Friday, May 24, 2013

Dear Jane

Dear Jane McGonigal:

Thank you so much! Because of you, the coolest thing happened. See, I was going through a horrible, harried season in my life where chores, activities, and expectations, as they whirled around me like I was their bazillion-degree sun, pressed burlap bags of poky asteroid shards against every part of me. 
          Each morning I’d pencil an 80-item to-do list (because everyone knows making a list is 75% of the work). After jotting my items to accomplish on butterfly-adorned paper, I’d brew a pot of Italian-roast coffee (crack in a bag, don’t you know) to expedite the task process. At the kitchen table I'd focus on the racing of my heart as I waited for motivation to arrive. After a bit I'd consider my cuticles, drum my fingers, and perhaps pray “teach me to number my days aright that I may have a heart of wisdom." 
           Before I hit the hay each night, I’d inspect my butterfly list, squint through tears at the 74 things that remained undone, and sigh.


One morning I was chatting on the phone with my friend Jill. Yes, I had a timer set to ensure I was a good steward of my time. Yes, I reset the timer twice.
            “Megan is in a tizzy with her wedding plans,” Jill said.
            I grimaced as I pictured a 170 page to-do list. “I can only imagine.”
            “I asked her what I could do to help and she delegated Invitation Duty to me. I googled wedding invites and an hour later it was done.”
            “You’re such a good step-mom,” I said. “So organized. She’s lucky to have you.”
            After I hung up, I experienced a brain blast. “I need a Jill,” I told my creamed and sugared crack in a cup.


That’s where you come in, Jane. As you can probably tell, I am not a great multi-tasker. Why, I can’t even listen to Pandora and type an email at the same time. However, there is an exception to this rule. I am able to enjoy Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air while I fix supper, Francis Chan messages as I sort laundry, TED Talks on YouTube as I make my bed. That’s how I found you, Jane. I adored your TED talk, not the part about you feeling suicidal, that was super sad. I admired your resilience in the face of life yuck; it buoyed me. I cheered as you recognized what you needed to do in order to heal then did it. That video game you invented—Super Better? It inspired me, indeed it did.
            As soon as you said, “Super Better,” I paused in the middle of fluffing my pillows and dashed over to my desk, jiggled the mouse so I could see and hear you. I spoke to you even though you were in the middle of your speech, on the TED stage, inside the computer.
            “I don’t need a Jill, per se,” I told you. “I need a Super Betty, someone to handle all my mundane tasks from here on out. A gal who is organized and motivated, even when though I’m not.”
            Suddenly Super Betty was there! Beside me in my boudoir. She hipped me away from my sleigh bed. “Let me show you how to do a nurse’s corner,” she said as she lifted the bottom right side of the mattress.
            I stepped backward toward the dresser, glanced at my reflection. I wore the silliest grin. “A super hero’s in my house,” I told my reflection. “Yay me!”
            I named her Super Betty, a nod to you, Jane. She wears a sparkly fuchsia and turquoise get-up (With a cape of course. Its pompom fringe is so snazzy!). Her hair is a wild jumble like yours but copper-colored instead of blonde. At one point she told me how she thought about sporting dreadlocks but decided against it since they wouldn’t look as cool as curls when she flies. Her eyes are spring grass green and they throw off golden sparks when she’s really cranking out chores. A couple times each hour, she finds me in the house, wherever I'm reading or writing, and lets me know it’s time to mark something off the 80-item to-do list. I do so with alacrity, with aqua ink. Know what Betty's favorite saying is? “Pass the butter, I’m on a roll.”
            But wait, Jane, there's more. The first week Super Betty showed up, my husband was so impressed, he procured a Super Dave. Dave's first day in the house he brushed a new coat of whitewash on the kitchen table and KAPOW! It looks brand new. Not long after, he disassembled the dog run that our 16-year-old deaf dog refuses to go in now that her sister is dead. Around that same time, my gal pal, Daleen (always quick to catch on to trends) got herself a Terrific Tawanda and she is going gangbusters. I tell you what, Jane, I think I’m on to something, something big. Hold on a second, Super Betty needs me . . .      
           Actually she just handed me my aqua fountain pen and to-do list to mark through thank you note to Jane M. Now she’s tapping her glow-in-the-dark pink wrist watch. Gotta go!

Friday, May 17, 2013

*The Biggest Loser*

My son raised his hand at the kitchen table.
            “This isn’t school, sweetie,” I said. “What?”
            “Why’d you give me a tiny glass with my smoothie?”
            I waited till he took a swig. “Um . . . I seem to have lost something.”
            His eyes bulged. His cheeks puffed. “Like what?”
            I busied myself wiping the stove. “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I said. “Like the mango pit. The shot glass is for the pit pieces.”
            I turned when I heard him gag. A peach-colored smoothie stream filled the little glass.
            “Sorry,” he said as he nudged both glasses across the table. “I can’t.”
            “Aw, c’mon. It tastes way better than the time I lost the plastic measuring spoon. And the extra fiber, it’ll . . .”
            He made his lips disappear, shook his head violently.
            I sighed. “Do you have a quarter?”
            One of his eyes got smaller. “Yeah. Why?”
            “Let’s make a bet. Do you think Daddy’ll figure it out or not?”
            “He totally will,” my son said. “It’s like drinking a stick.”
            My little guy and I tried to keep our faces straight while my husband sucked down his shake. He wiped the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand then kissed me on the cheek.
            “That hit the spot,” he said. “I’m going for a run. See ya later.”
            I waited till I heard the front door catch then I held out my hand, palm up, in front of my son.
            “You owe me twenty five cents.”
            “Gambling’s evil,” he said. “You know that, right?”


I searched everywhere for the receipt, to figure out how much the watch cost, the gift he gave me for our twentieth wedding anniversary. I found the credit card statement in the bill pay drawer and used my pencil eraser to go line by line. I found the store name then followed the dots over to the right to figure out how much he— My palms, underarms, and the divot under my nose felt suddenly damp.
            “Did you find it yet?” my husband said when he came home from work.
            I reached for his lunch bag and shook my head. He sorted through the mail pile, slicing the top of each envelope with an old butter knife.
            “It’s probably gone forever, you know.”
            I crouched beside the foyer’s settee and ran my hand underneath.
            “I don’t think so,” I said as I withdrew a dust fluff in a pincer grip. “I’m pretty sure I’ll find it when I change my closet over. It’s probably in a pair of shorts.”
            The next week I was at my desk—writing, editing, checking Facebook. I heard a voice. Well, I didn’t really hear it, not out loud or anything but it was definitely there, inside my head. Lift up the printer.
            There it was—a small hill of silver links and a barely blue pearlescent face. My throat felt tight. I blinked a couple times to keep my eyes from spilling over.
            I fished my cell out of my pocket, slid it open, typed a text.
            “Guess what I found?”
            “No way.”
            I closed my phone, leaned back in my chair, gazed up at the ceiling.
            “Thank you so much.”

After I dialed my husband’s number, I plugged the sink and ran water, squirted in soap and tugged on my Playtex rubber gloves.
            “Hello, Sunshine.”        
            “Um, we have a problem.”
            I heard his breath hiss out through his nose. “What now?”
            With one hand I bobbed my favorite pottery mug in and out of the bubbles. I admired its pale aqua beauty, the ditch for my thumb, the dragonfly impression beneath the handle.
             “I kinda sorta  . . . misplaced the—”
            Another angry nose noise. “What did you lose now?”
            I rinsed the cup and placed it on the drying rack, stroked the dragonfly with my yellow-gloved finger.
            “The tax return,” I said. “I sealed it, stamped it, drove it to the post office . . .”
            Huff. “Tell me you’re kidding. Wait a minute. Is this April first?”
            I shook my head. “It’s not April Fool’s Day. No such luck.”
            “Dang it!  We’re getting back, like, $2,000.”
            I pushed my lower lip out, pinched the bridge of my nose to stop its prickling.
            “Did you call anybody?”
            I straightened and nodded. “I did, the High Street post office lady, the one who always wears a Pittsburgh Steeler jersey on Fridays. She said maybe somebody’ll find it, be nice, and stick it in the outgoing mail.”
            Snort. “Yeah, right.”
            Days later I grinned and paced as I waited for my husband to answer his phone.
            “Guess what?” I said.
            “What?” His voice was still flat, even though the missing tax return debacle was a week old.
            “Please don’t be grumpy,” I said. “I have good tidings. She has it!  The Pittsburgh Steeler post office lady has our tax envelope. The guy who changes the rugs every week found it this morning. It was under the runner in front of the outgoing mail slot.”
            “Thank God!  And . . . sorry. I was—”
            “I did. I know.”


            I slung my jean jacket on the foyer settee before I answered the phone.
            It was my friend, Diana. We’d said goodbye not even five minutes ago, at the high school down the hill.
            “You missing something?”
            I tilted my head, pondered for a moment. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Like what?”
            “Uh, like your son?”
            My mouth fell open. I laid my hand over my heart. Pound, pound.
            “My little guy?”
            I spun in a circle, pointed at people: oldest daughter, husband, middle child, her best friend. No son, no man boy of mine.
            “You left him down here,” Diana said. “At the school, after the show.”
            I slammed my forehead with my palm. “Dang it!” I said. “I counted heads, got the right number but the wrong kid.”
            I grabbed my keys and jean jacket. My husband stepped between me and the door.
            "I'll get him. You stay here with the others."
            I whimpered but moved aside, watched him flip through the keys on the fish-shaped key rack then plunge his hands deep in his pockets—pants, coat. All the while I heard his mutters, words like loser and responsibility and grown up.
            I followed him into the kitchen. He dumped his lunch bag on the counter, batted the empty Tupperware containers this way and that. He stood in front of the key rack by the back door, sorted through each peg. That's when I got it. And grinned.
            I walked into the dining room and ran my hands along the top shelf of the antique mantle. It’s where I stash extra front door, back door, and car keys.
            I returned to my husband, dangled the spare key to his car. "Here."
            He enclosed it with his fist. Thirty seconds passed before he lifted his eyes to mine.
            "Thanks. And . . . I'm—”
            "You're welcome and . . . I know."

Friday, May 10, 2013

Daughter Dearest

The phone in the kitchen demands attention.
            I sprint to answer it, holler through the house as I run. “I got it.” I grab the mustard receiver from its wall mount and press it to my ear. “Hello?”
            “Hey. What’re you doing?” It’s Karen, my best friend. She only lives a block away but it’s too cold and too late on a school night to meet on the corner to yack. I stretch the phone cord taut and huddle, legs criss-crossed-applesauce, in a corner of the dining room. 
             I cover my mouth so Mom can’t hear me. “Algebra, but it can wait. What’re you doing?”
            Karen and I chat for over an hour. Even though supper was ages ago, Mom doesn’t leave the kitchen. At one point I hear her announce to no one in particular, “Think I’ll make Toll House cookies.”
             More than once I spy her shadow as she hovers near the doorway. I twist myself even closer to the china cabinet, tuck the phone between me and the wall. 


One day during my lunch hour in downtown Cincinnati (I lived and worked there in the 80s), I was walking toward Fountain Square and these two gals—mother and daughter—came at me, arm in arm. The younger woman’s grin was the spitting image of her mom’s.   When I stepped in front of them, they stopped walking and talking, their limbs suddenly stiff, their eyes wide.
            The mom gathered her girl close. “Yes?”
            “You all don’t know how lucky you are,” I said. I swatted my hand at their togetherness. “I wish— I wish me and my mom were like you two.” I blinked away the burn of close tears.
            In that moment, they seemed to melt. The mother reached out tentatively, rested her manicured hand on my forearm.
            “Why, you should tell her that, honey. Surely she wants the same.”
            I bit my lip and shook my head. “Nah, we’ll never be like you two. Enjoy what you have.” Before they could say anything else, I ducked inside Lazarus Department Store.


A couple years back, I got to thinking about the Ten Commandments, the one that says honor your father and mother.  I did okay with Dad but Mom was different. We were never  close but that afternoon as I puttered around the house, I thought maybe, just maybe, things'd be better if I came up with a list of good stuff I remember instead of . . .  
            I arranged myself, my journal, and fountain pen at the dining room table, cradled a mug of coffee, drew its hazelnut steam into my nostrils. Seconds then minutes passed as I tapped my pen on my front teeth, crinkled my forehead, and waited for good stuff to arrive. Then all of a sudden, there it was: good stuff.
            I like scallops, but Mom loved them first.
            My mother adores stories. I do too.     
            Mom used to take me shopping and in between Stone and Thomas and Nassar's, at McCrory’s five and dime, we'd order club sandwiches, wavy Lay's potato chips, and made-in-front-of-you cherry Cokes.
            "This'll pick us up," Mom always said.
            In the evenings, we’d sit side by side on the sofa and she’d teach me how to embroider. My French knots never got as good as hers.
            My mother was a nurse. I never told her but I thought that was pretty cool. She got so freaked out when my brothers beat each other up, it was hard to believe she could stomach blood and guts. From the hallway outside her bedroom, I used to watch her bobby pin her stiff and quirky nurse’s cap into her dark curls. No one told me how much I resembled her, not till years later.
            Sometimes we'd dress up and drive downtown to the Elephant Room in the Hotel Frederick for lunch. I’d clutch the armrests of my chair as the sweet, super old waiter with shiny mahogany skin scooted my chair in. I’d peek under the snowy table cloth to watch my patent leather Mary Jane shoes dangle above the plush, crimson carpet.
            When the waiter asked for our drink orders I’d cross my gloved hands in my lap and peer up at him.
            "May I have a Shirley Temple, please? With two maraschino cherries on a pink plastic sword?"
            Every year, out in our backyard when the weather warmed, Mom showed me how to grow lilies of the valley, zinnias, and Shasta daisies.
            "Poke your finger inside there," she'd say as we crouched beside a clump of snapdragons. "It's like a tiny mouth, don't you think?”          
            On summer mornings our Keds sneakers would leave green trails in the silver dew as we made our way to the pussy willow bush on our property’s edge. Mom would smile as she stroked the furry catkins.
            "Don't they feel like kitten paws?"
            I don't remember Mom saying no much.
            "Since I'm in fourth grade now, can I have my birthday party at the roller rink?” I asked her that one night as I sliced green olives for the salad.
            “That sounds fun.”
            One evening as we watered the garden I presented her with my heart’s desire.
            "Can I take horseback riding lessons with Karen? I checked, a half hour lesson costs ten bucks."
            “I think we can manage that.”
            “I’ve had my driver’s license a month now. Is it okay if I take the car tonight?”
            “Ask your father.”
            “Can I go to Myrtle Beach with Suzy, Stretch, and Natalie after graduation?”
            “Is it okay with their folks?”
            Mom did tell me no once, after she found Suzy's Eve cigarettes in my room, in a drawer, under my undies.
            "Do not ever, ever smoke cigarettes,” Mom said. Her mouth was a thin, coral-colored line. “You'll die of cancer. My best friend from high school's husband had to get a talk box put in his throat because of cigarettes."
            “But you smoke.”
            “That’s beside the point.” I whimpered as she gripped my wrist hard and marched me into the bathroom.          
            "But Mom, they're not mine. Suz— This girl I know asked me to hold them for her and I forgot to give ’em back. I swear."
            She pursed her lips and squinted. "Nice try. Now flush them this instant. I mean it.”

For the past few years, from time to time, I’ve been sending her my stories, some of them real, some not. I fold then crease them, tuck the pages into the stamped and addressed envelopes and hand them to the mailman. It’s wonderful to get real mail these days, not just bills. I wonder if Mom feels like she’s getting a present when she opens her mailbox and sees a letter from me?    
            When the phone rings these days I squint at the caller I.D. screen. Is it her? What’d she think of the last story I sent? Did she think I did good?
            “I liked your latest story,” she told me just the other day. “You’re getting better, you know.”
            Now here I sit with this one. And a stamped addressed envelope. It’s almost Mother’s Day. To send or not to . . . 

Friday, May 3, 2013

*French Kiss*

Back then, I hadn’t mastered the art of finding a flaw, hadn’t even thought of it yet, of protecting myself from little crushes with a prayer. Show me, God. Reveal something undesirable about this guy—halitosis, a lousy work ethic, a collection of naked Skipper dolls—that’ll make this constant thought of what if go away.
            I don’t remember the year. It’s not important. I can tell you where he worked though. At the change bank under the Arc de Triomphe, in the shade of it.
            The guy at the window next to him was tall, very. His smile was wonderful, so friendly, but he wasn’t beautiful. Not like Eric. Eric’s skin reminded me of crème brulee—the custard underneath, not the crispy, bubbled brown top. His eyes? They were polar ice water blue. How do you say that in French? Je ne sais pas. His gaze was intense. I wanted to ask if his eyes were tired because I never saw him blink. Ever. His lips looked like Cabernet, as if he’d recently taken a sip sans a glass. Just put his mouth in a vat of it. Juicy. What would that taste like? I felt heat in my cheeks at the possibility.
            I thought about him each day, in every country. Switzerland. Germany. Italy. Greece. The last time I saw him he’d pressed a bank business card into my palm.
            “Call me. The minute, no, the second, you return to France. Oui?”
            I tucked a wisp of hair behind my ears and smiled. “Oui.”
My tummy simmered when I called him from the payphone at Charles de Gaulle two months later.
            “Bonjour, Eric. C’est moi. Je suis ici, a  Paris.”
            “That is so great,” he said. His voice was soft, a whisper. “Will you have dinner with me? Ce soir?”
            My heart revved. “Yes. Oui.”
            I barely remember the meal except for the garlicky, buttery, snails and the wine, le tres bon vin. He wanted to order Ile Flottante—that floating island dessert—but I put my hand over my mouth.
            “I can’t eat another bite,” I said, “but I’ll have more wine, s’il vous plait.”
            He worked at the label, to peel it off for me.
            “It is from Alsace, my favorite wine region,” he said. “If you like, we can go to Reims and taste its champagne. I have an uncle there who would—”
            I sighed and shook my head. “I can’t, Eric. I have to go home, to America.”
            He buried his face in his hands, pretended to sob. “I will die. You will take my heart with you when you go.”
            I squeezed my chair seat with both hands and leaned across the table. “Silly boy.”
            He made his eyes big, pushed his bottom lip out. “It is true. Surely I will perish when you depart.”
            I glanced at my watch. “We should go. I have to catch an early hovercraft back to England tomorrow.”
We held hands inside his olive green Renault, over the gear shift. The moonlight came through the windshield, turned his creamy skin luminous. He made little brushstrokes on each of my fingernails, pressed my knuckles to his mouth. I wanted his lips on mine, not on my hands. I had to know, had to, if this was as good as that. If he, French boy, could be more wonderful than him, American guy. What if my man back home (Je sais. Je suis terrible!) wasn’t the one after all?
            It all depends on the kiss, you know. If you can’t kiss, if you’re not really good at it, what can you do? If you can’t melt chocolate with the promise of your lips, make its velvety sweetness drip and ooze so the other person wants to slurp up every drop, can you really love? Is it possible you can live well? I don’t think so. Everything rides on mouth-to-mouth contact. They should teach it in school. Well, college.
            I tried to speak without words, narrowed my eyes, mouth breathed. Come closer. Don’t wait for me. Be the man. Kiss me. And please, let it be wonderful.
            He leaned toward me but his seatbelt stopped him. I released it. He fell against me. I nudged him back so we were face to face then I closed my eyes, felt his breath on my cheek, smelled wine, café au lait. I smiled, softened.
            All of a sudden he was on me. What I wanted, but not. Everything was hard, sharp, open. Wrong. I retreated inside myself, like a snail, felt the coolness of the window through my hair.
            “?Qu'est-ce que c'est?”
            I squinted at the windshield. “Nothing.”
            He gathered my hands in his again, inspected them. “I must tell you one thing.”
            My inhale sounded hissy, disappointed. “Yes? Oui?”
            Je suis marié.”
            I shook my head. “You’re Mary?” I said. “What does that mean?”
            His mouth hitched to one side. “Non. I am not Mary. I am Eric. I mean to say, I am married.”
            My stomach lurched. For a moment I thought the snails inside me had come to life. They crawled, slimed.
            “You’re married? Really?”
            “Really. But it is no good.”
            I huffed, chuckled, rolled my eyes. All at once. “Of course it’s not.”
            He came at me again, confirmed the fact, the facts. He’s not better. He’s not the one.
            I made my hands parentheses on his face to stop him, to show him.
            “Ici. Pour votre femme.”
            He tilted his head, squinted. “For my wife? What?”
            “Oui,” I said. “Pour votre femme. You must kiss her slow and small—petite, so she wants more—plus.”
            I opened my mouth in a silent roar, traced a circle in front of it with my pointer finger.
            “When your mouth is this big, it’s hard. To kiss, it should be soft, yielding. Accepting, giving. Comprenez-vous?”
            He crossed his arms, sagged a little. “Oui. Je sais. I am no good.”
            I focused on his lips, pressed my pinkie into the center of his bottom one.
            “But you can learn,” I said. “Make her ache, Eric, and burn. Pour vous.”
            He leaned toward me. “Like this?”
            I cupped my hand over his Cabernet smile. “Save it,” I whispered, “for her.”
            He sat back, shut his eyes, sighed. I returned to my side of the car, buckled my seat belt. And I’ll save it, for him.


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