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.

50 Stories, Week 2: Costa Rican Independence

Jason CR shoe wash

No one was listening when Vlad told us what to do if it started raining. My fight or flight instinct had kicked in and I ran with an urgency I hadn’t felt since I was a child being chased on the playground. Behind me, I could hear a combination of nervous laughter, cursing, and Vlad yelling instructions in his heavily accented, affable voice.

“You wan be careful in stream now. You don want tha snakes angry, ha!”

Poisonous snakes. In the water that I was running through.

The day before, when Jason had suggested we do a tour during our Costa Rican getaway, I thought it all sounded lame. I didn’t usually opt-in for tours. Our relationship was still new, though, and I didn’t want to seem like a snob, so I agreed.

Jason and I had met five months earlier on a blind date. I’d moved to NYC for a job after 20 years in California, raising my then 13-year-old son. I wanted to shake up my life, to have a fresh start. I hadn’t had a truly intimate relationship in almost ten years and I was ready to be vulnerable again. The challenge was that I’d been on my own for so long that I had a fiercely independent attitude that could come across as, well, prickly.

Jason was not who I imagined I’d fall in love with. Not because of his choice in restaurants on our first date (Dos Caminos) or what he was wearing (an oversized suit with shoulder pads, with a funny briefcase and granddad shoes.) It was the fact that he is a more conservative minded, practicing Catholic and moderate Republican, while I am a tree-hugging, hippie-liberal-spiritual Democrat. Despite those differences, we fell in love quickly and deeply. And after a few months, we were planning our first real getaway.

I was thinking somewhere in South America like Nicaragua. I’d been to Brazil and Mexico, and I wanted to show Jason that I was adventurous. I wanted him to know that I could take care of myself in a potentially crazy situation. Maybe I even wanted him to think that I was cool. Jason, however, was thinking of the well-known confines of tourist-safe Costa Rica. It seemed everyone I knew had already been there, as it was the safest of the Central American countries.

So I read up on Costa Rica and was pleasantly surprised to discover its history. According to my internet searches, Costa Rica developed independently, which resulted in an individualistic, egalitarian society. They decided their own fate. Apparently, there was even a point when the governor tended to his own farm, with his own hands! I felt this was a country I could get behind.

Jason found us a boutique resort on a cliff in Jaco. While there was a part of me that hoped to be roughing it with locals, I decided not to complain when I saw our very own infinity pool overlooking the ocean. I instinctively reached out to try and touch the ocean but was snapped back to reality by a squawking parrot. We were constantly surrounded by movement and noise… the ocean, monkeys, birds, frogs, and other critters I couldn’t identify. Yet amidst the environmental chaos, I felt a sense of calm that I hadn’t known before.

That being said, I was starting to feel a little blue about not experiencing the ‘real’ Costa Rica. We spent our time close to the resort and had all of our meals there.  I think Jason sensed my restlessness and told me about a flyer he’d seen at the concierge desk for a waterfall hike. It was a 30-minute mellow hike through the rainforest to a waterfall that you can jump into from the top. The brochure looked Disney-tame but I went along because Jason was excited to have a little adventure and I didn’t want to push him out of his comfort zone too quickly.

Our fellow tour-mates and resort-goers were four young women from the southeast U.S., sorority sisters a few years out of college, and another American, a big guy who we kindly referred to the whole time as Sad Jim. Not to his face, of course. Although, that was sad, too. Jim wasn’t sad for traveling alone or even for signing up for a tour. Jim was built for sad. We discovered only that he was from the Midwest and was single, but he didn’t say anything else for hours. He was about 6’ and 250 pounds, had short, thinning brown hair, and a few days worth of facial hair growth. What was most distinct about him was the weight of his unhappiness. That guy didn’t crack a smile. Jim’s polar opposite, our guide Vlad, had been born and raised in Costa Rica. He considered college, then began helping a family friend with his hiking/tour company. His love for all things pura vida, toothy grin, and warm personality made him a natural.

On our way to the waterfall, Vlad pulled the old Land Rover off to a dirt road lined with trees and low hanging fruit. We stopped and all hopped out. From a tree, he pulled off a piece of orange fruit that looked like a bell pepper.

 “You know nut? You like nut? E’rybody like nut! You take one.”

We all did as we were told and picked this mysterious nut fruit. Vlad took a big bite out of the fleshy fruit and everyone followed suit. I admit my anxious survival instinct prohibits me from fully embracing these types of scenarios so I only took a small bite. It was sweet and tangy.

 “Now, don touch tha thing dat look like a nut! Shape like a nut, on top. Watch. I do it first.”

He proceeded to rip off the stem of the fruit, rub it on his arm, and then peel it open to expose a cashew that he dropped into his mouth. A few seconds later, we all watched as Vlad’s arm developed a hive the circumference of the fruit itself. 

“Urushiol oil! Madre Naturaleza made cashew fruit like so – poison ‘round nut, grey, no good to eat! Orange flesh, a-ok!”

He calmly walked to the truck and got out some Costa Rican version of calamine lotion, dabbed it on his arm, and hollered at us to “Vamanos!” Jason stared at him like he was crazy, and possibly his new hero.

We drove south another 20 minutes or so on the single-lane paved highway, then pulled off on a bumpy red dirt road. We must have stayed on that, driving through farmland and low jungle, for another 15 minutes until we turned off at a tiny waterfall sign that could easily be missed. A few minutes further down a narrow road, passing a shack here and there, I began to ask Vlad why the dirt was so red. But as soon as he turned off the engine, he hopped out enthusiastically and told us to “Vamanos!” again.

It was a hot, sweaty 30-minute hike. Vlad said we were taking the long way, through farmland and forest, to avoid walking through the streams that ran parallel to us. Didn’t make much sense to me, since the water would have cooled us off, but he was the boss.

Once we arrived, I realized that the brochure did not do this waterfall justice. Jumping off into the pool meant climbing up a 25 foot rocky cliff.

“Oh, when you jump in, swim, kick your feet ‘round because tha fish, dey bite.”

Conveniently, I’d been blessed with my period that morning, so the idea of plunging rapidly into a pool of water with biting fish didn’t sound appealing. I was hot, crampy, and now that we were in the jungle, slightly nervous. 

Jason, however, joined the ladies in climbing to the top. It required hoisting themselves on a branch that acted like a bridge across the pool. Once on the other side, they began the climb by using the roots on the ground as ropes. The options were jump off the waterfall into the pool or slide down a cascade of rocks into the pool. Jason did both with enthusiasm, which left me surprised, and strangely proud of him. So cautious in his day to day, and then, there he was, jumping into a waterfall with a bunch of strangers, while Sad Jim and I took turns standing in the shade.

And then it came. It was violent and sudden and loud. Puddles enveloped my feet in seconds. If I think back now, I recall Vlad saying something about how it felt like it might rain, how we might have to cut our trip short, and then maybe something important about what to do in such a scenario. At the time, however, my instinct was to get out, pronto. 

As soon as I heard Vlad say we needed to move quickly, I was first in line and took off through the jungle, a steady run in the direction of the car. About twenty feet in, I looked down and saw that I had a passenger on my leg – one of the green and blue poisonous frogs we’d read about. I shook my leg like a mad woman and made a mental note not to touch that spot before taking a shower.

I heard Jason behind me, telling me to wait up, but I had a good clip going. My self-preservation was strong. And then I heard what sounded like cracking baseball bats that was actually breaking bamboo falling from the sky. I turned around in time to see a branch land on Jason’s forehead. I felt a wave of conflict within me – do I go back and check on him or keep high-tailing it for the car? I kept thinking of the airline safety videos where they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first. I looked back again and saw that the hollow bamboo only left a small scratch so I felt ok moving on. But I paused long enough to hear Vlad say something about not pissing off the snakes at which point I jumped into the twisted branches running alongside the rising stream.

When we got back to the Rover, we all jumped inside quickly as we were soaked to the bone. When Vlad stepped on the gas, the engine revved but we stood still. Apparently, Costa Rica’s red dirt turns to red clay when it’s raining and the Rover, well, she wasn’t going anywhere.

Vlad instructed us all to get out, gather the ropes in the trunk and help him tie them to a neighboring tree. We’d use the winch to pull while we pushed from behind. Vlad, Jason, the four girls, and I were all ready to push when we realized that Sad Jim hadn’t moved from his seat. We asked him if he was getting out to help and he just looked at us blankly before turning his head and casting his eyes down. The rain poured, a new bucket of water dropping directly on our heads every second. Irritation mounting, I leaned into the back seat next to Jim and asked him what he was doing. He looked at me and I could see that Jim had no intention, no ability to force himself out of his comfort zone. His idea of self-preservation was to stay in the car and let others bring him to safety. He was both motivated and crippled by his own fear. So we shared his weight and began pushing. After a few minutes of getting sprayed by chunks of red mud, the Rover began to move forward and Vlad directed her slightly off-road toward brush. We all hopped back in and kept quiet until Vlad pulled over in front of what looked like someone’s carport. 

“And now, we drink!” 

It was a bar owned by a nice lady named Priscilla, who graciously let us use her hose to spray off our coats of clay. We sat down with our bottles of Imperial and started to recount the day’s events, reimagining bits and pieces for dramatic effect, though the day certainly didn’t need any. Even Jim, who finally felt safe back in civilization, let himself smile at our survival tales.

I have a video from that day of Jason washing off his sneakers, recounting the falling bamboo incident, deliriously happy. He thanked me, then Vlad, then everyone. I decided right then that I would marry him. I didn’t need to prove anything to Jason. He didn’t need me to depend on him, he only wanted to be my witness, my partner, my equal. He wanted to run with me through the jungle, to get unstuck from the mud together. I realized that Jason had seen my independence and my fear, and still said OK, do what you have to do, I’m not going anywhere

And he hasn’t yet.