The Black Guy and The White Guy

I was herding my son out the door for school this morning, and as we walked out on to our front sidewalk I felt a sense of unease, acutely aware of a new war, a brewing storm from which I could not hide myself or my family. And after buckling Daniel in and sitting behind the wheel, I wondered at the exponential increase in that unease I would have felt as a Black person or as a police officer in uniform.

My son has become interested in sports over the past year or so, to the point where he will sit and watch most of a soccer match or basketball game with my husband. For a four-year-old, sitting and focusing on something for that long is no small feat. My husband and I both like sports (although, I have pulled away from them since becoming a mom for various reasons that deserve an essay of their own), and most likely from us, our son has picked up a habit. He will say something like, “The red guy just scored a goal.” Or, “We’re cheering for the orange guys.” And all of that seemed innocent enough until we were watching Golden State in the NBA playoffs at a Buffalo Wild Wings and my son said rather loudly, “We don’t like the black guys,” referring to the dark jerseys of the away team. We explained to him that he needed to say, the guys in the black jerseys and the guys in the white jerseys, because what he was intending to say and what was coming out meant two very different things.

Like most four-year olds, my son repeats what he hears, and things that garner a reaction of any kind, he tends to repeat a lot. For instance, my Athiest propensity for saying “Jesus Christ” has translated into Daniel’s use of the phrase occasionally, but only because I tried to stop him from saying it (for my father’s sake, at the very least). He takes cues from backed up traffic or cars that cut me off, and says, “Jesus Christ, right mommy?”, knowing that he will see the pained look on face, partially due to the scars I’m undoubtedly inflicting on him and partially due to my sadness at yet another loss of the “Mom of the Year” award.

This morning as I was driving him to school, a red car bumped into a black car at a light, a minor fender bender. Daniel, ever the play-by-play reporter, said, “That red guy hit that black guy,” And my protest was louder than usual. “Daniel! I have asked you to stop saying that; you say red car and black car,” I wasn’t yelling, but he knew I was upset.

And like any kid who questions everything, he said, “Why does everyone keep telling me that?”

Parenting these days is hard. You want to be honest, you have to be. But it is so appealing to take our parents’ route of generalizing everything, of letting us figure out the hard shit on our own, sometimes when it was too late. We call penises penises, not wee-wees, we are more open about sex and religion and all the stuff that is hard to talk about. And we have to be honest about our world; we can’t say we are colorblind when no one actually is. We can’t pretend we’re always safe when they’re running active shooter drills in the kindergartens. We have to be real with our kids, even if we still get to sugarcoat it a little for the sake of letting a four-year old be four.

“Daniel, the reason we keep saying that is because when you say things like white guy and black guy, it sounds like you are saying white people and black people, instead of talking about cars or basketball players or soccer players.”

I see his look in the rearview mirror; he is processing. I don’t even know where I’m going with this, but I’m emotional, so I keep talking. “There are people who are white and people who are black and people who are brown, and we love all of them”

Now he’s calling bullshit. “We don’t love people we don’t know, mommy, right?”

I’m crying now, and I keep confusing him with more spewing, “Yes, yes we do. We love all the people we know and all the people we don’t know.” And now because I’m improvising and worried that I’m basically telling him to get into a car with a pedophile offering candy, I add, “There are a few bad people in the world, and we have to watch out for the sneaky people, but for the most part, everyone is good, and it doesn’t matter what color we are, we love people because they need it right now. We all need it.”

And then Daniel says, “Ok. Did you pack strawberries in my lunch?”

With that, my lesson is on pause. But other parents from my diverse neighborhood don’t have it so easy this morning. My privilege is ringing in my ears.

I don’t know what the answer to any of this is. I felt as sick this morning at learning of those police officers’ deaths as I did this week learning of the deaths of of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Innocent people are dying because of the acts of a few bad people, and somehow the answer is to hate everyone who looks like or wears the same uniform as the bad people. Somehow the answer to terrorism is ban everyone who looks like they are from the same region where terrorist cells are located. Bullets are flying in every fucking direction because everyone is armed to the teeth and angry as hell, and we’re just supposed to keep living and raising our kids like it isn’t happening.

Loving all the people is a start, I guess, but where is the parenting book that tells you how to navigate this? What do you do when they’re eight and ten years old? How do you explain it once they start to see the world for what it really is? How do you explain Donald Trump’s rise to Muslim and Mexican children? How do you tell kids that people hate them for no reason? How do I tell my kid that he gets a pass on that because he’s blonde and blue eyed? And how do I stop feeling relief at that without being a complete and total asshole? I need someone to answer these questions for me. Because I’m starting to get nervous about walking out my own front door with my child, and that’s how some people feel every fucking day. Explain that to a four-year old.

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The Loudest Silence

Note: I never wanted to put this piece in print. It was mostly an exercise in healing, and it never occurred to me that I would really want to share it. And it did do a lot of healing for me to get it on paper. But then, Brock Turner joined all of us in the news during his trial and subsequent conviction for rape on the Stanford campus. His lack of apology, his willingness to put his victim through a trial in order to attempt to save his own ass, his father’s telling misogynistic language in a letter to the judge, the judge’s cronyism with his fellow Stanford athletes and alumni that led him to give a slap-on-the-wrist sentence. These things all have my blood boiling. The victim’s letter left me in tears, especially where she chooses to represent the masses of women out there who have been through this. I’m one of the masses, and I now choose to join her in solidarity. Sharing this might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but stories need to be told. This culture cannot continue. It can’t.

 

The Loudest Silence

I thought I’d done everything right. I didn’t leave drunk and by myself; I didn’t stagger into a dark parking lot against friends’ animated pseudo-protests or insist on walking home alone with smeared mascara, barefoot and clutching my platform sandals to my chest. I was raised by a tough single mom who taught me to be aware; I’d been warned it’s when women get stupid, complacent, lazy, trusting that these things happen. So I was careful. Car keys peeking through knuckles, safety in numbers, look aware, stand tall, walk with confidence, carry mace, check your rearview mirror, check it again, buy your own drink at the bar then never set it down. Careful, smart, attentive, prepared, vigilant. Always.

I didn’t initially question whether I’d brought it on myself or assess what I was wearing as victims are wont to do. I didn’t have to wonder why I decided to walk alone or meet a virtual stranger from the internet for a drink or go on a date with someone I had an iffy feeling about because those things weren’t part of the equation. After all, we’re all responsible for protecting ourselves, for not asking for it, for not being too inviting, and these measures help us do that. Or maybe they don’t. But just in case, I didn’t take chances, and I thought that meant I should have been safe. Which is why I didn’t initially understand that I was a victim.

People who do not understand they are victims might not know that, more than a decade after being assaulted, they could suddenly become repulsed by human touch, including that of an unsuspecting husband. Nor might it occur to them that having a baby, using a body for something natural and important, could be a trigger for being haunted by the time the same body was touched by something dirty and angry. Those people might write it off as no big deal, for as long as they can possibly muster, and then, without warning, they can think of nothing else.

If I wanted to analyze it, really dig in and question the things that might have been my fault, I probably shouldn’t have had so many drinks or worn that dress. Though it was a Friday and my 24th birthday party, and drinking a bunch of beer with friends and wearing a cute outfit are fairly normal activities for such an occasion. The dress was red. It was dark red with lighter red tiger stripes. It hit me below the knees but had a sexy string halter neck that I loved because I liked showing off my strong shoulders. I never wore it again.

 

I stood with my sister Amy, her boyfriend Davis, and Davis’s best friend Glenn, waiting for the taxi to pick us up from the ancient Irish pub where my birthday-slash-going-away party had been. Admittedly, we were all pretty drunk. Fun drunk, happy drunk, sloppy karaoke drunk. The cabbie drove us to my dad’s house, where I’d been living again for the past couple of years since returning from a short-sighted and short-lived move to New Jersey. Everyone was going to stay the night, which wasn’t a big deal because my dad was used to waking up to find members of this particular cast of characters strewn about the house after nights out. We were all basically family.

We sat on and around the huge, L-shaped family room sectional to eat the tacos that we’d made the cabbie drive through for on the way home. Plastic bags of fake Mexican food, crumpled napkins, and spent hot sauce pouches were spread on the carpet interspersed with my outstretched bare, tan legs as I sat on the floor leaning against the couch’s brown microfiber. Amy was cross-legged next to me, and Davis was standing, glassy-eyed and holding a still- wrapped burrito. He had repeated several times that he was going to bed, but he kept standing there, and we started joking that he was taking the burrito to bed with him to snuggle. Glenn was sitting on the side of the couch opposite from Amy and me; he looked close to falling asleep fully clothed. The TV was on in the background, and my sister was giving me shit for flirting with Jeff at the party after breaking up with him months before. I made a sarcastic comment about wanting to get some before I left town.

Maybe that’s when I asked for it.

 

Gradually conversation faded, Davis and Amy went to bed, Glenn was asleep, and I kicked off the patent red sandals with the tiny bows that I bought specifically to match the little red dress and lay down on the couch, pulling the ever-present ratty afghan over me.

My friends who threw the party were people I’d been waiting tables and attending college with since returning from the east coast. Somehow, I was hired as a server without any experience, and I was terrible at it. I forgot everyone’s salads and refills, but my charm got me through, as well as the fact that the chain restaurant where I worked was adjacent to the south exit of the Air Force Academy. Many of the customers were military college guys on free rides with stipends to spend, confidence to spare, and hormones to burn. The female servers wore short-shorts and tight tie-dyed t-shirts as our uniforms and worked it for tips, flirting with the Cadets, male waiters, and Mexican kitchen staff alike. I was all too familiar with the phrase “nice ass” in Spanish, and it didn’t occur to me to be offended by it. Maybe we all deserved to get raped.

Amy, six years older than I, went to high school with Glenn and Davis, and as a kid I’d always tried to tag along. They’d known me since I was a third-grader and watched me grow up. Sometime after high school, my sister and Davis ventured out of the friend zone, dated for a few years, then got engaged. Alternately, Glenn went to dental school in Boston and got engaged to Heidi. I hadn’t seen Glenn in a few years, but he was visiting friends and family on a school break while Heidi stayed home. Amy and Davis came down from Denver for the party, and brought Glenn with them. When they came in, I hugged them all and bought a round of beers, feeling grown up and suddenly equal to my older sister and her friends instead of like every- one’s baby sister.

 

When I woke up on the couch with Glenn on top of me, my red dress was bunched at my chest, my underwear was pushed aside, several of his fingers were jammed deep into my vagina, and his mouth was over mine stealing my breath.

What has happening registered slowly: is this a dream, this isn’t a dream, this isn’t right, this is Glenn, why is he on top of me, where are his hands. Finally, I found words.

“What the fuck?”

It came out as a loud whisper, though I’d expected more volume from myself. I pushed his chest, realizing I was still sloppy and weak but at least now wide awake. I’m six feet tall and have never been scrawny, but Glenn was much bigger. He barely budged, instead responding by pushing his hand further into me. Hard. Buckling my pelvis. I cried out, but it was muffled by his face in mine, his lips wet and spitting. He said, “Fuck you, Cara”, then shoved me into the back of the couch. He stood up, and I heard him zip his jeans. It froze me. He’d been prepared for more. He laughed in the dark, and a memory formed that will probably never dissipate, a sound lodged forever in my soul.

I moved my foggy head back and forth to figure out where he was against the backdrop of moonlight through the sliding door. My eyes found him, still standing but a few feet away. I didn’t know what to do. I prepared to fight, albeit drunkenly and with a giant opponent. Instead, he lay down in a slump on the other end of the sectional, soon snoring. I listened for a few minutes to be sure then army crawled across the floor to my bedroom, scolding myself for not sleeping there in the first place. I locked the door and fell into the bed that had been mine since I could remember. I stared at the ceiling, first in the dark, then in the pink morning light, and didn’t leave my room until I heard my sister say goodbye to Glenn and the front door slam behind him.

 

The following Monday my car was packed. I was moving sixty miles north to live with my sister and Davis in south Denver for a few months while starting my first corporate job and finding an apartment. When I arrived, they were both at work, so I lugged all of my belongings upstairs to my new room then relaxed on the couch for the rest of the afternoon. I helped myself to a couple beers from the fridge, and my sister’s calico cat, Toonces, snoozed on my chest, purring and kneading occasionally while my mind started to wander. I thought a lot about Friday night, all the things I didn’t have time or desire to think about over the whirlwind weekend of packing and saying goodbye. I knew what had happened, though some of it was blurred around the edges, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around what it meant or why. How long had he been there before I woke up? was a particularly nagging question. I was conflicted. I wasn’t inexperienced; I had slept with what I considered to be a few too many guys and had messed around with guys I knew way less than Glenn. I was convinced that his cheating on Heidi was my big issue with the whole situation, and I attempted to soothe myself with reminders that I hadn’t initiated anything. I wasn’t the cheater; that was his problem—and Heidi’s. But I still couldn’t get right with it. I didn’t know that I shouldn’t.

I heard the automatic garage door open and close and waited to see who was home. It was Amy, and I looked up across the open-concept living room into the kitchen where she walked in with three different bags slung over her shoulders and an armload of files, her heels clicking tile. “You look like you made yourself at home” she smirked, dumping her stuff on the table and kicking off her shoes in one motion.

 

“Yes, but my first rent check is right there on the table, so technically, this is my home,” I smiled at her, satisfied with my wit.

She said Davis had a softball game that night and we should go, but first she needed to change. I removed Toonces from the cushion he’d found on my stomach, and he let out a sleepy mew as he was deposited on the carpet. I followed Amy upstairs to her room and around the corner where I sat on the bed and talked to her through the open master bath door. She stripped off her pantsuit and blouse and looked around for shorts and a t-shirt.

“Hey, Aim,” I said, surprising myself with my need to bring it up, “Can I ask you about something?”

“Yeah, what’s up?” she didn’t look up from her search, but I preferred the half-listening, half- naked audience as opposed to undivided attention.

I started in on what had happened, shying from details, explaining in generics how I had woken up startled with Glenn on top of me “touching and kissing” me. I didn’t mention how I was sore the next morning, or the blood in my underwear, or that I felt violated and hadn’t slept much since.

My sister stopped what she was doing and leaned against the frame of the bathroom doorway, still in her mismatched bra and underwear. She exhaled a bitter laugh. “Yeah, you’re not the only one he’s done that to”

 

She didn’t say it like it was a reason to be aghast or like he was serial sexual predator who needed to be stopped. She said it like someone might have said, “Yeah, that Glenn, he is always trying to check out in the express lane with twelve items instead of ten.”

She went back to getting dressed. I let it go.

There was no mention of Glenn for the next couple of weeks. I started my job the following Monday, and each evening after work, Amy, Davis and I would hang out together. It was a new dynamic with the same family, and it felt good to be on my own again without the requirement of actually being on my own. That Friday, I came home a little later than normal after getting a happy hour beer with my new coworkers. I walked in the front door, across the house from where Amy and Davis were arguing loudly in the kitchen. I wasn’t sure what to do or how to get to my room without them seeing me, so I stood hiding behind the giant fireplace that divided the main room. I didn’t plan to listen, but I’d heard my name and was bracing myself for the fight to be about me living there. I was ready to defend myself before realizing the conversation was about what I’d told Amy the previous week. My sister apparently expressed some concern about Glenn, and Davis was defending the guy who had been his best friend since childhood, the guy who would be his best man in a few months while I would be the maid of honor. “There’s no way”, Davis was yelling, “He would never fucking do that!”

I waited for a few minutes then strode into the living room, acting as if I’d just walked in. They didn’t buy it. Davis was already angry, and now they both appeared pissed off at my obvious eavesdropping. I looked in their direction without eye contact, blinking back tears, then went straight upstairs to my bedroom. I stared at the bare walls feeling guilty for ruining the night, waiting for my sister to knock on my door to tell me everything was ok. She never did. The next morning over pancakes everything seemed fine. And that was fine with me.

 

Fifteen years is a long time, and for most of it I thought about the night of my tainted 24th birth- day as little as possible. I talked about it even less, and only my best friend and eventual husband were ever told. The version they knew was similar to what I’d told my sister so long ago, generic, vague, a brushoff story of an old scar. In retrospect, I can pinpoint some bad decisions and stupid behavior over the years that any freshman psych major could see related to that night and its effect on me—one night stands that I thought would give me control but instead made me feel dirty and sad, breaking up with nice guys only to date jerks, pretty classic. For the most part though, I pretended so hard that it was no big deal that it actually seemed true.

Today, I read venomous internet comments and watch talking heads who wonder aloud why Bill Cosby’s accusers waited so long. They ask why someone would wait for so many years after a traumatic event to come forward. They accuse of money-grubbing and fame-whoring. They assume sluttiness and groupie behavior. They say it was “just fondling, not intercourse” or “why would someone go to his hotel room if she wasn’t after sex?” But I get it. I know exactly how it can take so long. I know that I felt as comfortable sleeping on a couch in a sundress across the room from a longtime family friend as someone might being alone with America’s Favorite Dad—with Dr. Huxtable. I was fine with downplaying something that wasn’t intercourse or violent rape because I didn’t know how to process it and didn’t want to think about it and didn’t want to admit I’d been affected or damaged by something that seemed small. Until it wasn’t small, until it grew, until it took over everything and no longer responded to my efforts to conceal. I dealt with my family’s love for Glenn as a factor; I can only imagine how much I would have hidden if the whole world knew and revered him.

 

A few years ago, I gave birth to my son around the same time the controversial high school rape news out of Steubenville, Ohio was splashed across the national stage. The Steubenville case had a lot of parallels with what happened to me, and the postpartum hormones didn’t help me in my efforts to ignore it. They kept saying rape over and over again, when the actual physical details of what happened were: digital penetration of an underage, drunk female (though the advent of cell phone cameras and viral video, and the role of adults in covering it up to protect football players, made her case so much worse). I couldn’t admit that what happened to me was rape—I still don’t think of it like that—but hearing the word and the girl’s story triggered something in me. I thought about it constantly. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t want to be touched. At all. By anyone except for my tiny baby. I could not be touched. I shuddered at the thought of sex, and it became a non-existent part of my marriage. I talked with my husband, and while he said he understood, how could he really? And how honest was I really being with him? I ended up in a deep depression, haunted by visions of that night, wanting to be alone at all times, but scared when I was. I drank aggressively. Finally, because I did not want to be a mom and a wife who was depressed and drank aggressively, I talked myself into therapy.

My first two therapy sessions, I sat in the chair and cried for the whole hour. Two times, my insurance company paid a counselor $150 to watch me do nothing but cry. The third session, I talked, and I made myself tell the real story. Between what had happened with Glenn, my mother’s sudden, traumatic death in 2006, and my reluctance over the years for dealing with either, there was some damage. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety, ADD, and PTSD and was medicated with a mild anti-depressant (which I still cling to like a security blanket, afraid of what will happen if I stop). I balked when she said PTSD because I reserve that in my mind for brave survivors of something important and not for silly girls who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. For so many years, that’s what I told myself I was.

 

I can talk about it now, but I know I’m not healed. I have a new list of things that might be my fault. For instance, I’m ruining my marriage with my constant dread of being touched, and I’ve somehow gained thirty pounds to make my attractiveness to my husband less of a threat. It’s my fault that I read the articles that tell women having sex with their husbands even when they don’t feel like it will save their marriages, and I think: maybe it would be easier to get divorced. It’s my fault that I can’t make it go away, no matter how hard I try, no matter how hard I wish to want to be touched. These things that are probably my fault might be the result of the night of my 24th birthday, or they could possibly be because I’ve turned into a terrible person. I’ve started to realize that the two things are the same.

The women who have accused Bill Cosby are brave and strong to come forward, and they’ve given many other women a voice. For me, my voice will be limited to writing and talking to my therapist and husband and girlfriends, among them many strong, confident, educated women who have eerily similar stories and scars. I got up some nerve to mention it to Amy a couple of years ago. I asked her via email why she let a sexual assault of her little sister go, why she forced me to walk down the aisle with Glenn at their wedding, so as to not make a scene, knowing it was demeaning, knowing I had begged not to, why they chose him over me. That is the last communication I’ve had with her; we have not spoken in over two years. Now, like then, she won’t talk about it, and now, like always, confrontation makes her run away. So I choose not to make more waves in my family, not to stir a cold pot, not to upset anyone else. The statutes of limitations, that of the state of Colorado and the one created in my own mind, have passed, and I’m finding some peace, even on my birthday.

 

Because my dad is friends with him online, and because he got remarried to a high school classmate of mine, images of Glenn pop up in my Facebook feed on occasion. He and his wife have two small daughters, little blonde things with bright blue eyes. I find some irony in that, some hope that being a dad (though it didn’t work for America’s favorite) can fix someone, and some disappointment in myself for imagining how he would feel if someone assaulted his daughters the way he assaulted me. Then I scold myself for thinking about him at all, and I move on as quickly as I can, suppressing memories, but hoping he teaches those little girls to be aware like my mom taught me. Careful, smart, attentive, prepared, vigilant. Always.

This is Thirty-Nine Point Eight Three Three Three…

forever-39

I turn forty in a couple of months, and I’ve recently become driven by a compulsion to tell everyone that I turn forty in a couple of months. Spoiler alert: that may be what I’m doing now. I’m not sure if it is to see what the words feel like coming out of my mouth or to impress upon people that I am now full of some mystical wisdom that, just last year, still escaped me. Or maybe I’m subconsciously trying to explain away errant wrinkles that were offensive at thirty-nine but somehow become acceptable at forty. If I am in an elevator with a stranger and the silence gets a little weird, I find myself biting my tongue, chewing back the guttural urge to tell this person, whatever his walk in life, that, in fact, I am about to turn forty. What IS that?

Whatever it is, I keep saying it. To everyone. And I can’t stop.

By nature, I am an over-explainer. The socially awkward part of my brain has a mainline to my tongue, and when in doubt or fear, I babble. Some find this endearing, while others clearly do not like me from the start. The members of the latter group used to haunt my thoughts, but now, as I approach forty, I have approximately zero shits to give about those people. Some of them, if they are forced into my proximity multiple times, I will win over, because dammit, I am funny and a goddamn delight. Some will never like me. I am an acquired taste, and I have a lot of friends who have acquired it. I have grown out and wised out of caring about people who have not, including people whom I’m related to, both by blood and by marriage. Because seriously; I’m almost forty, and I am too busy awkwardly singing it from the rooftops to have time for those people.

As I approach my birthday, I’ve been having an important conversation with myself about my age and the body that has carried me to this age. It goes something like this: “We are almost forty, body, and it’s time I learned to love you.” For my entire life, I felt as if my body was betraying me. In junior high and high school, my height ranged from 5’10” to 6’1″. I was taller than almost every boy, fell constantly, sucked at sports, had knees that ached, and would, if anyone let me, sleep for fifteen hours a night so that I could keep growing. After high-school I got too chubby, then too skinny, then super athletic but with too-large thighs. I passed on water park trips and beach adventures and even just laying by the pool on a summer day—for twenty plus YEARS— because I felt that I was not worthy of wearing a bathing suit. My weight fluctuates on a twenty-pound spectrum. At the low end of the spectrum, I am happy, and at the high end, I’m sad. No more. I’m a mostly healthy eater and an active person who is shaped exactly like my sister who drinks Coke all day and eats fast food and never works out. So, this is my body, my DNA, my genetic makeup! I have spent approximately 30 years hating a body that is healthy and strong (though sometimes injured) and I’m done with it. I will continue to be active and healthy and as strong as possible through exercise and a proper diet, but I refuse to hate my body anymore. It carried a rockstar of a baby who still snuggles up against the squishy part he lived in to sing himself to sleep with made-up song lyrics. It carries my brain, the same brain that sprinkles my own brand of awkward into the world. It has run ten half-marathons, six sprint triathlons and an olympic distance, and it has climbed up half the 14ers in Colorado, plus it can swim laps faster and longer than almost anyone it knows. For all of those things, my body deserves a prize. And if that prize happens to be a grueling road race, I’m in. If it’s a massage, yeah, I’ll hit that. If the prize is a cheeseburger and a beer, I’ma get after that shit. Guilt free. Then fetch me my swim costume, Jeeves, this statuesque Athena-type is taking a long overdue pleasure dip.

Forty is for feminism, (I just made that up—should that be on a t-shirt or what?) and because I was just speaking about bodies, I’ll start there. Can we stop talking about women’s bodies already? Seriously. Why? Why? Why? I no longer care what anyone’s body looks like and vow, though it might be difficult because of the way it is ingrained in everyone, to stop talking about bodies full stop. Mine, yours, hers, his. What your body looks like is not my business. If you can accomplish amazing athletic feats with your body, congratulations, that’s awesome. If your body holds a brain that can write a NYT bestseller, great, I’m super proud of you and, ok fine, also kinda jealous. If your body is tired and old or young and new or fat or thin or pale or dark or a bikini body or one of those inflatable Sumo wrestler costume bodies or whatever, I don’t care. I want to hear what you have to say and what you feel and your take on the state of politics right now. Unless you’re voting for Trump, then I don’t want to hear shit from you. But even then, I still don’t care what your body looks like.

In other feminism news, I’m going to use my fortieth year and beyond to fight back. I have let a sexual assault invade my feelings and thoughts and self esteem for fifteen years, the same way about a kerbillion other women out there have probably done. I’m stopping that, and then I’m helping other women stop that, and then I’m fighting for it all to just fucking stop. I’m going to find a way to help keep bad men from touching women without permission, even if I can only help a little. I’m a big girl now, and I can do something about this. In my mind, that culture, that fear, and that power struggle are the main reasons we make less, why some think less of us, and why we often end up feeling like we are less. We are not less, we are equal. Equal to everyone. And females are strong as hell.

There’s more I want to accomplish as I embark on this this milestone birthday; maybe I’ll post another rant about it soon, but I don’t have time right now. I’m raising a boy-feminist with my feminist husband, kicking ass with my own business, and starting my birthday celebration early by leaving for Vegas this weekend—where I will lay by the pool enjoying cocktails and cheeseburgers with my best friend, who happens to love my witty, albeit endless, banter. So I’d better stop this babbling go pack my swimsuit.

 

 

 

One Fish, Two Fish

godfather

The dead goldfish was a new parenting low for me, though it was not the first dead goldfish we’d encountered since Santa brought the fish tank two years prior. In fact, if we’re counting, it was maybe dead goldfish number six in that time period. This one was different, though, because it was not floating at the top of the tank; it was on the floor. In my son’s room. Black-eyed and lifeless on the strip of hardwood that shows between where the area rug ends and the closet door begins.

I noticed the night before that one of the fish was missing from the three-gallon tank. The orange and black one was still swimming around, but the pale gold one was gone. I peeked into the tank through the algae-coated glass in all the regular hiding spots—behind the mini Easter Island statue head and among the leaves of the plastic plant— and could not find the missing fish or its carcass. And it wasn’t until the next morning that I solved the mystery.

Mike, Daniel, and I were in the morning rush of leaving for work and school. I was weighed down with several bags: my laptop bag, my purse, a four-year old’s dinosaur backpack, my lunch bag, and my gym bag, though I knew getting out of the office for a run that day was wishful thinking at best. I dropped it all in a pile on the front seat of my Subaru wagon, and my husband buckled my son into the car seat in the back. As I watched this happen, I realized I was cold, that the weather was drearier than I’d expected, and that my child was wearing only a long sleeved t-shirt and jeans. “Hey,” I said, “I’m going to run inside and grab a sweatshirt for Daniel.”

And that is what I did. And that is what I was still doing when I encountered the dead goldfish on the hardwood floor in front of my son’s closet.

I took a private moment to officially rule the death a suicide.

I pondered the dead fish and was about to go grab a wad of toilet paper with which to pick it up and transfer it via flush to the sewer system of Denver proper. But then I stopped myself. We were already late, and given my aversion to germs, especially those associated with raw poultry or fish, I knew the flushing would be followed by a long, hot hand washing and a scrub of the floor, and it had already taken forever to get my family out the door. So instead of dealing with it, I told myself that I would be home first that evening since it was Mike’s day to pick up D from school, and I would take care of the dead fish situation as soon as I arrived. Then I grabbed the sweatshirt off its hanger, slipped out the front door, and proceeded into the rush hour traffic before I could second-guess myself.

 

I dropped my son off at school and settled into my 45-minute  commute, autopiloting  on to Highway 36 with my mind wandering first to the uneasy guilt I felt at leaving something so disgusting in my house, and then to another dead fish in my past. It was 1999, and my younger sister called me from her college in Utah. “What’s wrong?” I said, which is what I always said after I knew it was her calling. She never called unless there was drama.

She was crying and distraught. “Mom is such a fucking mess!” she spat the words as her sadness morphed into the anger and disgust that were much more her style. “She sent me a dead fish in the mail!”

“Wh-whoa-whoa. What?” I knew our mom was strange, and yes, often a fucking mess, but what entered my mind was a picture of my sister receiving a package with a large, dead trout or catfish in it, like in The Godfather. I was confused. “She sent you an envelope with a dead fish in it?”

“No, it was a box. A care package”

This did not help it make sense. “With a dead fish in it?” I ventured.

“Yessss!” my sister hissed at me, continuing her longstanding tradition of treating me like a complete idiot while simultaneously soliciting my help or advice.

Courtney explained to me that she had received a box in the mail from my mom containing snacks and fun games and lipgloss and lotion and other creative things. My mom often did things like this, and it always reminded us of the Christmas stockings and Easter baskets that we got growing up; she was ridiculously creative and had a knack for putting gifts like that together. Upon realizing it was one of my mom’s famous packages, my sister had apparently summonsed several dormmates to witness the unboxing in a gesture that probably had more to do with trying to one-up people in the cool-mom department than anything else. The audience made the presence of what I now knew to be a large, dead goldfish about the size of an adult fist— dangling from a pair of funky new socks that my mom had undoubtedly picked up at some cool gift shop she’d discovered—even more upsetting. According to Courtney, she had lifted the socks out of the box and held them up in the air for everyone to admire when one of her friends screamed. And then the fish fell with a thud back into the box. After that it was all down hill.

There was really no way to avoid laughing. Which, in turn, infuriated my sister to the point that I thought she might do permanent medical damage to herself. She’s pretty high-strung anyway, and my glee at her embarrassment and anger was not helping the situation. My mom had done some strange things in our lives, but in my sister’s opinion, this was piece de resistance.

“How do you explain that to your friends?” my sister was still at full-tilt, showing no signs of slowing down.

The truth was that there was probably no way to explain it that would truly encapsulate my mother. It wasn’t the first or last time either of us had been forced to make up a brush-off story about how my mom was actually normal, just eccentric and lots of fun, and maybe a little “spacey” sometimes. I thought about the fish and how it could have possibly happened. I knew my mom didn’t do it on purpose. But seriously, how do you end up with a big, dead, google-eyed goldfish mixed in with a care package of cookies and Chap-Stick? The explanation I gave myself was that the fish had probably died in its tank, and my mom, in a common move for her would have let it sit for a few days or weeks until it started to smell. And then she might have gotten around to lifting it up, dumping the water, and then stashing it somewhere, in this case a big empty box that she had in the bottom of a closet or at the back of a cabinet, without actually removing the body. And maybe the tank tipped over and the dead fish fell out and then, weeks later, she grabbed the box (a really nice box, as she always used to say) and used it to pack a care package worthy of a Harry and David catalog. That’s the explanation I gave myself, and given the weird shit I’ve seen my mother do with messes she didn’t want to deal with, I’m sure it wasn’t far off. I gave my hypothesis to my sister to no avail. She wasn’t having it.

“She’s lost it! She’s crazy! I’m done!”

 

My mother died almost ten years ago, several years after shipping a dead fish to the University of Utah, care of my little sister. Her death was, in fact, due in part to her “losing it”, but in the past decade, with all the writing I’ve done about her, I was always too scared to address the crazy. I couldn’t talk about the parts where she was manic or drowning in depression or some other episode of what was very likely bipolar disorder. I couldn’t write about the parts where she spent money compulsively, sometimes leaving only enough grocery money for rice and canned tuna for dinner, or the parts where she did things like hide a disgusting fish tank, carcass included, in a closet or cabinet without cleaning it out first, and then completely forget about it until one of us was left to take care of it. After she sacrificed so much to raise us on her own, and after she did so many great, fun, cool-mom things over our lives, it felt like a betrayal to talk about the fact that she was probably really sick for a lot of her own life. Living with my mom created a confusing childhood, one that likely made us grow up before we were ready, but it seemed disrespectful to talk about her behind her death.

It took me some therapy to figure out that it’s possible to acknowledge my mom’s mental illness without taking away from the fact that she was funny and smart and beautiful and more nurturing than anyone I’ve ever met. I would still choose her as my mom if given a choice between her a million others, but I also now know that I’m allowed to paint an honest picture; it’s ok to process the shitty parts; it’s ok to revoke her sainthood in return for some closure. For a long time, I felt like my grief would be rendered invalid if her secret got out, that it was only ok to mourn the perfect. In fact, I spent so many years protecting her memory, making sure that people saw her as the upstanding mom of the decade, that I never dealt with the residuals of growing up with a mother who was mentally ill. The taboo, it turns out, is not only reserved for the living.

 

When I got home from work that afternoon, it took me about fifteen minutes of puttering around in the kitchen before I remembered that I had a dead fish to deal with. I went first to the bathroom where I fashioned a catcher’s mitt out of about 46 layers of toilet paper, wrapping it rhythmically around my hand while I gave myself a pep talk. Armed with my fish catching apparatus, I walked into Daniel’s room, turned on the light, and walked toward the spot where I’d left the dead fish that morning. I began breathing through my mouth, a practice I typically reserve for cleaning up vomit, but I thought could prove handy in this situation, as well. Ready. Steady. And… nothing.

The body was gone. And because I’m not always great at thinking on my feet, my first instinct was to look back in the fish tank. The tank that sits on the bookcase about five feet above where the dead fish was that morning. The tank that, even if he had been alive and well and just out on a stroll, the fish would never have been able to jump back into. It was at this moment that one of our dogs walked in. (Bex. It’s always Bex in situations like this.) She beelined for the spot where the fish had been that fateful morning and licked the floor. It didn’t appear that this was her first visit. I went to the kitchen to get cleaning supplies and then returned to shoo Bex away and sterilize the floor in my son’s room with approximately seventeen bleach wipes, shuddering as I pictured our adorable, but not super-smart, blonde mutt chewing her snack. I shuddered again as she gave Daniel a big welcome-home lick across the face when he arrived a little while later.

 

I didn’t become a mom until a few years after my own mother passed away. It took me off guard how much having a child would make me miss her, and it put in perspective how difficult her life must have been as a single parent struggling with a mental illness that, because of the way things were—and, really, still are—she kept hidden from everyone except for my sisters and me, who had no way of understanding it, and no way of declining our invitation to the party. For all the moments in the four years of Daniel’s life that I have pined for my mom, at this moment, standing in my child’s bedroom with the late afternoon sun squinching my eyes and shining a spotlight on the crime scene, as it sunk in that I left a dead fish on the floor on purpose which my dog then ate, I actually wanted my mom more than ever. I wanted to tell her I was sorry and that she was forgiven for all the things that she couldn’t control, and that she shouldn’t worry, because it doesn’t take a crazy person or a bad parent to get a dead fish stuck somewhere it isn’t supposed to be. Or maybe it takes both.

A Little Night Music

 

A Little Night Music

 

Some might frown on a seven- and five-year old being in a bar, but it wasn’t like that. It was our special night out with our mom and her friends. She didn’t drink; she was just there for the music, and we got to be her little companions just this once. We were allowed to have sodas and were to remain sitting at our table in the dim basement of McKenna’s Pub on a Sunday, a school night. (Though it has long since been closed, I cannot drive by that corner in Colorado Springs, on the occasions that I am forced to leave the solace of Denver for a visit, without seeing that bar in my mind, a black and white English cottage of a building, always so out of place next to a KFC and a gas station)


My mom did not get out much. She was single and in nursing school, and she worked full time to make ends meet, too. In retrospect, she probably barely had the time to think straight, even without a social life. We understood in a way that this outing meant a lot to her, but now, as a working mom who pines for my bi-monthly book (or more aptly wine) club, I can see that it must have been such a treat. It shocks me to think that she was only about 29 then, when as a new mom at 36, I still feel like such an amateur.

We were good kids. When your mom is young and single and completely used up just trying to pay the bills, you have to be good, otherwise it all goes to hell. And we never wanted it to go to hell. Courtney and I sat at the table in the corner with our sodas, while our mom, a round woman with a huge smile, beautiful amber eyes, and a wit that would catch you off guard, carried her Diet Pepsi around laughing her great laugh with her nursing school friends and singing along with the folk duo, Phil and Frank.

Phil was the brother to Barb, my mom’s lab partner in nursing school. They were apparently alphabetically paired, their last names both starting with the same three letters. Barb’s brother was starting to book quite a few gigs around the local music scene in the Springs, and it became a natural hangout for the Beth-el School of Nursing crowd. They were all having a great time.

I focused on the music, wanting to be seen as a seven-year old prodigy who tapped her toe in perfect time. My sister colored. We both felt very special being there, the only kids in a grown-up place, on our best behavior, listening to live music with other grownups who all checked in on us as they mingled by, asking how school was or if we were being good to our mom. Without a husband or nearby family, my mom had only these other nursing students as her support, though most of them were still so young and single that the idea of raising two children alone must have baffled them.

After that one night at the bar, I was obsessed with Phil and Frank and their voices and acoustic guitars. I thought they were lyrical geniuses and, though I did not understand many of songs’ words, I pretended to be a party to the deep meaning. I begged my mom to take me back to the bar, but she never did, saying that it was a special one-time thing. Kids did not belong in bars on school nights, and she knew that. I continued to ask about the music though.

My mom attended another of their performances, one that they played with a woman named Cindy, whose voice was sultry like velvet and smoke. I know this, because at this gig, my mom asked if she could place a tape recorder on Phil’s music stand to record the set. This was back before people were freaks about contracts and copyrights and pirating. It was just all about the love of the music. So Phil agreed.

So I guess this is the story of how my mom made me my first bootleg. I listened to it constantly. I made a copy of the copy to play on my little stereo in my room, and my mom kept the one she made in the car, where we listened to it every day on the way to and from school. The harmonies were crisp and beautiful, the guitars were alternately tinny and fast or melty and slow, and the back and forth chatting and laughing and key-finding of the musicians between songs was my favorite part. The lyrics were deep and grown up and spoke of real life and the seriousness and humor involved in the business of being an adult. (In college, someone played Paul Simon’s Duncan, and it was the first time I realized that someone else actually wrote that song, that is was not a creation of Phil and Frank. It was also the first time that I understood that “the couple in the next room, bound to win a prize; they’ve been going at it nearly all night long” meant they were having sex, not arguing as I had deducted as a young child of divorced parents.)

In my mind, this cassette was a number one album. In fourth grade, my teacher asked the class what kind of music we liked. People said Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen and Prince, and I liked them, too, but I raised my hand and announced that Phil and Frank were my favorite band. And I did not understand why no one knew what the hell I was talking about.

Eventually I learned that it was not that cool for an almost teenager to listen to folk music constantly, and though I have always been an equal-opportunity music junkie, I focused the rest of my formative years on liking and listening to what everyone else was liking and listening to. From Debbie Gibson through Nirvana, I followed the mainstream, the cassette recording of Phil and Frank, gathering dust in some hidden box, never to be seen again. Along the way I learned to love singing and would randomly surprise my hippie choir director, when I could belt out all the lyrics to a James Taylor song he’d selected before he’d even handed out the sheet music. Phil and Frank had still left their impression on this Pearl Jam fan.

In April of this year, I had my first child, a baby boy named Daniel. His giant blue eyes twinkle with the piece of my mom that I see in him every single day, and I wish that she had lived to meet him.

I somehow forgot to sing to my baby the first few weeks of his life. I was so focused on doing everything right and making sure that I was a good mom, that I forgot to use my own little instrument to soothe him let him get to know me. I forgot I had the skill. And then one night, he cried, hard and long, back arched away from me, the wails flowing right into my ear causing me a physical pain that I now recognize as the pain of loving someone more than you love yourself. I bounced and swayed and shushed. I rubbed gentle circles on his back and placed tiny kisses on his head. I tried his vibrating bouncy chair and breastfeeding and anything else that I thought might work. And then, in a moment of clarity and desperation, it occurred to me that I should sing. And instantly and randomly from my mouth came two verses and the chorus of a song I could not place:

He was just some young white kid, trying to sound tough and black

With gravel and spit in his voice

He’d laugh at the things we’d do; the radio laughed, too

I held up my arms in rejoice



Singing rooty-toot-toot for the moon

It’s the biggest star I’ve ever seen

It’s a pearl of wisdom

A slice of green cheese

Burning just like kerosene

Burning just like kerosene



So God bless motorcycles and far-out, heavy trifles

You know you can’t memorize them

Hang your hat on your nose, don’t hide in your clothes

Smile as one begins to begin.



As I sang, Daniel relaxed into my neck and fell asleep. I felt proud of myself in remembering that I had a secret talent that could charm babies and like I might just make it through this after all. And, then I sat and wondered where I had gotten that song. After years in choir through junior high and high school and spending my whole life listening to every kind of music I could get my hands on, I still could not place the lyrics and the tune. And I could not understand why it made me so emotional. Then it hit me. It had come from a bootlegged-with-permission cassette tape, and it had been stored in my brain, collecting dust and memories, for the better part of 25 years, and then it came out of my mouth like I had just listened to it yesterday.

Knowing that Phil and Frank did many covers and many original songs, I immediately set about Googling the lyrics. They turned out to be written by Michael Johnson, a musician from Colorado, who sang with John Denver, one of my all-time favorites. But I had never even heard of this guy. I immediately downloaded the song, as well as another one from my beloved cassette that had been Michael Johnson’s, too.

I sang the song again, and I cried. I cried because she wasn’t there to see me become a mom and because I couldn’t ask her if I was doing this right, and because I was robbed of the option of being able to call her in the middle of the night to ask questions for grandma or baby-nurse answers. I also cried because I was a post-partum mess of hormones and sleeplessness, of milk stains and laundry piles, of stomach muscles that would never return.

I have written about music a lot, but every so often I am shocked at how much a part of me it is, how it runs through my veins and colors every memory. I hope it ends up being the same for little Daniel. I hope he gets the same joy from something so readily available and so pure.

Smile as one begins to begin.

 

***********************************************************************

 

Note: I fell asleep last night thinking that, if I could go to iTunes right now and download a copy of that worn-out cassette tape, no price would be too much; I would truly spend thousands to get it back. Someone should tell Phil and Frank. 🙂 However, that thought prompted some further research, and it looks like Phil is still playing regularly in the Colorado Springs area. Go see him if you can. I’m definitely going to.

Just When I Figured Out Who I Am

(Please forgive the formatting issues. I have no idea what is wrong with it, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t me this time )



My dog changed his name this month, or more accurately, I changed it for him. We moved into our newly purchased home, and along with all of the other address changing activities, I miraculously remembered that I needed to get a new tag for Blue’s collar. At Petsmart I selected an appropriately blue, bone-shaped tag in the self-serve engraving machine and then I began to type in the same words I have typed on that same screen every time I have moved in the past six years: Blue Volle. Then I had to stop for a second. In just months I am getting married. Blue is already the pseudo-adopted son of my fiancé, Mike, but when we get married, it occurred to me, his adoption will become final. To non-pet owners, this might seem strange, but pets actually do have last names. At the vet, on their registrations, and, for many of them, on their tags. I tapped the delete key a few times, and then filled in Mike’s last name. I hit print before I could change my mind, and watched through the glass as the electronic engraving arm screeched out each letter on the metal. It’s official, Blue has a new last name, and it didn’t even require a trip to the DMV.


While I understand that marrying someone comes with the option for a woman to change her last name, that thought has only half-occurred to me on and off over the years until I actually stood there in Petsmart as a soon-to-be-married person. It’s easy for a dog. I just changed it for him, and he is still the same mutt he’s always been.


I’ll be honest, though, I don’t want to change my own. At all.


I am not marrying Mike early in my twenties as was the custom not so long ago. I am 33, and have a 10-year career and a life and an identity, all under the umbrella of the name I already have. I have published work as Cara Volle, and have started a business as Cara Volle, and beam proudly when I am referred to as one of the Volle girls, or the middle Volle sister. When my younger sister got married, she changed her name instantly, and it always felt strange to me to say it. It never rolled off of my tongue or pen, and the dissonance always echoed after I had said or written it. She would always remain a Volle sister to me, but my older sister, who kept her last name, remains a Volle sister to everyone. I always want to be a Volle sister, too, and that is the first reason I don’t want to change my last name.


The other reason is that Mike is the proud owner of a 13-letter monstrosity of a last name. It rarely fits in the allotted space on forms; his email address takes a full minute to type out, and at the request of every customer service person he meets, he has to spell it a minimum of three times, with the tricky double A, and a times-two on S-C-H and then a bunch of other letters thrown in for good measure.


I have a friend who, upon hearing me say Mike’s last name, said incredulously, “His last name is Schnarf-Schnarf?” And while I won’t plaster Mike’s name all over the Internet, I will say that this isn’t far off.


I have frequently seen Mike hand over his driver’s license or credit card, only to provoke the girl behind the counter to stare at it wide-eyed, turn it from left to right in her hands and say something like, “Wow, that is a helluva last name.” That happens to him every single day. Mike has even told me, with a last name like his, that his first name is basically irrelevant. People don’t even notice it. Great. Just what I strive for in life, more irrelevancy.


All humor aside, I think that this name-changing decision belongs to each and every woman who marries, and I think it is personal and that there is not a right answer. We all have our reasons for keeping our names, taking their names, or constructing some combination of the two, or just making something up. The great thing about living in this century is that we can do whatever the hell we want, and I hold that right very dear to my heart.


I have chosen to take Mike’s name, and while there is a large element of biting the bullet involved, I appreciate that it is my choice, and that my reasons can be whatever I want them to be.

I know that my taking of Mike’s name is important to him, and I can respect that he feels that way. He even said, “I don’t care what our last name is as long as it is the same,” which made me respect his feelings even more, although I won’t say that I think he totally meant it. His point was that he wants us to be a family, and to him, a name feels like part of that. That makes me feel a little warm and fuzzy for sure.


Having the same last name as my children is also very important to me. I don’t think it necessarily makes a difference, or that it scars a child in some way to have a mother with a different last name. In fact, I am sure there is a good lesson about strong women with their own identities to be presented in that scenario, but it is a personal requirement, vital enough in my mind to cause me to give up something that I treasure.


I know that I will always be a Volle on the inside, and that I will always be a part of where I came from, part of a family who is hilarious and classy and smart, where sarcasm and hugs are intertwined, and where everyone always gets it and where no one has to prove anything to anyone else. Those are things that never go away no matter what my name is. In addition, I told Mike that I will continue to write under my maiden name and that will be my way to keep a little part of my Volle world in, what is to me, a very big way. As I strive to one day become a published author, I know that I will get to do that as the original me, and I’m pretty sure I can explain that to my future children.


In the meantime, I will stick to planning our wedding and settling into our home and try not to dwell on the paperwork and emotions that will come with changing my name next year, and with that, selling off just a little piece of the person I am. Instead, I will think of my Mike and I a few years down the road, walking off into the sunset hand-in-hand with a gangly child or two and our big scruffy dog. The Schnarf-Schnarf family on their way to living happily ever after.

For Kate. We’ll Always Have Vegas

This is my best friend, Katy. She works a demanding corporate job, has a beautiful four-year old daughter, and a husband, and a dog and a home and a busy family life. I have Mike and our house and dog, but we live a fairly carefree, childless existence and have a lot of late nights, and last-minute social events and vacations that we cram in between our jobs and my extracurricular writing and the twelve sports we train for. Mike and I ski all winter, Kate takes her daughter ice skating or to the library on those cold weekends. I stay up late tippy-tapping on my laptop several nights a week, then float in and out of my contract job as I’m needed, while Kate is at her desk by seven AM every day being the boss of people. Mike and I make our home in the heart of the city; she lives a 40-minute, traffic-infested drive away in suburbia. With our crazy and opposite schedules, it becomes really difficult to see each other on a regular basis. We manage to fit in the occasional drink, and I never miss a Chuck E Cheese birthday celebration for one of my favorite little girls in the world, but our quality time has quickly diminished over the years as we have gone from blithe twenty-somethings to card-carrying members of the responsibility crowd.

Katy is a Catholic Republican; I’m an Agnostic, bed-wetting liberal. She’s an organized logic master; I’m a head-in-the-clouds wanderer. She always says the exact right thing in every situation, and I have my foot in my mouth so often that I’ve actually acquired the taste for it. We miss each other.

Our daily emails are hilarious (if I do say so myself) and fill a small void, and the random days when we can sneak away for a glass of wine, though few and far between, are godsends. A couple hours together is a way of recharging that neither of us can explain. We have our soul mates and life partners at home, and we love and appreciate them with every fiber of our beings, however, we share something that only the two of us understand. There is a Gaelic term, Anam Cara, meaning soul friend. My mother was Irish, and my name is actually the Gaelic word for friend, which is maybe one reason why this term has always resonated with me, but it’s also because it has such a strong meaning behind it. I don’t think there are many times in life when people end up being so close that they truly know your soul. Your spouse, a sibling, maybe a parent, but people from the outside world don’t always get it. Katy gets mine, and I get hers. We will be connected for the rest of our lives.

With Kate there are deep, questioning conversations about life and relationships, and politics and careers and who in the hell we are. Then there are the uncontrollable comedy routines where we feed off each other for hours and end up clutching our stomachs and wiping our tears while those around us wonder what happened that was just so damn funny. I can go to Kate with my most confusing relationship problem or my most petty fashion question and come out on the other side with an answer that I know is honest and in my best interest. There are the times when it is completely unspoken, like Katy silently taking care of all the food and drink at my mom’s funeral reception without being asked because she knew I, drowning in shock and grief, had simply forgotten about it. Or the times when we say it all, even the hard things like “I think you’re making a mistake” and “Are you really happy?” and “How do you really feel?” and even “You’re being ridiculous.” or “Maybe you shouldn’t wear that.” The boys definitely couldn’t get away with all of those. Sometimes, we really dig in deep and get to the core of who we are, and other times, there is the pure and harebrained fun.

It is because of the fun that we came to a consensus about the necessity of an annual trip. We needed a weekend together once a year to get away. Away from the boys, from our separate responsibilities, and even away from town. It would be toward the end of summer or beginning of fall, before the craziness of the holidays starts to take over, which, lately, seems like sometime in early October. It was decided. And we were psyched.

As we embarked on the planning for the inaugural trip (Vail), I was picturing the next 50 years or so, spending a weekend in a different random spot in the country each year and exploring together, all while laughing hysterically and having a few glasses of wine. We would start in our wilder years going out on the town wearing sassy outfits, spend the in-between years hitting the cities with the best museums and bookstores while bitching about our teenagers and how our husbands still seem incapable of taking out the trash after 20 years of training, and finish sometime in our early 80’s when one or both of us had just become too old to travel after last year’s trip to the Bingo World Cup or the Knitting Hall of Fame. Then we would reluctantly hang up our annual tradition and rock in our creaky chairs side by side reminiscing over photos and black coffee at the retirement home. There would be no regrets because we would have seen it all.

This week, after returning from a hilarious weekend in Vegas, our emails were flying back and forth, filled with inside jokes from the trip that I will write about someday if I ever find it possible to recapture the actual outrageousness of it all. At the end of about my third email, I said, “Well, I guess it’s time to start thinking about where we should go next.”

Katy responded back in about three seconds, “Why mess with a perfect thing, Vegas again next year?” 
The sparkle, I’m sure, was already dancing in her bright blue eyes, and I immediately knew that the World’s Largest Ball of Twine would have to wait.

Here’s to soul-friends, lifelong laughter, and the best comedy partner a girl could dream of. Here’s to weddings where the priest sees my underwear, hockey games when you should never have worn clogs, and curly-headed princesses with adorable, itchy butt cheeks. Here’s to dead roots, real pearls, and the great state of Connecticut, all at the same craps table. Here’s to five chairs here and three chairs there and two girls who aren’t with us. Here’s to the memories and the future craziness of it all. Here’s to Vegas, Sass.

 

Why I Tri

I signed up for my first sprint triathlon almost four years ago. It was January, and I was sitting in my cubicle at my old job, my leg splayed out in the aisle next to me encased in a metal brace. It was the armor around my torn MCL that I had damaged while on the ski slopes. I was sad and depressed, and I was 60 pounds overweight, not to mention finding it almost impossible to quit smoking. I felt empty and ugly.


I’m not sure what possessed me to sign up for the race, although I am pretty sure I felt the need to scare myself out of the depression and the pattern of emotional eating that seemed to always accompany my funks. I had previously read about the Tri for the Cure somewhere, but that day I had a sudden surge of guts that caused me to check out the website. It was a sprint triathlon for women only. There would be a half-mile swim. (I hadn’t been in the pool since my days on the high school swim team 13 years prior, and the thought of seeing myself in a bathing suit caused acid to rise into my throat.) There would also be a 12 mile bike ride. (I thought about it as I studied the website some more and realized that the last time I had been on a bicycle was right before I had gotten my driver’s license.) And the last part of the race would be a 3.1-mile run. No problem. I could totally do that. I mean, sure I was out of shape, and heavier than I had ever been before, oh, and my knee was currently in a brace that barely allowed me to walk, but I thought, it couldn’t be that hard. Right? I paid my 85 dollars, and convinced myself that I could accomplish a lot in the seventh months before the race.

Or maybe not.


I spent five out of the next seven months not really doing much of anything except continuing to feel sorry for myself, eating and drinking too much, and complaining about the way I felt and looked, but never owning it and taking action. Two months before the race my friend, Brenna, asked me if I was still going to do it. I hemmed and hawed and said, “I don’t know; probably not.”


And then I made a bunch of excuses. My knee was still bothering me a lot. I needed to get my old bike back from someone I had lent it to. I hadn’t been feeling so great lately. I needed a gym membership with a pool. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Somehow though, she managed to talk me out of the haze I was in and into doing the race. She was signing up, too, and we would tackle it together. She could barely swim; I was vastly unsure of my cycling and running skills. We had two months to figure it out.


My first outing on a bicycle was traumatic to say the least. Brenna and her then fiancé and Mike and I hit the road. All three of them are avid cyclists. Next to that trio, I was a hot mess. I was wobbly and tentative on a hand-me-down bike that was about six inches too small for my six-foot-one, bordering-on-obese frame. I felt like a circus clown cruising around on a child’s tricycle, although I was much less coordinated. My brand new helmet and rolled up yoga pants reeked of my amateur status. As soon as Brenna saw my bike seat, she said, “You’re going to have to get a new saddle.”


Once I realized that a saddle and a seat are the same thing, I asked why. She said, “If you don’t know why when we’re done riding today, I’ll explain it to you”


The brief ride that followed was devastating. I fell just short of having a seizure as each car drove past me. I was in the bike lane, sure, but all I could keep picturing was one false move, me falling sideways into the road, and my head being crushed like a grapefruit beneath the tire of an aggressive Prius. The other three rode ahead of me, going only slightly faster than my snail’s pace of about two miles an hour. They almost couldn’t go slow enough to let me keep up.


When we returned from our ride, which couldn’t have been more than about 6 miles or so, I said to Mike, “I’m going to have to get a new saddle,” and hobbled inside to remove the sandpaper that had seemingly been planted in my underwear


One down.


I dragged Mike to the pool at 24hour Fitness the following weekend, and I was delighted to discover that I could still swim. In fact, I had finally found the one thing I was better at, athletically speaking, than Mike is. Even though putting on my newly purchased, plus-sized bathing suit was depressing, the weightlessness I felt in the water, and the fact that I was still capable of effortlessly gliding through lap after lap did wonders for my severely broken self-esteem. I felt just like myself for the first time in a long time, and the muscles beneath my thick layer of fat felt suddenly useful again. My body was remembering what it felt like to be an athlete instead of a professional depression victim. After swimming for an hour, I reluctantly dragged myself out of the pool, showered, went home, and promptly slept for 10 straight hours. It wasn’t the usual depression-induced sleep; it was a good, tired, earned sleep. While I was sleeping, the old me was just starting to wake up.



Running is the obvious third member of the trifecta. I have always had a weird relationship with running. I actually like it. But I have never been good at it, even when I was really slender. Add 60 pounds to that, and a few more years of puffing on Marlboro Lights, and I was basically screwed.


That first attempt at running will stick in my mind for probably the rest of my life and will keep me from ever becoming sedentary again. I slipped into a pair of XXL sweat pants and a giant t-shirt and put my dog on his leash. My knee was mostly healed, although the strain of weighing almost 250 pounds was still the cause of some occasional pain. With my trusty dog, Blue, by my side, I walked out the door and up the block towards the corner. I told myself that when I reached the corner, I would begin to jog. And that is what I did. As each foot hit the ground, I felt every extra pound that had gathered on my tall body jiggle and jump around. After I heard the smack of Nike to pavement, I would feel the meat of the corresponding thigh continue it’s Jello-like motion for a full second afterwards. A car drove by, and the driver stared openly. Tears started to run down my face as I realized that I must look absolutely ridiculous. I made it one block before I had to stop. My knee was screaming and my lungs were on fire. I walked for about a mile and made another attempt at a run. This time, I made it about half a block and could go no further. This was not going to be good.


Eventually, the day of the triathlon arrived. As I stood in the water with all the other women who were between the ages of 30 and 35 waiting nervously for the gun to start us off, I felt like I was going to throw up. I felt fat and exposed and scared out of my mind about what I was about to do. Then the race started. The water became a whirlpool of athletic 30- to 35-year old limbs and torsos. It was organized chaos, only organized in the sense that everyone was headed in the same direction. I took a foot to the face and got a noseful of water. I freaked, but then realized that my feet could still touch. I thought, I am just going to stand up and turn towards the shore and walk my fat ass the hell out of here. Then suddenly the wake of 100 swimming women picked me up, and I was doing something that I had done naturally my whole life. I was swimming, and I was good at it. I swam past half of the women in my wave, cranked my propeller arms around and around, and felt better about myself than I had in a year.


I finished my swim in a very respectable 19 minutes. The bike and run would be a different story, and it would ultimately take me almost two hours and twenty minutes to complete the race. But complete it I did.


Yesterday, I completed my fourth sprint triathlon. I did it in 2 hours and 2 minutes, feeling slightly defeated because I really thought I was going to break that damn two-hour mark this time. Real triathletes would probably laugh at a time of two hours for a sprint race. It is hardly impressive, and many everyday athletes do it in an hour forty five or less. The elite do it in just over an hour. But I only let myself feel defeated for a few minutes when I remembered that I’m not competing with the elite triathletes of the world. (if I was, I’m pretty certain they wouldn’t feel too threatened) I am competing with the sad, fat girl who started this race three years ago, and I am competing against her with everything that I have. And she is backing down. In this competition, I get a little faster every time. I weigh 47 pounds less than when I first put my shaky toe in that tepid reservoir. I will never touch another cigarette in my life. I can lift heavy things and do hard stuff. When I absentmindedly reach to scratch my arm or leg, I am shocked to find that the flesh is firm and muscular. I sign up for scary things like half marathons and 10k races and then I show up and do it. I log miles and miles running around my neighborhood knowing that the drivers are now staring at my backside in a good, albeit chauvinistic and degrading, way.


Today I turn 33, and I do so knowing that I will never go back to being what I was; I’m in too deep now. Instead of being addicted to ice cream and nicotine, I’m addicted to the endorphins and the runner’s high, and the happy lolling tongue of my dog as we hit mile three. I’m addicted the rhythm and purpose it gives my day and the way it allows me to have an ice-cold Coors Light or two on a summer afternoon without worrying about the calories. I’m addicted to the thought that I will someday raise children who are strong and aware of what their bodies are capable of and who takes risks to see what they can do next. I have more goals to meet along this road: shorter times, longer distances, smaller jeans. There is nothing standing in my way, though. Tri me.

Due to Trying Economic Times…

Please don’t expect the usual today. I am venting a bit.

I knew it was coming. I started my new job in August; the banks started begging for government money in September. My company made the first round of layoffs in November. I kept quiet, did my work, tried not to cause any problems or be a bitch to anyone, and attempted to look busy even though I really wasn’t. That worked through two more rounds of layoffs, my friend from the marketing department even getting cut two weeks ago. Then Monday morning my boss sent me a meeting invite with no subject. Just me and her. I knew it was going to happen before it actually happened, but for some reason there was a relative calm involved. At least on my part; my boss looked like a wreck. I went back to my desk and turned on my computer. The headline on CNN read “68,000 Jobs Cut Today in North America” I am suddenly not alone.

It was a good job, albeit short-lived. The pay was great, I never felt stressed out, and I left at four everyday with everything in my inbox completed. While writing about electronic components (motherboards, AC/DC converters, accelerometers, microchips of various shapes and sizes) was new to me, I never once found it all that interesting, and creativity in a company comprised of almost solely engineers is seemingly frowned upon. I never felt passion about working there, but I did feel stability.

I write this from my favorite neighborhood bar. Mike and I frequent this place because of the great burgers, nice staff, and the proximity to our house (stumbling distance for sure). I have never really been in here in the light of day, though. There are three older gentlemen to my left talking animatedly about past drinking encounters and establishments. Another man sits to my right in silence, sipping a Budweiser and staring at ESPN, still donning his knit hat with Elmer-Fudd style earflaps. There is one guy in the far corner at a table sitting in front of his own laptop. I imagine that he is working on his resume, which is what I should be doing. The Beatles sing Blackbird out of the speakers. I am so not ready to be out of work again.

I am trying to have a good attitude. Having been laid off before, I have learned that being positive is important. So here are the positives as it stands right now:

I am going skiing tomorrow with my also-laid-off marketing friend.
My hair looks awesome because I dropped $200 on it last weekend before I knew what was coming.
They say the economy should hit bottom and head back up any time now.
I have a few writing projects that could potentially use a dusting off so that they can become more than just projects.
I get a paycheck and health benefits through the end of March.
My dog is very happy about the situation. He knows the drill: more walks, more tennis ball throwing, more rides in the car.
I have some freelance work basically lined up already.
Umm.. I write this from my favorite neighborhood bar.

The last time I got laid off, the company I was working for eliminated their entire marketing department so I had many friends in the same situation. We were in our early to mid-twenties, and they made the mistake of giving us six month’s salary in one check. We did what any other intelligent, unemployed young people would do: we took our giant checks and went to Vegas. I am older and wiser now. With that comes being scared shitless even though I don’t have to be. Mike does well in the recession-proof beer industry, which actually tends to thrive in times like these when people need a cheap way to forget about their troubles. I am not above letting him handle things until I find something. I feel above it, but I’m pretty sure I’m actually not. Life has a funny way of always working out; I know this. Even the shittiest things have a way of teaching lessons and all of that other crap that supposedly makes you a better person.

This could be a chance in disguise, the kick in the ass I needed, or a break with a reason. I know these things. And I know that I shouldn’t be whining right now because there are 67,999 other people who are going through the same thing I am this week, (and apparently millions more since September) and I’m sure many of them don’t have a beer-magnate sugar daddy to save them. Still the visions of buying our cute little Craftsman bungalow and having an awesome wedding are suddenly slipping down the drain, and I am feeling a little pissed off about it. Wasn’t Barack Obama supposed to put on a red cape and come save everyone?

I am going to give our President a few weeks. And I am going to give myself a little time to figure this all out. And I am going to be productive with this time that I have been given. I can catch up on the laundry and be a mooch and write the great American novel at the same time. Stay tuned.

Not Marlo Thomas, But That Other Girl


In the past, I was never one to picture getting married. I never went husband hunting. I never accepted dates with the thought in my mind that I would potentially marry the suitor. I never swooned over white dresses and flowers and never felt even the slightest bit jealous during the seven times I have served as a bridesmaid. I have even been proposed to before in a young, dumb, lovestruck moment, and as young as I was, I still had the wherewithal to say no. Then I broke up with that guy a week later because it was just too much pressure.

I planned on making my own way in the world. Living the single life, getting a couple more dogs and a house with some land, maybe adopting after forty, traveling the world, writing quietly in a sunny corner of my own house, on my own terms, doing things my own way. In fact right now, as I type these thoughts on to the screen of my little MacBook, it all still sounds really appealing.

I’ve changed though.

I don’t know what the life-altering event or moment was, but I have definitely had a serious change of heart. Maybe it was meeting the right guy, or reaching a certain age, or becoming the recipient of a ticking biological clock that I never asked for or expected. Maybe it was seeing my niece and nephew and my best friend’s daughter and how they become more like those people that I love each day— yeah, I’ll take some of that. Maybe it was realizing that sad and scary things are going to happen in life, and while being independent and self-sufficient will always be considered virtues in my mind, I now know that there will be times when I need a true teammate and he needs me back. Maybe it is a combination of all of the above. I just never thought I would turn into that girl, but I think it may have happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

Maybe just a tiny little bit.

Mike and I are going on four years of togetherness. We are in our early thirties. We love each other and want to be together. We share a home and a budget and chores and furry children. We both want children of the non-furry variety. I was ready just to dive in and start with the babies, but Mike thought we should be all traditional-like and get married first. This discussion took place about a year ago. We’ve looked at rings. We’ve talked about potential wedding venues and styles. We’ve talked about the future children we would have, potentially redheaded, and definitely tall, and surely with golden eyes. Daniel (if I get my way) for a boy, Alexis for a girl. These are real discussions we have had. He even screwed himself by setting a deadline, stating “We will definitely be engaged by the end of the year”

Then my friends started to get in on the action.

Mike and I went backpacking in July and all of my friends convinced me that he was taking me out into the middle of the woods to ask me to marry him. I bought into that theory. It made sense, right? Just the two of us and our trusty dog alone in the wilderness. Side by side climbing mountains, making macaroni and cheese, and sipping whiskey from a flask by the fire. The blue skies, the birdsong, the majestic Colorado mountains on all sides. What a perfect place to propose. Ok, except for the shitting in the woods, and the dog romantically sharing our two-man tent. Giant blisters? Check. Dreadlocks forming in my formerly cute hair? Check. Both of us smelling very similar to large farm animals. Check and check. Maybe the backpacking proposal scenario wasn’t the way to go.

A couple weeks later, I raced in a triathlon on my birthday. A girlfriend became convinced that Mike was going to propose as I crossed the finish line. She spun a romantic tale of me triumphing over a major physical challenge on the same day I turned 32, and then being rewarded at the end of it all with a giant romantic and public gesture from my ultra creative and adoring boyfriend. I was horribly sick during the race, and it was 97 degrees outside that day. There were a couple times during the last stretch of the run where I thought I might not make it. The thought of Mike asking me to marry him as I crossed the line pushed me through. As I finished the race, Mike was standing at the line poised to go down on one knee, when suddenly he whipped out his effing iPhone and began telling me what my splits were (worse than last year when I was not in the throes of bronchitis, and when it was 70 degrees outside). My dad stood beside him and said “You don’t look so good, Cara; you’re very red.”

Needless to say, there was no romantic marriage proposal.

There have been other opportunities over the past few months, too, but no such luck. However when the holidays rolled around and Mike voluntarily booked a romantic, secluded, riverside cabin in wine country where we would stay for two nights before heading down to his parents’ house in San Francisco, I knew what was coming. He did this voluntarily. He PLANNED stuff out that didn’t involve purchasing furniture or six hundred-dollar ski boots. He did it all on his own.

I told friends and co-workers that this was it. That was a really dumb thing to do.

Upon arriving in the Russian River Valley, we stopped at the grocery store before heading to the cabin so that we could enjoy a light dinner of wine and cheese and fruit and dark chocolate. It was all very romantic. I began to analyze every move furiously. I applied lipgloss approximately every three minutes. I fussed with my hair and tried desperately to make my 22-hour-roadtrip sweatpants look as sexy as possible. We sat in front of the fire. We sat in the hot tub. We snuggled up on the couch. We gazed into each others eyes. And then… nothing happened. Except for that I started to get a little tired of being so polite and ladylike.

The next morning we were going to taste wine at several vineyards. I put on a little extra mascara and actually blew out my hair.

I wasn’t real smart at the first tasting. Mike was buying wine from the guy behind the counter, and apparently when they find out you’re buying, they start to get a little more liberal with the pouring. I was really enjoying myself. I was sampling champagne and pinot noir one after another, a lethal combination. As we were leaving, I stated tipsily that I needed a sandwich to which Mike replied, “You are so cute.”

Ummm, just for the record, neither one of us say things like that very often. I mean we both dish out the compliments on a regular basis, and we are affectionate and loving, but we really don’t dote that much. I knew it was a sign. But first, I needed that sandwich.

That night, back at the cabin, we cooked together and talked and laughed and joked around the way we do all the time. After all that fun, we went to sit on the couch in the living room in front of the fire. Mike dimmed the lights and handed me a glass of wine. I got super nervous. This was it. I was going to get engaged right then. I was going to say yes and spend the rest of my life with this crazy redhead whom I adore. I was going to get jewelry! Mike sat down next to me, threw his arm around my shoulders, kissed me haphazardly, half on my cheek, half in my hair. Then he said the words I will never forget.

“Packers-Bears have Monday night, wanna watch?”

And under normal circumstances my answer would have been a resounding yes. Do you know why? Because unlike so many other women, I actually know football. This alone should be grounds for proposal! But alas, it was not to be. And so I did what any other low-maintenance, sports-loving, marriage-quality girl would do. I shrieked at him. And I teared up. And I became everything about being a girl that I have always hated “What in the hell are we doing here? We came here to watch FOOTBALL!?!?” I was aghast and Mike was, well, he was simply floored. Needless to say, it was a long discussion that followed.

His beloved Packers lost to Chicago that night, and I lost the game I had been playing with my own emotions. I admitted defeat, and gave up trying to control everything. I am not proud of my behavior. I am not that girl. Adding insult to injury, a girl who is dating one of Mike’s buddies told one of my best friends that all I talk about is getting married. I don’t think she realized she was talking to one of my closest friends and that it would get directly back to me, and you know how girls can be sometimes. But still, as a smart woman with what I believe is a lot to offer intellectually and conversationally, it stung a little bit to hear that. (in my defense, another girl at the table had just gotten engaged, and we were on the subject, but whatever)

So, I am going to take a moment to write my own vows. Only these aren’t wedding vows.

I am vowing to let it go.

I vow to not mention weddings or marriage to Mike or to anyone else until I actually have a wedding and a marriage to plan. And even then, I will keep it to a bare minimum, because everyone knows that girl, too.

I vow to wait patiently for what I know will happen in due time, even though it makes me feel like one of the secretaries from Mad Men waiting around for a man to save her. Still, I vow to enjoy the moments we have together as a young, childless, unmarried couple while I still can.

I vow to not again, in passing, say things to Mike like, “Did you know that babies born to women over the age of 35 have a forty per cent increased chance of Downs Syndrome?” and then glide effortlessly out of the room, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

I vow to be the low-maintenance girl he loves, and I vow not to put pressure on him.

I vow not to be that girl anymore.

Till death do I part.