Friday, December 26, 2008

Short story: "The Day Aunt Bonnie Didn't Kidnap Me"

My mom and I were spending August with my Aunt Bonnie in Templeton, California, something we’d done for as long as I can remember. Bonnie was braiding my hair as I perched on the kitchen counter in her one-room-above-garage apartment. She was in a chatty mood.

“What’s the best revenge, Suzanne?” she asked.

“Apathy?” I guessed.

“No. Good, but no. It’s the combination of a low BMI and a high degree of spiritual evolution. Without the whiff of religious dogma, of course,” she said.

“You know I’m ten, right?”

Before Bonnie had a chance to ignore my comment and expand on her fascinating thesis, my mom sighed heavily, rose from the couch, and announced that we were heading back to San Diego immediately. I was horrified. We never leave before Labor Day.

“We have another eight days here!” I said, in a voice that was louder and more desperate than I expected. I modulated, to sound more mature, more reasonable. (Bonnie values reason. There are four traits she values, and reason is number one.)

We made raspberry jam for the farmers’ market tomorrow,” I continued. “That’s why we're braiding my hair. For the picture on the label…” I had tears in my eyes. The sentences had exhausted me. Ten years of living with my mom had exhausted me.

“Why so soon, Claire?” asked Bonnie, moving an inch closer to me and moving her hand to my shoulder.

“I can’t stand it here!” my mom shouted. It was painfully shrill in the small room. She began shoving clothes into a duffel bag, including a couple of Bonnie’s T-shirts. “I’m dying here!” she added melodramatically.

“Does this have anything to do with that guy at the beach last night?” Bonnie asked, leaving my side to retrieve the T-shirts. “The guy with the Dalmatian?”

“No!” shrieked my mom. “This has nothing to do with that ____!” And then she used a word that I won’t repeat, because Bonnie doesn’t like cussing. She says it’s proof of a weak character and an even weaker vocabulary. And those rare times when I say something sarcastic, she calls me a “wiseacre.” Apparently, that used to be a word; it’s even in the dictionary.

“Get your stuff!” my mom yelled in my direction. “Now!” I was still on the counter, my bare legs dangling. I felt dizzy. That night on the beach, after my mom left with the guy and his cute dog, Bonnie and I discussed the summer's theme, which was Assertiveness (another trait valued by Bonnie, and an improvement over the previous summer’s theme, which was 19th-Century British Novels: Do We Love Them or Hate Them?). We even did some role-playing exercises sitting side-by-side on the damp sand, testing my newfound assertiveness skills, probably in an attempt to distract me from my mom’s sudden absence.

Remembering what I’d learned, I hopped off the counter. I stood up straight, feet apart, hands on hips, trying not to cry.

“You go, Mom,” I said, trying to sound casual, even helpful. “I’ll stay with Aunt Bonnie.”

She thought about it (or so I like to think), grabbed the duffel and her purse, and left. Bonnie and I listened to her feet on the stairs, the car door slamming, the tires squealing as she pulled onto the road.

After determining that I didn’t need to talk, cry, or eat ice cream directly from the carton, Bonnie suggested that we get back to work. She took a picture of me, scanned it, and printed labels with the clunky brand-name “Country Girl I Think You’re Pretty” above the picture, and the words “Raspberry Jam” below the picture. We made twenty-four pints, “affixed” the labels (that day’s vocabulary word), and put them in a box for the farmers’ market the next morning.

“Don’t we need to list the ingredients or something?” I asked.

“This isn’t Walmart, sweetheart,” she said. “The rules are different.”

That different?”

She nodded absentmindedly.

I went to bed early, but Bonnie stayed up making salsa and bone-shaped dog treats and listening to Neil Young on vinyl. I fell asleep in her bed, feeling safe and snug.


Months later, when I turned eleven, Bonnie—who home schools me—announced that I was now in junior high and would be required to shower daily in front of thirty strangers. I was puzzled and distressed, but apparently it was a joke. We went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch, and Bonnie presented me with five crisp twenty-dollar bills.

I was in awe, because another trait that Bonnie values is frugality. I half expected her to give me a coupon book for my birthday, with coupons for hugs and brownies and extra school holidays. I wouldn’t have guessed that she had a hundred dollars.

Instead of having a regular job, Bonnie cares for a Labrador retriever (Thomas) while his people (the Woodards, both accountants) are at work (and even when they’re not). In exchange, they let us live above their detached two-car garage. The apartment is a twenty-by-fifteen-foot room, with a wooden staircase running along the outside to the ground. The yard is full of trees, and we get all the avocados, limes, and figs we want (free!). At the bottom of the staircase, there’s room for Bonnie’s blue Honda Civic.

Bonnie claims to require a lot of sitting-around time, but I never see her sitting around. All week long, she makes things to sell at the year-round farmers’ market on Saturdays and Sundays. Well, we make things. And she reminds me frequently that it’s all part of my schooling. She also reminds me frequently that if anyone in uniform—or anyone who “puts off a teacher vibe”—asks, Bonnie is my mother, not my aunt. I asked if honesty is one of the four things she values, and she said that it almost made the cut.

Bonnie calls it home-ec class when we crochet scarves or make jumbo oatmeal cookies with walnuts and figs. She calls it woodworking class when we make buttons from the small branches of manzanita trees. She calls it botany when we transplant aloe vera cuttings into brightly painted terra-cotta pots. My friend Adam attends public school and informed me that: (1) botany is not an elective offered to sixth graders, (2) despite Bonnie’s dire warnings, school is not particularly “mind-numbing” or “treacherous,” and (3) the lunchroom pizza is excellent. Adam’s mom, Heidi, sells cloth diapers and tie-dyed onesies at the farmers’ market and is Bonnie’s only friend, as far as I can tell.

I love weekends. It takes an hour to two to get our stuff to the park and arrange it attractively on card tables, but then we relax and have fun. The people and the dogs are friendly, and most of the farmers hand out free samples (I take full advantage while avoiding gluttony, per Bonnie’s instruction). As things wind down in the late afternoon, we swap our unsold items for fresh fruits and vegetables, wheat bread, and the occasional bracelet made from an old spoon.

Bonnie doesn’t insist that I call her mom, but she prefers that I avoid calling her Bonnie or Aunt Bonnie when strangers are around. We resemble each other. We’re both tall, and take long strides. I have reddish-brown hair, and have lately noticed that Bonnie is coloring and styling her hair to look more like mine. I’m surprised she doesn’t insist that we wear matching outfits in public. She feels things deeply, and the thing she feels most deeply is love for me, and fear of losing me to my mom or to faceless “authorities.” My opinion is that she suffers needlessly.

There’s not a lot of variety in our schedule. We took a short vacation (“an extended field trip”) right after my eleventh birthday when Bonnie made $800 by selling a magazine article called “Passing for Rich: Good Teeth, Good Grammar, Good Manners.” We drove up the California coast and into Oregon. On our way home, in Half Moon Bay, we had lunch at a diner. Bonnie applied lip gloss before entering, and seemed particularly alert the entire time we ate. I’m quite sure she expected Neil Young (who, according to liner notes, owns a ranch in the area) to wander in for coffee, chat us up, and write a song about us. He did not.

The next morning, we went to the aquarium in Monterey, and drove through Steinbeck country. She had me read aloud from “The Moon Is Down” when we stopped for a picnic in Salinas. It was fun.


We spend a lot of time together, and Bonnie makes it clear that no question is off-limits. As a result, I know all about my mother and her shortcomings. One afternoon, when we were both bored with my algebra lesson, I asked Bonnie how old she was when I was born.

“I was twenty-one,” she said, “two years older than your mom. Even then, I worried that she lacked devotion.” (It probably goes without saying that Bonnie values devotion.) “When you turned two, she asked me to plan a birthday party, and she asked—as an afterthought—if I’d check with County Health to see if you needed any immunizations.” She shook her head. “You were so dear, Suzanne, so smart. And she was impatient, and easily distracted: by men, by shiny things, by novelty. I thought it would be in your best interest if I pretended that she was a good mom. But now…I don’t know. Maybe I should have kidnapped you. I spoke fluent Spanish; I should have colored my hair—and yours—and pretended to be an undocumented worker. It might have been fun.”

“It's probably not as fun as it looks.”

She shrugged, and looked wistful.

“Where did you learn Spanish?” I asked.

“Some guy,” she said, dismissing further discussion. “Let’s put Spanish on the list for next semester.”


Another time, I asked Bonnie about my dad. I knew he was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was a few weeks old. My mom always insisted that he was a great guy (“an amazing musician!”) and very devoted to me (for a few weeks, anyway). I’ve seen a half dozen photos of him, but none in which he’s holding me. I summoned the courage to ask Bonnie if he was, indeed, “a great guy.” Bonnie took a deep breath, looked as if she were in pain, and said, “Your mom has dated worse.” I asked her to tell me his best trait, and after some thought she said he seemed healthy. I asked her to tell me his worst trait, and she said, “A tendency to exceed the speed limit on rainy nights after a few beers with his buddies.”


Early one summer evening—after living with Bonnie for about a year—I was on Adam’s front porch, learning to play chess. Adam and I looked up when we heard honking, and Bonnie’s Honda came screaming around the corner. She pulled up onto the curb and shouted for me to get in the car.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed, reaching into the backseat to pet Thomas. “Is Thomas sick?”

“Tell your mom not to worry!” Bonnie hollered to Adam, as we peeled out.

“Why would Heidi worry?” I asked, fastening my seat belt. “Where are we going? Are we kidnapping Thomas? Did someone from the school district call?” Suddenly, I felt like I was going to throw up. I took a deep breath and asked the hard question: “Did an entire family die because we failed to list the ingredients on the jam?”

“No! No!” she said, maneuvering through neighborhoods on our way to a main thoroughfare. “Just a sec...”

A few minutes later, she explained that my grandma—my dad’s mom, whom I don’t recall ever meeting—recently died of lung cancer, and left her house (which was modest, but paid for) to me.

“Well…good,” I said. “Are we going there now?”

“No,” she said. “We’re not.”

I waited.

“Your mom came by, with a man, and the news about the house. When I suggested that the inheritance be used to pay for college, Claire said, ‘That’s one option.’ It went downhill from there.”

“Are they okay?” I asked. “Did you…hurt them?”

Bonnie gave me a strange look. She opened her mouth to speak, and closed it again.

“I know you have a gun taped behind your sewing machine cabinet,” I admitted.

“I didn’t hurt them,” she said. “Do you think I…should have?”

“No! No! I’m glad you didn’t!”

“I told them I’d be right back, with you,” she said. “They wanted me to leave Thomas behind, but I refused. He so enjoys a ride in the car…”

“My mom wants me back, so she can have the money. Right?”

“Yes.” Bonnie handed me a cookie from her purse. “But don’t worry.”


We drove for about twenty minutes (east, I think) before pulling into a truck stop. She parked, popped the hatchback, and retrieved the emergency kit (she refers to it as the emergency kit, but I always suspected it was full of craft items). She emptied the contents of the change caddy and the glove compartment into her large purse, and told me she’d be right back…to wait in the car, with Thomas and the emergency kit.

She walked among the big trucks, seeming to look for someone. She finally approached an older guy (good looking, wearing a plaid shirt) and talked to him earnestly. He looked over at me, shook his head, and swung up into the truck. Bonnie struck what she probably thought was a sexy pose, with one hip jutting out, and fluffed her hair with her fingers. I don’t know what she told him, but he seemed to think about it before reluctantly getting down from the truck. Bonnie motioned for me and Thomas to join them.

I walked across the parking lot, the heavy duffel bag in one hand and Thomas’s leash in the other.

“This nice man is giving us a ride, Suzanne,” she said.

“Where are we going, and what’s wrong with the Honda?” I asked.

“I’ll explain later,” she said, taking the duffel bag from me, and attempting to give me a boost up into the truck.

I backed away. Perhaps for the first time (or maybe the second or third time), I doubted Bonnie’s wisdom.

“There will be an Amber Alert,” I said to her. “You know that.”

And the guy climbed into his truck, and shut the door behind him.


Bonnie and I stood there in the parking lot. Thomas did a sit (his only trick).

“Bonnie...” I said. “Were you planning to hide us from my mom by pretending to be that stranger’s wife and kid?”

“Yes,” she said wistfully, looking out over the parking lot, at where the truck had been.

“A new life in Georgia or Ohio or someplace?” I asked.

“Florida panhandle,” she answered.

“Ah,” I said.

I took her hand.

“But that’s kidnapping,” I said. “You don’t have to sacrifice everything, Bonnie. You don’t have to go to prison. I’ll be eighteen eventually. And we both know that long before that, my mom will lose interest in me. She’ll get the money from the house, spend it, and then notice that raising a teenage daughter is a huge hassle.”

We walked back to the car.


By the time we got home, my mom and her boyfriend were furious.

“I was just about to call the police!” she said.

“I’m sorry we were gone so long,” said Bonnie, faking sincerity. “It’s Suzanne’s time-of-the-month, and we had to go to three stores before we found what we needed.” I was very confused (and embarrassed in a vague way), but my mom seemed to buy the explanation.

“I want you to come home with me, Suzanne,” she said.


“Because I miss you,” she said.

“I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t give a goddamn what you believe,” she snarled. “We’re leaving in five minutes.”

So I promised to tell any social worker or judge who would listen about the years of physical and mental abuse heaped on me by my very own mother. She turned angrily to Bonnie—probably convinced that this was her idea—but this was all me.

“I did not hit you!” she shouted.

“Yes, you did! Repeatedly!” I said, getting into the lie. I looked at Bonnie, exhilarated.

“You two planned this,” said my mom. “You planned this in the car on the way over here.”

“No, we didn’t! I’ve never told Bonnie about the beatings,” I said, surprised to hear my voice break. Bonnie took me in her arms.

“Why didn’t you tell me, sweetheart?” she whispered, but I knew that she knew it was “useful fibbing” (Bonnie’s term). “I wish you’d told me…”

The discussion confused my mom, who stood there awkwardly as Bonnie murmured reassuringly while stroking my hair.

“A judge will never believe you,” said my mom, but with less certainty. I think she was trying to remember if she had beaten me.

“I think a judge might,” said the boyfriend. “She’s a convincing little bitch.”

I thought Bonnie was going to hit him, or stab him with the kitchen shears.

“Get out,” she said. “Do what you have to do, but get out of our house.”


Bonnie and I had a long talk that night while making cloth-bound journals for the farmers’ market.

I know there are no limits to what you would do to protect me, I told her. I took a deep breath. I need there to be a couple of limits.

Okay, she said.

We admired the polka-dot journals. I fetched our cocoa from the microwave, grabbed a treat for Thomas, and put “After the Gold Rush” on the record player.

“I love you,” she said, grinning at me.

"Well, would it kill you to show it every now and then?" I asked.

"Wiseacre," she said.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Man Who Taped Donuts to the Door

A year or so ago, my younger sister Peggy and I visited our dad (Tank) and our stepmom at their home on the Central Coast of California. Peggy and I stayed at a nearby motel, so we could stay up late talking and laughing and snacking, without bothering anyone. Tank was in the habit of getting up at dawn and heading for a local donut shop, and--as we left his house to head for the motel that first night--he invited us to go along the next morning. We declined, so that we could sleep in (we never claimed to be the world's best daughters). He said that he'd bring donuts to the motel. "Not too early," Peggy said graciously.

We fell asleep late, and a sound at the door woke us at about eight. Tank was gone by the time Peggy got to the door. To avoid waking us, and to avoid putting food on the ground, he had used masking tape (the man is never without a roll of masking tape) to secure a paper bag to the motel-room door. Peggy pulled the bag off the door and brought it to our beds.

It felt more like Christmas morning than was probably warranted. He'd asked how many donuts we each wanted, and he brought two for Peggy and one for me (I would later revise my order upward). The bag also contained apple juice for Peggy, hot water for my tea, a handful of Tootsie Rolls, and a newspaper. Feeling like princesses, we ate our breakfast, got ready, and reported to Tank's house. We were whisked off for a day of unbeatable scenery, food, and conversation.

When a day is that good, one doesn't crave variety. The second morning, Peggy and I were already awake at eight when Tank arrived with breakfast. In fact, Peggy was standing at the foot of my bed in her scrubs and tank top, eye pressed to the peephole, peering into the marine layer.

"Shhhh," she said. "He's here."
"We could invite him in," I suggested.
"No," she said. "I think he likes it this way."

The bag was bigger this time, but he efficiently taped it to the door again. We waited...waited...waited until he drove away, and then Peggy opened the door and snatched the bag. "Woo-hoo!" she said. I'd made it abundantly clear the night before that I was no longer "dieting," and I requested two (or more) donuts and any other treats he chose to include. In addition to the donuts and the drinks, the bag contained gingersnaps from Trader Joe's, beef jerky, local apples, cashews, and something chocolate. I considered never going home. Sure, the room was a bit crowded for two people, but I could get used to Peggy's snoring, and we could probably find jobs on the Central Coast...

Our vacation lasted two more days, and each was as fun as the last. Nothing quite beats being cared for, being pampered, being indulged. But with a man my age (or, really, with any man except Tank), it's necessary to pay attention, to watch for signs of dependency or imbalance. With Tank, I can let my guard down; he is, in fact, my guard. When I'm with him, I'm more daughter than woman. If we were in a car at night, and he was driving (and of course he'd be driving), I could fall asleep. I couldn't do that with any other person.

Like all of us, Tank is flawed, but I'll write about his flaws another time (lucky him). I'll list some of my fondest memories here, and arrange them chronologically.

  • As a child, there are few sensual pleasures that beat falling asleep in a moving car, after dark, lulled by the gentle voices of one's parents. Dozens of times, probably hundreds of times--and before mandatory seat-belt laws kept us safe but far less comfortable--I awoke slowly as the station wagon came to a stop: at a red light on a freeway off-ramp, at grandma's house, at home. I pretended to be asleep, because I wanted to be carried inside. I remember the cool night air, the whispered instructions, the sound of car doors being closed quietly. Tank would carry us--one by one--into the house, into bed. My mom would be right behind him, to tuck, to fuss, to kiss goodnight.
  • When I was six or seven, there were--at certain times of year in Southern California--caterpillars everywhere, and especially crawling up the walls of our stucco house (so gross). I was scared of them. Unreasonably. Hysterically. One day, I was wearing shorts, alone in the backyard, near the back porch, and I felt something on the back of my sturdy calf. I glanced around, and saw that a caterpillar was climbing up me. I could not have been more horrified. I think I would have been less distressed if I'd stumbled upon a burglar, or a dead body. I stood there, rooted to the ground. I began to scream, and I did not stop. Tank was home (he sometimes worked nights), and he ran out of the back door, leaped off the porch, and--with one huge and mighty hand--brushed the offending beast from my little-girl flesh. I collapsed into Tank's arms, sobbing. I remember glowing with pride later, realizing that he wasn't at all afraid of caterpillars.
  • In my Long Beach, California, elementary school, third-grade "social studies" was spent studying oceans and harbors. And since the school was a few miles from one of the world's best and busiest harbors, our studies culminated in a field trip. (I'd been surprised, at age eight, to learn that most harbors--including the Port of Los Angeles--are man-made, and I ran home gushing with new-found, if imperfect, knowledge and said to my mom, "Did you know that the ocean is man-made?!?") Well, who better to direct the harbor tour than my dad, a longshoreman. I remember getting on the school bus and sitting primly next to my best friend Jeff Dill, as my dad stood at the front of the bus in a trench coat (who knew he owned a trench coat?), and the teacher introduced him as Mr. Nelson (I'd never heard him called that before). He was unusually formal and non-dad-like, and I approved. The next day, all thirty kids wrote thank-you notes to him, and I still have my note, and Jeff's.
  • Perhaps the first time I felt attractive post-pubescently was when I starred as Cornelia Otis Skinner in a high-school production of "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay." The costumes were cute, and most of the funny lines were mine. My family was living in Utah by then, but Tank still worked in California. The day of the final performance, he flew back to Utah to see the play. I must have mentioned it to someone, because during the pre-performance "prayer circle," the director mentioned that "Polly's dad flew all the way from California to see the play, so let's do our very best." I blushed, basking in the hint of exceptionality and sophistication.
  • It was summertime, and I was 20 or 21, working alongside my mom and Tank, delivering beer and burgers to peacetime soldiers on the poolside patio of an Officers' Club in Utah. I was young enough to be wearing cutoffs, a strappy cotton-knit top, and no bra. When I bent to hand a paper plate to a soldier stretched out on the grass, my blouse briefly fell away from my body. Tank was nearby, and he noticed, and when we were alone, he said--shyly, without eye contact--"Bending over in that blouse reveals...too much of your femininity." It struck me as such a gallant phrase. Much better, really, than, "You realize that every man here has now seen your tits, right?"
  • I was feeling sorry for myself one snowy evening during my early twenties--curled up on the couch in my apartment, listening to John Denver on the stereo--when my mom called. Fifteen minutes later, she and Tank picked me up, and we drove thirty miles north to Salt Lake City to see "A Star is Born" (they allowed me to sit between them during the movie, and I felt like a much-loved child, which is exactly what I was). After, we went to dinner at a place that served comfort food, and I ordered meatloaf, and Tank ordered turkey and stuffing (my mom probably had a burger, or a French dip). When the food arrived, Tank's meal looked better than mine, and I said, "Your meal looks better than mine." And without a word, without missing a beat, he picked up the plates, and gave me his. He began eating the meatloaf, and I stared at him, wondering if I could ever be that selfless.
  • In my mid-twenties, my young husband and I frequented a Trolley Square restaurant called R.J. Wheatfield's. We ordered big bowls of fish chowder and an occasional sandwich bursting with Swiss cheese and sprouts. For dessert, we shared a giant oatmeal cookie, about eight inches across. Once, when Tank was visiting, he joined us at R.J.'s, and the three of us shared a cookie after our meal (or before our meal...we were that open minded). As we left, I pointed to the huge cookies in the display case, and said, "I always want to get some to take home, but they're a dollar each." (My husband was in graduate school at the time, and we'd embraced a certain level of frugality. A level that stopped just short of me cooking a meal.) Tank paid the dinner bill and asked the cashier for six (six!) oatmeal cookies to take home. They were soft and warm, and I held them on my lap in the dark car, the way I'd hold a puppy.
  • In my late twenties, a co-worker loaned me a book called "Shibumi" by Trevanian. It was different from other books I'd read, and I couldn't stop talking about it and recommending it. I don't think Tank ever read it, but one day I received a large and heavy box in the mail: It was fifteen or twenty copies of "Shibumi," which he'd amassed at used bookstores over the course of a year or so. He thought I might want to give copies to friends.
  • Tank surprised me in my early thirties by accompanying my small family on a trip to Disneyland. Mostly, he sat on a park bench and watched as humanity traipsed by wearing mouse ears, but he joined us on It's a Small World. I have a favorite photo of Tank with his arm around my five-year-old son, sitting side by side in a small boat, grinning. The next morning, Tank suggested that he drive back to Utah with us, and the four of us hopped in the Honda Civic wagon and drove straight through. There I was, with my dad, my husband, and my son, feeling like the luckiest woman on earth. "There's so much that we share, that it's time we're aware..."
  • In my late thirties, I sent an idea for an article to more than a dozen magazines. After being rejected by all but one, the idea was accepted by Woman's Day. An editor called me with the good news and an offer of $500. I immediately called Tank. His delight, pride, and unbridled enthusiasm--his absolute confidence in my abilities--made the accomplishment all the sweeter.
  • Tank sends the best mail, and he sends a lot of it. Almost daily, I receive a postcard, letter, newspaper clipping, or going-out-to-lunch cash. And the packages! He frequently sends Robert Parker novels (a topnotch stress reliever when read cover-to-cover during a hot bath), postage stamps, dog and cat treats, saltwater taffy, beef jerky, and--my favorite--Symphony bars. He sends one Symphony bar for each member of my family, but please don't tell them that.
  • A couple of years ago, I took JetBlue from Utah to Long Beach, where Tank met my plane. After stopping for breakfast, we headed for San Pedro, where he'd spent most of his life; I hadn't visited in decades. The day was crammed with fun. First, we visited my always-handsome (and quite seriously ill but hiding it) Uncle Bill. As the short visit was ending, I hugged Bill, right before he said that he really wasn't much for hugging. Then, we visited my Uncle Harry and his charming wife Duffy, who seemed to adore the grown-up version of me as much as she'd adored the little-girl version of me (which was lots). Then, we visited Tank's buddy Manuel (be still my heart). Tank and I had seafood for lunch, spent the afternoon walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard, and had Mexican food for dinner. The next morning, we drove up the coast to his home.
  • To a large extent, visiting Tank means long scenic drives to excellent restaurants. The drives can be long enough (Santa Barbara, Monterey), and the meals leisurely enough, that it takes all day. During this same trip, Tank took me to Nepenthe in Big Sur for my first $15 cheeseburger. We sat on a deck that juts out over the Pacific, where we were surrounded by cheerful, friendly tourists. We watched the birds and the waves, and I could tell that this was one of Tank's favorite spots.
  • At the end of the visit, I took the Greyhound bus home, because I like a transportation adventure (even a 21-hour adventure). Tank drove me to the bus depot in San Luis Obispo, and handed me a sack lunch that weighed more than my duffel bag full of clothes. "Enough to share," he said. There were bologna sandwiches, meatloaf sandwiches, dill pickles, carrot sticks, raisins, cookies, chocolate-covered peanuts, a juice assortment, and two cans of diet Dr. Pepper. I'm fairly good at chatting up (and occasionally feeling up) strangers, and the surplus of delicious food made things even more fun.
  • Perhaps it's evident that a high percentage of my memories of Tank are related to food. Here's more. When I was a kid, he delighted me with plates of "Spanish" rice, prepared the way my mom liked it, with no ingredient more exotic than a bit of onion salt. If Tank and my mom were going out for dinner, he made an early and kid-friendly meal of fish sticks (with ketchup), white bread (buttered and quartered), and Niblets corn. When I was a teen, he made enormous chef salads and tuna salads for me, with toast points, but without dressing or mayo (per my request). Nowadays when I visit, and we eat dinner at his house, the womenfolk settle into easy chairs while watching Britcoms or a M*A*S*H rerun, and Tank brings dinner on trays: small amounts of about ten different items...maybe bite-size pieces of melon, a scoop of Waldorf salad, sliced salami, cubes of provolone, a macaroon. I feel like The Very Hungry Caterpillar in the Eric Carle storybook. But perhaps my favorite food memory is of a recent October night, when we stayed outside longer than usual, chatting with neighbors in the front yard. There was a cold breeze off the ocean, and I was wrapped in a borrowed coat, and Tank suddenly--magically!--appeared with over-sized, colorful mugs of chai tea, all sweet and milky and hot. Sipping it felt like a hug, like a proud or amused grin. Like Tank.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Does This Green Beret Make Me Look Fat?

I was at Fort Bragg, shacked up with a Special Forces soldier. He'd left for work at dawn, with a promise to be home by noon, and I was alone in his studio apartment for the first time since my arrival three days earlier.

After showering, I donned a kelly-green sundress and began the arduous task of applying makeup in an un-air-conditioned room in late August in North Carolina. I curled my hair and then curled it again. I sat primly on the black leather couch, trying to preserve my freshly ironed dress and my auburn shag haircut. I was twenty-two.

I stared across the room at a small TV atop a small refrigerator. I lacked the courage to approach either. If he caught me watching TV, he'd judge me slothful; if he caught me eating, he'd judge me gluttonous. I sat there, willing myself not to sweat.

Noon passed, and two, and four. I left the couch once to pee and twice to brush my teeth. I no longer looked dewy fresh, and I was lightheaded from not having eaten since lunch the previous day.

At five, he walked in, unspeakably gorgeous in olive drab: tall, lean, blond, blue eyed. He kissed me passionately and called me magnolia blossom. His voice was like caramel syrup, like buttered grits, like flannel pajamas on a winter night. He tasted like apples. Without exactly apologizing for being late, he made reference to the incompetence of assorted captains and majors. He'd just eaten...was I hungry? Oh, no! Never! Thank you!

"What did you do all day?" he asked, his tone friendly. "Anything fun?"

"I read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John," I lied.

"Good for you!" he said.

We had sex on the couch and then in the shower. He was loving and thorough and better every time. I had the clear impression he'd made a list of "Places to Make Love to Polly." My green dress was in a crumpled heap on the floor; my mascara was smeared beneath my eyes. Maybe it'll make me look gaunt, I thought. Is gaunt the same as thin?

We lay side by side on the twin bed, knees drawn up. My long legs suddenly seemed a bit doughy and untoned, although I was underweight at the time.

"I worry about getting fat," I said (preemptively).

"Me, too," he said.

"But you're so thin!" I said.

"No, I worry about you getting fat," he said.

I lay there, eyes wide, resisting the urge to "act out emotionally." (I'd read--in the journal I'd found in his sock drawer--that he didn't care for women who did that.) I began to wonder when he would dump me and how many years I would spend trying to forget him.


Two days later, he dropped me off at the airport at dawn to wait for my mid-afternoon flight. I sat alone, reading "Autopsy." When the book failed to cheer me, and it seemed unlikely that the man I loved was going to return to the small Fayetteville airport, rush through the terminal entrance, grab me by the shoulders, and say, "Please don't go...I'll die if you go," I bought and ate four Almond Joys.

(I hadn't eaten much in five days. At a cafeteria, he'd heaped his tray with fried chicken, grits, black-eyed peas, watermelon, two glasses of milk, and a thick slice of chocolate cake. I'd sprinkled a small baked potato with pepper, searching his face for signs of disapproval.)

The Almond Joys kicked in, proving too much for my empty stomach, and I hurried to the restroom. I couldn't get into a stall without a dime, and, once in, I didn't want to leave. A bathroom stall is a manageable size. It was clean; it looked easy to maintain. I had my book, my purse, my memories of love...

My tears were interrupted by a cleaning woman methodically checking for feet and then unlocking stall doors. Apparently, I looked as invisible as I felt, and I was too tired or too sad to insist on privacy. She opened my door. Black, bored, perhaps sympathetic...I thought about inviting her in.

After changing planes in Washington and Chicago, I arrived in Salt Lake City. An hour later, I finally located my Ford Pinto in long-term parking and drove home.

I curled up in a quilt and reviewed the situation. It was clear to both of us that I wasn't good enough to marry. The question remained: Was I good enough to fuck? He seemed to enjoy having sex with me. Of course, he also enjoyed hating me for allowing sex. Fortunately, he was bright enough to see that this made him an ass. Unfortunately, he could also hate me for making him feel like an ass.


We'd met early that summer at the Officers' Club at a military post in Utah. I was a barmaid; he was a first lieutenant. He looked so wholesome, so down-home, that I assumed he was a local boy (and, thus, a Mormon), but I was wrong. He hung around until my shift ended, and we sat at a small table and got to know each other. He talked about farming; he talked about how the Civil War had little to do with slavery. I found out that he was a college graduate and a land owner, and that he valued rigorous savings programs and rigorous exercise programs. I smiled, knowing that I couldn't offer much more than my warm and eager body stretched out next to him in my cozy apartment.

The next night, he went home with me, and two more nights after that. I don't recall seducing him, although I've never played hard-to-get. (I had considerably more sexual experience than he did, but cannot recall getting any points for that.) I remember standing in the parking lot next to my idling car, wearing corduroy bell-bottoms and a gauzy peasant blouse, grinning ear to ear and probably ovulating...he really can't be blamed for hopping in. I'm sure he knew that I wanted to wrap my legs around him, to make him laugh, to know more about his version of the Civil War.

After those three nights together (and minutes before returning to Fort Bragg), he revealed that he was a born-again Christian. I was stunned, furious. I knew that this would eventually doom us; I knew that--try as I might--I wouldn't be able to fake accepting-Jesus-Christ-as-my-lord-and-savior. And later I would accept the harsher truth: He wouldn't find it necessary to reject me based on my religious inadequacies, because my other inadequacies were so many, and so glaring.


Shortly after our three days in Utah, I flew to Virginia Beach to spend the weekend with him.

"You don't have to do this," my mom said on the way to the airport.

"You think I have doubts?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

I was disappointed by a lukewarm greeting when he met me at the airport. I was so far from home (my first time east of the Mississippi), and I wanted to draw my knees up to my chin, protectively, sitting beside him in his pickup truck. He sensed something and--bless his heart--pulled to the side of the road and put his arms around me. He held me like that until I felt cherished, and, when we arrived at the motel, he continued to make me feel cherished. (There's a photo from that weekend--his favorite photo, he said--that shows me standing in front of a famous lighthouse. I'm wearing a floral skirt and a red blouse--very modest, very becoming--and my smile is content, even serene.)

I knew he liked me. I knew he didn't love me, because one night after sex he said, "I don't love you." I knew I'd never meet his mama, or his commanding officer, but he liked the way I flirted with him, and teased him, and wasn't afraid to adore him. He knew I wasn't stupid, although once he found it necessary to correct my spelling in a chatty and passionate letter I'd sent.


After the Virginia Beach visit--playing house in the motel room, gazing out at the ocean, talking endlessly, learning to be tender with each other--I was sure I wanted him. Nights and weekends, we talked on the phone for hours, revealing ourselves. It was both earnest and erotic, and I never got bored. Weekdays, I'd leave work at lunch time, drive home, and check the mailbox. I didn't have time to enter the apartment or eat anything, but that was okay: My only desire was a letter from him. He didn't write as frequently as I did (daily), but he wrote often, and well. We were connected during that brief time, and adoration and admiration flowed easily, and in both directions.


When I flew to Fort Bragg later that summer, I anticipated bliss. We were practically buddies, and I thought I'd enjoy a new sense of ease and belonging. There was some of that, but there was also the feeling that I was being hidden away. I, of course, assumed that he was ashamed of me, and that I must not be cute enough (I was) or thin enough (I was). Decades later, it occurred to me that his failure to introduce me to his friends might have had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with his well-tended reputation as God's warrior.


That autumn, I tried to pretend everything was okay. We were planning a third trip (to Washington, D.C.), and he'd even sent me a Fayetteville newspaper with job and apartment listings. But at this point (and I considered not including this tawdry detail in my little memoir), perhaps I tried to sabotage the relationship.

For years, I'd been answering personal ads in Mother Earth News, but I'd stopped (well, I'd taken a break) when I met him. But one tardy letter arrived at my house from a man in southeastern Utah, inviting me to spend the weekend. I was considering doing so (in a platonic way, of course). I should have gone, or not gone, but in a rare and misguided moment of honesty, I mentioned the possible weekend trip. I mentioned, too, the platonic nature of the trip. He accused me of being disingenuous. Imagine! I was offended by his lack of trust, and charmed by his insight and his vocabulary. I didn't go to southeastern Utah (I'd only been half interested in going in the first place), but I allowed a new chink to form in our somewhat-vulnerable relationship. Where my sluttiness (for lack of a better word) had been friendly and inviting, it was now worrisome.


Funny, really, how you think you're expecting something, but then--when it happens--you feel blindsided. That's how it felt in late October of that year, when he called and said it was over. All those carefully hand-written letters, all those phone calls that lasted long enough to require bathroom breaks, the cross-country flights, the tender and enthusiastic could it be over?

Once again, I curled up in a quilt. But this time, there was more crying and less reviewing. All night long I cried, until dawn, until exhaustion. Then, I moved on to reviewing. Was it my fault? Sure. I'd reached too high. Before him, I'd been the wholesome one, the disciplined one, the smart one, and I'd found men who were more than willing to cede me those titles. But with him, I'd never been enough. Or I'd been too much. I'd never been just right. I cried some more, but stopped short of going crazy.


Seven years later, he called again. Minor changes had taken place in my life (I was married, the mother of a two-year-old boy, working at a grownup job I loved), but the really important things had stayed the same: I became dizzy at the sound of his Opie Taylor voice; I stopped eating when gripped with the realization that if he could get my phone number, he could quite possibly get my address; and a week after he called, I dreamed about him. (In the dream, he'd asked me to marry him. When I arrived at the church, white lace from head to toe, I realized that I'd been invited merely as a guest. He was marrying another woman--lovelier, more virtuous, not given to caustic humor or going without a bra.)

I was home alone when he called, and while I was no longer in love with him, I would always be in love with the sound of his voice. I sat cross-legged on the floor, allowing myself additional similes: His voice was like warm sand between bare one more praline when you thought they were all when it's too chilly to stay outside, but you don't want to go in yet, and someone hands you a hooded sweatshirt. The room darkened, and our voices were warm, husky, affectionate, intimate...bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the conversations of people who have seen each other apply deodorant or give birth. He had married (and later divorced). I asked, "Why her? Why not me?" He answered, "Because she was here." He was being kind.

I'm not sure why he called. He was never careless; he was always measured, focused. Everything was carefully planned and executed. My sister suggested that it was a "booty call," but--not only do I detest that term--I think she was wrong. I think he called to make sure I wasn't still curled up in a quilt, missing him, blaming myself, memorizing Wordsworth poems so I could wow him later with my ability to recite Wordsworth poems...

This second act of our relationship lasted two or three months, and included several phone calls and letters. I saved the letters in a large envelope with the letters from earlier, but not in a special place--not tucked deep into the pocket of a seldom-worn coat or protected forever in a cedar-lined box. During one of our last phone calls, I said with a lump in my throat, "I hope you remember me as more Melanie Wilkes than Scarlett O'Hara," and he said yes. I could tell he was smiling.


This next part is what I want to happen: He calls; he's in Utah for the weekend (a military outing). The opportunity to see him in uniform is difficult to resist, so I don't. (He hated that about me: my tendency to fall happily into the arms of temptation. Or maybe he loved that about me.) I don a cotton sweater and old jeans and hop into the Honda. At lunch, I order a club sandwich, fries, and a Dr. Pepper. I look at him challengingly, and he smiles and says, "Oh stop it." We linger over coffee, tell jokes, and make sketches on napkins. I surprise him by quoting Clausewitz, and he surprises me by noticing. I kiss his clean-shaven cheek and drive home to the warm embrace of my family.

And this final part is what is likely to happen: I never hear from him again.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

M is for the Million Ways I Miss Her

Every now and then, I indulge in an unhealthy little fantasy: I imagine that my mom didn't die twenty-six years ago. The information we received at the time (multiple injuries due to blunt force) was entirely wrong. In fact, she's been living in a seaside village in Spain, making dresses out of cornmeal sacks for the local children and flirting with the guitar-playing mayor, who looks like Antonio Banderas. But that lifestyle has grown tiresome, and she knocks on my door. I open it and there she is, in a gingham shirt and skin-tight blue jeans, holding her purse. Dazzling smile, good bosom...she puts her arms around me, and I'm lost in the scent of White Shoulders and hairspray. Then, we go to lunch. (If my instincts are wrong, and there is a heaven, it will be spent going for cheeseburgers and Cokes with my mom.)

At lunch, I feel shy, uncertain. Is this woman the god of my 7th year, filling cavernous Tupperware containers with homemade cookies, staying up all night making polka-dot Easter dresses? The mom who arranged to have "The Happy Hollisters" delivered to our door, volume after glorious volume?

Or is she the happily married woman of my 10th year, watching Johnny Carson and broiling steaks with my dad after I've gone to bed...or hiring a babysitter and going out with my dad several nights a week, to movies, to dinner, to hotels? The mom who said, "Are you sure you need glasses, Polly--are you absolutely certain? Because you're cuter without them."

Or is she the hero of my 13th year, marching into the office of my 8th-grade gym teacher and demanding that my C-minus grade be changed? "Has she been absent a single day? Has she failed to try a single time?" I imagine her voice imperious, her posture threatening...the very opposite of me. By that time, she'd joined the workforce, and she spent her days (oh-so-appropriately attired in hot pants and low-cut vests) with hard-working, hard-living men. But she took a couple hours off, morphed into Mother Bear mode, and strong-armed a B-plus out of Mrs. Rockwood (who was really very kind and very helpful later that year, when--in American History--I started my period all over the back of my black-and-white-checked skirt).

Or is she the sex kitten of my 17th year, wearing a red vinyl mini skirt and matching knee-high boots to a production of "Ben-Hur" in which I played a leprous servant? The woman who flirted expertly and incessantly with co-workers, cousins, neighbors, cops, Mormon bishops, and school teachers, causing my best friend, Holly, to say, "It must feel weird to be outclassed by your own mom."

Or is she the determinedly open-minded partner-in-crime of my 20th year, allowing me to work with her at a peace-time army post, selling Coors to young men in olive-drab T-shirts and black Nazi boots? Despite an extended rocky patch in her own marriage, she was always on the lookout for a husband for me. "You need someone like him," she said one evening, nodding toward a helicopter pilot from Idaho, whom she'd been chatting up. "He's tall and handsome, a bit older than you, and a very devoted husband and father." I continued washing glasses at the bar sink, listening to Linda Ronstadt on the jukebox. "He went home with me last night," I said, forever changing the mother/daughter relationship. "He's an adept lover, but probably less devoted than you've been led to believe."

Or is she the almost-pathetic, almost-divorced Miss Kitty of my 23rd year, reacting poorly to the news that Marshal Dillon has unceremoniously left town? Shopping compulsively, sunbathing compulsively, confiding in me compulsively (and sometimes regrettably)...furious, daunted, and bewildered, but still more achingly alive, more radiant and charismatic, than other grownups I knew.

Or, finally, is she the equal of my 25th year, living happily (if not yet serenely) with my dad in Southern California, sending me frequent and affectionate letters, Travis McGee paperbacks, and all things red-and-white-checked for the kitchen I was decorating--in the nest I was feathering--with a man of my very own? A fond (and final) memory is of this particular year, early autumn, sitting side by side with my mom on a couch in her furnished apartment, translating Spanish greeting cards that we'd just bought on sale at Newberry's. We laughed uncontrollably because, according to our Spanish/English dictionary, "merendar" means "to have an afternoon snack" or "to skin someone." "Which meaning do you suppose the author had in mind when he wrote this thank-you note?" I asked, and we collapsed against each other, hysterical. The next morning, she drove me to the airport, hugged me, and I never saw her again.

But thanks to the mind's ability to reject reality and embrace fantasy, she's back! Everything's okay! And she's eager to shave her legs, get her hair done, and visit her sisters and a handsome man or two. When we visit my aunts, I go in; we chat, we have chocolate cake. But other places, I wait patiently in the driveway while she goes in alone (she was always a bit of a slut, but only in the very finest sense of the word).

Later, we shop. She's surprised at some of the changes that have taken place in the world: the availability of over-the-counter yeast infection medication, the matter-of-fact disappearance of both the record album and the cassette tape, the surprisingly enduring career of Tom Jones. I watch as she buys Hershey bars and lingerie and perfume. She sprays the inside of her freckled wrist with something seductively musky, chooses two shades of lipstick that can be combined to create the perfect shade, signs her check with two distinctive capital N's. I adore her, and I find reasons to sidle up next to her, to breathe her in. I'm crushing on her--no doubt about it--and she smiles at me, fondly, tenderly. She picks up a bracelet, scrutinizes it, and then turns to me, her expression unchanged but affectionate. "You're a good girl, Polly," she says, and I smile shyly, fairly sure it's a compliment.

That night (it's a lengthy fantasy), back at my house, I try to explain how horrified I was when I heard the news, when my brother called me at work and said, "Dad's okay, but Mom's dead." How I dropped the phone as if it were burning my fingers, how I screamed over and over again. How a woman at work, a woman her age, tried to comfort me, and I shouted, "I wish you were dead--not her!" And how other typists, illustrators, and writers--frightened and embarrassed--watched while I screamed and swore and thrashed.

Then, I was just sad. Sad and waiting, the way one waits at night, with clenched teeth and wide eyes, when the power suddenly goes out. A year of paranoia followed, a year of unwise decisions and rapidly dissolving will. I felt white-hot hatred for anyone with a mother, and especially for anyone who took that blessing for granted. Old friends called (mostly those old friends in olive-drab T-shirts), and I said, "My mom died," and they were kind or philosophical or uncomfortable, but none of them said what I needed to hear: "Stay right where you are. I'm on my way over, and I can fix everything."

She listens patiently to my sad tale, occasionally patting me and making soft cooing sounds. I tell her that I eventually forgave my husband for not suffering as much as I had, and, two years after her death, we welcomed a beautiful baby son who was quite happy for someone born without a maternal grandmother. Decades passed, and I became older than she'd ever been, embodying many of her strengths and just as many of her weaknesses.

Our heartfelt chat has exhausted me, and I fall asleep curled up next to her, this woman who caught me smuggling Oreos into the bathroom when I was six (a fistful of them cleverly shoved down my underpants) and calmed my guilty and overwrought tears. When I'm sleeping soundly, she no doubt uses my cell phone to call some guy she's been jonesing for, someone rugged and rangy, with an easy smile.

Well, the fantasy usually ends here, although sometimes it includes a wonderfully detailed future together: a cozy apartment for her above the garage, long car trips with increasingly difficult rounds of Twenty Questions, steaming mugs of cocoa during Bond movies.

I remember having the measles when I was about ten, and lying on the Naugahyde couch, watching "Bewitched." My mom was lying on the other couch, reading "Airport." It truly seemed that nothing could go wrong, that nothing could vanquish this feeling of safety, of permanent connection. Now, when I'm sick (or driving or ovulating or breathing), I think about my mom, and I feel like a little girl, clapping to keep Tinker Bell alive. But, in this case, something goes horribly wrong, and Tinker Bell dies.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Getting and Spending (But Mostly Spending)

If frugal-living meant giving up Saturday afternoons at Mexican restaurants with my sisters, partaking immoderately of chips, salsa, and diet Cokes, talking endlessly of boys and clothes...I'd pass. Happily, frugal-living is like sex: There are many ways to do it, and no winners are declared.

I refer to myself as frugal (perhaps more often than necessary). Anyone who's been shopping with me a time or two might furrow her brow at the suggestion. "Polly? Frugal? Did she really say that? The same Polly who just bought three cashmere sweaters, a box of Edward Hopper note cards, a pound of Nuts 'N' Chews, and a lamp? That Polly?"

In an attempt to embrace the philosophy more fully, I've made a list of reasons for picking up an item I don't need, and the self-talk I use to help me put the item down before leaving the store:

I want to Start Fresh.
I'm plagued by the feeling that I need a new direction in life, and convince myself that new underwear, a new purse, a sprouting kit, or an assortment of cloth-bound journals will give me a today-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-my-life feeling. It can also happen at the grocery store, when I'm suddenly certain that I've been eating all wrong, and I fill my cart with things like quinoa and lentils, which I will eventually donate to the food bank.

  • I remind myself that a fresh start is an illusion. We "start" the day we're born, and we "stop" the day we die, and there's no resetting the shot clock during that brief time. Even as I sit pondering my new path, planning my new-and-improved life, time marches on. It's like an airport's moving sidewalk, and stepping off (and back on) is not an option. Shopping is useful if I need socks or yogurt, but there are much better and less expensive ways to redirect a life.

I have extra time. I'm thirty minutes early for an appointment or a lunch date, and I'm driving past a store, and I pull into the parking lot. I don't need anything, but I've been in this store before, buying sweaters, skirts, note cards, brightly colored colanders...all the things I stockpile. The clearance racks are no doubt bulging, and I could spend $80 on items that originally cost $800, and still be on time for my lunch date.

  • I take a few deep breaths, because my pulse is already racing with the anticipation of bargain hunting. I remind myself that there will always be shopping, there will always be sales. And, again, I have to see past the illusion: An item this cute and this inexpensive is not rare and fleeting; it is, in fact, the norm. That's the very reason I like this store. I have to trust (based on the number of cars in the parking lot) that this store's business plan is sound, and if I need another pink cashmere sweater for twenty bucks (I do not), this store would be a good place to look, come February.

I'm bored. I enter a store, but I'm not really shopping, I'm wandering. Maybe--in my unfocused state--I'll stumble upon something (or someone) extraordinary. It often gets worse before it gets better, and I wander more slowly, sometimes actually stopping. I stand there, eyes filling with tears, wondering what the hell I'm doing here...and then I see a red plaid jumper, fully lined, and I buy it, and the clerk puts it in a shiny bag with handles, with tissue paper poking out the top, and it almost seems like a gift, I almost feel loved. I stop for frozen yogurt, and...wait for it...I'm okay!

  • Before entering the store, I remind myself that boredom is the opposite of happiness. I'm lonely and scared, and I should admit it (and be willing to suffer), rather than trying to distract myself. I need to take risks, I need to demand more of myself, but shopping is so much easier than those things. For me, this is the very worst time to buy something, because it reinforces the warmly held belief that shopping "makes me happy," and I don't have to bother myself with introspection, hard work, and perseverance. This particular flavor of ennui is best remedied by heading home, curling up on the couch with a cup of herbal tea, and making a mental list of all that's right in my world.

I feel emotionally disconnected and unloved, and I plan to fix this by buying someone a gift. I'll buy something that's nicer than what I would buy myself, and the recipient will sense my sacrifice, and adore me. Or I'll find something that proves how well I know him (since this is more fun with a man), how clearly I see him, and he'll wrap his arms around me, forever grateful that I am able to see into his soul, despite the barriers he's erected.

  • Sadly, people seldom agree to read from the script I've so lovingly written for them. "Oh. 'Travels with Charley.' First edition, signed by the author. Thanks. Are you ready to order? I think I'll have the Reuben." Gifts--no matter how thoughtful--do not create or sustain a relationship, and that goes double for a romantic relationship.

I want to establish bragging rights, especially in frugal circles. The other day, I bought a hat for $1, and the regular price was $90. Now, I can't imagine that anyone ever paid $90 for this navy-blue wool hat with a rolled brim, but the price tag says $90, so it's a $90 hat (right?). I've bought Lego sets for $1, Jockey underpants for 50 cents, "Atlas Shrugged" for 25 cents, spiral notebooks for 10 cents, and--by god!--everyone is going to hear about it.

  • No one cares. And boasting is unattractive. My Depression-era grandmother might feign interest, but she's actually remembering when underpants cost a nickel, and everyone was too busy to read "Atlas Shrugged."

Shopping is what the women in my family do; it's our default activity; it's our only activity. I suppose it has replaced quilting, or tapping maple trees for syrup, or processing whale blubber. We move as a herd, encouraging each other to buy, making each other laugh, becoming a bit manic at times.

  • I find that it's better to manage this type of shopping, rather than eliminate it, because I adore my sisters, and we don't really want to attend a film festival or a gallery opening, in part because those places don't encourage nonstop and noisy chatter, riddled with inside jokes and benign put-downs. The mistake, though, is in getting caught up in the bargain hunting and buying five cheap sweaters that I like rather than one expensive sweater that I love. Also, it builds character to occasionally enjoy the talking and the laughing without any of the buying, by declaring a self-imposed spending moratorium (although after noticing that I make an occasional exception when I do this, my husband said that I put the "more" in moratorium).

It's the land of plenty, and I buy out of misplaced patriotism. I enter a store, and tears well up because I'm overcome with feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving, because store shelves are crowded and prices are reasonable. In a novel once, I read about some folks on a train (in an Eastern European country, I think, in the early 1900s), and a woman had a small boiled potato in her coat pocket, and she was careful to hide it from the other travelers, because they'd be jealous, and they might try to take it from her. I read that passage several times, trying to imagine myself in that situation.

  • I've never known food scarcity, even when I was attending BYU in the seventies and living on five dollars a week. There was still plenty of food. If I get confused, and begin to think that I need to buy enough to feed and comfort a train-load of Eastern Europeans, I breathe deeply and remind myself that it's not necessary to feed literary characters. And that the truly hungry would appreciate my donation of food or cash, but generosity and kindness spring from another mood entirely.

I don't know what the future holds, so I buy for a variety of futures. Who knows: Maybe I'll lose weight (or gain weight), maybe I'll get an office job (or a forest-service job), maybe I'll learn to ski (or bake bread), maybe I'll want to cut my own hair, reupholster furniture, or teach preschool in my garage. Better get shopping!

  • I remind myself to embrace a just-in-time approach to inventory. I also remind myself that if Step 1 (of a multi-step project) is Shopping, then I better be darn sure I'm interested in Steps 2 and 3, which will probably be less fun than shopping, and considerably more work.

There are so many cute things to buy: cute clothes, shoes, jewelry, fabric, lay-abouts, linens, stationery, journals, gifts. And such good prices! care is expensive, and college tuition, and apartment rent, but all the made-in-China stuff is affordable and adorable.

  • I remind myself that a more austere lifestyle is desirable. Men (when acting alone) sometimes embrace such a lifestyle, as do Europeans. On HGTV the other night, a couple was house-hunting in Spain, and I tuned in as they were wandering through a two-bedroom condo, and had just entered the second bedroom. The room had dark wood floors and white walls. It was furnished with two beds (narrower than twin beds) with plain white spreads, and a dark-wood nightstand between the beds, and that's all. The closet was cleverly designed to maximize storage space. In that moment, I yearned for this monastic-cell-of-a-room. I imagined Jack Bauer resting here: focused, ruthless, effective...his worldly possessions in a canvas messenger bag. A person could get things done with this room as a home base.

I want to be prepared. As a child, I was taught that truly righteous families have two-year supplies of food, water, and hygiene items (although we were lucky at my house to rustle up the ingredients for a bologna sandwich or a pan of brownies) (what my mom considered "stockpiling," my dad considered "hoarding"). But I was occasionally privy to the basements of others, with shelf after enviable shelf of food: cans of tuna, jars of peanut butter, boxes of pudding, bags of chocolate chips and caramels. My favorites, though, were the nonfood items: dozens of rolls of paper towels, hundreds of bars of soap, thousands of tampons.

  • There's nothing wrong with being prepared, but I remind myself that preparation can take many forms: money in the bank, a variety of skills, a strong and healthy body, the confidence to adapt to new situations. It's okay to buy a few extra of something when it's on sale, but I don't need to panic if I run out of toothpaste, and there aren't twenty more tubes in the underground bunker.

Understanding why I buy--and learning to recognize the difference between a reasonable purchase (black tights, 'cause I've run out of black tights) and an unreasonable purchase (lime-green tights, 'cause I only have four pairs of lime-green tights)--has been very helpful in keeping costs down while keeping inventory adequate. I have more money and less regret. And I'm subjected to less eye-rolling and snickering when--after a few buzz-inducing diet Cokes--I begin to wax lyrical about my frugal path.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Fine and Private Place

I sit in my 1997 Honda CRV in a church parking lot, because I'll be alone here on a Thursday. Not since I had my own apartment during my early twenties--before marriage and motherhood--have I enjoyed this much privacy. Here, there are no interruptions and no judgments, real or perceived. As far as anyone knows, I'm running errands.

Today, it's raining, and that's rare enough in Utah to be a real treat, a reason to stay out an extra hour. I lean against the window and feel the cool glass on my forehead and fingertips. Both the exterior and interior of the car are a comfortable, forgettable gray. Even when it was brand new, no one said, "Ohmigod! It's gorgeous!" It's like me: practical, reliable, nonthreatening. It doesn't take itself too seriously. It's clean, but not overly so: if I spill a diet Coke, I don't panic. There are dings and some peeling paint, but it's quite presentable. Right now, it sounds like rain, traffic, and Leonard Cohen's "Recent Songs" CD. It smells like grilled onions and my dogs.

The beauty of the car is its smallness, like the most efficient of efficiency apartments. Everything is within easy reach: money, fast-food coupons, Tums, Dr. Pepper lip gloss, cell phone, road atlas. I give thanks to those who invented cup holders, map lights, and vanity mirrors. In the cargo area, there's a duffel bag full of emergency supplies (box cutters, duct tape, twenty-dollar bills, clean underpants). If I feel so inclined, I can start the car and just keep driving.

With the car parked, I indulge in my two favorite activities: compulsive reading and compulsive eating. Today, I will read a mediocre detective novel that my dad sent; I will eat two Big Mac's and six oatmeal cookies. I sometimes read better books ("My Antonia," "Go Tell it on the Mountain"), but I stick with junk food, focusing on large quantities of meat and sugar.

When feeling chatty, I plug my cell phone into the cigarette light and fill the small space with my voice and my laugh. I call my younger sister, and we talk about short skirts and tall men. I call my Overeaters Anonymous buddies, and we talk about how much better we feel since making a searching and fearless moral inventory (I don't mention the fries I just ordered, or the extra fry sauce). I call an ex-boyfriend two thousand miles away, and I say bold and outrageous things. The words "I love you!" burst from me like stampeding horses, like projectile vomiting. He laughs...kindly, indulgently, from a safe distance.

And while the car is a pleasure in Park, it's also a pleasure in Drive. We've known adventure. In north Texas, several years ago, I responded to the online cry-for-help of an animal-rescue group, and--an hour later--I was driving through Plano with seven puppies and their Rottweiler mama in a large crate in the cargo area. They lived with us for a few weeks, until adoptions could be arranged. Months later, my family and I moved back to Utah with two foster dogs that had failed to find Forever Homes (until they found them with us). My son and I spent two long days on the road, with the Lab occasionally vomiting in his large crate, and the sixty-pound Chow curled up on my son's lap, eager for tummy rubs and an occasional stray Frito.

A year later, I drove to Southern Utah in early summer to enjoy the lilacs in bloom (and to reboot the foul mood I'd been in for months). I went alone, spent eighteen hours in a motel room watching a "Law & Order" marathon and eating junk food, and came home with a much brighter outlook.

And a year after that, the CRV and I went to the Oregon Coast, to a Jesuit-run retreat nestled in the rain forest, where I made new friends, took my first Holy Communion, and got a glimpse of a better, more evolved, more open-hearted me. On the way home, I had car trouble an hour east of Portland, and had to change plans on the fly, something that is not a strength of mine. But I found a place to stay, and--though it wasn't yet noon--donned polka-dot PJs, microwaved some popcorn, and climbed into bed with a Steinbeck novel. I felt broad-shouldered and self-contained. I'd had serious car trouble--an emergency!--alone, out of state, and I'd handled it. And I hadn't cried. A small miracle.

So here I sit, in the rain, in this eleven-year-old car with its 198,000 miles and surprisingly high resale value. It's my tree house, my panic room, my partner in crime. It's my means of escape, and the relief valve that makes escape unnecessary, for now.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Young Girl

My earliest memory is of perching on a swing set in the front yard of a Long Beach, California, duplex. My thoughts were contemplative: Why was I so very good, and my sister--one year older--so very bad? When our mom called us in from playing, why did my sister refuse to cooperate, risking a spanking or--much worse--our mom's very temporary withdrawal of affection? What could be worse, really, than loving someone who didn't love you back?

For the most part, I was awash in love. Both mother and father adored me, and took in stride my rather marked emotional tenderness. I was a soft child, both physically and temperamentally. I was a good little learner, though, reading early and well, excelling academically from the start.

Two memories from kindergarten linger. Mrs. Wilson was tall, gaunt, and unpleasantly old and sour, with a rather imposing and unfriendly bosom. I'm quite certain my charms were lost on her. One day we were going to watch a movie in class, and a massive projector atop a massive wheeled stand was positioned in the center of the room. A cord snaked across the room to an electric outlet, and we were admonished to not trip on the cord. Perhaps I forgot, perhaps the room was dark and I couldn't see the cord, but I tripped on it, and both projector and girl went tumbling. Mrs. Wilson was furious, menacing, unconcerned with my possible injuries. I cowered before her, knowing she wanted to grab me and shake me. She shouted, "I told you to be careful!"

And even though I cried easily, and occasionally wet my pants, I was a logical child and a keen observer, and I knew she was wrong to scold me so harshly for a simple misstep. Forty-five years later, a voice in my head says, "It was an accident, you old cunt! I wish the projector had fallen on you! I wish you'd died slowly of a sucking chest wound while 30 five-year-olds--sitting cross-legged in an orderly half-circle--had watched. Might have been more interesting than a hygiene film or a Cold War propaganda film."

The second incident was more disturbing. A boy named Adam misbehaved and was taken by Mrs. Wilson into a restroom and paddled. I suspect that Adam's crime didn't involve hitting or biting, but was of the coloring-outside-the-lines variety. Whatever the case, I was horrified, traumatized, indignant. Even at age five, I knew that a teacher or a principal paddling a child was perverse. And I knew that for all the talk of bullies, the most egregious bullies were the grownups.

Life got better when my family moved to another Long Beach neighborhood, and I began first grade at a new school. Miss Barbie--my teacher and my first love--adored me; she favored me. Because I'd been reading since age four, I was sent to the school library during classroom reading instruction, where I was able to indulge my love of books unfettered by even a librarian's supervision. I sat on the floor in front of the bookshelves, reading book after book, relishing the solitude, relishing the pleasure of special privilege, of being The Smart Girl.

The years passed. We ducked-and-covered, we mourned the loss of JFK. I was madly in love with boys and men: classmates, neighbors, the Monkees, "The Rifleman." When I wasn't attending summer school for gifted students, or giving perfectly memorized talks in Sunday School, or putting on plays in our kid-friendly backyard, or writing affectionate and newsy letters to my Utah relatives, I was indulging in more private past times such as spinning sexual fantasies about the cast of "Hogan's Heroes," picking my nose to the point of bleeding, and smuggling food from kitchen to bathroom where I could binge in blissful privacy.

I still cried easily, and still took everything personally. I can recall every time my mom scolded me or swatted me, and every time my dad was stern with me. In third grade, my teacher--at her wit's end--said something like, "I'm fed up with all of you today!" and in response I sobbed quietly at my desk. She called my mom that night and apologized, offering that I was the only one who cried, and the only one who didn't deserve the scolding. I never really toughened up, and, in my twenties and thirties, a disapproving word from an employer or policeman or gynecologist could reduce me to tears.

Puberty hit hard: bras, sanitary pads, crappy romance novels, bad haircuts, unflattering glasses, short skirts, brightly colored fishnets attached to garter belts (in elementary school!). Wisely, my mom refused to buy me white go-go boots, or I'd have that to add to my list of sartorial regrets. I was the tallest kid in school, chubby, awkward, self-conscious, and almost obnoxious in my ability to outshine others scholastically.

Junior high school represents a low point. While our house was in a decent neighborhood, the school was not. My sister and I took a city bus, catching it early enough to avoid the most dangerous kids, but arriving at school before any adults. It was 1969, racial tensions were running high, and one predawn morning found us surrounded by a large group of hostile black girls accusing us of some invented slight. They'd been stealing my lunch money and lip gloss for months, ridiculing me in gym class, and I stood before them that morning, cowed, exhausted, vanquished. A couple of months later, my parents moved us to rural Utah, where most children had been taught to "be nice" at all costs, and schoolyard intimidation was much more subtle, and I stumbled upon a system in which I could work and thrive.

We were Mormons, and that offered a modicum of social currency once we lived in Utah. I was lucky enough to have a girl cousin in attendance at the same junior high school, and her friends became my friends. I began to shed my pariah status, and eventually scored "Best Personality" and "Best Grades" in an issue of the school newspaper. Between church, school, and extracurricular activities, I was managing to fit in, to enjoy a certain level of respect.

High school suited me. The boys were taller, the classes were more demanding, and the opportunities to excel were vast. I donned skirt, sweater, tights, and chunky shoes (to this day, my favorite outfit) and set out to own that school. Between acting, debating, public speaking, creative writing, before-school religious study, student government, and straight A's, I was busy. I had a new circle of friends and an occasional date. As I entered my junior year, I was a considerably slimmer version of myself, and walked the halls with new confidence. I was never going to be popular, but that was okay: I could already see that power--and fun--can often be found at the fringes.

In retrospect, BYU was a huge mistake, but I refused to consider other options. After one miserable semester, I scurried home. And when a close friend said that she was considering leaving the Mormon church ("You can do that?!?"), I promptly did, without fanfare, acrimony, or regret. And I was surprised and delighted to find that "men" are really quite different from "Mormon men." (Later, I would notice some crossover, but at nineteen there was a bright line.)

Due to a chain of events for which I will be forever grateful, my mom scored a job at the officers' club of a military post near our home. Timing is everything: I was in my early twenties (and as cute as I was ever going to be), The Pill was easily available but AIDS was relatively unheard of, and the country was mercifully between wars. Every summer, hundreds of soldiers (all men, mostly Special Forces) would train here for weeks at a time, and--evenings and weekends--nothing could keep me away. Adorable, affectionate, and agreeable, I took full advantage of the rare opportunity. Endless pleasure, endless pain.

Between summers, I visited soldiers at their base camps, answered personal ads in magazines, tried to revive high school romances, and hung out with my brother's buddies. Mostly, though, those were dry and lonely times. I lived alone in a charming and much-loved apartment in Provo and worked for an oral surgeon. I had neither friends nor pets. I corresponded feverishly with soldiers, sat cross-legged on the floor playing "Abide With Me" over and over again on an acoustic guitar, and went for burgers and Cokes with my mom. She would die several years later, and I would rephrase the question of my girlhood: What could be worse, really, than loving someone who isn't there to love you back?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Falls the Shadow

A dozen times, I've lost and regained fifty pounds or so. Twice, I've lost and regained more than a hundred pounds. The challenge seems to be the once-and-for-all part. My friend Claire said that regaining weight is one of her hobbies, like photography or adultery. "There will always be another binge," she said. "It's never the last one. Maybe not today, maybe not, probably tomorrow...tomorrow's looking good...."

Considering my past performance, I won't give weight-loss advice. Rather, I'll share a list of my favorite things about being fat.

  • Every day is a party. All the best refreshments are served, in the most generous quantities. Here in my suburban America, there is no shortage of food. Armed with my debit card, my Happenings coupon book, and my cotton jeans with two-percent Spandex, I sit happily eating chips and salsa, sipping Dr. Pepper, while someone does the hunting and gathering for me. I smile warmly; I tip generously. If I can't find a companion for lunch, I opt for fast food at a drive-up window, and enjoy a private party in my Honda. I find a shady spot to park, recline the seat a bit, and listen to Neil Young's "Decade" CD. With enough carbs and saturated fats, it's bliss.
  • Other women love me, because I make them look good. Of course, Claire loves me because I'm warm and witty and openhearted, and because I remember her birthday, and because I sat quietly and smiled patiently during a twenty-minute rant regarding "...what my effing mother-in-law said about that aubergine cocktail dress I ordered from Victoria's Secret." But Claire also loves me because the dress is a size 14, and it's a little tight on her, but she looks gorgeous compared to me. Lately, my bottom half looks like a blue-denim sack in which an Idaho farmer is storing his bumper crop of potatoes. Claire knows that, and she still loves me, but she stands a little taller knowing that when we go to Mi Ranchito, the cute Hispanic waiter will grin slowly at her, and not at me.
  • Children love me (especially sedentary children). What's not to love? I always have treats, my body is like a huge warm pillow, and I'm not easily distracted (because being distracted requires a modicum of energy that I do not possess). I stretch out next to the treats, smile at the much-loved child, and let him or her know that I care about safety and good manners, but not much else. I'm a good listener, and I'm a fairly good teacher. Unconditional positive regard fills the room (or the Honda). In that moment, my BMI doesn't matter all that much.
  • My wardrobe is simplicity itself. You know that feeling when you're going out-of-town for a romantic weekend, and you spend several hours trying on every item of clothing you own in an attempt to find the cutest, most flattering, most come-hither items? When you're finished, you're knee-deep in rejects but you have half a dozen outfits that are perfect, and you fold them lovingly and place them gently into a tapestry carry-on, along with some jewelry and a couple of silk nighties? Sure...that's one way to do it. It's time-consuming, though, and requires a lot of pesky decision-making. I'm currently limiting my wardrobe to a pair of jeans and two shirts, which is humble even by my standards. But it's not a problem, because...
  • I don't go anywhere or do anything. It's easier that way, really. Home is usually a happy place, what with cable TV, roomy sleep pants, a variety of cookie-making ingredients, and pets who love me as much as kids love me. And by staying home, I avoid the horrified glances of those who saw me a year or two ago when I weighed considerably less. When I was friendly and bold and flirtatious. When I didn't go to bed feeling all gassy, and wake up feeling all headachy. When my knees didn't ache all the time, and when I wasn't in the habit of eating warm German chocolate frosting out of a saucepan.
  • My marriage is rock solid (assuming--and this might be a stretch--that the only possible threat to my marriage is my unwillingness to embrace monogamy). At this weight, I embrace the hell out of monogamy. I don't seek out other men; I seldom even think about other men (take that, Other Men!). And, sure, it feels like prison, but a warm and cozy split-level prison. Anyway, all that wing-stretching can grow tiresome: He loved me, so he set me free, and I flew back, and I gained a hundred pounds, and he's probably wishing he'd moved out (without leaving a forwarding address) after he set me free that last time.
  • I feel nothing. Joy, equanimity, anticipation, grief, dread, outrage...all nearly forgotten remnants of a healthier past. The complete numbness is--really--quite a treat. The pills I take today have names like key-lime pie, churro, Italian sub, gyro, roasted cashews. My body is so well fueled by food that my motor is always running, and it feels like 737's are revving up in here, and stillness and grace and serenity have long since fled.
  • Obesity is a problem that will eventually fix itself. It's similar to owning a car or a house, and failing to address problems as they arise. One day, you find you're overwhelmed by all that has gone wrong: The car leaks transmission fluid and pulls to the right; the interior reeks of rotting fruit (even though you can't remember a single time you've eaten fruit in this car). The house is stupid with slow drains, poorly sealed windows, and the stench of cat box. Good news? You can sell the car, sell the house, and your problems magically become the problems of someone else. Obesity is kind of like that. All of the things you hate about your life (an unfinished correspondence course, a slightly prolapsed uterus, an emotional distance between you and your only brother, a tendency toward sloth) will go away the instant you stroke out after a brisk five-minute walk across a crowded parking lot.