How to turn in an assignment for your writing class

(Or, how technology has improved our lives.)

  1. Write the damn story.
  2. Revise it.
  3. Save it.
  4. Keep in mind that you can’t print your story the night before on account of you aren’t even living in your own home any more and you got rid of your printer a year ago, anyway. So…make a plan to print it at work tomorrow.
  5. To that end, try to email it to yourself the night before, then remember that you didn’t bother to get the wi-fi password for your friends’ house before they passed out for the night.
  6. The day it’s due, bring your laptop to work. Try to connect to the office wi-fi before you realize that you don’t know that password either and the IT guy is out for the day.
  7. Choose a place to eat lunch based on its wi-fi capabilities. Haul your laptop with you to use while you hork a veggie burger and a cinnamon roll.
  8. Spend most of your lunch determining that the restaurant’s wi-fi is out. At least after all that troubleshooting, you’re able to determine that it’s not you; it’s them. (Fun forshadowing: this won’t be your last time troubleshooting technology today.)
  9. Pack up and re-navigate to somewhere, anywhere with wi-fi. (Heeeey Barnes and Noble!) Try not to let the sensation of your life spiraling so far out of your control that even something simple like printing three pieces of paper has become so taxing. You have no printer, no home of your own at the moment, and no viable source of internet; you are basically a hobo with a laptop and a day job.
  10. Pay for parking. Again.
  11. Success! Wi-fi! Email that thing you wrote to yourself at work.
  12. Return to work. Check your email.
  13. Panic because the email does not appear in your inbox.
  14. Check your spam folder.
  15. (Learn how to check your spam folder.)
  16. Open the document and hit print.
  17. Freak out at the error message your computer sends you.
  18. Stomp over to the printer. Ask it what is wrong. Allow printer to reply, “Ready.” Mother. Fucker.
  19. Spend forty goddamned minutes futzing with the printer, turning it off and on, trying to troubleshoot the problem.
  20. Ask a coworker if there are any other printers in the office.
  21. No.
  22. Remember that the IT guy is out today.
  23. Look up printing services at Staples. They can have it ready by Thursday, which is only three days too late.
  24. Find out about rush services; they are exorbitantly expensive. Maybe show up and hope for the best?
  25. Email the story to yourself (at every email address you possess, because at this point, frankly, you’re a little paranoid).
  26. Drive to Staples after work. Find the self-service copy and print section in the store. Read the detailed sign to learn that it costs only 30 cents per minute to access a computer, and 49 cents a page to print the damn thing.
  27. But first, you need a special Staples card, preloaded with money. That’s cool. There should be no problem at all because technology is your best fucking friend today.
  28. Go to the special Staples card machine.
  29. Ask the machine to spit out a card.
  30. Feed the card back to the machine and load it with cash. (Why can’t you just load the card before the machine spits it out? Because fuck you, that’s why.) Anyway…two dollars ought to do it, right?
  31. Log onto the computer. Carefully review the terms and agreement, except maybe don’t because that’s a long-ass agreement and time is money. Come to think of it, just scroll to the end and mash the button for “I agree.”
  32. Fire up the internet browser. The connection feels slow; surely that’s not intentional.
  33. Click OK to ignore that pop up box telling you that your time is running low. Don’t dwell on what a wasteful distraction that is in a game where every second counts.
  34. Download the file you sent yourself and open it.
  35. “You are running low on time. Click OK to continue.” FUCK YOU!!
  36. Click Print. Try not to murder someone when yet another pop-up box informs you that your card is ten cents shy for meeting the printing charges. It has everything to do with a thoughtfully constructed system of pop-up distractors and a slow internet connection, and nothing to do with the nice lady minding her business, making copies at the machine next to you. Murder, bad.
  37. Put your session on hold to load more money on the card.
  38. Return to the card machine, but be careful not to trip over that giant cart someone parked directly behind your chair.
  39. Load more money onto the card. (Now we’re up to three dollars. That’s a dollar per page, so there’s that.) Return to the computer and log back into the system. Hit print as fast as you can.
  40. “You are running low on time. Click OK to continue.” How are these machines still here and not, say, thrown out the window onto the sidewalk where it breaks into a million tiny little pieces that are then crunched underneath the feet of future customers of the Staples Print and Copy Center?
  41. PRINT, MOTHERFUCKER, PRINT.
  42. Maybe calm down a little and check the printer. The machine whisper-printed your pages, though you’re not sure it’s happened until you hear the angels sing and you begin to well up with tears.
  43. Log off this bullshit machine and try to pick up the pieces of your life.
  44. Investigate the stapler on the big empty table in the middle of the room. (This store is so thoughtful.) Except the damn thing is out of staples. Where are we, again?
  45. Obtain spare staples.
  46. Search stapler for method of reloading. Has stapler technology really changed this much over the years? How old are we?
  47. Finally locate loading mechanism. Load new staples.
  48. Staple the shit out of those three pages.
  49. Race to your class because after all that shit, you’re running late.
  50. Turn in your assignment. Try not to refer to it as “my precious.”

Total time to write: Two or three hours

Total time to print: Two or three hours

Advertisements

Grief Schizophrenia

I sit on the floor of my closet, sifting through a decade’s worth of souvenirs from my failed marriage. I sunder precious memories from the chaff as quickly and efficiently as I can, placing them carefully in a pretty wooden box. To stop is to dwell, is to sink in the swamp of sadness.

Someday, when my life isn’t blowing up around me, when I’m not so fucking fragile, I’ll open Pandora’s box of nostalgia and pain and examine each relic inside.

—Wedding vows, printed on 5×7 paper and assembled in a small binder.

—Cards from flowers Husband sent me, because it was a Wednesday and he felt like it, not because it was Valentine’s Day and he was obligated.

—The shoes I wore on one of our first dates, shoes that strolled down the street as I reached out, tucking my arm in the crook of his elbow. Everything changed on that date.

Tears well in my eyes. (Quickly, into the box with you, shoes.)

—A picture of us from that first heady year, both lighter in body and spirit, yet to be burdened or crushed under life’s weight.

—A love note, typed, printed, and signed. A note professing love so monumental and fierce that when I received it my heart swelled, pained and pushing against the cage of my chest. The culmination of the note is nothing more or less than one soaring, devastating declaration.

You are all I need.

A note now and forever sullied with the pain of hindsight. The sentiment rings through our past with its sincerity and pulses now with its falsehood. Remembering we once felt this way almost breaks me again. I’m choked by the everything and the nothing between us now.

You are all I need.

Of course this is the moment Husband walks into the bedroom, intruding on my memories. He doesn’t notice my tears, my hunched shoulders, my shaking hand holding the printed note. Instead, he talks (and talks and talks) over the details of the separate lives we are now building. True to form, he has so very many words and I shrink away from them all.

I am having a fucking moment here and he can’t shut up long enough to allow me to experience it. I push the note into the box and throb with anger and frustration. Even now, when all the dust hangs between us and there’s nothing left to settle, I can’t have this. I can’t get what I need.

You are all I need.

How strange, to have so many disparate feelings coexisting within this battered heart. I am astonished at my capacity for it all. It’s a marvel that I’m still standing amidst the conflicting feelings—all swirling, biting, attacking.

Love and loss and anger, all vying for the spotlight. I long for him and want to push him away.

I am devastated, the remnants of our love story mocking me at every turn. What fools, our past selves—beautiful fools full of passion and devotion. The sheer scale of loss overwhelms me.

I am heartbroken, I am feeble.

I am grief so profound death is its only comparison.

I am full of anger that leaves my muscles sore, anger that ignites and burns its way out of me like nuclear missiles, seeking targets for destruction. All the words and choices and slights of our marriage play over in a loop in my mind.

I’m pressing on, like a damn soldier.

I am hope—the future is a blank slate, a great adventure, wide-open and free, waiting to be explored.

I am fear—the future is an endless, unknown void. The comfort of our couplehood disintegrated in front of me, taking with it a chink of my identity.

I am strong. The power in making a decision for myself, without consulting Husband, zings through my veins.

I am scared.

I am brave.

I am all of these and I am none of these.

Emotions saturate me like a washcloth, until the fibers hold no more and everything drips, drips, drips. I am bursting, my feelings wrung out, pouring down the drain.

I’m empty, void.

Love finds me again, hesitant and bright, pouring from friends and family, felt all the more keenly in the tangle of darkness. Fierce joy wells up within me and suddenly, I’m full.

Marilyn

I step inside the Great Clips. Already, I feel uneasy, but I’m in a hurry and it’s cheap and fast.

It’s the Wild West of hair salons—a first-come, first-served circus, and the ringmaster doesn’t ask my name.

I sit, already tallying the minutes until my next engagement, the time it’ll take me to get there, and the seconds that are ticking by while I wait my turn. My eyes dart around, then look at the magazine in my lap without reading a word.

The ringmaster is barely holding the acts of this show together. I just know I’m going to fall through the cracks. How long will you stay before you give up on this shitshow? I ask myself.

An older woman sits next to me to wait. She has silver hair, a wizened face, and a strong voice that quivers only slightly as she strikes up conversation.

Her name is Marilyn. She is 82 years old.

We’re both holding magazines, but as the conversation grows in purpose and intensity, they begin to feel like props. We discuss acts of kindness, ones that ripple out, reaching far beyond the initial recipient. Like when a woman sees a girl get sick all over her cream-colored winter coat on a bus in downtown Chicago and takes her to Marshall Fields, freshening up the girl and getting the coat cleaned. This kindness radiates out through time and space, from that little girl in 1945 to the woman sitting in front of me, and out into the lives of countless others whom Marilyn touched, all the while remembering the simple lesson she learned on that bus.

As Marilyn talks, the follicles on my head start to tingle and tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.

I tell her a similar story, of a young foreigner lost in the labyrinth of a Tokyo train station. That girl learned a similar lesson of kindness when a stranger abandoned the train home to walk her to the correct platform.

As our back-and-forth continues, my shoulders come down from their perch by my ears.

Marilyn listens when I talk, waiting until my thoughts are completed before wading in with her own. I feel brash and foolish when I interrupt her. In fact, I’m a little shocked to realize I’ve picked up the habit. With others, it sometimes feels like the only way to get a word in edgewise, but Marilyn brings her thoughts to a close, ties them in a bow, and gives me time to open her gift before responding.

Marilyn speaks slowly, deliberately. Every word is filled with meaning and intent. She’s in no hurry to shove her thoughts into my brain. Conversation is a journey, not a destination, and she’s savoring every step.

I learn that I have a shocking amount of ways to fill time with sentences that mean nothing—filler nonsense offering neither insight nor opinion, story or original thought. I choose my words more carefully, slow down my speech, bring my thoughts to a close. Marilyn is listening to it all, so it all is important; each word carries the weight of her attention.

I think of Buddhists and the practice of right speech—more complex than the “Thou shalt not lie” edict—demanding nothing more or less than speaking with intention and mindfulness. Marilyn not only practices right speech, she practices right listening, allowing for purposeful silence and asking insightful questions. Talking to her brings out the best in me as I speak thoughtfully and listen with precision.

Too soon, the ringmaster gestures to me with her pair of scissors; it’s my turn. I walk toward her, but  look back at Marilyn. Time’s finally sped up, catching the two people suspended without its usual, merciless hold.

I get the worst haircut since the eighth grade, but my shoulders remain loose. Remarkably, I feel good.

On my way out of the salon, I stop Marilyn and thank her for the chat. I feel awkward, clumsy, stilted. After all that we exchanged, I don’t know the words to express exactly what’s changed in me, how the world feels like a different place.

Maybe there’s no need for words. Maybe, for all her listening, Marilyn already understands.

Horoscope

Cancer (June 22—July 22)

The moon dominates your week—a glowing red super-signal in the sky, drawing others to you and your pain. You are a raw wound, walking the world frayed and fragile. I could say that it won’t always be this way, but who knows? The future isn’t written in the stars.

I would like to say that the darkness filling you up, overflowing at inconvenient and uncomfortable times—yeah, that darkness—will subside. But, Cancer, as you already suspect, it will always be part of you.

Just remember that the darkness can be beautiful, like a panther, so black it shines in the night. Only in the absolute dark, can the tiniest sliver of light blind you. Your raw, overworked nerves are sensitive to love and beauty, also.

The smallest act of kindness can break your heart.

Saltastrophe: The Saltening

Here’s what it’s like when I make dinner.

Day 1. Plan that shit in advance.

I have a lot of butternut squash. I like tacos. What if I put those things together? Look! Someone already has. I can work with this. I mean, obviously we’re going to change a few things (ahem, refried beans, ahem).

Read the recipe and make a grocery list; basically, plan the hell out of it.

Day 2. Go to the grocery store.

I attempt to buy 20 medium shallots, because pickled shallots. Mariano’s has three in a baggie for three dollars. I do some quick math and refuse to pay $20 for shallots, but buy everything else on the list.

Day 3. Try another store.

The produce market has a small bag of the largest shallots you’ve ever seen. That one there? I suspect it of independent thought. There are only seven or eight shallots in this mesh bag, but there is nothing medium about them.

The Shallot that took down Tokyo.

The shallot that took down Tokyo.

This brings up a lot of tough questions:

  • What is medium?
  • How many medium shallots could fit in one of these Mac Daddy shallots?
  • What’s size, anyway, but an arbitrary concept?
  • Are we all not a medium shallot?
  • Why are we even here?

I reason that one of these giant shallots is at least two medium shallots. Really, seven or eight of these should be plenty, but I buy two bags. To be safe.

Now I have all the ingredients to make dinner, but I don’t make it home until 7:30 and I’m already starving. Pizza naan for dinner.

Day 4. Make the fucking dinner or give up on life.

Step 1. Pickle up some shallots.

Of course, the recipe doesn’t acknowledge this as a separate step. It’s all, Oh hey, you know those pickled shallots that you keep around the place, because who wouldn’t? No? Wow. Okay…you could start making them now. That’s cool, I guess.

Step 1a. Slice all the shallots.

The recipe doesn’t tell me to do this, but who are they kidding? I’m not going to put one of these bad boys all whole onto one of my tacos.

All I can smell is shallots. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t crying over a stinking pile of veg. The world has shrunk to me: the cutting board, my Japanese knife, and these shallots. I’m a shallot-slicing factory. Slice, snip, peel peel, slice slice slice slice slice. Rinse, repeat.

shallots

All I have and all I am are these shallots.

I’ve made it through one bag of shallots and that’s quite enough. There’s no way I’m eating all of these, anyway.

Step 1b. Prep the pickling solution (ie, dump shit into a pot and boil.)

I still haven’t technically begun with the first step in the recipe.

Behold, the glory.

Behold, the glory.

Looks like I’ll need a teaspoon of salt. Wait a damn minute! I have a new device just for this. In fact, I have it calibrated to dispense exactly one teaspoon of kosher salt, specifically because it’s such a common measurement.

Ruh-roh. Some of the salt is stuck. The container just needs a shake to loosen it up.

The lid wasn’t so secure, after all. It’s like a volcano of salt erupting over my stove.

Mount St. Sodium.

Salt. Is. Everywhere. It’s covering my stove top, the counter, the floor. It’s stuck to the fossilized grease on the front of the range, in the crook of the handle to the oven door.

I scratch my head. There’s salt in my hair.

I grab a paper towel and attempt to swipe salt off the range; it just embeds further under the burner grates. I wipe down the counter and salt finds the fissure between the stove and the cabinet. Whatever tiny kingdom lives at the bottom of this canyon will never grow anything again.

Looks like it’s a good thing I still haven’t returned my friends’ baby vacuum.

The dog comes in to investigate. I fire up the vacuum, and she breaks a speedy retreat in reverse.

There. I’ve made the salt my bitch. I leave the vacuum on the kitchen floor because, really, I have important things to finish. Bitches gotta bounce.

I still need to add salt.

See? Timesaver.

See? Time-saver.

shallots picklingThe mixture boils. I add the shallots.

They can simmer while I work out the tacos. Speaking of…

Step 2. I’m an hour in at this point, and just reached what the recipe considers Step 1. Fuck  you, Food Network!

Time to reclaim my kitchen cool.

I don’t spend my time peeling a butternut squash and dicing it. I pull out some pre-peeled, pre-cubed squash from my freezer.

Suck on that, squash.

I roll the black beans in the skillet with the browned squash and aromatic spices.

I add the Serrano peppers to mellow the flavor and add a hint of smokiness.

squashnbeans

Yep. That’s cast iron. Come at me.

Time to assemble the tacos!

Like a good girl, I’ve mise en place’d the fuck out of this shit. Cilantro plucked from its stems, washed and drained? Check. Chihuahua cheese instead of cream? Check.

Pickled shallots?

friends

Tortillas hot from a dry skillet? Check.

I layer the ingredients in tacos like a boss.

butternut squash tacos

See that blinding light emanating from flour tortillas under the light of my flash? This is how my skin looks in the sun.

I am a genius. And it only took an hour and a half, plus a vacuum.

Nahm nahm, motherfuckers.

Call Her Margaret

This is not going to be one of those stories. You know, where I explain my love of cooking with misty memories of my mom and grandma in the kitchen. That’s not my family. I didn’t learn food in the kitchens of my childhood; I learned guilt and shame, like a good Catholic.

I.  At seven, in my mother’s kitchen, I learned not to call my mom’s mother Grandma.

I was returning from backyard exile, flushed and sweaty from the July heat. I gave the woman a warm (and sweaty) hug. “Hi Grandma!”

She sucked air in through her teeth—a hiss like a snake, or the shocked sibilant of a vampire doused in holy water. “Grandma is for someone…” She paused. …warm? …inviting? …loving? She failed to finish her sentence, starting a new one instead. “You call me Grand Mother or nothing at all, you understand?”

I looked at my mom, wondering if it was too soon to retire to my bedroom with a book. Come to think of it, Mom looked like she could use a dose of Beverly Cleary, herself.

II. Every Thanksgiving I learned that, no matter what someone makes for you, you have to eat it.

Grand Mother’s signature dish—Jello salad—graced Mom’s table every year. It was neither Jello nor salad, but shredded carrots suspended in a sea of orange gelatinous goo. I retain only a whisper of memory when I was taught to suck it up and deal with how awful this food abomination was. I do recall, with startling detail, dutifully scooping orange jiggly carrots onto my plate and eating every bite.

III. At six or seven, I learned that you can do the wrong thing without even knowing it was wrong.

I was sitting at Grand Mother’s kitchen table, eating the sandwich she made me. She was standing several feet away when she bent over and looked under my chair to make sure that my Mary Janes did not touch the wooden spindles of her chair legs. Mary Janes have buckles, and buckles spell disaster for wooden chairs.

IV. At nine or ten, I learned that cheese makes you fat.

I stayed the night at Grand Mother’s house—an occasion that my mom forced on us both. Saturday morning, I sat in my pajamas at the kitchen table, slathering my bagel with cream cheese. Grand Mother watched me shrewdly. “You really like cream cheese, don’t you?” She drew out the word really until it was almost a song.

Later that morning, I dressed in my pale pink skirt set for the wedding we were attending. I emerged from the spare bedroom, nervous without knowing why. Grand Mother beckoned me over, turned me around. “You can certainly see where all the cream cheese is going, can’t you?”

V. At twelve, I learned to call things by their proper name.

It was Easter dinner at Grand Mother’s house. I had already learned the importance of being polite at the table; Grand Mother’s family had a lot of rules, like which direction to pass food and which fork to use to eat your salad. Of course there was a ritual for asking someone to pass you a dish.

Accordingly, I waited for an opening in the conversation before politely asking my cousin, “Laura, can you please pass the butter?”

“There’s no butter at this table,” snapped Grand Mother.

Terrified and confused, I looked to my mother. She smiled tenderly, sadly. “She means margarine,” Mom said, to me or to Grand Mother, I’m not sure.

“Well,” Grand Mother huffed. “Margarine and butter are not the same.”

I certainly knew the difference between the two, but in our house, you treated yourself to butter on a fucking holiday. Everyone understood my polite request, anyway, since the margarine was already en route when Grand Mother brought the snark.

If using the wrong fork or asking for the wrong spreadable fat was such bad form, how was it appropriate to make a twelve-year-old feel like shit at the dining table? Such was etiquette, in our family at least: a set of complicated rules wielded as power. Somehow, for Grand Mother, etiquette never extended to the good treatment of others. It only encompassed an invisible, ever-shifting set of rules she used to make everyone else feel inferior.

VI. At seventeen, I learned about rebellion and smarts.

I returned home, carrying the soda my brothers requested. Everyone was in the kitchen, setting the table. My quest had taken me to the grocery store in town; I hadn’t thought to check the newly constructed Walgreens on the corner.

Grand Mother, of course, had something to say. “Anyone with smarts would have checked Walgreens first.”

The woman passed out her insults with passive aggressive panache. It certainly wouldn’t bother her to call me stupid, but she never would do so in front of my family. Even if she did, probably nobody would do anything. It isn’t good etiquette to form a mob and hunt down your Grand Mother. With pitchforks. And shovels.

Good etiquette would have me tuck my tail apologetically and live a long, timid life without striving for greatness, in or out of the kitchen. But that’s not what I did.

I stood tall and looked her in the eyes. “What are you saying, Grand Mother, that I’m stupid?” Everyone in the room knew the complete opposite; she and I both knew she couldn’t say those direct words here.

For the first time, I had silenced my Grand Mother.

VII. Almost twenty years later, Thanksgivings in my home are full of friends and love.

Every dish is a tiny rebellion—brined turkey, gorgeous roasted vegetables, rolls made from scratch, and pies that make you give thanks.

We don’t serve judgment or Jello salad.

There is butter, made from goat’s milk. You just don’t have to ask for it by name.

Don’t Know Love

The barbecue is in full swing; hands delve into coolers for beer, fruity wine, Lime-a-Ritas. This cooler squawks as its lid is raised; the Styrofoam one makes a painful, teeth-sweat inducing squee as its lid fits tightly back in place. No one even realizes their bellies are empty as the booze loosens lips and love is passed around like a joint at a rave.

“I love you, Uncle Matt,” says my niece, full of alcohol and the kind of promise and hope that follow a graduation.

“Oh kid,” my brother slurs. “You don’t know love until you have kids.”

What did you say?” I ask. For clarification, hoping that I heard wrong.

“I said, ‘you don’t know love until you have kids.’”

Only now, after he’s said it twice, does he look sheepish.

I say nothing. I stare at my older brother, whom I thought I loved. But I’m nobody’s mother; I can’t know what love is. He begins a long, histrionic apology that fails to demonstrate any understanding of why my feelings are hurt. I know I will have the words to explain later, but now all I can do is walk away.

His words echo in my brain, repeating in a loop. You don’t know love. You don’t know love.

He said this to me, who has always held love for him and from him as a given, a solid point in a constantly shifting landscape of confusing family dynamics. All the feeling he has for me, all that I have for him—that’s not love? He said it to my niece, for whom life is just starting—an eighteen-year-old beauty who chose a college close to home because of her little brother. My niece, who just told her uncle that she loves him, doesn’t know love?

You don’t know love. The words tripped off his tongue like the truest thing he knows, telling a young woman that life isn’t complete, she isn’t complete, until she has kids. She will be bombarded with that message the rest of her life; she has countless years ahead for people to pass judgment on what she wears, how much she makes, when and whom she marries, the kids she has, and how she raises them. She’ll learn soon enough the difference between choosing what’s right for her and choosing what’s right and proper as a woman.

There will always be the voices of those saying that her choices aren’t enough, that she isn’t enough. Her life, accomplishments, generosity of spirit, feelings, and her body matter only in the context of the children she does or does not have. She doesn’t need her uncle, who’s supposed to have her back, to be one of those voices.

You don’t know love. I try to look at this sentence through the prism of my brother’s life. For him, becoming a parent was huge and transformative, an event that ushered into his life a different kind of meaning, purpose, and yes, love. Yet, his words pass judgment on love. There may be different kinds, but the only love that matters is the kind a parent has for a child. We can’t even acknowledge those other types as real love.

Other types of love, like the kind I have for my husband, my family, my friends—all people who know that I would do anything for them. With one flippant sentence, my brother has invalidated all that love, relegating every relationship in my life, and my niece’s life, to a pale, shallow imitation of what he knows.

My sister-in-law tells me not to take it personally; he didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. I know he meant what he said; saying it to me was the real accident. Now I’ll always know that my brother looks down on my life as less consequential than his—my love less full, less meaningful . . . less important.

His voice has joined the chorus of judgment hailing down on me, on every woman. A hundred years after suffrage; fifty years after birth control, The Feminist Mystique, and equal pay—women’s life choices are still being prescribed for them. I’ve had years to learn the chorus’s sexist lyrics, but this might be my niece’s first verse of the outdated song. I’d hoped for her, for women of future generations, that the song would fade out and be forgotten.

Then again, what do I know? I don’t know love.

Cookie Monster

Every year, as part of my fundraising efforts for the ACS, I bribe friends and family with a box of homemade cookies to make a donation.

The cookie-making process has gotten more involved and rigorous with each passing year. I make a cool dozen or more batches of cookies and candy. The selection is varied, and the cookies are bundled in separate treat bags and assembled in boxes.

Behold, the glory.

Behold, the glory.

Last year, I made an extra box for someone who wasn’t expecting it. “Next time I see him,” I thought, “I’ll bring him the box.”

Weeks went by. Months.

Then one night, in a fit of desperation and insomnia, I pulled the box out of the freezer.

“I’ll just have one of these bags. No one will know.”

One bag turned into three, turned into ten, turned into the whole box.

There, in the darkness of my living room, illuminated only by the flickering light of the television, I beheld the carnage. The casualties? Empty cellophane bags, a spray of crumbs, and some tissue paper.

I could throw away all of that and tuck the box away with my wrapping supplies. No one would know.

Except that the empty spot on the freezer shelf was sure to rat me out. Husband knew the box was there; he kept asking about it when we jockeyed for space in the freezer. “Who is this box for? When are you going to give it to him?” He would notice the box was gone, just as sure as he’d know that I hadn’t seen its intended recipient.

I stared at the box, gauging the space it left behind in the freezer. There really was no other recourse.

Carefully, I assembled all of the cookie waste—the bags and silvery ties, the tissue paper, the crumbs—all evidence of my misdeed, inside the box and closed the lid.

I stood up from the couch, flailing a little with my full cookie belly, and waddled to the kitchen. I opened the freezer door, took one last assessment of the items inside, and placed the empty box back on the shelf.

I don’t tell you this because I want to warn against the dangers of the late-night hunger munches.

I tell this story because it’s that time of year again, with fresh boxes of cookies in my freezer, and this empty box of shame wrappers was only evacuated three months ago.

The Summer Barbecue

What I am about to say may release a mob bearing pitchforks and torches, tools that can excoriate heretics from the population and char up some meat. Nevertheless…

I hate barbecues.

Okay, I hate 95% of barbecues.

They are man’s answer to what makes a scorching hot day even better: fire. Plus, scorched meat. As a pale vegetarian whose favorite vacation involved glaciers and sleet, you can imagine how this thrills me. Somehow, the events attract a diverse cross-section of the population. For your convenience, I’ve assembled a field guide.

Population 1: The menfolk. Men tend fire. Every one of them is an expert, and half the barbecue will be spent arguing the finer points of fire-making. The other half will consist of them walking in and out of the house, trailing heat and smoke and bugs. Humans spent centuries perfecting doors as a means to keep these things outside the home, but no matter.

Conversation: Endless debates on charcoal placement, chimneys, or lighter fluid; explosions; things that can be set on fire or made to explode; sportsball (or, “dude, did you catch the game last night?”); and the tragically short film career of the great John Belushi.

Population 2: The womenfolk. Women are responsible for everything else. The majority of their time will be split between assembling salads, drinking wine, caring for tiny humans, and talking about child birth/child rearing/fluids that come out of said tiny humans.

Conversation: how to raise a tiny human to adulthood (I understand this is difficult and necessitates a support group of your peers); funny things the tiny humans say or do; the horrifying ordeal miracle of childbirth, in explicit detail; complaints about the menfolk; the price of a pound of beef.

Population 3: Tiny Humans. The children are responsible for “AAAHHHHH! Jimmy’s head is stuck in the laundry chute!” Their volume increases in direct relation to the number of children in their age-range also attending the event, an effect both staggering and exponential in nature. Remember what it was like to hear the thoughts in your head? Neither do I.

Conversation is disjointed and histrionic. In the course of five minutes you may hear: what they can do better than anyone else; what they can do better than you; “Look at this!”; noises that tiny butts make; smells that tiny butts make; and, “Did you see Jimmy’s head stuck in the laundry chute?!”

Perhaps it’s that I hate the outdoors, and therefore have no interest in sitting outside on a hot day, next to fire, debating which mind-numbing movie is funnier: Animal House or The Blues Brothers. Perhaps it’s that, even though I’m a woman, I can’t decide between puking or fainting over the casual conversations about wombs and vaginal tearing around a big bowl of pasta salad. Perhaps, after fifteen minutes trying to rediscover my childhood amongst the tiny humans, I remember that I’m glad to have left it behind.

As if this isn’t enough, a barbecue shines a large, blinking FREAK light over my vegetarian head. I’ve tried to mitigate the effect by sneaking faux meat onto the grill. You know the kind of over-processed, pre-packaged meat substitute I’m talking about. It’s not delicious and definitely doesn’t taste like meat (thank goodness), but my other option is to fill my plate with chips and mayonnaise salad. Sometimes I do this, then cut out of the party early to appease my hunger with a cheese sandwich on the way home.

Either way, everyone notices my meatless plate.

All attempts to fit in fail. Though I’m in a house or yard full of good people, I am uncomfortable and alone. Where are my people? You know the ones–those who want to talk quietly about a good book, who’d rather play a game of cards than turn on the game. I’ll tell you where they are; they’re inside, sitting around little plates of cheese and drinking wine in an air conditioned room, like civilized people.

Come to think of it, the 5% of barbecues that I find enjoyable involves these people.

At other barbecues, my inability to fit in casts me adrift, wandering from room to room. I can’t even eat to look busy and give my hands something to do.

Wait. This family has a dog. She’s not starting a fire–no opposable thumbs. And she’s almost certainly avoiding the tiny humans and their not-at-all gentle touch. Maybe she’s my people.

I’ll just be over there making friends.

Thump

Our car passes over the seams joining concrete slab to concrete slab. An infinite number of cold, hard squares patch together the highway as it grows between me and the husband I just buried.

Thum-thump thum-thump.

The steady drumbeat of the road thrums through my body as I stare without seeing through the window.

Thum-thump thum-thump.

My heart syncs with the new and foreign rhythm. Seventy years of knowing one man’s heartbeat and it feels wrong for mine to beat on its own.

Thum-thump thum-thump thum-thump.

I try to think of the life I will have now that Jacob is gone, but it stretches out in front of me like this highway, grey and plain and unknown. I lived a life before him, but it was long ago swallowed by the tall gregarious man with hazel eyes.

Thum-thump thum-thump.

A car behind us switches lanes and picks up speed. As it passes, I see my son, pedal to the metal and eyes intent on the road.

Thum-thump thum-thump thum-thump.

We’re headed for the same destination; no doubt he hopes to beat us there and case the joint like the carrion bird he is.

Don’t touch a thing, sonny boy. Every single piece of that house belongs to me and your father. Every tchotchke, a treasured memory. They’re mine; without them, your father is gone.

Thum-thump thum-thump.

Mine–the picture he drew of us on our first date, walking between cars at a drive-in burger joint. He’d just taken my hand, under the guise of helping me navigate the dark parking lot. When he touched me, I knew. With blind certainty, I knew. My life had just skipped beats, skipped town, skipped tracks for another destination. I would never be the same. In the picture, my face is turned up to look at him, seeking him out like chlorophyll does the sun.

Will you think that valuable enough to pilfer, little vulture?

Thum-thump thum-thump.

Mine–letters written while your father served in World War II. Letters full of promises and love and fantasies sufficiently bawdy to make even you blush. We lavished it all on each other and on the army intermediaries censoring soldiers’ mail.

Mine–the letter announcing that you were born, the one he read and re-read while hunkered in the mud, fighting foreign enemies. Letters written when he fought in the Korean War–stories of you and life at home, stories of war, stories that laid bare Jacob’s darkest thoughts, born from killing enemies and watching friends die.

Page after page documented our separate lives until they were separate no more.

How much would those fetch you, son?

Thum-thump thum-thump.

Maybe they’re not what you’re after. Would you prefer his knife collection? Guns he polished at night while we all sat together in the living room? The tools he tinkered with, standing at the workbench in the garage? The pipes he smoked after dinner, always carefully cleaned and polished?

Go ahead. Take them. What do they matter? They don’t anchor me to your father; he was my anchor. Without him, I could float away into this cloudless sky—up, up, up, until there is nothing and nothing matters. All that stuff, the clunky baggage of our lives together only weighs me down, keeping me behind when I could just let go.

After all those years spent living and loving, creating and fighting, making up, making do, making out–maybe there is no letting go. Just the relentless thrumming of the highway.

Thum-thump.