Friday, December 11, 2009

Tubby or Not Tubby

In a time-honored tradition called "re-frying the beans," I'm going to share an essay of mine that was first published in 1996 in Network magazine, "a monthly publication for progressive Utah women." They paid me fifty bucks, and won my heart by not changing a single word of the original manuscript (including the title). The table of contents describes the essay as tragicomic, which also pleased me. Is it wrong to want to make you laugh and cry? Here it is (enjoy the 90s pop-culture references):

Blame nature, blame nurture, blame Hostess, but, at 38, I glanced down and was horrified to find myself...not thin.

I distinctly recall losing weight during the Carter administration. I was motivated by the desire to...facilitate romantic relationships (although we used a shorter, more vulgar phrase in the '70s). But now, with a romantic relationship (well, a marriage) in place, I was forced to root around for another motivating factor, another way to trick myself into eating less and exercising more.

I began by dividing journal pages into two columns and labeling one Not Morbidly Obese and the other Morbidly Obese. Every morning, I imagined a situation and filled a new page. For example:

An elderly aunt dies, and, if I'm to collect my inheritance, I must attend the funeral. I look like a wistful French schoolgirl in black tights and flats. My large green eyes are moist, my clear skin is pale. Chestnut hair tumbles to my shoulders and frames my face, so lovely, so vulnerable. A 12-year-old niece cuddles up next to me on the pew and admires my dress, congratulates me on completing my surgical residency, and asks if I'm still dating the Grammy Award-winning folk guitarist. Later, a handsome cousin (whom I haven't seen since our 20s when he moved to San Francisco with his Siamese cat, Babs) hugs me tight, tells me I look good enough to eat, and asks where I work out. During the service (in fact, while we sing "Abide With Me"), I'm overcome with grief, and a young man who lived next door to my aunt when he was a boy holds me in his arms and gently strokes my hair. Later, he and I have coffee and stay up late talking about deforestation.

Or: I'm late for the funeral because I can't get the crotch of my black tights past my knees. By the time I stop at the store for anything queen size, and rush to the church, I'm flushed and tense. When a cousin asks when my baby is due, I laugh nervously and tell her I'm not pregnant. As I'm backing away from her, and--for some reason--apologizing, I bump into an arrangement of chrysanthemums and knock it to the floor. During the service (in fact, while we sing "Abide With Me"), I sob loudly, damply, convulsively...feeling sorry for myself, for my aunt, for her unfriendly little dogs that no one wants. I hear a child say, "Mommy, what's wrong with that fat lady?" and I flee to the restroom. I blow my nose and stare at this person in the mirror, at her blotchy, swollen face and hideous rayon dress, and think, "When did I stop liking myself?"

Okay. Wasn't that fun? It truly helps to add rich detail, even dialogue. Next:

I'm home alone when the doorbell rings. I pause the Cindy Crawford exercise video and take my pulse on the way to the door. When I open it, I see a six-foot, bearded stranger with a boyish grin. He introduces himself as my husband's college roommate, Tim, on his way to L.A. for a job interview. We sit cross-legged on the floor, chatting. We sip jasmine tea, and I peel and section tangerines. We flirt casually, and he plays Beatles' love songs on my guitar. I'm thinking about touching the dark curly hair at his open shirt collar, when I hear a car in the driveway. After kissing my husband, I excuse myself to take a shower. I slip into a pink cotton sundress, and the three of us go to dinner, then dancing.

Or: I'm lying on an unmade bed, wearing sweat pants and a men's XXL Save-the-Whales T-shirt that my mother-in-law sent for my birthday. I'm rereading a Mary Higgins Clark novel and eating frosted animal cookies. I leap up when I hear the bell, hoping it's a truant teenager selling overpriced peanut brittle door to door. But it's a very handsome man, who--after rechecking the address--claims to be my husband's college roommate. "Does he still live her?" he asks tactlessly. I invite him in, but my heart's not in it, and he opts to come back that evening. The two of them go out for beer and pizza, and I stay home and watch a Susan Powter infomercial.

You can imagine how inspiring this can be every morning before breakfast. A favorite:

My son and I eagerly enter the IMAX theater in San Diego to watch a movie about the Grand Canyon. I take a seat and pull my knees up under my chin, ready to enjoy the magic that a 40-foot screen offers. I'm comfy in old jeans, a white cotton T-shirt, and Deja Shoes from the Real Goods catalog. Before the lights go down, I feel a tap on my shoulder, turn around, and recognize David, a man I dated briefly in high school. I squeal with delight, stand, and throw my arms around his warm neck. We gush over each other's children, and I shake hands with his wife, who seems shy but sweet. I can't stop smiling and touching him: his hands, his clean-shaven face, his well-pressed chinos. After the movie, we walk out together, arm in arm, sharing private jokes and memories. Right before we make his wife cry, we embrace and part, but not before I slip my business card into his shirt pocket.

Or: I'm exhausted after a day of wandering through museums, and I feel like a tired old cow as we're herded into the auditorium. I collapse into the uncomfortable seat, its armrests digging into my thighs. While sitting quietly with my eyes closed, I feel a tap on my shoulder and ignore it. When I feel it again, I look behind me and recognize David. I stare at him, his pretty wife, their golden-haired daughter. He says, "Polly?" I say, "No." He persists: "Polly Nelson?" I see my son, confused, a little worried. "You've made a mistake," I say, my voice breaking. After the show, we leave quickly, but not quickly enough. I see David watching me as I file out in too-short polyester slacks with elastic at the waist, a color-blocked tunic, and extra-wide brown leather slip-ons from Naturalizer. He puts his arm around his wife's slender waist, and they head for the other exit.


There it is, minus a sappy one-paragraph conclusion. And, of course, now I want to indulge in a post-menopausal version:

I'm stranded at the airport in Colorado Springs. A blizzard led to the unscheduled landing, and now all flights have been canceled, and all ground transportation has been shut down. I'm surrounded by weary and frustrated strangers, in the middle of a moonless night. It's chilly in the airport, but I'm comfy and cute in boot-cut jeans, lug-soled shoes, a red cashmere cardigan over a white cotton tank, and a chocolate-brown wool coat that hits right above the knee. People probably mistake me for Olivia Benson's self-possessed aunt.

I sip tea from a styrofoam cup, and notice--several rows away--a Spanish-speaking woman and her three small children, including an infant. I speak fluent Spanish (after completing an immersion program last year), so I head on over, after buying an armload of SunChips and Juicy Juice. (Phone lines are down, and vendors are unable to accept credit cards, but I have plenty of cash.) I introduce myself to the mom, we chat briefly about the lousy weather, and I offer the treats. Soon, I'm holding the baby (it was inevitable). The toddlers busy themselves with the spiral notebooks and colored markers that fill my carry-on (I'd been on my way to a cabin in Telluride where I was going to write a surprisingly good novel). Later, after much storytelling and a song or two (I manage--on the fly--to translate "Puff, the Magic Dragon"), they fall asleep, and I cover them with my coat. A handsome gray-haired man sitting nearby dog-ears his Bill Bryson paperback and asks if he can be of help. I send him for diapers, and he also brings back a four-cheese pizza. We talk for hours, and I fall asleep with my head on his shoulder. By the following afternoon, the storm clears, and we continue on to our destinations, after a lot of hugging.

Or: During the rough landing in Colorado Springs, it occurs to me that I should have carried on a coat, my blood-pressure medication, something to read, and more than a couple dollars in cash. As we deplane, I say a silent prayer of thanks that it wasn't necessary to use the emergency slides, because someone might have captured my descent on video, posted it on youtube, and labeled it "This looks like the birth of a baby whale...he he." Eventually, I find a seat and plop down, feeling angry and lonely. My clothes and shoes fit poorly, and I yearn to be stretched out on the sofa at home in oversized PJs and no bra. I want to visit the restroom, and get a drink of water, but I'm afraid someone will take my seat and I'll have to sprawl unattractively on the floor. People probably mistake me for one of Marge Simpson's lesser-known sisters.

My husband is under the impression I'm on my way to a cabin in Telluride to begin writing a novel, but my plan all along has been to hole up at the Holiday Inn, watching "Office" reruns and ordering room service (novel writing is best left to smarter and more tenacious folks). While rummaging around for a piece of unwrapped gum in the bottom of my purse, I notice--several rows away--a Spanish-speaking woman and her three small children. They look as miserable as I feel. I regret my failed attempts to learn Spanish, because I'd like to befriend the woman and hold her fretful baby. Instead, I try to make out the title of the book being read by the middle-aged man sitting across from me. Sure's "A Walk in the Woods," a book I recently enjoyed. The man looks up, catches my eye, and quickly turns away. I wrap my arms around my carry-on, and stare into the middle distance, trying to ignore a persistent ache in my left shoulder and a vague tightness in my chest. It's going to be a long night.


Well. Not quite as much fun as it was fourteen years ago. Right now, I feel a little hypertensive, a lot depressed, and not at all inclined to "facilitate romantic relationships" with my husband or anyone else. But I'll rally: I'll have a cup of tea, and shop online for the perfect chocolate-brown wool coat that hits right above the knee. That's how lives get turned around. Really.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Injuring Eternity

A couple times a year, I find myself home alone for a few days. I could ask myself the following questions: What color should I paint the bedroom? What combination of annuals and perennials should I plant near the porch? In what Spanish immersion program should I enroll? Instead, I ask: What TV crime drama is featuring a marathon this weekend? A "CSI"? A "Law & Order"? Or my personal favorite: "Criminal Minds"? I perch on the couch with an assortment of tacos and empanadas, with a diet Dr. Pepper the size of a bathroom wastebasket, and--during the next twelve hours--I get up twice to pee, and once to check my email. I'm comfy in PJs, and I'm toasty beneath a patchwork quilt. I'm perfectly content, despite unwashed dishes and unbrushed teeth. "I wonder what the world is doing now," I remember from "Walden": an idle thought formed during idle times. But I don't feel the need to peek through the curtains, or turn to CNN. This weekend, my curiosity about the rest of the world is shallow, and fleeting. I'm busy wasting time.

Sounds fun, doesn't it. And it is, as long as privacy (even secrecy) is assured. But I'm conflicted about my rights and responsibilities, and conflict--inevitably--leads to blogging, which--less inevitably--leads to resolution.

In my twenties, I supported myself by working one full-time job and an additional summer job. In my thirties, I continued to earn a living, paying half of the shared bills and fully participating in the rearing of a child. I even enjoyed a stint as sole breadwinner while my husband was in graduate school. Since leaving the workforce at age forty, I've home-schooled a high school student; fostered dozens of puppies; completed several college classes; earned spending money by typing, editing, and bookkeeping; provided excellent care for a couple of the world's cutest toddlers; sewn hundreds of dresses for hundreds of little girls; and maintained a home. "Thanks for earning a living," I tell my husband. "Thanks for doing everything else," he graciously replies.

But for a decade (or maybe a lifetime), I've struggled with feelings of laziness. The problem is this: I'm convinced that idle time must be earned, and I haven't worked hard enough to earn it. I'm not a longshoreman or a coal miner or an Army Ranger. I'm not sore and sweaty at the end of the day. The only decent thing to do is to keep working, so I load the dishwasher, replace a broken zipper on a well-worn pair of jeans, edit a friend's neatly typed personal history. But--rather soon--I'm jonesing for down-time: for the opportunity to read another review of "The Road," to curl up on an unmade bed with an affectionate cat, to compile a mental list of men who've seen me in my underpants. This inability to maintain the momentum of labor makes me uneasy, yet I'm disinclined to change. The resulting cognitive dissonance is driving me mad (or at least pissing me off).

Once, at a Jesuit-run retreat, I was chatting with a monk. Or a priest. Or maybe just some guy. He was older, and charming, and we did the dishes together after dinner. He didn't exactly flirt, but I could tell he liked me. He'd noticed my unease earlier when the retreatants introduced themselves and told what they did for a living. "You think that paid labor is the only worthwhile labor, don't you," he said. Yes, I said. "And yet the paid labor you perform is minimal," he said. Yes, I said. "So you think that the doctors and social workers and school teachers and hairdressers at the dinner table tonight are more important than you, and more interesting," he said. Yes, I said. "Are you going to change what you do, or are you going to change how you feel about what you do?" he asked. Then we had ice cream, and walked back to our dorm together. It was muddy, and he offered his arm.

Self-described Frugal Zealot (and homemaker) Amy Dacyczyn solved the problem of unpaid labor by working exactly the same number of hours her husband worked. I can see how this might be effective for some. But not only does my husband work a lot of hours, I can't tell by looking if he's working or not. Sure...he's gazing at the computer screen, occasionally clicking the mouse. Is he putting the finishing touches on the final report of a lucrative contract? Is he deleting the latest right-wing political rant forwarded by his mom? Or is he gazing at Angelina's breastfeeding photos, with a combination of admiration and lust, but mostly lust? How can I know? And if I can't know, how can I possibly decide how to spend my time: whether to shop around for better health insurance, to sew flannel sleep pants to donate to the women's shelter, or to read a Robert Parker novel in the bathtub? I have no idea how others navigate these treacherous shoals. Maybe this will always be a mystery to those of us with Some College.

The issue of idle time is somewhat clearer for those with nine-to-five jobs (or even the stay-at-home spouses of those with nine-to-five jobs). At the end of a shift, they do the requisite chores, and whatever time is left between that hour and bedtime is theirs. But this, too, has never been clear to me: When, exactly, are the chores done? When does idle-time commence? Granted, I usually err on the side of "too soon" rather than "not soon enough." clean should the house be? How decluttered the closets? How much time given over to charitable causes? How many letters written to loved ones, to soldiers in the field, to congressmen? How much personal grooming? How much political activism? How many hours spent on self-improvement, whether it's a community-ed course, a step-aerobics DVD, or another chapter in a George Eliot novel? When are we officially done?

Because the answer is hidden from me, I'm choosing to knock off now. But because the people I love usually choose to knock off later, I'm forced to do most of my time-wasting in secret. Yes...forced. I've convinced myself that a puritanical, tyrannical, and wholly invented version of my husband is holding a gun to my head and saying, "Be productive, or lose my respect." (The imagined gun seems unnecessary, but mildly erotic.) I can't stand it, and I flee. I do much of my time-wasting in a parked car (sometimes--ironically--in an idling car). At home, I do my time-wasting behind a locked door, or after my husband is asleep. I watch "Pride and Prejudice" again, on cable at 3 a.m., and feel like I'm getting away with something. It's intoxicating...the feeling that I'm not being monitored and judged by grown-ups. (As an aside, I couldn't help but notice recently that Mr. Darcy never says the words, "So, Miss Bennet, what do you do for a living?")

I've now been writing for hours, and I still feel unpleasantly fuzzy on this subject. So, in what my hardworking husband would probably consider a colossal waste of time, I'm going to examine the meaning of "wasting time." To that end, I've divided time-use into five tiers.

Tier 1 includes tasks that are both necessary and productive: earning a living (adequate to meeting all of your needs and some of your wants) and caring for dependents (children, the elderly, the disabled, and pets).

Tier 2 includes tasks that are also necessary and productive, but maybe a tad less urgent: meeting medical and dental needs; performing civic duties such as voting and jury duty; paying bills, taxes, and insurance premiums; and maintaining a home and car. I spend quite a bit of time in this tier, performing what my husband refers to as non-revenue-generating tasks.

Tier 3 includes tasks that are productive, but not necessary. We usually call these hobbies, and they can be physical (like swimming), or creative (like cake decorating), or competitive (like chess), or all three (like ballroom dancing). Generally, these activities are perceived as purposeful and results-driven; only a curmudgeon would suggest that engaging thus is a waste of time.

Tier 4 includes tasks that are neither productive nor necessary, but are fun. This tier includes entertainment (like Disneyland) and socializing (like sharing a banana split with a girlfriend while discussing the most flattering skirt style and Daniel Craig's performance in "Defiance").

Tier 5 is the unpleasant, to-be-avoided tier, and the only one that rises to the occasion of "wasting time." It includes tasks that are not productive, necessary, or fun. There's no reason to visit this tier--ever!--and yet I do (for example, tonight I watched "The Cleveland Show"). This tier includes mindless channel surfing and web surfing. In fact, mindlessness is the hallmark of Tier 5. If you're visiting this tier, you probably have a look of weariness, or contempt. It includes attending a boring party, or embarking on a miserable vacation.

The amount of cross-over boggles the mind. In which tier would I place having sex? Visiting the Lincoln Memorial? Learning PowerPoint? Shopping for the perfect blue jeans? Making key-lime pie? Reading the Century's 100 Best Novels? (And would it make a difference if I were reading the novels for college credit versus my own edification?) What about taking my five-year-old nephew to the aquarium, and then making sugar cookies together, and then discussing the concept of "crying wolf"? The answers: Any tier but the fifth tier.

Ah-ha! I can see now that I failed to differentiate between idle time and wasted time. I was wrong about the "Criminal Minds" marathon: It wasn't wasted time, because I was happy! I was shamelessly, delightfully present! Perhaps the idle time was unearned, but I can fix that. I can take the monk's advice and either get a job (a paying job, or a minimum number of hours per week spent on Tier 1 and Tier 2 activities) or get a different attitude (a healthy and liberating apathy concerning earned-versus-unearned idle time).

Idle time is a pleasure, a gift, a blessing, an opportunity. Those of us who have it--whether a little or a lot--are lucky beyond measure. I'm going to spend more time enjoying it, celebrating it, basking in it...and less time (maybe no time!) second-guessing my right to it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Embarrassment

My most embarrassing moment took place at Lagoon, an amusement park north of Salt Lake City. I was in my mid-thirties, and agreed to spend a Saturday thus. (What led to this baffling choice? Would I have agreed—that day—to go to a meat-packing plant? A medical-research lab? A public swimming pool? Why this moment of compliance, of familial cooperation?) A dozen family members were in attendance. The day was hot, and I was fat. Nothing good was going to happen.

I went on a ride or two, and it wasn’t awful. I had a corndog, a Coke, maybe a fistful of someone’s cotton candy. I reapplied sunscreen. Then, my ten-year-old niece said, “Ooh! Paddle boats!” and I chose poorly. We stood in line, we handed a teenage boy our tickets, and I gingerly stepped aboard a paddle boat.

Immediately, the boat took on water, soaking my tennis shoe. I heard someone giggle. I felt my face turn warm and pink. I should have slowly backed away; I should have reminded myself that there’s no shame in changing one’s mind. Instead, I heaved my bulky self into the paddle boat, next to my brave and lovely niece.

The seats were designed for someone (anyone!) with smaller hips, and I didn’t fit. So, instead of sitting between the metal pieces that defined the seat area, I perched atop the metal pieces that defined the seat area. Despite my well-cushioned butt, it was not comfortable, and I hoped to paddle around the man-made lake (maybe 200 yards in diameter) in record time.

It was not to be. More than fifteen years later, I still insist that our boat was faulty in some respect. Despite my weight, I was able to paddle, as was my able-bodied niece. Even so, when we were as far away from shore as possible, the boat slowed, stopped, and refused to budge. When we got any momentum going at all, we went in tight circles. The sun beat down on us, and I ached from head to toe. I yelled at my niece: “Steer, goddamnit!” Therein lies my greatest shame.

Five minutes passed, then ten. I saw my loved ones gathering at the dock, watching. What I didn’t see (‘cause it wasn’t happening) was the launch of a rescue boat. I can’t imagine that we were the first boat to ever experience distress. Not a single heart attack? A hyperactive child tumbling into the drink? A group of pot-smoking teens refusing to come ashore? I considered the possibility of jumping ship, but didn’t know if the water was three feet deep, or a hundred feet deep, teeming with carp or sewage or the bloated corpses of folks like me (I’m not a strong swimmer).

Eventually, we hit on the right combination of paddling and steering and crying, and we reached dry land. There were snickers from the crowd. There were even some well-placed jabs from family members. I attempted to look sheepish, but not devastated, as I climbed out of the boat and moved to my husband’s side. “Are you okay?” he asked quietly. “Sure,” I said, knowing that I’d never be as comfortable in the world as I was before the paddle-boat debacle. “I’m okay.”

Later, I apologized to my niece, and she was congenial and forgiving, shrugging it off, as is her way. It’s probably not too late to buy her a very expensive gift.

Well, that’s my most embarrassing moment, and it didn’t kill me to share it with you. Another time, I soiled myself at a campground near Monterey, California, while suffering from labyrinthitis. And once, I thought a boy invited me to an Elton John concert, when he was simply attempting to discern my level of interest (“Would you like to go?”), and he had actually invited my friend Heather (a fact that I discovered only after shopping for a new outfit, shaving my legs, and slathering on the Coty Wild Musk). And my favorite embarrassment: the verbal assumption that I was pregnant, when I was not (at least three times by adults, and oh-so-many-more times by children).

So, let’s break it down. Embarrassment seems to require a degree of public scrutiny. I don’t recall ever being embarrassed when home alone (unless I was imagining public scrutiny). Someone (or everyone) must know about said behavior in order to feel the sting of embarrassment.

It helps (or hurts) if there’s a degree of personal responsibility. Sure…it’s possible to be embarrassed because of something that happens accidentally—something that is not my fault—but it won’t smart as much, or as long.

And violations of physical privacy are fertile ground for embarrassment, as is anything to do with elimination or sex.

Usually, though, embarrassment is the result of a glaring lack: of knowledge, accomplishment, experience, sophistication, or physical, financial, or emotional fitness. Once, at a spiritual retreat (during liturgy, no less), I sobbed noisily for the duration of “Hallelujah” as performed by Rufus Wainwright. Only later did that seem like a silly-ass thing to do, and I was embarrassed. (Since then, I’ve tried to be more emotionally robust. I remind myself that I’m refraining, not repressing.)

One can certainly be embarrassed by the actions of a loved one, but this feels a bit different (like a painful form of compassion). When this happens, I try to move past the embarrassment by asking myself, “How can I help?”

During a recent conversation with my husband, we agreed that “avoiding possible embarrassment” is a poor reason to shrink from doing something we truly want to do, what with life being short and all. Easier said than done, and I continue to “delay” all kinds of activities because I’m not feeling confident, or cute. We also agreed that (a) we want to eliminate some of our embarrassing behavior; (b) we want to be less embarrassed by some of our embarrassing behavior; and (c) a certain degree of embarrassment (in response to embarrassing behavior) is a good thing, and healthy, and—in theory—serves to shape behavior in the right direction.

I knew a man who happily farted in public (small, perky, odorless farts), without becoming horrified or even saying “excuse me.” At first, I thought it was cool (so natural! so hip!), but later I thought it was gross (so impolite, so out-of-my-life-forever).

It’s pretty to think that one reaches a certain age and no longer engages in embarrassing behavior. That is not my experience. In my fifties, I do embarrassing things all the time. However, I’m less likely to castigate myself (maybe because I’m more evolved now, but maybe because castigation is a lot of work). Here in middle age, forgiveness is my friend, and self-forgiveness is my dearest friend. If I laugh nervously and too loud, if I mispronounce “Goethe,” if my handsome neighbor happens to pull up next to my parked car while I’m eating a Peanut Buster Parfait, if that same neighbor is next in line at the grocery store when my Visa card is declined (for no good reason), if I’m chatting with my cousin and I vehemently denounce the girls-only store Sweet & Sassy only to have my cousin's eight-year-old daughter enter the room and happily reveal that she celebrated her birthday there just days before with thirty of her closest friends…

Well, I’m able to forgive myself all of that, and remain relatively unembarrassed.

That said, I haven’t been in a paddle boat since that dreadful day, and I avert my eyes when they show up unexpectedly in movies or novels. My husband is of the opinion that one ought to pile up (similar) good experiences to ameliorate the effects of a bad experience, so maybe I’ll do that, eventually. But, clearly, now is too soon, so I’ll curl up on the couch, reliving the horror, remembering the shame of “Steer, goddamnit!”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Certain Type of Girl

There's a certain type of girl that I observe frequently, and with increasing distress. I'll describe a recent encounter.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my five-year-old nephew to Arctic Circle, a fast-food restaurant near my home in a suburb south of Salt Lake City. He was enjoying the indoor playground; I was sipping a diet Coke and admiring him. A mom and her kids showed up, joining another mom and her kids who were already there. They greeted each other warmly. The combined children ranged in ages from about two to thirteen.

One girl in particular caught my eye. She was seven or eight, and very attractive. She was tall and slim. Her Northern European skin had a healthy glow, as did her waist-length blond hair. I gathered (from overheard conversations) that Mom had spent all morning crimping said hair, and it cascaded past the girl's shoulders like an expensive wedding veil. Pinned atop her head was a huge lime-green daisy.

Her outfit reminded me of a more wholesome version of something I've seen in the Victoria's Secret summer catalog. Her denim shorts were a modest above-knee length, but were skin tight, emphasizing the curve of her backside, and her rounded thighs. Her white eyelet top had one-inch straps, a fitted bodice, and a gathered skirt that fell smock-like to just below her waist. She looked adorable.

I didn't tell her she looked adorable, but everyone else did. Friends and strangers admired her pretty hair, her pretty blouse. I think it's unlikely that a day goes by that she doesn't hear the words "You're a beautiful girl" from a grandparent, a neighbor, a piano teacher, an ice-cream man. I'd bet my eight-month emergency fund that she's adept at learning, at memorizing, at reading aloud. Perhaps not yet--but soon--she'll be joining Mom at yoga class, and perhaps they'll hold demanding poses side-by-side on the family-room floor during next season's "American Idol."

I was enjoying my Coke and keeping an eye on my nephew, when the girl approached the play structure. She climbed the stairs, grabbed onto each side of the padded entrance, and froze. Her back was to me, but she turned her head slightly, to verify that--yes--she was preventing another child from entering.

Her favorite prey (perhaps her only prey) is a boy, slightly smaller or younger than herself. Someone who's not going to shove her face-first into the structure, to land clumsily on the vinyl-covered padding. Someone who's not going to say, "You're blocking the entrance. Move immediately, or I'll summon an employee, and have you removed from the premises." But someone who will cower slightly, unsure how to proceed, because he wants access to the playground, but he doesn't want to be perceived as a bully.

My nephew turned to me for guidance, a nervous smile on his face. He had one foot on the ground, and one foot on the stairs. The girl held her position, and an ugly sneer began to form on her flawless face.

In two strides, I was there. "Move aside, sweetheart," I said in an unfriendly tone. Upon getting caught, her sneer changed quickly to a sheepish grin. She shrugged, and climbed down. It was clear that she wasn't interested in the playground equipment, but only in preventing others from enjoying it. I admit to wanting to slap her.

Her meal arrived, and she sat down to eat, immediately complaining because she wanted ketchup instead of fry sauce, and she wanted a corn dog instead of mini corn dogs. Her mother apologized, and jumped up to fix the order. I watched the girl, thinking about what this might look like in adulthood.

In the late nineties, in Dallas, I had a neighbor named Tiffany. She was in her mid-twenties, and newly (if not happily) married. She confided to me that she didn't want sex (ever again!), but that she very much wanted men to want to have sex with her. She wanted men to crave her...keenly, desperately, endlessly, futilely. Her clothes, her makeup, her hair, her hairlessness, her augmentation, her brief foray into stripping...were all designed to make men want her. What brought Tiffany pleasure was the frequent opportunity to reject advances. "My degree of pleasure is commensurate with a man's degree of disappointment when I reject him," she once said. (She didn't really say that, but that's what she meant.)

Now--God knows--I've never been one to reject advances, but I'm sure there have been times when I've cared more about decreasing the share of others, rather than increasing my own share (and, to my shame, I usually direct this tendency toward women, rather than men). I wonder: If I had a friend who was a single woman, and I had the opportunity to introduce her to a man--a potential mate--and that man was superior in any (or every) way to my man (unlikely, but for the sake of argument)...would I do so? Would I tell her about a job opportunity, if it was better than my job? Would I tell her about a compliment that was paid her, if it highlighted a strength of hers, and a weakness of mine?

I don't know if men share this unpleasant tendency. Based on my narrow experience, I think that most men are focused on getting more, rather than ensuring that others get less. This is borne out to some degree by my experience (you guessed it) at the indoor playground.

A week later, we returned to Arctic Circle. There were three girls playing when we arrived; they were a year or two older than my nephew. I watched as he approached he made it clear that he was available to join their playgroup. (Other moms send text messages or read "Twilight" while their children play, but my eyes never leave him. He's absolutely compelling.) Soon, he joined me at the table. "They don't want to play with me," he reported. "That's okay," I said. But the next time he climbed to the top of the play structure, and approached the slide entrance, the prettiest of the three girls blocked his way. (Her name was Adriana. Maybe her parents have HBO, and admired the attractive junkie on Sunday nights.) I wiped the fry sauce from my fingertips, crossed the room, and looked up at them. "Let him pass," I told her. She smiled at me broadly, revealing perfect teeth, and pirouetted away.

I do my best, but the over-sized and confrontational aunt isn't the best deterrent to this type of girl. The best deterrent is the slightly older child, either male or female, who cares more about seeking his or her own pleasure, and less about contributing to another child's pain. I silently cheer when I see a nine- or ten-year-old kid enter the playground, especially if he or she possesses a little swagger.

On this day, my savior was a ten-year-old boy with uncombed hair and a cast on his right wrist. He had no desire to play with the clique of younger girls, and was intimidated not at all. He said "Sure!" when my nephew said "Wanna play?" They gathered additional playmates, and soon it was all about Rebel Fighters and Storm Troopers, with the ten-year-old boy as leader. They plowed past the three girls, scattering them. It wasn't long before the girls joined in (perhaps weary of sitting in a tight circle and passing judgment).

All the kids got a little sweaty that day, and had a lot of fun. There were friendly farewells as groups of kids left with their parents. "Bye, Adriana!" my nephew hollered. I stood, and dumped my fast-food trash. "Yeah...can't wait to meet up with you again in junior high," I said quietly.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ode to Bed-Head Magoo

He arrives for babysitting two mornings a week. He jumps out of the car and trots to my waiting arms. He usually has a sippy cup in one hand, and a bag of dry cereal in the other hand. "I have snacks!" he says, beaming. He is sturdy and strong and confident. In the wintertime, he wears jeans or slacks, layers of short-sleeved and long-sleeved T-shirts, and brown suede Velcro'd shoes in size 8W. In the summertime, he wears knee-length shorts, a T-shirt, and the same practical shoes. Until a recent buzz cut, his hair looked as if someone made a large batch of milk-chocolate frosting and then applied it to his bald head...generously, lavishly, excessively, inexpertly. Sometimes, it would be frizzy in spots, or have a bit of "snack" stuck to it. He always smells good.

This morning, he arrives clutching a bag of day-old hot-dog buns. "More bread! More ducks!" he shouts, as he climbs out of the car. Yesterday, we fed ducks at the local Wetlands, and he wants a replay. Why not? I strap him into my car, and we drive the half-dozen blocks to the Wetlands.

Upon arriving, I grab his "backpack" from his diaper bag. The backpack is small and soft-sided, with plastic fasteners across his chest, and an attached leash. The boy has a tendency to bolt (he refuses to hold hands), and the murky ponds make me nervous, so I insist on the backpack. He complies readily. (Later, he'll change his mind, rather noisily and melodramatically: "Take it off! Please! I hate it!" A fisherman will notice, and give me a look.) But for now, he strolls happily along a paved path, still clutching the bread. He asks if he can hold the leash--essentially taking himself for a walk--and I agree to that, since we haven't reached the water yet.

He stops suddenly on the path, and bends at the waist to watch a roll-bug. A ruffle of disposable diaper peeks out between shirt and shorts. I watch him, as he watches the bug. His attention falters momentarily; he takes a step forward, and his size 8W's crush the bug. He looks around, unable to locate it. "Did it fly away?" he asks, confused. "No," I say, but stop short of a lecture on aerodynamics. "Where is it?" he asks. "It crawled away," I lie. He furrows his brow a bit ("How did I miss that?"), and we continue walking.

We find a lot of adult ducks, and five babies. We stand at a railing, and toss chunks of hot-dog bun into the water. He's enthusiastic and competent. Occasionally, he takes a bite of hot-dog bun, looking up at me for approval. I grin at him. "Tasty," I say.

We return to the car, and I ask if he wants to drive to the neighborhood with all the front-yard water features. "Gorgeous water features?" he asks, using a new word I taught him. Five minutes later, we're in an affluent hillside subdivision. "I like this neighborhood," he says, using another new word. I turn and smile at him. He has removed his shoes and socks, and his bare feet are pulled up onto his car-seat. He seems relaxed, and I anticipate a nap, but it doesn't happen. There's no traffic, and I drive slowly through the neighborhood, stopping whenever we spot a water feature. Between sightings, he uses a sweet falsetto voice, as if calling for a lost puppy: "Water! Water!" I linger at our favorite: a gray concrete bowl overflowing into an identical (but lower) bowl. "Like this?" he asks, forming a bowl shape with his little hands. "Exactly," I say.

I suggest we swing by McDonalds for hot fudge sundaes, and he's on board. I sprinkle nuts on mine, and he requests nuts, too. He makes a huge mess, but it's okay, 'cause the glove box is full of fast-food napkins.

His mom will meet us here in half an hour, so there's time for more fun while we wait. We're parked in the shade; "The Essential Leonard Cohen" plays quietly on the stereo. The boy sits beside me in the passenger seat. He finds a pen in the glove box, along with the Honda's owner's manual. He turns to a nearly blank page, and suggests that I trace his hand. I do so, several times. He takes the pen and makes a series of small, imperfect circles. "I made circles," he says, proudly. "Good job," I say.

He politely asks me to buckle his seat belt; then, he asks me to buckle mine. We continue to draw, and talk, while buckled in snugly. Ten minutes later, he reaches over and turns the stereo off. "That's enough Leonard Cohen," he says, giving me a slightly stern look, as if I should know better.

Sometimes, instead of the Wetlands and the water features, we stay home, doing art projects. "Let's do crafts!" he says, as he enters the guest room, where the toys are stored in a box in the corner. He opens the closet doors and selects the supplies for an art project. He prefers a project that requires a lot of glue and/or a lot of paint. I grab one of my husband's T-shirts and pull it over the boy's head. With his new haircut, he now looks like a Tibetan-monk-in-training. He squirts black acrylic paint onto a large manila envelope, and smears the paint around with a small foam roller. He makes several paintings...enough for each of his loved ones. When the paint dries, we'll glue Popsicle sticks to the envelopes, or pipe cleaners, or pompoms in assorted colors and sizes. We're in no hurry. We know that art cannot be rushed.

If he's in a nurturing mood (and he often is), he hauls out the small plastic Animal Hospital, complete with a vet (and her upstairs living quarters), an exam table with X-ray apparatus, a helicopter pad and elevator for emergencies, an ATV for errands, a handful of animals, and all their expected paraphernalia (cages, food and water bowls, bandages, blankets). We sprawl on the queen-sized bed, and I watch him play. Mostly, he enjoys wrapping each animal in a blanket--carefully, sometimes clumsily--and then pulling it to his chest, his shoulders hunched, for a hug. He coos, but seems unaware that he is doing so. Eventually, I can't resist grabbing him for a snuggle. He humors me, and then gets back to playtime.

I know how lucky I am to have this boy in my life, and other boys, too. (I like hanging out with adults, but I'm more comfortable--and philosophically aligned--with children.) Babysitting (for lack of a better word) feels like a meditation; it's as close to a Zen-like state as I ever get. It's kind of like a gray concrete bowl overflowing into another gray concrete bowl. "Like this."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Good Dog

Nine years ago, my family fostered puppies in suburban Dallas, finding homes for about twenty-five dogs over the course of six months. It was the policy of the rescue group to spay and neuter even the youngest puppies before adoption, and I sat in the waiting room of a vet’s office while rottweilers Blackberry and Lizzy were readied for the trip home after surgery.

Drama unfolded on the other side of the waiting room. A man and woman discussed with a vet the fate of a small white kitten they’d recently adopted, who was failing to thrive. The vet looked grim, and said that the kitten had been too young for adoption. A four- or five-year-old boy—thin, blond, serious—sat near the conferring adults. When he wandered toward them, his mom harshly told him to go sit down, and he chose to sit down by me. I gave him a bucking-up look. I wanted to hug him. He looked at his parents, he looked at me, and I could see that he was very close to tears. He spoke quietly to me.

“What does it mean…put him to sleep?”

I'd overheard the vet, and I knew that the boy wasn't talking about general anesthesia. Even so, I looked right at him and said, “I don’t know.”

Clearly, he didn’t believe me.

“Does it mean…to kill him? That he’ll die?”

I paused and answered yes.

He looked justifiably horrified, and couldn’t speak, but just sat there with sloped shoulders.

“Then what?” he asked. “What happens to him after he dies?”

“I don’t know,” I said again.

He looked right at me and asked, “Will he go to heaven?”

I had long ago abandoned any hope of heaven, any fear of hell, but I wanted to comfort the child, so I lied.

“Yes,” I said with certainty. “He’ll go to heaven.”

“But who will take care of him in heaven?” he asked.

“My mom will take care of him,” I said promptly and confidently, surprising myself.

“Is she dead?” he asked.


“Does she like cats?” he asked.

“Very much.”

“But…how will she find him?” he asked, near-panic in his voice.

“That’s the magic of heaven,” I assured him. “She’ll find him the instant he arrives in heaven, and she’ll take good care of him always.”

“Always?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes.”

I could tell he believed me, and that he felt a little better. His impatient mom (the kind who finds children’s questions annoying) hollered at him to “leave that lady alone,” and he left my side and found another chair. My puppies were ready by then. I collected them, and gave him a final thumbs-up as I headed out the door.

I was in that too-familiar grief state, where sadness meshes with clarity. I felt my senses heighten; I felt self-contained and whole. I had done my best with the little boy. Sometimes, that’s the only comfort available to us: the knowledge that we’ve done our best.


The first time we saw Phil, we were in the parking lot of a pet store, preparing for an adoption event. Phil was coming at us fast, at the business end of a long, taut leash. He seemed to be grinning. His eagerness brought a smile to my face, and I noticed that my husband was also smiling. We bent for a brief snuggle. Phil’s fluffy orange fur begged to be touched, to be tousled. He wiggled under our hands; he licked our wrists. He was a chow/German-shepherd mix, about six months old. He seemed part lion cub, part bear cub.

Phil spent that Saturday in a crate, not wowing anyone with his amiability (he didn’t like the crate, and he didn’t like being poked by children through the crate). My husband and I spent the day tending to the seven puppies we’d been fostering since Christmas (it was now mid-January). Folks love puppies, and by late afternoon we’d found homes for five of them. We took the remaining two home (they’d find homes the following Saturday).

Soon after getting home, I got a call from Ann, the leader of the rescue group. She asked if we’d consider fostering Phil, now that we had so much extra room, and so much extra time. “He really doesn’t want to go back to the shelter,” she said, in a tone meant to conjure up the horrors of The Shelter. Five minutes later, I was back at the pet store, tucking Phil into the Honda CRV. He arrived at our house all wags and smiles, all fluffiness and eagerness.

He settled happily into his new and over-sized toy-filled crate, his chin resting on his front paws, his eyes following us around the room. He was grateful for every kind word, every treat, every backyard visit. Over and over again, he'd run around the pool, exhausting himself. He'd lie down, panting happily, watching us for clues as to how the day was going to unfold. A walk? A peanut-butter Kong? A tennis ball? “He really doesn’t want to go back to the shelter,” my husband would reiterate softly, stroking Phil’s sun-warmed fur. My husband and I would share a meaningful smile…a smile that lasted one beat longer than our typical smiles.

Every Saturday morning, we took Phil (and assorted puppies) to the pet-store adoption. He spent the day in a too-small crate, looking ornery, and occasionally acting ornery. We waited for someone to choose him, but it wasn’t happening. Every Saturday evening, we brought him home. We tried to hide our disappointment from him. We said encouraging things.

One Saturday morning, I took Phil to the pet store, but then returned home to care for some ailing puppies (if I could keep them alive until Monday, they could be treated by a doctor). Mid-afternoon, I got a phone call from the adoption coordinator: Phil had been adopted! A pair of newlyweds fell in love with him, completed the necessary paperwork, and took him home to a wooded lot on the outskirts of the north Dallas suburbs. I was startled to hear the news, and not as happy as I expected to be. But I was assured by the adoption coordinator that all was well, that “they were great.” Even so, I felt that I should have been there…that I should have vetted Phil’s new family.

Late that afternoon, I got another phone call from the adoption coordinator. “Phil’s back,” she said. I didn’t wait for any details. (Later, I would find out that the newlyweds had “forgotten” that dogs weren’t allowed at the home they were renting. Bullshit like that happened all the time.) I grabbed my purse and ran to the car, my heart pounding. I drove into the parking lot, and immediately saw Phil sitting in a metal grocery cart. It was surreal: Serengeti meets Safeway. I don’t know who put him there, or why, but I threw my arms around him, carried him to the car, and called my husband. “I want to adopt Phil,” I said, my voice breaking. “Okay,” he said.


When I spoke at my mom’s funeral in 1982, I listed her likes (men, cheeseburgers, etc.) and dislikes (wives, raisins, etc.). I’ll do the same here, with Phil. (Perhaps there will be some overlap.)

Phil liked sleeping with Mommy and Daddy. After moving back to Utah when Phil was a year old, the dogs spent less time in their crates, and more time roaming free in the house and backyard. (The last few years, Phil was never in his crate.) Right or wrong, we eventually invited him to sleep in our bed, and every night he positioned himself between us, warm and panting and smelling of dog (but good dog). I’ve never felt safer. My lifelong fear—that someone was going to sneak up on me while I slept—vanished. Phil was mighty, and Phil was vigilant.

Phil liked a walk. Most evenings, at sunset, we took the dogs for a walk around the block. After a busy (and sometimes lonely) day, it was a half hour—sometimes longer!—that I spent with my husband, free from distraction. We talked about the day; we watched the changing sky; we held hands. We appreciated our adorable dogs, and their idiosyncrasies. We met the neighbors, their children, and their dogs. We basked in the glow of responsible dog ownership: on hot days, on cold days, when we were tired, when we were missing the first few minutes of “24.”

Phil liked a ride in the car. Once or twice a week, he went to Wendy’s with Mommy, for chicken nuggets. Sometimes, he sat upright in the front seat—next to me—and people smiled and waved. I couldn’t resist reaching over and stroking his silky ears, burying my face in his neck, cooing to him (despite John Steinbeck’s assertion that such behavior shows disrespect for the dog). “Who’s Mommy’s baby? Who’s Mommy’s good dog?” I asked, in seldom-used baby-talk. Sometimes, he lay down in the backseat, or the cargo area, his chin on his paws. He was never nervous or agitated on a drive; he was always mellow. Occasionally, I fantasized about driving forever, about driving cross country, or at least to the next county. I should have. I think he would have enjoyed it.

Phil liked ham. He was cavalier about most food, but he could get excited about ham. To score ham, he was willing to do that most submissive of dog tricks: the sit.

Phil liked peanut-butter Kongs. Every evening, he reverted to puppyhood as I prepared the Kongs in the kitchen. He stood in the living room…waiting, anticipating, seeming to hop up and down on his front paws…his nose in the air, his tail wagging gracefully like a giant feather-duster. I entered with the Kongs, and he sat as instructed, but only briefly. Once the Kong was on the floor, he assumed a play pose, and then slowly lowered his cute butt onto the carpet, finally relaxing with his Kong between his front paws.

Phil liked weather extremes. Despite his long and thick coat (and despite the doggy door that allowed ready access to a comfy house), he enjoyed the baking heat of a Utah summer. He’d find a patch of bare dirt in the backyard (not a daunting task), stretch out, and nap. He also enjoyed a blizzard, and would stay out until he was covered with snow…until he was a large white lump in the middle of the patio. Then, he’d come in and shake off in the middle of the living room. I’d towel him dry, and he’d go back out into the snow or rain, eager to experience the elements.

Phil liked freedom. Specifically, he liked having more freedom than the Other Dog. He enjoyed being preferred. (He might have learned that from me.)

Phil did not like the vet. He did not like any of the vets. He did not like the parking lot, the waiting room, the scale, the receptionist, the techs. I’m surprised he tolerated the presence of my Doctors Foster and Smith catalogs, or the use of the word “vet” to refer to someone who's served in the military. He also disliked any medication that didn’t taste like ham. I realize that I can’t know this about Phil, but it seemed to me that he strongly disliked being vulnerable, or out of control.


It’s been three months now since Phil’s passing. At first, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was about to show up…that he’d emerge from behind the couch, that he’d appear at the doggy door, that the sound of the UPS truck would rouse him from a deep sleep and he’d head for the front windows, barking ferociously. At first, my husband and I would sit at opposite ends of the couch, looking at each other with wide eyes, knowing that the grim details of this shared experience would bind us to one another, whether we wanted to be bound or not. Mostly, we missed him. The permanence of his absence seemed to me a sickening thing, a foul thing.

Phil presented his share of challenges (that’s me, being kind), and at times it seemed that there was no end to the accommodations we would make for him. To some degree, our day-to-day lives had stopped making sense. So, after Phil’s death, our lives immediately became easier. What was complicated became simple, what was messy became neat, what was costly became affordable, what was dangerous became safe. And with those improvements came immeasurable guilt. I wonder how common that is: to lose a loved one, and then realize (a week later, maybe two weeks) that there’s an advantage…that among the heartbreak and the horror, there’s a boon. With that realization, mourning commenced anew for me, as I began to doubt my devotion and my decency.

Eventually, those doubts faded as I embraced my altered life, and embraced the animals that remain in my care. Today, we talk about the good times, and we make each other laugh with stories of Phil's quirky nature and his strong will. Sometimes, I reach for Phil at night, wanting to bury my hand in his fur, to find him warm, with a beating heart, but it’s not to be. I feel broken, and I lie there, trying to keep the memories fresh, even if that keeps the pain fresh. I imagine my arms around him, I remember my whispered “It’s okay, baby,” and I fall asleep.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Taking a Walk

In Thoreau's essay on walking, he refers to a walk as "a sort of crusade." He asserts (in a charming and hyperbolic way) that the brave leave on a walk and never return. He observes that most of us lead boring lives, full of boring thoughts. We stay safe. We stay low to the ground. We live in the past. But a long walk can change all of that: We can know "self-respect and heroism” once again.

My earliest memory is of being taken for a walk in a stroller. It's a vague snippet of memory, but I recall the view from the stroller as we turned a corner. How exciting to be out in front, to be the first to see around a hedge or a cinder-block fence!

When I was five, we lived in east Long Beach, and my six-year-old sister and I took frequent but short walks, just the two of us. We walked several blocks to school. We walked to a nearby market (accessed through an alley behind our duplex) to pick up forgotten grocery items that my mom needed for dinner. Once, we walked to a brand-new McDonalds to get milkshakes to carry home, but I tripped in the parking lot, skinning my knees and spilling the milkshakes. I cried for both reasons, but mostly I cried in anticipation of my mom's disappointment.

I remember another oh-so-traumatic incident from that year, and it was also associated with a walk. My mom saved S&H Green Stamps, and there was a display case in the grocery store with empty coupon books and a glossy catalog of "prizes." I was aware that the catalog was free, because I'd seen my mom pick one up after paying for groceries. So, imitating her behavior, I picked up a TV Guide from a similar display case, after paying for the grocery item she'd requested. Upon arriving home, I proudly presented her with the TV Guide, expecting appreciation for my thoughtfulness. But she was horrified, and not particularly sensitive to my feelings or my logic ("I thought it was free, like the Green Stamps catalog!"). She actually made me walk back to the store and admit to "stealing" the TV Guide. Jesus Christ...I'd made an understandable mistake; I was hardly naughty. I cried all the way back to the store, and cried as I pleaded guilty to the store manager, who seemed confused and irritated.

When I was six, we moved to a rented house in another part of Long Beach, and during my elementary school years, I walked often. I was chubby, and I sensed I needed more exercise. I also enjoyed solitude, and there wasn't much to be found at home (with two siblings and another on the way). I walked around the block over and over again, aiming for eight times. (I'd read that eight city blocks equals a mile, and I thought it meant "around the block" eight times.) It was a safe neighborhood, and I knew who lived behind most doors. There were cute boys, of course, but there were also school friends and church friends and babysitters and some of my mom's PTA buddies. I was a cheerful little knock-kneed girl with a Dutch-boy haircut and a rather significant underbite, smiling and waving and walking.

A Speedy Mart opened up about six blocks from our house, and my sister and brother and I walked there almost daily, sometimes more than once a day. There was a large selection of penny candy, and full-size candy bars were only five cents (I preferred Big Hunks, because they took so long to eat) (that's what she said). Sometimes, we bought Slurpees or Popsicles. Our parents were generous with money; my mom probably figured 15 cents was a small price to pay for 45 minutes of blissful solitude. (I wonder how many times my parents had sex while the three of us kids walked to Speedy Mart. Gross.)

At about eight and nine, my sister and I sometimes wandered through the neighborhood with no destination in mind, just a desire to keep moving and keep talking. We were fascinated by pioneers, whom we studied in school and church (I had an abiding crush on both Marcus and Narcissa Whitman). For hours--for days!--we amused ourselves by making detailed plans for our own imaginary westward-ho trek. We made mental lists of the food we'd take, the much-loved books and knick-knacks, but mostly the dresses: the brightly colored gingham and calico, the unbleached muslin...the full skirts, the puffed sleeves, the pinafores, the oversized bows tied at the small of my back, emphasizing my slender waist. I was going to be such a cute pioneer. I'm fairly sure Thoreau would have approved.

What I remember most clearly about those years is the sweet freedom. The two of us (or the three of us) could go almost anywhere as long as we went together. We walked single file along a freeway overpass to get to the public library. We walked seven or eight blocks to the park, which was across the street from Helms Bakery, where we could get a half dozen (very stale) glazed donuts for a dime. It was illegal to enter the Flood Control, but my parents were pretty open-minded about such things, so we trudged through fields of ice plant, climbed up the steeply inclined side to the rim, and slid down into the bowels. My heart raced: We might face cops, bullies, or a sudden rush of water on its way to the ocean. It was risky, and very exciting. I miss that more-courageous version of me.

As we went crashing through puberty, my sister and I began babysitting for neighbors; we worked as a team, earning a combined fifty cents an hour. We were always flush. We took our money and hit the pavement, shopping in downtown Long Beach, eating lunch at Woolworths, sitting through "Krakatoa, East of Java" twice at a movie theater that catered to sailors. Sometimes, we walked home from junior high together, supplementing our babysitting money with our unused bus fare, and stopping for pizza or tacos. I remember going to a track meet one Saturday afternoon (she competed, I did not) and ending up in an unfamiliar neighborhood, where we were hassled by some older boys. We hid in a gas station restroom behind a door that we couldn't lock or even latch, and we pressed our bodies against the door to keep it closed, while the boys pressed from the other side, eventually losing interest. Perhaps like all children, we frequently discussed what we should share with our parents, and what we should keep to ourselves.

It occurs to me now that my dad (who survived an unsupervised childhood) must have convinced my more-traditional mom that freedom was good for kids. Exhibit A: One Easter week, at ages ten and twelve, my sister and I found ourselves in a diner in Victorville, buying candy at midnight, while our Utah-bound Greyhound bus idled outside. Granted, we looked older because we were taller than average. Also, she was tomboyish, and I was pudgy, so perhaps one or both of those things served to keep the pervs at bay. Maybe some vigilant bus-riding mom was keeping an eye on us, but I wasn't aware of that.

We moved to Utah as I was turning thirteen, and I began looking for the perfect three-mile walk (I sought to avoid busy streets or pitiful chained-up dogs). Right away, I found a 3.2-mile square (east of my house) that I walked in fifty minutes. It was delightfully rural, and I passed horses, cows, dogs, farmers, tractors, irrigation ditches, fruit trees, wildflowers, and many three-bedroom brick ramblers built in the fifties or sixties. There were no sidewalks, and I walked on the dirt shoulder, often wearing suede moccasins. Everyone was friendly. Those in cars waved, and those in front yards chatted me up, inviting me to come see a newborn calf, or handing me a paper bag of zucchini or tomatoes from the garden. Sometimes I thought about boys and clothes, and sometimes I rehearsed a talk for church, or lines for a school play. But mostly, I just walked, feeling my muscles work, feeling welcome in this new place.

After high school, I spent four months living in BYU housing with a passel of obnoxious roommates, and I never found a good place to walk. I don't remember being alone, ever. That was probably the point: Given a modicum of privacy, I might have risked damnation by touching myself or enjoying a cup of herbal tea.

In my early twenties, I lived alone in an apartment in Provo, across the street from the hospital on US-89. My three-mile walk took me south a couple of blocks and then directly west. After 1.5 miles, I did a sudden about-face and retraced my steps home. It was all houses and driveways, and even though I walked the same route hundreds of times, I never made any friends. (The only human contact I recall was with a group of teenage girls in a convertible. They shouted something disparaging about my bright yellow tube top, which I was wearing in an attempt to even out my tan.) I don't recall finding this Provo walk relaxing or rejuvenating; it was simply a way to burn calories.

Three years later, I moved out of my apartment and spent one summer in a charmless apartment in Draper with the man who is now my husband. I was in love (still am), but I was surprised (still am) to learn that cohabiting is hard. Long and solitary walks helped me stay sane. I loved walking along Fort Street, which--in 1980--was mostly fields, with an occasional Victorian mansion. The last time I took that Fort Street walk, I wore brand-new Chuck Taylor high tops. About two miles from home, the pain of quickly forming blisters was too much to bear, and I carried the offending shoes, wearing only socks while walking on surprisingly sharp gravel. I would have accepted a ride from a stranger, but no one offered. By the time I got home, I was rabid with pain and regret. Clearly, it was a sign: I belonged in Provo, alone. I listened to an Eagles album, and wept bitter tears.

My man and I spent the next nine months in downtown Salt Lake City, in a lovely (if cockroach infested) third-story apartment with a view of the mountains to the east and the State Capitol to the north. Living together was easier now, and we took a lot of walks together: to double features at the old Trolley Theater on Main (for a dollar!), to picnics at Liberty Park, to night classes at the U of U. I seldom walked alone, since I'd been given considerable grief by transients near the City-County building.

We bought our first house in a crappy little town at the west end of the valley, and stayed for almost two decades. The location was convenient, the big yard was full of trees, and we became a family there. Sometimes I walked alone, and sometimes my husband joined me; I came to enjoy the company, and no longer resented the intrusion. We walked east, making a huge figure eight. It wasn't exactly scenic, and no one waved affectionately, but we maintained a good aerobic pace. Later, we found a slightly more scenic walk that included a mile of tree-lined dirt path alongside a canal. Halfway into the three-mile walk, we stepped off the path and into the trees, to neck briefly before continuing.

Surprisingly, we found a somewhat bucolic walk when we moved to a Dallas suburb in the late nineties. A planning committee wisely chose to leave some trees standing, and a paved path curled between fenced backyards, creating a quiet and private place to walk. On the rare occasion when it wasn't unbearably hot and humid, it was dangerously slick with ice, but we soldiered on. Toward the end of our time in Dallas, we adopted two big dogs, and they joined us on our walks. Adjacent to our subdivision was an empty field (temporary, I'm sure), and at the far end of the field was a stream in which the dogs happily splashed.

We moved back to Utah a few years ago, to a suburb south of Salt Lake City. Once again, there are friendly neighbors who wave eagerly from cars and front yards; there are adorable children who call us by name, and politely ask to pet the dogs (no, but thanks for asking). We have our basic dog walk through the neighborhood, and an additional Equestrian Loop that we take in good weather. For early-morning exercise without the dogs, there are options in all directions, including a paved walking path in nearby Draper. It's safe, scenic, and seems to go on forever. I should be walking there now, instead of sitting on my butt writing about it.

“So we saunter toward the Holy Land…” says Thoreau, and I'm reminded of walks taken at the Nestucca Sanctuary on the Oregon Coast. The sanctuary is two unpaved miles from Highway 101, and while I'm there I walk that four-mile roundtrip every day. Close to the sanctuary, the forest is lush and damp. Closer to 101, it opens up, and wide meadows fall away on each side of the winding dirt road. There's a point where I can't resist spreading my arms, turning my face to the sun, and bursting into private song, usually my favorite line from one of Leonard's best: "...and even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!" My voice is less than melodic, and less than strong, but I stand and celebrate spiritual strength in the face of inevitable loss. One can become giddy, on a good walk.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dear Boxholder

In early 1979, the same week as the accident at Three Mile Island, I spent a week in Northern California with a man named Mark. I'd answered a personal ad in Mother Earth News (“Let me dazzle your nights, and improve your daze”), he'd responded with a request for photo, and a month later I'd hopped on a plane.

When I got home (sadder, wiser, a little gamey), I immediately grabbed a spiral notebook and wrote it all down. What’s the fun of casual sex if the details blur thirty years later? I included all the sordid and often-embarrassing particulars, and scribbled “Gidget Goes to Hell” on the first page.

When I read it now, I’m a bit ashamed of over-reacting to events. I would even go so far as to say I relished drama, and tended to create drama. And I'm certain I sent a lot of mixed signals.

According to the spiral notebook, my parents didn’t approve of my plans. “My mom studied photographs of Mark’s remote cabin, looking for unmarked graves. She offered many and various bribes to get me to stay home where I belonged.” Aunts, cousins, co-workers, and neighbors felt the same way. “They shook their heads despairingly and hugged me.”

There’s a lesson to be learned here (I didn’t learn it, but here it is, should someone else choose to learn it). Romantic partners will come and go, but friends and family will always be there. Always. Some might be judging, criticizing, ridiculing, acting out, envying, projecting, and covering their asses...but they’ll be there. It’s probably safe to assume they love you, and they (almost always) want the best for you. Even so, I ignored them.

Ten minutes before I left home for the airport, Western Airlines called to say that my flight had been canceled because of a union strike. I failed to take this as a sign, and several hours later I was on a standby flight to San Francisco. I was wearing my first straight-legged jeans (it had been bell-bottoms up until this point) and a gray turtleneck sweater. My shiny brown hair was cut in a trendy shag, and Mark (in a letter) had keenly observed that I looked like Jane Fonda in Klute. I was carrying a brand-new leather clutch “…that gave me a definite Charlie’s Angels’ aura,” and I’d checked a red Lands’ End duffel (their largest, the one recommended for sea voyages).

Everybody lies (except Mark when he said I looked like Jane Fonda), and I had lied. I’d claimed to weigh 140 pounds, when I’d weighed 157 pounds. However, I’d had the good graces to starve myself, so upon arrival I weighed 140 pounds. Another lesson I plan to learn eventually: When leaving hearth and home to meet a stranger in another time zone, it’s probably a mistake to show up hungry, and in a weakened, vulnerable state.

Because I was arriving several hours late, and on a different airline, and hadn’t been in touch with Mark (because he only used pay phones), I was a bit worried. But there was no need. I was on an escalator, going up, burdened with my duffel, and I spotted a man standing at the top of the escalator, off to one side, grinning at me. My first thought: “That can’t be him.” My second thought: “Please, God, don’t let that be him.” But he opened his arms for a hug and said,
Give me fifteen minutes before you catch the next flight back to Salt Lake City.

I’d lied, but Mark had lied more egregiously. He’d said that he was 34 years old (13 years older than me) and 5’11” (an inch taller than me); that he smoked pot “…on very special occasions, with someone I care for;” and that he lived in a cabin in the woods with three dogs, two cats, and one skunk. He’d sent photos.

This little old man at the top of the escalator, stooped and unkempt, wearing a patchwork vest and too-short pants, and carrying a leather shoulder bag (a purse, really)…could this be the man from the photos? Maybe, if the photos had been taken ten or fifteen years earlier, or had been expertly retouched, or both. There was a certain Seven Dwarfs quality about the guy. I stood there, remembering my favorite photo of him, in which he looked healthy and robust in jeans and a black T-shirt, chopping firewood. I wanted that guy.

This guy, though…he looked hopeful. I knew how he felt: I’d seen “hopeful” in the mirror plenty of times. Later, we would disappoint each other, but standing there at the top of the escalator, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to try.

We walked to his adorable navy-blue Triumph, stowed my gear, and headed for Capitola, a seaside town about a hundred miles south. The top was down, the scenery was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and I found myself willing to make the best of a bad thing (which is my way). We stopped for Mexican food, and I shoveled it in. I no longer felt the need to wow this man with a slim-line version of me, and I was desperate for the calories. I was an Amazon next to Mark, who—over a late lunch—happily admitted to being 44 years old and 5’7”. He also admitted to being a cultivator/dealer, and handed me a stack of photos (from his purse) of hundreds of healthy marijuana plants, high as an elephant’s eye. He seemed proud; they were lovely. (I just hoped that by the time they caught him and sent him to prison, I’d be safely back in Utah.) And regarding the three dogs, two cats, and one skunk…well, they either ran away or died, because I never saw them at the cabin.

We stopped at a grocery store, and then checked into a motel in Capitola (I still have a handful of complimentary postcards). I changed out of my jeans and turtleneck and into a white T-shirt and matching bikini underpants. The motel room had a kitchenette, and I perched on a countertop seductively, while Mark busied himself preparing his favorite iced-coffee-tea-milk-honey mixture in a gallon container. He finally noticed me, and came and stood between my knees. “You’re a leggy devil,” he said.

I’d had a chance to observe him—in the car, the restaurant, the grocery store, the motel—and I didn’t hate him, and I didn’t find him entirely unappealing. He’d fought in Vietnam, and was in the habit of squatting in that Asian way, with his feet flat on the floor, and his butt an inch from the floor (I suppose many people squat that way, but I associate it with Asian men). It often seemed that his thoughts were elsewhere, and not in a happy place. He seemed isolated and lonely. I could see that he didn’t adore me, and wouldn’t adore me, but I could also see that it had little to do with me. He wasn’t going to let me in, period.

Naïve and optimistic, I thought I could make things better by seducing him from my perch on the countertop, but it only helped for a few minutes. “I feel like fuckin’ shit,” he said when we were done.

I, on the other hand, had never felt so wholesome. I felt squeaky clean next to him, with my recent hair cut, subtle makeup, perfect teeth, smooth legs, filed nails, and pumiced heels and elbows…my When It Rains It Pours necklace, with the little Morton Salt girl and her umbrella. As I recall, a huge effort wasn’t required in my early twenties: some Flex shampoo and crème rinse, some Baby Magic lotion, some Dr. Pepper LipSmacker, and I was good to go. Maybe Mark wasn't used to women who wore mascara, or shaved their underarms, or stocked their purses with tweezers and emery boards and travel-sized bottles of Wild Musk.

Every day, we walked to a nearby market for food. Mark prepared meals, and served each item in its own small (communal) bowl. I remember bowls of crab chunks, red snapper chunks, Wheat Thins, Ritz crackers, almonds, mushrooms, thinly sliced cabbage, melon, strawberries, raspberries, small cookies, and black licorice. I remember loving everything. We used our fingers, instead of forks or spoons. And we sat on the floor to eat, or we sat cross-legged on the bed, but never at a table or counter, and never on chairs.

I slept soundly, and each morning woke to the sound of a blender. Mark prepared huge smoothies for us, and always gave me a handful of nutritional supplements, which I probably needed. The smoothie was fairly gross, but it struck me as a friendly gesture, so I drank it. I didn’t think he’d try to poison me. If he wanted to kill me…well, I didn’t think he’d opt for poisoning.

We spent days at the beach, and at a large flea market at a drive-in theater. He made a lot of purchases at the flea market (sweatshirts, overalls, a leather hat with a floppy brim, a rifle, boxes of nails, scrap wood, rope, a pencil sketch of Doberman pups), and I wondered how it would fit in the Triumph (I assumed my red duffel would be the first thing jettisoned). I hadn’t packed any shorts, but he found some cut-offs at the flea market, held them up to my waist, bought them, and tossed them in my direction. Later, he talked me into sunbathing topless on a somewhat-private stretch of beach, and I suffered a nasty sunburn.

He often left the motel to make phone calls (even though there was a phone in the room), and each time he was gone quite a while. I napped, or watched TV. French doors led to a small balcony overlooking the ocean, and I could hear the waves from where I lay on the couch. At night, we watched TV together. I remember “The Wonderful World of Disney,” “60 Minutes,” and “From Russia With Love.” Once, while watching TV, he casually said, “How about a little head?” I looked up at him, confused. He rolled his eyes, and explained. I’d just never heard it called that before.

We had frequent sex, but it was never tender. We didn’t seem present, or connected…not a single time. I don’t remember eye contact. We never acted like lovers, not publicly or privately. We didn’t hold hands, or gaze at each other adoringly, or flirt. Often, the sex was rough. Once, he bit my inner thigh, hard. I don’t know if it was supposed to turn me on, or if it was punishment for some perceived slight. It left a bruise. “My ex-wife said that--for women--there’s a fine line between pain and pleasure,” he told me. I suppose that’s not entirely false.

Occasionally, we amused each other, and made each other laugh, but that always surprised us, and we turned away, embarrassed.

I was raised a Mormon, and had never had a drink, but when he offered me a Tom Collins the first night, I accepted. One led to two, and two led to a joint. I wasn’t able to hold smoke in my virgin lungs, but he came up with a workaround. I pinched my nose shut, and opened my mouth; he took a drag, placed his mouth over mine, and exhaled. That worked very well (I don’t know if it’s a common technique). I got high right away, doing it like that, and we wasted less weed. When high, I felt just as I expected to: happy, easy, sexy.

We fell into a routine of booze, pot, and sex. Our last night at the motel, we had another excellent dinner, and I slipped into a pink silk shirt that came to the tops of my thighs. This time, after drinking and smoking, something went wrong. My heart raced, my skin crawled, and I became confused and paranoid. I ran to the balcony railing to summon help, but, before I could scream, I felt Mark’s hand around my upper arm, pulling me away from the railing. I wasn’t afraid of him, just everything else.

“I’m dying,” I whispered. “I can tell.”

“You’re not dying,” he said firmly, like a parent.

He led me to the bathroom. He turned on the shower, pulled my shirt over my head, and stepped into the shower with me, still wearing his jeans and T-shirt. I couldn’t stop sobbing, and occasionally my fear bloomed into hysteria. But he put his scrawny arms around me, and kept the warm water pouring down on us, and eventually I calmed. He fetched my robe, led me to bed, and pulled the covers back for me. I got in, and he removed his wet clothes. Just as he was getting in bed, I threw up: on me, on him, on the clean sheets. He took it in stride, and led me back to the shower, and then back to bed, wrapped in a towel.

“You’re okay,” he said calmly, meeting my eyes. But I really thought it was over for me, that I’d never see my family and friends again. “I thought I’d never hold another baby,” I wrote, “or eat another orange.”


After three days in Capitola, we checked out of the motel and drove a few miles west to Santa Cruz. We spent several heavenly hours in a restaurant that was also a used-book store. We ate pancakes; I bought Ann Vickers and The Caine Mutiny. After breakfast, we headed for Willits, up the coast a couple hundred miles in Mendocino County.

Because of the airline strike, I didn’t have a ticket for a flight home. I’d called the airline frequently from the motel, but never got through to an operator. “That was worrisome,” I wrote in my spiral notebook. As we drove north, I called from pay phones whenever I had the chance, but without luck. I called my mom once; she wasn’t home, but I chatted with my younger sister, assuring her that all was well. She reminded me that I needed to renew her subscription to Seventeen magazine, and said she’d tell Mom I called.

We were no longer in the Triumph. Earlier that morning, Mark had gone out to make phone calls, and had returned in an old pickup truck, no explanation offered. The gallon of iced-coffee-tea-milk-honey was between us on the bench seat, and when he wasn’t drinking from it, he was smoking (tobacco), lighting one cigarette off the last. He didn’t smoke much, except when driving. He was uncomfortable sitting in one position for long; maybe smoking helped.

We stopped often, and for extended periods. I waited in the truck, keeping an eye on the valuables. We stopped at a chiropractor’s office, Guns Unlimited, a bank to make a loan payment, Safeway for cigarettes and groceries, and half a dozen phone booths. We stopped at several houses and apartments, and he carried paper bags inside. It was probably related to the drug trade, but at the time I was fairly oblivious to that possibility (dangerously so, perhaps).

I busied myself in the parked truck. I filed my nails, tweezed my brows, reviewed my check register, and swallowed all the white placebos in my birth-control pack. I ransacked the glove box, where I discovered letters from three women who, like me, were eager to share air fare. I read a High Times magazine, and recited “Somebody Said That It Couldn’t Be Done,” which I’d memorized in third grade.

I wanted to stop for lunch, but Mark didn’t, so he dropped me off at a restaurant, where I ordered corned-beef sandwiches to go, and chatted up the bartender. That was fun; I felt like a grown-up. If I’d needed help, I could have asked him for help. So…I guess I didn’t need help.

Mark also dropped me off at a laundromat, with a handful of coins and a pillow-case full of his dirty clothes. There was a pay phone, so I called the airline, and then my mom, but she wasn’t home. I called my aunt, who was home with a newborn daughter. I said Testing 1-2-3 before calling, to make sure I didn’t sound like I’d been crying.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “You sound like you’ve been crying.”

I told her that he wasn’t a bad person, just not my type.

“Come home,” she said.

I told her I’d come home soon, and asked her to call my mom.

“We love you,” she said.

Back on the road, we stopped to visit a woman in a trailer park, in her own nifty Airstream, all hippie chic. I remember this fondly...maybe because I didn’t have to wait in the truck this time, and maybe because she was so enchanting. She was in her early thirties, wearing a gauzy halter dress with visible underarm curls. She offered iced tea (my first), and I watched as she gracefully and deliberately brewed loose tea and poured it over ice. She was friendly with Mark, but didn’t flirt. She was very kind to me, like a much-older sister, and she hugged me when it was time to go, and made cooing sounds. In the truck, feeling all warm and fuzzy, I said, “Wow…she was nice.” And he said, “Yeah, she’s one of my dealers.”

We were heading for his two-room cabin in the mountains east of Willits. As we left paved roads, I felt myself getting nervous. (This is exactly the kind of situation about which I’d warn a daughter or a young niece: the no-one-can-hear-you-scream scenario.) I questioned, in my spiral notebook, why I stayed. I mean, we weren’t head-over-heels; most of the time, we weren’t even friendly. Getting home wouldn’t be easy (then, or later), but it was possible; staying with him didn’t seem any less dangerous than hitchhiking. In my notes, I explained it this way: “I was his guest. He invited me to his home, and I accepted. I felt an obligation to see it through. And there was the possibility that things would get better.”

Despite that show of devotion and optimism, I see (as I read my notes) that I’m easier on him now than I was then. I suppose it’s related to age and experience. The younger version of me found lots of reasons to be disappointed, outraged, even snide. The older version of me cuts him some slack for having survived the horrors of Vietnam (I don’t think he was lying about that, since he had no reason to think that military service would impress me). I see him as a sad and solitary vet, with some undiagnosed PTSD, trying to find his way. In the words of L. Cohen,
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.


It was a long ride to his place, with a lot of twisting and turning. We passed cabins, trailers, and teepees. We passed hippies with ragamuffin children and dogs. We met Mark’s neighbor, Crazy Dave, and they chatted. Dave lived in his truck, and collected some kind of disability check. He came by the cabin occasionally to help with heavy lifting and to smoke dope. I didn’t think Dave would be of much help in an emergency, but I still paid attention to the location of his truck, which was up on blocks.

To Mark’s credit, the cabin was recognizable as the one in the photo. It had a solar-powered generator, and a solar water heater, with a shower head on the back porch. The lack of privacy bothered me, and I only showered once, while he watched from a kitchen window. After that, I surrendered to filth. I was no longer wearing makeup or dresses, but just the same pair of blue jeans every day.

It had been a long day, and I slept soundly after the booze, pot, and sex. The next morning, as Mark fired up the chainsaw, it became evident that this would be a working vacation. There were trees to fell, and firewood to haul. We worked together to cut down two trees, which he sawed into manageable chunks, which I carried down the hillside to the cabin. I fell repeatedly, and I had splinters in my hands, wrists, and forearms, but I was a good, obedient soldier, and—my God—it was a beautiful place.

Mark loved guns, and was eager to impress me with his marksmanship. That afternoon, he got a pistol from the cabin, and we walked to a clearing. He fired at an old water heater on the other side of the clearing. I wasn’t prepared for how loud it was, and I nearly fell to the ground, my hands clamped to my ears. He asked if I wanted to shoot, but I said no thank you.

He never threatened me, but made it quite clear that he wouldn’t think twice about firing on intruders. He said he had the right to protect what was his, and warned me that the place was mined, and told me not to wander off. He boasted: “I could shoot a trespasser, bury the body, and disguise the site so well that no goddamn expert could ever find it. No fucking witnesses, no fucking proof.” In my spiral notebook, I referred to this rant as “somewhat disquieting.”

That night, Mark cooked steaks on a barbecue, while potatoes baked in the fireplace coals, and I tossed a salad. He went out of his way to make it romantic, with candles and wine and forks. Crazy Dave dropped by, and Mark invited him to eat, but he chose to sit on the floor instead and smoke hashish (we joined him after dinner). “Dave was pretty burned out, but having a third party was fun,” I wrote.

Later, when we were alone, Mark asked me to share some of my sexual fantasies. “This isn’t Utah,” he reminded me unnecessarily. But I was only twenty-one, and I’d been a virgin until twenty. My only sexual fantasy was sex. I sat there naked on the ratty mattress, a glass of wine in one hand and a hash pipe in the other, trying to think of something juicy, but I could not (I should have mentioned the Airstream chick). My lack of imagination infuriated him. He got up to tend the fire, and returned with a bottle of gin.

“Shit,” he said. “You’re a lot of fun.”

I think part of the problem was this: One minute I was having a good time, and the next minute I was miserable. I was confused about whether this was working out or not, because it was different from what I’d known. He never kissed me, he never called me by name; I never felt completely safe. My moodiness confused him, and made him angry. He accused me of being ungrateful, and being “hung up” sexually.

We lay side by side on the mattress, listening to a Leonard Cohen cassette. Mark frequently interrupted with a shouted “Story time!” as the song reminded him of something. Most of the stories were about women (more accomplished than me, and much better in bed). As the evening progressed, the stories became less sexual and more violent. He talked about life as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, and also as a mercenary. The accounts were gruesome and detailed, and his calm delivery was chilling. He switched back to stories about women, but the tenor changed. The women pissed him off, and he hit one, and pushed another to the floor, and threw hot coffee in another’s face. He talked about a short stint in prison. “I couldn’t tell what was bullshit and what was not,” I wrote. “He seemed unstable, though, and every time he moved his hands, I flinched.”

But later that night, after all the talk and all the booze, he got bleary eyed and said, “Don’t make fun of me.” True to character, “I put my arms around him and held him close, like a frightened child, like one of my Sunbeams.” We fell asleep.

Hours later, a gunshot woke me. The darkness was complete, and it seemed as if the gun was being fired inside the cabin. I couldn’t take a deep breath. My sleep-fogged brain told me that Mark was dead, and that I would be next. I wanted it to be fast and painless.

“Mark?” I cried.

“Shut the fuck up!” he said harshly. (As if “Shut the fuck up!” is ever said tenderly.)

There were three more quick shots, and what sounded like babies crying. I started to get up off the mattress, but he pulled me back down.

“Where the fuck are you going?”

“The babies…”

“Fuckin’ raccoons!” he said.

I wanted to cry, but I thought that if I did, he might shoot me, too.

I don’t remember anything until the next morning, when I woke to the sound of Mark scrubbing the wooden floor. I tried not to look.

“There’s a lot of work to do today,” he announced after breakfast. “There’s the door, and the other cabin, and the holding tank.”

Mark took the cabin door off its hinges, and I nailed a lot of narrow boards to it in neat rows (like horizontal stripes), sanded it, and stained it, and he rehung it. I don’t know why that made for a better door, but I enjoyed a sense of accomplishment.

After lunch, we got in the truck and drove up the road. Sure enough, there was a second cabin. It was much smaller, maybe ten-by-twelve. “Hippies lived here last year,” he said. “Left a fuckin’ mess.” He drove off, with a promise to return soon.

At first, I was afraid to enter the cabin, fearing wild animals or lingering hippies. Mark had given me a shovel, and I held it in front of me, ready to protect myself. But there were no signs of life, save some spiders. I couldn’t see the floor, because there was a thick layer of rotten food, beer cans, dirty dishes, old clothes and rags, used tampons, soiled Pampers, wet magazines and newspapers, animal dung (I hope), a dead squirrel, and a rusty motorcycle. (I’m surprised Mark didn’t instruct me to restore the motorcycle to running condition.) There were trashcans outside, and I hauled them in, and began shoveling the crap into the trashcans. I really wanted a pair of rubber gloves. After a while, I rolled the motorcycle out, and finished cleaning the floor. I hauled the heavy trashcans back outside, and the motorcycle back inside. I wanted Mark to be delighted with the result, but he drove up in the truck, honked, and we drove farther up the road to the holding tank. (“You look like fuckin’ shit,” he said.)

We worked together to shovel out several inches of mud from the bottom of the holding tank (I suppose it held water, perhaps for irrigation, but I didn’t ask). Sure, there were dead rats, and a lot of rat shit, but I’d seen worse (the second cabin). We worked until dark, and then drove home.

I was a mess, and I hosed off a bit in the shower, but didn’t remove my clothes (I was beginning to like my stinky clothes). I made ham sandwiches for dinner, and really piled on the ham. There was apple cider, and I filled big glasses.

I couldn’t help but notice that we’d stopped discussing my trip home. Did I live here now? Would I need a new driver’s license and library card? What I needed was a plan, but something that wouldn’t piss him off. Harmony was important, because it would ensure my safety. I ate my sandwich, feeling jumpy and a little feverish.

It was hard to admit defeat. We didn’t love each other; we weren’t taking care of each other. We hardly spoke. I’d spent a month dreaming about living happily ever after in this off-the-grid cabin, and healing this man, and being healed. It was such a beautiful, fecund place, and I thought I could make it work. Maybe I could make it work now, but not at twenty-one.

The next morning, I made more ham sandwiches, and sat down next to him at the kitchen table.

“Hey…I’ve got to go home,” I said.

He ignored me, and ate his sandwich.

“My grandmother is very ill,” I said. That was true. “And I sense she’s taken a turn for the worse.” Granted, it was weak, but it was the best I could do.

“I guess Mormons are pretty fuckin’ family oriented,” he said. Again, true.

He said he would drive me to the airport the next day, but I didn’t quite believe him. It was a long drive, and he agreed too readily.

“I’d like you to take me to the Greyhound bus depot in town,” I said. “Today. Please.”

And he did.

That afternoon, we pulled up in front of the bus depot, hopped out, and he tossed my duffel onto the sidewalk.

“Don’t let anyone fuck you over,” he said, standing there on the sidewalk, facing me.


He didn’t seem eager to leave.

“Well, it’s been an experience for you, anyway,” he said.


I was torn between hating him and…not hating him.

“Humans beings are complex animals,” he said. He’d said that before, when he felt inadequate or threatened or confused.

“Yes,” I said, again, and he got in the truck.

“Don’t do coke!” he hollered from the open window.

“Okay!” I hollered back, waving. I’m sure he wanted to be helpful—to be of use—and that piece of advice came to mind. He drove off.


Once in the depot, I bought two Snickers bars and ate them. I purchased a ticket for American Fork (wrote a check…imagine). I called my aunt again, gave her my arrival time, and asked her to pass it on to my mom.

An hour later, I hopped on board. I would change buses in Sacramento, Reno, Elko, and Salt Lake City.

As we crossed into Nevada, a young man in red corduroy pants offered me half of his avocado sandwich, and I accepted. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Home,” I said. It was dark, and he encouraged me to sleep with my head on his shoulder. His kindness unhinged me, and I cried some, but quietly.

Late the next morning, we arrived in Salt Lake City (I’m sure my mom would have picked me up there, since it was only an hour from American Fork, but I wanted to get all the way by myself). I spent four hours in Salt Lake City, feeling kind of like a tourist, and kind of like a homeless person. I walked to Walgreen Drug, where they served food cafeteria-style, and loaded my tray with three pieces of cake and a glass of milk. I walked to ZCMI and bought a pair of underpants, using the last of my cash. (I had clean underpants in my duffel, but it was at the bus depot.) I took my purchase to the restroom, slid into the fresh underpants, and put the others in the trash. I washed my hands and face in the sink. I walked to the capitol building, and slept on the lawn.

At 4:30 that afternoon, about twenty-four hours after leaving Willits, I stepped off the bus in American Fork, in front of the Italian Place sandwich shop. Despite my efforts in the ZCMI restroom, my hair, teeth, and nails were filthy. I was wearing mud-splattered jeans, a stained T-shirt, brown leather boots that laced to my knees, and a huge canvas jacket. I smelled a little funky.

But my mom didn’t care. I saw her from half a block away, and we grinned at each other, and we threw our arms around each other. I’d never been so happy to see her, to smell her hair. She drove me to her house. Once inside, I looked around. “Has it always been this pretty?” I asked. I showered, and borrowed clean clothes. She took me to dinner, with my younger sister, and we ate fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy. I could breathe easy. I was home.

I never saw Mark again (although I sent him a scathing letter, which I later regretted). I hope his personal ad eventually paid off, and he found someone to love. I hope he's still dazzling her nights and improving her daze.