Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Short story: "The Well-Documented Unraveling of Beth"

She begins each day by checking her inbox. Then, she does an online search for his obituary (she’ll forgive him for not writing if he was hit by a bus). She pees, weighs herself, and showers. She eats two ounces of raw almonds and two ounces of dried apricots, and climbs back in bed. She spends four hours imagining their next conversation, which is always a variation of this:

Michael: I think about you every day.

Beth: I don’t believe you.

Michael: I wanted to write, I wanted to call, but I was afraid of getting hurt, and afraid of hurting you, too.

Beth: Bullshit.

Michael: I read your letters over and over again…the funny parts, the sad parts, the sexy parts…and I want you desperately, I want you in my arms, in my bed.

Beth: Okay.

For lunch, she eats two ounces of turkey jerky, two ounces of cheese, two ounces of high fiber cereal, and two ounces of raisins. She exercises with a video for one hour, but she mutes the sound.

There’s an over-sized three-ring binder on the bedside table, and it contains printouts of the 632 emails she sent him, and the 44 he sent her. After reading one at random, she spends the next four hours in bed, remembering him. Sometimes she cries, sometimes she touches herself, sometimes she naps.

She eats two ounces of M&Ms for an afternoon snack while watching reality TV. She has no intention of cleaning and redecorating her house (it doesn’t need it) or updating her wardrobe (it doesn’t need it), but she hangs on every word, as other people achieve better houses and better wardrobes.

For dinner, she has two cups of homemade beans-and-rice. She sits cross-legged on the couch after dinner, waiting for darkness.

When it’s fully dark, she slips through the barely open front door, grabbing a quilt on the way out, and leaving the front-porch light off. It’s her favorite time of day, and she spends hours sitting on a bright-red tulip chair, gazing into the darkness, listening to the crickets and an occasional barking dog. When she feels sleepy (usually before dawn), she eats a bag of microwave popcorn, and goes to bed.

She wears pajamas day and night, and her cell phone is always in the pocket of her pajama top. During her daily shower, she places the phone on the bathroom counter. After her shower, she dons fresh pajamas, and tucks the phone in the pocket.

For sixty-seven days, she hasn’t left the house or spoken to another person. For sixty-seven days, Michael hasn’t called or written.


The brilliant idea came to her on the first of August, sixty-eight days ago: She would stay home, and be available when he eventually called or wrote or dropped by. By staying home, she would also avoid the temptation to numb her pain by flirting with other men, overeating, or overspending. Other advantages: She wouldn’t have to pretend to be interested in others, and no one would see her cry.

First, she went shopping, stockpiling enough food and nonfood items for six months. Then, she quit her job as a Head Start nurse. She’d made a decent wage (and excellent benefits, including outpatient mental health care), and she’d saved quite a bit of money.

She figures she can afford to live like this for a year, maybe two. And other than the missing-him thing, she’s quite happy.

One former co-worker keeps inviting her to lunch, but Beth responds through email, putting her off. Beth frequently hears from a concerned sister (Amy), and less frequently from a concerned aunt. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Amy joked recently, and Beth sent her a friendly email, and a book from Amazon.


She began seeing Michael eighteen months ago, after contacting him through a find-a-therapist website. Her lover of eight years had left her for another woman, and Beth wasn’t able to rally. Nothing engaged her, nothing intrigued her. She felt hideous and unlovable.

Michael saw clients in the front parlor of his home, and he greeted her warmly on her first visit. He grinned at her and put his hand on her shoulder, and she knew that everything would be okay. She saw him every Monday evening for a year. She was thirty-nine; he was in his late forties, and divorced.

After a year, it seemed like a good idea to have sex instead of therapy, so they did that a dozen times over the course of a couple of months. Apparently, it wasn’t the good idea it seemed, because she hasn’t heard from him in four months. The situation had her feeling dangerously untethered until sixty-eight days ago, when she embraced her new lifestyle.


Eighteen months ago, she was overjoyed to have someone willing to supervise her emotional life. Her emails from this period are cheerful and reflective.

Regarding his congeniality, she wrote (in email #37):

I love the way you grin at me, with a lot of affection and a little indulgence. A grin can contain something negative—like smugness, ridicule, boredom, fatigue, or doubt—but not your grin. I'm sure you have all kinds of shortcomings and bad habits and secrets and regrets, but none of that is evident in your grin. Your grin is like the first taste of a lemon custard ice cream cone, or pulling on a pair of brand-new white cotton socks, before they've been washed.

And your arms seem to be in a continual state of reaching out for others. Your body is always ready to pull another body to it. You seem glad that it’s me, and not someone else. That’s a be able to make someone feel that way.

Regarding her post-session euphoria, she wrote (in email #68):

Every week when I leave your office, I want to dance. I imagine my arms above my head as I sway to music…my feet are bare, my torso is femininely curved. As I drive home, I look at myself in the rear-view mirror, and I'm…rosy. I look…pretty. I can’t stop touching my hair. I feel like such a girl.

Regarding boundaries, she wrote (in email #114):

I'm resisting the urge to surrender to feelings of adoration for you…to let my face feel warm with thoughts of you, to develop a crush, to imagine getting in your pants. I find that I can admire and enjoy you while maintaining the slightest bit of professional distance (per your instructions). But be warned: My standard rush-to-crush has been replaced by a slow, sensual burn, fueled by the very boundaries you’ve erected.

Regarding men, she wrote (in email #183):

I think lovemaking is simply fucking-when-you-like-each-other. People get stingy with the word love, as if it's a crime to call it love if you're not 100-percent sure that's what it is. I call it love if I'm 51-percent sure. And I like it when a man isn't afraid to say the word love, and when he isn’t afraid of me…when he’s bold, when he takes emotional and conversational risks. It’s fun to flirt with that kind of man.

One of my favorite types of flirting is unabashed approval: “I like you. You're okay. I wouldn't change you, even if I could." I think that's where long-term relationships go wrong. There's an undercurrent of: "You're great, but..." Maybe that's why I enjoy strangers. They like me, or they don't like me, but they never try to change me.

Also, there's a lot of noise in a long-term relationship. It builds up over time, and never really goes away. When my boyfriend and I were in a room together, I could hear all the noise from the past, all the disagreements and disappointments. And there’s always something uninteresting to say, about car insurance or fish oil tablets or lawn fertilizer. With a new man, there's so little noise. Even when it’s lousy, at least it's not noisy.

The men I remember most fondly are those who took care of me, and let me take care of them, if only for a couple of hours. I've been in relationships where the taking-care isn’t there at all. That's a special kind of loneliness. Memories of those relationships make me cold all over. I want to pull my knees to my chest, to protect myself.

In the past, I've given men way too long to offer that kind of affection. Weeks and months go by, and I think, "We're just about to take care of each other." Or, worse, a man makes one small offering, one brief moment of taking-care, and I give him dozens of chances to do it again. When he doesn't, I figure I must be doing something wrong. It's like a combination lock, and I have the first two numbers, and if I keep trying I'll get the third number. And, sadly, there were times when I thought, "I wonder if I fuck him just right, he'll allow us to take care of each other.”

I feel like I wander through life, looking for someone to love me. I'm happy as long as I feel loved, but the minute I don’t, I panic, I flounder. (Have you noticed that about me? Was that obvious within minutes of meeting me?) Sometimes, I use words—especially written words—to get people to love me, but only if I know they'll pay a high price for doing so. Oh my god...could that be true? How shameful. I'm not even sure it's true. Well. I must not be that horrible.

I suppose all of us are lost, and we're trying to get found, and we have no fucking idea how to get found. So we lose ten pounds, or shop for shoes, or make out with a stranger on a train. And we wait for some kind of bliss. And it comes, and then it fades, so we start again...turning all the knobs that we think might have contributed to the bliss, with confidence that next time it will last longer, maybe forever.

Regarding her new and happier state, she wrote (in email #260):

Suddenly, I like me. My thoughts amuse me, my plans intrigue me, my memories soothe me. And I’m feeling robust emotionally. When things go wrong, I’m not laid as low. I’m not devastated; I’m not overwhelmed by grief. In the past few years, I've had a tendency to be too rattled by events, more than warranted. I've spent too much time feeling and acting as if I'm recuperating from something.

And now that I feel stronger, I want to work toward being authentic. I’m no longer content to be “nice.” I suppose authenticity is a learned skill, like typing, or bowel resection. I need to develop that being-authentic muscle.

And I want to encourage others to be authentic, too. I want to find value and joy in exactly who another person is, and not what I want them to be, or what I think they can become. I love being accepted for the me-of-the-moment, rather than being viewed as interesting building blocks that might—with enough work—be made into something acceptable.

When I’m sitting in your office, it feels like you truly see me. And that’s the best thing. It’s lonely to not be seen, or to be partially seen. I’ve noticed that some people let themselves be seen in only the tiniest increments, as if revealing more will cost them dearly. But I want to reveal my emotional nakedness, and I want others to reveal theirs. Someday, I'll crawl in bed with a man, and his story will pour from him, like spilled milk.


The first day of each month offers a delightful break in Beth’s routine. Instead of spending the morning in bed, she does a thorough housecleaning. Instead of spending the afternoon in bed, she declares a Day of Grooming. She trims her hair with kitchen shears (a straightforward bob-with-bangs), and then she colors it (warm medium brown). She gives herself a manicure and a pedicure, but without polish, because that involves maintenance. She gives herself a facial, tweezes her brows, and waxes anything that requires it. She takes a long bath, full of scented oils.

And instead of watching TV, she pays bills online and responds to any snail mail. She signs and addresses greeting cards, and orders an occasional gift online. It’s a very productive day, and she enjoys it. She also enjoys returning to her less-productive regimen the next day.

December rolls around, and she celebrates 122 days of her new-and-improved life. Her supplies are holding out nicely, but she’s bored with the daily M&M’s, so she orders caramels online, and a box arrives in the mail three days later. She also orders a two-pound sampler of candy that was popular in the 1970s to be sent to her sister, Amy. Beth also sends a friendly (and fibbish) email to Amy in which she shares the details of a recent trip to the Grand Canyon with a co-worker, so Amy won’t worry that Beth’s a recluse, or depressed.

She still hasn’t heard from Michael.


Twelve months ago, Beth began flirting with Michael, first in email and then in person. He resisted initially, but eventually they tumbled into bed together. Her emails from this period are cheerful and sensual.

Regarding how she feels when she’s home, she wrote (in email #324):

I sit here at the computer, and I want to write bold, flirtatious, sexy, nasty, slippery-wet email to you. I'm in that kind of mood. I want to make you blush, and I want to make me blush.

And on those rare occasions when I check my inbox and find mail from you, I let out a spontaneous little gasp. And sometimes there's a whispered "Thank God" that catches me off guard. It’s as if an Amber Alert has been issued on you, but then I find you hiding under the bed. I want to scoop you up.

Monday is so far away! I feel that if I can't see you before then, I'll explode. But…people seldom explode. So, I take a deep breath and ask myself what I want from you. It’s something between kissing and living happily ever after (I know you like broad margins).

You know everything about me, but I know very little about you. I know you like European cars and garlic fries and detective fiction. I know you’re allergic to penicillin. Sometimes, it feels like I've taken all my clothes off, but you're still fully dressed. And I don't know if you’re about to say, " can get dressed now," or if you’re about to remove your shoes and socks.

Regarding how she feels when she’s in his office, she wrote (in email #399):

I love showering before my appointment, and shaving my legs. I love wearing something new, preferably a dress, or a skirt and sweater. I arrive early, and sit in my parked car, imagining your salty skin beneath my tongue. I'm sure that all of your truly healthy clients do the same thing, and only the sicko's hold themselves at an emotional distance.

Once inside your office, I feel so prim, so well behaved, as I obediently take the client chair. But all I can think about is moving to your side, maybe sitting on your lap, maybe straddling you. And I use words like "I’m fond of you" or "I'm attracted to you," but those aren't the words I'm thinking. I breathe in and out, exquisitely aware of the cotton fabric against my bare skin, of an errant curl that’s fallen across my face, of the tip of my finger in my mouth as I ponder a question you’ve asked, of the scent of a man in the room.

I bask in your appreciative gaze. Its intensity makes me dizzy, and I look for something to hold onto. It's a pleasure to wriggle in front of you, to be shy, to want to cover my face with my hands so that you can't read me so easily.

This change in our relationship feels like a surprise, but also like it was inevitable. And it’s no mystery why I'm so happy. You've given me the greatest gift anyone can give another person: You know me well, and you still like me. But—bless your heart—you put a cherry on top of the greatest gift: You want me. No wonder I can't stop grinning. No wonder I get lost in your hugs.

Regarding their slow burn toward one another, she wrote (in email #472):

Most of my romantic relationships have been very quick to start, like late-summer brush fires. Not so, with you. Sometimes, being with you feels more like torture than therapy (in a delicious way, of course) (so, really, not like torture at all). It’s as if a man says, "I'm going to start touching you, okay? Relax and enjoy it. In five years, I'll let you come."

I was amused last night when you asked me what I wanted from our relationship, and I couldn’t say the words. “There’s another computer upstairs,” you said. “You can email me from there, if you’d like.” I smiled, and you looked me in the eye and instructed me: “Just take a deep breath and say it.” That kind of bossiness is a huge turn-on for me. I’m feeling all melty remembering it.


March arrives, and she’s aware that she hasn’t left home in 212 days. Her supplies are dwindling. She has lots of brown rice left, and some olive oil, spices, and raisins. She has smaller quantities of almonds, caramels, and canned pinto beans. The apricots, jerky, cheese, cereal, popcorn, and remaining beans-and-rice ingredients are gone. However, there are miscellaneous canned goods in the pantry, along with a canister of oatmeal, so she uses these items to fill in the nutritional blanks (although it strikes her as a bit messy, since these items were purchased before she embraced her new lifestyle). Today, she has almonds and mandarin oranges for breakfast, oatmeal and raisins for lunch, one caramel for an afternoon snack, beans-and-rice for dinner, and a small can of pineapple chunks after her night on the porch. She has lost fourteen pounds (even though she recently stopped exercising), and her pajamas are a bit droopy at the shoulders and hips.

She continues to do her monthly housecleaning and Day of Grooming, but she no longer gets a buzz from it. And since the TV remote stopped working, she leaves the TV on all the time, tuned to what she calls “the Anderson Cooper channel.” It’s barely audible, and she finds it soothing. She sleeps on the couch now, and the only time she enters the bedroom is to walk through it to the bathroom. She’s out of Advil, but she makes do with a handful of 81-milligram aspirin.

A month ago, Amy (who lives two hours away) came to the door, threatening to call the police if Beth didn’t let her in. Beth stepped onto the porch, but Amy still wasn’t convinced that Beth wasn’t being held against her will, so Beth agreed to go out to lunch. She drew the line, though, at shopping. She lied, and said that she was expecting a call from a client, for whom she does medical transcription. She let Amy in the house to peek behind the shower curtain and to open closet doors. Beth gave Amy a little gift bag with the remaining caramels and an unopened box of note cards, walked her to the front porch, and hugged her. “What the hell is going on?” asked Amy, but Beth smiled, went back inside, and locked the door behind her.

After Amy left, and night fell, Beth took her quilt to the porch. It had been such an eventful day (the car ride! the chicken sandwich!) that Beth decided to do the unthinkable: She called Michael. After six rings, she listened to his recorded message. “Yep,” she thought, “that’s him.” She hung up without leaving a message.

She still hasn’t heard from him.


Nine months ago, he stopped responding to her emails. He offered no explanations or excuses. In fact, the last email she received from him was eager and affectionate, if brief. So she drove past his house, which appeared occupied. She checked the find-a-therapist website, and he was still listed. She checked the state’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing website, and he was listed in good standing. She did a thorough web search, using any and all information she had, and found nothing that offered insight into the situation. Her emails from this period are sometimes sad, and always long.

She wrote (in email #550):

Writing to you is kind of like purging. Without the stench, or the tooth decay.

I'm convinced there's something here worth salvaging, so I'm willing to set aside the usual number of chances I give someone. I respect you and like you more than I respect and like most people. At one point, I trusted you more than I trust most people.

I’ve Googled you endlessly, of course, looking for news of carbon monoxide poisoning or a drive-by shooting. I guess it’s easier for me to think of you in a coma or a morgue than to think of you not caring about me. Perhaps that speaks to my last shred of confidence: I’m certain you’d write to me, if you could.

I should break into your house some night, sneak up on you, and have my way with you. I’ll tether you to the bed (with enough chain to get to the toilet, but not the phone) and force you to listen to me talk for hours. I'll bring food, but only my favorite things. We'll listen to Leonard Cohen CDs while snuggling, and I'll threaten you with bodily harm if you refuse to discuss the songs, or fail to acknowledge that all the songs describe our relationship exactly. I'll read aloud from one of your books...maybe "When Good Therapists Go Bad."

I desperately miss the feeling I always had on the way home from your house: of being beautiful and desirable, of being marvelously alive, of learning about myself and about life. I know that you don’t want to take that from me. If I asked you pointblank, "For any reason, is it your desire to deprive me of that feeling?" you would say no, and you would mean it.

Baby, must let me in. Please don't withdraw, Michael. Really, I don't need much in the way of email. "Busy. Adore you." That would be enough. Even, "Busy. Adore U."

I think this is the problem: You’re crazy (just kidding). But I think you have issues that I’m blind to, or would not understand. Perhaps you’re more complex than you appear to be. Maybe you’re not quite as kind as you appear to be. That's a possibility. You appear exceedingly kind, and maybe you’re just...average.

This is beginning to feel like a social experiment, and not like my own experience. Weird.

Just now, I was imagining a dominant/submissive sexual relationship, where the dominant male instructs the submissive female to write to him every day. He’ll read the letters, but he’ll never write back. Still, she must write, and it must be lengthy and heartfelt. I wonder how many women would be able to do that. I imagine the tone of her letters would become sadder and sadder with each passing day. But I bet if the guy wrote a standard ten emails (things like "I love you...and I love hearing from you" and "You write very well...each email is a delight" and "It made me sad to read about that...I wanted to hold you in my arms") and sent one back to her every third or fourth time she wrote, she'd be okay. Or if he had his personal assistant write and send the letters, or a well-trained chimpanzee.

Maybe you're busy writing an article for a professional journal about "Minimizing Rewards, Maximizing Results."


She wrote (in email #586):

To some degree, I'm in the habit of loving you, and wanting you. And I wonder if I project a bit. Maybe I think I love you when I actually love me, especially the new version of me: bold, mindful, assertive. Is that possible? Therapy has been so good for me, and I couldn't have done this without guide, my friend, my cheerleader, my crush. So...I must be in love with you. That's love...right?

But love that develops when one is deprived of the object of one's affection is a bogus kind of love. There are many unanswered questions, so one fills in the blanks, usually with something unrealistically positive. One imagines such bliss, such satisfaction. Of course it feels like love—the best kind of love!—magical, fulfilling, nourishing, and so conveniently unproven. Lust follows the same pattern, when it's allowed to blossom unencumbered by actual experience.

When I was younger, I wanted a man—any man—to want me. Lately, though, the man needs to be someone I respect, like you. So, the other day I made a list of things I need to do to become worthy of the men I’ve known who were clearly out of my league, and only interested in me casually, who left me as soon as permitted by common decency. I didn't question the premise; I just worked on the list. It included getting an advanced degree, becoming more accomplished (is that vague enough?), being much more attractive and fit than I've ever been, and traveling extensively. That's when I burst out laughing: When I realized that I was counting on hitchhiking-through-Europe or camping-in-the-Canadian-Rockies to make me more desirable. Generally, I'm more in touch with reality than that. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a twelve-year-old version of myself ("What can I do to make boys like me?") wanders by occasionally.

At the tips of my fingers and toes, I feel fragile and uncertain…”the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” But at my core, I feel robust. The toughness is there, like well-exercised abdominal muscles just waiting to be called upon.


The July heat is merciless, but she doesn’t notice. After 334 days, her food situation is grim. Of her new-lifestyle supplies, only about four pounds of rice remain. Nine cans of miscellaneous food remain, and today she has a can of tomato soup for breakfast. Later, she’ll have rice for lunch and dinner. She doesn’t feel hungry, although she continues to lose weight (twenty-two more pounds). She’s bothered by the sound of the air conditioner, so she leaves it off. Day and night, she wears nothing but underpants and an undershirt.

She showers twice a week, but no longer does the once-a-month grooming. She makes do with the hygiene supplies she has left. A month ago, she stopped cleaning the house. Sometimes, she writes his name in the dusty furniture. That’s fun.


She wrote (in email #593):

I'm baffled. I'm certain something has gone wrong, but I have no idea what it is. If it was anyone other than you, I'd move on. If it was anyone other than you, I'd figure that communicating just got too hard. But communicating is what you do! It’s your strength! It’s your passion!

It feels like this: The teacher has given me a math problem with insufficient information. That’s frustrating, but I don’t need to hate the math teacher or the assignment. The only way I can get an A is to jot the words "insufficient information" on the worksheet. But how and why does that happen in a relationship?

If there's a reason you're rejecting me, please tell me what it is. In most cases, I wouldn't give a damn. But, in this case--considering your professional background and my positive regard for you--I think it might be useful. I mean, it might save me time in future relationships (of any sort). I think I see myself quite clearly, but all of us are blind to certain aspects of ourselves. Perhaps I'm not enough of something; perhaps I'm too much of something else. Maybe it's something I can't change, or wouldn't want to change. But I won't know until you tell me. If it has nothing to do with me, that would be useful information also.

I wonder if you're blocking my emails.

I feel like I’m traveling in a foreign country, and the citizens claim to be speaking English, but it doesn't sound like English to me. So I stop a paperboy or a cop and say, "What language is everyone speaking?" And they say, "English, of course!" But, still, I’m failing to grasp what's being said, and all subtlety is lost on me, and I can't keep up.

I never thought it would end like this! I imagined us on a porch swing, twenty years from now, sharing a candy bar, making each other laugh. Please put an end to this purgatory, Michael, one way or another. If that seems overwrought to you, I'm sorry. I just want to spend less time with my face buried in my open hands, trying to figure out what went wrong.


She wrote (in email #602):

Sometimes, I look at your picture online, and think, “God, I hate him.”

I sit at the computer and imagine typing: "I hate everything about you! I've never been so disappointed in a man! All other disappointments pale when compared to you!”

The last time we were together, I said, “I know you like me.” And you said, “I love you!” But I don’t believe you anymore. And I don't give a shit how busy you are. I mean, it takes thirty seconds to hit Reply, type "I miss you," and hit Send. It takes thirty seconds if you dawdle; I could do it in eight.

I thought of making a long list of Possible Reasons You Lost Interest in Me, and then asking you to identify the correct reason. That seemed compelling for about five minutes.

Sometimes, I blame you for what feels like a huge blow to my self-esteem, and I feel very angry. I fucking hate the person I've become. I'm bitter and confused and unsure of myself. I don't take care of myself. I don't believe in myself. For days at a time, I forget what is special about me.

How did I get so unbalanced? How did it get so noisy in my head?


It has now been one year since she decided to stay home, and she eats her last can of food (French-style green beans). She has been careful with the rice, and she has enough for another couple of weeks. She’s tired, and she finds it difficult to concentrate. She has thousands of dollars in the bank, and there’s a Walmart less than a mile away, and occasionally she’s tempted to buy more food, and some ChapStick, and to ask the pharmacist to recommend something for the pesky rash on her neck and chest. But, instead, she takes a nap.

Early one morning when she’s feeling energetic, she gets a large kitchen trash bag, fills it with clothes from her closet, tosses in her two sets of car keys, and puts the bag on the front porch. With a marker, she writes the name of a thrift store on the white plastic bag. The store sends a truck through the neighborhood once a month, to pick up donations, and she’s pretty sure this is the right day. She worries that if she has the car key, she might give in to the temptation to drive to the store.


She wrote (in email #616):

As I type this, I realize that my memories of you are less specific and detailed than they were. Rather than remembering how an orange tastes, I remember enjoying oranges.

The sex was probably a mistake. Despite the physical pleasure, I don't think intimacy was actually enhanced. It seems like we turned away from the best kind of intimacy, and couldn't turn back. I would have predicted that both of us had the skills to turn back—to reclaim that best kind of intimacy—but I would have been wrong. I don't know which of us is most deficient in those skills. If I had to guess, I'd say you.

Once again, I've been brought asunder by expectations. So, if my math is correct, that's 1,334,283 times.


She wrote (in email #624):

I've never been addicted to heroin, but I assume it feels just like this.

I hear Ayn Rand's voice in my head saying, "My you really want a man that doesn't want you?" And I carefully explain that perhaps you were hit by a snowplow. Or perhaps a client—struggling with his or her sexual sadism—chained you to a radiator. Or perhaps your internet service is unreliable.

Have you seen the movie "V for Vendetta"? I loved it. In one scene (and this will ruin it for you, if you haven't seen it, and plan to), V (anonymously) tortures a woman in an attempt to make her stronger. The torture is a success, and—though understandably pissed off—she's strong. Woo-hoo! Just now, it occurred to me that maybe you're trying to make me stronger by not writing to me. I think that's unlikely. But maybe the possibility isn't as devastating as other possibilities. Maybe while Natalie Portman’s head is under water, she’s thinking, "Maybe it’s V that’s torturing me. I suppose that's better than being ignored.”

You know how it is when you don't get enough of something: In your head it gets better and better, until you're saying good-bye to perfection, to the best thing ever, to something irreplaceable and golden. But I need to move on, to put thoughts of you in the inactive files, the archived files. I need to say it aloud—“Enough”—and mean it. I don't want to love you anymore.


The rice is gone. She’s had a headache for a week, but the 81-milligram aspirin are gone, too. The noise from the TV became irritating, so she turned it off, and unplugged it, and then sliced through the cord, so she won’t be tempted to plug it in again.

She focuses on three things every day: checking her email, verifying that her phone is charged, and drinking eight glasses of water. Once a week, she writes to Amy, but Amy recently moved two thousand miles away to work on her doctorate, and Beth figures that soon she can cut back to twice a month.


She wrote (in email #632):

For a while, I thought it wasn't necessary to send a good-bye email. I thought I could be content with a perennially open-ended relationship. Later, it seemed like the relationship had ended whether I liked it or not, and an exit interview in the form of a love letter wasn't warranted, or advisable. But I find myself stuck in a miserable state of confusion, insecurity, disappointment, and anger. Now it's time to move on, and part of that moving-on means writing to you. I'm making an attempt not to rehash everything, turn this into something it wasn't, or ratchet up the drama to an eye-rolling degree.

I feel grateful that I got to know you. I'll never forget how it felt to drive to your house each week, ripe with anticipation, eager to be in that room with you, achingly aware of being a woman. I hadn't felt that in years, and it was such an unexpected treat to recapture that feeling. I sit here remembering, and I'm mildly surprised that it happened...that I shamelessly and expertly flirted with you, that I craved nothing but your eyes on me, that I actually cared about clothes and underwear and hair and makeup and perfume, that I crossed my legs and uncrossed them and crossed them again, hoping you'd notice...hoping you'd notice my shoulders and my bangs and my teeth and my shoes, that you'd notice I was a woman...a woman who wanted you.

But then therapy ended (so suddenly!), and sex began. What a heady thought...that we could become even closer. I could list dozens of cherished moments (from that all-too-brief post-therapy time), some of which leave me gasping with pleasure, even now.

But right on the heels of that, you disappeared, and I became consumed with self-doubt. The sudden reversal was dizzying. Never have I been as confused in a relationship. I feel stupid, as if I'm failing to grasp something that any other woman could easily understand. And while I've been involved in relationships that ended vaguely (without an official statement as to what went wrong), there were always plenty of clues, and the merciful end always came quickly.

It was probably a mistake on my part to assume that because you're a therapist, you're a competent and eager communicator. It was a mistake to assume that because you're adept at discussing the feelings of others, you're adept at discussing your own. And it was a mistake to assume that because you understand the long-term damage that can result when a romantic relationship ends poorly, you're capable of (or interested in) letting me down gently.

When I read email from the last couple of months, I ache for this woman named Beth. Her pain is palpable. Her suffering is exquisite. She so clearly wants to keep the faith, to hold you blameless, to keep all doors open. Her humility takes my breath away.

There’s so much email, and it’s always there to review, in a notebook that I sometimes carry around with me like an oxygen tank. The email serves to keep the memories fresh, like the unhappy convergence of a thousand lemons and a thousand paper cuts. Perhaps I've suffered more than this, but I've never chronicled my suffering to this degree. There it is: Exhibits A, B, and C.

I learned (from you) that attaching easily and detaching easily are worthwhile skills. I do the first one, but I'm not so good at the second one (in case you hadn't noticed). It's quite likely that the best time to detach has already come and gone. A decent life coach might point out that while I feel attached at this point, I'm not really, because you’ve moved on. I think I'm attached, but if I follow the rope far enough, I'll find a frayed end, and no note.

So the other day I was thinking about a detachment ceremony. My first thought: Maybe I should cut myself, or burn myself. Weird, huh. I've never had either inclination. I suppose I wanted to do something that would be more painful than missing you. When I considered what I might burn, I came up with “my inner thighs, with a hot iron” or “your house down.” But in the end, I decided to have an extra ounce of M&M’s and to Netflix a movie. It felt like touching base with myself, and recognizing myself as someone who is more than needy, more than pathetic, more than One Who Waits.

Well, I've spent too much time analyzing this. I will limit the time spent thinking about you, until "none at all" is how much time I spend thinking about you.

Funny, how grief is enjoyable for a while, and then it's something else. And then it's just gone...

Love, Beth.


It feels like autumn now, but she’s not sure of the date. She knows there’s a way to find out what day it is, but she can’t recall how. She seldom leaves the couch anymore (not even for porch time). Every morning, she fills a small pitcher with water, and sets it on the table next to the couch. Usually, she drinks it before the next morning.

She turned the computer off the other day, and then sliced through its electric cord. She waited until her cell phone died, and then sliced through the charger’s electric cord.

Tonight, she falls asleep at sundown, but the sound of persistent scratching at the front door wakes her in the middle of the night. At first, she thinks it’s that guy with the hook, from the scary story of her youth. That memory makes her smile, and she gets up and goes to the door. No serial murderer, but a scrawny orange kitten. She brings it inside, and cradles it against her filthy undershirt. The kitten meows urgently, and Beth doesn’t know what to do. I mean, you can’t let a kitten go hungry. It’s 3 a.m., but she walks to the neighbor’s house, and knocks.

Mr. Dillman answers the door, and invites Beth in. He carefully takes the kitten from her arms, and gives it a bowl of milk and a can of tuna, while Mrs. Dillman calls an ambulance.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Very Best Sunbeam

One Sunday afternoon when I was nineteen, my LDS bishop told me that I was being “called” to coach girls’ softball. In other words, the ward needed a girls’ softball coach, the bishop prayed for guidance in filling the position, and God named me. That was the system, as I understood it.

I sat there in the bishop’s office. (In real life, he was a lineman-for-the-county; I went to school with his kids. When I was twelve, he conducted my Bishop’s Interview—an annual review of all things moral. He asked, among other things, if I masturbated. I could tell—based on his tone and expression—that I should say no, so I said no. I hurried home after the interview and looked it up in the dictionary. Yes, sir, I’d been doing that for years. Even at age twelve, I couldn’t see that it was any of his business. I hope that things have changed since the late sixties, and that—if such interviews are still conducted—a woman is present. And not the bishop’s wife. That’d be creepy. But I digress.)

At nineteen, church was keeping me busy (I think that was the plan, given the idle-hands/devil’s-workshop connection). I was the Junior Primary chorister, a Sunday School teacher for preteens, the choir secretary, and a supervisor of teens in some new version of Mutual. In addition, I was frequently giving talks, performing humorous or dramatic “readings,” making posters, and writing and directing skits and plays. I even learned to square dance, so that I could represent the ward through dance. I was always at church. When I wasn’t at church, I was walking to or from church, or sewing a cute and modest dress to wear to church.

But…softball. I wasn’t even sure what it was. Was it the same as baseball? I’d taken one semester of high-school gym, and then weaseled out of the other required semester. I knew that Chuck Connors of “Rifleman” fame had been a professional baseball player before becoming an actor; I knew that I let Gary Ferguson get to second base when we were juniors. That was the extent of my knowledge of baseball. But, for some reason, God wanted me to coach. Well, who was I to say no?

I showed up at our first practice. I knew these girls; they were only a few years younger than me. We practiced at the elementary school across the street from the church (it was the mid-seventies, and no one was minding the line that ostensibly separates church and state). I pulled the canvas bag of balls and bats out of the back of my Pinto. I told the girls to practice tossing the balls back and forth. “Underhand or overhand?” someone asked. “Either,” I said.

I was able to fake it for about ten minutes, before a confident, sturdy girl piped up. “Have you ever played softball?” she asked. I smiled wistfully. “I have not,” I said. They seemed embarrassed for me. I dismissed them early, and drove home.

But I didn’t feel embarrassed. I felt oddly strong and self-contained. I felt like something important was about to happen, and I needed to pay attention. I went for a long walk.

A couple of years earlier, my only church job had been teaching the Sunbeams on Tuesday after school. They were four years old: a half-dozen girls and one sweet little boy. The maxi-dress was all the rage, and often all six girls would wear floor-length pink or white dresses; they looked like little parade floats as they walked. It was an easy-going, affectionate group of kids, and I remember a lot of construction-paper cutouts, a lot of hugs. I remember how it felt to sit next to them (during Opening Exercises) on an oak bench that rose about eight inches from the floor, and what a privilege it was to be alone with them
(during class) in a windowless room, our chairs in a circle, talking about life. It was a blissful time, which ended suddenly and without explanation.

The one job for which I was well suited was replaced by a half dozen jobs that I disliked. The new jobs brought me no peace or pleasure. There was an unpleasant dreamlike quality about them, in that I always felt clumsy and unprepared, and more than a little hostile.

When I got home from my walk, I called the bishop.

“I don’t want to coach softball,” I said.

“But, Polly…”

“In fact, I don’t want to do any of it, anymore,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“I want to quit everything,” I said. “Starting right now.”

And it was over.


The other day, I was sorting through some memorabilia (instead of earning a living, or training for a triathlon), and I came across a large envelope on which I’d written “Church Stuff.” I found:

  • My annual Primary Report from 1961 (a type of report card for my spiritual development, at age four). It was prepared by my mom, who just happened to be my Primary teacher (and would continue to be my Primary teacher until age eight, because I was painfully, tearfully, pathologically shy). In the comments section, she wrote: “Even though you’re my own gal, I think you’re the very best Sunbeam. You’re always quiet and listen carefully and obey. I love you very much!”
  • An assortment of Sunday School attendance awards from the early sixties. On one, someone has carefully written “98%” over the original “96%.” I remember informing my teacher that I’d only missed one Sunday that year (probably because of measles or mumps), and that the other “absence” had been while I was vacationing in Utah, where I attended church with relatives (we got credit for that). I was only seven, but I wanted God and everyone to know that I hadn’t been derelict.
  • A mimeographed program from a 1964 Christmas pageant, in which my older sister and I were angels, wearing white smock-like dresses that my mom made for us the night before.
  • A certificate for “A Talk” from May 1965, with a shiny red star affixed. I probably kept it to represent the hundreds of talks I gave between ages 3 and 19 (despite a rather marked speech impediment in the early years).
  • A Top Pilot Flightbook from 1965, the last year that my mom was my teacher. Jesus (as opposed to Joseph Smith) was the centerpiece of that year’s study, and each page of the Flightbook is about him. In February, we read about Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple, and that neatly translated into nine rules for us, all of which related to being quiet and clean.
  • A drawing (house, trees, sun…I didn’t really break any artistic ground), which was published in the Children’s Friend in July 1965.
  • The Articles of Faith, laminated, and the edges decorated with red velvet ribbon.
  • A cloth bag with my name on it, to hold my New Testament.
  • A green-felt bandlo (pronounced BAND-uh-low), perfectly complete, reflecting my desire and ability to show up every week for three years, memorize a few dozen scriptures, and learn to cross-stitch, knit, and crochet. (Recently, my older sister asked if the Mormon church approves of tattoos. I didn’t know, but doubted it. We agreed that—if they did—the perfect tattoo would be the Gaynote project: I Will Bring the Light of the Gospel into My Home. “And if you were really devoted,” she said, “you’d have it tattooed in all the little cross-stitches.” We found that hilarious.)
  • A program from a Lihoma Holiday in 1969. (As a child I thought that Lihoma was a Hawaiian word, but a recent Google search revealed it to be code for Little Homemakers.) This particular Lihoma Holiday must have been my last, because I’m listed on the program as a Merrihand. I gave the opening prayer, and then I immediately gave a talk. (An aside: The Gaynote teacher is listed as Sister Deaton. She was very attractive, and an accomplished homemaker. My older sister and I were at her house once, when one of her toddlers bit another of her toddlers. Without missing a beat, she pulled up the shirt of the offending toddler and bit into the soft, smooth flesh of his shoulder. He screamed. My sister and I stared. It was chilling. We could see the deep marks that her teeth had made. We were only nine and ten, but should we have done something? Should we have tackled her to the ground? She’d handed me a plate of homemade strawberry shortcake, just seconds before she attacked the little boy.)


I don’t think I ever really believed in the LDS church. It’s possible (for both children and adults) to overlook doctrine and get caught up in activities, and this particular religion has a lot of activities. I busied myself with Daddy-Daughter Dates, service projects, public-speaking competitions, homemaking training, ward and stake plays, four years of seminary, scripture-chase competitions, devotionals, firesides, girls’ camp, road shows, Gold-and-Green Balls, Education Week, Youth Conference, General Conference, baptisms for the dead, fieldtrips to Temple Square, hiking, tubing, caroling, visiting teaching, and Family Home Evening at BYU. My crushes were seminary teachers, home teachers, and any moderately attractive member of the Young Marrieds. I lived for face time with my true loves: Don Black and Marvin Payne.

Perhaps I should have sensed earlier that I was only “playing church.” I liked so many things about it: the music, the opportunities to excel, the approval of adults (especially my grandparents), the camaraderie, and the structure it gave my life. In the sixties and seventies (and maybe in any decade), there were many reasons to feel at loose ends. Church was everything that the world was not: safe, quiet, clean, predictable, unchanging. And I could see that an adolescence without alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or sex wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. You dodge some bullets that way. And, happily, all those things were patiently waiting for me, at nineteen.

I spoke in Sacrament Meeting twice as an adult, and the other day I found the carefully typed, carefully memorized talks.

When I was eighteen, a member of the bishopric gave me a pamphlet called “We Should Be a Reverent People” by Spencer Kimball. I assume that I was told to summarize it for the congregation. “It was very good,” I offered generously. I quoted from it: “True reverence involves happiness, respect, and gratitude.” Here, I addressed a pet peeve of mine: “When children are taught to be reverent, a whole lot of emphasis—perhaps all emphasis—is put on folding one’s arms.” And a second pet peeve: “Seems that when a child is born into this ward, he or she is made to feel extremely ‘special.’ It’s a shame that some of these children get confused and start thinking that they are ‘more special’ than someone born in Lehi or New Hampshire or Pakistan."

During a tangent that no doubt thrilled the bishopric seated behind me, I talked about hunger in Africa, apathy and complacency in Utah County, and a worrisome and pervasive “tinkling-brass existence.” I quoted extensively from the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians, referring to it as “my favorite.” The talk is, essentially, a dressing down. “It profiteth you nothing!” I imagine myself shouting from the pulpit. I quoted Jerry Lewis, John Denver, and the Broadway hit song “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

At age nineteen, I was asked to do a public debriefing of a Youth Conference I’d attended (as a chaperon) at BYU. Everything about the conference had been unpleasant, and I should have declined the invitation to speak, but I did not. I should have opened with “A funny thing happened on the way to the celestial kingdom,” but I did not.

Inexplicably, I talked about becoming very upset while watching the documentary “Nanook of the North” at a BYU film class a year earlier. A starving family kills and eats a baby otter, and “that upset me something fierce.” (In fact, the scene had me considering the very existence of God, but I didn’t mention that.) “God created both Nanook and the baby otter, and then made it impossible for them to live in harmony,” I pointed out, helpfully. I added: “That really bugs me.”

I tried to make some sense of the Nanook debacle by sharing this: “When I had my tonsils removed recently, I developed some very strong feelings for my doctor.” (I suppose a more general but still accurate statement might have been: “Every time a man shows me kindness—even when it’s vague and fleeting, and even when he’s being paid to do so—I develop a crush on him, and I seek him out so that I can say the words aloud: I have a crush on you.” I did, in fact, send the doctor an affectionate note, post-surgically.) To the rapt congregation, I described the doctor as “good and smart and strong and capable.” Then I (finally) made my point: “And he was just a man! Imagine God!” Predictably, I mentioned Luke 12:6-7, and the sparrows.

I made three more points: It was shameful (in 1976) that blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood (I guess I wasn’t bothered by women not being able to hold the priesthood). It was shameful that Mormon men and boys were such enthusiastic hunters (what with the sparrows, and all). And it was shameful that the Book of Revelations was such a downer, and so violent. “So, he creates us in his image, but later (the timing is a secret) intends to send ‘tongues of flame’ to destroy us?” I’m sure they appreciated my eye-rolling tone. Maybe I sensed that this was my last stand, and I chose to air some grievances.

Again, I quoted John Denver. I also quoted Dan Fogelberg, and Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard in “A Star is Born.” (How did I manage to leave out Neil Diamond and Richard Bach?) Then, I implored them to “...find happiness in puppies and balloons and polka-dots, in the smell of rain, in getting mail.” WTF? the grown-ups must have been thinking.

I wound up with a charming story about an Indian girl at a carnival, who approaches a man selling brightly colored balloons, and asks him why there are no brown balloons. He releases a handful of balloons, smiles, and says, “Child, it is not what the balloon looks like on the outside that makes it float higher and higher, but what is on the inside.” Nice, huh. I have no idea where I found that story.

Perhaps I didn’t know it at the time, but I was saying good-bye. I thanked the conference-attending teens, my mom, my “far-out family,” and Robert (“for being my friend”). Most poignantly, I thanked “everyone who says hi to me when I walk around the block.” I ended by saying, “Thank you for letting me speak this afternoon. I hope I said something meaningful. I wanted so badly to say something meaningful.” It’s not easy being nineteen.


A year ago, at a spiritual retreat on the Oregon Coast, I was chatting with a young man at the dinner table. When he found out that I was from Utah, he asked if I was a Mormon, and I said no, but that I had been until age nineteen. “Did you leave because of the church’s poor treatment of women and minorities?” he asked. I looked at him, confused. Finally, I responded. “Yes,” I said. “That’s why I left.” I was tired, and I didn’t want to explain the real reason: I was called to coach girls’ softball.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Comprehensive Inventory of the Contents of a Loved One's Purse

When my mom died suddenly in late 1982, she had her purse beside her. My dad gave it to me later, and I store it in a box of memorabilia on a closet shelf. At first, I felt sad when handling it (there’s some dried blood on it, and several of the items inside are broken). It became easier, though, and every couple of years I spend some quiet time with the purse, remembering her things, remembering her.

“I’m going to blog about my mom’s purse!” I hollered to my husband in the next room.

“I thought purses were private,” he said, because I’ve been telling him that for almost thirty years (because my mom told me that).

“This is an exception,” I said. “Like when you can’t resist opening my purse to answer my cell phone, even though I’ve asked you not to open my purse or answer my cell phone.”

The purse is burnt-orange leather, medium size, with short handles. It’s designed to close with a drawstring, but the stiffness of the leather makes that problematic. It looks expensive, and I bet she bought it at a garage sale.

Conspicuous by its absence (she liked that figure of speech) is a wallet. She always carried a wallet, and I don’t know where it is. That bugs me. There are no family photos, no driver’s license, and no money. There are two check registers, but no checks.

Here’s the inventory:

One pair of over-sized sunglasses. The plastic frames are straw colored, and the lenses are brown. There are two small yellow daisies with green stems painted on the bottom edge of the left lens. I tried them on, and the lenses are large enough so that the painted flowers lie outside one’s field of vision.

One National Semiconductor calculator (Datachecker) with a dead battery.

One black plastic mechanical pencil with a gray eraser, and the words “U. S. Government” printed on the shaft. One fine-point Bic pen.

One pad of paper (eight sheets, 3.5 inches by 5 inches) with the words Billet Office centered at the top, with her name below and to the right.

One index card titled Phonetic Alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie, etc.). Handy.

An assortment of business cards, some of which include appointment information:

Memorial Hospital in Long Beach, California

A radiologist in Long Beach, California

A dentist (Dr. Sakai) in Harbor City, California

Kwik Kopy Printing in San Pedro, California

Timpanogas Community Mental Health Center in Provo, Utah

An endodontist in Salt Lake City

A lawyer in American Fork, Utah

Allstate Insurance in American Fork, Utah

Big-O Tires in Orem, Utah

Porter’s Place in Lehi, Utah (“Fine Food from the Old West”)

One of my husband’s cards (dark-brown ink on light-brown paper) and one of my cards (black ink on bright-yellow paper). We had hundreds printed just for the hell of it, which—in retrospect—seems like something my mom would do (probably at Kwik Kopy).

An assortment of plastic cards: Visa, Mervyn’s, a phone card for long-distance calls, and a membership card for a private club in Salt Lake City.

One check-guarantee card (a “Supercard”), with a photo. My god, she’s beautiful. She’s just had her hair done, and it’s big and dark as it flatters and frames her face. She’s wearing plenty of makeup. Her eyes are bright; her smile is broad. Her teeth look flawless (they aren’t flawless, but they look flawless). She’s wearing a caramel-colored cowl-neck blouse in brushed cotton (my sisters and I borrowed it occasionally). She looks eager and energized.

One of my dad’s longshoring check stubs.

One receipt for film developing (the envelope-flap type). Tragically, by the time I called about it (many months later), the photos had been destroyed.

One deposit slip.

Two check registers. There are notations regarding two months of checks from a California bank, and ten months of checks from a Utah bank (she’d recently moved to California to be with my dad, but still had family--and a house--in Utah). Her bookkeeping and handwriting are impeccable.

The California register has calendars printed on the back cover, and she put X’s through each month, up to and including September 1982. She wrote checks for rent (California), mortgage (Utah), a truck loan, credit cards, utilities, insurance companies, union dues, dentists, doctors, and newspaper and magazine subscriptions. She wrote checks to the LDS church (welfare fund), the Muscular Dystrophy Association (telethon donation), Ted Wilson (campaign donation), Readers’ Digest (a dictionary for my birthday), her niece Marcene (graduation gift), her oldest daughter (to purchase a baby swing), her youngest daughter (to make a layaway payment on a stereo), and several cash entries for $6 each (“weight contest”). She withdrew $100 on September 28, and she wrote in the memo line: “Polly’s here!” On October 15, she sent her oldest daughter a check for $100, with “Trip to California” in the memo line.

On October 29, the day before her death, she wrote eight checks, which overdrew her account by $69 (just now, my husband and I giggled immaturely when I added up the checks and announced that number).

“Maybe I shouldn’t mention the overdraft,” I said. “Maybe that violates her privacy.”

“No…you should!” he said. “Isn’t that the goal? To empty out your bank accounts right before you die? Think of her as an overachiever.”

In the interest of accuracy, I should mention that the 29th was a Friday, and Friday was pay day, but she hadn’t logged the deposit amount yet.

The final eight checks were sent to: their landlord; the telephone company; a dentist; a radiologist (for the balance owing on a mammogram); a credit union (for “shares”); someone named Nora Nelson (weird, huh) (for a clock made out of a porthole, which currently keeps excellent time in my husband’s home office); and me (reimbursement for an outfit for my infant nephew). The final check was for $10.60, but she never listed the payee.

The Utah check register includes many of the same types of checks, but also has entries for groceries, prescriptions, and frequent hair care (thank you, Robert). That year, she also wrote checks for: food for my younger sister’s wedding for $63.61, “pants and blouses” (plural!) for $12.57, “dress and bathing suit” for $9.94, “crafts” for $13.10, “fabric” for $25.38, “typing stuff” for $8.23, and “Jane Oliver record” for $6.29. Memo lines often list “stuff,” “whatever,” and “who knows?” She stopped using the account on October 22, with a balance of $2.51.

Continuing the inventory:

One small red-vinyl address book. The inside flap shows their California address and phone number, their Utah address, my mom’s social security number, and my dad’s social security number (it was a more innocent time). There’s a complete and predictable list of family members, friends, medical professionals, insurance companies, and banks. She includes her hairdresser, the longshoremen’s union, a travel agency, and “Young Mothers’ School.”

One navy-blue weekly planner for 1982. She had one for each year, and she used it for efficient journaling. I’d quote from it, but it’s at my older sister’s house right now. It’s full of fascinating and poignant information, and when I get it back, I’ll share.

One book of matches from the Maritime Bank of California.

One stick of Doublemint gum. Two C&H sugar packets.

One bottle of Caffergot (about a dozen), for migraines. One bottle of Tylenol 3. One plastic packet of Bayer aspirin.

One small rectangular mirror that slips into a rubber sleeve printed with the words “Utah Army National Guard.” The mirror is in shards.

One envelope of floss threaders (with instructions for use).

Three emery boards in assorted sizes.

One plastic container of cold cream (the plastic is broken, but the cold cream is still contained; it smells a bit rank).

Two well-used tubes of lipstick: Max Factor’s Iced Watermelon and Max Factor’s Rose Petal Frost.

Two perfume samples: Avon’s Foxfire cologne and Avon’s Odyssey cologne.

One small, red-and-white-striped, zippered makeup bag. Contents: mascara, four shades of blue eye shadow and one brush, tweezers, one small pocket knife with two blades, one 13-cent stamp, eight bobby pins, three safety pins in assorted sizes, one rubber band, one large paper clip, and one small weight for a fishing lure (I have no idea). There’s also a metal clamshell container that once held perfume (in paste form), but now holds dimes (for phone calls, I presume). It’s gold, with a round turquoise stone set in the lid. A gift, as I recall, from a woman, but I can’t remember the details.

I wish I could remember the details.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Men I Didn't Sleep With

In 1996, I attended an animal-rights conference in Baltimore with my sister-in-law Pam. We met at Midway Airport in Chicago, and when she saw me across the crowded concourse, she hollered, “Look at you! You’re lanky!” Strangers turned to look, probably thinking, “She’s not all that lanky.” I’d just lost over a hundred pounds, but they had no way of knowing that.

Pam and I flew together from Chicago to Baltimore, checked into our hotel, and headed out for Chinese food. At the restaurant, we met an elderly European man (Austrian, maybe? Belgian?) who was also a conference attendee, and he bought us spring rolls. I didn’t realize that I was on the prowl until I found myself flirting with this very old, slightly chubby guy with the accent and the cane. The three of us hung out in his hotel room, and later he watched us swim at the hotel pool. (Has SILF been coined, with S for senior?) We were chatting poolside, when it became shockingly evident that the man was a bit of an old-world Nazi, and Pam and I simultaneously lost interest in him. She later observed: "He probably would have been more circumspect
if he’d known how close he was to getting in your pants."

The conference was not the target-rich zone I had hoped for. The women outnumbered the men, and most of the men were very young. Many of the men fell into a category I call Portland Man. He’s socially responsible, morally and spiritually developed, artistic, and underemployed. He’s hetero, but he respects women so much, and respects his own femininity so much, that he’s careful not to offend women by entertaining the possibility of getting laid. Of course, he’s vegan, because he respects animals even more than he respects women. He’s probably not getting enough protein, so he tires easily. Even so, if you meet him when he’s in his twenties, and convince him that sex is something you actually enjoy—and not something that you simply endure because men are brutes—he’ll do what’s necessary to “facilitate your orgasm.” But beware: He cries a lot. And once he’s past his mid-thirties, he’ll probably choose to forgo sex in favor of a cup of tea and a quick nap on the couch, all cozy in his Teva’s and ratty sweatpants from the thrift store.

Back at the hotel, I stayed in bed one morning while Pam took an early shuttle to the convention center. For months, I’d been secretly and obsessively chatting online at home, probing the seedy underbelly of the mid-nineties internet, and I had the phone number of a man in Baltimore, a married-with-children house painter who resembled Jeff Foxworthy and drank Killian’s Irish Red. I called him. Prepare to be shocked, Dear Reader, but the man did not fly to my side and make me his own. “I’m sorry…Who is this?” he asked. He cleverly hid his delight at hearing from me, and ended the short conversation by suggesting that I never call again. “This is where I live!” he hissed.

I caught a noon shuttle, had lunch with Pam (a bowl of pinto beans and a cob of corn), and attended a session about the horrors of rodeo.

(I’m firmly anti-rodeo. I’ve attended only one, with my high-school buddy Heather and her family. I left early, when a small monkey dressed as a cowboy was strapped to a saddled dog, and the two of them chased a herd of sheep. It was unclear who was the most terrified: the monkey, the dog, or the sheep. I was angry and tearful, and I walked the two miles home, disgusted by the laughing crowd.)

The man who led the session about rodeos was close to my age. He was bright and articulate, with a southern accent; he readily admitted to not being vegan. I was quite taken, of course, and delightfully surprised an hour later to spot him on my shuttle bus. Feeling bold, I moved from my seat to his, and introduced myself. He was even cuter up close: charming and flirtatious, with an easy grin. We had ten minutes together on the uncrowded bus, and we never stopped talking and laughing. As we arrived at the hotel, and as he no doubt sensed my eagerness to follow him to his room, he gently said, “You know I’m gay…right?”

Later, I saw him at the scheduled March on Washington (“What do we want? Animal Rights! When do we want them? Now!”). We’d finished marching, and I was sitting alone in a city park sipping a diet Coke, wearing bright-yellow cuffed shorts from Old Navy and a Rosie-the-Riveter T-shirt. He plopped down next to me. “My mama told me about girls like you,” he said, smiling, our thighs touching, his hand on my bare knee. “She told me that if I ever found a girl like you, I should grab her, and never let her go.” I leaned against him, my head on his shoulder. “Are you sure you’re gay?” I asked. “I’m sure,” he said, laughing softly, and then he said good-bye.

I wonder if he’s still gay.


A dozen years ago, a friend mentioned a place called Nestucca, a spiritual retreat west of Salem, Oregon, owned and operated by Jesuit priests. Eventually, I thought to Google it, and several years ago (and twice since), I visited.

I took a Southwest flight from Salt Lake City to Portland, and was one of the first people to board. From my window-seat toward the rear of the plane, I watched as a man made his way along the narrow aisle. He was in his prime, with long legs and Black Irish coloring. “He looks like the older brother of an L. L. Bean model,” I thought. I felt free to watch him, knowing that he wasn't watching me (I was wrong). He kept approaching. The plane was nearly empty—he could have chosen almost any seat—and he chose the seat next to me. (Is there anything better than being chosen...being preferred? That question reveals a lot about my junior-high days, especially gym class and school dances.)

As strangers sometimes do (especially strangers pressed for time), we bypassed small talk (unless you would list “flirting” as a subset of “small talk”). A lot can be said in a short time if the trivial is eschewed, and we revealed all the best and worst about ourselves. “I’m like this,” we said to each other. “Does that turn you off? ‘Cause if it does, I want to know now.” One can save a lot of time by acting like a grown-up.

He was retired military, and an off-duty Southwest pilot (which surprised and intimidated me, because I’m rather unaccomplished). He was married, just like me. During the final approach, he asked if I was going to rent a car. I said that I was going to use public transportation. Matter-of-factly, even presumptuously, he said, “No, you’re not,” and he offered to drive me anywhere I wanted to go. I was charmed, because it was a kind gesture, and because I like being bossed around by handsome men. Even so--and fearing that I’d regret it forever--I said no thank you. He gave me his phone number, just in case spiritual evolution wasn’t as much fun as I’d anticipated.

We kept chatting (urgently, compulsively) until the plane was empty. We stood. “You’re taller than I thought,” he said, but not in a bad you’re-fatter-than-I-thought way. We walked out together, enjoyed a prolonged hug, and said good-bye.

Upon arriving at Nestucca, I focused on opening my heart and quieting my mind (and I eventually stopped thinking about the guy on the airplane, and how his neck smelled like oranges and eucalyptus and justifiable adultery).

One chilly afternoon, I hiked a short distance to the yurt, a solemn communal space tucked into the forest. I’d been there the day before, crying and meditating, but mostly crying. (It’s an emotional place, Nestucca. It’s easy to come undone.) I was used to having the spot to myself, but—this should come as no surprise—Portland Man was there, in what looked like a painful yoga position. “Oh! Hi!” he said. Always optimistic, I grinned, and removed my shoes. I spread a quilt on the floor (my plan for the day was more napping and less crying). “How’s it going?” I asked, in what I hoped was an inviting tone. “Peace to you,” I added enthusiastically. I’d heard other retreatants use those words.

Fact is, I was lonesome. There was a lot of rain, a lot of silent meditation, and no meat at meals. I just wanted someone to talk to. He was finished, and he picked up his mat and walked to the door. “I didn’t mean to run you off,” I said, but he was gone.

The next day, I was alone (and lonely) in a common area, gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Nestucca Bay, warming my hands on a mug of tea, when an elderly white-haired man approached, and introduced himself. He was intrigued that I was a non-Catholic (an ex-Mormon, even!), and we sat together and talked for an hour while waiting for liturgy to begin. “Seems to me that growing up Mormon didn’t hurt you at all,” he said, eyes twinkling, as we parted ways that evening. I resisted the impulse to wait until everyone was asleep, and then knock quietly at his bedroom door.

He was sick, and he spent quite a bit of time in his room, with an oxygen tank. The morning I was scheduled to leave, we sat side by side on a wooden bench in the bright (if not quite warm) sunshine. I took a photo of him, the only photo I took during that visit. Later, he reached into his pocket and gave me a rosary with an imperfect number of beads, and said that it would bring me luck. It smelled like his cologne. (Occasionally, I still sleep with it wrapped around my hand.)

His buddy (a man my age) observed the connection that was forming, and encouraged me to stay another day. But I fled...unsure of my motives, confused about everything...hugging, weeping, shivering, smelling my rosary...certain that I’d never see my new friend again. “Oh, God, hear our prayers."

A week later, I received a charming letter from him, with information on how to use the rosary. I pored over the instructional pamphlet, trying to find meaning in the prayers. I wrote back, thanking him, enclosing the photo, but he died before my letter arrived. His wife in Seattle wrote with the news, and--all these years later--she and I continue to exchange letters. I do so with a clear conscience, and no secrets. I guess the rosary did bring me luck.