Well, now we know. The fates gave us a hard NO on that.
To be fair, my new decade started out fine. I was running three miles a day and qualified as passably healthy, had three great kids and a husband who hadn’t tossed me out on my ass yet. Friend and family relationships were solid and my dog and cat got along swimmingly.
Clearly, I was naive because I basically went into this day to day stuff thinking it was going to be a series of ever-increasing delights, waving off post-depression era stories from my mother and grandmother. Cockily dismissing the twenty-minute tale of how polio had the entire world gripped in fear, followed by the cautionary yarn involving WW2 hardships, untimely deaths and the mysteries of life. I remember wiping my brow with an animated “phew!” thanking my lucky stars that we had advanced to a place where modern medicine, proper nutrition and know it all sensibilities could defeat nearly anything nature threw at us.
Boy, did I get my ass handed to me.
For most of my life, I’ve been plagued with the refusal to quit struggling with a bad idea. This year’s bad idea had a slogan “What’s the worst that could happen?!”
In less than three months I have had two hospital visits, six doctor appointments and probably ten misdiagnoses. On February 22, after a routine run around the pond, my left side went numb and I was 100% sure this is what a stroke must feel like. The emergency visit wasn’t bad and several kind and patient nurses kept me from bursting out crying and writing goodbye letters to my kids. Three MRI’s a CAT scan and four hours later my stroke became a pinched nerve and I nearly collapsed with shame.
Two days later I was on the mend, feeling myself and then, nope.
The following Thursday I was weak, dizzy, lightheaded and my heart was pounding out of my chest. Because I go straight to the doomsday scenario in every health-related issue I screamed at my beleaguered husband to start up the car because we were going right back to the emergency room where I would continue to have my heart attack with medical professionals present.
We burst into the medical center with a throaty “I’m back!” and the dedicated staff wired me up, ran every conceivable test available and kept me overnight for observation. Long story short, my heart episode was a dud. I had one small abnormality that was quite common and didn’t cause health problems. A two-time loser, I did my walk of shame the next morning with a referral to see a neurologist and a recommendation to make a cardiologist appointment in the next few years since I’d just turned 50.
Things were looking up after my neurologist visit in the first week of March. He put me on a steroid, something I’d never been prescribed before and I continued to improve, until……
One week after the bliss of steroid use I came down with an odd rash. Meh, didn’t seem like anything much- and then it spread like wildfire. I made a fateful misfire and went to urgent care worried it was a staph infection and I suppose to an overworked busy physician it looked like that may be the case. A double antibiotic whammy and another week later I was dealing with a leprosy level skin issue. In a bold move, I returned to the urgent care that had misdiagnosed me to show them the result of their error, to which the doctor, upon seeing my torso exclaimed “Jesus!” Not a statement that inspires confidence.
Luckily he put me on an antifungal that began clearing my skin and lessening my chances of ending up at the local leper colony but the medicine made me tired, weak and my hand numbness from way back in February made a delightful reappearance!
This tsunami of freaky health issues and the necessary doctor visits they required took place with a pandemic ticking ominously in the background. Every move was overshadowed by the looming specter of potential contamination and the consequences to everyone I might come in contact with. My last office visit saw me dressed in full hazmat gear showing a medical team my tummy from six feet away. As it stands today, I know six people who have gotten sick with this goddamn covid-19 virus, some of them are family and the feeling of helplessness that pervades the entire situation is only compounded by the awful isolation that I’m sure every positive test brings. My Catholic guilt has informed me that complaining about trivial health issues while the world is on fire is a bad look and I’m inclined to agree. While what happened to me was nothing in comparison to what is going on now, I will never be without empathy or appreciation for health issues (mine or everyone else’s) EVER again. This week everyone I know is operating on a fuel mixture of blind panic and unmitigated terror, so I tried to cut the doomscrolling on my phone and sit in the sun for a few hours. But it’s easy for those of us with homes, families and a support system. When it’s all over and we’re spinning a yarn about the pandemic of 2020 around a fire pit to our eye-rolling grandkids, I hope the story contains some inspiring anecdotes of how we rose to the challenge and did something to better the world and not how we had to fight each other in a Thunderdome arena for paper products and meat. C’mon world, lets beat this thing;)
I remember a cold winter morning when I was small and bundled in a layered goose down snowsuit, peering through the eyeholes of my miniature ski mask and seeing the unmistakable rise of three suns. Because I wanted validation of my sanity and the comfort of an adult in case I was witnessing the end of days brought about by the impact of three rogue planetary bodies hurtling towards us as humanity quietly slept, I lumbered toward the house as quickly as my chubby limbs -covered in thermal underwear, sausaged into waterproof pants, packed with filling- would take me.
Breathless, with snot running into my mouth, I tried hard to convey the baffling and disturbing sight. The sun, flanked by two fiery orange ghost planets low on the horizon. Imminent death. My mother was a fervent believer in the potential danger that loomed in every uninvestigated situation, so she followed my labored stubby thighed child run back into the snowy field, where my obviously imagined planetary crisis no longer existed. The triple threat was gone, chalked up to brain freeze, boredom, and an overactive imagination.
A few years later I was sitting in a crowded summer movie theatre with the rest of civilization watching Star Wars for the first time. I felt a jolt of validation as I watched the Tatooine suns set along with Luke Skywalker on Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s moisture farm. Maybe someone else had come in contact with this strange phenomenon, or perhaps, like myself, George Lucas was suffering from unfettered imaginative constraints.
Finally, during a school trip to the Hayden Planetarium, I got my definitive answer. With the 1977 space saga still fresh in everyone’s mind, someone’s hand shot up and they asked the question about more than one sun rising and setting on other planets, and BAM – we learned about the mysterious wonders of the parhelion. It was an optical illusion of course – bright planet shaped spots appearing on either side of the sun- a refraction of sunlight through crystals in the atmosphere, but to me it was real. I’d seen it with my own eyes. Three distinctive blazing hot suns coming up over the snow. It was real, and it was spectacular.
When I was seventeen, there was a gathering at the home of a friend whose parents had a long history of naively taking two-week vacations to distant destinations, leaving their place open for all sorts of bad teenaged soirees and potential lawsuits. The television blared as a group of us prepared to tap what was probably the tenth keg, and the narrator from a show I’ve long since forgotten began to explain the wonders of the arctic sunrise and the breathtaking rarity of the parhelion/sundog they’d encountered. Suddenly the working nature and urgency of the metal barrel filled with social lubricant became secondary as I launched into my parhelion childhood sighting. Of course I made sure to include a detailed description of the powerful visual certainty that the sun had splintered into three distinct and epic balls of fire and my breathless run into the house, the struggle to explain what I’d seen which was further complicated by a pronounced lisp left over from toddlerhood and inadequate powers of description. Like most of my fanciful stories, it was brushed off by my new boyfriend with a chuckle, a doubting look and a question about how I’d gotten rid of my speech impediment.
Years later I would tell someone about the odd sensation of knowing you saw something or someone in a certain way. Concrete, Absolute. Your eyes didn’t lie. And then the crushing realization that it was just a mirage filtered through atmospheric ice crystals insisting that the ghost figure it created was as real as the original. Your eyes said it was so.
I once had a guy in college accuse me of being a figment of his projected image of what he hoped I’d be like. Mind you, he told me this after I’d had my finger crushed in a metal door that slammed my hand during a fight he’d had with another guy about what a bitch I was for leaving his football game early. I suspect the imaginary parhelion versions of me he fantasized about involved a creature who sighed lovingly on the sidelines while wearing collegiate school colors and gripping pom poms.
Now I go outside my house, which is set back from the street on a desolate stretch of country road, at night and stare a the inky black sky dotted with bright stars and look for celestial mirages. A tightly packed cluster of almost unseeable stars, a falling satellite, a turgid red hued planet that looks too close for comfort, a creepy ring around the moon, and I wonder if my eyes are deceiving me. Too much screen time, visual strain from long days of driving and nighttime commutes, overactive imagination fired up by lack of wonder- all could be responsible for the silly things I drag my reluctant kids and dogs out to confirm. It’s like being gaslit by a deceptive and ever-shifting universe- who are you going to believe? Me? Or your lying eyes? So now I wait, quietly armed with my iPhone camera for the day when I encounter the gas ball reflection trifecta again so that I can capture it in low resolution through the lens of Steve Jobs lifestyle appliance. Proof to counter the absence of evidence that plagued the early sighting that will give validity to the claims of that small, warmly dressed lisping child who decided to go out in sub-zero conditions at the crack of dawn after a snowstorm.
When I think about my funeral, I inevitably get sucked into the black hole of anxiety and panic that comes with planning any big event. Will there be a weak turnout? Did we make enough food taking into consideration everybody’s dietary restrictions and preferences? Should we have booze, or will that cause all the Italians to fall on my casket dramatically when they lower it into the ground? What about entertainment? Maybe a violinist clad in a whispy black frock squeaks out a mournful tune during the saddest parts of the event for maximum impact. How about a powerful and commanding speaker at the podium next to my framed photo, listing my embellished accomplishments and finer attributes compounding the grief and sadness of those in attendance? “God we miss Kelly. We should never have doubted her ability to pass the hundred-ton master Coast Guard licensing course and drive that freighter across the Atlantic.”
Or should I take it into my own hands and compile a well thought out video montage of my life from cradle to grave set to air during the final farewell?
The tone of my funeral probably depends a lot on how I died. Was I murdered? Is it a dead end cold case file? (If I was poisoned or thrown off a cliff, Chuck did it. If it was blunt force trauma from a punch it was Sue. If you can’t find my body and there’s a huge party at my house, it was my kids.) Was I old? Young? Did I waste away from a terrible disease, or did I get the fantasy flame out I always dreamed of where one of those manky frayed seat belts on Tower of Terror finally gave way and snuffed me out in a gruesome fashion on the first stomach-churning free fall?
I’ll go out on a limb here and assume it wasn’t too violent, drawn out or sad. Just a regular shuffle off the mortal coil by a lady who always insisted on keeping her pocketbook in her lap and had more life in the rearview mirror than on the horizon.
With those details out of the way, it should be noted that while my family would say I spent a majority of my time birthing, raising, driving and bringing fresh toilet paper rolls to kids stuck in various bathrooms, I want you to remember a few lesser known facts about me before the hellhounds drag me off to lake magma in the third circle.
For instance, did you know that I went hot air ballooning over pikes peak and then hiked it, nearly passing out from altitude sickness at the top?
I have been to Florence, Rome, Pompeii and the Isle of Capri. Visited Barcelona, Madrid and then took a boat up the costa brava into France. Went to London where we ate a Chinese restaurant that had just hosted Mel Gibson and was told by the waiters that he ordered a dish called bang bang chicken. Took a train on that same trip up to Edinburgh Scotland and got off at almost all the towns along the way. I was a good skier but I was excellent at skating. I’ve been to four different resorts in different parts of Mexico and each time I screwed up somewhere along the freshwater chain and caught Montezuma’s revenge. I went to Jamacia when my boyfriend and I were broken up and considered staying and waiting tables at a beach bar for about thirty seconds. Starting at the age of thirteen I attended concerts so regularly that it would take hours to count all the stubs, some of which have nearly disintegrated. I’ve been to every museum in NYC because I grew up only 30 minutes away and hopefully when I expired I had reached my goal of having seen all the museums in DC as well. The DC museums were better. I was a natural athlete but never pursued it like I should have. I thought I’d be going to an art college after high school graduation but my pragmatic family informed me that the degree they paid for would be one that could pay the bills. I’ve tried to ride every roller coaster I’ve ever encountered. I loved Disneyworld, Universal, Six Flags, King’s Dominion, Busch Gardens and I survived summers riding the Alpine Slide at New Jersey’s ACTION PARK. I loved reading books but I always pulled a When Harry Met Sally and read the last page first. When the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup, I was so happy I cried. When I was twenty-two I left New York and moved to Atlanta Georgia, where I nearly died of culture shock in the first two months but was able to afford a huge apartment. My favorite boss in Georgia kept a massive gun in his desk and I once saw a man lose three fingers in a giant Wheelabrator machine in the job shop behind the office. I was terrified of alligator and bear attacks but added cougars to the list after seeing one hunt and nearly catch a biker on youtube. I loved spas, but the people at the Broadmoor in Colorado made me walk naked, covered in mud to a high powered hose shower area and I could’ve sworn they enjoyed blasting me with scalding jets of water, so maybe not that one so much. I was *not* good at cooking or cleaning, but I took some nice pictures and I liked to doodle. After spending years with the Girl Scouts learning to survive in Camp Addisone Boyce, I grew up and became my daughter’s troop leader for eight years running. Whitewater rafting was delightful in Tennessee and terrifying in Colorado. I once did a bad internet radio show about pop culture and I believed in UFO’s. I loved dogs and cats and turtles, and bunnies but not snakes. I hated snakes. I saw every monster movie ever filmed, that includes anything with Kong, Godzilla, Rodan, Ghidorah, Mothra, Gamera, Konga, and even the dreaded War of the Gargantuas. If Jaws, The Godfather or Annie Hall was on TV I had to watch it. Ditto for Law & Order and M*A*S*H* (Doink Doink). They let me pretend I was an integral part of a dogsledding team even though I was just an excited passenger. I was a mediocre teacher, a decent parent and I think a pretty good wife, but you’ll have to confirm that with my husband. The Atlantic ocean won the battle for my heart over the Pacific when a Portuguese man ó war the size of a Buick washed up on the shores of Mazatlan while I was taking a walk, but my eternal favorite will always be the Gulf of Mexico. There was no place more relaxing or enjoyable in DC than the National Zoo. Winner of the award for most consecutive years spent stringing billions of blinding colored lights on the best fucking Christmas tree you ever saw. There are never enough lights people, remember that.
Watching another person’s marriage disintegrate is a befuddling and uncomfortable act. You don’t know where to look, but you still keep observing to reassure yourself that they had the kind of issues you and your equally fucked up spouse couldn’t even imagine. “He was addicted to camel porn!” you would whisper conspiratorially to each other while watching a Law & Order marathon in bed, feeling smug that as far gone as you both were, neither of you had reached that dreaded low point.
My husband and I have hit the mid-life threshold where the divorce statistics that threatened fifty percent of couples you knew wouldn’t make it proved to be terrifyingly correct. Those poor bastards they warned you about didn’t actually survive- and it’s never the ones you put money on.
Loving, attentive, engaged husbands had secret lives and long-term mistresses. They squandered marital assets and stole the dog. Pearl clutching do-gooders had long buried drinking problems and seduced the grocery delivery guy. The uptight environmentalist caught their partner emptying a can of AquaNet directly into the ozone layer in an act of defiance and the whole thing imploded. Divorce lawyers rejoice. Lives get messy. People become untethered.
Sitting in your living room you shake your heads, perplexed. “But just last week they both posted on Facebook about twenty-five years of wonderful memories and wedded bliss!” You both reach for answers, signs that something had been amiss that you were too busy to notice, but it’s unnervingly random. There is no mathematical formula you can apply to make sure you’re immune. You start glancing over your shoulder thinking every Fed Ex guy looks like he’s about to serve you a manilla envelope with the end of your union inside. The conscious uncouplings increase, followed by the benign social media posts about remaining friends and the careful consideration that went into the decision.
Then, one day you look up and it’s mostly just the assholes and cocksuckers that are still together. The ones that didn’t take those romantic trips or hold hands in public. The ones that told each other to fuck off constantly and whose browser histories included queries about how to kill someone and dump a body. The couples that heard the whispered prophecies of “I give it a year” after the wedding toast. The jerks like you. What is the mystery glue that holds these long odds pairings together?
Stay alive long enough and every person you know will disappoint you. From your Nana (who knew she had such gambling debts?!) to your flower delivery guy (these are wilted motherfucker, just like my feelings). No one has as much time and ammunition to accomplish this as your spouse. And yet here some us are, anchored in these long hauler relationships, somehow avoiding the death spiral that precedes the end of it all. Someone goes adrift, the other guy yanks them back with a tug or a harsh word, and then everything resets. Your better half buys the hatchet and the industrial size meat freezer, but they keep the receipt and return it the following week. Crisis averted.
When my husband and I first met, we were both immature, stubborn, entitled, unreliable, lazy, consequence evaders who already had significant others. (o.k. he was only three of those things, I was all six) We barely registered on each others radar until months later. Once we got together, our first year was truly romantic in the sense that we lived eight hundred miles apart and had the good fortune and sense to never solve a life problem or hit a small speedbump, preferring instead to daydream about idealized versions of each other that didn’t actually exist. The fantasy love affairs you read about in novels can only take place if the participants spend ninety percent of their time pining for each other and the other ten percent having sex. It’s all lies and impression management in the beginning. Clean someone’s toilet once and it’s all over.
The following years were dotted with unrepentant fun, proximity problems, spectacular blowouts, ghastly emotional displays fueled by childishness, small steps towards adulthood and eventually a level of maturity we were devoid of for many years and only began somewhat mastering six months ago. It would take a forensic anthropologist and a team of psychiatrists years to unearth the mysteries behind how we made it, but here we are. Decades later he’s an excellent provider, a great husband, a noteworthy cook, a loving father and the person who makes me laugh loudest. I’m more patient, less inclined to believe I deserve to be handed exactly what I want and I have stopped hitting people with sticks when I’m angry. Flawed but functional.
Two months ago I got a wild hair and decided to register for the Coast Guard NASBLA boating course to prepare for when the icebergs melt and we’re all living in Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. I learned many terrifying things about the reckless and negligent operation of your vessel- like how your watercraft has the potential to be on fire nearly the entire time you’re struggling to enjoy it (beware the flammable vapors!) and how easily you can get swamped by the wake of a larger boat, sinking your craft and ending your joyride. Danger signs for shallow waters, rocks and my new nightmare fuel the LOW-HEAD DAM (nicknamed “the drowning machine”) are everywhere, and not heeding them results in horrors you can’t imagine. Doing anything drunk usually yields poor results and the water is always colder than you think. During the final exam, I kept thinking about how much it sounded like a modern marriage. An impossible voyage with an unlikely crew to find an inconceivable thing and then get everyone home in one piece.
Everybody thinks they’ve got it. The right recipe for long-term togetherness and then …BLAM…you look up from your self-help books and declarations of undying love on Facebook to find that you are holding divorce papers and that shitbird who always wears dirty sweatpants and throws furniture at her husband is still married. To add insult to injury she’s sitting on her couch sharing ice cream from the WaWa with the guy she complains about endlessly and they’re making mean jokes about pharmaceutical Lyrica commercials together. (Seriously, I’ll take the original medical complaint over the cancer, brain aneurysms, fungal infections, tuberculosis and sausage fingers).
So, in conclusion, I have no real answers as to why the hell some of us are still standing. Laziness, outstanding moral fiber, resistance to change, fear of the unknown, actual love and devotion? Maybe it’s all a crapshoot and the closer you get to the end the better you can get a real idea of who has what it takes to go deep into the season. Perhaps, our time is coming and we’re just too stupid to see that we’re already dead but we forgot to fall over.
In the meantime, you make sure your anchoring system is functional and you watch for visual distress signals in case you have to toss your partner a life jacket along the way. Oh, and never drive your speedboat at night between two yellow lights on the horizon, because that’s a barge you can’t see and you’ll be decapitated. That is a true Chesapeake Bay maritime horror story courtesy of the U.S. Coastguard- you’re welcome!!
If a summers success is measured by the deep warm glow of bronzed skin and a well-rounded belly filled with freshly caught seafood served at a kitschy clambake, then the stretch of time between early May and September of 1989 was my greatest warm weather achievement to date.
I can’t remember exactly whose idea it was to rent the tiny clapboard beach house in Dennisport MA, but it was a decision that would change the course of a few stupid privileged kid’s meaningless lives.
The four of us, with the wisdom exclusive to college sophomores, had been careening wildly from one bad summer financial decision to another. I’d had a worrisome trail of lost and discarded shit jobs that were beginning to look like a work ethic void, and everyone else wasn’t faring much better. The decision was made, deposits were sent and the experiment began.
The first two weeks were bliss, all of us in our relentless prime toasting ourselves on windswept dune-lined beaches, the kind Jaws might like to swim past looking for a snack, and then the Acme anvil of reality fell on my fantasy, destroying it with the swiftness of Roadrunner flattening Wile E Coyote.
Suddenly people were waking up at six a.m. and heading out to earn money, audibly sighing at the sight of my gently snoring form, and determined to motivate me to do something besides roll gently down the hill to the warm sand of the beach. After two weeks, my vague suspicions that my roommates thought of me as lazy were confirmed when they began hissing at me to “get a job” as they left the house at seven a.m. under a cloud of vicious contempt.
I still didn’t feel compelled to act, but a bad situation involving a tuna melt at the corner deli and a lack of funds forced my hand. If I wanted to eat, I had to work.
My job experience in Cape Cod up to that point had been limited to endless hours of hard basking in the blazing sun, but my efforts had gotten me the kind of deep rich tan that is usually only achieved after a long summer endurance event consisting of foil, baby oil, sheer force of will and the hands of time.
In the past, I had relied on shameless nepotism to land cushy office jobs at my fathers and mothers offices in New York. Spending summers doing crossword puzzles and reading gossip magazines in the comfortable air-conditioned confines of concrete safety. Now I had to come to terms with the local beach economy offerings, which consisted mostly of positions requiring hard labor and long hours. They needed a workforce with grit and consistency. Both areas where I was painfully lacking. My diaper wearing crybaby act was wearing very thin and my roommates perfected their disgusted glare technique as I struck out night after night.
Finally, someone quit the front desk job at the seedy, by the hour, Lamplighter Motel and I was employed.
My first week was both terrifying and fascinating in equal measure. I would check outrageously drunken couples into rooms for quick and unsatisfying sex, and provide what looked like long-term lodging for extended families that were clearly staying for an unspoken duration. Then there were the parties. Large blocks of teenaged kids and their kegs went clanking up two flights of outdoor metal stairs and into the rooms. People jumping off the roof into the pool of questionable cleanliness, ( the ph was NEVER right). Streaking, screaming, probably a few murders. The cleaning staff would come and get me to check rooms that had been annihilated during the late-night debauchery – used condoms stuck to the walls, blood all over the television, a guy we thought was dead, but turned out to be a severely hung over shallow breather.. it never ended.
The crazy thing about the Lamplighter was that you couldn’t slam your fist down in anger that you’d been hoodwinked. It was exactly what it had promised to be, a vile semen stained den of sadness fueled by alcohol and no oversight. I knew I hadn’t been hired by the Ritz-Carlton but standing there looking at another vomit filled bathtub as an immature nineteen-year-old I was fluctuating wildly between self-loathing and wild aggrandizement. I’m worthless with no skills/ I can do better than this.
I spent the better part of three months walking the dusty road back and forth to my No Tell Motel, and then just like that, with no warning to anyone I up and quit. Immaturity, relentless optimism that I’d snag another job in a beach community with limited seasonal offerings, and the oppositional defiance disorder that whispered in my ear “no one can tell YOU how to spend your summer!” all converged in a perfect storm consisting of lack of impulse control and poor decision making. I was unemployed for the final four weeks of our adventure.
There was some roommate pushback initially, but the cottage’s sunbaked delightfulness, the relentless inside sunlight made possible because it was completely devoid of window hangings, the smell of coconut tanning oil and the pervasive feeling that we’d gotten a glimpse into a slightly askew version of adulthood helped give my ‘take this job and shove it’ antics a rosy glow. All the ineptitude and laziness I’d kept under wraps was out there on display. No job, no prospects, hours lying on the warm sand with a mind so free and blank that the nation’s teachers would recoil in horror. I ate only leftovers and the occasional free meal provided by my hardworking boyfriend at the time. Once I caught him looking at me, as I wiped Ritz Cracker crumbs from my mouth, and his face contorted into a mask of realization as he had what I can only imagine was a terrifying flash forward into his possible future with someone who was as unambitious and incapable as a slow loris without a grape.
Eventually, I straightened up and flew right, but not before we ran down the clock on what would be the last hurrah in Hyannis Port. It was the final summer where I had no clarity, zero understanding of the stakes in life, not really knowing what was real or what you could lose if you were careless. The endless myopic selfish weirdness of that summer fit like a badly cut suit the following fall. It had been steered entirely by destructive drives and too much sun and there had been no one to answer to every morning except the ocean. Now I only go South for my vacations.
I miss 1970s Kelly.
Back then everyone called her Kelly Ann and she spent most of her time doing incredible things like designing obstacle courses with two-story drops onto mattresses of questionable durability and thickness as well as attempting to use various forms of inadequate tripping and rock throwing to achieve unconsciousness with blunt force trauma just to brag that she’d been knocked out.
She once saw a guy on a motorcycle get hit head-on by a car and she ran full speed with her friends toward the scene of the accident while her dad sprinted to the nearest house to call the police. She tried to use her junior brownie survival training smarts about head injuries to tell him he should NOT get up. When she went to the giant lake in upstate New York with her best friend you couldn’t tell her not to make the swim from shore to the distant island with the big kids because she was too small, as she would sooner drown trying to doggie paddle out there than die from the shame of being left behind on the craggy rocks. She knew how to split wood with an adult-sized axe and work the flues on both the wood stoves to create a slow steady burn for heat maximization. One horrible day someone called a sad friendless boy named Chris a “stupid fatso” and she found herself with her fists up surrounded by chanting classmates while she bobbed and weaved, prepared to punch the cruelty culprit like some sort of miniature, pugilistic, retaliatory Jesus karma smote machine. Well, that is if Christ had ever embraced the solve it with your fists method of conflict resolution, which he very well might have considered in this situation. She got in trouble, and the sad friendless boy never thanked her, but she didn’t care. Jesus probably totally disapproved.
Things were so clear to her. You were good or you were bad. You didn’t get to be a flawed human being making a poor choice inflicting your murky grey area deeds and actions on the unsuspecting innocent populace. You paid for being an asshole.
Nature makes sure things that clear cut and untainted don’t last.
I often sit and wonder exactly what it was that broke 70s Kelly Ann of her righteous streak of certainty, bravery and follow through. Most of it was probably the realization that I was wrong approximately 99% of the time in my fierce fight to promote my virtuous vision and further the causes of the downtrodden. One incident in particular, however, does stand out in my mind.
This is where we delve into the grammar school controversy of the century. Prior to it, everything was in absolutes. Afterward, I wasn’t so sure… but …I know the fulcrum, the pivot point where everything changed. My crystal clear vision of right = might met the devious and Machiavellian masterwork of a skilled manipulator.
So let’s discuss the mysterious and never solved cold case of little Kenny and his near-fatal (might be an exaggeration) encounter with the Jay Street Strangler.
When you’re nine you say what you mean, you shake to end a disagreement, everybody laughs at farts and the person who pedals fastest on their bike is the leader. But what happens when a new kid unleashes a never before seen set of superior skills on you and your friends?
The new girl had a half decent Dorothy Hamill haircut and thick reading glasses. She was taller and stronger than most of us sparking an onslaught of terrifying rumors- that she’d been left back (*gasp!*) or spent at least a year in juvie .(*terror!*) Her family had just moved into the house next door to my best friend Sharlyn, and unbeknownst to me, she wanted very much to step into my shoes.
She became increasingly frustrated after weeks of repeated attempts to lure my buddy away from me with promises of a Barbie camper and dream house (both of which I already owned, thank you very much) were met with a lukewarm reception. That’s when everything came off the rails. A soulless reprobate with an ax to grind and a friend to steal is an unstoppable force that will not relent until it gets what it wants.
Our school playground had two good swings and eight shitty ones. The demarcation line was drawn by color. Grey ones *bad*. Red and brown ones *the best*. Sharlyn and I swung on those for the better part of an entire recess one day, unwilling to give them up after having fought so hard to beat everyone to them- when we were summoned to the edge of the thick woods that surrounded our school play area by two of our many dim-witted playground monitors. They instructed us to “LOOK AT HIS NECK!” Before it could really register, it became apparent we were gazing at the small, red, swollen neck of a long time classmate named Kenny. Kenny was about as diminutive and meek as they came. He was also unfailingly sweet and even-tempered, we couldn’t imagine what had befallen him to give him this type of injury. Suddenly, out of the darkened tree line stepped the single white female of my childhood. She (the new girl) pointed straight at me and said with absolute certainty, “She did it.”
I was stunned. My friends protected me vigorously with facts, timelines and witness testimony, but what mattered was Kenny. And Kenny wouldn’t talk. At all.
When questioned about the incident he’d just burst into tears like a weeping Italian widow falling on the casket at an over the top funeral, claiming his assailant had grabbed his neck from behind and he was unable to see their face. I wanted very much for my name to be cleared, but every time I would march directly up to Kenny and point blank ask for the truth, he’d stammer and look at the person I was sure had been his attacker. The Life Coveter.
Years later, at a middle school event, I ran into poor skittish Kenny and he spilled. He gave me the entire gruesome blow by blow about his day of terror in the woods at the hands of a shitty, lying, manipulative freak who wanted so badly to wipe me out that she almost killed a kid. Lured there with the false promise of “a surprise” and assured it would just be a great joke to play, he nearly met his maker in a lush forest death scene worthy of a Nancy Drew country mystery- minus all the kitschy clue finding and gee-whiz feel-good conclusion.
During the interim years, while the case remained unsolved and faded from our minds, the cluster B personality disordered maniac girl with the coke bottle glasses slid her way into our social circle and proceeded to shred whatever good was left between us and our interpersonal dynamics. Her insidious infiltration was like a long-festering toxic pustule that eventually ruptured and blew us apart from the inside causing us to splinter and fall in with new social groups, but not before she’d demonstrated that fear, ridicule, lying and playing honest people off of one another to gain a power position almost always works if they aren’t hip to the long con. Further proof that someone’s territorial pissings in all the corners of your life eventually make you burn it down to destroy the smell.
Not too long after that, I moved on to a small private school, Kenny stayed put, Sharlyn disappeared like so many people do, and the girl who was voted most likely to wear a coat made of my skin eventually ran afoul of the law and was never heard from again. Ok, that last part isn’t true. Apparently, she became a normal citizen….with a SECRET.
As an adult I mourn the loss of 70s Kelly but I also think about poor Kenny, who probably came dangerously close to getting murdered in a creepy forest clearing due to the frighteningly desirous nature of an unstable girl twice his size who was hell bent on stealing my best friend, inheriting my astounding collection of Barbie paraphernalia and making sure I took the rap for a bold unrepentant assault.
Occasionally 70s Kelly pops up and thinks about how much fun it would be to use the sleuthing skill set attained from a lifetime of watching Kojak, The Rockford Files and Law & Order to reopen the case and bust this thing wide open. But then modern day milquetoast conflict avoidant Kelly gives her a speech about letting go of the past and throws up a reminder about those queued up episodes of Black Mirror that aren’t going to watch themselves.
I animatedly told my husband this story, absolutely sure he’d fix me a glass of therapeutic tea and be aghast at the devilish covetousness of this outrageous child from my past, but he just shrugged and said it sounded like run of the mill kid bullshit. Then by way of example, he countered with a horrifying story about a kid who smashed the spokes on his new bike with a hammer and denied it to the adults in charge. I felt sad for the tiny broken past version of my husband with his demolished superbike and the shit sandwich he was forced to choke down after his grownups didn’t punish the culprit. I guess the moral of this long endless story is that most people are envious shit monsters who will drive a Mack truck straight into and over you to get the things they want and that if they don’t have it, you can’t enjoy it either.
Hi! I’m Kelly and I’m so fucking lonely! (grabs ahold of your hand tightly) But don’t tell my husband! I picked this house out in the middle of nowhere and dragged my family to a faux brick colonial with 4 acres and Walden level tree coverage. It’s half a mile to my mailbox, where I get my contact with the outside world through Amazon. Yesterday my only social activity was yelling at dogs to stop barking at squirrels.
It wasn’t always like this. We lived in the city for twenty years! Raised three kids in a neighborhood where guys punched the air and screamed all night about those “sons of bitches!” There were robberies and assaults, terrible traffic, no parking and in the summer everything smelled like hot baked urine. I remember seething while suffering through one of the many daily endurance level gridlock moments, moving half an inch in an hour on 16th street, trying to squeak past triple parked bozos who loitered outside their vehicles to chat. Slapping my steering wheel, I vowed to never miss this slow, soul-sucking agony. Waving farewell to the parking tickets, the crime, the crowding, my leaky old federal row house, I was going to savor seeing this shit in my rearview mirror.
The first week in the woods was paradise. Crickets and frogs replaced roaring sirens. There was ample parking, a two car garage, we were spoiled for choice with multiple high-end grocery stores, and a fire pit where I could set everything I didn’t like ablaze. We bought hatchets, a leaf blower and several more weapon type outdoorsy things that made the Home Depot cashier play a round of ‘Outdoorsman or Serial Killer?’ in their head while they checked us out.
I don’t know if I can point to the exact moment things started to turn sour. Perhaps it was shortly after we started to get wildly thrilling jolts of middle-aged pleasure from scoring sick deals at the big box stores or when we began flagging down distant neighbors walking the lonely stretch of country road we live on to wave manically hoping for a return nod to quench our thirst for a dose of non-familial human contact.
Whenever it happened, it was a swift and powerful Kurtz, Heart of Darkness level descent into isolation and madness. Suddenly there were a thousand biblical level frogs on the driveway. Large angry spiders with mean faces and threatening looking stripes descended from the ceiling and spun six-foot webs in minutes. Deer ate everything and surrounded us on all sides. Foxes had awful sex parties all night in our back woods and screamed like porn stars on helium. The fresh hell of our tree-lined utopia was now clear. We were out of our element.
So, I’m sorry I’m holding your hand so firmly, with it clasped lovingly against my cheek, pouring out my heart, but I need this. I noticed you were wearing a smart Jil Sander smocklike garment with good shoes and I remembered this was the uniform of my people from long ago when I spent my days on concrete streets and my third child was afraid of grass on his bare feet because he had no idea what it was until he visited his aunt in upstate NY.
Now, when a flannel wearing local cocks his shotgun and fires at a row of beer cans, I become instantly nostalgic for getting a gunshot wound the proper way, from being in the wrong place at the wrong time on a city street, minding your own business while eating ice cream.
To be perfectly frank, I have nothing to say to you.
I have one singular purpose now; seizing any opportunity that might come along that would propel me out of this snowbound wasteland and into the civilized world- or Florida. I’m not picky anymore.
In the wake of a Washington DC blizzard that crippled our transportation, closed our schools and kept us housebound for the better part of a week, I have come to realize that no amount of stockpiled bread, eggs, milk and toilet paper can combat the destitute singularity of a life lived without access to others.
Even my dogs, who at first basked in the undivided attention of a captive family, began slinking off to stare at Benny, the smarmy rodent, who sat in trees just out of harms way and snacked on forraged nuts while openly mocking them and letting his garbage roll carelessly onto the white carpet of snow below.
I took solace in thinking that the heads of the collective school systems would be in a hot radiator warmed basement somewhere yelling from behind some sort of scholarly pulpit that “TOMORROW SCHOOLS MUST OPEN!” and then slamming down a big gavel with finality and purpose….but no.
The emergency message red lettering that usually glows on my computer screen and results in an occasional gleeful day off a few times a year, kept informing me that we were never going back. Ever.
So here we sit, on day seven of our imposed exile. Surrounded by mountains of never-ending white, marinating in the filth of our uncollected garbage, wondering how it might look if we ever blew the power grid or faced some sort of epic planetary crisis without cable or wifi. My husband left our hive of toxic smells and bad karma two days ago to return to the relative sanity and cleanliness of his office, where he probably sits and waits and extra five hours to return home every evening. Can’t say I blame him, I found myself lingering a few minutes too long in front of the chatty saleswoman at the local craft store just to get some human interaction that didn’t involve the sound of clanking dishes or food requests screamed from the top of the stairs.
I’m deep into the eighth hour of the marathon road trip that ends with palm trees and clear Gulf waters.
Shiva the destroyer has been my shrill but effective co-pilot on this one, ensuring not only that I stay awake on the most treacherous spans of highway but also that my body be made almost entirely of the stress hormone cortisol by days end.
In between bouts of proving that long term exposure to others in confined spaces breeds contempt, we managed to reminisce about a story I’d long forgotten. The tale of the van.
In my mid twenties I had yet to master the art of living well and understanding basic concepts like how to plan for unforeseen accidents and heeding expiration dates on lunch meat- so when a series of bad to worse fender benders that finally culminated in a car crash took away my ability to get from point A to point B, I waited around for a solution to fall out of the sky.
When this didn’t happen, I got a very generous offer from my uncle-the use of his early 80s Ford super van. I had neither the balls nor the alternate plan required to turn down this mode of reliable and free transport- and so I became a van driver.
At first it felt like a marriage hastily arranged by old timey parents between you and a boy from their quaint European village of yesteryear. It was as if I’d appeared out of a wrinkle in a future time line to clumsily wrestle with this dark paneled beast and its purple velvet seating . The vague superiority complex caused by years of only child syndrome and an inflated sense of self had me taking back roads and parking a mile away from civilization to avoid being found out by the Nancy Drew of automobile shaming. But then something deep and resounding started happening inside of me every time I turned the key over and listened to the rev of its obnoxiously loud engine that rendered all occupants unable to communicate with sound- I began to fully appreciate its lumbering beauty.
What is not to love about rolling up to the curb in what effectively could be a fully functioning home?
It had bunks, a low swanky couch, a television, vcr and an eating area.
All you had to do was duck out for a bathroom break and a wash and all your worldly needs were met!
Soon though, like all things I embraced, I came to befoul and destroy them. The van became sad, untidy, a receptacle of discarded food cartons and dirty clothes. Strange odors stole its charm and made me less inclined to stretch out in the back to watch full house episodes instead of working. Eventually, my car repairs were finished and per my mothers insistence I took my uncles vehicle to get detailed and buffed before handing her back. Sad to see her go, but secure in the understanding that she would always be there if she was needed. Steadfast and true.
The simple beauty of the van was its unapologetic lack of cool . It served me well in my time of need and gave me something I sorely lack at this exact moment- as I write wedged between two Hardee’s fast food bags and my mothers gargantuan pocketbook- leg room and a crushed velvet body pillow to spoon.
Like most people, I prefer it when everything runs smoothly.
That is why, if we were expressing this moment in interpretive dance, you’d see a small ineffective waif clinging to what remains of the status quo while angry imps, representing chaos and bad choices, hit her with mean words and dust mops embroidered with the word “WRONG”.
Those of us still plagued by old school ideas about raising and educating our kids consider them a set of guidelines that while sometimes suffocating are still better than any sort of idea we might come up with ourselves. They’re a necessary evil, and we tell our kids to buck up and get with the program so that the life machine can swallow them up a little easier when the school system spits them out the other side. And for a while, that worked here in our house as well.
Enter, the dragon. Or more specifically my third child. No core curriculum could interest him. No seat was big enough to contain his energy and more tragically no teacher could tame him enough to make him fit the confines of a classroom. At age four a preschool teacher deemed him “unteachable” and “a danger” and recommended an army of specialists with long lists of credentials. He confounded them all. People who shouted loudly and forcefully to discipline him harder had no real understanding of what they were dealing with, and made an already strained situation worse with their frustration. In the middle of all this frenetic grasping at straws and last chances up in smoke stood the kid who was the reason for it all, looking at all of us as if we were already dead but just too stupid to fall over.
Cut to six years later, all the educational buffoons and braying donkeys were wrong. The small boy, about whom someone once remarked “he’ll either burn down the world or rule it with an iron fist” is a thriving, intelligent, kindhearted person with limitless possibilities. I used to struggle with the upsettingly tremendous sense of burden I carried with me when making decisions about how to proceed academically, personally and parentally (not a word? FU spellcheck) with my third kid, but now the sigh of relief you hear is deafening. The endless disciplinary hearings and terrifying diagnoses that made up so much of my nightmare fuel back then are distant memories. They’ve been replaced by the pounding elegance and delicate savagery of a boy who made his own way, despite every odd being stacked against him, with sharpened wits and a broad field of vision that enables him to see where he’s going and how he’s going to get there.
I dare say, he’s my boldest creation.
So if you find yourself mired in a pit of parental despair, surrounded by angry “specialists” that just charged you ten thousand dollars for the pleasure of sitting down and discussing the somewhat questionable neuro/psych/edu. test results they got, and what it all means for your poor kids future, remember that from the ashes of this complete and utter bullshit can sometimes rise a little phoenix – and keep ahold of that while you take a deep breath.