Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rite of Passage

My niece Kylie wanted her ears pierced.

She was thirteen and her parents figured she had waited long enough, so that’s why Beth called me on December 23. Any chance I could pick them up and take them to the mall?

Ears pierced? I had to laugh. “What, you mean Kylie doesn’t have to wait until she’s 16?” I was referring to the draconian rules that governed my own childhood. My sisters and I couldn’t get our ears pierced until we were 16, or drive until we were 17, or go outside of the house – ever – until our beds were made. I was the third born, which meant that my older sisters did most of the parent-breaking-in before I even came along, but it also meant I had a long, jealous wait to catch up to these milestone dates. Of course, being the brat I was, I waited until I was 16 to get my ears pierced, and then went back a few more times for good measure. The extra holes have basically closed over by now, but Kylie was still able to spot them with her teenage eagle-eye.

“No, it’s okay with us,” my sister said. “She’s a teenager now.” And such a sweet, Washington-bred, farm-raised girl at that. The teenagers I know in California communicate only by cell phone and spend their class time doodling the design for their next tattoo.

All right, fine. But – the mall? On December 23? The crowds, the horribly overplayed Christmas music, the abysmal parking situation. Visions of road rage were dancing through my head.

But this is what you do for family – particularly family that lives out of state and only flies in once a year for a week.

I sighed. “Okay.”

An hour later (after circling the parking lot and stalking a family with small children as they walked back to their SUV) we found ourselves at Icing, and Kylie was sitting in the chair at the ear-piercing station. Another girl – a veteran, from the looks of things – didn’t even flinch as the piercing gun punched a stud through her cartiledge.

“Look at that – nothing to it,” I said. I was trying to remember if Kylie had been looking a little green earlier, or if this was a recent development.

A little girl who barely reached my elbow came up with her family. Her cheeks were tear-streaked. “Well, are you going to do it or not?” her mother demanded. “We’re not coming back here. You’re either going to do it now or not do it at all. You have to decide now. Ears pierced or no?”

The girl shook her head, and the family disappeared back into the mall.

I smiled brightly at Kylie. My sister was engaged in complicated negotiations with the Icing employee, which ended when she initialed a release form a dozen times confirming that Kylie wasn’t pregnant, didn’t have diabetes, and would seek medical attention if needed.

The employee went through the schpiel: Clean your ears four times a day with the solution on the tip of a cotton ball. Don’t touch your ears without washing your fingers. Make sure you don’t get your clothes or hair caught in the earrings. Twist them back and forth every day. Keep the studs in for six to eight weeks. (That last part – waiting six weeks – was always my downfall.)

The employee made two tiny dots on Kylie’s earlobes. “Ready?”

My sister and I grinned encouragement at Kylie. Kylie nodded.

The first punch was over in a blink. Kylie’s eyes got a little wider, but otherwise I didn’t see any reaction.

“See? You didn’t even feel that, did you?” my sister asked.

“Yes!” Kylie gasped.

Another punch and it was over. When she stood up from the chair, her step only slightly wobbly, Kylie looked a little older, a little more mature, more womanly. She was ready to take on the world – or at least, the crowds at Sephora.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Will the real me please stand up?

I have an unusual maiden last name – so it was quite a shock to learn that there were two of me.

For the first twenty-four years of my life, I got used to my last name being misspelled and mispronounced wherever I went – unless one of my older sisters had been there before me, and paved the way. Oh, no, not another “T” sister, my teachers must have thought.

When I got married in 2000, I took my husband’s name and my place at the beginning of the alphabet, where I always felt I should be. But by that time I’d been writing for a newspaper for a few years, and it was my editor who suggested a more gentle transition to my byline. So I took my maiden name as my middle name and I’ve been writing under it ever since.

By best estimate, there are only a handful of us “Ts” living in the United States – all originating more or less from the same small town in Wisconsin, and before that, a small town in Germany. I collect information about the “Ts” outside my immediate family – this one is a photographer in Portland, that one is an orthodontist in Denver. We meet up in Wisconsin at increasingly rare intervals for fish fries and sauerkraut and stories. And it seems we’ve grown smaller, through attrition or marriage. My dad has two brothers and my generation numbers nine (including my three sisters and me); I have five first cousins on the “T” side, only two of whom are male.

You see? The name is dying out.

Or so I thought.

Last week, my sister Beth pointed out that there was another Paula T. on Facebook.

Curious – but the world is a big place, I reasoned. Some long-lost, far-flung Paula T. is out there, trying to re-connect.

Yes, added Rachel, a T-cousin in southern California. And the other Paula friend requested me.

What? It was time for some investigative work. Yes, there was indeed another Paula T., and she was friends with four of my relatives – and only those four. In fact, Paula T. had no other friends.

Curious, I fried requested the other Paula T., and was accepted. Her page was nearly blank, save for a 1986 birthdate and a hotmail address. No picture, no cutesy “about me” section, no links.

Hmm. I was beginning to feel uneasy about the whole situation. Could there really be two of us, within the same small circle? Nah — impossible.

I sent Paula T. a message: Hi! We have the same name and the same friends. Isn’t that weird?

No reply. Aha! I’d caught her and she knew it. The fraud! I sent the four relatives who had befriended Paula T. a message, letting them know that in fact Paula T. wasn’t me – just in case they wanted to guard their personal information.

Still no reply from Paula T. I started to stalk her, logging on at random hours to see if I could catch her in a chat. The situation was starting to feel bizarre. Was it just pure narcissism that led me to believe that out of billions of people in the world, there could only be one Paula T.? Or was some nefarious hoax at work, perpetrated perhaps by the person who stole my purse last December (and then attempted to make a $1500 purchase at Walmart) or the person who stole my laptop in June? Could someone really want to be me that badly, enough to collect my relatives as her own? I wondered what else she wanted to share – my husband, my pets, my bathroom with the six-lane ant highway? Perhaps my savings account and student loans and low metabolism, too? The zits I still get, even though I’m in my 30s? The tooth that needs a new crown? Come on – who wouldn’t want a piece of that?

I logged on again to Facebook and noticed that Paula T. had liked my status, the one that said “Paula is still taking antibiotics for strep throat, so does it make sense that I now think I have bronchitis?” Excuse me? How could anyone “like” that status? I was hoping to find out that the other Paula had good (similar to mine) taste, but instead she appeared to be evil, reveling in the tragic illnesses of her namesake.

It was time to excise the imposter Paula from my life once and for all. This was relatively painless – a click of the button and whoosh! we were out of each other’s lives. With only a few keystrokes, I had regained my identity. The world is a pretty small place when you get right down to it – not big enough for two of me, after all.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Night Run

Tonight, Baxter and I took a walk. I needed to clear my head, and he needed to run through leaf piles. It was just cool enough for a winter coat and gloves. The streets were deserted, and I could see people inside their homes doing normal people things – decorating trees and watching TV and washing dishes.

It was good to be alone (save for the canine and the felines) tonight. I’d spent the day running errands, sitting in the bleachers at my nephew’s wrestling tournament, working in the backyard and then wandering through the house, straightening random things here and there half-heartedly. Will was pulling one of his marathon 20-hour work days and we communicated by leaving messages on each other’s voice mail. I didn’t feel like calling anyone else, but when the phone rang, I lunged for it, and gave the telemarketer from AT & T a whole three minutes of my life before hanging up.

This has been a tough week. The antibiotics finally kicked in and my throat started to feel more like a throat and less like a tiny orifice with a brillo pad wedged inside it. In the meantime, I’d lost a few days of writing time and it was hard to pick up the pieces. My sentences felt stiff and predictable, like the writing on the old USA network sitcoms, back when only people with no other options watched USA network.

Then the bad news began.

Another student, a beautiful, brilliant girl who sat in the back corner of my creative writing class two years ago, committed suicide. I can’t begin to understand it. If I had to name an emotion, it would be anger. I’m so, so mad about it – and so sad, too. I subbed on Thursday for two classes she was in, noticing how there was a sort of negative space in the classroom, something that everyone was stepping around and talking around. Our hearts were still aching from Dillon, only a month ago. I said to anyone who would listen, and many of them did: it gets better. And it might get worse again, but it always gets better. And there are always people who love you – even people you might have forgotten in the middle of things.

Then on Friday, I came home to a letter in the mail, a sort of “thanks, but no thanks” from the government job I’d applied for. There were other applicants better suited for the position… blah, blah. I told myself over and over that I wouldn’t be hurt if I didn’t get the job, because if I wasn’t right for it, it was better to know that up front, rather than at the end of some prolonged training period. I am the first person to rail against the incompetence of officials, elected or otherwise, and I wouldn’t want to be one of those incompetent people myself. But still – I guess I’m hurt. I haven’t found a way to reason myself out of that emotion.

So tonight, I left the house with a stack of clich├ęs – a heavy heart, a lump in my throat, my brain fried. “Let’s run,” I said to Baxter, and we did, through dark streets and dozens of leaf piles. We ran past cats, too absorbed in our running to slow down for a proper sniff. We settled into a sort of pace, although Baxter the show-off always likes to be in the lead. I suppose if any of my neighbors had looked out the window at that moment, they would have seen a wild-haired woman in a bulky coat chasing a frantic beagle down the street – and they wouldn’t have been too wrong. But the thing is, I felt better with each mucky step. I wasn’t running from anything, exactly – and in fifteen minutes I was home again, setting the alarm behind me – but it did feel like I escaped something. Maybe it was a only a layer of skin, like the gray feeling that had settled over me, but by the time we were crunching through the leaves on my unraked lawn and climbing the steps to the front porch, I was believing what I’d been saying all week: There’s always a tomorrow, and if that one doesn’t work out, another tomorrow right around the corner. And also, there’s always the possibility of a night run, and ready-for-anything beagle to take it with you.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Day Four of the Slow Death

Will has occasionally referred to me as the world’s worst sick person.

The thing is, I get a teensy, tiny, wee bit irritable when I’m sick. I’m sensitive to things that otherwise only mildly bother me: people, light, sound. I also don’t like to talk when I’m sick – it takes too much energy. I just like to lie on my side and try not to think.

Fortunately, I’m not sick often. But when I go down, I go down hard. And right now – I’m down.

It started on Friday, right before Thanksgiving #2 with my side of the family. I’m someone who never misses a meal (really – it’s never happened), but somehow instead of enjoying the witty repartee of my sisters and their men at the table, I was ready to curl up for a good eight-hour nap. And this was before the wine was uncorked. By five o’clock we were at home. Will headed out to work, and I went to bed – where I pretty much stayed for the next two days.

Every few hours, I stumbled out of bed and dragged myself down the hall. Good news! My kidneys were still working. Then I got another glass of water because my throat felt horribly tight, as if the opening was the same circumference as a pencil eraser. Walking down the hallway left me dizzy and sweaty. My temperature: 101.
Saturday passed in a blur of Food Network and the America’s Next Top Model marathon on Bravo. I tried to read and gave up. Baxter came to the bedroom every few hours and sniffed me.

“I’m going out,” Will called at one point. “Do you want anything?”

“There’s no point, because I’m dying,” I said from beneath three layers of blankets.




Right before he closed the front door, I called, “Maybe orange juice.”
Later, I found the energy to put on jeans, mascara and shoes that were not slippers, and we went to the grocery store. We nearly made it to the frozen yogurt before I felt woozy again.

I called my mom that night. “I’m sick. My throat,” I hissed.

“Who is this?”

On Sunday, USA Network had a Monk-a-Thon that lasted until eleven p.m. I occasionally switched sides, worried about bed sores. Will came in and out, bringing news of the world. I ventured out a mile or so to Walgreens, where I located instant oatmeal and more NyQuil. At home, I stacked the bag on the kitchen table, too exhausted to unpack. With the newspapers, blankets and plastic bags everywhere, our house was beginning to look like an episode of Hoarders. My temperature: 100.3.

Last night, Will woke me up to tell me I was snoring. “I’m not snoring,” I insisted. “I wasn’t even sleeping. I was just thinking.” Even as I said it, I realized that I might not be the best judge of the difference between sleeping and thinking. I’d been cycling between the two for some time. And whenever I tried not to think, the words “swine flu” appeared on the insides of my eyelids.

“My throat is killing me,” I said.

Will checked it out with a flashlight.

“Do you see anything? Like blisters or swelling?”

“Hmm. I don’t know. It’s red. And I don’t see your tonsils.”

“What? I definitely still have my tonsils.”

“Okay. I’ll take your word for it.”

Wonderful. Something else to worry about.

But today, I woke up feeling 90 percent better. Fever: gone. Sore throat? Still here. It’s like something small is caught there, a sideways potato chip or a razor blade, maybe.

Sadly, even Ben & Jerry’s FroYo hasn’t been able to cure it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Other People’s Spaces

In David Sedaris’s excellent and hilarious essay, Nuit of the Living Dead, he sees his house through a stranger’s eyes – the random objects strewn around seemed proof that he was a deviant, a psychopath, a general menace to society. And then, of course, there was the mouse he was drowning in a bucket on the front porch.

Well, these days I’m the outsider, sneaking peeks at other’s spaces. It’s the nature of being a substitute teacher. I pick up the key from the office, lose my way once or twice around campus, and eventually open the door to a stranger’s private space. Well, not private, of course – but every classroom reflects the personality of its teacher. I can tell something about the teacher by the way the room is organized, the handwriting on the white board, the posters on the wall. I can’t help but study personal photos tacked to the wall. Is this him? Is this her? Young? Old? Married? Single? Kids? Pets?

Today I was in a classroom where every inch of the walls was covered in inspirational posters, the kind of inspirational posters that were popular in the 1980s. Cuddly kittens offering to be a friend. INSPIRE, one said. ACHIEVE! ordered another. Lots of hot air balloons, gorillas, the ever-present middle-school mantra: “What is right is not always popular; what is popular is not always right.” Last week, in Spanish I and II, the teacher instructed me to turn off the candle warmer before leaving. Candle warmer? Why didn’t I think of that when I was teaching? It’s a perfect, gentle way to mask the odor in those post-P.E. bodies. In my first (and maybe last, depending on my poverty level) experience teaching second grade, the class was a ship, the students divided into “pirates” and “mateys.” To bring the class to order, a tiny red-headed boy informed me, I should call out, “All hands on deck!” When I tried this, the response was thunderous: “Aye, aye, Cap’n!” (Later, I told a boy with a tummy ache, “Pirates don’t cry, buddy.” I was pretty pleased with myself, but this only made him sob harder.)

When I was teaching, in cozy little F5 on the corner of the quad, my room was a study in organized chaos. I simply couldn’t contain the papers. They were everywhere, on every surface. Collected papers, graded papers, papers to be filed, papers to be passed back. Yearbook ladders, yearbook proofs, random yearbook papers I was afraid to throw away. Block days in creative writing generally involved hand-written prompts on tiny scraps of paper which collected on the overhead cart, the bookshelves, the chalk trays. Sometimes I could hardly see the monitor for the Post-It notes I was always writing myself, the million little things that, if ignored, would upset the delicate balance of this tiny universe. When I had a substitute, I swept the stacks into the recycle bin, stashed the odds and ends (odds, mostly) in desk drawers, and left a bright, cheery note full of hopeful predictions about the day.

But I wasn’t really trying to hide my disorganized personality – I was thinking more of the comfort of the person who would be sitting in my circa-1970s office chair and trying on my life for size. The substitute would leave me a note about the day and that was it – we never crossed paths; he or she was essentially invisible to me. As I am now – Invisible Woman, curious about the stranger I’ll never meet, deciphering those clues on the wall distinct as any fingerprint.

Monday, October 19, 2009

In Transition

When we first viewed the house, our realtor Mike told us that the neighborhood was “in transition.” It was the end of 2002 and we were sick of our one-bedroom, second-floor apartment with the treacherous steps and the murderously hot summers without air conditioning. By this point we had been abusing the “no pets” clauses for at least six months and our cats spent their days in the bathroom like stowaways on an irregular-shaped yacht. So we were more than ready to move.

What Mike meant was that homes were being snapped up by young couples – DINKS, the lot of us – and that the neighborhood was undergoing a renaissance. He had grown up in this neighborhood himself; he showed us in our floor plan which bedroom had been his, which had been his brother’s. I’m a sucker for this sort of nostalgia. After stalking the house like jealous lovers, driving by at all times of day and night to make sure she was still there, safe and alone, we made the offer. We packed up the cats, a few dozen boxes of books, and moved in. We met the neighbors on all sides, joined the neighborhood watch, and started to make our dull little box of a home into something we loved.

It wasn’t until Baxter came along that I really got to know the neighborhood, though. The most loved beagle on earth insists on two walks a day – nose to the ground, tail in the air, leg lifted frequently. I can credit Baxter with giving me more of an interest in our neighborhood – without these walks I might not notice people moving in or out, or know which cars belong where. I wouldn’t notice the wheelchair ramp being built, or the tacky Christmas decorations lingering nearly to Easter. I wouldn’t know every dog within a twelve block radius, or even be known myself.

“Hi, Baxter!” say the sisters whose names I don’t remember.

“It’s Baxter and his mom!” says the woman walking her black lab. I only know her as Kiya’s mom.

“I see you walking by here all the time,” observes the man whose lower jaw extends much farther than his upper.

“I love that little beagle,” says the homeless man in the park, his voice emerging from beneath layers of fabric.

“Are you taking your dog for a walk?” asks Crazy Lady with the bandaged leg. Just once I’d like to reply, “Nope, not today,” while our six legs hustle past. But I can’t, and it’s more than pity for the infected leg. It’s a matter of being… neighborly.

Maybe this is why I bristled when a friend said, apropos of nothing, that I lived in a bad neighborhood. Well, maybe not nothing – there was the stolen car two years ago and the break-in last June. It is true that our neighborhood was hit hard by the mortgage crisis; some of the homes snapped up at such a steal are now on the market again. But this morning, walking Baxter before the streetlights were off, I had this thought: We’re just “in transition” again. Right now we’re slumping in the other direction, maybe, but it’s a slow slump, and that feels okay for now. It could turn around at any time.

I’m thinking this as I pass Michael, my day-trading/weekend-garage-saling neighbor. He’s wearing shorts and slippers; the fat cigar in his mouth is keeping him warm. He calls out, “’Morning! This is going to be a great day, isn’t it?”

“Yes!” I say, voicing optimism that I rarely let myself believe in. “It’s great already.”

Friday, October 9, 2009

Coming Clean

I’ve applied for a government job. No specifics… for two reasons. First, everyone who knows has tried to talk me out of it. (That’s right -- I’m talking about you, Patricia.) And second, getting excited about something is a sure way to jinx myself. Instead, I’ll be vague and let you imagine me interrogating terrorists.

There were some good reasons to apply for this job, though. It’s something I’m qualified to do, something I think I can do, and something I might actually like. It’s part-time (meaning I can write), pays well, and it isn’t substitute teaching. I’m not saying the students I meet are charmless, just that the experience itself isn’t always charming. Good for now, but not my long term goal, let’s say.

So. My testing date is set for November, a month away. “You’ll need that time to get your materials together,” the woman on the phone tells me. I scoffed inwardly, hearing this. I’m pretty quick, fairly organized – what could possibly take me a month? Well. That was before I opened the “personal history statement” and realized I would have to divulge every job I’ve ever held (two at a time, pretty much, since I was sixteen), the address of ever place I’ve ever lived, and the names of everyone who has ever had the (mis) fortune to live with me. My husband, parents, sisters, colleagues, friends… apparently, I have to list the names, occupations and addresses of anyone who has ever rubbed elbows with me. (If that’s you, and chances are good it is, I’m sorry. But will you please say something nice about me?) Look, I expected the drug screening, the fingerprinting. I wasn’t exactly prepared for the scrutiny of my driving record (39 in a 25, I confess), my sordid medical history, our marriage license, and now a thorough credit check. I have student loans; does this make me susceptible to blackmail?

And then, I had to admit to something that has been a joke amongst my friends and family for the last three years: Yes, I have had a negative employee evaluation. I was written up for not rebuking a student who said “crap” in my creative writing class, with the evaluator sitting in a desk in the corner of the room. Do you see why I didn’t take this seriously? At the time, I responded in typical Paula fashion; I wrote a letter that was attached to the evaluation, which sits now in a dusty file cabinet and may never be seen again by anyone. But still, I hesitated over the question. Lie, and hope that the background check doesn’t really include a close reading of my personnel file? Tell the truth, and be disqualified from the job for something that was, and still is, ridiculous? Eventually I wrote it down, though I have faint hope that the government will see the humor or the humanity of the situation.

The truth is, I’ve lived a stable, uncomplicated and fairly responsible life. And yet, it’s kind of uncomfortable to be under the microscope. The process of self-examination makes me feel guilty where no guilt is due. I even, irrationally, feel guilty that I don’t have more to confess. If only it was a phone interview or an email interview, I might be safe. Put me under the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights, and I’m not quite sure what I’ll say. But I’m ready to come clean.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

This Dark Obsession

I live with Modesto’s (Self-Proclaimed) Foremost Expert on Serial Killers. This is no indictment of character; after all, I’m a close runner up for the title. We speak an odd lexicon of Bundy-Gacy-Bianchi-Damher; when we merged our book collections a decade ago, I noticed that we each had a copy of the (horribly written but endlessly fascinating) Helter Skelter. One of our first dates in San Francisco, following a guide book, took us past Manson’s former digs off Golden Gate Park. Not that we admire serial killers, mind you - but collecting the data is a sort of hobby. Some people save stamps, others collect Holstein figurines...

This obsession is fueled mainly by television. If I have a spare minute, it’s not hard to locate something on A&E – a cold case file, a biography. I grew up on Unsolved Mysteries; I watch with the absorption of someone who has never personally been touched by this sort of tragedy. I watch – sometimes from between my fingers – and think.

This dark obsession has proved useful, as I’ve recently become a slow motion serial killer myself. First it was a squirrel, then a cat, a deer, a toddler, and now, in my latest story, a teenage girl. I feel a sense of responsibility for them – I’ve created them, and they’re entitled to die with some dignity. It took pages – agonized pages – for the deer to die, and afterwards I spent a half-day in bed, mourning it. Another time I asked a friend for his reaction to my story, and he could only respond, “I can’t believe you killed a cat.” I’m sorry. I don’t know what it is in me that tends to this dark side, although perhaps it’s fueled by my home environment.

Take this conversation tonight, with a friend who is planning to build a chicken coop. While she spoke I was thinking of the advantages of raising chickens – hardboiled, over easy, scrambled, benedict – but I could see Will’s mind leaning in another direction.

“Save one of the chickens for me,” he said.

“So you can raise it?” she asked.

“No, I’m just curious. Do they really run around after you cut their heads off?”

“Sure they do. I’ll call you over if you want to see it.”

Will blanched. “Well, um, I don’t actually want to kill it or anything.” He thought a moment, visions of Manson and the Zodiac Killer dancing through his head. And then he added, smiling in my direction, “Paula would have to do it.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Stop, rewind.

It’s the news I never wanted to hear – something happened to one of my students.

This something was a gunshot wound to the chest, and the voice on the other end of the phone was telling me, “We’ve set up a crisis center on campus and we need you to cover for one of the teachers.”

“What?” I asked, my mind reeling. And then stupidly, because this should have been obvious at this point, “Who is this?”

“It’s Mary. Can you come in?”

I hesitated. No. I like to keep my tragedies at a distance. But then, “Of course.” No matter that it was ten-forty-five and I was freshly out of the shower, hair a wet tangle, and that getting there in fifteen minutes meant slipping into yesterday’s clothes. I was covering for another teacher, because that’s what I am these days – a substitute teacher. I put in a few days a week doing whatever is needed of me and then I leave it behind and focus on my writing.

I hadn’t asked who the student was and while I was passing cars on the freeway, every worst-case scenario went through my head. A seventeen-year-old boy. It could be any of my former students…

As it turned out, that student was Dillon. As it turned out, the shot was self-inflicted.

Stop, rewind.

Play: Dillon, the happy-go-lucky kid in my second period sophomore Honors class. Not the best student, not the most dedicated – he often sat back with an amused smile and sort of observed everyone else doing their work – but the kind of person you just liked having around. And there were moments of brilliance – he could argue a point with the best of them; give him an opportunity to draw and whatever he produced was something that stayed on your wall for a year or more. Signed, proudly, Dillon.

He liked to write on my chalkboard: “Dillon is Mrs. D’s favorite!”

After sophomore year, he pestered me constantly, “Will you teach junior English? Will you teach senior English?”

Our paths didn’t cross in the classroom again until this year, when as a substitute I ran into him all over the place. “Mrs. D!” he’d yell, seeing me come up the sidewalk.

“Hey, Dillon!”

Little encounters, a few seconds out of the day.

The kind of thing you take for granted.

I’ll probably never know what was going through his mind, how he got to the point where this was the best option.

Stop, rewind.


I wish I could tell him: it gets better, no matter what it is. You’ll be an adult soon. You can make choices for yourself. You have the whole world in front of you.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Weather Report

Something about the heat today feels worse, more oppressive than usual. I have come to the determination that there are different forms of heat; that even when it is the same temperature two days in a row, each day feels different, has its own texture and nuances. Yesterday’s ninety-nine had the slightest of breezes, as if it was laughing at itself and didn’t want to be taken seriously. Today’s ninety-nine is like an airport interrogation – an enclosed room, a seething customs official, an expired passport.

In other words, it’s damn hot.

At seven this morning I stepped outside to get the paper and felt the heat of the day already. I braved it again an hour later, armed with a hose and bucket, determined to get the film of Central Valley dust off our cars. By the time I made my grocery run at ten I was scurrying through the parking lot like a bug – car to store, store to car – as if the sun could be avoided.

It’s too much, this heat.

I had grand plans of running this morning, maybe heading down to the college track and doing a few laps, then going for the ultimate burn by running the bleachers. Of course, to do this, one needs to wake up earlier than seven, and be out the door earlier than eight…

I told Will the other day, I think we’ve had six months of summer.

At least you were gone for a month of it, he replied.

Oh, don’t remind me – lovely little Ireland, where it rained every ten minutes just to remind us that we weren’t in control.

Will takes Baxter for his walk and comes back sweaty. I eat lunch and lay on the bed beneath the AC vent, sucking a piece of ice.

It’s the end of September, the 26th to be exact, and I feel justified in my anger. I’m sick of the two seasons we have here, the hot summer and cool spring. I’d give anything for a good thunderstorm, for leaves turning red and brown, for the chance to wear a scarf. In my garage sit a pair of snow boots, forgotten but hopeful. I walked through a department store last week, running my fingers over sweaters – wool, cashmere, cotton – and felt like crying.

I’m heartened, though; the newspaper predicts a drop to eighty-one by Monday. I allow myself to revel in the deliciousness of that number. Eighty-one means cool mornings, maybe even long-sleeve shirt weather. It means open windows and no air conditioning. It means no more excuses, time to pull out my running shoes.

I can feel it now, that change in the air. Or maybe it’s just the AC, kicking on again.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Art of Repetition

A few years ago, I painted the exterior of my house. I did this because it was less expensive than hiring a painter, and also, which perhaps carried more weight with my reasoning process, because someone suggested I wouldn’t be able to do it. My house isn’t large, but it is somewhat complicated – a front porch, a back patio, overhanging eaves, lots of trim. I had done some painting in college, on various mission trips (somewhere in Chicago is a room with two different shades of white, because we ran out of paint halfway through and couldn’t match it), and so I set what felt like a reasonable goal: one week, Saturday to Saturday.

I should mention that this wasn’t a solo endeavor – long-suffering Will, who would have been happy to hire a painter in the first place, took that Friday off work. My nephews, for $50 apiece, were happy to help. Mom donated two afternoons and a lasagna. Dad, the world’s most obsessive perfectionist, was enlisted to paint the front door, and my sister and her husband braved traffic on 101 to help with the final coat of trim.

But for the first four days, it was just me – balancing near the top of the ladder, one arm steadying myself and the other wielding a paintbrush, I worked my way around the house, painting the eaves. Despite sunblock, I burned. Despite a bandanna covering most of my head, I ended up with large globs of paint in my hair. And despite my wish for solitude, I got to know my neighbors.

Everyone on the block stopped by to comment on my progress and admire the new color (desert sand), or ask if I was available for hire, or say the things they’d meant to say to me for years, if only our paths had crossed sooner. I learned that my house is never truly alone – the meter reader stopped by, a city worker climbed a utility pole for an unknown purpose and waved down to me. A man from the pest control service jingled through the side gate, nearly causing me to topple from surprise. The mail carrier stopped to chat each day. On Thursday, my neighbors lugged their garbage bins to the alley, waited for the garbage to be collected by massive rumbling trucks, and wheeled the bins away. The cats followed my progress from each window, sometimes extending a paw in my direction, as if they too wanted to help. Baxter did his best to be underfoot, preferring to sleep between my ladder and the wall I was painting. Whenever I looked down, he was looking up at me, his side embellished with a desert sand racing stripe.

And through it all I painted. I painted and reloaded my brush and painted and climbed down and moved my ladder two feet and started up again. When I reached a certain point, I went back for a second coat. Ladder, paint, repeat.

What I learned is that I’m good at mindless, repetitive things.

I would be a great factory worker – at least until, wandering in my thoughts, I lost a finger to a conveyor belt or an arm to a mangle.

What I learned is that I like a bit of solitude, and that when my hands are occupied and my mind is free, I can create.

I wrote a million stories in my mind that week. I invented a few worlds that didn’t exist, and populated them with people who were anything but flat characters. I put myself back in the situations where I should have spoken up, and this time around I did. I was unfiltered, uninhibited. I was queen of my ladder.

Left up there too long, the skin on my neck beginning to peel in raggedy strips, I would have gone crazy. I would have told stories to my plants and carried on conversations with the odd dragonfly. Will would have had to coax me down in the evening, or set a sugar trap in the kitchen.

But eventually, I ran out of eaves to paint, and the house was finished, and I went back to my regular, non-painting life. I haven’t forgotten, though, the curiously satisfying feeling of going it alone, stroke by stroke. It comes back to me every so often, like now – one key after another, word following word, and I sigh from the satisfaction of finishing a sentence. And start it up again.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Novel-Writing Girl

The man seated two tables away seems compelled to talk – to the barista who brings him a fresh cup of coffee, to the family members who call him every twenty minutes on his cell, and to me, typing away and trying to look unapproachable. He translates his phone calls for me. “My wife,” he mouths in the midst of a set of convoluted directions. After another call, he told me, “My daughter. She just had a baby.” “Oh! Congratulations,” I say. “Well, she isn’t married,” he responds. I smile and look down, and after this, try to avoid all eye contact. It’s difficult because at this point he’s half-twisted in his seat, his shoulder open to me, inviting conversation. He seems to be only pretending to read his newspaper, which I can hardly criticize, since at the moment I’m only pretending to write my novel.

A man walks by and barks something incomprehensible and both of us – the newspaper-reading man and the novel-writing girl – look up, following the progress of this t-shirted man with a heavy backpack as he crosses the street in front of us and continues out of view. “Does he have an earpiece?” Newspaper man asks me and I shake my head. I had the same thought: Maybe angry t-shirt man had a Bluetooth device; maybe whatever conversation he was having was so important that he couldn’t be bothered to wait until he got to the office, or home, or his parole agent’s, and he liked to have his hands free just in case. But sadly, no earpiece; the important conversation that couldn’t wait was only with himself. I felt bad for him, and then sad for myself, because what is this piece of writing if not a conversation with another part of myself?

Back to Newspaper man, whose phone rings. It’s his wife, lost again in downtown Modesto, needing further directions. “From Graceada, cross Needham onto 14th and you’ll see it. The little coffee house on the left. What’s the name?” This last part to me; I wish I had an unfriendly face, or at least an inscrutable one, dark like a secret agent.

“The Queen Bean,” I say.

“The what?”

“The Queen Bean.”

“The Queen Bee,” he repeats into the phone.

Let it go, Paula. Let it go. But I can’t; the same impulse that caused me to labor with a pen over sophomore essays, scribbling comments and hash marks that my students wouldn’t read or care about, leads me to repeat, “The Queen BEAN.”

“Oh! The Queen Bean,” he says in the phone. “Cute.”

The barista brings him a sandwich stabbed through the heart with a toothpick. I begin to dread the arrival of his wife, who, despite muddled directions, will soon be here. The man takes a bite of his sandwich, then asks, without benefit of swallowing, “You come here often, huh? This is like your regular place?”

Yeah, I guess I do. I guess it is.