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 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