50 Stories, Week 9: Things That I’m Unreasonably Afraid Of (aka Anxiety 101)

How I’m coping during the pandemic…

This week of pandemic was rough. Maybe I needed a glass of wine to get those words down, but so be it. I’m not sleeping much. My dreams, like many of yours, have been absolute batshit crazy – like last night’s combo of befriending Kelly Clarkson while working at a dress shop and never being able to catch a sunset, no matter how fast I ran toward the horizon. I could analyze these dreams but most of them make zero sense other than to say my general free-floating anxiety has been amped up past 1000% and needed an outlet, so dreams it is.

In the spirit of staying vulnerable and meeting myself where I am – my story this week is more of a present tense unpolished brain dump…

I usually take pride in facing my fears. A welling up of crippling anxiety would be just the thing to get me going on my next adventure, my next bit of growth. But lately, I’ve felt paralyzed. Oh sure, I keep busy trying to make sourdough bread (four recipes down, a bajillion to go!) but when I get like this, I don’t recognize myself.

When I was a teenager, I had massive panic attacks, convinced that I would die every night. I could feel my heart beating and racing and was convinced it would stop. Just stop because how could it keep pumping so hard and fast while I was laying still? As an adult, all through my 20’s and early 30’s, I taught myself some coping mechanisms. I can say with clarity that finding yoga saved my literal life. Things became slightly more manageable. When I was convinced that stepping on a crack would, in fact, break my mother’s back, I would take a long, slow inhale and tell myself “Don’t be a crazy person. That is not based in truth.” Now, I know, we shouldn’t say that anymore – ‘crazy person’ – but back then, and even now at times, it is the difference between me being paralyzed on a sidewalk until someone bumps into me and being able to keep walking.

So, I felt some level of progress. But that didn’t always work and my racing heart or monkey mind would compel me to head to the closest hospital, convinced I was having a heart attack. I cannot accurately convey how many times I went to the ER in the middle of the night – when everyone is sleeping and I couldn’t possibly wake up a friend or lover or child (!) to tell them what was going on. I was almost always dehydrated, had a racing heart and diarrhea. The nurses would dismissively tell me I’m just stressed out and usher me off, since they could be treating someone with a real emergency. At one point, a doctor just gave me a handful of Valium. I didn’t want to take it but I hadn’t slept in days. When I did, I thought “Ohhhhhh this is why people do drugs.” I wanted that feeling forever. And ever. So I’ve never done it again.

In my mid-30’s, long after my Dad died and I left my son’s father, I found a therapist who gave me words for what I was experiencing. Anxiety, OCD, possibly brought on from some trauma as a child (oh right, my brother died right before I was born!) or funky brain chemistry. I’m guessing we all have a combo but it manifests differently. Some better than others.

Here’s how my anxiety still shows up, on the daily:

I’m in Hawaii in a beautiful location, with a view of the ocean, listening to the sounds of the waves, the breeze, the perfect temperature, fully fed and clothed and having the love of an incredible man, and still thinking ‘Well, when I go volunteer with at the horse shed, maybe a power tool is going to fly off the shelf and stab me in the leg, right where there is a main artery and since we’re on a tiny island with only clinics, I won’t be able to get help in time and I’ll bleed out alone on a farm. Or that the water I’m drinking from the water purifier is actually poison since they probably don’t change the filters and it’s so humid here I’m sure some crazy ass bacteria has been sitting around waiting to manifest in my stomach and kill me.’

I’m not afraid of things like kayaking or hiking anymore because I’ve already assumed I’ll be capsized and the kayak will hit my head and drown or I’ll be blown off a cliff when hiking. I’ve thought those scenarios through a million times in the past, while simultaneously doing those activities. When it’s something I haven’t done before, I get to be bombarded with a thousand new, tiny and enormous worries. 

Most of the time, it’s like having a constant fear that all the fire escapes in Manhattan are going to fall on my head the second I walk under them. That someone will have sneezed in my salad and they have tuberculosis and my immunity is gone and well, TB. That if I don’t touch the outside of the plane and write during takeoff and landing, we will fall from the sky. That if I don’t count to an even number while I put on my mascara or while the water is running, I will cease to exist.

Other things I’m unreasonably afraid of in no particular order: Caves. Bats. Snakes. Hiking very high, like Kilimanjaro. Did I mention caves? The Amazon. Antarctica. Helicopters. Flying inter India and inter African flights. Plane crashes in general. Heart attacks and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and ALS. The color yellow.

Being underground. Being understood. Being buried alive. Being accused of a crime I didn’t commit. Being pushed out of a car but then caught on something and just dragged along the road for miles. 

What else? Oh right, I sneezed earlier and thought I had a mini stroke. 

So, I have to laugh at myself because otherwise, I will drive myself, and everyone around me, totally crazy. (Can I reclaim the word crazy? Please?) 

For the most part, my anxiety is generally unfounded. I’m not being chased by a damned bear, after all. Except right now… maybe I am. And I don’t have bear spray, I only have a mask and hand sanitizer and the hope that my fellow hikers believe in community over self. 

50 Stories, Week 8: Begin at the End

From a work-in-progress, The Mechanism of Injury

It was an unusually hot day in San Francisco. A freak heat wave amidst a spring of near constant rainfall. The realization that I had to do manual labor when I went inside was daunting, so I stood in the entryway between the gate and our front door feeling sweat accumulate on the back of my knees. 

I was moving out from living with my boyfriend Richard. We’d been doing the on-again, off-again dance for eight years by then and I was anxious for a new beginning. I had visualized this day for months but now that it had arrived, I stood paralyzed, not wanting to leave. I had a quick, panicked feeling, a rush of adrenaline like I’d left the iron on all day. Then I remembered that Jackson, just shy of a year old, was being cared for, and the wave of fear started to fade. Normally I’d be working the daycare co-op and get to be with him, but I had switched to work at the office that morning, so I could move in the afternoon. My life was already a constant juggling act, and here I was about to make it worse.

It was stifling inside, and I took each stair slowly to hold off breaking into a full sweat. Richard had forgotten to open the windows before he left for work. It was likely forgetfulness but he could have been passive-aggressively punishing me for leaving. 

There were half-packed boxes all over the floor. I had marked each box clearly, Kitchen, Bathroom, etc., but it turned out that I didn’t have enough belongings to fill up a box for each category. For some reason, that made me feel small, certainly not grown up enough to be moving out and breaking up our family. I grabbed the packing tape and started with the box marked Miscellaneous. It was the remnants box, filled with random possessions – a nativity set from Mexico that Richard’s Mom had given me for Christmas the previous year, an old cigar box filled with mixed tapes from the 80’s, a mini rainstick my friend Pam had given me at a Dead show in Vegas, a framed photograph of my brother Steven from 1968, and a paper flower Richard had made me for our first anniversary. He’d cut out little hearts from magazines and fashioned them into a blooming rose, which was the sweetest thing he ever did for me.

As I finished taping up boxes, I noticed the answering machine light blinking. I contemplated pushing the button because I was afraid he’d left some last minute, panicked, “Don’t leave!” message. This would also not have surprised me, given the fact that when I’d told him six weeks earlier that I wanted to move out, he asked me to marry him. It was the briefest of engagements. After a fancy dinner and a sweet proposal, I said yes, but when I woke up the next morning, I told him I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t marry him because to be the kind of role model my son deserved, I needed to stop being invested in Richard’s potential to love me and to start loving myself. I’d seen an Oprah episode recently where she spoke about how you couldn’t change your life if you didn’t change your mind. Oddly, this gave me the final push I needed. I was moving out and moving on. I decided that if I’d come this far, I was not about to unpack my boxes and give in, so I pressed play on the answering machine. 

“Chris, it’s Jeanne. I’m calling to tell you that Dad had a heart attack today. He’s dead.”

My sister said this as if she were reading the ingredients off a can of soup. Years later, I would look back on this moment as her audition for delivering “So and so is dead” news. Our family had a string of deaths before hand and a succession following, so she’s had an opportunity to hone her craft. We joked grimly that we’re like the Kennedys but without the money or power. 

I had just spoken to my father the night before, so her message seemed implausible. He had asked the usual string of questions before we got off the phone, “Do you have enough gas in your car?”, “Do you have enough money in your bank account?”, “Do you have a roll of quarters in your pocket?” This last one was from when I was a little girl and he taught me how to fight. My father grew up just outside of Boston and believed that all cities were dangerous cesspools, even San Francisco in 1999. California, to him, was where only ‘crazy people and druggies’ lived. Like there was a beacon coming from the ocean, summoning them from around the world. I assured him that yes, of course, I still kept a roll of quarters with me in the event I had to punch someone’s lights out. And then I said goodbye and hung up.

I stood over the answering machine, staring at it, waiting for it to tell me what to do next. Instead, it continued to blink and beep, relaying other messages that I couldn’t process. I didn’t feel my breath stop or my limbs give way. 

When I had a moment of cognizance, I was on the floor with my cheek pressed to the cool wood. It was a comfort from the fever of my tears. I rolled over and stared at the bedroom ceiling. It was the color of pearl, slightly opalescent, with arched corners and a small Victorian crystal light hanging from the center. I had spent countless nights staring at that ceiling, feeling as if I was suffocating. Laying next to Richard, waiting for a moment of weakness and desperation for us to be intimate. 

I pulled myself up and called my older sister Kathy who, in essence, raised me. My eight year old brother Steven had died the year before I was born, and my mother was far too busy grieving to be present for an infant. Kathy was 14 at the time and took care of me with a kindness reserved for a child’s favorite doll. 

“Hi.”

She began to speak but I couldn’t understand her through the sobbing. I hated not knowing what was going on 3,000 miles away and I had to keep reminding myself to breathe. I imagined she’d be the one who could tell me the details about what happened but that turned out to be another lesson in our family’s history of death and ambiguity. 

“Hi…this sucks so bad…fuck. He was fine. He was going to garden…”  

“Was he in the garden?” 

My father had been keeping a small garden for years – mostly tomato plants, cucumbers and peppers. It was the last vestige of his retirement dreams. He’d wanted to move up to some farmland in Canada but when the time came, my mother vetoed the idea.

“No. He went to the hardware store to exchange a sprinkler…got in his car after…leaned over the steering wheel…that’s how they found him. They tried to…”

“How is Mom?” I wondered to myself how she would sleep at night, being alone in her bed after 48 years of marriage. I had been wondering the same thing myself lately. Would I feel free, as I imagined, or terrified and alone?

“How do you think she is?! God, that’s the stupidest question, don’t you think? Everyone asks it, but it’s so fucking stupid. Sorry. Can you come home?” 

“I’ve got to check into flights, but I’ll come back tomorrow. When is the funeral?”

We exchanged a few more details before hanging up. I looked at the piles of boxes waiting to be carried to my new home. The box marked Kitchen was closest to the stairwell. I pushed it with the weight of my grief, a low moan escaping my chest as it plummeted down the stairs. It broke open like a watermelon, scattering my spatulas and wooden spoons and new beginning across the floor.

me and Dad 1992

50 Stories, Week 7: In brief, my Mom

Short, raw, off the cuff…

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This is my Mom. She was a babe back in 1950, right? She’s 88 years old now and has no big health issues (except a bad cancer diagnosis last year, which she miraculously continues to keep at bay.) She’s been a mother to five, a grandmother to ten, and a great-grandmother to six. She’s had boyfriend the last eight years who treats her very well. She’s got incredible skin – thanks to no sunbathing, smoking, or drinking booze. She was a favorite mother of all my friends in high school, allowing for late nights, sleepovers, and making us fried dough on Sunday mornings. 

She showed me the importance of friendship and community. She and my Dad were always socializing and entertaining with friends and neighbors. And watching her lose the last of these relationships as she ages has been heartbreaking. But she keeps smiling. She is fiercely independent, to the point that she’ll snap at you if you try to help her. I’ve had to remind myself that isn’t about me but fearing the loss of being able to take care of oneself. I understand now the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

When my mother spoke of getting pregnant with me, after losing my brother a few months before and already having three more at home, she would say ‘babies are a blessing.’ We didn’t have a close relationship growing up. I spent most days trying to get her attention and she spent most days, well, trying to get through the day. I know that she did the best she could but I also know that her grief didn’t allow her to be present with me – how could it have? It wasn’t until I had a son of my own that I could fully comprehend what she might have experienced. 

My biggest lessons in mothering came from watching both my sister and sister-in-law raise their babies with love and boundaries. But what I learned from my own mother is that sometimes we have to mother ourselves, heal our own wounds privately, build our own resilience – before we can be present enough to do that for others. Sometimes that takes years, or a lifetime. I’m happy to report that I found a place of forgiveness – to myself – for all the crazy attention-seeking things I did trying to get her to love me. I found compassion for us both, knowing we’re doing the best we can and then doing better when we know better. It took fifty years but I really like my Mom now, for the person that she is, not the person I wanted her to be. And I think (hope?!) she likes me too. I like hanging out with her, I like listening to her tell me what she’s been up to, and occasionally she drops a random tidbit about her childhood that I can’t wait to tell in a story one day.

So, happy mother’s day, Mom. You are loved.

50 Stories, Week 6: My virginity, a break-up, and my BFF.

Over Christmas break in 1986, I was laying on my bedroom floor, listening to New Order’s “Shellshock,” and sobbing. Heaving melodramatic sobs. The kind that prompted my sister to yell from the kitchen, “Stop being so dramatic!” I felt my tears were warranted as my boyfriend Laurent* had just informed me that he was in love with someone else. I was bereft of all hope for future love in my life.

Laurent had come into my life about a year earlier, at a Mount Saint Mary dance. I went to the one public high school in Nashua, NH but there were two private parochial high schools, Mount Saint Mary for girls and Bishop Guertin for boys. They held monthly dances and opened them to us public kids. When I was in middle school, my father made up a fight song for the Mount and marched around the house, swinging his arms and singing it at the top of his lungs. He desperately wanted me at an all-girls school because he knew I was trouble and assumed an all-girls school would put me on the straight and narrow. We could never have afforded a private education but looking back, I see that he wanted more for me than I wanted for myself. In the least, he believed that attending the Mount might have slowed my inevitable trajectory toward equating self-worth with how many boys wanted to kiss me.

I’d seen Laurent once or twice before, at my friend Lisa’s house when her older brother threw parties. I recall her saying, “Don’t bother. He’s a senior and he’s got a girlfriend.” This information did not deter me. I fell in love with Laurent before ever talking to him. He looked like a mix between Bono and Simon LeBon and Sting. Basically hot all over. At the time, I was finishing ninth grade, about to start high school, and a virgin. The tainted kind. I’d done ‘everything but’ on a dare with a neighborhood boy and couldn’t wait to have sex, preferably with Mr. Hot All Over. I wore tight cropped shirts and supremely short shorts and used Jolen creme bleach to dye my incoming mustache Debbie Harry blonde.

The night we finally connected, I’d smoked too much pot at the adjoining park earlier in the evening, so was spending the last minutes of the dance in the girls’ bathroom, still riding waves of paranoia. 

What was actually in that bag of shake we smoked? Maybe it was laced with something. 

I think the cops are going to find me and test my THC level. 

Wow, I could really use an ice cream sundae

Lisa came in to tell me that she and her brother were leaving, and asked if I needed a ride. I’m not sure what bravery pushed me out of that stall but I power walked across the gym floor, fists moving in a hip-to-nip fashion, eyes darting across the landscape of awkward teenagers. When I spotted Laurent, his smile caught me off guard so I paused, mid-walk, and felt the clammy sweat I’d been holding in my hands. He walked toward me, while I stayed paralyzed, and asked me to dance. I unclenched and we held each other as closely as teenagers could while being hawk-eyed by chaperones through the last (and best) two minutes of “Stairway to Heaven.”

We spent that entire summer making out. Everywhere. Laurent had a little gold Toyota Tercel and we would drive from my house to the church a block away, park in the lot, and rub against each other until the windows fogged and our skin burned. Eventually, though, Laurent went off to college and we attempted a long-distance love affair. With no sex. I knew I had to up my game to compete with those girls in college. I believe I referred to them as skanks at the time. So, while he was home for a long weekend in October and his parents were away, we had a party and I lost my virginity. Up until it was over, I thought we were having the most romantic evening. Laurent and I were laying on the old, brown plaid, scratchy couch in the living room, watching MTV broadcast the Police’s Synchronicity concert. A box of Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler sat on the end table, along with a pack of cigarettes and a pack of Hubba Bubba. Our other friends had gone upstairs to explore empty bedrooms, so it felt like we had the place to ourselves. When it became clear we were going to have sex, ie the dry humping became too painful and was boring a hole in Laurent’s pants, there was no conversation around protection against STDs because I assumed we were both virgins. Yet another painfully naive moment in my existence along with the actual sex, which hurt like hell but I convinced myself it was supposed to feel that way. The pleasure with the pain. Turns out Laurent was very well-endowed, which I only know now that I’ve had a very fair share of partners. When it was over, I began removing a small leather strip I’d had tied around my wrist. It was a virgin bracelet that a few of my girlfriends and I were wearing. When we popped our cherry, we were to remove the string ceremoniously and breathe a sigh of relief. But Laurent wasn’t having it. He tied it back on my wrist and told me not to tell anyone, because he was 18 and I was 15. (Damn those barbaric age of consent laws.)

We spent the next few months seeing each in his dorm room an hour away or when he was home for a weekend. And we were madly in love. I have old phone bills with hours of long distance minutes and letters saying I love you to prove it. I trusted him. He called me Pookie, for god’s sake. And held my hand in public. And told me he missed me. But apparently, he was also sharing these feel-goods, in person, with a girl at school.

She was short and mousey, and had a pseudo-punk short haircut. I’d met her a few times when I visited and didn’t think much of her. She was just a girl at my boyfriend’s college and like I mentioned, I was extremely naive. She seemed boring where I was… well, I wasn’t cool per se, but at least I wasn’t like everyone else. My new fashion sense was more like a cross between Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink and Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. I began wearing my father’s old trench coat (or his Army reserves jacket when he wasn’t home to yell at me for taking it,) white t-shirts with the neck cut out, a mini-skirt of some sort, a set of black nylons that I had ever so carefully nicked a thousand times so they would run in a somewhat random pattern, along with knock-off Doc Maartens. And black lipstick, of course. My friends, come to think of it, looked just like me, save for an occasional mohawk or bleached blond tail. We were so busy drowning our teenage sorrows with the likes of Morrissey that we didn’t care what anyone thought. That was the point, of course, not caring what anyone thinks. Don’t care, hard. But the truth was, I cared desperately. I wanted to be Siouxsie from the Banshees, Suzanne from the Bangles, and Suzanne as in Vega. I wanted to be a hot chick indie rock star as a teenager, but I was too busy wondering how to keep a boyfriend to actually open my mouth, sing a few notes, and be heard. And Laurent, well, eventually he decided it was better to be in a relationship with someone his own age, and zip code.

The night of the breakup, my best friend Sheelu came over to my house. After some niceties with my parents (who were always in love with her and would have traded us in a heartbeat,) she picked me up off the bedroom floor, dragged me to Rockit Records, and smoked Marlboro Lights with me until we were nauseous. Sheelu was the skate-Betty, Ska-Indian version of me – ripped jeans, big t-shirts, leather and chain bracelets, and a mouth on her that would make my sailor Uncle take pause. Though I’d had my heart broken and couldn’t see how I’d ever love again, Sheelu told me every truth and lie I needed to hear in that moment. That we were young, that we had enough time, that there was more love in the world, and jokingly (and uncannily prescient,) that Laurent was just one boy in a sea of men that would be my life. She knew what song to play to get us singing at the top of our lungs, what piece of juicy news to share about our friends, and always, always listened without judgement. When I think about my broken heart over the years, it’s less about the men who broke it and more about the friend who was there to help me mend it. One cigarette, and one song at a time.

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Sheelu + Me 1986

Sheelu + Me 1986 selfie

*Name has been changed to prevent any potential embarrassment

 

50 Stories, Week 5: SFPD’s Finest

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I was frightened. Ten seconds earlier, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be standing in my towel, hair dripping wet on the floor, defending myself to a couple of officers. There’s nothing quite like having San Francisco Police Department’s finest on your doorstep.

Jackson had been having a tough time falling asleep and was up late that night. We hadn’t lived in that apartment long, maybe a couple of months, so he was about three years old. He was generally a great sleeper and I would put him down without incident, but that night he resisted and wouldn’t stop wailing. I was exhausted and desperately in need of a shower, so I told him he could sleep in my bed which seemed to calm him down. I tucked him in and told him I was going to take a shower, and that he needed to close his eyes and go to sleep, pronto. Normally, I would shower after he fell asleep but it was a damp November night, I’d had another crappy day at work, and I couldn’t wait any longer. I gave him a kiss on his tangled head of curly blond hair and said goodnight. 

I had just turned off the water when the doorbell rang. I popped my head out the bathroom door and said “Just a minute!” while I put a towel around me. I was about to pull on some sweatpants when the doorbell rang again, along with an urgent knocking. I hurried down the hall to peer through the peephole and saw two policemen, immediately sending a palpable wave of fear through me. How quickly my brain worked, thinking of all the terrible news they could be delivering. My stomach started churning before a word was spoken.

“We’re here to check on a disturbance that was reported. Anonymously,” the first officer stated. I don’t remember them saying their names but I told them I had no idea what they were talking about, that I’d clearly just gotten out of the shower. 

“Do you have any children in the house?” officer number two asked.

“Yes, my son. But he’s sleeping.” My bedroom was right off the front entrance. The door was open and there was Jackson, sitting up in bed, staring at the men with guns holstered to their hips. One of the policemen turned on his flashlight and shone it into the dark room, onto Jackson’s red, tear stained face.

“Are you alright in there little guy?” asked officer number one.

Jackson just stared at them like a literal deer in headlights. I told them he was fine, that he’d just had a hard time going to sleep. They informed me that a neighbor was concerned for his safety, as he’d been “screaming and crying for 20 minutes.” Twenty minutes? I hadn’t taken a twenty minute shower in years. Although maybe I’d lost track of time in there… dreaming.

“Has there been any hitting going on tonight?” Officer number two asked this in a conversational, almost friendly tone. As if to appear like someone I’d be at ease with, and admit to hitting my son. I knew I hadn’t, but was suddenly terrified at the notion they thought I had. Once he laid out the allegations, the pit in my stomach grew to encompass my intestines and I immediately needed to use the bathroom. They were looking at me as if I’d abused my child. That look of disdain. And Jackson was too little to say anything convincing without also crying because at that point, I believe he was more afraid of the two big uniformed men at our door. 

I realized that my breath had quickened and I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. I held the knot of my towel tighter to appear that I had my composure about me, while inside my tightening stomach and twisting bowels were doing battle. I’d watched too many crime shows on television and knew that real panic in this moment wouldn’t serve me. I calmly and quietly asked, “Is there anything else?” They said something about being “better safe than sorry” and began walking to their car. 

I closed the door and ran for the bathroom, barely making it in time. Two seconds later, Jackson began to cry, and so did I.

50 Stories, Week 4: 1969, A Photograph

It is 1981, I am eleven years old and holding a photograph. It is about four by four inches square, glossy, with 1969 written along the white rim. I found it in a box of photos I’d never seen before, in a storage area of the garage I’d never combed through before. I’m doing research for a school project, to write our own autobiographies. While I think the assignment is dumb, I’m wondering how I can make my childhood sound more interesting than it is. 

In the photo, a string of Christmas cards lines the wall behind a young boy sitting on the back of a couch. He’s wearing a patterned two-piece pajama set, happily holding a Jungle Book board game. Next to him is an adolescent girl in her blue nightgown and matching robe, a barrette keeping her hair back, smiling demurely with her hands neatly folded on her lap. In front of her on the couch is a little girl of four or so, grinning widely and holding a Winnie the Pooh board game. And next to her is a teenaged boy with a sleepy smile in a green and blue plaid bathrobe. I recognize the last three children as my older sisters and brother. But I do not know the first child, which is why I am standing in front of my mother with the photograph. 

“Who is this boy, mom?”

“What boy?” she replies.

My mother is not looking at me, she is standing at the stove, stirring an enormous pot of sauce. It’s Wednesday, spaghetti night at my house, and the smell of fried peppers and onions hangs like a fog in the kitchen. When she finally looks down at the picture I am holding, I see a look on her face that first confuses and then scares me. My mother turns back to the stove and begins adding meatballs to the sauce. 

“That was Steven. He was your brother. He died.”

Then she adds, “Set the table, dinner is almost ready.”

After I silently put the plates and silverware on the table, I go back downstairs to the closet where I spend a lot of my free time. It is underneath the stairs of our split-entry house and goes back about eight feet from the door. Inside, there is a mixture of Dad’s old National Guard uniforms and Mom’s special occasion dresses hanging in plastic wrap, not likely to be worn again. Along the wall are a few more storage boxes. I look at these differently now, wondering what mysteries could be inside. I crawl beyond them, to a secret refuge where I spend my free time reading books and licking Tang off my finger, after dipping it in the jar I have stashed there. 

I turn on my flashlight to look at the picture again, this time more closely, investigating. 

That little boy is my brother. Was my brother. And my family had a life with him before they had a life with me. 

Turns out my childhood is interesting. I just didn’t know it yet.

SMKJ XMas (1)

50 Stories, Week 3: Strangers of Sacre Coeur

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I’d dreamt of visiting Paris for as long as I could remember. My grandparents were Canadian and while their French was nothing like the language I would come to know and love, I was smitten with even the idea of it. Growing up, I watched An American in Paris, Funny Face and Casablanca with my father and promptly became a francophile. I took French language courses in high school and college, studied the apparent ease of a French woman’s style, and enjoyed as many buttery flaky baked goods as I could get my hands on. 

After I finally had a job that paid a decent salary, I decided to get myself to France. The timing seemed ideal – I’d recently been through a break-up, and having a three-year-old son reminded me daily that my life was whipping by. I needed to take care of myself, I needed inspiration and adoration – even if it came from strangers in a different country.

So, on my 32nd birthday, I flew from San Francisco to Paris. By the time I checked into my chambre d’hote in Montmartre and not yet having a chance to register that I’d arrived, my jetlagged induced haze turned quickly to sleep. When I awoke, it was already dusk, the last pale pink light starting to descend on the horizon. I stood on my balcony and felt the cool air, soothing my dehydrated skin. I quickly washed my face and put on fresh clothes, determined to catch the last rays of sun from the view at Sacre Coeur. 

I began my ascent up the steps toward the basilica. I didn’t want to wimp out and take the funiculaire, at least not the first time. I felt determined that if I reached the top without stopping, I would somehow be rewarded with a more spectacular view than those around me, stopping between each step to catch their breath. Rookies.

 Even though I was getting closer, Sacre Coeur seemed like it was fading upward, and I couldn’t move fast enough to reach it. Until finally, after a turn of stairs, I found myself on the platform at the base of the church, protected by a hip-height stone ledge, and catching my breath at the view. The pinks and oranges on the horizon were like a delineation between heaven and earth, the subdued lights from buildings mirroring the flickering stars of the early night sky. 

Paris was luminous, just for me.

I didn’t go inside the basilica. I stood on that platform, taking in every person, the way they dressed, their accents and languages, their voices and laughter. Everything seemed possible and plausible. It was the perfect state of mind. 

And then my eye caught a handsome young man, half sitting on the ledge, occasionally scribbling into a notebook. He was around my age, with dark, thick, wavy hair, dark eyes, and a short but scruffy beard. He was wearing a motorcycle jacket and his helmet rested on the ledge behind him. It could have been the breathtaking quality of the light or the crisp early spring air, but whatever it was, I felt fearless. So I walked right up to him.

“Avez-vous un autre caske?,” I asked, nonchalantly.

“Pardon?” He looked up from his notebook, and smiled.

“Avez-vous un autre caske? Shit, am I saying that right?”

“Oui, yes, you are saying it right.” Oh thank god he speaks English. “But I’m confused as to why you’re asking me if I have another helmet.” Oh he speaks English and he’s got a sexy French accent.

“Well, I was actually wondering if you’d take me for a ride. Show me the sights.” I couldn’t believe I’d said that out loud. Apparently, I had left my discretion at the hotel, along with my jetlag. He smiled again. His dark eyes and long lashes were all for me.

“You don’t look like a tourist. Actually, I thought you fit right in here.” Yes. Yes, I do. 

“You could not have given me a nicer compliment.” I nervously pushed my hands deep into my coat pockets, both acknowledging the cool air and trying to keep an air of coyness about me. 

And then he DID give me a nicer compliment.

“Yes, and your French is perfect.” 

Was I about to have a Parisian affair to remember? Would he sweep me off my feet? Would we have a storybook romance? 

“What are you writing?” I asked.

“What, this? Well, it’s a musical.”

Ahhhh. He’s gay. Of course he’s gay, how many handsome, well dressed, lovely men did I know who liked musicals AND wanted to flirt with me? Zero. Though he did also have a starving-artist look about him, so I held out hope. 

“Oh. A musical. How nice.” I began to feel deflated around the same time the sun finally dipped below the horizon.

“Do I detect a note of sarcasm? It’s hard to tell with my limited English.” He smiled. Now who was being coy?

“OK, we both know you speak and understand English perfectly well. Sorry, it wasn’t sarcasm, maybe disappointment, that’s all. Anyhow, what’s the musical about?”

“Disappointment? You had expectations already? My god, we just met! Pfff, American women!”

“What is that supposed to mean, American women?! How many American women approach you and ask, in French no less, if you have another helmet so that you can take her for a ride on your motorcycle? Hmmm?!”

This time he let out a laugh and motioned for me to sit down. His teeth were funny and crooked but something I thought I might come to love. The beauty of that moment was that I was looking at this man, being free in Paris, asking for what I wanted, and receiving it. Like magic.

“The musical is unfinished and I can’t talk about it until it is, but suffice to say it’s about the love of one woman and conflict between brothers and…”

“Sounds like True West. Oh, sorry. That’s a play by…”

“Sam Shepard, yes, I know. I’m writing a musical, it’s a pretty good guess that I’d know a bit about plays, yes?” Again, that smile.

“Yes. Of course.” 

I looked away for a moment, reminding myself that I was actually in Paris. Finally, I’d made it to this place of love and passion and romance and history. The place I’d dreamed of visiting since I was a little girl. I took a slow breath and knew then that I would be hooked forever. 

“What’s your name?,” I asked.

“Guillaume. Et toi?”

“Christine. Je m’appelle Christine.”

Guillaume and I chatted for another few minutes until I could feel the jetlag setting in. He offered to take me for a ride the following evening but the whole thing suddenly felt too good to be true, so I thanked him for the conversation and went back to the hotel.

The following morning, there was an envelope under my door. Inside was a handwritten note (that I still have) from Guillaume.

If you still want to make a stroll in moto, it will be with pleasure. You can find me at the place we met yesterday evening. I’m certainly already there. If I do not see you this evening, I shall return tomorrow morning around noon. – Guillaume.

Oh Guillaume.

We met that evening and he did indeed give me a tour of Paris by motorcycle. He even showed me the secret vineyards near Montmartre. The following night we went to see a bizarre avant-garde play, the plot of which I can’t recall, only that I left feeling slightly morose and inspired at the same time. And the night after that we saw what I remember to be an incredible performance of Romeo et Juliette at the Opera house. It wasn’t a ballet per se, it was a completely new adaptation, very modern. We had drinks after at a small bar inside the Trocadero, where I felt like I was living inside my daydreams.

And then of course, it was over. We said our goodbyes. I think we both knew deep down that our time together was romantic but not intimate. Guillaume was in the middle of something with someone, and I was, too. He ended up marrying a beautiful woman a few years ago and has a little girl now, according to Facebook. Coincidentally, one of our conversations that first night was around advertising and marketing – an industry that we both found ourselves having careers in years later. 

It is strange to think of the people who come in and out of our lives – all of the what-ifs, and the might-have-beens. I saw Guillaume again briefly a year later when I returned to Paris with my son and now-ex in tow. For some reason, the language barrier was more difficult the second time around. Maybe it was because we hadn’t been practicing. Or maybe it was because the first time we met had an air of possibility, as opposed to the second time when I brought my real life along with me. 

Regardless, I’m forever grateful to Guillaume for helping me to see Paris for all that it is, and reminding me how powerful it can be to take a chance on a stranger. I only hope I can give that gift to someone in my lifetime.