Friday, February 22, 2013

Levels, Shame, and Joy . . . Oh, my!

To Do List

Clean (really clean) the first level
Straighten the second level
Consignment Shop
Espresso Beans at A New Day Bakery
Drop note with tin of cookies at Blatters

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Blatter:

            I’m writing to apologize for the time last fall when I refused to let you use the bathroom in our house even though you had a long drive ahead of you (six hours, wasn’t it?), even though you  both really had to go.
            I spoke the truth when I said the second floor bath was gutted, but I wasn’t entirely honest when I intimated there was no other bathroom available. Remember? That’s when I suggested you try the Circle K down the street.
            If my friend Beth still lived close by, she could explain everything but she and her family moved overseas more than two years ago and her husband just signed a contract to work four more years Down Under. Beth’s the one who introduced me to the idea of levels.
            “Chances are,” she’d said, “most people will only see the first floor of your home so you should definitely keep it tidy. You know, for those folks who drop in when they’re in the neighborhood.” She’d made little scratch marks in the air when she said in the neighborhood.
            After her first visit to my house, Beth amended her theory.
            “Since you don’t have a half bath on your main level, folks will have to go upstairs to pee. If I were you, I’d keep the second floor moderately clean or, you could just keep the kids’ bedroom doors shut and straighten the TV room each morning.”
            “What about the third floor?” I’d said.
            She smirked. “Don’t worry about it. All that’s up there is your master suite. People’d have to be nibby to insist on going up there. Heck, if my bedroom was on the third floor, I wouldn’t bother to make my bed half the time.”
            So there you have it—Beth’s Theory of Levels—but wait, there's more. I have another theory for you. The other day I was on Facebook and I clicked on a link for one of those TED Talks. You know, lectures on Technology, Entertainment, Design? The one I watched featured this gal, Brene` Brown. I immediately loved her because she is hilarious and informative. Know what she talked about? Shame and guilt. Who knew shame and guilt could be hilarious? Shame is when you think I am bad (or, I am not enough, or, you wouldn’t like me if you knew X about me). Guilt is when you think I did a bad thing. Duh!
          Mrs. Brown’s talk made me realize I suffer from shame which made me think of you two. Allow me to explain. In the split second it took to decide not to take you up to the third floor, I determined you all would be appalled because a) I hadn’t made my bed and b) the last person who used the commode did not flush and c) there were not one, not two, but three bras cast hither and yon on the bedroom floor and that was just on my side of the room. I couldn’t bear for you to think I’m less than perfect. That's why I lied and shooed you out the front door. Do you think I'm awful? I hope not. I wasn't even going to apologize, then I remembered how Mrs. Brown said people who share their shame stories have more joy than people who suffer in silence. That’s why I’m here, so I can feel joy. Thank you so much for hearing me out. I feel better already!

P.S. Also Mrs. Blatter, I wanted to let  you know, if you’re one of those people who was raised to always return containers with something in them, make sure you ring the doorbell when you swing by. I’ll make a pot of coffee to go with your cookies and we can have a nice chat. Then before you leave, with all that coffee, you'll probably have to use the restroom and I'll let you use either one, I promise.

Friday, February 15, 2013

*Prince of a Guy*

           Some gal wrote a book claiming every girl wants to be swept off her feet, rescued, a bride. That wasn't my wish. There's a picture of me when I was small, at a toy ironing board, in a dress-up wedding gown. Mom must’ve made me do it, probably tickled me at the last minute to get me to grin. That was never my dream. I was like the dentist elf in “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” I wanted to be in-de-pen-dent. I didn't need anybody, least, that's what I used to think.
            I always told my girlfriends, the ones who were husband-hunters, "You'll never meet Mr. Right in a bar." Like I knew. Heck, I could practically count the dates I'd been on with five fingers. For some reason guys seemed scared of me, maybe because I could hit hard and burp loud. That's what happens when you grow up with three older brothers.
            I wasn't with my gal pals that night. I was with my buddy, Dave. We were on the prowl for guys to dance with. He and I spotted you at the same time, through a Kool and Camel haze, through the Purple Rain.
            We liked that you were dressed up, wore a skinny leather tie and dress pants. Dave and I agreed that was way better than a t-shirt and Levi's. Your mustache was pencil-thin and beneath it, you had a puffy half-smile, lips like Angelina Jolie before anyone knew who she was. I couldn't tell until we slow-danced that your eyes were the color of Kraft caramels. As I played with the hair brushing your shirt collar, I wondered if maybe you curled it around a Popsicle. 
            Later that night, per your request, I wrote my phone number on a cocktail napkin with my aqua Maybelline eye pencil. One day and night came and went, then another. I thought I remembered your last name and I was flipping through the phone book looking for it when you called. My heart forgot to beat, then remembered.
            After we went out a couple of times, I decided you were some kind of fairy tale prince. I liked the way you opened and closed doors for me and how when you reached across to buckle my seatbelt, the citrusy freshness of your Drakkar Noir cologne came off your warm golden neck in waves. You had a habit of picking up trash and arc'ing it at garbage cans. You always laughed whenever I said, “He shoots, he scores!” The day you helped that dowager-humped lady across Walnut Street, I went all wooshy-gooshy inside. It didn't take me long to figure out you always did what you said you would. Always. I liked that fact every bit as much as your curly hair and puffy mouth.
            But then you didn't kiss me on the first date. Or the second. I started thinking maybe you weren't a fairy tale prince after all. Maybe you were just a... And then you did kiss me, and once again, my heart forgot to beat, then remembered.
           That night it was cold in the hallway of my third floor, over Rite-Aid on High Street, apartment. I was leaning against the frame of the front door and you said maybe we should go see— Suddenly the heat of you pressed against the heat of me and it was so very nice I thought my knees would give out then and there. It was like the ketchup commercial said: Anticipation. You could’ve asked me anything and I would’ve said yes, but you didn't because you're a gentleman. That's what happens when you grow up with four older sisters.
          Later on you said you wanted to marry me even though I wanted to leave West Virginia and never come back, even though I didn't want kids, even though I didn't need you.
          After three years of living in D.C., we decided we wanted a smaller city, a safer one, so we closed our eyes, stabbed a map, and that's where we moved--Cincinnati. I worked downtown in a fancy brownstone. Your insurance office was up north, outside city limits.
          One day I said, "Oh, all right. I reckon I can have one baby. For you.” When she was born, I fell in love instantly with her and her full, cherry mouth. 
          A couple years later at Forest Fair Mall, you stunned me when you said, "I want to move back to West Virginia.”
          As we stood next to the children’s sand pit where our daughter was filling up and spilling out her pastel pink Stride-Rite shoes, I threw a quiet fit. Finally I faced you with sob-squinty eyes. "Don't you remember me saying I'm a big city girl?" 
          I watched you think hard before you answered. "If you hate it at the end of the first year, we'll go someplace else." I didn't want to squash your dreams, plus I knew you always kept your promises, so I agreed.
          Not long after we moved back, I decided our only child needed company. A few years later, I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to give you a son? Funny, the way having kids can stir up things inside you. When my childhood caught up with me and you at last learned the details, you cupped the shards of my broken littleness in your hands. 
          “Everything'll be all right,” you said. And it was.
          One morning after you left for work and before the kids woke up, I sat at the kitchen table in our hundred-year-old house and pondered things in my heart. I held my thumb and pointer finger in front of my eyes, noticing how they almost touched. I spoke out loud even though there was no one to hear.
          "This much. I might just need you this much.”

Friday, February 8, 2013

*The List*

What was that? I slowed slightly, turned off my car stereo, listened. Nothing. I flipped down the rearview mirror. Blue and red lights flashed. I rolled out my lower lip. Again? Twice in one day? Really?  
            After I maneuvered my car into someone’s yard, I rolled down my window and watched his approach in my side mirror.
            "Is that you, sweet boy?"
            The officer squinted, shaded his eyes, then grinned. "Aw, I'm sorry, ma'am. I didn't see it was you."
            I fished in my purse. "I have my driver's license with me now, but I still don't have my registration sticker on. It's not my fault though. It's—"
            He held up his hand. "I know, never is."
            I laughed. "You don't know what I was going to say."
            He rolled his eyes and bobbled his head. "What were you going to say?"
            "I was gonna say, it's my husband's fault."
            He shook his head. "I don't know much, ma'am, but I’m pretty sure blame shifting’s not good for a marriage."
            I huffed. "You're telling me how to do marriage?" I said. "How old are you?"
            His mouth opened and shut a couple times. "I'm—"
            I shoved my car door open and climbed out. "That does it. Now I have to tell you a story."
            He glanced back at his cruiser. "I don't know. I'm on traffic detail. I've got a quota and—"
            I swatted the air in front of him. "Quota, shmota," I said pointing to the curb. "Sit."
            I leaned in my car window and pulled a pencil and spiral notebook out of my purse. After I took a seat beside him, I opened the notebook to a fresh page and dropped a line down the middle.
            "You married?"
            He wiggled his wedding band with his pointer finger. "Yes'm."
            "What's your name?"
            "Does your wife call you Mike or Michael?"
            "Either, or Mickey."
            I nibbled the pencil eraser. "I like Michael, sounds handsome and strong.” I poked his bicep. “And you are."
            I wrote Michael at the top of the left column.
            "What's your wife's name?"
            "Cynthia, or Cyndi."
            I printed Cynthia over the right column then laid my hands on the notebook and turned so I could look him in the eye.
            "I'm going to tell you my marriage theory. You ready?"
            He nodded.
            "Now, Michael, whether they know it or not, every bride and groom carries a milk crate of expectations down the aisle at their wedding, a honey-do list for the other person. Let's start with you. What do you want, or expect, from Cynthia?"
            Michael stared at the tree across the street. My eyes followed his gaze. The leaves were half green, half gold. Fall's almost here, I thought.
            "Let's see, cook dinner, do laundry, keep the house nice.” He counted on his fingers. "Stuff like that."
            I jotted his items under Cynthia's name. "And what do you think she wants from you?"
            Michael's eyes narrowed and his mouth hitched to the side. "Fix broken things, change light bulbs, take the garbage out."
            I handed him the notebook and pencil. "Write those under your name."
            When he finished, I reached across him. "It's too short. Here, let me."
            I wrote on his side: yard work, removal and/or burial of dead critters (bugs or animals), car issues.
            Michael reached for the pencil. "May I?” I handed it back to him.
            He scribbled at the bottom of Cynthia's column: pay bills, make appointments, remember my mom's birthday.
            I grinned. "Why, you're a fast learner, aren't you?"
            "Yeah," he said, "I see what you're saying."
            I stretched the list to arms' length so we could both read it. "Now, Michael. This is the list, The Boy and Girl List. In order for a marriage to work, you need to know what your spouse wants and expects of you, and vice versa. Believe me, when either of you slacks on your list, sooner or later, there's gonna be trouble."
            I tapped the Michael side of the paper with the pencil. "As you look at the list, can you tell me why my out of date registration sticker is not my fault?"
            He scanned the paper. "'Cause anything to do with cars is on the Boy List?”
            I patted his thigh. "That's right."
            Michael stood. "How many years you been married, ma'am?"
            He extended his hand and I grabbed it with both  mine and up I went.
            "Twenty," I said.
            "Then this list thing really works."
            I nodded as I ripped the page out and handed it to him. "I think so."
            He folded it and tucked it in his breast pocket. "Awesome. Thank you, ma'am."
            When he started to leave, I tapped him on the shoulder.
            "One more thing," I said when he turned back. "Let me tell you one more thing that'll make your wife really happy."
            His eyebrows went up and he caught his lower lip with his top teeth. I felt my cheeks burn.
            "Come on now. I'm not gonna talk about that," I said. "I hardly know you. What I was gonna say is, do stuff on her list."
            He squinted. "But—"
            I lifted my chin. "Trust me," I said. "Nothing says I love you more than my husband doing the dishes."
            Michael's brow furrowed. I lifted my hair and let it fall behind my shoulders.
            "Just try it."
            Michael headed for his car. Once there he paused and waved.
            I rolled my fingers and pushed my words across the distance. "Guess what I'm gonna do now?"
            He shrugged.
            I opened my car door. "I'm gonna go home and put my registration sticker on my license plate. Oh, and Michael? Cologne."
It took him a minute, but then he let out a belly laugh. 
            "Have a good day, ma'am. And thanks."

Friday, February 1, 2013

Take It Back

The phone rang.
            “My doctor thinks it’s Parkinson’s.”
            The five words travelled across my Eustachian tubes, dropped behind my uvula, and tumbled through my esophagus into my duodenum.
            “Will you drive me to the neurologist for the test?”
            Since her words were plastic, I determined to push enthusiasm into mine.
            “Of course I will!”
            “March 10. 9:00 a.m.. Be here at eight.” She didn’t shove her words at all.
            “It’ll be fun,” I said. “Maybe we can do lunch.”
After he scrubbed his hands at the sink, the neurologist turned to face us. I had a thought as I watched him wrestle a wad of brown paper towels. Why, he’s a little dried-apple doll with magic marker hair, and whoever made him brushed him with butterscotch sundae syrup, to moisturize him.    
            As he extended his hand to her then me, his grin took up the whole bottom half of his face. I couldn’t take my eyes off his large even teeth. I squinted at their shine.
            “So, your family physician thinks Parkinson’s is a possibility, eh? We shall see. Walk around the perimeter of the room please.”
            She glanced at me. I didn’t think I should hold her hand so I shook my head slightly. She circumnavigated the space with her hands out, fingers splayed. Her shoes made shushing noises on the carpet.
            When she completed her route, he stepped in front of her. “Smile for me.”
            I cringed at the result, the lack of it.
            The doctor used his clogged foot to scoot a stool in front of the exam table.       
           “Please to sit here?”
            I held her fist as she climbed up. The table paper crashed and rattled as she settled. On her lap, she death-gripped her purse.
            “Release your handbag, ma’am,” the doctor said. “Extend your arms please. Very good.”
            He made marks on the sheet of paper on his clipboard.
            “What day of the week is this? Excellent. And who is the President of the United States of America? Take your time. Correct. And tell me the sum of seven plus three plus eight. That’s right. Excuse me please, one minute, ladies.” He eased the door shut behind him.
            She tried to raise her eyebrows. “So?”
            “Did I do good?”
            I shrugged. “I think you did.”
            “I like him. He’s nice.”
            I smiled. “Me too.”
            The dried-apple doctor returned. He crossed the room and stood beside a white board, dry erase marker in hand. Up in the corner someone had scrawled the release date of the final Harry Potter book. A crude cartoon lion roared, “Gryffindor!”
            The neurologist uncapped the pen and printed a word in capital letters, drew down arrows on either side of it, put the marker top back on. 
            “It is believed, ma’ams, that the cause of Parkinson’s is a decrease in dopamine production by neurons in the brain. This in turn affects the movement of muscles and we often see the onset of typical Parkinson’s behavior—shuffling feet, hand tremors, also what is called flat affect, that is to say, a certain lack of facial expression.”
            As one, she and I sagged.
            With a flourish he again removed the cap from the dry erase marker and slashed a large red X over DOPAMINE. When he turned to face us, his eyes how they sparkled. He poked the pen in her direction.
            “However, ma’am, I am not willing to give you a diagnosis of Parkinson’s at this time. It is my opinion you are merely presenting behavior that is also typical to old age.”
            After he helped her off the table, he rubbed her upper back briskly. I steadied her when she tilted forward.
            “Do you feel better now, ma’am?” he asked. “Are you relieved?”
            She blinked slowly, worked to get the corners of her mouth to lift. She nodded.
            “I do. I am.”
            He gathered her hands in his, thumbed her knuckles.
            “Listen to me, ma’am. I need you to tell your primary care provider something.” He turned to me, raised his chin till his gaze met mine. “You pay attention too, young miss.” He gave her hands a gentle shake. “A small portion of the population experiences what is called drug-induced Parkinson’s. Your family physician needs to review the list of prescriptions you are currently taking. I am hoping in doing so, he may find the cause for the recent downturn in your health. I cannot guarantee this, but it is certainly worth investigating, yes?”
            We both nodded. “Yes!”
Two months later, the phone rang. I checked caller-id. It was her.
            “The high school drama department is putting on West Side Story this weekend. Will you go with me? To dinner and a show?”
            I glanced up at the ceiling, lip-synced thank you. “Like you even had to ask. Of course I will.”

(This is Part II, a happy ending to the story Gris.)


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