I’m standing in apartment 3B, over my neighbor Savannah’s bed. Since our tiny studios have the same floor plan whenever one of us rearranges we invite the other over to show off whatever brilliant space-saving idea we’ve come up with to improve our living environment and also to share how happy this decision has made us. Savannah, a social worker, and I have been neighbors for just over a year and have weekly check-ins consisting of; who we are dating (or aren’t anymore), what’s new at work, and which family member is currently driving us crazy and why. These conversations are normally over wine and often on our roof. Savannah has just moved her bed to the opposite corner of her apartment and wants my approval.
“I had my bed on that wall for a while. What’s your escape route?” I ask before taking a sip of wine.
“What do you mean?”
“Your bed is next the fire escape gate. You can’t open it with your bed next to it. What’s your emergency escape plan?”
“I would start moving furniture that way,” she says, motioning outward from the bed. “I would move the table over and then shove my bed back enough so that I could get between the bed and window and then open the gate and go out.”
“Wait-what? First, that takes way too much time. Second, do you realize how far you have to push the bed to get the gate open enough for you to fit through? Is there enough room between your bed and your dresser to allow that? Have you done a dry run?”
“Do you know how far over you have to push your bed to clear the gate?”
“No. I’ll figure it out if and when the time comes,” she says, nonchalantly.
“What if there isn’t time?” I ask, setting my wine on table that fits her laptop, a book and not much more. Using my hands and arms I explain we must think of the worst case scenario to be prepared. “You wake up! There’s smoke! Fire is making its way in, no! It’s already in! Flames! Heat! Confusion! You must shove everything hard and fast. As far as you can Savannah. Shove!”
“But I’ll break my tv.”
“Your tv? Did you hear me? Flames Savannah! Flames! Your tv is not surviving. Listen I have a better plan, when I had my bed against the gate I did a dry run. Your box spring is lower than the gate, so all you have to do you remove your mattress and then the gate will swing open. That’s what you do Savannah, throw the mattress off!” I say, moving to the foot of the bed, still using my gestures to explain. “See? Like this! And this is also what you do if there is an intruder because then you have the mattress between you and the shooter. He, or she, can’t see where you are and then you have a better chance.”
“You’re insane, you know that right?” She says, sort of insisting rather than asking, in a tone she often gives me after I go off on one of my tangents.
“No, I’m not. I just always need to have an escape route.” Savannah and I stare at one another for a few seconds. She has peaked both of her eyebrows. She’s waiting for me to realize what I’ve said. But I already have.
Right now there are moments of my life flashing before me as I reflect in a conversation Savannah and I had last week when I had her up for mimosas and to chat about how I wanted to break up with the guy I had been seeing by ignoring him, or what I prefer to call ‘the gentle phase-out.’ Something I’m sad to say has become a trademark move of mine when ending relationships. “I’m so busy,” I whine. “Everything is fine. I’ll be in touch.” I reassure, and then I never am
The week prior to this conversation Savannah had said, “Be an adult. Just tell him why you want to stop seeing him,” as though I didn’t know better.
“Umm-yeah- no, that’s not really my thing,” I honestly replied, prompting social worker Savannah, the girl full feelings, to look for hidden metaphors in my words and actions. The conversation ended with Savannah promising she would eventually get me to let her ‘social-work’ me and my ‘issues.’ Umm-yeah-no.
While she tries not to smile Savannah lowers her eyebrows, and before she can attempt to deconstruct my last sentence and the deeper meaning behind it, I declare. “Okay. I heard that. I always need an escape route. I have issues and metaphors. You happy? I’ll go write an essay.”
And here we are.
Let me be clear, I know where this escape route thing stems from. When I was four and my brother eight and asleep on the couch, our home was robbed. My mother was tied up and I was the only person that ever saw the robber. The man went through our home, but ended up only leaving with my mother’s purse which was later recovered by some teenagers who found it in the woods near our local mall. We were all okay but the man was never caught. Naturally this incident did some long-term psychological damage to me.
And that is the explanation to why I will, or have already broken up with you by ignoring you. Good? Umm-yeah-no? Okay, fine. I’ll dig deeper and feel stuff for you.
The robbery was the first of many incidents from my childhood that have contributed to my desire to know what is going on around me at all times and to plan exactly how to get out of the worst case scenario without pain or harm.
This is probably a good time to tell you there was another attempted robbery on our home shortly after the first incident. Luckily the door was locked and my mother was able to scare the would-be robber off before he actually got in. We moved shortly after. But my traumatic childhood stories don’t end with robbery. Once at a neighbor’s house there was an explosion in the basement in the very room I had been in moments before. I was out of the house by the time the basement burst into flames but had no idea if my little sister was still where we had just been playing. Thankfully she was not and got out of the house okay, as did the three other people inside, but the family’s pets were not as lucky. This evoked my deep fear of fire or death by fire, which is why in school I took fire drills very seriously. Matter in fact, when I was in College an alarm went off during an evening class my professor said, “No smoke. I bet no fire, must be a false alarm.” I sat still another minute before interrupting her lecture and declaring I had to evacuate just in case, and ran out of the room. It was indeed a false alarm and shortly after I returned to class a bit embarrassed but at least my heart rate had returned to normal.
I have been hit by firecrackers (yes plural, on several occasions), almost drown (I still have visions of my swimming teacher saying, “she’s fine,” while I swallowed water and sank until my mother jumped in for me. My brother also saved me when the same teacher made my jump from the diving board without floaties for the first time and I panicked). I’ve almost been kidnapped at least three times that I am aware of, I’ve been in several car accidents, and may or may not have broken into the Hammond Civic Center with the neighborhood kids to see the Circus, I was terrified someone would ask to see my ticket stub and I would be arrested and sent to jail forever. Not to mention I had an older brother that liked to tie me up and leave me from dead in places like his bedroom or the our tree in our backyard. It was a busy childhood.
Don’t let my dramatic nature fool you because this is not about drama it is about being prepared. I was a Girl Scout, it was our motto. And I listened when grownups said - safety-first! Rules are made for reasons. Expect the unexpected and you will always be expecting it. So if an alarm goes off, I respond accordingly.
It’s only natural I apply that to everything in my life. If something is incredibly under-priced shouldn’t I worry about its quality? Or if a girl I hang out with spends all our time together complaining about her other girlfriends, am I not right to wonder if she spends all her time with them bitching about me? And if on the first time to my apartment when a date makes himself a little too comfortable shouldn’t I flash forward five years when we are living in a pigsty and he’s leaving his shit everywhere, and I mean that literally. Everywhere. And there I am cleaning the kitchen, not because I am a neat freak and I like to clean the kitchen and besides no one will never do it the way I like it so I might as well just do it myself -but because he didn’t even offer to help clean, or hell to even take his dishes to the sink, even though it was me alone that slaved over making a fancy dinner, one that did not come from a box or the frozen section of the grocery store, because I am trying to impress him and so I’m on my best behavior, while he sits in my favorite chair and watches some show I hate, and hardly looks up at me when I bring him dessert, one that required baking. I hate baking. And so can you blame me for staring at him wondering how I not going to plan escape route from my future with him? Can you?
Look, I don’t like confrontation. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings and sometimes I think a relationship can end sans a long drawn out story about how we feel and why we feel that way. ‘I’m busy,’ is so much easier than, ‘you’re boring,’ or ‘not smart,’ or ‘you suck in bed,” or ‘I love you and am afraid to get my heart broken. Again.”
So yes, when I use public transportation, or walk into an unfamiliar room, or enter a relationship, I like to know the worst case scenario and how I am going to get out of it without someone getting hurt. That’s what escape routes are for.
I stood at the stage door clutching my autograph book praying I would be able to say something, anything, when Valerie Harper was in front of me. The stage door opened and shut a few times. False alarms. I contemplated turning away; perhaps the reality of this person would ruin the image I had created of her in my mind. This had happened to me before with other celebrities, but before I had time to decide Valerie suddenly appeared. She looked the same up close, just as I remembered her from the Mary Tyler Moore Show and from the stage but this time she was not in character, she was just Valerie.
She was carrying a small vase of assorted flowers in one hand while using the other to gesture a story to an older gentleman and (I assume) his granddaughter. Valerie was telling the little girl a story, something about math or a math class. I was only half listening as I was in awe of Valerie being right in front of me, in the flesh. She acknowledged the crowd of people gathered by the stage door but kept telling her story to the man and girl.
Over walked a man in a black suit and offered to take the flowers from her. “Are you my driver?” She asked. He nodded. “Oh wonderful! Thanks. I’m going to sign for a bit. Where are you?” she asked looking to the street. He pointed to a black limo just down the block.
Valerie continued to gracefully sign Playbills and pose for pictures, still talking to the man and the little girl. When she arrived in front of me, she took my book from my hands and signed her name. Just her name. When she handed the book back to me we locked eyes. Her shoulders dropped and she took the book back placing it close to her chest.
“Are you crying?”she asked. I nodded. “Well why? Is something wrong?”
“I love you,” was all I could manage. Then the tears rolled down my face so quickly I could not clear them away fast enough.
“What is your name?”
“Michele with one L,” I sniffed.
“Have you met Michele Lee?” she asked looking around to see if Michele Lee was near.
“No,” I answered.
Valerie went on to say I should wait and meet her. I nodded (anything you say, Valerie Harper). She went back to my autograph book with a blue pen. To her signature she added “To Michele” and “Love” before adding a heart at the bottom. She handed the book back to me while everyone looked on. My tears became sobs. With a small laugh she reached out and pulled me to her side. She started asking me questions, basic things like where I was from, how old I was and what I was studying in school. I managed to pull it together to answer that I wanted to be a teacher before briefly going off about how the syndicated MTM show on Nick at Night was my escape during my parent’s divorcee.
“Michele, I think you should be an actress. You have a lot of energy and you are an engaging story teller, such passion behind your words.”
“OK.” (Anything you say, Valerie Harper)
“I’m serious; I would come watch you on stage. Wouldn’t you?” She asked, turning to the crowd. Everyone nodded.
Just then the older man chimed in to say he needed to get the little girl home. They left with kisses goodbye. Valerie continued down the line posing for pictures all the while keeping me a short distance from her side and my book in her armpit. As she signed and posed the crowd dwindled down and it was then I remembered I also had a camera.
“I need a picture. But just of you.” I said
“You should be in it too.”
“My face is swollen and I look gross,”
“No you don’t, and even if you did, it doesn’t matter, one day you’re going look back on this and want a picture of us together. So I will do one alone but only if you also take one with me.”
“Deal.” (Anything you say, Valerie Harper).
When the photos were taken and when she thought she had gotten to everyone, she asked to make sure. “Everyone OK?” The theater goers all nodded. It was then I apologized to crowd for taking up so much of Valerie’s time. Then, after I had finally stopped crying and pulled myself together, I turned to her and said;
“I’m sorry I cried.” Valerie turned to me and shook her head in disbelief. She took both of her small hands and placed them on my arms. She leaned in closer to me and I noticed how perfectly lined in black her eyes were. She demanded my attention with a stern look. Then Valerie Harper said something that I would never forget, a line that would forever change me as an individual.
“Michele, listen, this is important. Never apologize for how you feel. A tear is an emotion, like a smile or a laugh. You feel how you feel and you don’t ever have to apologize for that. Never apologize for your emotions. Do you understand me?
“OK,” I said, right before bursting back into a sobbing mess. With a sigh and a small chuckle she pulled me back to her chest. She rubbed my back as if she were trying to warm me up. She whispered in my ear, “You have got to take some acting classes.”
She pulled back from our embrace, handed me my book and said goodbye to all her fans. I stood there never wanting the time to end. I watched her walk to her limo. When she reached the car the driver opened her door. Just before she got in she turned and yelled out my name while scanning the crown to find me again. I froze. When she found me she yelled my name again.
“MICHELE!” She put her hand over her heart and then to her lips, waved to me and mouthed “thank you”.
I don’t know what she thanked me for but I will never forget that night and since that moment I have never apologize for what I’m feeling.
I wrote this for a class in 2007. I have not gone back and edited any of it. I want to share this because of the horrific Nanny story in the News this week. As someone over a dozen New York City families have trusted with their lives, their cars, homes and most importantly, children, I feel a deep bit of sorrow as details emerge. The interviews of moms in the neighborhood keep saying, “you trust these people,” and I think, “these people,” what does that mean? I mean, I know what they mean. I know right now everyone is terrified. This Nanny was with her family for two years. This was not some terrorist they found last week online.I personally think this woman snapped. I think she had a moment and freaked out. But I am still offended by the way mothers keep saying “these people.” Just lumping all childcare workers into one group. Still, the real matter at hand is this families tragic loss. The entire thing breaks me.
I thought of this short essay I wrote on Luke, and as I said it was for a class and could use a good edit but I think it encompasses how much I love the kid. I love all my kids and all my families and I am just as lucky to have them as they are to have me. Luke now lives in Dallas and I wish more than anything I could hug him, and his brothers right now.
If I could only use one word to describe Luke, a person who has had a profound effect on my life and on my heart, I would choose generous. If I could add to the list I would choose, funny, loving, brave, and imaginative. In the three years I have known him he has never been afraid to share his emotions. I have often seen him cry, I have watched him laugh until he could not breath. I have listened to him explain in great detail his fears and dreams. He wears his heart on his sleeve. In Luke’s perfect world everything would be fair. If Luke was in charge there would be no winners or losers. In Luke’s dreams he is eating ice cream, drinking a sprite and watching TV. Luke is 5 years old.
He stands before me a sturdy 3’6 inches. I use the word sturdy because he not only knows what he wants but how to get it. He will fight for what he believes in even after he has already been defeated. His hands are small and often clammy as he cannot keep them from his mouth. Those tiny hands have built sand castles in the Bahamas, grasped the rains on a horse in Montana and held the fence of Buckingham Palace. His blond hair almost turns white after a summer in the sun. His pale skin is sensitive and requires special care. He has blue eyes that twinkle when he gets his way which is often because he rarely asks for much. He prefers his blue glasses though his red ones agree more with his outgoing personalty. Luke’s feelings are hurt easily, another testimony of his kind soul. Luke hates to be scared or surprised. He likes to run with the older boys but acts much better as a leader to the younger ones.
A recent moment Luke shared his wit and generosity with me was on a family trip. I’ve been part of his extend family for three yeas now, living in his home as his Nanny. He had asked to sleep in my hotel room after a day of hiking in Glacier National Park. His reasoning was that he did not want me to be scared. Truthfully, I am glad his parents said it was ok, the wilderness does scare me. We were getting ready for bed when he stopped brushing his teeth to tell me something “really important”. He showed me something he had just bought in a gift shop. He explained his new treasure, “This string attaches to my glasses and I put it around my neck and they can’t fall off, see?” He proceeded to flip his head around in circles while his glasses stayed put. “That’s great Luke” I reply. He looks up at me with a huge smile and added “I’m going to get one for you for your birthday, OK?” I tried not to laugh, he hates when he feels like he is being laughed it. ” I don’t wear glasses, Bear” I said, using my nick name for him to soften the blow. Without missing a beat he replied “You wear sun glasses.” Luke constantly sees things in creative ways most people do not. When Luke finds something that makes him happy, he wants everyone else to have it too.
Luke was about to turn four when we were vacationing in the Bahamas. A man walked over to me and his then 5-year-old brother, Jack. The man asked Luke if he would like a coconut and Luke nodded. Luke asked me if he could ask the man for two so that Jack could have one also. I told Luke how nice that was but that it was a gift and we could not be greedy. Luke could not grasp the concept of a gift being a coconut. “Michele?” Luke asked squinting as he looked up into the noon sky to see me, “Do the children here get coconuts for their birthdays?” As I tried to explain to him what I meant I used an event earlier in the day. I reminded him of lunch time when he gave me a fry and I said “Thank you” not “can I have two?” We sat there and argued while we waited for the man to return. When the man arrived, he placed the coconut in Luke’s tiny hands and Luke thanked him. Luke turned to Jack and said “There is only one and I think you should have it”and he places it into Jacks hands. Luke turned to me and said “That is not a gift, it’s a coconut and I would have given you all of my fries if you wanted them.” Not only were his words delivered strongly they were sincere. Luke later cried when he wanted the coconut back and Jack reminded him he had given it away.
In my three years with Luke I have watched him grow and learn. I have heard him tell his brothers they could not only open his birthday gifts but also have the first turn. I was there when he asked his mother if he could donate his piggy bank to a Hurricane Katrina fund. I have helped him write notes and make cards for the people in his life he cares about, just because he knew it would make them feel good. Every weekend I watch him play soccer and cheer on his team mates, I also watch him cheer on his competitors. I have often thought about what Luke will be like in another 20 years. I imagine him to be a smart, attractive young man. I see Luke using his creativity to influence and impact his community in a positive way. I will bet that he will never have an enemy, he will never forget to write home and that he puts a TV in every room. If we all were all a little more like Luke, the world would be safer and happier. If we all lived like Luke, we would follow our dreams no matter their size and we would never back down.
When I was in third grade I wrote in my “diary” (which was just a purple spiral notebook with a unicorn on it) that I wanted to have sex. I knew what sex was (at least the physical part not the emotional) but I didn’t really want to have it. A friend came over for a playdate and told me that I had to write the name of a boy from our class that I wanted to do-it with. I wrote Jerry, the red headed, freckled face boy who sat next to me. My mother found this personal piece of writing and confronted me. We discussed, destroyed the pages, and never spoke of sex again. I have always contributed this incident to why I have been so fearful of expressing myself on paper. Ironic I became a writer, and not just any kind of writer but a nonfiction writer.
Not too long ago I dated someone who asked me to never write about him. I was relieved. Often men come into my life hoping and hinting that I might write about them. It doesn’t work that way. Not with me. Once someone has shown interest in my writing I tend to shy away from expressing how I feel about them. Especially through words that can be seen and reread. It’s not that I don’t want to write about love (or in my case lack thereof) it’s that I don’t know how to. Mostly because I don’t know where to start or end. I like to middle.
I guess what I am trying to say is that I’m not the type of girl who is going to write you a love poem.
So when the same man that asked me to never mention him in my stories confessed that he secretly hoped I would write about him, about us and what we had (or by that time didn’t) I realized it was time to move on and never write back.
But recently I found some of my writing inside a diary which I keep hidden in a place that my mother can never find. Revisiting the material I realize how far I have come as a writer and that I am not that scared little girl anymore. So here I’ll share a few of those old pieces of writing and one new one.
(And if you’re reading this mom, I still don’t want to talk about sex.)
I sat in a computer room at a fancy hotel in a country I had never been to. I had never been anywhere.
I wrote I was moving to New York City and:
promise me you won’t…not like this. Not now.
You wrote: I would never do that. But I do.
And I wrote: I know. Me too.
Then the space between us seemed smaller and larger at the same time.
Our love is recorded in 207 emails and a valentine message on a vhs.
I wrote about a new love and:
You wrote: all relationships that end well never really end.
I was wrong. You are right.
Haiku (for the man I would not let love me)
I’ve learned that if I
turn to him and bend my knees
he can’t embrace me.
I was lying in bed with my live-in boyfriend when you called. I stepped out onto the balcony to listen to your voicemail for the first of at least fifty times. You said, “I’m hoping you call me back and beg me to take the last train to New York City tonight.” It was complicated - our everything. You are the man I have written about the most, but mostly in my head. But was it real or did we make it up? Two writers can write the perfect story but what happens when they stop writing?
As you know, the contract which you and I had entered has changed its terms and conditions. Therefore I’m writing to suggest that we draw up new contract. My friends say I should terminate the agreement, even before you are gone, that it’s not worth the inevitable heartbreak. I disagree. I mean I agree but disagree. I mean I’m willing to chance it (the heartbreak being worth it that is). You see, there was this boy, just like you (well not just like you) but he was new here (and on a timeline like you) and I hesitated with him (the same way I hesitate with you) and then I lost him. That seems to be a reoccurring thing with me. My point is that I am going to lose you anyway, now or later, actually- is now later? Yes, because it’s later than the original later, but Fall is also later so will the new later be later than Fall? I hope so. We have yet to have the perfect Fall together. And when you go will you be gone for good? Sometimes my head thinks no but my heart knows yes. I don’t know what I know except that I know about you and I still want you. That has to mean something. Or maybe this is just my thing, catch and release? But with you it feels more like caught and about to be released. Is that my thing? Can two things be my thing? Anyhow, back to what I was saying, our contract needs to be renegotiated. I suggest we keep the offer but take a closer look at the consideration. I mean, I think I’m a nice girl, a little crazy perhaps, and definitely chatty, but nice. And about the termination part… I don’t need the two month warning your landlord asks for, just one last night in New York City. You in your suit and me in my pearls.
Sometimes I think about you sleeping. I think about your entangled legs and wonder if mine would have fit as nicely as you say hers do. We will never know. This I have made sure of.
Once I turned a doodle of your name into a pregnant woman holding a child’s hand.
You said, only for love though
she had a ticketing timeline
the fear of Russian again
a courthouse/a piece of paper/ a hero.
And there in the picture
your wedding day
sadness in a quiet cup of coffee
and cheesecake at a diner
I think I loved the view of New York City from your bedroom window more than you loved my earlobes. I heard you in the middle of the night and I googled your prescriptions the next morning. It made sense – why we didn’t make it. I hadn’t purged the memories from my last relationship and you were already purging me.
For the man I never wrote for,
The truth is I can’t write about you. I have tried over and over. I tried to write in the first person. I tried to write in the third person. I tried to write in dialog. I went back to writing in the first person narrative but couldn’t figure out what I was narrating. So I tried to write in fiction (and you know that I rarely write fiction). As a last resort I tried a free write, and I made progress but only because I strayed from the topic of you. Through all this attempted writing I realized I couldn’t write about you because you were the author when it came to us. In fact I believe you had already written the story of us even before that first kiss on my doorstep. I have dated writers before but none of them wrote our story before we lived it. And truthfully, that’s why I had to end things between us. You wrote a romance with complicated characters and plots. You wanted to stick to your script. I wanted to make our story up as we went along.
He scrunches his nose while small laughs come through the gap between his two front teeth. He knows he is misbehaving but also knows that there is a chance he will get away with it if he’s cute enough. His father, spatula in hand, turns from the stove and looks the boy in his eyes. Not pointing, but perhaps directing the utensil towards the child he says, “Son. I think you’re going to need some music.” The boy’s sisters squeal with delight at the thought of the stereo so early in the morning. The father picks up a remote control and suddenly a song, which once one hears is nearly impossible to get out of one’s head, fills the room. The lyrics begin, “Your lipstick stains/on the front lobe of my left side brains,” everyone here has learned this tune and sings with confidence. The two girls, overwhelmed with excitement, begin to climb from their chairs up onto the sterling silver counter which, until now, they have be scooted beneath, separated only by their nightgowns and the napkins in their laps. As the father approaches them, the girls begin to retract, knowing that actions such as dancing on tables are strictly prohibited. The father traps the younger girl with his hands and then gently places her on top of the counter as she takes her small hands and sweeps her curls from her face. The older daughter’s eyes brighten as she realizes they have been granted permission to break a rule. Again she begins the crawl to join her sibling. She is longing to make this journey on her own. Her father, who recognizes this, stands behind her in case she slips. When both girls are standing side by side, the father he gives them a look that implies, “be careful,” and then returns to the stove to flip pancakes before lowering the flame, so that this suddenly lesser important task does not burn. The son, who secretly longs to join the girls up in the air, finds his own joy in marching around the dining room table on the seats of the matching chairs, which he quickly pulled out from their places for this specific purpose, once he realized that momentarily all rules are suspended. The girls bounce their hips in rhythm with the beat of the song while the father moves close in case of a slight misstep. I too want to sing and dance but instead I step into the son’s bedroom, just off the kitchen, and straighten up the already made bed. Through the crack in the door I get a sliver of this seemingly perfect family. “Mommy!” is heard over the music. The mother, not fully awake yet, pauses to kiss each of her children before wishing her husband a not-so-out-of-the-ordinary good morning. While he pours her coffee into a white ceramic cup, she smiles warmly at the sight of her blissful children and perhaps at the knowledge that not all families are this lucky. As the husband adds a milk based froth to her beverage, prepared just the way she likes it, whipped not stirred, the song comes to an end. I am rearranging perfectly arranged books in the bedroom when the father asks, “Again?” and is answered with three cheers of, “YES!”just as the song begins to play again.
My mother has been having some issues with a new addition to her family, her rooster. When she bought six chicks she didn’t know one was a male. My mother and step-father have always been big bacon and eggs people. They are the types who have breakfast for dinner. The idea was that their little friends would produce eggs for consumption. And produce they have. I’ve been home twice since these new additions came into my parent’s country home. The quantity of eggs is taking over all three of their refrigerators. Then again, we had twice as many deviled eggs for Thanksgiving and Christmas so maybe I should not complain. Anyhow, my mother has named the rooster Brutus, who apparently is a force to be reckoned with.
“He hates me Michele. I have no idea why!”
“Were you nice to him when you got him?”
“Yes! I was a good chicken mom.”
“I go out there and he attacks me. He chases me and pecks at me. Not your step-father, just me. I carry a stick when I go out there.”
“A stick mom? Really?”
“Yes, really! Last week I was standing in barn and he was watching me, planning his attack. I could see it in his eyes. He was staring at me like, ‘Bring it on you bitch!’”
“So what happened?”
“I stood in my barn and yelling at my rooster like a crazy woman. ‘You want some of this Brutus? I will beat your ass. Come at me! I dare you!’”
“Please tell me you’re joking.”
“No. Really. It is getting out of hand. Shelly, all he does is eat, shit and beat me up.”
I decided to go meet this Brutus. I walk out to the barn and I find all six of the birds staring at me. They are full grown but still cute. I return inside.
“So, how did it go Shelly?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about mom, Brutus game me a hug. Seems like a nice guy.”
“Where did I go wrong? I was a good chicken mom. I was.”
When my parents announced a weekend trip to Kentucky my siblings both heard, “To grandmothers’ house we go.” I on the other hand (the one always stuck in the middle) heard, “Well Chela, because you’re the shortest, that’s why.” Don’t get me wrong, I loved to spend time with my grandparents but the seven hours car trip was not something I looked forward to, especially since I never got to sit by the window.
We owned a 1982, two door, Camero Berlinetta, it was a tight fit in the gold four seater. Since I measured exactly 2 inches shorter than my younger sister, I was forced to sit in the middle of the backseat on what I call “the hump”. “The hump” was not an actual seat, it was a rounded area between the two back seats, it was carpeted, hard, and after 100 miles, hot as hell. Since my little sister grew faster than me, I was forced to sit on “the hump” during full family car trips. This was probably not the safest place for a child but in the early 90’s, so let’s just excuse it as, were in no position to buy a new car.
We made those trips quite often, sometimes every other weekend. We were allowed one fifteen minuet break at the exact half way point, by mileage, in a city named Terra Haute. By the time we reached Terra Haute, my legs were cramped and my back was sore. I had been used as a card table and often a shield by my siblings. Normally right after our break, my siblings (bellies full) would use their windows to prop their pillows up against as they doze off. I was seated so high up, I could not see out the front window without crouching down into an uncomfortable position. I was always in the way of the rearview mirror and basically spent six odd hours staring at my stepdads reflection. I never said “no” when my little sister asked me to scratch her back, a favor never returned. I never said “no” when my brother wanted to lean on me, even though he would freak out if I leaned back. For the most part I kept one leg one each “side” of my siblings leg space but sometimes I would stretch them out into the front seat, if my mom was still awake she would rub my feet. I use to fantasize about all the things I would do sitting next to the window, not fall asleep like my lame siblings.
Then in the summer of 1993 a miracle happened, my stepdad got sick! We would be making the scheduled trip to Kentucky without him. I would finally get my own window in the back seat! I just knew it was going to be the best trip ever. I was first to get in the car that Friday morning. With my pillow in my lap, not under my bottom, I sat quietly waiting for my family. When my older brother approached the car I could see through the tiny window he was angry. My mother followed him loudly directing her words at me “Chela, you’re in front.” My brother gave me the look of death as he pulled the front seat forward to let me out. I heard him whisper, “It’s not fair, I’m the oldest” Confused and quite frankly, frightened, I moved up to the front seat without asking questions.
As we left our block my mother smiled and said, “Plenty of leg room huh Chela?” Yes but, didn’t she understand? It was not about the leg room. I had my very own window. The world was mine to look at! I rolled down my window which was three times the size of the ones in back and breathed deep. “It’s too windy back here!” my sister shouted, so I quickly rolled it up where it remained for the duration of the trip. I tried not to make eye contact in the side mirror with my brother as I counted cows, the extent of things I could come up with to do with my window. As I dozed off on my pillow propped up against the window I heard my siblings giggling over a game of go-fish in the back seat. I yawned and asked “Mom? Will you wake me up in Terra Haute?”
Over a recent dinner I was telling a friend of mine about some of my childhood pets. Fluffy was a huge white Samoyed who was always trying to escape our yard. We were forced to keep her on a leash attached to a close line in our backyard. She had plenty of room to run but her line would stop her a few feet from the gate that enclosed our back yard. One afternoon Fluffy managed to get loose. The local pound found our number on her tags and called our home. My mother and I went to retrieve our mischievous dog.
At the pound I met Sandy. Sandy was on death row. She was a golden short hair mutt who had been in and out of the pound for several months. “We don’t know much about her, she is very friendly but no one seems to want to keep her,” the lady at the pound told my mother. “You can’t kill her, you just can’t,” I said to the woman while Sandy licked my fingers through her cage. I pretended to wipe away a tear. “OK. Fine. You got me. Let’s go girl,” my mother said.
Sandy was my best friend. She had a ton of energy. We guessed she was an older puppy despite her large frame. She loved Fluffy but Fluffy did not seem to love her. They were opposites. Sandy would not run away, she loved our yard. Because of this she was never leashed. Fluffy was more relaxed and was happy with a chew toy in the shade. Sandy needed constant attention and loved to play catch, the only time she went into the shade was to mess with Fluffy. Fluffy would snip at Sandy but Sandy thought it was a game. Fluffy hated to be indoors, Sandy would sit at our backdoor looking through the glass window begging to be let in. Fluffy enjoyed a good scratch but liked to sleep alone. Sandy and I spooned when I could convince my mother to let her sleep inside.
“So what happened to Sandy?” my friend asked over dessert. “Oh, well we went on vacation and my mother asked a woman in our area with lots of other dogs on a big farm watch her. My mom told me she had never seen Sandy so happy before and that she wanted to let Sandy stay there. I was pretty bummed but I understood. I mean, I could never give her enough attention and she loved other dogs. It took a while but I got over it. Someplace in my heart I knew it was right.” My friend leaned in over the dinner table with a look of confusion on his face.
“Where did you grow up again?”
“South East Chicago.”
“There were farms in your area?”
“Um, I have to go call my mother now.”
I went to the street and dialed with a lump in my throat. My stepfather picked up the house phone.“I need to talk to my mom,” I said to Gene.“She is napping right now, can I have her call you back?”
“What happened to Sandy?” I asked sternly.
“Um. Hold on. I think I hear your mom getting up.”
My mother’s version of the story goes like this:
“We all loved Sandy. We did. But Shelly, she ate everything. She ate a hole in the shed so she could peek in to see Fluffy. She ate countless pairs of my shoes. She ate the peddles off of all of our bikes. She ate part of the deck. At night when we left her outside she howled all night long. The neighborhood association kept placing notices in our mailbox about the noise violations and Sandy received a death threat. We are pretty sure it was from the crazy old man who lived right behind us. That is why we allowed her to sleep in your room. Fluffy was our family dog for five years, Sandy drove her nuts. Fluffy withdrew from the family entirely. Sandy was always dirty. She loved the dirt, she bathed in the dirt, which I why I hated her sleeping in your bed. I had to bath her almost every night. She dug up my flowerbed, and countless holes in the yard. You were too young to notice and remember these things. Gene used to catch her eating her own poop. Shelly, I know you loved her but she was kind of gross. We just could not take it anymore.”
“So? So what did you do with her? Pound?”
“No. I promise. A lady from my office had two teenage boys and a lot of land next to their home. It was not a farm but there was much more room for here there. I promise. I wanted to let you visit her but I knew it would break your heart. She had a good life, I know it.”
“We gave her to the pound. No one wanted that disgusting dog. I’m so sorry
I’m sorry I broke the lamp and blamed my sister, I’m sorry I got caught. I’m sorry I set the living room on fire. I’m sorry that I told you I had a diary and wrote I wanted to have sex, I’m sorry you read it. I’m sorry I stole 32 cents from your change dish and looked under the dresser, I’m sorry those magazines weren’t out of my reach. I’m sorry I called you names on the playground, pranked your house and didn’t invite you to my 4th grade sleepover. I’m sorry I painted your nails pink the night before boy scout camp while you slept, I’m sorry I poured the nail polish remover down the sink before I did it. I’m sorry I lost the dog. I’m sorry I punched your son, and your daughter, and your niece, and that pale kid who lived on the corner. I’m sorry I blew out your candles. I’m sorry I put your house up for sale and smashed your pumpkin. I’m sorry I kissed your brother. I’m sorry I said fuck. I’m sorry I used you for your pool, I’m sorry you told everyone we hung out all summer. I’m sorry I lost the keys, the message, the earring and your lucky penny. I’m sorry I broke your heart. I’m sorry I lied about what dad got you for Christmas, I’m sorry you looked so sad sitting by the tree. I’m sorry I let the snakes go in the house. I’m sorry I climbed out the window and I’m sorry the rope broke. I’m sorry for telling the dentist I scrape the yellow stuff off with my nail. I’m sorry I didn’t write, didn’t call, didn’t explain. I’m sorry I kicked your girlfriend. I’m sorry I stood you up. I’m sorry I drank the vodka and I’m sorry I puked on your mom’s new sofa. I’m sorry I washed the cat and cut off his whiskers. I’m sorry the PTA called to control the rumors about dad being on a special mission for NASA which involved going to Mars. I’m sorry for all the things I can’t remember I’m sorry about.