Listen

She had a towel around her body and another towel on top of her head like a turban- making her look like a bobble head. Steam was rising up from the iron. I sat on the edge of my big sister’s twin bed watching her meticulously iron her blouse.

“What is wrong with me?” she shook her head, as if she was expecting an answer, but it was clear she wasn’t addressing me. At barely 11 years old and over a handful of years between us, I was just another object in her breathing space. She sauntered over to the other side of the room, and pulled out a record from her collection. I tried to get a glimpse of her choice, but her toweled back was in the way. I heard the scratch of the needle on the record and the music started to blare. She nodded her head, as if in agreement, singing, “I just can’t believe all the things people say….CON-TRO-VER-SY“, and danced back to the ironing table, hands in the air.

My sister blared the music when mom was gone, and tonight mom was out to dinner. My other sister and brother were out somewhere too. I never really knew where anyone was or when they’d be back. Mom worked a lot. And when she wasn’t working she was trying to have fun. There was a faint knock at the door. “Oh, shit, Jules!” my sister blurted out. Then, “Sorry,” at me. I smiled. I hated cursing, thought it was some kind of sin. But, when my sister cursed, all was forgiven. “Come in!” my sister screamed from the top of the stairs on the landing, her voice traveling down towards the first floor where you could see our front door.

The words pounced from the record in the background, “Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me? …CON-TRO-VER-SY“.

The door flung open, “Geez, Michelle, I thought I’d have to break the door down!” Jules yelled, half-laughing, with a large silver studded black purse in one hand and clothes tucked underneath clear plastic on a hanger in the other. Her dirty blond hair hung down to the middle of her back, undone. “You have your crimping iron, right?”

“Oh, of course. Let me plug it in,” my sister said, heading back in towards the bedroom.

The song continued, my sister and Jules singing along, “Some people want to die, so they can be free.” My eyes were on my sister and her friend, my ears were glued to the sounds emanating from the record player… “CON-TRO-VER-SY”.

The two of them paraded around the room, like they were already out on the town, “You think Danny will be at the club?” Jules asked my sister, giddy.

“I don’t know. He said he might go to Debbie’s party instead,” my sister replied, deflated. There was barely a pause and then the music seemed to pick her right back up. She finished ironing her ruffled shirt and hung it over the corner of the door.

Further conversation was overshadowed by the lyrics, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven...” What?! The ‘Our Father Prayer’ in a dance song?

My sister stood in front of the mirror, applying blue and gray eye shadow-like her face was a canvas, creating a smoky, dramatic painting. She swept rose-tinted blush across her high cheek bones in an upward motion.  Her red wine lipstick was the final stroke. She took a tissue and blotted her now stained lips. She flipped her head upside down and dried her thick-permed chestnut hair, carefully scrunching; teased the front until it stood several inches high. Jules’s hair looked like an accordion. Her eyes clear blue, lips- an overpowering fuchsia.

“Aren’t you going somewhere?” my sister turned towards me, as if she ever knew anything about my whereabouts.

“No, I wanted to spend the night at Lana’s, but her mom said they have to leave early in the morning,” I muttered, bummed my plans with my best friend were squashed.

“Oh. Well I’m sure you can find something on TV,” my sister said, almost as an automatic response. TV, her usual babysitting tool. She put on her ruffled shirt that tied on one side, buttoned it up to the top. She pulled up her tight jeans, and laced up her tall black suede boots that looked like they could hurt someone. Jules squeezed into her long straight skirt and short boots, with a fancy blouse that she also buttoned up to the top- brooch pinned at the center of her neckline. They were like twins, although I’m certain they didn’t see it that way.

Aquanet Hairspray filled the air. “Eck, Eck,” I coughed, getting caught in the fumes. Perfume soon floated about the room too, creating a nauseating concoction. My sister took the record off the record player. Grabbed her purse.

“Keep the door locked,” she called out before the door shut behind her. They were off. And I was alone. I pulled the record back out- stared at the cover. Did my sister know she looked like a mini-female Prince? The words on the cover jumped out at me, “Love Thy Neighbor”. I took a closer look and read, “Gun Control”.

I put the record back on, grabbed the hair brush off of her vanity, teased the front of my hair like my sister. It looked like a poorly constructed bird’s nest. I went to the mirrored closet doors holding the brush like a microphone, “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” I played it over and over until I knew the words by heart. I went to the top landing overlooking the first floor, singing as if there were an audience. “I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules..” I sang to an imaginary crowd in a big empty house, belted out the words and the audience filled the space. I just kept singing, dancing, listening to the music, and suddenly I wasn’t alone.

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A Mother’s Way

Scrolling through endless pictures on my laptop, I couldn’t recall a time when I didn’t have a computer. It seemed so impersonal, intangible, as if I was missing an old friend. I remember my old photo albums that sat in some corner of a room, hardly touched and collecting dust, only to be dusted off after returning home late from a local “Flashback Friday”, with guests gathering around the coffee table; over glasses of red wine and frothy beer.

Any picture of me was just one of many I could have tossed into the trash, that tiny silver trash can in the right hand corner of my laptop, with crumpled up pieces of paper.

I came across one of me sitting on my living room floor, not looking into the camera. I smiled when I saw it, not because I liked the way I looked or thought the picture inhabited any special qualities, but because I remembered that moment in time so vividly. I was living in my one bedroom shoebox of an apartment in Santa Monica and my mom came to visit. A rare occurrence for my mom, even though she lived only an hour away. I lived two blocks from the beach, yet, as tempting as I thought the ocean might be to someone who was surrounded by land, she convinced me time and time again to visit her instead.

So here she was, on my side of town on a Saturday afternoon, to nurse my recently broken heart. There was no agenda, just the sun and blue skies above, and a few hours to spare.

We took a short walk to the beach and back: then I brewed her some tea that I poured over ice. She sat on my red velvet couch drinking iced tea while I unwaxed my 9-foot surfboard, creating a baseball size mound of dirty wax, only to start all over again. My mom was on the other side of that picture, “Oh, I have to take a picture,” she said, scrambling for her camera. She was obsessed with taking pictures; her camera practically attached to her hip. Though normally I’d be annoyed, I looked up with half a smile to appease her. “No, no, just as you were,” she went on. So, I looked back down and remained engrossed in my task. I remember the bubble gum scented wax, and the calm that came over me, just knowing she was there.

“Wow, that’s a lot of work,” she said, when I finished the last of the wax. I picked up my board awkwardly, almost knocking over a chair, and placed it on a rack bolted to my orange sherbert painted wall. “You’re going to surf that?” she asked, her eyes following my clumsy maneuver.

“That’s the idea, mom,” I laughed.

“That’s good, mija. It’s good to keep busy,” she encouraged.

She got up and went into the kitchen. Then picked up my dying plant, took it to the sink and gave it some water, and placed it back on the window sill. “You just need to give it a little water and attention,” she said, making a face that said she knew I’d abandoned my plant, but was otherwise forgiven.

“I’ll try, mom,” I said, knowing it would come back to life for a little while, only to have her save it again. Shortly after, she grabbed her keys from the coffee table, and I couldn’t help but ask at the door, “Do you think you can stay a little longer, Mom?”

“You’d like that?” she asked, as if she didn’t hear the sadness in my voice. I nodded in response, feeling the lump in my throat.

She walked back into the kitchen. “Well, then,” she said, opening the refrigerator door, “let’s see what you have here that we can make for dinner.”

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In the Mail

“I was, uh,” we both began.

“I’m sorry. You go ahead,” I said.

“No, you go ahead,” he responded.

We talked over each other, each time we talked, which was every single day.  I don’t talk that much to anyone. I never know what to say. I wonder what they’re thinking in between words. I drift off and start separating my split ends. It’s why I adopted texting.

In addition to my love of texting, I was a fan of pet names, but not flowery names like honey, sweetheart or babe. I preferred the more obscure ones like monkey, chicken or platypus.  The more obscure, the heavier my heart fell. So, with this guy from Napa, I quickly began with the pet names over text. He caught on with, “How’s my little aardvark?” Aarvaark? Had he ever even seen an aardvark? The next text read, “Sweet dreams, sloth.” Sloth? Sure, they might be cute, but it sounds like something you’d find on the bottom of your shoe. I told him that if there was a stuffed animal version of the animal in question, it MIGHT be accepted as a term of endearment.  To my surprise, he found a stuffed aardvark online.

In turn, I found a sloth on Amazon.com, amazed by the multiple versions they had available.  There was a two-toed, a three-toed, one with a baby, one with a family, one that made a sloth noise, and another that actually crawled. I purchased the two-toed version without the baby because I didn’t want to appear like I was trying too hard.

I boxed it up and sent it off, and a week later I got a text from him, “Your sloth arrived.” My gut told me I’d made a rookie move.  I’d never given a stuffed animal to anyone in my life other than a child under five and I don’t know what possessed me to start.  I don’t even like stuffed animals.

I had an assortment of stuffed animals as a kid that were strategically organized on a bookshelf in my bedroom. One day, I decided I was done. My mom didn’t understand my sudden dissatisfaction with my collection, but she pulled them out of the trash bin one by one and hauled them off to Goodwill. From that moment on, anytime I got a stuffed animal from a guy I liked, he was quickly out of the picture. It was just a sign of more foolish things to come.

But, somehow, I’d become that girl, who gave a stuffed animal to a guy as a gesture of my affection. I could hear the hesitation in his voice over the phone, “It’s sort of cute.”

Now embarrassed and misunderstood, I felt like getting off the phone. Instead, we had a talk. A serious talk. We talked about the fact that we’d been talking every day, more than once a day, as if we were a couple. “Here we are, miles apart, only in my twenties, figuring out what I want to do with my life,” he said, almost apologetically.

It was my turn, “And here I am, down in Los Angeles, sending you stuffed animals.”

Before the end of the conversation he told me he wanted to visit.  “Can you repeat that?” I blurted, assuming I’d heard it wrong. It was an odd request, given the context of our conversation. It was like breaking up with someone and then planning a vacation together.

The next week he called with details. He was coming in during the holidays and staying for a week. I didn’t know whether to throw up or throw a party. I was content with our arrangement, seeing each other for only a weekend at a time. Having someone to play with for seven days was a welcome adventure, but being with someone 24/7 was a bit claustrophobic. I could send him another stuffed animal and really freak him out. Or, he could leave his new sloth at home, and by the time he’d arrive, I’d be used to the idea.

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Visitors

For months I’d been waking up in the middle of the night to strange sounds in the kitchen, only to find my cat cuddled up beside me. I’d go into the kitchen, turn on the light, and find nothing. I was worried I might be crazy. When I was at my mom’s one day I asked, “Mom, has anyone been diagnosed with any mental issues in the family?”

“Mental issues?” she said, as she put a pot roast in the oven.

“Yea, mental issues?” I continued.

“What made you think of that?” she asked, not answering my question.

“Just curious. I took classes on this stuff.”

“When?”

“College.”

“College? That was years ago,” she said, as if I didn’t know this already.

“Can you just answer the question? Is anyone in our family schizophrenic? Or bi-polar?  Or depressed?” She walked over to one of the kitchen drawers, rummaged around, and pulled out a thermometer. Then she asked me to lift my tongue and put it in my mouth. When she saw it was normal, she told me I should drink more water.

I tried to forget I might be crazy, but heard the noise again when I was getting up from the couch one night, about to get ready for a date. My date would only text, and managed to set up a date without ever speaking to me on the phone.  It seemed a little too lazy for my liking, but I agreed to go out anyway. I was hoping the noise was my cat this time, but unfortunately she was laying on the other cushion.

I sat back down, heard the noise again, and saw my cat wasn’t the least bit fazed. I tried to get her attention, “Maggie.” She casually lifted her head and looked at me. Obviously no help, I tip-toed to the door way leading to the kitchen.  There, before my eyes were three raccoons in my kitchen eating my cat’s food. I rubbed my eyes and looked again to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

I didn’t like my cat much because she didn’t seem to care too much for me, but, how dare they eat her food!  The three culprits looked up at me annoyed, as if I interrupted their dinner. “GET OUT!!” I screamed, at the top of my lungs, with a voice that seemed to come out of nowhere. The momma, papa, and baby raccoon leisurely sauntered out the cat door like they were about to take a late night stroll on the beach to settle their food.

I quickly locked the cat door as soon as the baby raccoon’s ass went through the door only to have them tap on the door seconds later, ready for more. I almost forgot about my evening plans, when a text came through from Mr. Texter, “Leaving in ten minutes.”

I was shaking as I texted back, “Sorry, but I have to cancel tonight.”

“What? We haven’t even met up, and you’re already flaking? I even showered for you,” he wrote, trying to be funny.

“I just had three raccoons in my kitchen, so I don’t feel up to going out,”  I wrote.

“What???” he replied. “What do you mean you had three raccoons in your kitchen?”

“I mean, I had three raccoons in my kitchen. I don’t know how else to explain,” and with that, I gave up. I wasn’t going to have this conversation over text anymore. A minute later, my cell rang. “Hello,” I said, surprised he picked up the phone to call.

“Raccoons?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“What do you mean you had raccoons in your kitchen?” I was having deja vu.

“I was on my couch, heard something in the kitchen, walked over, and saw three raccoons eating my cat’s food,” I replied.

“How did they get in?”

“The cat door,” I said.

“How did you get them out?” he asked.

“I screamed. And they left.”

“Don’t you know they are vicious if provoked?” he told me, only making me feel worse.

“Well, I wasn’t really thinking that at the time. I just wanted them out,” I said.

“Are you okay?”

“Not really, hence my cancellation, but they’re gone. Can I take a rain check?”

“Of course!”

He told me to call if I changed my mind. It was a tempting offer, but I decided to hang with my cat instead. She didn’t seem all that traumatized by the experience, but I thought we could bond.

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Show and Tell

I came home in a rush one day and left my backpack on the garage floor, only to find my then significant other glaring at its presence, “Do you ever plan on moving that?” he asked. Never mind his wood working equipment, the sawdust on the floor, and the wood fragments in every corner cluttering up the space. Apparently, my backpack was not in its proper place.

I resented my ex’s wood working shop, but planned to turn my anger into something beautiful. So when I saw an e-flier for a wood carving class I decided it was my opportunity. I had already tried many artistic things that failed, including Pottery Making, thinking it would be easy to make a bowl. My bowl was lop-sided, but could hold a substance, so I got a passing grade. When class ended, it went in the trash.

I walked into my wood carving class that was behind a boutique store on Abbot Kinney in Venice. It looked more like a backyard than a classroom, with a tree fit for climbing and unmanicured patches of grass.

A short Asian man, who was our instructor, came over to greet me. “Choose a wood that looks right to you, feels good in your hands, and carries solid energy,” he said. My ego nudged me forward and I studied each piece, listening to what he said. Several pieces caught my eye; a lighter piece with dark flecks, a reddish one, and one with chocolate and vanilla tones. It was all so overwhelming. I finally picked the two-toned one and proudly handed it to him. “This will be a challenge. You will need to be patient,” he said. I wanted to put it back, but kept hold of it while he watched me walk over to my chair.

While everyone else was happily turning his or her block of wood into a spoon or a knife, I wasn’t really sure what I was making.  I thought about a bowl, but remembered my pottery making failure. I thought about a knife, but figured I might hurt myself. I decided it would be a piece of modern art. As I continued to carve, it didn’t look very artsy. I couldn’t hide my lack of talent by sitting in the back of the room since there were only ten of us in class sitting in a circle. Our instructor walked around complimenting everyone else’s piece for its nicely constructed shape or its beautiful curvature.

Each time he’d walk by me he’d get a crinkled line between his eyebrows and let out a grunt.  “Don’t force the wood,” he would say. My mind wandered off. I had a grip so tight that my veins popped out and my fingers grew sore. I pretended to know what I was doing, pulling my shoulders back, sitting up straight. But each time he’d pass, I’d go back to my pitiful slouch.

He told us to name our piece and document it in his notebook and then do a ‘show and tell’ at the end of class. The last thing I needed was to share my unidentifiable piece of wood to a bunch of strangers and have them pepper me with lies about how great it turned out, reminding me of my days in grade school. I named it “Porpoise”, the only name I could think of for the unsightly blob.

I wrote the name Porpoise into my instructor’s notebook and looked up at him for approval. He gave me a half-smile and that parental, “You tried” look.

I lied saying, “I have an appointment, so I can’t stay for the show and tell.” He looked relieved.

A layer of skin had vanished from my left thumb and I could no longer bend it. I almost threw my piece in the trash like all my other mishaps, but was determined to find Porpoise a home. I gave it to my boss when I got to work on Monday morning.  He sat in his chair and seemed at a loss for words. I wished I had some great story to tell; that I found it at the bottom of the Mediterranean Ocean after scuba diving with sharks. Or that a spiritual guide in Bali blessed it as a protection against evil spirits.

“I made you a stress stick,” I finally told him.

“You made this?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. There was a brief awkward silence.

“Thank you,” he said. He held it in his hands for a few seconds, then placed it on his desk.

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On the Premises

I was sleeping in my Studio City apartment when I awoke to a knock on the door. It was 2am. I wasn’t expecting anybody, so I didn’t answer. There was another knock. And with the sound of its insistence, I pulled the covers over my head, as if to hide from this potential intruder. When I heard a third knock, I grabbed my phone.

“9-1-1. Do you have an emergency?” the dispatcher asked.

“Someone keeps knocking on my door and won’t go away. It must be an intruder,” I explained. My heart felt like it was about to come out of my chest. She ran quickly, yet methodically through some questions. After insisting I didn’t know this person or why they would be bothering me at 2am, she told me she was sending a squad car to check the premises. I pictured the black and white car casually driving by, the cop flashing a bright light towards the direction of my building, holding the steering wheel and a glazed doughnut in the other hand, only to pass right by after my un-welcomed visitor had already broken in, asking for all my money with a knife in hand.

“Don’t worry, the police are on their way,” she said, remaining on the line while I walked her through every aching moment.

“Tap, tap,” a rock hit my window. “This person knows I’m here. Now they’re throwing rocks at my bedroom window,” I told her, thinking how you’d have to go down the stairs from my front door, around the building and through the back alley to get to my bedroom window. “Tap, tap,” another rock.

“The police are on their way. It should be anytime now,” she said. I continued to whisper in desperation to my lifeline while underneath the covers, drenched in sweat.

“MARCI,” I heard my name in a short, loud whisper below my window, in a voice I knew.

“Clay?” I called out my window. Then into the receiver, “I know this person,” I said, embarrassed. I looked out the window, but he was gone. We were like a modern-day Romeo & Juliet.

“Do you have any reason to believe this person would hurt you?” she asked.

“No, no, it’s my boyfriend,” I told her. “He doesn’t live in L.A.,” I continued, as if this were a logical explanation for my irrational behavior.

“Well, you can explain it to the police officers who just arrived at your address,” she said.

‘Explain it to the police officers,’ echoed in my head. How was I going to explain that I not only wasted their time, but our taxpayers’ dollars? I wanted to pull the covers back over my head. I put on my robe, went towards the front door, and grabbed the door knob.

“FREEZE,” I heard a stern voice from outside. I opened the door to the sight of my boyfriend standing at the bottom of my stairs with his hands clasped behind his head and his eyes towards the ground. Two police officers were standing on either side of him, each with a gun to his head. His 6′ 2″ frame suddenly seemed small.

“I’m here to see someone, she lives upstairs in #7. She knows me,” my boyfriend said, not making a move.

“Do you know this man, Miss?” the male police officer asked.

“Yes, officer, I know him. Please don’t shoot,” I said in a panic, my heart racing as I saw the two guns still aiming for his head.

I started to walk towards the stairs to approach them. “Don’t come any closer, ma’am,” the officer said, as he walked slowly away from my man and up the stairs towards me. The other officer kept her stance, with her gun still pointing at my boyfriend’s head.

“How do you know this man, ma’am?” the male officer asked once he approached the top of the stairs.

“He’s my boyfriend,” I said, my nerves fried. “Please don’t hurt him.”

“Is there any reason to believe he might hurt you?” he inquired.

“No.”

“Did you have a quarrel tonight?”

“No.”

“Has he hurt you before?”

“No.” I said, and then answered ‘no’ to his questions at least three more times before he directed the other officer to put the gun down.

“Uh, you might want to refrain from any surprise visits in the middle of the night,” the male officer said to Clay. “Have a nice rest of your night ma’am. We’ll be leaving now.”

“Why you gotta get me in trouble like that?” my boyfriend said after they got back in their squad car, half-joking and still shaken.

“You just can’t knock on someone’s door at 2am in L.A. This isn’t Vegas, babe,” I said. He drove all the way from Vegas to surprise me, only he was the one who got the surprise. I took his face in my hands and kissed the top of his bald head, feeling the deep scar along his skull, from some racists with a baseball bat who thought he didn’t belong in this world. I tried to get the image of the guns pointed at his head out of my mind.

“I still don’t understand why you just didn’t come to the door to see who it was,” he said, shaking his head, as I grabbed his hand and pulled him inside away from the cold.

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Whatta Man

I walked upstairs to a bedroom smelling of perfume and hair spray that made me just about pass out. My girlfriend greeted me with long brown locks of hair that would put Goldilocks to shame. Her smoky decorated eyes belonged in a classic blues bar, and her dress could do laps on any fashion runway. I thought she was ready to join her party, but her two makeup artist friends weren’t quite ready to put her on display. One of them plugged in a small electric appliance that looked like a vibrator, but it sprayed a bronzing shimmer to my girlfriend’s body instead. After witnessing the effects of this girlie version of spray paint, I looked at myself in her bathroom mirror and felt like an amateur.

It was my girlfriend’s 40th birthday party on New Year’s Eve, though, more reminiscent of a wedding, with family photos being snapped in every direction. The backyard was transformed into the party of the decade with a large white canopy and tiny white lights, appetizers I couldn’t pronounce, and flowers that could put Martha Stewart out of business. The bartender was the definition of slow, but his lack of speed kept guests from getting smashed, and it made for great conversation while standing in line among strangers.

A young, hot DJ was spinning inside the house, overlooking a hardwood dance floor that was tempting to even the best of wall flowers. And if that wasn’t enough, there was a photo booth in the front yard, adorned with props like boas, cowboy hats and sparkly headbands, that created attention whores out of us all. We crammed into that tiny booth and put on the charm, from funny faces to sexy poses, to long legs and strappy heals, any and all extremities, flinging in the air.

My girlfriend’s husband surprised her with a slide show, with pictures as far back as childhood. We laughed at the teased hair and gobs of makeup that took us back to the 80’s, her wonder years of braces, and outfits that have already painfully come back in style. Words flashed by the screen like a never-ending love letter. “I feel like this is my memorial,” my girlfriend said, as she wiped crocodile tears from her eyes.

“I’ll be sure to save it,” her husband replied, as he chuckled and kissed her cheek.

We sang happy birthday without a cake or any candles to blow out, but feasted on miniature desserts instead. The countdown began and next thing I knew, it was 2012. My friend grabbed the mic from the DJ, summoning her husband to the dance floor. Salt n Pepa’s ‘Whatta Man’ flowed from her mouth like a fountain, “I think I wanna have your baby!” Her adoring crowd called out for more. “Baby, rub it down and make it smooth like lotion,” more screams and whistles permeated throughout the room. Her serenade concluded with lyrics she could have designed herself, “Never dis-re-spect-ful, cuz his mama taught him that!” Her husband stood there in awe, bashful in his suit.

The bartender packed up and left, but the liquor remained as an open invitation to anyone who wanted a drink. Two whimsical guests took over the bar, shaking and pouring and hamming it up with anybody who dared to sip their drinks. The DJ followed the bartender’s lead, and sad faces were shared around the room. Then the iPod magically appeared, a distant second to the turntables, but enough to keep us moving. We continued to dance and continued to drink.

My girlfriend hovered high above us throughout her special night, like a cloud you couldn’t pin down. Just when you’d have a moment to grab on to, she was on to the next. My boyfriend and I grabbed her at 3:00 am to say goodbye; looking around to a crowd that barely thinned..

It seemed like only yesterday we were cocktailing in a bar, paying our way through college. She looked more beautiful now than she did back then, and had a glow that could only come from within. When you’re 21, you’ll celebrate just about anything. When you’re 40, you not only have something to celebrate, but when you do, you most definitely know how.

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