: The next man in your life will be more emotional, more communicative. You deserve it.
Me: But I loved his ability to be quiet, to conceptualize. I think that’s where his stoicism came from.
Friend: Nonsense. That next man will be quiet and conceptual too.
Quiet, emotional, conceptual and communicative? Would I have dated Kermit the Frog?
Imagine a woman spends years with the love of her life. He has a near death experience and they are separated for one year. And then he returns with murmurings of romantic love. The audience applauds. Love triumphs!
How many times have we seen this in our favorite television shows?
That’s not quite how it happened for me. I am a woman who spent years with the love of her life. He hit 40, perceived it at as a near death experience and left. We were separated for one year. He returned with murmurings of romantic love. We triumphed. I am not sure one person applauded.
“There’s no sex appeal to it,” the television development executive would say if I were to pitch this version of our life.
“What do you mean? It’s the best love story since Sam and Diane, Ross and Rachel, Jack and Kate. It’s at least a miniseries.”
“It’s just not hot.”
“Even if we made him a spy rather than a TV producer?”
“Even if I was a spy?”
“No. It’s a reconciliation. That’s just so… compromising.”
A male hero can have cheated on his wife, robbed her parents, fathered her sister’s child, and when she takes him back, everyone is rejoicing. Because it is hot. We see that first reunion, that first re-kiss, we see him take her face in his hands. We see him on his knees. And we, like her, forgive him.
We also didn’t sit up nights with her as she cried, sit through dinners while she stared off into space, help her pack up his books, listen to her vacillate, do I stay in LA or do I go? We didn’t visit her in the mausoleum of what had appeared to be a good relationship. We didn’t see her waste away from not eating. We didn’t see the midlife crisis coming—there was no Porsche, no young blond, no re-sowing of oats.
Eric spent a year playing the piano, reading, and keeping to a farmers’ market diet. He became fascinated with spicy daikon, grilled tempeh and kimchee. He ran five miles a day from his furnished bungalow in West Hollywood up Runyon Canyon and back. He rarely dated. I tracked him on Facebook. He made friends and wrote clever status updates.
He missed me.
Now, reconciled, we sit on the couch as if nothing has happened. And as if everything has happened. He puts his hand through my hair more often now. Cupping my head with his palm. It’s as if he doesn’t believe I am wholly there with him. But I am.
Close Friend: Eric is different with you now than before. He seems happy to be with you.
Me: I know, isn’t it nice?
What I Want to Say: Are you saying that for the first twelve years he seemed unhappy to be with me?
Another Close Friend: Is he going to marry you this time?
Me: We’ve discussed it.
What I Want to Say: Do you really believe marriage is the only expression of commitment? Did you think our first 12 years a joke?
Me: I had a hard week.
Another Close Friend: Eric just moved back in, is he the problem? Do you have regrets?
What I Want to Say: What the fuck?
We—Eric, our friends and I—are tied to his most shameful moment. Since our reconciliation, those dear friends who helped me pick up the pieces haven’t been privy to our intimate conversations, they didn’t see our first re-kiss, they weren’t invited to witness our burning of that now infamous note. I can’t blame them for worrying. But I want them to stop.
I think the development executive’s viewpoint is right. After all, my friends didn’t see our build up over months to the grand romantic finale during sweeps. There was no soundtrack. They didn’t see Eric looking off into the distance, yearning. Where was the begging? Where was the on-your-knees promise to never leave her again, they must wonder. I just called everyone and said, “Eric and I have been talking and he wants to get back together. I love him.”
I’ve been thinking that Eric and I should stage an event. I could be in mortal danger. Chased up to the top of Capitol Records by a crazed killer, dangling from the building’s edge. The press would cover it live, and my friends would gather around, fearful for my life. Eric would disarm the crazed killer and overcome his fear of heights to rescue me.
Or maybe I could be at a picnic with all my friends and family in Echo Park. I would be sitting in a paddleboat, floating on the lake, gazing at downtown LA through the palms. He would wade out to me with lilies in hand. He would profess his undying love for me. Perhaps he would even break into song.
Or maybe in time they will see me without first seeing that re-patched coat. They will see a woman with good friends who healed and thrived. They will see a woman who loves and forgives. They will see a beautiful, kind man who made a mistake and had the courage to face his fears and come home.
Abbie, it’s me again. I don’t know why I deserve the silent treatment. It’s been two weeks now. You have to realize that you’ve made me ill. My throat is clamped and my insides; well, let’s just say I’m no longer bloated.
If you’re mad, just tell me. It’s like we’re in middle school all over again. Only now I’m pleading over a cell phone and not over the aqua blue princess phone with the spiral cord. I’m not leaving notes in your locker, I am texting you, IMing you, messaging you through Facebook. I’m not stalking you, but I did notice you took down all those pictures of us in Cabo last year.
How could I know you’d take him back? Are you telling me I was too supportive? After the break up, you were angry because I had never told you how unbending he was about things. When I told you how irritating he was that time he spent an hour pontificating about the irrelevance of the Oxford comma, you thanked me. I mean, who cares about the life spans of punctuation?
Do you remember what you said? “I think he just liked dropping Oxford into the conversation, a little reminder than he had a degree from Oxford.”
And now you’re mad at me because the two of you are back together.
Remember the day he left you? He called you after five years together and said he didn’t have the energy to work through the problems. And let’s get this straight, you lived with him and he called you. You came to my house. You said quote, “I feel as if every cell has been cleaved in two.” You were crying so hard, you popped a blood vessel in your eye. We were worried you’d be stuck that way, a big red splotch ruining what you always said was your best feature—your Irish blues, you called them. You cried at the dining room table and then you slid under the table, hiding under it like it was a fort. You told me your throat had closed, that you were allergic to the trauma. I fed you blueberries and Saltines—one at a time, like you were a baby bird I was nursing back to health.
To tell you the truth, I thought you being a little dramatic on the floor sobbing like that. Come to think of it, you’ve always been rather dramatic. Do you remember what you said to me when we met in the 5th grade? “I’m younger than you are. So you know you’ll die before me.” You seemed so exotic, all the way from New York City. You were dressed all in black and you made fun of my Osh Kosh by Gosh overalls. Maybe I should have known something was off. I loved those overalls. After that day you made fun of me, I’d look in the mirror and feel like a roly-poly hick from the suburbs rather than the cute little girl I thought I was.
Remember in college when you gave me the silent treatment for two weeks? All because you socked your date in the face after he flirted with another girl and I wouldn’t storm out of the party with you. You went about your days cooking breakfast, reading for class, chatting on the phone, hanging out with our mutual friends and just acting as if I walked about the world dressed in an invisible cloak.
That day he left you, you kept sobbing. “I am not lovable, I am not lovable.” And I kept saying, “you are lovable, you are lovable.”
So, maybe, just maybe you’re mad at me because you knew that after all your drama, I really didn’t mean it.