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 1: A Fistful

Today is my 50th birthday. Many people reach this age and start thinking about their bucket-list. A sense of urgency creeps in with the realization that there are only so many vacations left, books to read, friendships to make, and adventures to have before it’s all over.

I’ve decided to share my reverse bucket-list, or things I’ve done. I’ll do so by way of stories but also a few ramblings. Maybe I’ll also write a poem or sing a song, who knows? Some will be polished and some will be off the cuff. I hope you forgive the format and enjoy the content. 

Every Sunday, for the next fifty (50) weeks, I’ll do my best and aim to get better as I go along.

My first story, A Fistful, goes like this…

When I was 12 years old, my father taught me how to throw a punch with a roll of quarters. We were living in suburban southern New Hampshire, on a cul-de-sac with a dozen families. The neighborhood kids all played together – games of hide-and-go-seek and tag, ice skating on the small creek behind the houses, riding bikes up and down the street all summer long, and also: football. While I played the game every weekend on my next-door neighbor’s lawn, the only thing I have ever known about football is that you want your team to have the ball, and you want to run as fast as you can to the other side of the field. Period. This wasn’t the NFL, it was basic neighborhood tackle football.

One Sunday afternoon, I’m heading out to play and I see all the boys already in a huddle. I run over to get in but they’re tight and laughing while one of them is telling a story. Turns out Tommy Nicholson heard from Eddie Sullivan* that I was ‘easy.’ For a brief moment, I thought this had something to do with the game but then he went on to say that Eddie had ‘felt me up’ and that I was ‘looking for it’ so any of the boys could ‘do it’ with me. My cheeks started to flush and I felt a weird pit in my stomach. I didn’t understand what this all meant but clearly, they must have, because they kept laughing when they turned and saw me there. I ran home with shameful tears and told my Dad what happened. He didn’t say a word but immediately put out his cigarette, put his shoes on, and walked out the front door. I realized too late that he was going to have a word with the boys, so I stood by the living room window and watched, holding my breath and feeling the urge to pee. When he came back inside, he walked toward his bedroom and yelled for me to meet him on the back porch. I thought he was angry at me because I wasn’t always an easy kid. I was super curious and that generally meant trouble. But when he came out with a roll of quarters in his hand, I was just confused. 

“Ok, pretend to hit me,” he said.

“Um, why?” I asked.

“Just throw a punch at me!”

So I did. He caught my fist mid-air and said “Good, now try it with this,” and handed me the quarters. My hand wasn’t big enough to conceal the full roll but I knew instinctively that I could deliver more hurt with this in my swing. 

“You have to protect yourself now. Understand?” 

I nodded. 

“Ok, try again.”

The added weight gave me confidence and I swung hard. He stepped back to miss me but my knuckles skimmed his beer belly and he let out a yelp. (This wasn’t the first time I’d accidentally hurt my Dad – when I was about four years old, I jumped up to kiss him goodnight and broke his nose. But that’s a story for another day.) Then he smiled and left me to go inside and light up a cigarette. 

The real problem with Eddie Sullivan spreading rumors about me was that my mother was friends with Eddie’s mom. She was a real scary lady who was in a perpetual state of sweating, and carried a tall glass of iced tea everywhere she went. They lived across the street from my best friend Laura, and Eddie was a few years older than us. While I thought it was cool that my Dad taught me that secret punch, I knew that I wasn’t going to be carrying around a roll of quarters all the time. So, later that week, when my friend Laura and I were sitting on her front lawn and Eddie was in his driveway greasing his bicycle chain, we had an idea.

“Hey Eddie,” we yelled. “Wanna see something?” We giggled and lifted up our shirts, just past our belly buttons. He looked at us with that pubescent boy face – awkward and excited – and put down his WD-40. 

“Lemme see again!” he hollered. So I took the bottom of my t-shirt and twisted it up to tuck between my non-existent breasts. Laura and I stood up and did a little dance. 

“Why don’t you come a little closer, Eddie?” I asked, more quietly. He crossed the street and approached us. Laura whispered in my ear, then disappeared inside. 

We stood there for a moment, Eddie and I. He wasn’t a bad looking guy, blond, kind of freckly.

“Come on, you gonna show me some more?” he asked while taking a step closer. 

“Maybe…” I put my hands on his shoulders. 

Then with all the might of a 12-year-old girl done wrong, I kneed him in the balls. He fell over instantly, crying and writhing. I’d never intentionally inflicted pain on someone and I felt awful, of course, but oddly satisfied at the same time. I wish Eddie was the last guy who ever said or did an unkind thing to me, but he was just the beginning. So I’m grateful my Dad taught me to protect myself, because no one else could – even if he wanted to.

After Eddie crawled his way home, his mother called my mother and there were words. I’m not sure what they consisted of but you can bet your ass I kept playing football after that (until I got boobs and then it was all over.) 

*names have been changed to protect the ego