Trash Artist

I think one of the worst feelings in the world is to suffer alone. Yet, so many of us do — at their convenience.

I watched “Grace and Frankie” on Netflix tonight when I should be asleep. The story drove home the point that I am insignificant in this big blue world and that there are a lucky few who dare to chase their happily ever after at the expense of others. (Remind me one day to tell you about Mark.) They destroy innocent lives of good, decent people (enablers), the hop a jet to paradise, dropping a few choice photos on social media for their millions of followers hanging on every word.

Doesn’t seem fair or right, does it?

Those of us left behind stew in silence, going on about our day serving and helping, cooking and cleaning, chauffeuring and gigging, bowing and scraping, bending over for more. We save time late into twilight lying alone in our beds trying not to choke on our tears.

It never ever ever occurs to us to band together for support. Well, it occurs to me. But who the hell do I think I am?

Gut me, bleed me dry, then sell the cannibalized parts in the Temple of Jesus to the highest bidder. Not one trace. Not. One. Trace.

I want to scream, “What the hell do you want from me??”

I’ll have a Cheeseburger Deluxe and a pitcher of beer.

when we walk

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“Bottled Up” by Andrew Bui, Unsplash

suddenly, you wait for me just outside Mrs. Hao’s door — a rewrite in your best English Honors (even though you never took the class) —

you, Michael… take my hand, and we walk toward the glimmering dimming light of the 1,000th high school reunion but this time, together, this time, I float on a shimmering glittery path

we pause as I look up into your incredulous face, a beam of yesterday’s sunshine between us, a what-if before our lips meet and the stars align

you linger on the corner of my mouth, and I smell spaghetti Wednesdays, pikake and maile lei proms (I never attended), the puff of soft linen snow on your New England winter coat — the one before business

“Why are we together now?”

“I always wished I had the courage to say yes to you.”

as I look away, two others gather behind the one, as bashful as hormonal freshmen on a Dungeons & Dragon late-night bender

“Did you ever go to a dance?”

“No,” I tell him, holding his hand a little longer.

“Band?”

“—and Bullies.” They’re dead now.

Michael Iwatake, come home.

The Infinity Scarf in Sutton

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I see you have already left, an arrival at a much-anticipated destination. Anywhere but here, we used to say when we used to say a lot before we knew the truth, before the world exploded with too much.

I think I love stitching this yarn in my feeble arthritic hands because of the counting, not the numbers, certainly not the beautiful designs. The counting addresses my internal clock, the compulsion to check the stove, flick the light switches, say, “Bread and Butter,” when they come to part us.

I barely look at the scarf, the blanket, the slouchy black cat hat. It is onto another mystery until a glorious pattern emerges, the patterns that hold meaning in my otherwise brutally mundane life of 32 pick-up, sorting laundry, cleaning cupboards, finding salt, pounding my head against the wall, crying in the shower… that sort of thing.

Somewhere in the spiral of the past, pregnant with regret, I was a Man of Science, locked in combat with sticks and stones, godless faith in only what could be.

I am not good at Math. But the counting refocuses my efforts on one stitch at a time, calm in a storm, tempest in a teacup, Anna Nalick on the precipice of… truth.

I will tell you a secret: I am afraid to turn in.

Rabbit Hole

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“Man in Cafe by Neon Lights” by Clem Onojeghuo, Unsplash

Where does this dream end, and where do I begin?

I practice string theory while walking briskly through the middle of what is now a very nice, modern fusion Mexican restaurant. The knives and forks, chocolate lava cake that glowed, the strange imitation of tacos resonated with my middle-aged childhood, the four years I walked these hallways from English Honors to Algebra.

My short life in layers, the past and the present superimposed, save for this young girl’s voice telling me I am her hero. I should know her as she knows of me, yet dementia takes holds.

I should’ve interviewed my grandparents, beyond their aches and pains. They probably saw what was unspoken, in the gist of their laundry list of physical ailments, doctor’s appointments, talk of Medicare and the current President. Maybe they were too far gone to notice.

Maybe, I am not a ghost or a time traveler, but a cog in a machine. A very big machine.

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In the dream, these strangers ask me to decorate a Christmas tree in their office. The boss says, “You must use two words to sum up our existence and encourage our production.”

I sing, “Oh Holy Night.” I don’t know why. But I can feel conversations stop, as these strangers surround me, feeling an unearthly voice go through them like glass. 

I can’t wait to slip my hand under this dirty hotel mattress and fetch my blue vibrating dildo, as the minions surround the tree and the boss, oohing and aahing over my towel tinsel and my cinder block lettering in the midst of the blinking lights and the sagging garland: “Work Smart.”

Beautiful Kathleen leads a choir far away in a festive carol. The church is packed.

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The friendly faces disappear into midnight mass. Twinkling stars aligning, one by one, where two or more are gathered — a familiar scenario playing over and over in my mind. The lonely are departed momentarily, this I know, but I play along, as if we are star-crossed lovers, or bosom buddies, partners in crime forever intertwined. I am, after all, the player and the playwright.

As the dust of their company settles, their stories etched in the smallest, furthest corners of my mind and of my soul, I remember their solemn vows, their declarations of love, the startled look in their eyes — the fade of a particularly moving sonnet in D-minor, perhaps — as once upon a time I broke up the monotony of their unwilling solitude with my clumsy attempts at conversation, my earnest, heartfelt confessions, a rant that slipped into debauchery.

I basked a little longer than I should in their laughter, a returned smile, the touch of rain on a summer day in the middle of this gladiator heat wave. I’m a part of them, for as long as this flat white lasts.

They always leave. Every last one. Always.

I used to cry for days, pounding my fists against these four walls, pounding pounding till they bled from the inside out.

Now, I know better. I am not here for love, a Friends marathon, Oprah, and forever after.

I’m here to tell their stories, until they move on.

 

 

Hallway

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PHOTO: Marat Gilyadzinov, Unsplash

Dear Bryon,

I’m writing you here because I can’t write you in real life. You have too much going on. The days between our correspondence grow alarming, like a warning sign before a full stop, so I’m pretending you are here and you care about me (when we both know the truth).

You care about yourself, your family, your friends, and sometimes, maybe in passing, in relation to everybody else (and her), me.

That’s okay. I understand.

Today, I dragged myself out of bed to my husband’s gig up north. Million-dollar scenery, rich man’s repast (dragon fruit, that’s a first), relaxing vocal jazz, a few short, quiet solos to break up the conversation… I listened, took notes, drank coffee, crocheted.

Mostly, I tried to keep my mind focused on what was going on in front of me. I wished I could with all my might be like those imaginative people who could transport themselves into a wonderful fantasy about flying, spirits in the material world. I wish I could feel the spirits of those I knew and loved pass through me.

I saw my husband pull out a bottle of Stevia. I asked whether it felt weird for him to drink coffee and iced tea without sugar. “I’ve gotten used to the taste.” I filled in the blanks in my head, “since the cancer.” I saw his life in a graying arc, a before and after of the boy he used to be — carefree, wolfing down junk food after another late-night gig — and the man he’s forced to become — the oldest in his department, studying to receive an upgrade in his position, battling time, drinking kale smoothies now.

Our son is sick. He thinks it’s another stomach bug. He seems to get them twice a year, this last one around May. Like clockwork.

One of his friends joked, “It’d be funny if you got hurt again” on social media, after he posted a photo of himself with the JV squad and, “Next year will be different.”

Breathtaking cruelty.

They don’t know the many times my son went to the ER, the precious moments between “I can’t breathe” and “I love you, mom,” how even making the team was an act of heroism. Every day is a miracle.

Of course they don’t care. Why should they? They’re “normal,” normal goes on, normal jokes about MCL injuries like it’s nothing.

Even when he feels nauseous, I’m waiting to make the call.

I remember this hallway, rushing him down the stairs to the nearest walk-in clinic in the middle of a deadline, following the firemen carrying the only man I ever loved on a gurney, our only child asleep 13 feet away, only a door dividing us.

Everything stops, Bryon. And I am sick to my stomach, afraid to sleep, counting the hours until the next alarm goes off.

3:25 a.m. so far.

I hope you’re well.

-C

 

Striking out

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Parenting can be a nightmare. I’ve had my watershed moments, sobbing in the dark in the car in the garage. Many, many moments.

My son is a teenager now. Cue the horror movie soundtrack.

When he’s acting like a complete jerk, rolling his eyes and making me feel completely useless, I want to crawl into a hole and die.

Worse, I feel utterly alone.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m vaguely aware of other moms like me, sitting in the dark, rocking themselves into a blubbering stupor, wondering where they went wrong, victims of thoughtless children who seem to think the entire universe revolves around them — and you are just their personal assistant.

I’m also vaguely aware that I have it made. My son may be an asshole at times, but he’s my son. I’ve taught him by example and in numerous lectures how to be a better person, kind, empathic, understanding, and expressive.

Say what you mean. Question authority. Believe in yourself. Help people. Talk is cheap. Be real. Just because something or someone’s popular, doesn’t automatically mean it’s good.

He was also born with an innate sensitivity. Even the nurses at the hospital noticed how observant he was, a few days old. “He watches everything,” one of them said. “It’s like he’s taking it all in.”

He is.

When James made the JV team on his first try as a freshman, we were both so happy and relieved. We didn’t have much time to celebrate. I think we went out to dinner at a favorite restaurant, but that was it, because practices started immediately and didn’t let up until the first few games.

After he partially tore his MCL the third game in, everything shut down, including him.

As soon as he texted me from practice, I knew. He didn’t know why I wasn’t joking around about his knee like I did with his broken finger a few months prior.

Because I knew. I knew. This was bad. He would see his accomplishment go up, up, up in a puff of smoke, and then, he would watch his friends play game after game until the end of the season — without him.

All of that pain and suffering, anxiety and extra hard work catching up following the broken finger and the shitty Premier experience… gone in a NY minute with one hyperextended break.

Our orthopedic specialist didn’t help. He was a bad communicator. He was a stubborn asshole who insisted James wear a knee brace meant for ACL injuries, post-op, and then offered to let him play with the same knee brace (shortened), way way too late to rejoin his JV team.

I had different people bend my ear with their expertise, from the orthopedic specialist to James’ regular doctor, to the PT guy and the coaches. His doctor said James could play soccer again so long as he doesn’t feel pain running and cutting. But his orthopedic specialist (a PA, not a doctor) warned that James could be at risk for developing arthritis at a young age if he didn’t keep that (ACL) knee brace on a little over four weeks.

None of the coaches directly told me that James needed a doctor’s clearance to even make up the practices he missed in order to play at least the last game of the season. I had to find out thirdhand, too late.

I was in the middle of this shit show, trying to salvage what was left of my son’s JV season, feeling like I failed him. Like this was entirely my fault.

So, one day, an important day when he should’ve gotten a doctor’s clearance AND a proper sports hinged knee brace to return to practice, things came to a head.

My son watched his chances disappear as this one doctor refused to go against the orthopedic specialist who wasn’t available. She would only sign off on a sports clearance, provided he keep the ACL knee brace on during practice — the same knee brace with the million pads that would fly off whenever he ran. Completely inappropriate for sports. A laughingstock.

In the privacy of our home, James allowed himself to get upset — by taking out his anger, frustration, fear, and self-doubt on me — his go-to. Then, he went into his room.

I cried and cried and cried, second-guessing myself a thousand times. Maybe I should’ve gone over the orthopedic specialist’s head a lot sooner. Maybe I should’ve insisted on getting his regular doctor to sign off on the clearance the second James had full range of motion without pain (a week after his injury). Maybe I should’ve been more proactive in asking around with the coaches about the requirements of returning to play. Oh why did I take this orthopedic guy’s word for everything?!

Truth is, I didn’t know the questions to ask. I didn’t know anything about MCL injuries, or that the ligaments take longer to heal than the bones, and that every person recovers in his/her own time. I didn’t know, so I took the orthopedic’s word for it, aka the overly cautious route — unwilling to risk re-injury and a longer recovery for my only child.

(See asthma ER attacks.)

The next morning, I woke up to find this text on my phone:

“I thought about what you said and I went over and worked on a car with Trygve and lifted some weights. I also shot some baskets without putting too much force on my leg. I acted like a complete prick and I’m sorry.

I’m just really tired of things not going my way. I know things also haven’t been going well for you too and there was no point of snapping at you while I was downstairs.

Anyway, I still will have trouble staying after school and working  out at that gym, but I will work out at home as much as I can so I can bounce back from this.

I treated you like shit today for no reason other than you trying to help me. I’m really sorry.”

—James, March 26, 2017

Yes, teenagers can be assholes. Yes, it can feel like you’re the only parent who’s doing it wrong. Yes, it feels horrible crying alone in your car in the dark.

But it gets better. If you raised him right, your teenager will come around. Your teenager will understand you’re doing the best you can, and that you would take a bullet for him.

Your teenager will write a text like this.