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"Can you believe, my mom and dad got married fifty years ago today," my cousin says.
"I was there," I say.
My cousin sounds incredulous: "You were?"
"I was four--I remember dancing with a second cousin." A vague vision of two little girls dancing, of feeling sad my uncle was leaving our house. I don't remember playing with him, but he came home once with a toy for me, a set of geometric shapes, a little hammer to push them in slots. I remember him at Sunday dinners, my grandmother's huge mahogany table, lots of food, salad with tomatoes.
Yesterday I called in sick, idly checked email. An email from the agent I'd queried--she wants to see the first three chapters of "R. and the Cousins"!!! Just the morale booster I needed; on Saturday I attended a "Writers Talk." The writers and audience members all younger than me, provoking the nagging question--why haven't I had writing success? Hard to say "I'm a writer" when the next question is, "Have you been published?" Yes, but so long ago...
I've had nibbles--publishers wanting to see complete manuscripts of "Roll Call" and "Bestfriend." Will this nibble become a bite?
When I dated my son's father, I was also dating a law student. But when my mother was suddenly in the hospital, life or death, the law student merely said, "That's too bad." The man who was to become my son's father said, "I'm coming with you."
I'd always longed for help dealing with my mother. Although I believed kids should help parents, my mother's chronic mental illness threatened quicksand-like to pull me into its grasp. She didn't want to change, wanted me to come back, be part of a life that focused on keeping the out-to-get-her world at bay.
Bobby watched the new girl roll--yes roll--into Room 204. He whistled. She was in a wheelchair, tiny as his two-year-old nephew, but her face let you know she was their age, seventh grade. She was pretty with long curling chestnut hear with a bit of gold in it that glimmered in the light; she had a pugnacious expression, her lower chin jutting out, no smile, that suggested anything but helplessness, that reminded him of that feeling inside when he wanted to punch something and instead got in trouble joking around and later got punched around by his dad--
Emerson said society is in conspiracy against the manhood of its members; I think society is in conspiracy against dreams, especially as you get older. "Still writing?" "You're still on that dating site?" "After people are fifty, their brains can't handle complex mathematics..." To use an expression from the eighties, gag me with a spoon!
It's worse to see the deadened eyes of those who've bought into it, who've given up: "Can't seem to get myself going..." "Birthdays, another year towards the inevitable..." "Getting older--like a nightmare..."
I think God wants us to dream; each day is a gift.
“I used to watch Cubs games with my grandfather,” Cherie said. “Taught me everything, how to keep score. Stupid heart attack.”
Rachel didn't know what to say. She walked alongside Cherie. Cherie pushed the big wheels of her chair forward. Rachel wondered—should she offer to push?
“Cubs or Sox fan?” Cherie asked.
“I don't know,” Rachel said. “My dad's not into sports.”
“She died. When I was in kindergarten.”
“Sorry. My dad is good as dead—walked out when I was a baby, couldn't deal with me having a disability. Jerk.”
Bobby was the first one to bound up to Cherie at recess.
“So—what you do during recess? Cuz you can't run around, jump rope.”
“Got this,” Cherie said, pointing to her radio. “Gotta find out how the Sox did. Stupid umps, last game.
“You like sports?” Bobby's mouth dropped open.
“Yeah? You got a problem with it?”
“I didn't think they let us have radios.”
“They don't. They made an exception for me so I'm not bored when you guys are running around. I just have these stupid bones, break like twigs. Stupid.”
“You think my mom'll let me get married anyplace but a church?” Debbie raised her eyebrows.
“I'm not going to lie, say I believe what I don't.” Frank stared down into his coffee cup, the overhead light reflecting on the black liquid.
“Well, why don't you believe? You think everything just happened? Why can't there be a Creator?”
“Why would a Creator let people abuse their children?” Frank gulped his coffee.
“Frank, stop thinking just of the past! Why did the Creator give you a beautiful daughter? Why aren't you thanking God everyday for Rachel?”
Ms. Perez looked at the rows of seventh graders. Which were be the straight-A kids, hands always up, and which were the class clown gum chewers, the ones who'd hiss gossip, sneak glances at other desks during tests? Would she make an impact on any of them as they zoomed into their futures? She had such a brief moment with them. She'd leave her moods at home—her worries about her husband's cancer, her pain that she'd never had kids of her own. She probably was harder on students because it hurt that she'd never have her own seventh grade child.
He burst out the revolving door, almost bumping into an elderly woman with obviously dyed hair.
“Sorry,” he said, not looking at her. He had to hurry, eat lunch, be back on time—this was his first day.
Sunlight glittered. Free from his stark white windowless cubicle, he loosened his tie, breathed in cool air.
Where was the sandwich shop he'd noticed earlier? Instead he saw Andrea taking quick confident strides.
Suddenly he wasn't hungry. Her last phone call—“I want to see other people—I mean, you're sweet--”
He rushed back through the door. He couldn't face her today.
Martin burst out the revolving door, colliding with an elderly woman.
He had to hurry, eat quickly, be back on time. Where was the sandwich shop?
He stopped—Andrea, marching towards him.
He rushed back in.
She stood, arms crossed.
“Andrea! How's Chelsea?”
“You owe child support. Save the 'How's Chelsea?'”
“I just started this job—”
“Complaining, your dad deserting you. Like father like son.”
The same woman he'd bumped into tapped Andrea's arm. “Report him. They'll garnish his wages.”
Martin ducked in an elevator. Escape. Except—like father like son?
I read “Emma” when a teenager but didn't enjoy it. What a snob, I thought. Emma repulsed me. Now I enjoy Austen's acute observations of people. Sure, Emma is a snob--but Austen doesn't applaud this snobbery. When Emma persuades Harriet to repulse a lover because he's a farmer, Knightley scolds Emma: the farmer in question has more true gentility than Emma's friend could understand. Of course, servants are not considered worthy of mention, but Austen lived when class divisions were inviolable. I consider all people created equal but put my own views on hold to explore Austen's world.
Late night apartment is silent except for Pandora.com radio; my son sleeps, our cats snooze in chairs. My life full of love--A., who spoils and overfeeds us; C., my going-to-the-dentist and cappuccino buddy; JL, who lets me know she's back from deaf-blind camp, L., who emails me daily. My seventeen-year-old son, who still likes to talk to his mom. Yet love painful—people finite—I will die someday; my son will miss me. A., J., and C. decades older than me; I dread their loss. Life too precious to appreciate; little D. purrs, stretching in feline sleep—how special her short life.
C. and I are going-to-the-dentist buddies. When she confided how expensive her dentist was, I told her about Dr. B., my dentist since T. was three years old. I offered to go with her--C. is blind and although she has terrific mobility skills, she might have trouble finding his office.
Oddly enough, Dr. B. has the same birthday as my bestfriend J. who died in 1998; his dog has the sane name--M.--as my best friend who died in 2002. C. was one of M's buddies. too; when Dr. B. mentions taking M. for a walk, I smile.
I love Delicious Cafe, a coffee shop only three blocks from my house that serves vegan food--tofu “egg” salad, breakfast sandwiches with tofu sausage. One silver thermos even contains soy milk! Delicious even participated in our neighborhood's Rib Fest, seitan ribs and jalapeno corn muffins. An independent store with a more creative feel than Starbuck's, they play music off Pandora.com. Coffee shops are great for writing, even though, alas, I must stick to decaf. I can sit and write as long as I want, and I'm away from the desk where I write all day for a living.
A letter to the editor discussed fat discrimination; a boss thinks if you can't control your weight you can't control other life areas. Yet Oprah bounces back and forth on diets despite her own private chef--would she be the world's richest, most successful woman without a hefty amount of discipline? President Obama is certainly disciplined but even he can't quit smoking. If a job applicant showed up looking anorexic, would she be subject to the same scrutiny? Would a smoker be turned away? I think it boils down to prejudice against fat people, and these "rational" reasons are smokescreens.
My brother J. thought my reasons for acquiring our third cat were bizarre. But when A. was struggling with cancer, I couldn't stand it when her cat died. A. had thought the cat was pregnant, for God's sake, sounding happier at the thought of kittens than she had since her brain surgery.
I had a brilliant idea--we'd get a kitten that would be A.'s cat though living with us. A. named it D.; I have a picture of her beaming, holding D.
D. still lives here, I feed her and scoop litter--but if D. helped A., I'm happy.
I glance at the sports section, read of glorious memories, now tarnished, of the home run race between Sosa and McGuire. I think of J.--that race cost her life. If she hadn't been so enthralled by the competition, if she hadn't espied that TV in the dimly-lit restaurant at Navy Pier, she wouldn't have tumbled down steps, wouldn't have been rushed to the hospital where stupid personnel kept insisting, “She hasn't broken anything.” The girl had OI, of course she broke bones. The next day, a blood clot cut off oxygen, she fell into a coma, never returned.
This morning T. and I woke early and headed via Montrose bus to Montrose Harbour and the Great Chicago Food Depository Hunger Walk. So many groups were there; ours, the Chicago White Sox group, was small--twenty people max--but Ron Kilttle was there, and T. was ecstatic that he got to fist bump one of his baseball heroes. We got goodie bags with T-shirts and popcorn, but what I liked most was the hand fan--the walk by the lake under direct sun was grueling. At the end, we saw the Jesse White tumblers, Jesse White himself, and Southpaw!
In 1974, cafeteria line at Northwestern, J. confided that she was trying to become vegetarian but it was difficult--the cafeteria didn't offer many meat-free options.
“Why do you want to be a vegetarian?” I asked.
She laughed as though what I said was funny. “Because I like animals!”
Her words struck me; when I was a child and discovered the fried chicken on my plate once belonged to a living breathing bird, I was aghast.
Later, I became a vegetarian myself, lapsing only for a few years when being single patent of a small child overwhelmed me.
In May 1973--just turning 18--M. and I embarked on a Hunger Walk that started in the burbs somewhere. Later I remember some blonde girl asking where we were from; she wrinkled her nose, incredulous: “Chicago?”
A 30 mile hike, I struggled the whole way, fortifying myself with ice cream bars. M. was fine--until the next day, when she couldn't get out of bed.
Yesterday I went on a hunger walk with my 17-year-old son, two and a half miles though feeling longer in blazing son. I fanned myself furiously the whole way; my son collapsed afterwards.
When N. D. starts working at the Field Museum a security guard in 1976, she is nineteen years old, adrift, still mourning the sudden deaths of her parents the year before. But she finds the guard force to be a nourishing family that takes care of its members: the guards shelter a young woman fleeing an abusive home, surprise a recently widowed guard with a Christmas tree, and offer support to a college student rapidly losing vision from glaucoma. When a guard is unjustly fired, N. and her friends band together again, this time in a fight for union representation.
I can't remember when someone first labeled me “shy.” Is that what they call it, I wondered, the sweating heartbeat-fast paralysis at the thought of approaching someone? Did I fear rejection or being unable to handle it? How did you make friends, anyway? Did you go up to just anyone and say “hi”--how did you decide which kid to say “hi” to? My grandmother was annoyed with me, didn't understand my playground stage fright--”Just go outside, play like the other kids,” she'd grumble, annoyed at being unexpectedly burdened with helping raise yet another child.
I hate being sick. I woke up with sore throat, groggy, weighed down. Just a bug, one to be killed with rest, Airborne, decaf tea. When I called my boss this morning, I even forgot three digits of our school's phone number!
I wish I could go to tonight's Grant Park concert with C., sprawl in 90-degree warmth on the lawn. Or, home, comb the Writer's Market for novel homes, revise another chapter of “R. and the Cousins: 7th Grade.” Instead I plan to be a bum, reread Harry Potter or watch Perry Mason on my computer, drink tea.
A. calls me.
“Put on the news--important--Michael Jackson died!”
Not sure I think it's that important in the overall scheme of things--not like protests in Iran--but I do feel sad for Michael. His father was abusive, and although for a while Michael was on top of the entertainment world, inner demons made him a suspected child predator.
I avoid turning on the TV, but we talk later.
*8 o'clock, channel 7. Watch it. For J.”
Sigh. How can I resist? My bestfriend J., A.'s daughter, died eleven years ago, and yes, she loved Michael Jackson.
Seven years ago--the end of the deaf-blind conference, the morning after the banquet where my son and best friend A. joined us, where I helped JL tactually enjoy drums. I barely saw M. that morning; she sat at the checkout table while I helped get the Chicago crew ready to travel back to the LH. I didn't know that was the last time I'd see M....
That night M. and I talked--“We did it--I don't know how--but we did it!” I didn't realize how badly she was suffering in the final stages of her cancer.
My son and I joke around in a way that only members of a biracial household can.
“T, take out the garbage--I asked you an hour ago!”
“I see, boss me around like I'm your slave,” my son sighs. “Always the Black man taking out the garbage.”
“Take out the garbage already,” I say, wondering how it was with our President and his mom.
Or when I accuse our cat D, who's gray with black tiger stripes, after I find my coffee cup knocked over:
“Always blaming the dark-colored cat--fight 'the man,' D!”
I would like to express my appreciation for a wonderful visit! On Sunday, June 21, I enjoyed the Harry Potter exhibit with family and friends; two in our party had disabilities. I have many close friends with disabilities and have worked with people with disabilities my entire life, going on countless field rips, but I have never experienced the level of welcome we did that day. Staff were so friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful! The attitude of the guards was perfect--they didn't “feet sorry” for anyone but did everything possible to make sure we enjoyed the exhibit. Thank you!
At M's Studio, M speaks more Spanish than English, and my Spanish is now practically nonexistent. As M silently cuts my hair, the broadcaster on the Spanish station says something--not sure what--about Michael Jackson and Carlos Zambrano. I relax, eyes closed, as M. snips; she knows how I want my hair--I'll look as gorgeous as a 54-year-old woman can. I think, Ivan Albright's pessimistic painting notwithstanding, age can bring beauty if we look. Isn't GL beautiful at 92? Seven years ago, wasn't she, in her low-cut red gown, the most striking woman at the deaf-blind conference banquet?
I've almost finished “Emma”; part of me can't wait to read the last lines, find out what's to become of Emma, Knightley, Harriet, Emma's dad, all the people in this world I've been visiting the last couple of weeks. But part of me never wants to finish, doesn't want to say goodbye, wants to stay with them forever, dreads leaping into a new fictional universe with characters foreign to me. That's why I prefer novels to short stories, why I love a good mystery series--I hate saying goodbye to characters. That's why I write novels, not short stories.
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