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Saturday, December 31, 2005

Stopping the bleeding

[I am aware this is a tenuous link to the prompt.]

I've read up. I know what to do. I have assembled the tools to do it. I'm ready.

I lie back, bare-chested, and pull the trolley closer. Reaching out, I take the scalpel in my left hand. Closing my eyes, I place the blade against my skin at the correct point for the first incision. The metal is cold, goosebumps appear.

Gritting my teeth I cut. There is pain, but it does not compare. I move the blade deftly and after the first few inches find myself able to open my eyes and guide my work. I cut the perfect 'Y', just as the book described.

I place the blade back on the trolley. Next I take the saw. I flick the switch and the circular blade begins to turn, reaching full speed quickly with a whine I find distasteful but appropriate. I position the saw an inch above my chest, between my collarbones. I have to close my eyes again. This won't require guidance. Just...strength. And determination.

I force the saw down and feel it cut into my breastbone. There is a loud crack. The pain is white hot and I cry out, but it soon subsides to the other. As quickly as I can without moving off course or snapping the blade I split my breastbone in two, quickly turning the saw off when I deem the job done and dropping it to the floor.

I lie still for a moment, panting with exhaustion and pain. I open my eyes. Forcing my fingers between the two halves of my breast I feel sick. With my bare hands I prise my rib cage open. I won't describe the sound. It is awful. Awful. My blood runs freely from me, soaking my fingers, the bed, dripping to the floor. I look down.

There it lies. My heart. Beating steadily but somehow weakly. It looks unhealthy, damaged. Grey. Doing its job but no longer really interested in it. Carefully, I slip my fingers around the flesh and lift the organ from its home, bringing it up to my face, to my eyeline. I look hard at it. And whisper to it.

For about five minutes I whisper, telling it what it needs to hear, what it must be told. I didn't know if this would work. But it seems to be. With every passing minute, almost wth every word, my heart responds. Beats stronger. Grows healthier. When I have said all there is to be said I bring my heart to my lips. And kiss it gently.

Blood coats my lips, runs down my chin. But my heart responds, quickens and pumps strongly. Gently I return it to its rightful place.

I put my head back and with my blood soaked hands force my ribcage closed. To my surprise and relief it knits itself shut almost straight away. There is no pain while this happens. Quickly, just in case my body realises this isn't possible, I take the needle and surgical thread from the trolley and sew the 'Y' incision closed. The blood that ran from me stops.

I am exhausted. I rest for a while. My body heals itself amazingly quickly while I do. When I have the strength to do I so, I sit up, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. The trolley is blood spattered, the floor red, the bed soaked. But my body is clean. My chest feels normal. There is no pain. And I realise...there is no pain!

I weep with happiness. Looking down, I see not everything is perfect. But I will carry my scars proudly. They came from a worthy place. They will remind me of that. They do not bother me. But...

The 'Y' that is emblazoned across me...I wonder...should I take the scalpel once more...and add a question mark...

'Y?'

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Movie

The first movie I ever saw without my parents was The Goodbye Girl.  I was eleven years old.  I was with my friend Tracey.  We bought popcorn and a candy bar each and pop.  Mine was Dr. Pepper, and to this day whenever I drink that I am back in that movie theater, feeling grownup to be without an adult and watching a romantic comedy as opposed to a Disney animation.  I'm sure I didn't really understand it but it nonetheless thrilled me.

Tracey was sweet and got good grades.  She was my first friend when I moved to town in fourth grade, the first girl to invite me to her house.  Her mother was also sweet and kind and wore an apron.  She saved all of Tracey's school papers and had them filed away in a closet, neatly.  My mom may have saved my papers; I had no idea.  If she did, they were in a messy heap somewhere.  I had never even thought about the concept of saving schoolwork but as Tracey hauled out file after file and we pored over her kindergarten scribbles it suddenly seemed like the most adorable thing in the world. 

When we were eleven I started to get greasy hair and pimples but Tracey's beauty problems were dry skin and hair.  That seemed so sophisticated to me.  So glamorous.  It was, of course, a lot more aesthetically pleasant to apply silky creams and lotions than to be always stripping one's face with Stridex pads and using noxious-smelling ointments.  And if I didn't wash my hair daily (I didn't), it was oily and limp.  Tracey washed her hair every Saturday and it always looked exactly the same: just right.

Even her voice was cute.  It was high-pitched and feminine, and she had a tape of her at around the age of two or three (her mother had carefully stowed it away with the schoolwork files) that we used to listen to over and over while squealing with laughter over her elf-like voice.  My voice was, and is, nondescript.  Not high or low or pretty or cute. 

But the movie... I watched Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss fall in love while drinking Dr. Pepper and feeling the heady freedom of future movies with friends and trips to the mall.  It was all so exciting and full of possibility. I could grow up to be like Marsha Mason, or at least more like Tracey.  Anything was possible.

Swing

One of my earliest memories is of a swing.  I was in first grade, maybe second, at a birthday party.  We were all in the backyard playing and I was swinging, going way up high.  The mom called us in for cake and ice cream and I suddenly realized my dilemma:  I was going too high to stop in a timely fashion, and too fast to risk ruining my white patent Mary Janes by dragging my feet to slow me down.  I started to feel panicky.  Would everyone go in and eat cake without me?

Then Patrick stepped up.  He gently reached out and grabbed the chain nearest him.  In just a few more arcs of the swing, each one becoming smaller and smaller, I had slowed down enough to step out of the swing, which I did in a ladylike and graceful way.  "I wouldn't want you to get your shoes all dirty," Patrick murmured.

I liked Patrick, but I wasn't in love with him like I was Gerald.  Gerald, who had rushed in for cake the moment the hostess announced it.  Gerald, who a few months earlier had tossed an invitation to his own birthday party carelessly onto my desk while saying, "My mom said I had to invite everyone." 
___________________________________________________


Twenty years later, another swing memory.  We've just moved to a new town with a four-year-old and a two-year-old.  Moves are always expensive, so I've agreed to watch the two-year-old daughter of one of BIll's new co-workers.  She's a terror.  I'd thought that she'd fit right in with my two children while we read books together and watched kids' shows on PBS.  But Kirsten is an only child of a workaholic mother who spoils her rotten to make up for the amount of time they spend apart.  She's a brat.

My kids and I enjoy going to the neighborhood park to feed the ducks and play on the playground equipment.  There's a small swingset there for kids their age; they're not old enough yet for the big-kids' swings, but there are only two seats in this swingset.  The first time we ever went to this park with Kirsten it became clear that she would not tolerate taking turns and watching one of my children take a turn on a swing.  Two swings and three toddlers seems to not be a good mix.  Privately I have explained to my kids that with Kirsten there we won't be swinging.  I'll bring them to swing when she is not with us.  Having both witnessed the screaming-kicking tantrums that Kirsten throws when she is not getting her way, they both have solemnly agreed that this is wise.

I know no one in this new town so one day, as I watch the kids playing in the cedar chips underneath the playground equipment, I am happy when a woman strikes up a conversation with me.  She tells me that the six or eight kids that she is there with are her charges in her home daycare business, and that it is actually her last week in this business.  She asks me if I would be interested in taking on any of these kids, as I have told her that I am watcing Kerstin for pay.  I vehemently decline.  Perhaps I was a bit too vehement, but I'd spent the last twenty minutes watching Kerstin boss my four-year-old around and try to derail the perfectly nice pretend-store game that my kids had started by demanding that they play HER game and I was weary.  I honestly didn't know how much longer I would be able to stand this babysitting gig, but we had had to take out an emergency credit-card loan when we'd moved and the interest was unconscionable.  We had to pay this off before I could even think of sending Kerstin packing.  Also, I am absolutely terrible at quitting things.  Taking a stand and just admitting up front that something isn't working for me.  I tend to drag my feet and ignore the situation until it finally gets so bad that the other party calls things off.

But I must have conveyed my unhappiness with my situtation because when Kerstin's mother arrived that evening to pick her up, she took me into my kitchen and said, "I got a call this afternoon that disturbed me..."   Apparently the woman I'd been talking to in the park recognized Kerstin because she had previously gone to her home daycare, and she interpreted my abrupt refusal to run such a daycare myself as proof that I disliked children in general.  She had warned Kerstin's mother that I was unfit to watch her child.

At the time this hurt me deeply.  This woman had been the first person I'd spoken to, other than Kerstin and her mother, since moving to this town and she had turned around and betrayed me.  I also replayed the entire episode over and over, looking for clues as to how I had appeared to this woman.  I had been a little depressed since the move.  I had left friends and a home I'd loved.  I had lost control of my life with my own kids because Kerstin was so domineering and high-energy and attention-starved.  Gone were the quiet afternoons of reading books aloud because Kerstin hadn't the patience.  A simple errand such as the grocery store, never simple with young children in any case, became unbearable with the addition of Kerstin.  So, yes - I was no Mary Poppins.  Even I could see that.  But was I really a menace to these children?  The one thing I had any confidence about at this point was my relationship with my children and suddenly this was shattered after one brief exchange with a stranger at the park.


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

One Swing

My biological father and I never really connected until I was fourteen. He had little interest in his kids until we were old enough to play the games that he was interested in. He wouldn’t be caught dead playing a board game with us, but as soon as we were old enough to play hockey we were on skates at the rink with him before his men’s league games. When we were old enough to hunt we got shotguns and rifles for our birthdays. As long as our presence didn’t mean that he had to give up one of his hobbies, we were welcome to be there. We just learned to not expect him to go out of his way for us. Our mother had remarried; a man who made us his life and did everything with us. We were not lacking a father figure by any means, but still yearned to have our biological father in our lives, despite his hesitation to be in ours.

I didn’t really resent him for his selfish attitude. It took me years afterwards to fully understand him, and by that time, I had accepted him for what he was. As I grew older, I found myself taking up the same hobbies that he had. Most of them I did with Jeff, the man that had married my mother and legally adopted my sister and I so that we could bear his surname. He was a lot like my biological father, Ron. He had been a teacher and a coach. He hunted religiously and fished with a passion. Still athletic, he played in men’s’ leagues to quell his competitive urges. He was and is all the father that a boy could ever ask for. He has been my best friend since I was ten. Yet I was still missing the knowledge that my father, Ron, accepted me and loved me. And I worked for that over the next fifteen years.

As I grew into a man, Ron and I became much more similar. I had been told by my grandparents, who passed away while I was in my late teens, but who had lived fifty feet from me for my entire life, that I looked exactly like their son, Ron, did when he was my age. Hearing that made me proud. Despite being slightly overweight, he was still a very handsome man. When I was able, I grew a beard to match Ron’s. Our dry wit was often misunderstood by everyone but ourselves, a sardonic way that I had cultured to better communicate with him on his level. While I had always loved baseball, I became an ardent fan of the Red Sox so that we’d have something to talk about. I tried. God, I tried. Yet there was still a distance between us that I could neither bridge nor understand.

Things changed for us on a cool fall day at his house. I was twenty-five and Ron and I had become close friends. I had come to think that friendship was all that I would ever get from him and had come to terms with that. He had called me at my apartment to ask me to give him a hand with a leaky roof. Deathly afraid of heights, I was the only person that he knew that would climb the steep pitch of the roof to patch a torn shingle. He and my sister had had a falling out, not speaking to each other at all. I knew better than to get in the middle of it, but was willing to be a sounding board or a shoulder to lean on.

As I was on the roof and he was in the driveway watching my progress, we started a conversation that made me stop my work. He wanted to discuss himself and his shortcomings. Obviously, this was the perfect time to do it, as neither of us were given to physical displays of affection and did not want to be caught in a place where hugging, if called for, was possible. The twenty-five foot vertical distance between us was ideal for both of us. The conversation changed from his inadequacies to his strained relationship with my sister, to the relationship between him and I. I sat on the edge of the roof, my feet dangling in the air, listening.

“I know that I haven’t been a very good father.” And he paused, as though trying to grasp the significance of what he had just said. As his eyes welled-up with tears he continued, “But I like to think that I’ve been a good friend to you.”

I wanted to be on the ground then; to be within arms reach and to touch him and hug him. The only times that I had seen him cry were when his mother and father, my grandparents, had died. We had hugged then and I had felt as though he wanted me to be there in his arms to help him through. I regretted not being on the ground right now to be there for him to help him through this.

“Dad, you’ve been a good father”, I lied. “But more importantly, you have been a great friend. I am what I am because of you. And I think that I’m all right, don’t you?”

He acknowledged that I was all right, and the conversation returned to its origins, witty, meaningless banter that revealed no emotion. But the words had been spoken, however briefly, and we never needed speak of it again. It wasn’t an apology. It was an admission of being less than what he wanted to be. And I accepted it as such. We grew as friends from there.

When I was twenty-eight he asked me to join his baseball team. Having not played since I was nineteen, I was hesitant to play with this group of former college, semi-pro, and minor league players. I knew that I’d be overmatched and probably see little playing time, but I was still trying to relate to him on his level so I agreed. He was a player-coach, by far the oldest on the team. His knees prevented him from running like he used to and his shoulder kept him from throwing like he used to, but he was still living his dream, playing baseball. I knew that he was a great baseball player in his youth. He had captained his college baseball team for two years, one of them including a trip to the college world series. According to family legend, had he not gotten my mother pregnant, he could have played professional baseball. I hadn’t seen him play since I was old enough to understand the game and was anxious to be involved in his passion, to share a dugout with him.

The apparent leader of the team, nobody questioned his decisions or his skill at the plate. Yet when at a crucial point of the game he had me pinch-hit, I heard the players grumble amongst themselves. Good guys, all of them, but competitive. They wanted to win and didn’t see me as their best chance to do so.

Ron was coaching third base, a position that allowed him to flash me the signs. As I watched him go through the signs, eventually getting a “swing-away”, I realized that he was entirely comfortable on the baseball field. This was his element and this is how he knew how to communicate. Subtle signs that I had been missing all of my life. A baseball player to the core, he never would come out and say that he loved me, but let a pat on the back speak for itself. All of the times that he had rubbed me on the head had meant that he was proud of me, and I’d missed them all. All of the high fives were a sign of unity. Every time he chattered at me, it meant that he was behind me, rooting for me.

I watch the first two pitches go by me for strikes. These guys threw hard and I wasn’t sure if I could even make contact, much less catch up. Yet, looking down the third base line to where my father was standing, giving me signs to open my stance, keep my head in, turn the wrist over, I wasn’t very concerned about hitting the ball. I had already succeeded by being with my father.

So as the third pitch came, I swung freely and perfectly, making solid contact that drove the ball out over the left-center field fence. I held my posture for a moment, reveling in the flight of the ball. And as it easily cleared the fence I started trotting to first base, looking down. By the time that I had reached second base I looked up and saw my father jumping with his hands in the air and knew that his joy wasn’t for the team, rather, he was happy for me and proud of me.

It’s inappropriate to stop running the bases for a tearful hug. But running past him, getting my high-five, I read his unspoken language perfectly.

“I’m proud of you, son. I love you.”

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Street I Lived On

Before we moved into the house that I still live in, we lived in a half-double next to the paper mill on Logan Avenue.

One of the best things about the house on Logan was the large parking lot in which the trucks used to park their trailers between the loading and unloading of recycled paper. My brother and I used to ride our bikes around the lot with other kids in our neighborhood, circling the trailers. For a gift I was given a bicycle odometer to keep track of the many miles that I pedaled around that asphalt lot.

There was also a weighing station, and if you looked in the booth that was attached to the truck-sized scale, you could see a red LED gauge of how many tons your bike weighed. A certain truck had once dropped a large bundle of colored paper chits that were likely due to be recycled. We found these pieces near the scale, assigned them all some value, and called them "Moon Money".
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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Bar II

While he waited, Michael watched Summer go about her business. She was fairly tall, around 5' 9", and had long, curly dark hair which she kept away from her face with a cotton headband tied around her head. Her face was pretty and he thought her name suited her. She wore a light blue cotton shirt thrown over a darker vest top and a long white cotton skirt that flowed around her legs as she moved. Her hippy comment also suited her, though in a good way.

Michael had to admit he was attracted to her and under different circumstances - and in a better state of repair - would have asked her if she'd like to go for a drink. As it was, he contented himself with watching her.

Some 15 minutes later Ricky strolled in. A squat man carrying too much weight, his eyes too close together, a fat nose and a rapidly receding hairline. Michael took an instance dislike to him but he needed information and this was all he had.

Ricky had a few words with Summer, casting a glance over at Michael every few seconds. Eventually he joined him at the bar, pouring himself a coffee of his own. He perched his oversized behind on the stool opposite Michael and looked at him.

"I hear you're after some information."

"Yeah, it's an odd question, but I want to know if I was in here last night. And if so, who with," Michael asked.

"Summer told me you were having some...problems. You were in."

"Any idea what time, who with?"

The bar owner looked into the distance, remembering.

"Came in around 9. Two guys with you. Sharp dressers. Suits, you know? Looked silk. High rollers, I guess you'd say."

"What time did we leave?"

"Don't know. We were busy, can't say as I noticed."

"You must have some idea."

Ricky looked at him impatiently. "Look, I have a bar to open and a lot to get done. I have no idea what time you left. The guys you were with, they left before you. You had another drink afterwards. After that, I got no clue. I can't help you more than that."

"One last question. Was I drunk?"

"Nope. You have a good day."

Ricky finished his coffee in one swallow and walked round the bar and out back. Michael sat for a few moments, considering what he'd been told. Who were the men he was with? How could he find them? If he wasn't drunk, how the hell did he end up in an alley with a bruised skull? He'd obviously been attacked. But why?

He made for the exit. "Thanks for all your help, Summer," he called.

"Michael, wait."

He stopped at the door, turning. She walked over to him.

"The guys you were with," she said. "I didn't like them. They seemed...dangerous."

"I'll bear that in mind. Thanks again." He turned to leave but she put a hand out to stop him.

"I'm working from 8 tonight. If you want to call in and let me know how you are, I'd like that," she smiled.

"I might just do that," he smiled back. "Oh, does the name Kelso's mean anything to you?"

"It's a restaurant on the other side of town. Corner of Jackson Street and Carrington."

"Thanks. I might see you later."

Michael walked out into the mid-morning sun

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Bar

The man sat that way, his head in his hands, eyes closed, for 20 minutes. He desparately tried to remember something about himself. His name, any family, friends, a job - anything that would ground him. But nothing came, he remained anonymous to himself, left floating nauseatingly in a world he recognised but no longer felt part of.

It suddenly occurred to him that he didn't even know what he looked like. Raising his head, he looked around. The windows of the bar were mirrored. Shakily, the man stood and walked slowly over to the building. He peered at himself.

Dark brown hair, worn fairly long, parted at the side. A day or two of growth on his cheeks. Green eyes. A thin nose. A silver earing in his left ear. None of it meant anything to him. He turned his head, trying to determine the extent of the damage there. The motion itself caused a dull ache to pulse through his skull. He winced and turned away from the window. He had to do something.

"Ok, think. You woke up in an alley, across the street from a bar. Makes sense you've had too much to drink and maybe had an accident, got mugged or ended up in a fight."

It was the only lead he had. He banged on the front door, peering through the smoked glass it held. The lights were on and a woman moved between the tables with a mop. She looked up, mouthed "We're closed" and went back to her mopping. He banged the door again, harder this time. Looking annoyed, the woman dropped the mop and walked over, calling through the glass.

"I said we're closed."

"I don't want a drink, I just want to talk," he shouted back.

Reluctantly, the woman unlocked the door, pulling it open a couple of inches.

"Seriously, I just want to talk. I need your help," he said.

"Help with what?"

"Well...this will sound strange, but...was I in here last night, do you know?"

She opened the door wider, getting a better look at him. After a couple of seconds she said: "Maybe."

"Maybe I look familiar or maybe, now go away?" he said, smiling. She smiled back.

"Maybe, you look familiar. We were busy last night, but I have a feeling you were in."

"Would anyone else know?"

"Ricky might. He owns the bar. He'll be in at 10."

"May I come in and wait? I promise I won't get in your way."

She eyed him again, assessing what trouble he might be. Deeming him safe enough, she nodded.

"Ok. I have to finish cleaning up, but I can make you a coffee if you like. You look like you need it."

"That would be great," he replied. "Can I use the bathroom and get cleaned up a little?"

As if noticing for the first time the dirt on his hands and face and the state of his clothes she took a step back. Her surprise was short lived. "Yeah, go ahead, I'll have your coffee ready when you're done."

The man thanked her and headed for the restrooms. Turning on the faucet to get some hot water he took a better look at himself in the mirror. Apart from the dirt and the holes in his jeans, he didn't look too bad. The leather jacket was ruined. He had no choice but to keep it for now.

He washed, slicking back his hair with the water, cleaning up his face and hands and doing what he could with the jacket and jeans. He removed the traces of dried blood on his neck and was able to get a better look at the wound. Nothing major, but he'd definitely taken a blow at some point. Already the pain was subsiding.

He walked back out into the bar and saw the woman sitting on a stool at the counter. He walked over and she handed him a cup of hot coffee. He thanked her and took a sip. It was strong and he immediately felt better.

"Thanks, uh..."

"Summer, and I know, hippy parents," she smiled.

"Thanks, Summer."

"And you are?"

"I don't know," he said, looking at her.

"You don't know. Must have been some night?"

The man told her all he knew. It didn't take long.

She stared at him for a few moments. Wondering if he was telling the truth. She saw no lie in his eyes.

"You need a name, friend. What do you fancy?" Summer asked.

"I have no idea! What do I look like?"

She laughed, before studying him intently.

"I think...I think you look like a Michael."

The man thought about it. Michael. If, by some stroke of luck, that was his name it didn't click. But it was as good as any.

"Then I'll be Michael, Summer, pleased to meet you."

"You too, Michael. Or is it Mike?"

"No, Michael. I prefer Michael."

"Ok, Michael. Ricky should be in soon and I have to get finished up. Help yourself to the coffee, it's just behind the bar."

Michael watched her return to her cleaning. Reaching over the bar he grabbed the coffee pot and poured another cup. He'd need to eat soon. Settling back onto his stool, he sipped his coffee and watched Summer polish tables. He put a hand in the pocket of the leather jacket and felt a slip of paper. He took it out, turning it over.

Kelso's
8.30


Again, it meant nothing but he felt that if nothing could be learned from Ricky he had something else to work with. If he could find out who or what Kelso was. He put the paper back in his pocket and waited for the bar owner. Summer carried on cleaning.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Unexpected

Write about finding something unexpected...

I wonder what his face will look like when he opens that envelope to find the money order for $10,000.  He won't have any idea that it was from me; I made sure of that.

We broke up six months ago.  I'm almost over him, but I still care.  Probably too much.  It's just that he had always seemed so needy;  I worried about how he was getting by without someone to love him.  Take care of him. 

It seemed innocent enough at first.  He'd lived in my apartment for three years and we'd shared everything.  We'd had a joint bank account even though neither of us was ever very good with money.  That was probably one of the things that broke us up.

When we'd first met I'd loved his insouciance and sense of fun.  Everyone I'd ever dated before had been so stuffy and obsessed with details, but I guess that comes from dating bankers.  I work in a bank, and though I'm not naturally the "banker-type," some of that practicality has rubbed off on me through the years.  And thank God for that.  My dad used to always say that I needed to marry some old rich guy who'd take care of me and tame my wild side but that hasn't happened yet. 

So when Matt walked into my bank and flashed that devilish smile as I handed him his cash, I was a goner.  I could see his bank balance right there in front of me; I knew that he was taking out his last $100 and was leaving behind a grand total of $3.71 but he didn't even flinch or look anxious a bit.  This is a wonderful quality in a date, but it gets old in a live-in boyfriend.

In the beginning it was all about going out for coffee and pastries on Saturday mornings.  Or out for Chinese food on Thursdays.  And if I brought home some expensive French wine one night just because I felt like kicking back and softening the edges a little bit, he never once made me feel that I should have economized, no matter how low our balance was.

But he was like an overgrown little boy.  He'd rush out and buy some gadget that he "just had to have," like an iPod or a recordable DVD player or a flat-screen TV, even when our old MP3 player worked just fine and we hadn't even been using it for months, or when our clunky DVD/VCR combo worked just fine (even if it wasn't as sleek and sexy as the new machine) or when we already had two, albeit round-screen, TVs in our tiny apartment and how could two people possibly watch three TVs?

But he was fun.  We were happy for awhile, before the stress of always being down to our last few dollars got to us.  He'd decided that he wanted to finally live his dream and go to massage school, but we had neither the money or the credit to py for that.  He became more and more depressed and frustrated because he couldn't do what he wanted to do with his life, so as compensation he'd buy his new toys and his daily lattes, further ensuring that he couldn't afford to do what he dreamed of.  Then he started drinking.  That's when I kicked him out.

It broke my heart for a few months.  I still hurt, but it's getting better every day.  Then I had the idea of looking into his bank account at work and I started monitoring his expenses.  At first it was a sick need to try to figure out if there was someone else in his life yet.  I knew him so well that I could tell by the Friday-night video rental charges and also by the amounts of his daily (especially Saturday morning) coffee purchases that he wasn't in a new relationship yet. 

I knew that this was sick (and totally unethical as well as illegal) but I couldn't stop myself.  And after I'd been doing this for some time it didn't seem quite so appalling when I took it further and peeked one day into his email account.  It was the account that we'd used to share but I had gotten a new one.  Actually, I can't believe it took me so long to think up this idea.  Here I'd been doing it the hard way, trying to glean from his expenses whether or not he had moved on romantically when it was so easy to read his correspondence with friends and family.

What I read there made me worry.  He was still drinking too much and depressed.  He was still despairing over being able to afford massage school.  I read several messages from the school which clearly stated that he did not qualify for either a loan or financial aid of any sort, and I read his increasingly despondent reactions to these messages as he kept people updated.

Now, this whole time I'd been getting my own act together.  Oh, obviously not my mental or emotional one, you don't need to tell me that.  But my financial house was in order.  I'd tightened my belt, stopped splurging on indulgences.  Since I'd taken to nagging at Matt in our final weeks together, I guess I wanted to prove that I'd really had something to nag about.  I wanted to show that without him, I was capable of saving money.

I read that the tuition for massage school was just shy of $10K.  I happened to have just that much.  I probably shouldn't be giving this man my entire savings, but I'd loved him.  Still love him.  And I'd proven to myself that I really could save up this much money!  This could be looked at as a temporary set-back; I'd be able to save up that much in another six months.

And yes, I suppose that deep down I was thinking that once Matt got his life back on track, went to massage school and was doing what he wanted to do and making good money at it, maybe we could try things again.  Seems so wide-eyed and delusional now but I really didn't even admit this hope to myself. 

I made out a money order at work and then slipped it into an envelope.  I'd arranged to send it first to my sister in Texas, who would then send it from there.  Matt would have no idea who in Texas could be sending him this money.  My sister had only just moved out there the month before, and even if he had somehow gotten wind of it through the grapevine, he'd never think that she would do that.  And he'd never expect me to have that kind of money.
____________

He gets the money.  Does he figure it out?  Do they ever get back together?  Does he waste the money?  Does she find out that he has found someone new?  Does he find out that she was basically cyber-stalking him?  Is he mad? 

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Bar

"Hey, honey! That's the bar we use to go to when we were young & foolish!"

"Sure that's it. Player's Square......what good times! Like those St. Patrick Day parties!"

I can remember one St. Patrick's day party that wasn't much fun. Even with the green beer.......did Hank really drink that stuff? I didn't. That's when I could still drink Johnny Walker red which was about the only thing that didn't have a green hue on Pine Street that night. Some people had green hats or green crepe paper strips drapped around their necks. I remember green lights behind the bar & booths. Even the thick smokey air had a green tint.

I remember rushing to the bar along Pine from the bus stop. The sidewalks were full of loud people. Most of us were young marrieds. Some just getting off work earlier than usual so the clubs in town could increase profits because of a revered Irish saint. And there I was with everyone else feeling keyed up with excitement. I wasn't excited because of that revered saint, but because I was meeting the love of my life.

We talked that way in the '60s. We were looking for love. Our mothers were hoping we'd get good jobs in a bank so we'd have something to fall back on if another depression hit. Some of us managed to find good jobs, but we were seeking our security in a man & were positive love would be there too. We didn't think much about a depression. Mostly we thought about husbands. I was one of the ones looking for a husband who wore a shirt & tie to work. Someone to have fun with. Not only did I get the book keeping job, but I found me an educated husband. A nice guy from Minnesota who sold office supplies to several large businesses in the city.

It was a nice wedding on a very hot & humid September day. We found an apartment in a small, shabby, but elegant building near downtown. A 6 month old baby girl slept in a crib at the foot of our bed. When I rushed along the street to meet daddy she was with the sitter, my sister who knew I was between feedings. I'd have to return in about 3 or 4 hours or stains would appear on my snug blouse. I didn't know it would be our last St. Patrick's Day at Player's Square.

I saw him across the jammed lounge at the bar. Handsome, grinning! I managed to get to him & join the the fun. He was with friends he worked with. A few were young, but Dave was older problably around 50 years old. He seemed a nice man, but Hank & I thought he drank too much & spent far too much time away from home. But tonight he sipped his green beer & was more subdued. He wanted to know all about the baby & how the hunt for a bigger place was going. I always enjoyed talking with him since he usually liked telling me things about his own wife & their 2 boys. I can't remember much else about that evening except that soon after I arrived I found myself walking down a dark hallway toward to ladies room. I was passing the back foyer leading to a hotel lobby when the door opened & someone from Hank's office stepped in from of me. "Hi mom," he said. "How's baby doing?" He said the word baby in such a way, that I still remember that I felt scared. He'd been drinking & he was standing much too close. I clearly remember backing away & feeling the wall against my back. "Hi, Larry." Big smile on my face. Girls raised in the '50s smiled big in the '60s. "The guys are at the bar......." While I was trying to speak, he placed his hands against the wall on either side of me. My mouth was very dry. I felt trapped. I wanted to cry. There was sweat was between my breasts. I'm not real clear about what happened next, but I do remember him telling me that my blouse looked like it was stained. Then he lightly traced a circle around a small spot over my nipple. I couldn't move. Things shifted to slow motion as I looked up into that handsome face. I recall someone speaking too loudly & laughing. "Larry! Pick on someone your own size!" For a moment I couldn't move. His head turned to the voice & laughter. I had moved away toward the ladies room, my eyes blurred with tears. When I found a place to sit in the ladies room lounge, the woman giving out hand towels & keeping things tidy said, "Are you crying or you got somethin' in your eye? Let me look at that eye......." She patted my back & soothed me me her "my, mys."

The rest is mostly hazy. Eventually, I made it back to Hank & his friends. He winked & smiled at me. Everyone was talking. The noise level was awfully high & someone put a glass of green beer into my hand. I felt angry. Hank knew I didn't drink beer & that sipping wine was my limit. I just stood there feeling very ticked off. Now Hank was caught up in conversation with someone at the bar. I'm sure it was a woman.He wasn't even looking my way. Then I heard a voice in my ear. It was Dave. Older Dave who was quiet tonight. " 'Bout time for you to be heading home, Susan? That little girl probably needs her supper. Hank said you couldn't stay long. Maybe I can walk you out the door." Without another word, that's what he did. I assured him that the bus would be along soon & that I'd be fine on my own. I was back to the apartment soon after. As I came through the door, I could feel the baby's dinner fill me. It felt good to take her from my kid sister. "She's such a good baby. I love to sit for you.....maybe next week? Just let me know........" Sure, I'd have her sit again for me. But at this very moment, I wanted nothing more than to hold & feed my baby.

Hank got home around midnight. He was happy. He'd had a nice time........" Why'd you leave so quickly? I didn't even get a chance to say much to you. You ok? You sure you're ok?"

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Lost

He rose to consciousness slowly, as if rising to the surface of a deep lake. Blurry images cleared gradually. A wall, a fire escape, a dumpster, boxes surrounded by trash. On the wall somebody had spray painted the words "Will you make it back?". It meant nothing to the man.

He sat up, aware of a dull ache at the back of his skull. He reached back, felt dried blood and a sharper flash of pain. Looking down at himself he saw he was wearing jeans, ripped at the knees, dirty with alley water. On his feet were sneakers, once white, now a muddy brown. The shirt he wore was comparitively clean, just a few buttons missing but the leather jacket was filthy and torn. These were not his clothes, he was sure.

Wincing, the man rose unsteadily to his feet and took a better look around. Clearly it was an alleyway, but he didn't recognise it. Walking slowly to the street he noticed the sun was bright and still low. It was early morning. Yet he had no recollection of the previous night. He reached the street and scanned the area.

A bar - Ricky's, a 7-11, a Denny's, a gas station, a jewellers, a pawn shop, two clothes shops and a laundromat. This wasn't a street he was familiar with. There were very few people around. He guessed it must be no later than seven.

Turning right he walked towards the bar, crossing the street and stopping at the entrance to the parking lot. He stared at the sign, trying to connect the name with something. As he stared he was startled by a voice behind him.

"Mister, are you ok?"

He turned quickly. A middle aged Hispanic woman was looking at him curiously.

"You ok?" she repeated.

"Uh, I don't know," he replied.

"Are you lost?"

He opened his mouth to respond but was hit by a sudden realisation. He wasn't just lost. He had no idea who he was. His entire memory was lost. He staggered, feeling faint. The Hispanic woman moved quickly on.

"Drunk." she thought.

The man sat on the wall surrounding the parking lot, his head in his hands. Lost.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Bar

"Bar pics are the worst!" exclaimed a voice from the table directly across from hers. She glanced up from her book at the rowdy group of mostly boys, young men in their early twenties, and girls about the same age. They were college-aged, but she didn't take them for college kids. The girls were dressed up from jobs at sales counters and reception desks. Some of the boys wore casual office-type clothes while others were in nice jeans and neat T-shirts.

They were sending each other text messages on their phones, laughing riotously at what she could guess were obscene comments, perhaps about the other coffeehouse patrons, perhaps even about her. A few of the guys put their heads together, apparently examining a picture that was sent to the phone of the exclaimer, a photo of himself it seemed, that everyone was laughing at.

Bar pics are the worst. That phrase made her pause. Bar pics. It made her see this group of young, energetic, carefree people living the kind of life where you are so happy to be where you are with you you're with that you start snapping pictures of each other, just for fun. Kids like this probably have so many pictures that they have to designate them by location, such as "bar pics," or "park pics," or "weekend at the beach pics." Her heart hurt a little to think of how much affection lay in this group of casual young people, such that they wanted to immortalize their lives and each other.

Of course, it was easier now, with digital everything. When she was their age, people were more frugal with film. You tried to save it for special occasions, or at least occasions when you felt pretty sure that the subject being photographed would turn out looking pretty good. You didn't just go snapping pictures any old place. Kids this age must have more pictures of themselves already than she would probably have in her entire lifetime. She searched her memory for a single picture of her in a bar, young and tipsy, flirty, loud. Like these girls. Was she like this once?

There was one picture taken of her in a bar about twenty years ago, when she was 21 or 22. She thinks of this picture and remembers it being a good one, one where she looked happy and pretty. She wore contacts then and was a little thinner. Maybe a lot thinner.

Another burst of laughter erupted from the table and she could see that the object of this teasing laughter, the young man who had bemoaned the whole category of "bar pics," was flushed and embarrassed.

"Dude! I could not BELIEVE when you did that!" said the guy sitting next to him, slapping him on the back. The girls squealed and giggled, as a phone was passed around.

"I think you should take that picture off your phone, Sara," the flushed young man said. His jaws were clenched tightly, his face still flushed but unsmiling now.

She ducked her head so that she'd appear to be reading her book but she was completely focused on this drama. What picture did he want Sara to erase from her phone? And why?

The girl, Sara, giggled and waved her phone in the air triumphantly. "No WAY! If you're stupid enough to strip in a bar, you can't whine because I snapped a few pics!"

Just then she noticed that one of the young women wasn't laughing. She was sitting quietly, her face pale. There was a dignity on her face that was transparently arranged and deliberate.

It reminded her of the naked, raw expression she had once worn when she herself walked into a bar, looking for her married lover. She'd been about the same age as these young people, and she never tells anyone now that she had let herself fall into this trap. No one would believe that someone as sensible and level-headed as she would have ever been walking hopefully into a bar, expecting to meet up with the married man she'd been seeing for a little less than a year. But there she was, and as she scanned the faces in the dark and smoky bar, her eyes fell upon her lover. She could feel her features light up in recognition and excitement and then she looked at the woman sitting next to him. His wife. In those few seconds she realized that at the last minute, his wife had insisted on coming out with her husband and he'd not had a chance to contact her.

The wife had seen her face light up. She'd undoubtedly taken in the excitement and hope and perhaps even the sexual way that her ### (something her body did inadvertantly) when she'd seen him. When she saw the wife's face, and saw that not only had she recognized the raw hope and beauty that had appeared on her face but that she'd seen it before, in the many other women who'd wanted her husband, she had turned around abruptly and run from the bar, crying.

And this girl now, would she stnd up and run? Because her face, it so clearly showed that she had not been present when her boyfriend had done the strip-tease in the bar, and that she was extremely hurt that the other girl had not only been there, but had felt familiar enough to take pictures.

At the table behind her book, she watches the young man and finally knows how she had appeared that night in the bar, that night when she had known how it felt to hurt someone else when all you'd thought you were doing was having a good time. The guy feels his eyes on hers and they lock eyes, fellow conspirators in the contest which neither, in the end, had won.

Bar

I worked for a different company, four years ago. I was a Regional Manager in Development, meaning that I was responsible for four to nine stores at any given time, as well as my own. We had a meeting in Vegas in February for all store managers and up. I traveled with Carl, my supervisor, and eight store managers. I had hired and trained most of these managers, and they knew me fairly well. They knew that I was a "work hard, play hard" kind of guy. They just didn't know to what extreme. They had never really seen me in action. It's not that I played some role just for them, but I was guarded and careful of what impressions they were getting of me. They were my employees. I needed them to respect me. That was going well until our second night in Vegas.

The setting: New York, New York. A Dueling Piano bar. 12:30AM.

I'm there with Carl and the eight managers. Everyone's having a great time. We're singing along to every song, dancing with random strangers, but keeping the group close together. One woman with whom I'm dancing lifts my shirt up a bit and rubs her belly against mine. Nothing serious, just dancing. Carl witnesses the event and comments on my abs. (I should mention that I'm not exactly "ripped", but am in good shape.) His thought process somehow leads him to wonder who would make a better stripper, him or me. Now, I'm by no means modest. In fact, I'm a bit of an exhibitionist. Not to the point that I walk around flashing people, but close. Carl wants to have a stripping contest right there in New York, New York. Knowing that he's shit-faced and would regret the decision, I politely demur. I, too, would regret it if we had a stripping contest in front of eight people who thought of me as a strict professional. Carl calls me a chicken-shit. I bring the request to the attention of a bartender. The bartender apparently hasn't had a lot of requests like this one, so he hands it off to his manager. The manager tells me to bring my request to the musicians, as one would a song, and they'll get to it. He wants the bar to clear out a bit more before they allow anything that risque.

I return to where Carl was being held up by the bar table and explain to him that it'll be a while. He buys me a beer. All of the managers, intrigued by what is about to go down, buy me beer. Somewhere after 1:30AM and eight or nine beers later, one of the piano players beckons for Carl and I to come up to the pianos. We go. The female pianist tells the crowd what is about to go on. The music starts.

Unsure of how much I should be removing, I watch Carl and follow his lead. I am acutely aware that the eight managers are dumbfounded as we start dancing. Having a bit of experience at stripping (nothing professional, I assure you), I'm comfortable doing my thing. I am getting a couple of women in the crowd involved, and have removed my shirt as I look over my shoulder to see that Carl is up on a table unzipping his pants. I'm way behind, at least as far as clothing removal goes. I can't have that. In a flash, the pants come off. Two ladies who have been following me around putting dollar bills in my pants collect the money that has fallen out, mostly donated by them, and stuff it back into my underwear. They then encourage me to remove the silk boxer-briefs. Their encouragement is not verbal. It's physical.

Underwear now down to my ankles, the music stops. I pull up my shorts and am looking for my pants when a security guard jogs over to me. Apparently I took it too far. As I'm being led out of the bar to the cheers of most of the crowd, I see Carl being redressed by one of my managers as they're following me out the door.

The security guard tells me that he doesn't want any trouble. I just need to leave. A guy in the bar had complained that, on top of my nakedness, I was hitting on his girlfriend whilst naked. Apparently that was where the line was crossed, I guess. No charges pressed, just leave and don't come back right away. Like this year.

I'm going into the next bar when my group catches up to me. They insist that it'd be a good idea to head back to the hotel, since Carl's dance ended with him falling down over a chair and not having the strength to get back up. I concur and we head back. Two of the managers are holding Carl up, while the other six give me a play-by-play of everything that had happened. The two women managers seemed to be impressed with my pole-dancing skills. Even the guys appreciated the grind that I had done with the redhead (I was still mostly clothed at that point, I think).

But something had changed. I was their buddy now. They spoke to me as a peer, not their supervisor. The dancing and stripping was not something that they would have dared do and were surprised that I would. They had never seen me even drink more than one beer prior to tonight. Then I've got my clothes strewn about a bar, exposing myself to all of them, as well as a hundred or so other people. What must they be thinking?

The next afternoon was an awards banquet. As I walked from our table to the stage to accept my award, I thought about how my employees' impression of me had changed overnight, how they now thought of me as a real person, like them, not the stuffed suit that they had come to know. That wall that I had built up is gone. The boundaries nullified.

When I went back to work the next week, I stopped wearing suits when I visited the stores. Khakis and Polo shirts. But that's not why they treated me differently. The managers now knew that I had another side, a side with which they could personally relate. They liked that. I learned a lot more about my managers after that because they were comfortable opening up to me.

We're all fallible. None of us are perfect, no matter what face we try to wear. And not having to be perfect feels good, doesn't it?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Something Lost

Write a story about an object that has been lost:

"What's this?" Colleen asks, pulling a keychain out of my jewelry box.

"It's from New Zealand. My uncle lives there. It's a Maori emblem," I reply.

She's about to toss it back into the box, unimpressed. I don't want her to be unimpressed. For starters, my New Zealand uncle, whom I have only seen twice in my twelve years of life, seems exotic and fascinating to me. I want her to grasp this.

He had been in the Coast Guard when he first travelled to new Zealand. While there, he'd met his now-wife, Claire. She is a dignified, icy-cool blonde English woman. I adore her accent. Though she isn't much older than my mother, if at all, she has old-world, European skills like needlework and knitting. My mother knits, but she makes gaudy afghans with acrylic yarn in ugly colors. Claire knits wool sweaters. The kind that handsome men who smoke pipes model in the knitting magazines she reads. She makes heirloom baby layettes for pregnant women. My mother stitches plastic canvas boxes and Kleenex-box covers. Claire embroiders linen pillowcases and sheets.

The last time I saw her, many years ago, she had sat me down and shown me how to embroider. She'd patiently taught me different stitches. I'd sat with her for hours, soaking up her gentle ways and her refined, lovely accent. It's hard to believe Uncle Ernie's story that he met her at "a three-day party, under the dining room table." I won't even begin to understand the concept of a party spanning three days for years to come. Let alone one where people are under tables. But this thrills me nonetheless, that people could have such different selves tucked away. Claire bends over her needlework and tries to hide a smile when Ernie tells us about their meeting, and I know that she has secrets. What about my mother? Does she have secrets? A private, younger side that I would be shocked to know about? I am sure that she does not.

But also, Colleen is exotic and fascinating to me. We've been friends since fourth grade, and now that we're in seventh it's becoming even more clear that she is going to be a star in life. She's beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed, and has perfectly straight white teeth that dazzle when she smiles. She wears strawberry lip gloss and the slight reddish tint of it complements her fair coloring perfectly. We all have our signature flavor, each one of us. Tracey's is Grape Jelly. Caryn's is Vanilla. Mine is Watermelon. I like it, but the slight greenish tint makes my lips look odd in certain light. My favorite flavor is Strawberry, but Colleen got it first. And I have to admit, it's perfect for her. She deserves it more than I do.

Colleen was the first in our group to slow dance with a boy. Then she was the first in our group to kiss a boy, the same boy, during the same slow dance. Then her mother found out and forbade her to have anything to do with the school dances again but we still hold her in awe. She has felt a boy's arms around her waist, and she has felt a boy's lips on hers. I'm not even sure I want to do either; the boys I like make my heart race and my palms clammy but since they never even look at me, my imagination has not progressed very far as to what I would do if one did. The Strawberry would be a total waste on me.

So I don't want Colleen to think I'm some stupid kid who keeps cheap plastic keychains in my jewelry box for no reason. "There's something... a little weird about that keychain," I tell her.

"Yeah?" She sits up straighter, still holding it in her hand. "What?"

"Well," I start, hesitating. No one knows this about me, but I am a pretty good liar. I'm considered a goody-goody by most because I get good grades and never get in trouble. But part of why I never get in trouble is because I'm a good liar. "I've had it since I was really little. Like, five."

"So? So it's old," she says, disappointed. She's about to toss it back in the box when I interrupt her.

"I have thrown it away a dozen times!"

"Thrown it away? Then how - "

"That's what I mean! I keep throwing it away and it always ends up back in the box. I can't get rid of it!"

"Your mom is probably finding it in the trash and pulling it out. My mom always looks through my trash."

"But I've thrown it away at school, too." I say. She looks at me, her big, blue eyes glittering.

"Are you serious? At school? And it still turned up here?"

My heart swells a little because I know I've hooked her. "Uh huh. And once I threw it away at the mall, and once I threw it down my grandma's trash chute at her apartment. It keeps coming back."

We look at each other and when our eyes we meet we both shiver. "That's spooky," she says. I'm at that point where I believe my lie. That's why I'm so good.

"Well, there's GOT to be a way we can make it go away for good," Colleen says, standing up with the keychain in her hand and casting her eyes frantically around my room. Her eyes alight on my window.

Now I'm scared. I had ben getting into it, but I suddenly remember that the whole thing was fake, and that if she throws that out my window, I'll probably never see it again. My parents call the side yard, the one directly outside my bedroom windows, "Neverneverland" because they never take care of it. The weeds are taller than I am. The whole area is fenced in and it's almost impossible to open the one gate that opens up to it because the dense growth impedes it. If a ball is thrown over the fence we buy a new ball. I never open my windows.

"Er - I dunno," I say, trying to stall. "The whole thing kinda creeps me out and I just want to leave it in my box," I say, reaching my hand out to get the chain back.

But Colleen's eyes are still glittering and she igonres my outstretched hand. "I'll bet if we threw out the window into that weed patch, it'd be lost forever!"

I really don't want it to be lost forever. I don't have very many things to remind me about my uncle and aunt. I still have the half-finished embroidery project tucked away somewhere in my closet. I will never finish it, but I don't know this yet. I think that one day I will take it out and become like Aunt Claire, classy and graceful and accomplished. Perhaps I will take on an English accent.

And my keychain reminds me that I have in my genes a tendency to wander, to explore. To take risks and live wherever I want to. I don't see this in any of my family members who live with me. We're all a timid, careful lot. We would never go to a three-day party. We would shrink from that much mayhem and chaos. I already know and fear this about myself, but I have hopes that when I grow up I will be like Uncle Ernie and have adventures. I know that Colleen will, and that she takes this for granted. It's not fair for her to jeopardize my chances for some silly story I told.

"Colleen, don't!" She has started for my window and is tugging at it. It sticks, so as she tugs I try to reason with her. "What if it doesn't come back? I've decided that I want to keep it now," I plead. "Because it kept coming back."

"Oh, it's just a plastic thing! Who cares?"

The window unsticks with one violent tug and as I gasp in horror, Colleen tosses the keychain out the window. She calmly closes the window and turns to face me. "There. Now let's see if it comes back!"

But I knew it wasn't coming back. And I tell myself it was just a stupid plastic keychain. And that I can at least think of it being just outside my window, somewhere, even if I can't see it. The important thing, I reassure myself, is that I'd seemed momentarily interesting to Colleen. I perk up.

Twenty-five years later my daughter's Girl Scout troop is studying New Zealand and she brings home a picture of the Maori symbol that had been on my keychain. My parents have just months before cleaned out Neverneverland so that they could put the house on the market. I wonder if they came across it but if they did, no one mentioned it. It would be long gone by now.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Animal

Tell a story about an animal:

When I first saw her, she wasn't very friendly. I had to coax her for a few weeks to trust me enough to come close, but by the end of summer she'd sit in my lap on the delapidated old lawn chair on our front porch. She'd purr while the sun set over the farmland across from our rented house and I'd never felt happier.

I had just finished my degree in French Literature a few months before, and while I was happy in Idaho and loving the change from city to country, beach to farm, I was also feeling a bit at loose ends. I hadn't found a job yet, or met any friends. I felt without moorings. As the cat purred on my lap I remembered a passage I'd read by Colette, something about her cats (Colette had a great love of animals and cats in particular) which had made my heart swell up with love for every cat I had ever owned as I read it and so I named this cat Colette. As a way to connect my old life and my new.

She rewarded me with her batch of kittens, certainly not her first, judging from the ease with which she left them on our porch that day. "Here, now you take them," she seemed to say. And I did.

Charlie was the funny one. The ham. He and Bill had a special rapport that started the day that Bill picked him up by the scruff of his tiny little neck and he hissed ferociously at him. He was so cocksure of himself, that his hissing would scare the crap out of this man, that Bill about fell over laughing and they were fast friends from then on.

Hillary was the smartest one. She was also vocal, the way some cats are, "mow"-ing and "mrrp"-ing conversationally, almost constantly. Hillary Clinton was making waves at the time as the "I'm no stand-by-your-man Tammy Wynette-cookie-baking woman," debacle so I named this cat who never seemed to know when to shut her mouth in her honor. It wasn't an insult. I admired them both.

And Darryl, she was the oddball. The runt. She had probably not developed completely in the womb, and even now outside of it she was too timid to compete for milk and food and merely took whatever was leftover. She was half the size of the others. She was also the shyest. Her shyness went beyond simple meekness and bordered on the neurotic. Long after the other two had come to trust us and let us play with them and hold them, Darryl shrunk into the shadows and hid under cars, refusing to let us get close to her.

Eventually the other two learned how to pull open our sagging screen door by its corner on the bottom and run inside our house. Inside was where there was always food and warmth (or cool shade) and kitten toys. Darryl wanted no part of it. One day, though, as I held back and out of her sight, she tentatively followed the others in and instantly regretted it. She looked trapped. Cornered. She tried to figure out how to get back out but before she could I had latched the screen shut, and since I had her trapped there, between the screen and myself, I dared to risk alienating her forever by taking advantage of the proximity and touching her. As I crooned softly, "It's ok, you'll be ok..." and lowered my hand slowly and gently to her she cringed and cowered and trembled. When my hand stroked her fur her eyes popped open in surprise and just that quickly she decided that this touching thing, it wasn't so bad. Purring loudly, she rubbed up to me and greedily demanded payback for all of the barren, love-starved months she'd endured until now.

It wasn't long before word got out that we were hosts of an unwed-cat-mother facility. The next mother to deposit her offspring on our porch was a bedraggled white cat I named, simply, Mama-Kitty. I feel bad now that she never had an identity beyond her parental role. She left us three fluffy white kittens. I managed to give one away to a co-worker (I had found a job by then), and the other two we named Buster and Oliver.

Buster. He was the quintessential kitten. When you think of kittens and their funny antics, the chasing of tails, the batting at pieces of yarn - you think of Buster. He played the role to perfection. I couldn't help but love that little guy with all of my heart, as if he were my child. I thought of him while I was away at work, wondering what he was doing.

His brother, Oliver, was the complete opposite. Gloomy. Shy. Timid. Cynical. If Buster was the guy who was always the life of the party, Oliver was the "emotionally complex" one. And yes, I adored him. I loved Oliver with less of a physical, grabbing-up-and-smooching kind of love than I did Buster, but in addition to loving him I respected him. I understood him. We were peas in a pod.

Oliver trusted very few in this world, and while I was admitted to this esteemed circle it was Buster who received the best of Oliver's love. They curled up together to sleep every night. If Oliver ever, ever came at all close to "playing," it was because Buster was poking at him relentlessly until he finally gave in and started to swipe back. Buster was good for Oliver. He was going to show him how to become more free.

And then he was run over by a car, Buster was. I grieved noisily and openly, sobbing at home, at work, at the laundromat. It felt like a part of my body had been torn off. But I could only imagine the heartache that Oliver felt and in time he and I pulled together and became even closer. We had several connections now, and we shared the kind of grief that you never really recover from.

He trusted no one but me now. When my parents visited at Christmas, Oliver managed to squeeze himself underneath the refrigerator, so convinced was he that these people meant him harm. I wrung my hands and worried a lot because I couldn't see how any creature could fit themself into that small of a space, underneath something so solid and heavy, and survive. But when my parents would leave the house to do Christmas shopping Oliver would sneak out, dazed and traumatized, and huddle next to me on the couch.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Lie

Write a story about a lie:

This time when he looked at her she saw it differently. Gave her a weird feeling, almost creepy. For years she'd known him as Lori's husband, the father of Kylie, who was a school friend of her daughter's. Kylie and Toni had been friends since first grade, six years ago. Kylie's mother, Lori, was completely the opposite from her. She was large and brassy. She seemed to not notice that she was overweight and wore short-short skirts. She bleached hre hair and wore too much makeup. She and Karen would never have been friends if their daughters weren't.

But Karen had grown to like Lori. She enjoyed her over-the-top enthusiasm and her tendency to say exactly what was on her mind. As she did the day she blurted out that her husband wasn't really Kylie's father at all. Nor her husband any longer. Karen had stared uncomprehendingly at her. For years she'd seen the two of them at school plays, soccer games, all over town. They'd seemed to be a happy couple.

But as Lori'd explained, "Mike never could keep it in his pants. All the time we were married he was sneaking out, staying out all night, lying to me. He was so bad that his own family was telling me to divorce him! So I finally did." Karen didn't try to figure out why they'd been living in the same house for as long as she'd known them; she'd think about it later. Because Lori wasn't done with the story. "And then I was so lonely and unhappy - Karen, it was hell to be with this man who didn't love me for so long. We're great friends, always have been, but he always wanted other women more than he wanted me. So then I met this man at the bank where I was eorking and..."

Karen tried to look casual, as if this wasn't shocking. She looked over at Kylie and Toni where they were eating popcorn from a bowl on the counter and giggling loudly. She blushed when she remembered how many times she'd said that Kylie looked so much like Mike.

"So, Mike knew all along?" she finally ventured.

"Yes, he knew. I guess he knew that he could hardly play the victim after all the women he'd been with. he agreed to raise Kylie as ours, together."

"And this other man, the real father - " Karen said, hesitating.

Lori sighed drmaatically. "He said that if he couldn't have all of me and the baby, he didn't want nothing to do with with either of us. It'd be too painful." Lori looked soberly down at the floor.

"And he still lives here? In town?"

"Yeah. Last I heard. I haven't seen him since we broke up, right after I told him that I was pregnant."

Karen was trying to absorb all of this, but she'd have to think more about it later. Why didn't she break off her marriage to be with the father, if they loved each other as much as she said they did? And why would Mike agree to raise this child as his own?

"And Kylie didn't know about any of this until recently?" Karen asked. That was what had brought the whole issue to the front; Kylie had loudly and with great flourish announced that she hated Mike and he wasn't even her real father and so she didn't have to do what he said.

"No, we'd agreed to never tell her," Lori said sadly. "She was never supposed to know. I could just kill that Mike for getting ugly about this. He didn't mind raising her as his own at all - he LOVES Kylie! As far as he's concerned, she is his daughter. Until we decided to finalize the divorce and child support payments came up."

And it was since they'd started official divorce proceedings that Mike had started to drastically change. He started to dye his hair. He was often wearing a leather jacket. And the last several times that Karen had seen him, when he'd be picking Kylie up from her house or shed run into him around town, his eyes had lingered on her. Now that she knew what a womanizer he'd always been, he seemed like a different person. She'd be talking to Kylie as she stood next to Mike and although she never stopped looking at Kylie as she spoke, she'd feel his eyes on her. Why all of a sudden? She'd known him for years. And Karen was happily married, besides. Why was he suddenly leering at her?