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.


Gym Barbie

The day of our first boot camp, the original derby wife and I approach the training room at our YMCA. The metal door has a small square window placed at eye level, like the door of a padded room. One nervous look through the window shows us that it is, indeed, a padded room. The floor’s covered in 2-inch thick exercise mats. Weights and other devices of torture line the walls.

Despite our own self-protective instincts, we walk into the room to meet our instructor. We take great care to brief her on our special needs: Wifey has short bones and a hypermobile body; I broke my tailbone playing roller derby like a boss. She can’t do certain arm exercises; I’m allergic to lunges.

Class begins with a series of exercises; remarkably, we keep up. This isn’t so bad. I can do this. Then Instructor explains that this was our warm-up. Wait. This was just the warm-up? Should I be ready to go home already?

I’m looking longingly at my water bottle when Gym Barbie enters the room. Just as I’m wondering if it means anything that already I would trade State secrets for a drink, she breezes in without a care and joins us on the mats. I drink it all in; her skinny frame, her shiny hair, her skin-tight crop pants, her halter-style sports bra. Christ, the swoosh of her Nikes matches the graceful swoop of pink ribbon on her pants. She doesn’t even bother putting up her hair before jumping in.
Class continues; I flail my parts around roughly the same way Instructor demonstrated. My body pulses with pain and exhaustion. I hear grunting. Is someone whining? Wait, that’s all me. Gym Barbie isn’t grunting. Rather than dragging deep, erratic breaths in through her mouth like a dying mummy, she’s taking controlled breaths—in through the nose, out through the mouth. Her exhales are cute little bursts of air, almost a whistle.
We begin a new set of exercises with one-minute planks. I plant my palms on the mat and lift up onto my toes. In fascination, I watch as sweat rains off my face. My hands struggle to say in place; they squeak against the mat as my wet palms slide outward. I sneak a look at Gym Barbie; she looks like she could stay like this all day. Not only is she not pouring sweat all over the mat, but her hair is hanging around her head, dry as when she walked in the door.
Burn the witch.
Now Instructor wants us to do tricep dips. I wedge myself in front of a chair, palms on its seat, doing a sort of reverse pushup. I am no longer in control of the noises coming from my body. Gym Barbie is still breathing steadily. Finally, she emits a noise that hints at how hard we’re working. A tiny little grunt, followed by stacatto syllables timed perfectly with her little dips, “Woo! I…hun…ger…for…the pain!”
I can’t decide whether she represents what I hope to someday be, if her presence pushes me to perform better, or if she exists merely to taunt me with what I can never be. I do know one thing for sure.

I hate her.

Ghosts in the Bathroom

I was five years old when my mom sat my two older brothers and I down on my childhood bed. She fumbled with the words, not knowing how to begin. The telling was hard for her. Her father had died.
Died? What did that even mean? I looked to the other people on the bed for how I should react.
My mother was crying. My oldest brother looked unsurprised at the news, but terribly sad. My other brother was shocked and crying.
I felt like I should ask some questions, because I sure didn’t understand what was happening. Yet, this didn’t seem like the right time to raise my hand.
After a pause for the information to sink in, my mother continued. “You know, while this means you can’t see Granddaddy in person, he’ll always be there, watching over you.”
Puzzled, and still working out what had just happened, I walked out of the room with my brothers. I tried to feel sad like them, but I was too young to understand what it all meant.
I mulled over the words my mother said, but the more I thought about it, the less it made sense. If Granddaddy was watching over me, that meant that somehow, he was here with me. What about my brothers? My mom? My Grand Mother? He couldn’t be with all of us all the time, could he? Did this mean we all had to stay in the same place now?
What about the times when I didn’t want anyone watching? Would Granddaddy see everythingI did now? I would think about this when I lit my doll on fire playing with a lighter, when I snuck out of the house after being grounded, when I got caught hiding others’ belongings in my play kitchen. Was Granddaddy watching? I cringed to think he had seen me at my worst.
I thought about it most when we were at Grand Mother’s house.
After walking into the bathroom, as I closed the door, I would plead quietly, “Granddaddy, if you’re here, please don’t watch.”
Just in case.

Negotiations Are for Turkeys

I’m shoring up shopping plans for tomorrow. This, of course, means consulting a half dozen cookbooks and the Thanksgiving Spreadsheet. The following conversation with Husband ensues:

ME: We need to buy a turkey of 12 to 14 pounds.
HIM: What, now? I’m not wearing pants.
ME: No, tomorrow. When we’re at the store.
HIM: Hmm. Okay.
ME: Good.
HIM: Wait. I think we need a bigger turkey.
ME: No, we don’t. Remember last year?
HIM: No, it’s more than a week ago.
ME: Last year, you picked out the biggest turkey they had. Kitchen disaster ensued. And we had waaaay too much turkey.
HIM: No such thing.
ME: Yes. You even admitted as much.
HIM: That doesn’t sound like me.
ME: I don’t know what to tell you.
HIM: Shouldn’t we do some math, figure out how many pounds of turkey per person?
ME: Who’s eating POUNDS of turkey?
HIM: Me, easy.
ME: Listen, it’s like four people who will actually eat turkey, and you’re one of them. I think 14 pounds of turkey will suffice.
HIM: I don’t know…
ME: Pal, this is not a negotiation. We are getting a turkey of 12 to 14 pounds.
HIM: 14 pounds, then!

Inside the Bubble

“You doing okay, buddy?”
After one minute on the phone, Husband knows something is wrong. He claims he can’t read my mind, but the Marriage Mind Meld makes him dangerous enough.
The answer to his question, “no,” lacks all evidence to support it. Nobody died. Nothing went wrong at work. There was no call from home with drama. I am not hurt, or sick, or crying, or worried. But I’m not okay.
Nothing’s wrong. But something’s not right.
Numbness crept back in where I thought I had beaten it back. I found myself in that dark bubble, where time moves slower, food tastes muted, and all ties between me and the world dissolves. My existence distilled down to the couch and a subscription to Hulu.
I’m letting Husband down. I’m letting myself down. Vaguely, I worry about falling into old habits. In the end, though, I don’t care enough to do anything.
You doing okay, buddy?
“No. Yes…I don’t know.” It comes out petulant, like a seven-year-old girl stamping her Mary Janes.
“Okay. We’ll talk when I get home. Do you need anything?” Like what? A new brain? A fucking time machine? Food? I can’t be bothered.
Then Husband is walking into the dark house, finding me on the couch, dimly illuminated by the glow of the television screen. He offers me his hand and pulls me up. I stand, immediately folded into a hug.
“Scientists say that hugging releases dopamine. Or endorphins. Let’s say endopamines. They make you happy, but you need twenty seconds for the hug to work.”
“One Mississippi…two Mississippi…three Mississippi…” he whispers in my ear.
I sink into him. We stay like that, him supporting me and counting softly, for a full twenty Mississippis. Finally, he pulls away, kisses me on the forehead, and sits us down on the couch.
“Why don’t you tell me about it?”
No judgment. No admonishment. No you-should-do-thises. Instead, he sits and listens. I tell him the everything and the nothing of it all. He says, “Whatever this is—if it’s work, if it’s me, whatever—we’ll figure it out.” Eyes brimming with tears, not trusting myself with any more words, I nod, then sink my head down onto his chest.
He loves me. So much.
He’s not here to charge in and chase anything away, or even shine a light on it. Depression, the sneaky bastard, doesn’t work like that, and he knows it. Rather than stand outside the boundaries of that darkness, taking shots at it, he sneaks inside the bubble with me. He sits. He takes it in. He’s here.
He shares it all with me.
Already, I feel lighter for it.

My Ass, The Sequel

Paper towels … check.
Shampoo … check.
Birthday card for brother … check.
Pair of jeans … Here we go.
I put off this part of my Target mission until last. My pear-shaped frame—a term I didn’t know until it was bestowed upon me while shopping for jeans—was particularly hard to fit.
My plan is simple: lowered expectations. If I don’t emerge with a pair of jeans, no big deal, I’ve accomplished my other goals, crossed plenty off my list.
I navigate the forest of too-close racks overstuffed with cheap clothes. Fortune smiles on me; I only knock one thing down before finding the rack of jeans that will cover my bull-in-a-china-shop ass. I find a dark wash in my size and place it gently in my cart, because that’s how I roll. Next, I add a pair of skinny jeans, because I believe in torturing myself.
Maybe I’ve been too judgey about the skinny jean. People can change; so could jeans. Everyone wears them; there must be something good about them.
I sidle up to the lone woman manning the dressing room: a factory for naked women squeezing into mass-produced clothing. I can almost smell the frustration and sweat from the Gatekeeper’s booth. She stands, cuddling a gigantic stack of clothing, over which her lackluster, apathetic eyes spy me. With a sigh, she reaches across her desk and hands me a plastic-colored card that she won’t pay attention to later.
Once inside my dim room, I kick off my shoes, pull off my jeans. After a quick glance at the mirror, I rush to cover my pasty, almost-translucent, thigh-touching legs with the skinny jeans.
Hell no.
Fuck no.
I don’t know who these were made for, maybe no one. They take the worst parts of me and magnify them. I look in the mirror with disgust; I’m pretty sure they defy all laws of physics.
I hitch the other pair over my hips and button the waistband. They’re snug, but I can still breathe comfortably. A good sign. I take a good look in the mirror: top to bottom. I squeeze the roll of fat above my belly button. When did that get there?I remember, like a year or two ago, it was almost gone. Suck in your breath. Does it go away? Not even close.
I turn around, contorting my neck like an owl to check out the view from the back. Fuck! Backfat?
Sneaky bastard.
I mean, knew it was there all along. I could feel it, but to see it up close like this … Quickly, I move my eyes downward.
Hunh. Look at dat ass.Shapely. Round and juicy. Perky, even. Just to be sure, I turn the other way, ogle it from another angle. Nope; it’s true. I have a damn fine ass.
Oh, I am buying these jeans. And every pair in this store.

Pink Heels

I was seven or eight when they came in the mail: those pale pink, five-sizes-too-big, high-heeled sandals. My father’s sister in Texas found them at a garage sale for fifty cents and guessed her niece would love them.

Love them I did. My mom would tie the long pink straps around my ankles, criss-crossing them up and down my leg. Then I clomped around the basement in them, strutting up and down imaginary aisles of desks, playing Mrs. Marciolonus—my teacher with the amazing shoes and impeccably manicured toenails.

One afternoon, as a thunderstorm threatened, I wore them and played Rock Star in the garage and on the driveway. I waved to throngs of screaming fans, singing songs of my own creation. The rain began to tease the ground with big intermittent plops. I kicked off the shoes and ran inside before disaster could strike.

After the rain subsided, my father backed his 1971 Ford Bronco out of the garage. As he did, there was a sickening crunch. He trudged back into the house carrying the terrible carnage of my beautiful pink shoes. They were broken beyond all repair.

My father was a quiet and shy man with two older sons. A crying daughter rendered him helpless. His only recourse? Offer to replace her shoes, of course. As though shoes that gorgeous come around more than once in a lifetime.

That weekend, my father drove me to a discount women’s shoe store. They were having a dot sale; everything with a green dot was $5, yellow meant $10, and red meant $15. I found a pair of black peep-toe pumps imprinted with a faux reptilian pattern. They fit me perfectly. And there, on the bottom of the sole, was a green sticker.

We returned home, triumphant. The shoes added an edge to my basement adventures. As a teacher, I was a little stricter. As a singing sensation, I was a little more rock and roll.

Like most things from childhood, I outgrew the heels my dad bought me. I imagine they’re still in that basement, rambling around with long-lost BBs and Barbie’s old Jeep. Perhaps they’re sitting patiently next to the school desk, waiting for class to be back in session.

Decades later, in the clearance section of DSW, I found a pair of pink strappy sandals. Of course they weren’t the same; how could they be? But the shade of pink, the way they circled my ankle and buckled on the side, the dainty heel–all evoked the shoes my dad destroyed. They made me feel like a lady and that girl playing Rock Star, all at once. I turned over the shoe to find the clearance sticker on the sole; it was green.

A year later, I unpacked the shoes from my suitcase, along with a black dress and a string of pearls. I hung the dress in the bathroom of my parents’ house while I took a shower. I got dressed. Carefully, reverentially, I put on my pink strappy heels. I walked down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and knocked softly. “Mom, you ready?”

Later that night, we stood awkwardly in a room of the funeral home, as friends and family came to pay their respects to my dad. I had cried more than I thought possible in the last two weeks. You know how your body is made of 75% water? I was down to 20%, easy. For these people, it felt like there were no tears left.

There was only me and a pair of pink strappy shoes.


Five Star

Diet Coke: A Tragic Love Story

 “I’d like a large Diet Coke, light on the ice, please.”
The words trip off my tongue like the name of my lover. A familiar zing hits my brain. Soon, baby. Soon.

When I take that first sip of precious nectar, I close my eyes. Cold, fizzy aspartame lights up all the cells in my mouth: on the roof, the cheeks, the tongue. Carbonation tickles my nose. I swallow and the soda cuts its path down my throat and through my body. Molecule after molecule makes its way to my extremities–fingertips and toes light up with tingly joy. I can feel it move through my body, dispersing until the aspartame and I are one and the same.

This is bliss. This is love.

Like all tumultuous love affairs, though, outside influences insert themselves into our relationship and begin eating away at the strong bond we share.

Aspartame is bad for you, They say. Weight gain. Depression. Diabetes. Cancer. All horrors my family has experienced firsthand. My family, long-steeped in the culture and obsession with aspartame.

Since they first introduced Diet Coke in 1982, I cannot remember a time without its sweet-with-a-bitter-aftertaste nectar. My parents, firm believers in the axiom that more=better, were devout subscribers of anything low cal, low fat, low guilt. Our freezer was alternately stocked with ice milk and frozen yogurt; our cabinets housed diet cookies; and our counters always boasted two to three varieties of diet soda in two-liter bottles. What better way to curl up on the couch and watch the latest episode of Magnum PI than with a glass full of ice and the great DC?

Diet soda has been the great constant in a life of chaos and uncertainty. It’s there to start the day. Need a pick-me-up? It’s there. Need a reward for good behavior? It’s there. Nothing cools me down, hits the spot, alights my senses like that fizzy aspartame.

After a lifetime together, it’s time to say goodbye. I’ve tried to break it off before, but like a booty call, some catalyst throws me back into Diet Coke’s outstretched arms. Once there, it’s like I never left. This time, I tell myself, this time will be it. I will stay strong.

I’m breaking it off tonight. It’s not me, it’s you.

I will feel the pain of loss. I will think of all the good times. I will struggle to imagine a life without it. And, hopefully, I will move on.

I didn’t know it was so bad…

Depression is some sneaky ass shit. It wears socks and walks on tip toes, creeping up from behind. The weight of it descends gradually, ounce by ounce, so I don’t notice it hitching a ride. I’m trudging along, slowed and stymied by it, but it all happens so gradually that I don’t notice the extra weight. One day to the next, it feels normal. I lose all perspective, lose track of the fact that all I feel like is shit and it never used to be this way.
It’s all in my head, anyway. Literally. All. In my head. It’s not like when you break your leg and have to walk on crutches. Then everyone can see your handicap, why it’s been several days since you showered, or why you haven’t left your house in over a week. But when that handicap is the fucked up chemicals in your brain, it doesn’t look or feel like anything should keep you from living your life.
Then there’s a day when I screw up every ounce of oomph and caring I have and pour it into the space inside my brain that controls things like hygiene and leaving the house. That’s the day you see me. It’s the best that things are going to get, the best that I am going to get. I wouldn’t make it out of the house if I didn’t find the part of me that cares about something—you. I’m surprised to find I care about much these days.
Yet, as you sit across from me and tell me about your life, I can’t care about it much at all. I’m running low to empty on cares, all used up in the getting here. I’m already looking forward to going home, to sinking into the sofa and not working so hard. When you tell me your tales, I work to put on the right faces, say the right things, sound the right way. I feel like an alien in my own skin, trying to approximate myself. This face means sad. This one, thoughtful. This one, happy.
You are my friend. I want to please you.
What’s new with me, you ask? That’s the thing. Nothing’s new. Nothing. I spent my week watching episode after episode of a stupid show on Netflix, caring but not caring. Numb to the world around me, to my own feelings threatening to overwhelm me.
Misdirection is the best tool of a magician. I’ll use it to distract, deflect attention from what’s really going on, a dark secret that I don’t really want to admit or address. If I don’t look at it, maybe it’ll go away, maybe it didn’t happen, maybe it’s not true. I’ll tell you that I feel numb and wonder what the point is in getting out of bed in the morning, but all in a perfunctory sort of way.
Quick! Look over here, where I’ve prepared a few anecdotes that the real Megan would have found funny. So I, Not-Megan, tell them to you, move the conversation forward and away.
Blink and you’ll miss it.

I feel like I’m faking it. I am fake. So I feel shitty. I am shitty. I judge myself. All of it makes me feel worse than I started out this morning. So exhausting.

I think I need some down time to recover. How many seasons are left in that stupid show?