lights from towels

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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.

While They’re Alive

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The social media world’s in mourning over the death of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, 52. He hung himself yesterday. Nobody knows why, although he suffered from depression, which is an explanation in itself I suppose.

Every time someone famous does this, people start in on the same post-mortem like they really give a shit.

Earlier today, I heard two talking heads on the radio acting real somber over Cornell’s death like they were suicide and depression experts, pulling emotion out of two guys who knew and loved the musician. One of the guys, a friend, was there at Cornell’s last performance, admitting that it seemed like he was going through the motions.

Here was a superstar by grunge metal standards, a hero, a leader, a statement against the mainstream machine… a huge fucking deal. Millions of strangers are gonna worship Cornell.

He lived the kind of life we all dreamed of, and yet, it still didn’t seem to be enough to keep him here. That should tell us all something.

Maybe sitting with him in the dark for however long it takes, reaching out without being asked, being inconvenienced for five fucking seconds for god’s sakes … wouldn’t have done anything to change his fate. Maybe his depression was too strong.

But for those who did nothing, do nothing but continue to make excuses after the fact then come around like a bunch of tragedy jackals ready to feast on the leftovers of a supremely human tragedy, like all of a sudden it fucking matters now that he’s dead for you to be okay with loving him… FUCK YOU.

I know so many people who keep their love to themselves and their own — until someone outside that inner circle passes away. Then they go on Facebook to lead the charity charge, as if they walked the walk the entire time. You know, instead of getting up off their asses and driving over to the surviving family and just being there.

Get away from me with your after-the-fact compassion. Weren’t you the fake assholes who posted that you’d “pray for me” when I was in a dark fucking pit and needed you there beside me? Weren’t you the two-faced self-serving profoundly self-centered weak-willed assholes who claimed to care but then went about your usual masturbatory business?

I make a point of telling people that I love them, even when I know goddamn well they do not and will never love me back. I go out of my way, especially when I’m hurting, to help other people not just my immediate family, because I know what it’s like to be utterly alone and utterly abandoned by everyone including my own family.

I’ve had loved ones turn their backs on me when I’ve needed them the most, some of them have stabbed me in the back. But I would still give them the shirt off my back.

Because I’ve been there.

I will never know what Cornell went through, the battles he won and lost. Many, too many people just like him are ready to be next. A lot of them have reached out, in their own way, and been dismissed or ignored because you have a girls’ night out, Bible study, your grandchildren coming over, the Seahawks are having a parade downtown… some bullshit excuse.

If you haven’t reached out when you had a chance, then please STFU. Nobody relevant wants to hear from you.

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One day, I won’t crochet, or run, or walk or sleep without you. The owl returns to its crevice in the picture window tree trunk view from our backyard. I’ll be alone and homeless and foraging through garbage cans for my next meal, crazy as a loon. In my dreams, I am already halfway there, foraging through the remains: pictures of my husband at a carnival when he was young, well, and alive, toy guns inside a plastic red toy briefcase when my son trundled his dead grandparents’ things through a grove of orange trees, still safe and sound, untouched by Death’s random markers.

After midnight, I listen to the rain outside.

I’m scared.

Time Travel is People

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For Dmitri.

When I first heard him play, the notes beneath the notes sparked a small firefly in the back of my memory, behind the rushed marriage proposals and the late-night radio sessions — after trading SuperMan for Casper and before my first broken heart in Linda York’s unsanitary, birdshit shed.

His voice sat with me in the dark, with only these memories of past sunsets taken in flickering doses on the way to the woods where I waited an eternity for the fateless basketball player to whisper a kiss on my right cheek and would pay dearly with a split lip.

We pick up on the conversations of other people’s children: comic book superheroes, detective novels, the soundtrack of our youth poking holes in the fatty stars above us every summer. It’s like he never left.

I’ve forgotten so much already, just as he holds on tightly to every passing year.

In my mind, we are young again, chasing the dimming light in a field of cattails and honeysuckle, racing death. We are two Peter Pans in a dozen, outliers on a hunt for a second chance at NeverNeverLand.

He is my time machine.

Tent Revival

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PHOTO: Seth Doyle, Unsplash

We were split into groups on the first day of camping with the Campus Life organization. I was a junior in high school then, a nobody save for my role as editor of our award-winning (since I came on board the previous year) newspaper.

Nobody knew my original dream of becoming an actor. I’d pretend in the safety of my bedroom while the world outside raged on, my parents often bickering in the downstairs kitchen. One night, my mom came at my dad with a knife, slicing into his shoulder, shrieking like a banshee.

I disappeared into the roles I made up (as the young, budding writer I would become instead). I felt beautiful, loved, valued, if only in my mind, if only for a few minutes before mom called me down for dinner, or I had to do my History assignment.

Every so often, we experience a moment so profound, it changes us. If we’re lucky, we experience several in our lifetime.

This was one of those moments, at the second Campus Life camping event I attended by Waimanalo Beach.

Campus Life is a Youth for Christ organization. It thrived in Hawaii in the 1980s. I was a part of it for three years. I attended the banana split parties, the Bible sessions, the Coming to Jesus revivals, and these semi-annual camps.

None of my friends went to this one in Dec., so I was scared shitless to go. I really had nobody to talk to during our off times, save for one or two people from my school who weren’t in my group.

Groups participated in contests: singing, sports, and drama.

I didn’t know I excelled in drama until the final night, when our group performed and would go on to win the entire competition based solely on my performance as Linda, the outcast who begged the most popular girl in school to learn more about Jesus Christ.

I didn’t have much time to work on my character, whatever the fuck that meant. We didn’t even have a script. Our group kind of winged it, agreeing on an outline for improvisation within a certain time frame.

Me and the funny girl came out in the second scene, set in a bowling alley around an imaginary pinball machine. All I remember was her messing up her line, catching herself in between two names, “Cer-Linda.” Then, everything went very, very quiet when I responded.

Truthfully, I blacked out. As we walked over behind the makeshift stage under a tent in the middle of the campground, I thought I heard sniffling.

Then, they called us back “onstage” as a group. When they introduced me as Linda, I heard a roar so loud, it startled me. I looked around, blinking a couple of times, when I saw that they were all looking at me with tears in their eyes, including the jocks, football players who wouldn’t be caught dead showing any emotion. They looked like they wanted to rush over and give me the biggest hug.

We won, of course. These strangers regarded me like a demi-god for a few days after, then they all forgot and I was a nobody again.

Except I’ll never forget that night when I was somebody, anybody, every body, and I made magic happen.

That was the day I discovered my wings.