Category: NonFiction

Why We Kill the Things We Love

Pets.           

When my daughter was two, she killed a frog. We had found them months earlier, living under the ledge of our back porch. Our neighbors, Diana and Dylan, through the power of sheer negligence, had converted their pool into a swamp, and as a result, we fell asleep each night to the guttural harmonies of croaking frogs.

The two tiny frogs that had wandered away from their pool and into my yard were no bigger than a quarter and when I first saw them, I immediately worried. “They need their mom,” I thought to myself, and I briefly considered returning them to their home. But as soon as Emelia saw them, she fell in love. Like her, they were small and fresh to being alive, and she could relate to them on a level that I no longer could.

“You can look with your eyes, but not with your hands,” I urged her. And for weeks, she did just that. She stared at them from an inch-distance while they did nothing more than sleep.

Then one spring morning, I let my guard down and bent over our garden, pruning overgrown tomato plants. I neglected Emelia in my peripheral vision, and in the time it took to stand up and turn my head, it was already too late. When she uncoiled her hand at my urging, the frog lay limp, dead in the heart of her tiny palm.

“Is he sleeping?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “He’s tired.” 

That night, when she was asleep, I used my spade and dug a hole beneath the pine tree and buried him. There was a part of me that felt bad for the frog, for its life and its mother who I thought I heard croaking, missing and grieving her child. But there was a much bigger part of me that wanted the thing hurriedly gone. Mothers are empathetic, but that evening I learned that the primal drive to shelter children from their own sad consequence is much, much, more powerful.

“It was an accident,” I told myself. “She simply wanted to know how it felt to hold the thing she loved.”

I slept well that night.

 

Holidays.

Norman was the name that my older daughter, Olivia, bestowed on our potted Christmas tree. She misheard “Noble” as Norman when we loaded the tree into the back of our wagon. And it stuck the way that kids’ misconceptions often do. I had never wanted a two-foot potted tree. I wanted a real, lush, huge tree. Growing up, we always had a fake tree that one of my otherwise idle parents pulled from the basement.  But sometimes the things we want the most are the things we speak up for the least. So when my husband announced that we were going green, I agreed. We went to the Christmas tree lot and while my husband negotiated prices on potted, short trees, I thumbed the edges of the full-grown, supple pines. Their needles tickled and teased my hand. Eventually, Norman came home and I decorated him with half the usual ornaments.

It’s true that we don’t care properly for the things we never loved in the first place. Norman died. We had moved him out back toward the edge of the lawn. I feel guilty. But he fell immediately into the backdrop of my life once December was over. He was something to look at, not tend to. There were vacations and trips to the river and long weekends, and by September, his needles had turned wilted. His pot looked loose and the soil in the base was cracked and I could see his thirsty roots.

 

Love.

The Sami people in Alaska have at least 180 words to describe snow. I remember this fact when Emelia puts her tongue out to catch the spontaneously falling snowflakes.

“Where does it go, once it melts away?” she asks.

“It becomes a part of you,” I say.

Emelia is in love with everything these days. She tells me that she loves when it snows. She tells me that she loves raspberry lemonade. She tells me that her favorite color is purple and she loves it. She loves sunshine and the next day, she says she loves the way the rain looks dripping down her passenger window. She is confined to a car seat but there isn’t a single thing she doesn’t find mesmerizing from her point of view, that she doesn’t consequently love.

Because I’m an adult and desperate for limitations, I make her describe each thing she admires on a numerical scale.

“But how much do you love fluffy teddy?”

“I love him 101,” Emelia replies.

“So then how much do you love Mommy?”

“I love you 101.”

I cannot teach my daughter a language that fails to exist, so I bite my cheek and change the subject.  

 

Ambition.

My sophomore year of college, I had a roommate who wanted nothing more than to be married.

“So, you really don’t care if you finish with a degree? You’re really just here to find a husband.”

“Yep.” She sat in front of a desk covered with cosmetics. She curled her eyelashes.

“But don’t you want to be something? Like, have a career?” I asked.

“Nope.” She started to apply her mascara, dipping the brush and wiping off the excess. “I just want to be someone’s wife.” 

At the time, I thought she was naive, even ridiculous. But she met her husband that year, and later they had two children and have been happy ever since. I’m also doing exactly what I had hoped for that day: I have syllabi, students, and an office on a college campus.

We both fulfilled our plans. But when I wake up at 3:30 some mornings and think of her, I realize that maybe she wasn’t naive after all. Perhaps, I wonder, she was much smarter than I gave her credit for. Perhaps, she was smarter than I am.

 

Marriage.           

The boy who served me my divorce papers looked no older than most of my students.

“Do you like what you do?” I asked him from my doorway. “You do realize that you are quite literally the bearer of bad news, right? Haven’t you heard the saying ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news’? So I’m asking you, honestly – do you like what you do?” 

“Ma’am,” he thumbed the edge of his clipboard, “can you please just sign next to your printed name?”

I sat at my kitchen table and read the papers carefully. Not because I was confused or unaware of what they were, but because the cover page told me to in bold print. “NOTICE TO RESPONDENT: READ THESE PAPERS CAREFULLY!”  And though I admit that sometimes I ignore bold print, even when combined with capitalization and an exclamation mark, I recognized this as a warning and not advice.

I was immediately impressed with whoever wrote the divorce agreement template. I assumed it was a she because the language is so nurturing, so gentle. “Your spouse/partner has filed a Petition asking for dissolution of your marriage…”  It’s the fluffy kind of word choice that can mask the obvious and painful undercurrent. Because marriage doesn’t dissolve. Marriage tears, rips, and crumbles, but afterwards, there is always evidence of the mess. Snowflakes dissolve. Ash dissolves. Things that can dissolve have the ability to turn back into nothing, into a state of non-existence. Marriage simply isn’t that sort of thing.

I appreciated the kindness of the language until I got to page 9 and Line 17. “Wife’s former name of Monahan should be restored.” As if that was even possible. As if after seven years and two children, I could tack my old last name back on and everything would go back to the before.

Then it hit me.

He didn’t want to divorce me. He wanted to pretend as if we never were.

He wanted whatever had been us to be erased. He wanted our ‘us’ dissolved.

 

Habits.           

I have to walk the dog three times a day. We take the same path each morning, afternoon, and night. I head south on Barrows Road in Beaverton, make a right at Scholls Ferry, then follow it down until I hit Murray. Then we make another right. I tug a half-Saint Bernard, half-Italian mastiff, a dog that weighs fifteen more pounds than me, and make him take a short walk back into my apartment complex.  For the last two years, we have done this and yet, no matter what, when we hit Murray, he loses his stride. He bucks up. He lashes his head against the collar that chains his wants to my whims.

He doesn’t want to go home.

I have to stop myself from screaming at him, “Neither do I! We just have to!” 

We cannot speak to each other, we have no way to and yet, when I look in his eyes, we can acknowledge each other’s desperation, each other’s unwillingness to take another step.

 

Fathers.

Sometimes, I make the mistake of calling my father.

“Why do you even bother?” friends ask.

“I think that I’m supposed to,” I reply.

I’m good at small talk, so I ask about his health. I bring up things he likes to talk about. “Heard this story on NPR,” I hear myself saying. He talks to me the way the barista does at the coffee shop. It’s superficial and I’m engaged in a game that I always remind myself to stop playing.

Then his girlfriend starts rustling a newspaper loudly in the background and he says he has to go. Yeah, me too, I always say.

 

Family.           

My daughters and I have taken a new formation these days. We are slowly shaping into a triangle, adapting to the loss of our four-cornered square. I notice this wherever we go. At restaurants, in the car, around the grocery cart in the super market, around the kitchen table at night. I have become the pinnacle and they, my base and outward angles. We function on a day-to-day basis, but there are times, these dark, immobile and definite moments, where we each, in our own way, notice that no matter where we are, there is always an empty seat.

My calendar has also been dissected. I plan per every other weekend. There is no longer the fluidity of thirty days in one month, flowing neatly one into another. I have five days then a split. I either keep my children or pass them off. For twelve days, life has a certain rhythm. I teach my classes. I come home. I get the girls on and off the bus. We make dinner. They bathe. There are books and late night requests for water or a snack. There are nightmares and back rubs. And there are also these sweet moments when we break that rhythm, sleeping on the living room floor, the laundry left unfolded and my contact lenses left in.

But then there are the every-other weekends.

 

Mothers.

When I was twelve, I watched my bother cry. He stood with his face pressed to the plastic of our hamster’s tank and wailed so deeply his body shook. “She’s eating her babies!  What should I do?”

At the time, I just started to cry. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to comfort him but there was no room in his worried arms. He looked at me for help. “Should I take her away from her babies?” I averted both his eyes and question because I honestly didn’t know.

One week earlier, we had discovered that not only had our hamster, Thumbelina, been pregnant, but that she had now given birth. Six tiny and furless creatures just appeared between the night and the next morning. We found them nestled beneath Thumbelina’s fur. For a week, we watched in amazement as they nursed and grew. Their eyes opened and hair began to sprout. Then she turned on them.

We asked my mother why, our eyelids laden with tears. She looked up from her newspaper, eyes locked on ours, and said, “She killed them because she knew they’d never survive.” 

But had she even given them a chance to, I wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

20 Minutes with Bobbie Koppleman

Journal entry July 7

We moved from Brooklyn to Long Island today. To a town where every drive, court, and place is named after a girl, a bird, or some kind of shrub. Where kids play basketball in their driveways and softball in the street.

I did not want to move. I am fourteen years old. I do not like change.

“What about all my friends?”

“Don’t worry,” my parents say, “you’ll make another one.”

Another one? One? What’s that supposed to mean? Is it some kind of joke? If it is, I don’t think it’s very funny.

Our new house is on a curved “drive” with a dozen other four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath Colonials with varying degrees of multicolored shutters and front doors. And there they are – the kids in the street playing softball. I told you. We slowly cruise by them in my Dad’s Cadillac. They stare. I have a bad feeling.

A group of pubescent girls in tank tops and short shorts sit on the curb across the street and watch the movers unload our furniture. The nymphets. They notice my older brother, in his tie-dyed sleeveless t-shirt, suede vest and lovebeads, and sigh. They notice me and giggle.

My father asks me to take my two-year-old brother to the park in his stroller.

“Why do I have to walk him?”

“He’s not a dog,” says Dad.  “Besides, you’re the responsible one in this family.”

I do not want to be responsible. I want to be irresponsible. Bad. An irresponsible, bad boy. And cool. Definitely cool. Like my older brother.

Instead, I push a stroller down the sloped driveway. The nymphets watch.

“Don’t forget the diapers,” my mother yells from behind me. I freeze. The nymphets giggle some more. I turn around, push the stroller back toward the house, and grit my teeth together so hard I’m afraid my jaw will crack.

“Mom!”

“What? What’s the matter?” Mom says. She hands me a pack of newly laundered diapers.

I head back toward the nymphets like a man to the gallows.

“Don’t forget to clean his tushie if he makes. Use the A&D ointment.”

Out of the corner of my eye I see one of the nymphets mouth “tushie?” and they die laughing. I continue walking. Don’t turn around, I tell myself. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around. I turn around. More laughter.

All the neighbors come out to say hi. They’re friendly and smiley and all, but I know what they’re thinking. Who’s the doofus with the stroller?

Except for Bobbie Koppleman.

Bobbie Koppleman is a cross between Mrs. Robinson and Laura Petrie. She isn’t like the other moms. For one thing, she wears dresses, not too short, just short enough to show off some leg. And high heels. Not too high, just high enough to provide a little wiggle as she sashays from her car to her front door with two bags of groceries from the A&P. I watch as she fiddles with her keys. She suddenly turns, catches my eye and smiles. I swear there’s a quick wink. It’s like she doesn’t see the stroller or the two-year-old, or the diapers. She sees me.

 

Journal entry July 8th

Our house is stifling. No air conditioning. How can you move into a new house in July without air conditioning?

“Don’t worry,” Dad says, “it’s like the country. We’ll open the front door, the back door, and a breeze will blow through the house.” We open all the doors and windows and all that blows through the ten room house is air from Africa.

I ride my bicycle back and forth along Scarlet Buckeye Drive, ignored by the kids who play basketball in their driveways and softball in the street. My older brother is somewhere in the neighborhood with his twelve new friends, eight of which are girls. A tan El Dorado slowly drives by with Bobbie Koppleman behind the wheel. I follow and park myself across the street from her house.

Bobbie removes two A&P bags. One rips and a box of Ding-Dongs (or was it Ho-Ho’s?) drops to the pavement. I pedal across the street and gallantly retrieve the wayward snacks. Bobbie thanks me, and I contribute the brilliant observation that Ding Dongs/Ho-Ho’s are my favorite.

Bobbie addresses me by name. She knows that I have two brothers and that I play the piano. Geez! Is nothing sacred? Is my entire life fodder for idle suburban gossip?  

“It’s the suburbs sweetie,” she winks, reading my mind. “No secrets here.”

And then she does damndest thing. She extends her hand in that dainty kind of Queen Elizabeth way.

“Roberta Koppleman.”

What do I do with it? Kiss it? Hold it? Shake it? (which I do).

“Let me help you with these, Mrs. Koppleman,” I say.

“Bobbie,” she says and opens the front door.

“Doesn’t the air conditioning feel grand?” Bobbie says as we walk into her house. I nod and think about Dad and us living like country folk in Death Valley across the street.

Grab a seat at the bar,” she says.

Sure enough the Koppleman’s have a bar – the real deal with booze and mirrors and shot glasses. Not like my house with plastic on the living room sofa.

“What can I get you to drink?” she calls from the kitchen. I feel like Hugh Hefner on an episode of “Playboy After Dark.”

“Whatever you’re having,” I say loudly in my best Dean Martin.

Bobbie glides into the room with two drinks and stops by the stereo where she uses her pinkie to flick the “on” switch.  The music is loud. I twitch.

“Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Yeah!” she growls.

Bobbie hands me my drink.

“Hawaiian Punch on the rocks for the gentleman.” I’m disappointed it’s not something stronger, but it could’ve been worse – Hi-C or Yoo-Hoo.

“To neighbors,” she toasts.

Bobbie rattles off some former address where she used to live, some place on the upper east side of Manhattan. So what do I do? I tell her we also lived on the upper east side of Manhattan (a lie!) and I come up with some address that probably doesn’t even exist and she jumps up and says that we lived a “hop, skip and a jump” away from each other.

God help me, I don’t know why I said it, it’s just that when she looked at me all excited about Manhattan, I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was from Coney Island, Brooklyn, and that I lived a “hop, skip and a jump” from the bearded lady sideshow and the Cyclone roller coaster ride.

Bobbie tells me that her husband, Stanley (or is it Sidney?) thinks the city is a toilet and that’s why they moved to the suburbs. Hooterville, she calls it. I tell her I disagree with Stanley (or Sidney), and we toast to disagreeing with Stanley/Sidney. And then I go kind of nuts. Here’s what I remember:

Bobbie: “God, I miss Central Park!”

Me: “Played baseball there all the time.”

Baseball? Now I’m regaling her with tales of my non-existent athletic prowess.

Bobbie: “You know what I miss most? Strolling up Fifth Avenue on a spring day.”

Me: “I miss the Planetarium.”

My mouth was like a runaway train.

Bobbie: “I miss the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art!”

Me: “I miss the Museum of Natural History!”

Bobbie: “Foie Gras at Lutéce!”

That’s French for goose liver.

Me: “Uh-huh.”

Bobbie: “You know what? I think we’re kindred spirits you and I.”

Me: “Simpatico.”

That’s Spanish for “compatible.” Two can play this game.

Bobbie: “Yes, simpatico. Muy simpatico.”

At this point she touches my glass ever so gently with hers.

Bobbie sips whatever she’s drinking and I slurp my Hawaiian Punch and nobody says anything for a few seconds, which feels like a lot longer to me. Her mood changes, I can see it on her face. She sighs and stares at the white shag carpet. So I do the gentlemanly thing, not wanting to wear out my welcome.

“I’d better be going,” I say, standing.

“Do you have to?” Bobbie asks, and I nod and mumble something about dinner.

Bobbie walks me to the front door and reaches for my Hawaiian Punch before I leave with it. She tells me she enjoyed our chat and to stop by any time, and I wonder if that means tomorrow? the day after? next week? I’ll have to think about this.

The nymphets sit on the curb directly across the street. Bobbie has closed the door but they don’t see that.

“Thanks for the drink, Bobbie,” I call out deliberately. “We’ll have to do it again.”

The nymphets stare. Out of the corner of my eye, I see one of them incredulously mouth the word, “Bobbie?” I walk past them without turning, the rhythmic beat of The Four Seasons iconic “Walk Like A Man” pulsating in my head. That’s right ladies, take a look, take a long look. You had your chance.

I stride inside our Colonial sauna, head held high.

“Where have you been?” Mom asks.

“At Bobbie’s,” I answer, and the minute I say her name, I can sense that I’ve made a mistake. It sounds, well, kinda dirty, like I shouldn’t be saying it to my Mom.

“I mean, Mrs. Koppleman, I mean,” I overcorrect.

“I know who you mean,” Mom says in way that makes me think that everyone in the neighborhood knows who I mean. “What were you doing over there?”

“Talking.” I shrug.

“Talking? What could you possibly have in common with a middle-aged woman?

“I don’t know,” I reason with my on-going non-committal I-do-this-all-the-time attitude. “You’re a middle-aged woman and we have stuff in common.”

Mom doesn’t like my tone. “Don’t be a smart-ass.”

 

Journal Entry – July 10

It’s been three days since I’ve seen Bobbie Koppleman. This morning I lie in bed for a few minutes planning a course of action for our next tete-a-tete (that’s French for “a private conversation between two persons”).

Then I pull up my window shade and look across the street.

I race downstairs in my underwear.

“Mom!”

Mom is ironing in the kitchen.

“What? What is it? What’s the matter?”

I pull her to the front of the house. She complains I’m hurting her arm.

I unlock the front door.

We look across the street at the black paint on the Kopplemen’s white two car garage:

BOBBIE YOU FUCKING WHORE.

“Close the door!”

“But why – ”

“Close the door, now!”

I’m slow to move and mom slams it shut.

She wags her finger at me. Her orders are direct and to the point.

“Stay out of it, don’t go over there, mind your own business.”

I sit in my room at the window and wait. About ten o’clock the front door opens and Bobbie Koppleman walks outside with a can of paint remover and a cloth. She wears a white dress and heels, no dumpy shorts for her. And when she starts to scrub she leans over with that butt of hers high in the air as if to say to the neighborhood you know what you can do.

Within the hour Bobbie Koppleman runs out of paint remover and goes back inside. All that is left is YOU FUCK and it stays that way for the rest of the day.

 

Journal Entry – July 17

I haven’t seen Bobbie Koppleman in a week. I ride my bicycle all day around our neighborhood and then farther west to where Beauty Berry Place intersects Rhododendron Drive and Carlotta Court, hoping to see her El Dorado, hoping to help sweep up another Ding Dong/Ho-Ho from her driveway.  I linger in front of the Koppleman house and then quickly ride circles around their driveway, slamming on the brakes, hoping the noise will bring her to the front door.

 The Koppleman garage is clean except for some black smudges. (Note: If you put your nose real close to the garage door you can make out the word FUCK – I know, I tried it). I eavesdrop all the time and hear snatches of my parents’ conversations: “another man,” “affair,” “neighbor.”

One morning a FOR SALE sign appears on the front lawn. Bobbie and Stanley/Sidney Koppleman are gone.

 

Journal Entry – August 15

A new family moved into the Koppleman house last week, the Gloubermans. Or is it the Goobermans? I don’t know; I call them the Goobers. The first thing they did was put up a basketball hoop over the driveway for their five or six kids who all look alike. Mr. Goober drives a Pontiac Bonneville and wears a pocket protector for his pens. Mrs. Goober is named Gladys and drives a Rambler station wagon. She wears culottes and sandals, yells at the kids through the screen door, and asked me to stop riding my bicycle back and forth in front of their house so many times because it unnerves the family poodle.

 

Journal Entry – September 5

First day. Ninth grade. Freshman year.

I still haven’t found out all the facts, just bits and pieces of suburban rumor. But I don’t mind because whatever Bobbie Koppleman did or didn’t do, the truth is that when I was with her, I wasn’t the doofus with the stroller changing diapers.  I was the bon vivant (that’s French for “one who lives well”) who, for a brief moment in time (very brief, like twenty minutes) almost took a walk on the wild side.

In my mind, I was a cool, bad boy.

And I guess that’s what we look for, isn’t it? Those moments when we see ourselves through the eyes of someone who looks beyond the diapers and the stroller. We look for our twenty minutes.

Today I stand in the doorway of my new junior high in my carefully ironed white shirt from Macy’s and tan trousers recently worn to my cousin’s sweet sixteen and a new pair of Hush Puppy shoes. I hope ninth grade is better than eighth (the pits) and nowhere near the nightmare of seventh.

The homeroom bell rings and my classmates rush by me. I wonder if they see the new me, the cool me. The way Bobbie Koppleman saw me. I’m “Hef,” in his black suit and half boots with the zipper on the side, a pipe in one hand, a cocktail in the other. Maybe they can. Maybe those kids who play basketball in their driveways and softball in the street will say hey, who do you have for second period English? or come sit with us at lunch, or I’ll let you copy my Algebra notes. Maybe they’ll do all of that.

“Move it, turd!” is what they say, pushing me out of the way.

That’s okay.

You know what? I had my twenty minutes.

And that’s enough to keep me going until sophomore year.

 

 

 

 

The Whole Truth

I parked the car in the short-term parking lot. I wasn’t going to be staying long. Talia had a suitcase in each hand. One of her suitcases I had seen many times, but the other was only recently bought, a purple oversized monstrosity bought of the need to fit all she could into it. I had my own suitcase, but the suitcase wasn’t mine. It was another of Talia’s recent purchases. Three suitcases filled with her life, all that she needed or wanted.

She wasn’t coming back.

She was there to get on a plane to St. Louis. I was staying in Portland.

We were still technically married.

The plastic wheels dragging on cement were the only words between us.

After check-in, after Talia paid the extra ninety dollars for the overweight, oversized suitcase, we went outside so I could smoke. We were early enough to try and say goodbye.

Out there on the edges, twenty-five feet from the door, we sat on the bench and I smoked. It was May. It was early morning. We sat close and held hands, her wrists finally free of the bandages she had worn for weeks from her last suicide attempt. The bandages that were left in the bathroom for me to throw away when I got home. Her hands were warm and a little sweaty after a while the way they always got. Sweaty paws we called them. My hands were cold and dry. It was supposed to be the perfect combination.

We talked about maybe. Maybe we could spend the summer apart, truly apart. Space, maybe all we needed was space. Not like the last month of weekends staying at friends houses. Sometimes she’d stay in a motel. She said it was because she didn’t have anywhere else to go and couldn’t stay at our apartment by herself. She said it was because she had used up the goodwill of her friends. And this was true, in the way half-truths are. But she was doing heroin again too.

But we weren’t talking about heroin and we weren’t talking about her getting sick and we weren’t talking about her depression and we weren’t talking about her suicide attempts. We were talking about maybe. Maybe we could get better on our own and be the people we fell in love with again because she wasn’t the only one who had changed.

Break up stories are filled with the I of how we were wronged. The husband who worked too much, the cheating spouse, the jealous girlfriend, the boyfriend that never listened, the wife who never wanted to have sex, all of it I was wronged, I was great, I wanted to love them, but they didn’t love me.

But that is another of those half-truths.

Talia had heroin. I had my own self-medication of too many drinks every night of the week. It always started the same, a drink after work to decompress turned into a shot and a beer and one more before I went home. Half-truths. It was always more.

On the bench with our hands intertwined, I cried. In the last month, all the talk of divorce, all the days we spent together after she bought her plane ticket, I didn’t cry. But there on the metal bench, sitting next to the woman I loved, our hands together, our knees touching, I did. There were people and cars and other smokers, but it was me and Talia in our own world on that bench. She was leaving. I was staying. The cigarette in my hand was almost finished and it was almost time to walk with her to security, almost time to say goodbye. We didn’t love each other enough. We couldn’t make each other better.

We were married at a restaurant in downtown Portland. We were happy when we got married. Of course we were happy. We hadn’t been together for a year yet but I had never loved someone so fiercely as Talia. Fierce, encompassing, we could drown in our love. We did. We drowned and drank in our love letting it fill our lungs until we couldn’t fit anymore.

We nibbled on the appetizers set in front of us. My friend Angie had brought champagne and me and Talia drank that in the back corner of the restaurant, our party cramming into the large booth. Most of the wedding party was Angie’s family, my own adopted family. Her mother and aunt and uncle and cousin and grandmother, they’re more family than my own blood.

At dinner we all talked about marriage and love the way you’re supposed to talk about it. Angie’s uncle Eric started talking about love, looking at his wife Brenda with all the love that comes from being married for so long and said something about love the way I thought I was in love with Talia. He told the story about when his wife Brenda was fighting cancer, about how she told him he didn’t need to stay at the hospital all day and all night. She told him at one point after weeks to go home, take a shower, eat something.

“I don’t have any where to go,” he said. “You are my home.”

I thought Talia was my home too.

Over champagne and dinner we signed the papers that were to legally bond us, till death do us part. We didn’t even have rings yet.

Now, neither of us are dead.

But parted. We are parted.

Our marriage was so sudden and impetuous, even though I was never a person that was ever going to get married before I met Talia. I always said it’d be years of dating before a woman could drag me to the altar. Drag, as in forced, that’s the word I always used. But Talia with her dark hair past her shoulders. Her eyes that were brown with a touch of green and amber, a swirl of hazel, eyes she hated, but I loved. Talia with her love for books and love for me and the way we could talk.

When we first started dating we’d spend days and nights together. Not going out and doing much, maybe dinner or drinks, a show, but we’d sit and talk.

We could spend days talking.

All the time spent together and all her friends could say is What do you guys spend so much time talking about?

Everything. Philosophy. Books. Sexuality. Writing. Nothing.

Love.

We were in love.

We didn’t mean to fall in love. When you start dating someone there’s always the idea in the back of your mind that you’ll actually start dating and might fall in love and may even get married. There’s always that possibility when you decide to go on that first date. But we didn’t mean to fall in love.

Just like I didn’t think I’d even ask her out that first night I met her. The two of us late to the party that was happening at my house. Both of us coming from work. And there she was in my kitchen, in jeans and a grey t-shirt with a green bottle of gin painted on the front, her knees slightly bent, head tipped back, my roommate holding the bag from the box of red wine half a foot from her mouth, pouring. A line of red in the air between the box and Talia’s mouth. Her throat working away before her hand waved in the air stop, lips and mouth and chin stained red. Laughter.

But I refused to chug the box wine even when Talia tried to smile at me. I was tired and it didn’t matter that this beautiful woman wanted me to drink the wine. She told me later, over drinks at the Bye & Bye, on a wooden bench sitting across from each other on their back patio over drinks and cigarettes, that I looked stuck up when I told her I wasn’t going to drink the box wine. She said I might as well have lifted my nose in the air and said box wine was for peasants. Talia told me I was a judgmental stuck up asshole, but we laughed when she told me.

We didn’t mean to fall in love.

Later, after we were married, when winter and grey skies and Talia’s seasonal depression were around us, in our apartment, we went to Cabo for a real honeymoon, for tequila and fish tacos, for vitamin D. We lounged on beaches and swam in the ocean. We took pictures and laughed and paid twenty five dollars for dinner and all you could drink tequila. We dipped our bodies and feet and hands in the Sea of Cortez. We walked on Lover’s beach, and I swear we never stepped a foot, a toe or even looked at the sand of Divorce Beach.

But sand, that shit gets everywhere. Who knows what wind carried what sand under our feet, into our clothes, into our bags, our lungs, the air drifting and blowing this way and that. There’s no way to say what we took home with us.

Mexico and sun and tequila didn’t make things better.

I have married friends that get in fights in front of me, complaining about how the husband woke up a grumpy asshole today or the wife is always spending too much money or never cleaning up after herself. They’ll say asshole or bitch and walk away. These fights, even though they’re fights and serious, they make me smile in a weird way.

It’s what fights are supposed to look like.

My fights with Talia were never like that. Hours of yelling, screaming. It started small. A co-worker called at a weird time at night. If I didn’t answer, it was because obviously I didn’t want to talk in front of Talia. If I answered, Talia would put her head close to mine and listen to every word. Usually it turned into an accusation. I was fucking her. One time after texting my male co-worker to make sure we didn’t wear matching outfits he texted big papa likes that. A month later, another fight, Talia quoted that text to accuse me of fucking him too.

I wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t jealousy with me. It was things like one time when she asked me what my work schedule was for the second time in two days, and I told her she was like a gold fish because she had done too many fucking drugs and couldn’t remember shit.

One of my exes once said I was the worst person to fight with because when I fought I always said the things that could hurt the most. I attacked the sacred. I aimed for those deep hurts and insecurities.

I told Talia once she didn’t need to worry about finding a job because all she had to do was make a bar manager think they could fuck her like all the other guy friends in her life.

I really could be a fucking asshole.

But with Talia, there was never any logic in her fights. We’d spend hours talking before yelling where she’d then pull out some evidence that she believed proved it all. Once it was an old phone number that she had found in the huge Caribbean rum mug I kept on top of one of the bookshelves. Talia’s face red, yelling, putting it in my face because she believed I had kept the number as a trophy of one of the times I cheated on her.

Another was a receipt from the breakfast place down the road she had found in my wallet. I was taking women out to brunch and fucking them while she was at work. If I didn’t text her for a couple hours while she was at work she always called asking me where I was, saying our neighbor had stopped by and I wasn’t home.

I hadn’t left the house other than for coffee when I woke up in the morning.

She lied to me to see what I would say.

All these different fights, all the yelling and accusations, the anger invaded my body. I carried it inside me. Toward the end, I’d throw glasses, books and any object close to me. I’d beat my chest with my fist to feel a physical pain to match the emotion in me. I smashed a chair in our bedroom against the floor. All of it out of frustration, anger, a way to affect something because I could never affect or change Talia.

The night I broke the chair, Talia was threatening to kill herself again. It was summer time with the windows open, the breeze coming in and our voices carrying out. My neighbors, they heard sounds of a struggle, they told the police I was strangling her.

I was pulling the kitchen knife she held to her wrist out of her hands.

I answered the door in my boxers thinking it was our neighbors in our apartment complex that we shared a wall with coming to tell us to be quiet. It was three cops. They wore blue latex gloves.

Me and her drunk, the apartment a downright fucking mess, clothes everywhere, the broken chair, the knives in the kitchen scattered because every time I took one out of her hand she’d find another. Talia was in bed. One cop pulled me aside, pulling me out into the living room while the other two talked to Talia in the bedroom. He kept asking me questions, me still in my boxers having while they kept asking her every way sideways to admit I had hit her, choked her, anything.

Anything. They kept saying. Did he do anything?

The cop kept asking me, did you hit her?

Were you fighting?

What have you been doing tonight?

Our house looked like a fucking crime scene.

How did the chair break?

Was it during a struggle?

Did you grab her?

I couldn’t tell them I was trying to stop her from committing suicide without telling them I had to hold her down to do it. I couldn’t say anything but no officer, no, while I knew the bracelets, handcuffs, were going to come out. I was going to jail. This was going to be them with their blue latex gloves on, pulling my arms back and putting the metal on my wrists being taken to jail in only my boxers.

But Talia said no. Every way they wanted her to say yes, she said no.

I still can’t describe the way I felt right then after she kept saying no and they left. Some clarity had come over her and no matter all the ways she wanted to hurt me, tried to hurt me, all the times she had told me she had fucked people for money or started stripping or did heroin or was at that moment killing herself, all those moments and ways she tried to lash out and hurt me, that night with the police was not one of them.

This story itself is a half truth. When people, friends, loved ones, ask what happened, I try to give them the cliff notes. This story is a way to talk about everything that went on between us, but never being able to really give the whole truth. The whole truth is only for me and Talia.

In the August after our one year marriage anniversary, after three months of fighting everyday, I kissed a woman. One of the women Talia had accused me of fucking. A co-worker.

That night in August a woman I had slept with a couple of years back came to a reading I was doing for a literary journal that had published my work. The woman I had slept with years ago and I were smoking outside, making small talk, when Talia walked up. Talia didn’t stop and say hello, but headed straight to the bathroom before going out the back entrance. When I texted her asking where she was, she told me that I was a piece of shit for inviting that woman and the only reason I invited her was because I wanted to fuck her.

Talia said, fuck you, I’m going to do heroin.

Alcohol, heroin, cocaine, molly, ecstasy, Adderall, mushrooms, acid and cigarettes, the short term solutions to all our problems.

I was supposed to read and the editor had flown out from Kansas to Portland for the event and I couldn’t leave. I kept texting. Called when I could. Asked where she was. Plead, begged for her not to do heroin, to come back to the event. I told her I would pick her up.

She said she had two syringes full.

She said she was going to overdose.

She said they’d find her in the gutter in the morning and it would be all my fault.

That night, I kissed a woman.

After Talia did heroin. After she met up her friends. After she was so fucked up her eyes couldn’t look directly at anyone she was talking to, she went searching for me and found me on a street corner in my car kissing my co-worker.

I didn’t plan to kiss her. But we had spent the evening drinking to get drunk and she had a beautiful smile and we were walking to my car to say goodbye and she got in my car and I kissed her.

It was a moment of weakness.

Talia hit me in the face that night. She hit me in front of a bar, the bartenders the witness to our drama. Talia went home and destroyed all the pictures and keepsakes I had from any woman ever in my life. Photos. Glasses. A camera. But none of that mattered in the end.

What mattered was she could never forgive me for that moment of weakness. That’s what it came back to in the end. Forgiveness. No matter how many times I forgave her for lying to me, for doing drugs, for kissing women after I told her it made me upset, for the nights she yelled and screamed at me because she thought I was fucking our neighbor, something in her brain could never forgive me.

Months and months and months and days and hours and weeks the way it all starts to feel the same when it’s always fighting, and every fight always turned into her yelling about me kissing that woman about how I had fucked every other woman that I had ever met.

I shouldn’t have kissed that woman. It was such a shitty thing to do. With all of her issues, with all of her paranoia and jealousy, there I was proving her right.

I manifested her monsters.

Mistakes. I made mistakes.

I’m sorry.

Forgive me.

She had a therapist she was seeing and calling multiple times a week. She was supposed to be on Paxil and Lithium and taking Xanax for anxiety.

She was trying. I was trying. You have to believe we were trying.

Even with therapy, even with medication, it didn’t always work. Her depression would break through or something would set her off. For months, almost every night, the two hours before I went to work, the closing shift at a bar, she’d threaten to kill herself. Before I’d leave for work, she’d tell me I was going to come home at night and find her dead because that’s what would make me happy.

I always took the knives and scissors and wine bottle opener with me those nights.

Then I started taking my extra belts.

Then I started taking my ties.

Sounds callous that I’d go to work at a bar late at night after my wife told me she was going to kill herself. Truth is, in the beginning, I let my life be ruled. Leaving work, leaving friends, coming home as quick as I could to save her. I was always trying to save her.

It happened so many times. And it was always my fault.

She always told me if she died I would be happy.

I kept trying to save her.

But it wasn’t about me saving her and after months coming home from work early, not staying out with friends, always trying to be a savior, I could deal with things like her telling me she was going to kill herself while I was at work.

Yet another half-truth. I never really dealt with the pain and grief inside me besides having another cigarette, another drink. So many nights I faked a smile and served the masses beer and liquor while I hoped tonight wasn’t going to be the night she would actually kill herself.

We planned for the future when we were happy. When we first started fighting, I cherished those moments we could be the way we were. Cherished the moments when we could still drown in our love. We went for a walk down to Laurelhurst park and watched the ducks floating back and forth. Watched all the people playing Frisbee or throwing a football, smoking weed and playing acoustic guitars. We planned a future together in New York, trips to Europe, what we’d name our children and dogs and how we could get them dual citizenship. The children, not the dogs.

We could spend days talking.

But a switch in her brain, a night I was too busy at work to text, anything could flip that switch, if I stayed for two drinks after we closed instead of one, if I didn’t get her text messages when I was out with my writer friends, anything could trigger the anxiety, going in circles, circles, until she’d walk to my work to check on me, expecting to see me having sex with someone, or kissing someone, the anxiety and the circles doing its work before it became a reality in her head, in her body, coming out, again and again.

And then those moments of happiness, the walks in the park or dinner or drinks, those moments when I should be happy and in love, I wasn’t. I spent those moments waiting. Arming myself. Protecting myself for the next fight, the next anxiety circle. I couldn’t be happy. That’s when I knew it was over. I knew we could never get back.

I didn’t mean to fall out of love.

But that’s one of those half-truths too.

I still love her.

We hadn’t been dating two months before she was taking a trip back to the east coast to see her family in Vermont before heading to New York to visit friends. At the Portland airport, I dropped her off way too close to boarding time and we kissed on the sidewalk. It was a red eye flight. They had boarded early. Everyone was in their seats, waiting for Talia, but we were going to miss each other and we held each other and we kissed and we didn’t care if she was late. It had only been two months and we were already falling in love.

And I said it, I said, why don’t I fly and meet you in New York.

At JFK airport a week later I had my suitcase and a backpack. I took the air tram and then the A train into Manhattan. Late, it was late, one in the morning before I got to the bar I was supposed to meet her and her friends at. I stood on the corner, waiting, watching New Yorkers pass by, not saying anything aloud, but looking at me with the contempt of seeing someone standing with suitcases on a corner, a fucking tourist.

When I saw her, she didn’t run to me. We waved and I smiled. I smile often for work, but it’s not a true smile, more of a smirk really. It comes from having crooked teeth until I got braces in my mid-twenties. In every family photo one side of my mouth is drawn up, a smirk more than a smile. But when I saw her I smiled, all teeth, like I couldn’t help it.

We hugged and I picked her up. I took in her smell, the same smell that lingered in my sheets and pillows after she left for St. Louis. Lingered until I knew I needed to wash them to stop the stress dreams. Those nights after she left I spent sleeping for two hours, sometimes three and on a good night four, no matter how drunk I got, before waking up and lying in bed.

I always forget all the shit I carry in my body.

Those nights I couldn’t sleep made me feel that grief, that desperation, that loss I carried around with me. Talia’s smell. Talia my own phantom limb, waking me up in the night wondering where she had gone.

She laughed when I picked her up that night in New York. We hadn’t even had the boyfriend-girlfriend-exclusive talk, and I had bought a last minute ticket to New York, meeting her in the East Village at one in the morning. It took us our whole trip in New York to say the words but eventually they came, the two of us too afraid to open ourselves up completely, but saying I think I’m falling in love with you.

The first time we said it was one of those one hundred degree humid days in New York. We had sex on the twin bed we were sleeping on, our bodies dripping sweat, onto each other, into our eyes. At some point her shoulder hit my nose and started bleeding enough to leave spots of blood on her cheek and chest, on my face. Afterward, fucking hot and humid in that tiny New York room, the two of us sweaty messes, we looked at each other, really looked, and we didn’t say anything, but we smiled, and then she said, I think I’m falling in love with you.

And I said it too.

We were falling in love, sweaty, bloody messes that we were.

The morning she left for St. Louis, when we sat outside the Portland airport and talked about maybe, that’s the moment we were both thinking of, I think I’m falling in love with you. That was our idea of maybe. That we could both get onto flights from our cities and fly to New York for a second life.

STL to NYC.

PDX to NYC.

I’d fly into JFK because I always fly into JFK. I’d get on the air tram again and then the A train, that long ass subway ride into Manhattan.

And even though I can’t remember what bar it was we met at that first night in the East Village, that’s where we would meet. I’d get there first, my bags in tow and wait out on the corner. It’d be Fall. There’d be a breeze. And then I would see her for the first time since she left Portland walking toward me.

I’d smile when I saw her half a block away. Of course I’d smile. And the all of the anger and hurt and grief would drain away, go down the sewers where only darkness and rats live.

In those brief moments when I’m strong enough to let myself hope, to dream, when I’m strong enough not to be overcome by the despair, I put myself on that street corner in the East Village and see Talia walking toward me. She’ll be wearing jeans and the same grey t-shirt with a green gin bottle on the front I first met her in, we’ll both be smiling, her walking until she’s close enough for our bodies to crash into each other and we hold on, and her smell will fill my nose, and my arms will pull her body close, into me, and her lips will kiss mine, that flowery pink smell of her lipstick, and no longer will we suffer from our phantom limbs, and our bodies will have changed because we will no longer hold the grief, the pain in our chests next to our hearts, in our bodies, and we won’t need to say the words of I loved you and missed you because our bodies will speak for us, and time will go by quick, too quickly, while people pass us because we don’t want to let each other go now that we found each other again out on a corner in the East Village of the greatest city in the world where our new lives can start again.

 

 

 

 

Let Me Eat Cake

I am fat. Obese. This is according to the Wii Fit. A person can do all kinds of things with this video game system: yoga, soccer, strength training. But I only use it for one thing—a scale. Once a week, I step on, and weigh myself. And when I do, there is a cartoon figure on the screen, designed to look vaguely like me, and every time my weight is calculated, this little cartoon, this animated me, heaves a sigh and sags, as if she’s never seen anything as depressing as those numbers.

My first trip to a weight loss center was three years ago. It was a little brick building, and the inside looked like any doctor’s office. Bland paint on the walls, a water cooler in the corner. A bitchy secretary.

“Do you have an appointment?” the girl behind the counter asked. She ignored me until I cleared my throat, and although she was much younger than I was, I was still a little afraid of her.

“Uh, no. I didn’t think I needed one. I heard your ad on the radio, and I thought I could just stop in.”

She rolled her eyes.

“If you’ll just put your name on the list and have a seat, someone will call you back in a few,” she said, heaving a tortured sigh.

I sat down in one of the chairs, making sure to keep an empty seat on either side of me. There were two other women there, but I avoided their eyes. I’m sure they avoided mine. Because being fat isn’t like being part of some exclusive club. There aren’t get-togethers and matching tattoos and elaborate secret handshakes. If you’re fat, you’re not a speshul snowflake. You’re just fat.

But it’s not quite that simple. There are two different types of fat women. The first is the jolly fat girl. If you fall in this category, you’re completely happy in your own skin. And that’s fine. Be proud of your saddlebags. Love your muffin top. Flaunt that shit. Drop it like it’s hot.

And then there’s the unhappy fat girl. The kind who is constantly tugging on her clothes and worried about how she looks and will pay an obscene amount of money to anyone who might be able to clue her on how to get skinny.

I’ll give you two guesses on which kind of fat girl I am.

I sat in that waiting room for 15 minutes, then 20, clutching my purse on my lap. This is a learned behavior, one a lot of fat girls use. Anything will work in a pinch. A purse, a pillow. All that work to hide the fat paunch that rests so cozily on the tops of the thighs.

The woman who came in and called me back was skinny. Smiling. Nearly chipper. Young.

I hated her.

“So, you’re here to lose weight,” she said, grinning, even as she was flipping through the pages of a manila folder with my name printed on the tab. I’d only walked in the place fifteen minutes before, and I already had a file? I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed with their efficiency, or frightened. “How much do you think you’d like to drop?”

“Huh?” I said. Witty, I know, but her question left me confused. How did I know how much I was supposed to lose? Was a lot a good enough answer? “I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

She laughed. For the first time, I noticed the nametag pinned to her blouse. Tammi, it said, in loopy cursive writing. The dot above the “I” had been replaced with a gold foil star.

“I felt the same way before I started losing weight,” she said. “I didn’t have any idea where to start. But when it was all said and done, I lost sixty pounds.”

“Really?” I said skeptically. I couldn’t imagine it. “Sixty pounds?”

“Being a member here was really what did it,” Tammi said. “Having so much support kept me so motivated.”

This little speech was so smooth, as if it had been rehearsed and choreographed to perfection. I could imagine Tammi at her bathroom mirror, practicing. Smiling with those crocodile teeth.

“There are all those photographs,” I said, thinking of the framed pictures in the long hallway, hung from the ceiling to the floor with hardly any room left between. I’d only seen a few men in those photos. It was mostly women. Serious-faced, sad eyed women, photographed in nothing but their panties and bras, their shoulders slumped and defeated, their rolls of fat gleaming dully in the bad lighting.  The “before” wall. It was one of the saddest things I’d ever seen. “Are you out there?”

For the first time, Tammi’s smile faltered. But only a little.

“No,” she said. “Somebody lost my photo, and we don’t keep copies.”

She was lying, I thought. Tammi had never been fat. She was only pretending, because she was a salesperson. I understood. I’d once had a job selling computers, and I  lied my ass off to get someone to buy something, anything. I’d tell people that my father owned the same computer they were looking at, that he was a freaking computer engineer, that’s how good it was, and it just happened to be the last one I had in stock. I could understand lying to make a sale.

“Speaking of pictures, let’s take yours for the wall,” Tammi said, jumping up and clapping her hands. “Aren’t you excited? I’m so excited!”

“I guess so,” I said gamely, watching as she pulled a camera from a desk drawer. “Where do I stand?”

“You’ll need to get undressed first,” she said. “Just down to your underwear.”

I paused. Tammi watched me expectantly, a smile frozen on her face.

“I don’t think so,” I finally said. I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—have my half-naked photo pinned to a wall. I couldn’t even look at myself under the kind lights in my bathroom at home—I wasn’t about to let strangers stare at my every dimple and stretch mark, immortalized on cheap photo paper and stuck in a fingerprint-smeared frame. “I’ll just take my photo in what I’m wearing.”

She sucked breath in through her teeth.

“Well, the thing is, that’s not normal procedure,” Tammi said slowly. “We really want everyone on the same page, you know?”

“I’m not getting undressed,” I said.

Tammi gave me a look. Clearly, I was being a real pain in the ass.

“All right,” she said. “But you won’t be featured on the wall.”

“I’m fine with that.”

She was huffy with me during the photo, but all that cleared up when it came time for the big question: was I going to sign on for a membership with the center or not? Then she became the perfect, smiling salesperson again.

I hesitated. It wasn’t only about the money (although I could definitely find better things to spend a thousand dollars on),it was also about the commitment. I would have to eat right. Exercise. Come back and visit this place twice a week to weigh in. Go to their support classes, and take their vitamins. It sounded like a lot. It was a lot.

In the end, I signed all the paperwork Tammi shoved in front of me and gave her a check. The lure of a skinnier me was far too great.

The center required me to be on a strict diet—nearly every thing I ate was protein. No carbs. At first, it sounded easy. A variety of meats. Endless piles of bacon. Quivering mountains of Spam. Fountains running with cheese.

But the reality is much different. Everything is a carb. Even the stuff I’d always figured to be healthy had carbs, and was suddenly off my menu. Carrots. Broccoli. Bananas.

Have you ever eaten eggs for breakfast every morning? I mean EVERY. SINGLE. MORNING. I did, for three months. At first, I was charmed. I couldn’t get enough. I bought the carton of five-dozen at Costco, and blasted my way through it. Boiled, sunny-side, fried, scrambled. I ate them here, I ate them there. I ate them all the fucking time.

But the novelty of the eggs wore off pretty quickly. I would wake up some mornings, and the thought of forcing another egg down my gullet made me sick. I started dreaming about strawberry Pop-Tarts (36 net carbs. In one. ONE. And those foil packs always have two. And who the hell wraps up that second one and puts it back in the box?), still warm from the toaster, slathered in butter on one side. Sometimes I would cry. I would break down and weep on my kitchen counter, because I couldn’t have a Pop Tart. Or even a piece of toast to go along with the eggs I was choking down.

“What happens if I go out for dinner?” I asked. This was during my first weigh-in at the center, just two days after I first signed up. “Like, to a restaurant?”

Tammi bounced up and down in her chair. I wondered what she’d had for lunch. Something caffeinated, no doubt.

“You’ll have to be very careful,” she said. “You should always bring your food scale, so you can weigh out your portions.”

“A scale?” I said, snorting with disbelief. “To the restaurant? And just put it out on the table?”

“People do it all the time,” she said. I didn’t bother arguing, but I’d neverseen a person weigh their food at a restaurant. I once saw a ten-year old kid piss his pants and scream bloody murder in a restaurant, but weighing food? Nope. But I nodded at Tammi, smiling. I was never going to do it, but there was no reason I had to tell her that. “And you should take in your own salad dressing.”

“Sneak in a bottle?”

“You can’t trust the dressings at a restaurant. They’re packed with fats and sugars.”

“I’ll need a bigger purse,” I said. “Any other contraband I should be carrying?”

Tammi gave me a withering look. I don’t think she liked me much.

“No,” she said. “Just stay away from the bread basket. Remember, protein will be your saving grace.”

I laughed every time I heard someone at the center say this. And they did—a lot. I mostly laughed because it sounded so stupid, but also because of the way people said it. Almost reverently. As if they’d founded a new religion, one led by four ounces of grilled chicken breast.

It wasn’t long before I ate at a restaurant. I didn’t bring my food scale, and I didn’t bring my own dressing. I ordered fajitas withgrilled chicken and vegetables. It seemed like a safe choice, until they came with one of those plastic containers of tortillas. When I lifted the lid, a cloud of steam puffed into my face.

Before I knew what I was doing, I’d eaten four of them.

“Why would you do that?” Tammi asked at my next weigh-in. She was looking over my food diary, running her finger down along the meals I’d faithfully recorded. I’d told the truth about everything, even those four tortillas, which had sat like bricks in the pit of my stomach after that meal. Soft, delicious bricks. “Why would you do something so dumb?”

I felt trapped. Shamed. Like I was a dog who’d just taken a gigantic shit on the living room rug.

“I ate them because I was hungry,” I said shortly.

“You’ve ruined your whole diet,” she said. Her face was calm, but I thought I could see judgment in it. She was looking at another fat girl with no self-control. She probably saw a dozen of us a day. Women who didn’t know how to turn down a second helping at dinner, or how to politely decline dessert. I wondered if she laughed at all of us after she clocked out in the evenings, laughed at all the dimply thighs she’d seen that day, at all the chubby, pathetically hopeful faces she’d dealt with. It made me angry, to imagine it, even though it probably wasn’t true. But at that moment, with those four tortillas still burning a guilty hole in my big, fat gut, anything felt possible.

“I didn’t ruin anything over four fucking tortillas,” I shouted. I couldn’t stop. “I wanted them, so I ate them. And they were amazing.

Tammi wouldn’t see me again privately after that meeting. I would see her in the hallway sometimes, as I was being led to a weigh-in, but she would always find a reason to look in the opposite direction as I walked by. A cough, usually. Sometimes she’d just pick at the front of her blouse, as if she’d seen something there that she hadn’t noticed before.

A few weeks after my blow-up with Tammi, I found myself alone in one of the weigh-in rooms. The woman who I was meeting with had stepped out for a moment, and she’d left behind a manila folder with my name printed on the side. It was same folder that Tammi had liked to furiously scribble in during our meetings, and I’d always wondered what she’d been writing. So I picked it up and looked.

There were a lot of notes, but only one sentence stuck out. It was in purple ink, and had been underlined three times. The pen had dug so deeply in to the page it had nearly ripped the paper. Angry and violent, it said. Be careful.

I laughed at first. Then I felt stupid. All I’d done was yell. I hadn’t thrown anything. And Tammi had just sat, a smile frozen on her face. I’d been coming in twice a week for almost a month since that incident, meeting with different employees, and all of them had seen that warning written in purple, and then they’d looked at me over the top of the folder, their eyes carefully watching. I was like an unpredictable wild animal. A rhino, maybe, or a hippo. Snorting and angry, kicking my feet in the dust.

I stood up, left the folder on the desk. I walked out. It didn’t matter that I’d already lost ten pounds. It didn’t matter that I’d already paid them an obscene amount of money. Those words, written in that stupid purple ink—I was running from those words. I would never be the jolly fat girl, but I also didn’t want to be the angry fat girl. The kind who suspiciously watches the skinny people of the world from dark raisin-eyes sunk in a doughy face.

I have a friend named Samantha. We’ve been friends since high school, and many of our conversations revolve around our weight. They always have. I have photos of the two of us, hugging each other by the shoulders, our cheeks sunburned, grinning. Both us were skinny. But still, even then, we complained about being fat.

“You’re not fat, I tell her. And she’s not. She’s gorgeous. But by the look of disbelief on her face, I know she thinks I’m lying.

You’re not fat,” she said. We were sitting in a restaurant, but neither of us had ordered food. Just drinks. Alcohol never entered in to our calorie counts, somehow. “You look amazing.”

I don’t believe her.

“Yeah, right.”

“Have you seen the dimples on my thighs?” she said, sighing. “I stood up this morning, and M&Ms fell out of them. That’s how deep they are.”

I snorted.

“Please,” I say. “I’m so fat I can barely fit on this side of the booth. Did you see how much trouble I had scooting in?”

“Have you ever tried just not eating?” she asked. “It’s hard. I made it a day, and then I broke down and gorged.”

“Maybe bulimia would work better?” I said sarcastically.

“Maybe,” she said.

I’d flirted briefly with bulimia, years ago, when I was first married. I wasted a few months of my life vomiting, crouched over a toilet after nearly every meal. It hadn’t gone on long before my husband insisted I go to the doctor. He thought I was sick, that there was something wrong. He never guessed that the vomiting was about my weight, and I never volunteered the information. I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.

Maybe you’re pregnant, the doctor said.

I’m not.

Still, we should run a test. Urinate in this cup and give it to the nurse.

I wasn’t pregnant. The only thing cradled in my belly was a food-baby, and I was constantly trying to get rid of it. Birth it, abort it, whatever. Just get it out of my body.

I stopped forcing myself to throw up for a few reasons. Mostly because it didn’t work so well for me. I never lost a pound. I wasn’t all that good at it. I could only stand to give a few half-hearted gags before I’d give up. Most of my food stayed firmly in my stomach. It made me think of my mother, making oatmeal on winter mornings. This’ll stick to your ribs, she’d say. That’s how every meal was for me.

You also learn a few things when you spend hours with your head stuck deep in a toilet. Like, when you vomit mint chocolate chip ice cream, it comes up purple. And still cold. Even if you ate it hours before.

But you also realize how pathetic you are. Because you are trying to keep the sounds of vomiting to a minimum so your husband won’t hear what you’re doing, and that the inside of your toilet is ringed with urine and dried shit. You’re the asshole who can’t get bulimia right, and you can’t keep your toilet clean, either.

This story doesn’t have a triumphant ending, like it would in a movie. That single sentence written in purple ink didn’t motivate me to work harder, to lose the weight and go back to that clinic to show Tammi I didn’t need her help, all while choreographed to a feel-good soundtrack.

I’m still not skinny. But I don’t try to fight it anymore. At least, not as hard. I don’t want to cry over Pop-Tarts anymore. I don’t want to walk into a party and immediately wonder if I’m the fattest woman there. I don’t want to be the woman sitting in a tiny office, her purse clutched on her lap, willing to do anything to lose a few pounds.  That woman, I’ve come to realize, is so unhappy and desperate and angry that the extra pounds are the last thing anyone would notice.

And I don’t want to be that woman.

Those words Tammi wrote still give me a bitter pang. But in the long run, I think they’ve done me more good than harm. It’s better to be beautiful on the inside than on the outside, which sounds so hippie-dippie that I’m a little embarrassed to write it—although it’s true. There are more important things to worry about than how many tortillas I eat with fajitas, or how big my gut looks in my blue jeans. You never hear anyone say Emily Dickenson was hiding a big ass under her hoop skirts, or that Marie Curie had jiggly upper arms. No history book ever mentions that Eleanor Roosevelt always passed on the bread basket to keep her waist trim.

Because no one gives a shit.

So if I’m hungry, I eat what I want. If the waistband on my jeans is a little snug, that’s life. At the beginning of every year, I try to make resolutions to be a better person. A smarter person. Not a thinner one.  

I’m still not skinny.

And maybe that’s okay.

 

 

 

One Ninety-One

“Isn’t this exciting?” the woman from Pittsburgh said.

I nodded. It was exciting. For that tiny moment, we were all winners. We had survived The Test.

We were ushered into a small waiting area where we sat in yet another set of metal folding chairs. The Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? staff retreated into small offices. They would come out individually and call our number (one ninety-one, one ninety-one, one ninety-one) for our one on one. Our big shot.

“I knew someone by that name,” the man next to me said in a crisp British accent.

“What?” I was confused. I was trying to devise a killer soliloquy. One that would showcase me at my most Millionaire.

He pointed to my last name, carefully written in black Sharpie on the back of my questionnaire.

“Really?” My last name is unique. I don’t run across many Rapers. Unless you count Tom Raper, the self-proclaimed RV King of Indiana, who everyone in the Midwest seems to count.

He launched into a story of the Raper he knew back in England, an old schoolmate. Always getting into trouble. Didn’t know what happened to him.

Yep, that sounded about right.

“I’m Robert. But don’t ever call me Bob,” he said, a friendly lilt in his voice like a choirmaster from Hogwarts. I regarded Robert carefully. He had this shit locked in. He was talking to everyone, prospective contestants and staff alike. He made jokes like Monty Python and faces like Mr. Bean. Everyone was falling under Robert’s spell.

“One ninety-one!” the most senior and most grim of the producers called. I knew he was an “actual producer!” because an energetic young staffer had told us so.

Robert wished me luck. “You’ll be brilliant!” His ‘brilliant’ sounded like the animated cartoons in those Guinness commercials. I began to suspect Robert might actually be a Bob who works in dinner theater in New Jersey.

It all started on a regular Thursday. I was watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire? while enjoying my usual, a turkey special: roasted turkey, cole slaw, and Thousand Island dressing. During a break, the show issued a call for contestants:

Who out there wants to be a millionaire? Well, me, obviously. Who wouldn’t?

Do you think you have what it takes? I thought so. I mean, the guy before the commercial had never heard of Mary Tyler Moore, for chrissakes.

Are you going to be in the New York area? I lived in the New York area!

I immediately fired up my laptop and filled out the online form. I waited for an email confirming my audition. Secretly, I hoped it would never come. I feel the same way when I apply for jobs. Things that I really want. Like everyone else, I want people to like me. I want them to want to pick me for their exciting, life-changing, super-fantastic teams.

But if they don’t want me, if they don’t like me, I’d rather just be ignored. Being ignored means I can keep the high ground. While I might die a little on the inside that I’m not going to be the next social media guru for my favorite brand of peanut butter, on the outside, I get to fill in the blanks and own that narrative. I’m a writer after all. Making shit up is what we do. So, if I never hear back, if my application disappears into the void of the internet with all the other ignored job applications, I can come up with a million reasons why that phantom rejection had nothing to do with me at all. In the case of Millionaire, I had the first draft of that short film already finished: Can you believe those jerks? I couldn’t even get an appointment to take the test. And I’m a genius!

Instead, the email from the Millionaire scheduling robot showed up in my inbox shortly thereafter with the pertinent details: Tuesday, 5:00 PM, Millennium Studios, 106th and Park Avenue, New York City.

The reality of committing to audition for Millionaire resulted in a lot of (unnecessary, self-inflicted) stress. I planned my outfit. The email had suggested causal, but that felt like a trick to me. Unless you’re Jillian Michaels, yoga pants don’t exactly scream ‘winner.’ I went with a blue and white striped dress and bright yellow cardigan. I hoped my attire read relaxed but put together, even if I happened to be neither. I printed directions to the studio with turn-by-turn street view pictures from Google maps. I reviewed traffic websites. I checked the parking app on my phone for garages in the area. I told very few people I would be going to the audition because I was worried I wouldn’t pass the written test. There was also the very real possibility I would chicken out entirely.

Lots of people don’t pass the written test. A bright, energetic, captivating person I know, who teaches in an Ivy League MBA program, enjoys fine wines and French literature, didn’t pass the first time.

“I got tripped up on a couple of questions about rap music,” she said. “And then there was something about housewives. Is that a reality show? I don’t watch much reality TV.”

I left my house precisely when I had planned wearing the precise outfit I had planned. I followed Google’s directions to a tee. I located a street spot and carefully parallel parked. (Two inches from the curb—go me!)

I was an hour early.

I considered getting back in my car and heading home. No harm—no foul. No one would be the wiser. The auditions would go on without me and no one would even notice. I could probably make it home before rush hour. I had a whole hour to stand in the heat, in what would soon become a line, and think about my Millionaire audition. I had a whole hour to worry about my hair, my clothes, the answers I had given on the written questionnaire. (What makes you quirky? Oh, Meredith, we don’t have that kind of time…)

But I didn’t go home. I wouldn’t let myself go home. The die was cast. The wheels were in motion. Every cliché about not turning back now flashed on the teleprompter in my head as I worked up a nearly literal head of steam.

Soon other hopefuls gathered on the roasting sidewalk in Harlem. I overheard conversations about the dreaded written test. The guy next to me in line said this was his last try. If he didn’t pass this time he had promised his wife he was done. I overheard phone calls to loved ones to check in. One guy was even tracking the scattered thunderstorms that threatened to rain on our parade. This felt a little bit like the time I’d paced outside the ballroom at the Holiday Inn in East Lansing to take the Michigan Bar Exam. We weren’t allowed to go inside until just before the test was to begin. So hundreds of harried, anxious law school graduates perched like seagulls waiting to pounce on a toddler’s fallen French fry.

After the hour had passed since I decided to stay and stick it out, the Millionaire producers came out to greet the crowd that by now had swelled to around fifty people, give or take one or two befuddled passersby. We filed into the air-conditioning and passed through metal detectors. The air conditioning was a relief, but the building had that false comfort smell of a big box store. Even the rubber treads on the metal staircase smelled like bike tires in the Sporting Goods aisle of Target. Being a studio, every room we passed through felt like an empty cube, chameleon and changeable. As contestants—potential contestants—we were as integral and interchangeable as the sets, the lights, and the costumes. We were building blocks for the illusion.

Every single one of us wanted to be a millionaire, you could just tell from the undercurrent of excitement and anxiety. The staff handed us sealed tests and a Scan-Tron sheet, those answer sheets for multiple-choice tests where you have to fill in the little bubbles. The more questions, the trickier they become, since the odds of a fatal error, like missing a question or filling in an unintended bubble, increase exponentially. There were even Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? number two pencils because the grading machines can only read number two pencil lead. The whole experience was starting to feel even more like the bar exam, or, at the very least, the SATs.

The producers and audience coordinators were young, hip New York City-types. I looked for traces of irony when they pumped up the crowd or asked who traveled the farthest. One woman was there from Pittsburgh. Another had come from China. China!

“I teach English in China,” she said. “I went there after I left the Peace Corps.”

“Oh.” What do you say to someone who was in the Peace Corps? No, seriously, I want to know. I have never figured this out, because while they were busy after college purifying water in a hut somewhere, I was busy drinking a ridiculously-sized diet Coke at the movies.

“The Peace Corps? How wonderful. My daughter did City Year in Philadelphia,” Pittsburgh said. “I’m here on vacation visiting her. We went to see Wicked yesterday.” I used to see kids wearing their red City Year windbreakers a lot when I lived in Philadelphia. They give a year of service to work in schools with high dropout rates.

“I’m here on vacation, too,” China said.

“What does your daughter do now?” I asked Pittsburgh. I told her I often wondered what happened to those City Year kids when their year is done.

“She works in finance.” Huh.

China said she had just decided on a whim to give it a go with Millionaire, but still, China! She was a shoo-in for sure.

These two would probably use their Millionaire winnings to buy Toms for everyone in their book clubs. My stomach did the same flip as when my high school guidance counselor told me my extra-curriculars weren’t as strong as some of the other college applicants.

The loudest and most outgoing member of the staff was someone I’ll call Tiffany. Tiffany was young and pretty, but not too much of either to be intimidating. She worked in TV, and for the contestant wannabees like myself, that was intimidating enough. She had her speech down.

“Who are my first-timers in the crowd?”

Over half of the room raised hands. Some waved excitedly. Others, like me, timidly reached for the sky like a beleaguered bank teller in a hold-up.

“Whew.” I didn’t buy her relief for a second, but it didn’t matter. “That means my jokes will still be funny for you.”

Nervous laughter.

“Who’s here from outta town?” Tiffany would have been a hit on the Borscht Belt circuit in the sixties. Her banter was charming despite being too practiced. That is it was charming until she repeated the process word-for-word for the other half of the room when the last of us had made it through the security check and filled in the folding chairs. I was seated in the middle. I heard it both times.

“If you pass the written test…no!…when you pass the written test,” Tiffany said, correcting herself to cheers from the exited group. “When you pass the test, you will meet with one of our producers.” This meeting, she informed us in a conspiratorial tone, would be our chance to really show off our personalities. To convince the powers that be that we had what it took to be on Millionaire.

“Tell them why you want to be on the show. And don’t just say, ‘I like money.’” Tiffany gave the impression that we were all in this together. She was probably better at that we-the-people thing than the other staff. It would be hard for the girl who looked like one of America’s Next Top Models to get us fired up about ourselves. Quirky Brooklyn Hipster guy probably couldn’t even pretend to look like he cared; that’s just not what Brooklyn Hipsters do.

“When you go in there, be yourself, but be better than yourself. Be the super version of yourself. Be your Super Me.”

Super me? Did she say, “Super me?” I knew how to do that. I’d done it for years working at my corporate job. I had to be a Super Me more and more with each passing day. It became harder and harder to be myself. I needed that Super shell. It was a survival instinct. The truth was, I had learned to be the Super Me not from Tiffany at Millionaire but from Campbell Scott in the Cameron Crowe movie Singles. The Super Me is all about being a heightened version of yourself. It’s not as new age-y as living your best life Oprah-style, but about pushing your confident parts to the front so they can edge out the wobbly bits.

Were we seeing Tiffany’s Super Me? Or did she save that version of herself for things that mattered to her? Things that would make her a millionaire, so to speak?

I was getting ahead of myself—way ahead. I still had to pass the written test. Thirty questions. Ten minutes. Number two pencil. My Super Me couldn’t help me if I couldn’t answer questions about South American geography and the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg.

“If you don’t pass the test, come back and see us again.” Three times like the guy next to me. Two years of tests like some lady in the back. Tiffany set the timer on her smart phone. The rest of the staff swarmed around the room like sharks looking for people trying to cheat or phone a friend or steal the test. We opened our sealed envelopes and dove in.

I finished early and put my test in the envelope before glancing around. No one had broken out in a flop sweat, but the girl next to me was only half way through. I made eye contact with China and she gave me a big smile. I turned around quickly to face Tiffany, who was fiddling with the green straw on her Starbucks cup. China’s confidence was starting to freak me out.

“Pencils down.”

We waited quietly while they graded the Scan-Trons. I could hear the whirr of the machine from my metal folding chair. I kept repeating the number of my exam in my head. One ninety-one. One ninety-one. One ninety-one. Tiffany had said we needed to remember that number. It was the only way we would know if we passed the test.

To my relief, about two thirds of the way through the list, Tiffany called my number. I jumped to my feet and cheered remembering my Super Me. I had an almost overwhelming feeling that the Millionaire producers and staff were evaluating everything we did from that moment on. This might have been game show contestant paranoia, or residual middle school angst, but it was unsettling thinking people might be watching, judging, deciding if I was smart enough, funny enough, weird enough, pretty enough, whatever enough.

My Super Me was having an existential crisis as I followed the other successful test takers up the stairs toward the producer’s offices. I glanced over my shoulder. China was right behind me. Pittsburgh two people behind her.

Those who hadn’t passed were packing up. I just barely heard two conferring about a question they both had struggled with. I made eye contact with the man who had made the promise with his wife. I smiled. He shrugged. His Super Me wouldn’t even get a chance with the producers. His Actual Me had to call his wife.

“One ninety-one!”

I followed Serious Important Producer into a tiny room. A small Flip video camera was mounted on a tripod. I wasn’t allowed to sit down. I was uncomfortable and hot and I could feel my Super Me slipping away. She wasn’t excited to be here. She wasn’t passionate about Millionaire. She had no idea what she would say to Cedric the Entertainer if she got to meet him. “Nice shoes,” was the best she could come up with for Serious Important Producer.

“What kind of contestant would you be?” he asked. “Would you be crazy and scream or would you be more quiet and reserved?”

I knew this was a seminal question. Game shows don’t want quiet and reserved. They don’t want a Meyers-Briggs INTJ personality. You don’t see a lot of introverted thinkers running down the center aisle on The Price is Right, for example.

I gave it my best shot. “I would like to think that I would be quiet and reserved, but sometimes when I get really excited I can lose my mind and get crazy.” Really? I continued. “Once, I saw Mike Myers, the actor—you know, from Wayne’s World, not the slasher from the movies—at a hockey game. And I tried to play it cool, but I stopped in front of him and yelled ‘Wayne!’ at the top of my lungs.” True story.

Serious Important Producer didn’t even crack a smile. “Let’s try some trivia questions.” Five or six trivia questions and three or four incorrect answers later, I was on my way out the door. “You’ll get a postcard in a couple of weeks letting you know if you’re in the contestant pool. Once you’re in, you’re in for two years.” Two years? Was there a no-trade clause in the contestant pool? Could I veto a trade to Wheel of Fortune? Not that I’d want to—people make serious cash on Wheel. But I definitely wouldn’t want to end up on Wipeout or Oh, Sit!

Robert’s voice, as upbeat and energetic as it had been when telling me tales of jolly old England, carried out into the hall where I passed him chatting with Quirky Brooklyn Hipster who had led us up to the offices. “I’ve been stateside for twenty years, but I just can’t shake this accent.”

Right, Bob. I checked my watch. 5:45 p.m. All of that and only 45 minutes had passed since I’d finished the test. I had spent more time pulling up and printing my directions on Google Maps.

On the drive home, I had a lot of time to think about the audition. I knew it didn’t go well. Even though I hoped they would toss me in the pool, deep down I knew that I had better chances of being in an actual pool with Michael Phelps. I thought about my Super Me. When I worked a corporate job, I knew who I was pretending to be: tough, detached, analytical. In more than one performance review, my boss told me I needed a “thicker skin.” The Super Me at work had that thick skin. And she never cried in front of people. It was acting, but it was authentic. For Tiffany and Serious Important Producer and Americas Next Top Model and Quirky Brooklyn Hipster, I was trying to make my Super Me a super version of the regular me. And regular me isn’t what makes for interesting game shows. Or reality shows. Or dinner theater in New Jersey.

Again, Singles popped into my head. Steve, Campbell Scott’s character, asks his friend David:  “What if the Super You meets the Super Her and the Super Her rejects the Super You?”

“Then it’s no problem,” says David.

“Uh-huh. Why?”

“Because it was never you, it was just an act.”

I never did get a postcard. Instead a got an email about a week after my audition. It read like a twenty-first century break-up text:  Hello, Thank you for your interest in being a contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” You have not been selected to be a potential contestant. We appreciate your continued interest in the show and thank you for taking the time to audition with us. In bold letters at the bottom of the email it said, “Please do not respond to this email.”

It would be a lie to say the email didn’t sting. Like I said, I like it when people like me back. I wondered about Robert and the lady who came from China. The Millionaire people seemed to like them. I could picture Cedric the Entertainer giving the audience a knowing wink before asking Robert if he wanted to use one of his lifelines.

Steve’s friend David is right about what happens when someone rejects your Super Me. It was all an act. I had miscast myself in the wrong role and the Millionaire people had called me on it. The person I’d pretended to be hadn’t been the right Super Me anyway.

I have since spent a lot of time thinking about me, my Super Me, and my Millionaire flame out. When you quit your job, or get married, or get divorced, win the lottery, or otherwise change direction in your life there are no roadmaps. The charm is that you get to decide who that you is who you’re going to re-launch into the universe. The curse is that you have to decide. Eventually.

I know who I am—most of the time—when I’m alone or walking the dog or working at my computer. I’m still working on who that person is out in the real world. Once I get a firm grip on Actual Me, then I can turn up the volume on my version of Super Me. I might even take it to eleven. My new Super Me is probably never going to be a person that gets to meet Cedric the Entertainer and “Ask the Audience” for help.

Besides, there’s always Jeopardy.