Thursday, December 31, 2009

Peace, Goodwill Toward the Old Man

Twas the season.

So, I invited my ex-husband to Christmas Eve dinner.

I figured he wouldn’t have too many invitations, with him fresh out of prison and all. I did ponder it for a few days though, before I actually picked up the phone. I conferred with the kids, they said it was cool, so I called him up.

“Hi Rick,” I said. He picked up on the first ring. He’s always a little jumpy when I call, which isn’t very often. I guess he assumes it’s always bad news. “You know, I was thinking, would you like to come and have dinner with us on Christmas Eve? It’s Pat’s first day in town, and he’s got so little time, I thought rather than having the kids chase all over town, it might be easier on everybody.”

On everybody but me. Or so I reasoned with great hesitancy when the idea first popped in my head. But I knew the issue of, “Dad’s first Christmas since he got out of prison” was looming large on my kids’ minds, much in the same way, I’m sure, it was on the minds of millions of other young adults across America this holiday season. And I knew my young adults were a tad bit preoccupied with it. I knew my Brooklyn son was coming home for a very short visit, I knew he needed to see his father, (for the first time since Rick’s release) I knew I didn’t want my kids in some Denny's or Applebee's feeling like the convict's kids on Christmas Eve, or in a cramped one-bedroom apartment, forced to endure some awkward “let’s pretend this doesn’t suck as much as it really does suck” fake family meal. And, I knew it was the right thing to do. Plain and simple.

I hate it when I know something is the right thing to do but I don’t really WANT to do it. But sometimes my better self edges out my lesser self. After he registered his surprise with an emphatic, “really.....?” when I told my L.A. son, Nathan, I’d invited his step-dad to dinner, (Nate would not be joining us because he’d be in Memhis with his future in-laws) he quickly followed with, “well, tis' the season!"

Christmas spirit notwithstanding, there was a method to my madness; I’d be better off holding the devil in my bosom than worrying about my kids on Christmas Eve. There’s comfort in numbers, there’s comfort in their own home and there’s comfort in tradition; I was preparing pasole’ and tamales for Christmas Eve dinner, in true New Mexico fashion. (Pasole’ is a pork and hominy stew with red chile and if you don’t know what a tamale is, you need to get out more.) There’s only about five places east of Santa Rosa, New Mexico where you can find pasole’ on Christmas Eve and one of them is my house. My gut told me that inviting Rick to share a meal with his kids on Christmas Eve, after being locked up for the past seven Christmasses, was the right thing to do. And if I’ve learned one thing in lo, these many years, it’s to listen to my gut and heed it’s churning. All that was left after he said, “Yes, I’d like that very much,” was to calm it down.

That’s because I swore he’d never darken my door again, and I told him so. People make wild ass statements when they’re angry. We tend to throw down the gauntlet, make threats and present ultimatums that we can’t always back up. Once the TV stations in town had finally unhooked themselves from the intravenous drip of daily Rick reports, (his name was thrown out almost daily for weeks, since there were four men arrested for their involvement with this teenager, one of them was the Executive Director of the STL PRIDE organization, another was a Republican nominee for the state legislature -- every single time there was a filing, a motion, a hearing, or some random person expressing their outrage and shock, Rick’s name would come up again) and once the St. Louis Post Dispatch finally stopped reporting every time he farted in his jail cell, (reminded me of the first season of Saturday Night Live, in “Weekend Update” when Chevy Chase would say, “In this breaking news just in, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead...” ) anyway, when the media coverage finally died down, 14 months after his arrest, on the snowy day Rick was sentenced, delivered straight from the mouths of my friends in the press corps, when ALL that crap finally went away and the hard core reality kicked in of keeping things afloat financially and keeping kids in tact emotionally, I sent Rick a hate letter in prison. I sent him a letter cursing the day he marked his kids for life.

“It’s between you and the kids, what your relationship will be, or won’t be, once you get out. I will neither impede nor intercede. But here’s what I ask for me, and I need you to respect this. I do not want you to contact me. I do not want to hear your voice or see your face. And I do not want you to ever come to my home again. Ever.”

If I’ve learned two things in lo, these many years, the second thing would be-- never say never. It’s not that I’m an unprincipled woman or that I lack backbone. I’ve got enough backbone for a couple of broads. But our home, my children’s and mine and our dogs’ (Pete, who has gone to his great reward in a ceramic urn on my mother’s pine hutch in the family room) and, Libby the replacement dog, our home is a haven of love. It’s a fucking haven of love, with a history of more tears and misty-eyed optimism than the Little White Chapel on the Las Vegas strip. In the ten years since, by the grace of God and a sympathetic banker, I bought this 82-year old bungalow, this old house has cradled more love and celebration of life than all the other dwellings I have occupied in my life--in my life, all of them, put together.

And so, if your home is about love, how can you hate? If our home is the historical backdrop for the knobby fabric of our lives, doesn’t it make sense to start the thread of the next chapter here? There’s some kind of nauseating closure to this concept. But, I’m no fool, first of all, I think closure is a joke. I think the best a person can do is learn to live with the holes of a pock-marked life and try to enjoy the breeziness of it. Secondly, we have untold issues yet to face. And it’s not like I’m planning to invite Rick over for canasta on Fridays, even if I played canasta on Fridays. This was simply a gesture of peace, goodwill toward that man.

And you know what? It was just fine. It was all, absolutely fine.

It’s not like I had a date or anything on Christmas Eve. So we ate and laughed and talked and looked at old photos. At first Rick was a little tentative, but after a while, the kids and I began to see glimpses of Rick the person he used to be, not the inmate, not the shameful, broken, apologetic person he’s become. Despite what he’s been through, and as I’ve said in earlier posts, I didn’t spend a lot of time contemplating his journey of the past seven years, but in spite of whatever he experienced, he still has a sense of humor and a hearty, resonating laugh. He’s got such a great voice, the man was a news anchor for like, 20 years, and all our kids, even my daughter, inherited his good pipes, (that's broadcast code for good voice.) He hugged Lauren and congratulated her for being on the Dean's list. I tried not to bristle as I thought of the college debt. He and Pat talked politics, while I kept my contempt in check, silently taking credit for Patrick's thorough indoctrination in all things liberal. He and Sean drew pictures, like they did when Sean was a little boy. Sean, the art scholarship kid, who I pushed and prodded through college applications, portfolio reviews, talking him down off the ledge when he almost quit his second semester. Yet, he most assuredly did not inherit his artistic talent from me. Watching the two of them doodle was an interesting revelation of some subtle, yet undeniable truths about paternity. Try as one might to “Do Not Acknowledge,” one cannot undo DNA.

Things were winding down, and the kids stepped out of the room for a moment, when Rick's eyes welled with tears.

“Jean, I just wanted to say, I’m so very know, about everything.”

“I know."

He left a few minutes later, thanking me again. When Pat walked back into the kitchen after walking his dad to the door, the four of us broke into spontaneous applause, I swear to God. It was like the first clap of thunderous applause after a command performance, instantaneous and exhuberant. It’s not that we were clapping because Rick was gone, not at all, we were applauding each other for a job well done. The thing we’d all been wondering about, fretting over, even dreading, for seven years, had just happened and there were no tears, no yelling and nobody threw up. It was all just fine. We, were all just fine. Seven years ago, weeks before Christmas, we were thrown into a cold, dark, smelly well of shame and heartache, with the bucket tossed in on top of us. But we climbed out. We climbed out, sometimes by our fucking fingernails, but always with someone pushing us up from behind, one slippery brick at a time.

When their father was sent to prison, for crimes some consider more egregious than even murder, I told the kids, "the world might turn against us, so in our home, we have to be for each other. We have to take care of one another and, you guys HAVE to behave!"

It was more a prayer than a command. And it’s not like there weren’t a few episodes when they failed to obey. There were a few nights with no bodies under the blankets at bed check, a few incidents of too many bodies under the covers at bed check, there was that minor shoplifting issue, one kid who spent a night in jail on a bench warrant for failure to appear in traffic court, one kid I had to spring from jail at 3:00 A.M. for getting busted at an underage drinking party. You get the picture, and trust me, this is just the highlight reel. But by and large, we stayed out of jail, we got along, we moved on, we moved mountains, we fell in love, we fell out of love, we made good grades, good friends, sometimes good money and good progress. Seven years later, we sat on the side of that deep, dark well, flicking off the mud.

“It all washes off,” said Patrick, retrieving a screenplay from his backpack. His latest passion project is an independent film he’s producing. He held up the script, like it was the Good Book. “It’s a line of dialogue in this script,” he said. But to him, it's a credo, subscribed to in a way that only fortunate people understand. “This is my favorite line in the whole movie, it all washes off.”

If one has never been stained, would one even recognize the freedom that comes from washing it off?

I didn’t intend for Christmas Eve to be a “teachable moment,” one of those hackneyed phrases from parenting manuals I eschew. But this particular evening, was indeed, one continuous teachable moment. I learned a lot, watching my kids, seeing them begin to fill in the gaps on seven of the most formative years of their lives and then, tentatively starting to pick their way through what’s next. They don’t really know what’s next. They don’t know how things will turn out. They’re adults now and they’ll have to figure it out. Nathan, of course, wasn’t in town for this unlikely little reunion, and he’s got a whole nother’ point of view on this sordid little chapter in the family history. Nathan was an innocent five year old boy when I married Rick, hoodwinked right along with his mama. There are fields there yet to plow, which he might well turn and then leave fallow. Being the oldest of four, Nate was keenly aware of the toll this took on me.

Maybe it's time for me to step away from the toll booth, to hang up my uniform and surrender my badge of courage. I’ve found an odd sense of safety, familiarity, sympathy and support in the process of earning it. Not that I put on airs, hell, I was too damn tired! I mostly just plugged along, doing the neccesary, and sometimes through the grace of God, the remarkable.

But maybe now, I can set the car down. I can begin to let it go. I can evolve into the next iteration of myself. Hey, that would be a new challenge --maybe a new challenge for a new decade, I dunno, I don't have a shit ton of decades left. There’s a whole big world out there, my kids are grown and I’ve done the best I can. The old man’s out of the clink. He’s done his time and I’ve done mine.

Later on Christmas Eve, after Rick had left, I sat in a heap in our family room, my feet on the ottoman, worn completely out from the cooking, the cleaning, the stress and three margaritas. My daughter’s boyfriend, Jeff, who’d met “the dad” for the first time that night, came in and sat down.

“You’ve got a big heart, Jean,” he said, with his sweet Irish smile.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I said, half conscious.

But maybe, I thought, maybe I’ve just got a wise heart. If I’ve learned three things in lo, these many years, maybe that third thing is-- bitterness is a killer.

Happy New Year, ya'll.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Uncovering Nuggets and Not Being Chicken

So, Mr. Fancy Dancer didn’t call me back. The disinterest must have been mutual. By the time we got the check at the seafood shanty, I was thinking, “this won’t work.”

I gave the first kiss the old college try. I even went on the obligatory third date, a custom my Jewish girlfriends encourage. They say you’ve gotta give it least three dates to see if there’s any chemistry. Meshuggah! At my advanced age, who’s got time to hope the third date’s a charm?

Maybe he didn’t like it when I corrected his grammar.

“Just wanted to let you know I’m “thing” about you,” he emailed after date #2.

“Perhaps you meant to say, “thinking?” I typed back all snooty. And of course he was “thing” about me, I’m a good kisser.

“See what you do to me?” he replied apologetically.

It wasn’t just the missing “ing”. It was noun-verb agreement, the incorrect use of “our” versus “are,” “there” versus “their” and “too” as opposed to “two.” And this is a man with multiple engineering degrees! But apparently, English was not his strong suit. Herein lies an oddity with on-line dating, you find out if someone flunked English before you get to the sniff test. Speaking figuratively of course, you know, checking them out, giving them the once over, the old, look-see, to determine if they have any nervous tics or behave like a criminal.

Rick certainly didn’t. He passed the sniff test with flying colors--always fresh scrubbed, clean shaven, a trace scent of Irish Spring soap, and on date nights, Grey Flannel cologne. He must have patted just a smidge on his handsome jaw (think Kelsey Grammar) right before our first date, where he arrived, face flushed and his hair still damp, straight from the gym, where he’d been whipped in racquetball by the Albuquerque Chief of Police. It wasn’t every reporter in town who had a standing racquetball date with the top dog in the cop shop.

“He smokes two packs of cigarettes a day and he still kicks my ass,” Rick said sliding into the booth.

I was waiting with the rest of the news posse he’d assembled for drinks and a movie, because then, and always afterward, Rick preferred to have other people around us. I just thought he was shy. We went to see THE RIGHT STUFF, which years later would be the headline in a feature story about us in the Albuquerque Tribune. We were a bonafide “power couple” according to the paper, proving that, sometimes life imitates the name of the movie on your first date.

And, it was, the right stuff, for a while. So long as we were busy churning out babies, (three in four years to add to the one I already had and the churning was more on me) and moving up in money, houses, cars, (from a jeep to a mini-van) and all the other outward signs of yuppie nirvana --if that isn’t an oxymoron.

Things were fine, so long as I didn’t obsess over the decline of his affection, which he blamed on the kids, or fatigue, or depression, or his growing discontent and confrontations at work. Things were fine if I stayed too busy with pre-school and soccer and science fairs and band practice to pay attention to that feint doubt in my gut, too late to undo now. Doubt over his past, doubt over his motives, self-doubt and recrimination over why I turned a deaf ear to my inner voice in the very beginning, needling me, bugging me, “why hasn’t this guy ever had any serious girlfriends?” and me naively accepting the explanation that at 30, he’d been “too focused on his career.” I married him even though it was me who eventually seduced him, after waiting forever for him to make the first move. What self-respecting heterosexual man puts off a woman for months by saying, “I have to get up early in the morning.” And what woman who’s even conscious buys this load of crap? I did. And I was a fool.

And ultimately, made a fool again, by the OTHER MOST BREATHTAKING KISSER of my life, who showed me, at 47, that love at first sight does happen and it can be beautiful and thrilling, life affirming and tragic, but oh, so very much worth the cost.

I promised you, I’d get back to this.

A lifetime in one day, that’s what it was. A beautiful, life changing day, sandwiched in between what would be the hardest days of my life. The “lifetime” day began with the mean, hovering grey realization, when I woke up on my mother’s hide-a-bed, that my next older brother Garrett, was indeed still dead. He had died suddenly in California. The ultimate cause of death was an acute asthma attack, he had it all his life. But his precious body had also been worn down by years of drug abuse. He’d overcome, time and time again, with long stretches of being clean, but like the Neil Young song says, oh, the damage done. Garrett was a musician, sculptor, painter, pre-school teacher, drug counselor, concert promoter, writer, and mail-order, ordained minister, who married his former girlfriend--not married, married her, but performed the ceremony. He was wickedly smart, one of the funniest, most endearing, evolved humans I have ever known and I loved him very much.

I’ve read in psychology books, that in dysfunctional families, (oh, barf, a cliche’) some kids act out and some kids accommodate. Guess which roles we adopted? Garrett left home in the summer of 1968, he was 17, hitchhiking all over the country, finding friends with crash pads from New York to California. But he was traveling with a monkey on his back, the sad result of one too many trips to the Stop 6 part of town. The circles in which Garrett ran were a dichotomy of the elite and the underbelly of provincial Ft. Worth, Texas, where we grew up. He and the country club kids would go on drug runs to Stop 6, which still to this day, if you Google “Stop 6 and Ft. Worth”, there’s a visitor's advisory to get the hell out of there after dark. Wish Garrett had. But that’s where the heroin was then and probably is now, only it’s the drug dealers’ grand kids peddling this shit. The lucky ones in our generation flirted, skirted, dabbled in drugs, usually not serious, and moved on, migrating and melding into the establishment we so shunned, leading us to where we are now--grown ups with mortgages and kids in college and an affection for red wine. The unlucky ones, who pushed it too far, whether it was genetic quicksand or some aching need to fill up an empty space inside their hearts or veins, the unlucky ones got stuck. Garrett got his foot stuck in a crack while the rest of us moved on, his addiction becoming a revolving door. When he died, he was happily married, still trying, hoping, working to get off the methadone which had been his maintenance drug for years. He did not make it. He collapsed and died alone on the kitchen floor of his San Francisco apartment while his wife was teaching school. Garrett and I had been thick as thieves, even as adults, despite the miles between us and vastly different lifestyles. We understood each other’s challenges, where familiarity bred respect, even though our individual demons wore different hats.

And so, the lifetime-inside-a-day, occurred the day after Garret’s memorial service, where I had to pull in all my strength, all the way up from my toes, to deliver his eulogy. There was also a cute guy from Wisconsin who spoke, he was eloquent and I was quite taken.

On this, the day after we had to stand and deliver at the funeral, he invited me to go hiking in the mountains. It was unseasonably warm, a spring-like day in early December, where as fate would have it, none of the other mourners who’d pledged to go the night before, actually had the legs to do it. So, we, not by design, but divine intervention, were the only two who spent the day outdoors, inviting the healing air and altitude to soak into our weary bodies. The Aspens still clung to their remnants of gold, the giant rocks, actually warm to the touch as we’d climb, sit, rest, and talk, climb, sit, rest and talk. We talked politics and the pitfalls of being single in our 40s.

“I tend to have these May-December relationships,” he said, extending a hand to help me up a slippery slope. Literally.

My heart sank. “You like younger women?” trying to disguise how hard I was sucking in air.

“Nope, I mean they usually last from about May to December.”

I laughed out loud. The 60 mile panorama from the Sandia mountains and our mutual curiosity was like a truth serum. What’s to hide when sudden death has delivered an immediate intimacy which comes from loving the same person? We swapped stories about Garrett, we laughed, and of course, we cried, beginning the process of replacing death with life.

Back at my mom’s, we made it through her stories, we made it through the last supper at the Mexican restaurant, with the mourners lapping up their last margarita and decent enchiladas before parting ways on Monday morning. We made it through tearful hugs from people you know you’ll never see again, the Garrett bond now being broken. I offered to give folks a ride to the hotel.

We pulled in front of the Rio Grande Inn. The other rider got out and so did Nick, my hands clenched on the wheel,

“Please God, please God, please make him stay just one minute more.”

He stuck his head back inside the car.

“Want to go for a drive, or something?”

I knew just the place.

The view from Nine Mile Hill was never so lovely.

“Garrett brought me up here once,” Nick said after we’d rolled to a stop in a gravel lot. “Except it was on his motorcycle and we froze our asses off.”

Nick and I were toasty warm in my sister-in-law’s car, overlooking the city, less than a mile from the very spot where I’d parked, alone, some ten years earlier seeking catharsis from the flickering lights below.

“Wanna come over here?” he invited.

When a person has been through so much pain, comfort is tantamount to a defibrillator. He put his arm around me as I leaned on his shoulder. His chin, against my forehead, his breath on my hair, his fingertips tracing my cheek, my chin, my lips. Finally my lips found his and we were kissing. Finally, he was kissing me. From the moment I laid eyes on him, I knew I had to. He’d walked into my brother Don’s house, on the afternoon before the funeral, as we were chatting with the minister. Nick sat down with a cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie, because Lord knows the food rolls in the moment the mourners do. He had the most luminous, inquisitive blue eyes I have ever seen and I knew, I knew I had to kiss him. Two days later, in my sister-in-law’s borrowed station wagon, overlooking the city lights, it was the most thrilling kiss I’d experienced since I was 16 years old. How remarkable a gift, when lips can say what words can not.

“I feel like I can’t get close enough to you.”

“It’s because the hand brake is poking me in the ribs,” I murmured.

We kissed some more, to hell with my ribs.

“I need to hold you.”

“Me too.”

I put the car in drive and we made little small talk on the ride down the hill. What’s to say when you’re fixin’ to bring somebody back to life? We drove past the Indian curio shops, the upscale condos with their pueblo-style flat roofs outlined in neon. We crossed the Rio Grande river, down Rio Grande Boulevard, past the desk clerk, past the noisy ice maker and the insolent, buzzing florescent lights over the vending machines, into the blessed, quiet darkness of his room, where, he moved his guitar off the bed and we loved each other like there was no tomorrow. Because for us, there wasn’t. For the first time in years, I was with a man who made love like he meant it.

I had bought into the whole package of Rick, his success, his celebrity, his clean cut background, his promise for a good life, a legitimate life, whereas Nick was a package of a whole different sort. He brought back the girl I’d forgotten I liked. He was strong and kind and smart and wickedly funny, uncannily like Garrett. I could lay it all down with him.

“Who takes care of Jean?” he asked one night, my first visit to Milwaukee after Rick dropped the hammer.

The Hoover Dam of tears had just broken and I was crying Lake Mead all over Nick’s bed.

“I don’t know,” as I blew snot into another wad of toilet paper.

“I will, baby."

But he didn’t. A year later, the long-distance relationship, with oh-so-wonderful weekend honeymoons here and there, proved that location can trump even fate. His flesh was willing but his backbone was weak.

I didn’t know how things would turn out on that first day back from Garrett’s funeral. So unsuspecting of the eventual heartache Nick would bring, and the emotional tsunami brewing at police headquarters just a few blocks away, I dropped a letter to Nick in the mailbox. There were lovely flowers on my desk that morning, my back-to-reality day; single mom, kids with school and sports and doctors and dates on the calendar, back to the high-pressure job, and the brooding ex-husband. I’d taken a walk to the post office at lunch, to clear my head of the emotional hangover, a low-frequency distraction of grief and hope. The metal door creaked, then clanged shut after I dropped the letter in the box.

And then my cell phone rang. Jen, my assistant sounded nervous.

“Jean, the police just called. They said you’ll have to pick up your son from school today, because, um, they’ve brought in your ex-husband for questioning.”

That was seven years ago this month. Seven years since I’ve heard Garrett’s voice. Seven years since my four day cataclysm, four days! Inside four days, I said goodbye to a beloved brother, fell in love and flew away, (day three was a travel day) and learned through my secretary’s hesitant voice that my deepest fears had indeed, come true.

So, to answer your long neglected question, El Nate, from my second post, are there rules of etiquette on when to disclose the details of one’s past?

I think we make it up as we go. I might have ventured down this murky memory lane, by, perhaps the 5th date, but Mr. Fancy Dancer didn’t ask. He sure could dance, but he couldn’t spell and he didn’t ask very many questions.

Think I’ll change the requirements on my dating profile:

Must be inquisitive.
Good grammar, essential.
Must not have an attraction to adolescent boys.
Should live within 50 miles or be willing to relocate, a.k.a., commit.
Nice package, preferred.

Let’s see how far that gets me. Today’s a whole new day and I’ve got a date with a guy who plays guitar.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Monetary Miracles and Momentary States of Grace

With this being Thanksgiving and all, I’d like to share some tales of gratitude.

“The Dude Abides," that’s what the kids and I say when some inexplicable stroke of good fortune comes our way. It’s a standing joke; born out of a phone conversation just after the great flood of 08’, when a record, six inches of rain in two hours turned my basement into a raging tributary of the mighty Mississippi.

My homeowners insurance left me high and dry, through their convenient exclusion clause, dealing with “overland flooding.” Even after my friends, my kids’ friends and my kid from NYC came home to help with the clean-up, there were replacement and repair costs for which I had zero funds.

Enter Uncle Sam. In grateful glee, I was telling son # 1 in Los Angeles that I’d received a check from FEMA that day. But the cell phone signal, as always, was spotty in this old house.

“The Lord provides!” I proclaimed, hearkening back to my Baptist roots.

“What’d you say?” asked Nathan. “The dude abides?”

I busted a gut laughing, “yeah, something like that!”

Of course! Of course that’s what my screenwriter son in Los Angeles would say! His concept of a quote from the “good book” would be any line of dialogue from any script the Coen brothers ever wrote! Lord provides, dude abides, same difference.

The FEMA money, thrilled as I was to receive it, does not however, meet the criteria for monetary miracles, of which, I have personally experienced three.

The first was the $21,000 Letter. Patrick, my #2 son, was the first kid with whom I experienced the terror of “funding college while Dad’s in the slammer” which, they do not cover in financial aid brochures. Patrick was a senior when his father was arrested, so I had a distinct Paddy knot in my gut for months worrying about how I’d actually pay for the film school to which he’d been accepted. (Yes, two kids went to film school, imagine the poverty and despair!) At the time, however, I had a good job and was reasonably solvent. There was just that little matter of the bankruptcy five years earlier.....hence the need to write a letter of explanation to THE dude, Dear Old Uncle Sam, a direct lender to Patrick’s prospective college. Summoning all my journalistic objectivity, I simply recounted the facts; I went belly up five years prior, when my marriage ended and my household income plummeted some 60%; the ex lost his job shortly after the break-up, providing zero support for the first 18 months after the split; BUT in the ensuing years, I’d more than doubled my income, qualified for a new house, a new car and was current with all my creditors, and (cue the violins now) surely this diligent effort by a single mother of four, teaching her children that indeed “anything is possible” should be worthy of an affirmative nod from her benevolent Uncle Sam, because, after all, I was working toward getting all four of my kids through college and on to the tax rolls!


And honey, this wasn’t a 3-pointer, this was the $21,000 college loan, buzzer shot ! The financial aid director at North Carolina School of the Arts, with whom I have a life long bond, called and said,

“I have never seen one of these “extenuating circumstance” loans approved so fast!”

What the hell did he think? Extenuating Circumstances R Us!

The 2nd monetary miracle occurred that fall, when I took Pat to the aforementioned school. He was in, that’s all that mattered, but I was still broke as a joke --you know, no extra cash laying around to outfit his dorm. But Paddy’s a sweet kid, grateful just to get in, (especially when you look at his high school grades) and he’s the quintessential minimalist, not in to material possessions. So we loaded up my Subaru with all his paltry possessions, which I washed (think art student here...) and drove from MO to NC for his freshman year of film school. He was so excited and honestly, I was so fucking proud that we’d been able to pull it off, I was having a prolonged , 750 mile, super-human strength moment. You know that feeling, when you feel strong enough to pick up a car?

It was sketchy though when it came time to get at least a few things for his dorm, (like Cheez-Its and plastic coat hangers) and still have enough money left for the solitary trek home. I figured I had about $50 left on my puny little credit card, which Cap One had so graciously sent along with a $200 limit, the very minute my bankruptcy showed up in the paper. I love those bastards.

We swiped the card at the Walmart, waiting, waiting, waiting. APPROVED! I also love being approved.

Well, okay! I take him back to the dorm, drop him off, we cry like babies and I’m heading back, 750 miles, by myself, empty car, two teenagers at home, with just enough money for gas and food, not enough for a motel, I’ll have to drive straight through.

I muse over the Walmart purchases.

“Hmm, I’m surprised it went through.”
“It was like, $64 bucks!”
“Shit! They’ll charge me a goddamn $35 over-limit fee for Cheez-Its!”
“I hate those bastards!”

Thinking, thinking, cussing and thinking, I do what people who are intelligent do, I called the 800-number on the back of the card, as I’m maneuvering the mountain roads in Asheville, NC.
I click the appropriate number to check my available credit balance.

“Your available credit balance is $783.42.”

Holy mother of God!!!! I almost wreck the car!! $783.42 ! Hell, I could have bought him a damn clothes hamper ! Cap One, in their infinite generosity, had (unbeknown to me, obviously) raised my credit limit to $1000, at the precise time when, golly gee, I needed a bit more spending money! I promptly pulled off the highway and ate breakfast at the Cracker Barrel. I even rocked in one of those stupid rocking chairs and bought three pieces of stick candy for the rest of the ride home, thanking the credit card dudes all the while.

Monetary miracle #3, just happened this week. While not as perilous as the 2nd one, when I almost careened off the side of a cliff, giddy with joy over my manna from heaven, this third episode does have a certain, uncanny, full-circle feel to it. This trifecta of the monetary miracles, also came in the form of a plastic card with money behind it. I got it in the mail, only this one does not have criminal finance charges associated with it. There may be, however, some strings attached --forgiveness and acceptance strings, which make me feel a tiny bit uncomfortable, having been the impervious “little mama that could” for lo, these seven years.

Turns out, the state of Missouri, on it's own volition, has begun collecting back child support for me and they’re depositing it in a handy little account. All I have to do is swipe and run. I don’t need no stinking approval. This is amazing.

What’s even more amazing, the amount being deposited each month, dollar for dollar, is the EXACT amount of money that was cut from my household budget last June, when I had to take a pay cut to keep my job. Like millions of other workers in this country, everybody in the company took a pay cut to keep the place afloat. That’s cool, I get it, but with me as the sole provider, two kids still in college and an 80 pound dog to feed, well, you get the picture....

But this time, it’s Uncle MO to the rescue riding on the back of the “Ex,” who I’ll call Rick in this blog.

It took Rick a few months to get a job, I suppose prison was one thing, but trying to earn a living when you’re a registered sex offender, that’s a whole different kind of challenge. I sympathize with that, to a point. From what I’ve heard, the laws make it practically impossible for sexual offenders to gain their footing, once they’ve completed treatment and done their time. This wouldn’t appear to do anybody much good, but such are the risks associated with engaging in illicit acts with minors. Never mind that Rick was one of four men who were caught and prosecuted when this boy’s parents confiscated his computer. Never mind that his sentence was longer than everybody else’s. Never mind that on the night after his arrest, when I would have choked him with my bare hands, if not for the bullet proof glass between us, he told me with tears in his eyes,

“I swear to God, Jean, I thought he was eighteen. He told me was eighteen.”

Never mind any of that. Eighteen? As if.

As if it would have been okay if that boy had been the same age his very own son, who was a senior in high school. As if anywhere, that would be considered okay. Okay, technically, it might be legally okay, but morally, uh-uh. Not where I live, buddy boy, I’m not buying it. And as it turned out, he was only 13, the same age as our youngest son.

Some people, have suggested, after gauging whether I could reach them with a left hook, that Rick got a harsh sentence. As news reports eventually revealed, the juvenile had a habit of meeting men in person after he’d met them on the Internet. Four of these encounters led to four men going to prison. Call me old fashioned, but I’ve always held that right is right and wrong is wrong and anytime there’s a kid involved, I come down on the side of the kid, I don’t give a flip how screwed up the adult’s childhood was.

To this day, I have never spoken to Rick about what could have possibly gone wrong in his life to have led him down this dark path. We split up when he confessed he was gay, but they don’t put people in prison for that. Still, I have never interrogated, screamed, accused nor questioned, "How could you do this to your kids? How could you lie like this? What’s wrong with you?” because frankly, I’ve been too busy.

Not trying to sound like a martyr here, but from the night his mug shot showed up on TV, the mothering-on-steroids kicked in like a seven year adrenaline pump which is just now beginning to taper off, because they're grown now, for the most part. On any given day I had to choose where to put my energy. I’ll admit, some days were better than others. I could allow myself to steep in bitterness, and self-doubt, wallow in the sorrow of so much loss, or put a fucking tourniquet on it. I chose to stop the bleeding.

Besides, to quote Jethro Bodeen from the Beverly Hillbillies, I had some cipherin’ to do. Lord knows I always had some cipherin’ to do. Like figuring out Patrick’s college and Lauren’s college and Sean’s college....and cars, and computers, and orthopedic braces, and emergency appendectomies and emergency water removal from my basement! When the water’s rising, who has time to ponder ?

I may not have answers, but by God I’ve got a little bit more cash. And far be it from me to question monetary miracles. Rick went from being an anchorman to being a delivery man. He doesn’t complain much and I give him a lot of credit for that. God bless him and Uncle MO, for alas, my lost income has miraculously been restored.

The Dude indeed, abides.

P.S. Thanks to all of you for your sweet comments on the blog and for your kindness and prayers for my brother Don. Dallas won yesterday and he was able to eat some turkey and pumpkin pie. All things considered, he had a pretty good Thanksgiving.
And thanks to you, I did too. Keep hope alive.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Most Enduring Male Relationship of My Life, Or, Oh Brother, Why Art Thou?

Sick. Why? Why does this have to happen?

I interrupt this dating drivel to talk about something really important.

My brother Don has cancer. Bad cancer.

And I am mad as hell.

It doesn’t make a particle of difference how I feel about this. God doesn’t give a flip if I’m righteously pissed or not. There’s nothing I can do about it except be a good sister, be a good sister-in-law to Bev, (who’s more like my sister, since she married my big brother when I was nine) be a good sister to my younger brother, a good aunt to Don’s kids, a good mom to my own kids, who adore their Uncle Don and most importantly, be here as often as I can. We live a thousand miles apart.

This morning, I’m at the Albuquerque Sunport, that’s what they call the airport. I am heading back to St. Louis after a visit with Don, and I'm sitting in front of a plate glass window watching the sun come up over the Sandia Mountains. Sandia means watermelon in Spanish. Funny, huh? I wonder how the Pueblo Indians liked it when the Spaniards renamed their mountain after a fruit, back in 1540? I suppose it makes sense, the mountains do have a reddish tint at sunset and the coniferous ridge along the top resembles a watermelon rind.

Right now, it just looks beautiful.

The high- desert sun pulls no punches here and neither does Albuquerque’s effect on me. She throws a right left combo of sweet familiarity and searing pain every single time I set foot en mi tierra madre. It is the ultimate love-hate relationship, if such a thing can exist between a person and a place. Each time I pass through this airport, my eyes look like two burn holes in a blanket, tiny and puffy from crying over someone who’s died or someone who’s likely to. What is up with that? Albuquerque should be SO much more than a suitcase packed with black, or a bee line from the airport to the hospital or the nursing home or the funeral home or my brother’s home, where he is suddenly, frighteningly thin from this damn cancer.

I am so tired of it being this way.

I used to be somebody here! Hell, even Bruce King, the three-term Governor and veritable political icon, who just passed away three days ago, thought I was good enough and smart enough and doggone it, he liked me! While every media outlet and average citizen he ever met in the state was mourning his passing this weekend, (he deserves to be mourned) I was remembering the day after the June 1990 Democratic primary when he and his wife Alice King, a political institution in her own right, called me on the phone.

“Jean, it’s Alice King.”

I was stunned.

“The Governor’s here with with me.” (He’d already been the Gov twice.)

“Mighty fine job you did for Paul. You had us nervous in a couple of places,” he bellered over the speaker phone in his famous Stanley, New Mexico drawl, a Texas twang by any other name.

“Thank you Governor,” I remained stunned.

“Alice and I would like to visit with you about comin’ to work for us.”

Until the day before, I’d been press secretary for the former Attorney General, who was Governor King’s primary opponent. Paul Bardacke was the face of the “new” Dems, and as it turned out, the naive Dems.

Flattered and tempted as I was, I did not take the job, not because I didn’t believe in the soon to be three-term Governor, but because I had four kids, the youngest of whom was only eight months old. I’d been crazy enough to work for Bardacke during the primary, but only because he’d asked so nicely.

But having Bruce King call to offer you a job does not happen to average New Mexico bear. Nor do most folks get to go bear huntin’ above the Sangre de Cristo mountains in a news helicopter, hovering, doors off, at 13,000 feet, trying to video tape draught-starved black bears, on maul patrol at the Philmont Scout Ranch. Oh the experiences I have had flying all over New Mexico covering murder, mayhem and prison breaks!

And that was just my work history! I went to high school and college here, got married here twice! Three of my four children were born in Albuquerque and I lost the only parent I ever knew here. Last night, I drove to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave. It was almost dark, as I am late for virtually EVERYTHING. They were just about to close the gate, I wasn’t sure I’d find her marker in the big graveyard at dusk. But with just enough light from the ribboned sunset, it’s fuzzy-edged stripes of red, orange, yellow and twilight blue slowly descending on the mesa, like Gretel, I retraced my steps from the last time I was here, in a somber procession on a sunny July day three years ago. We held her funeral in the chapel at the cemetery, then rolled her casket from the chapel to her gravesite, not 100 yards away, with a pastel patchwork quilt she’d made by hand, draping her shiny white ride. On this autumn eve, I walked directly to her grave, grateful to have found it, then got on my knees and patted the cool bronze headstone, much in the same way I used to pat her. I talked to her for a bit, I think it made her happy.

I drove past the nursing home where she died. From here I can see the church we attended, the hospital in which my children were born, the college campus where I went to J school, the downtown skyline and Central Avenue, Old Route 66, which of course, becomes Nine Mile Hill, historic site of the Other Most Breathtaking First Kiss of my life. (I promise you, my faithful ten readers, I will come back to this, it’s worth it.)

So much of my past is here, yet, none of it matters one whit right now. It cowers in the corner of my mind, respectfully reduced to insignificant, when compared to the real and pressing concerns of the present --my brother, who is in the fight of his life.

With such high stakes poker, one might might consider this blog to be trivial. It feels that way to me. But your words of encouragement (I honestly don’t know who Anonymous is and I know it’s not my mom, since she’s dead) coupled with the fact that my brother has always encouraged my writing, will keep me slaving in front of a computer until my forehead bleeds. Besides, I’m sure Don would like for some nice fella to come into my life and fix the blackened electrical outlets in my daughter’s room, so my house won’t catch on fire. I do know he wants my life to be easier.

Watching me has not been easy on him.

Watching him has taught me many things. He has shown by example, how a handsome, sweet, young man, (oldest of five, with a headstrong mother, who was married four times and never played by the rules) gets married at 19, stays married for 45 years, raises two kids and becomes an adored grandfather to a passle of grandsons. He's a handsome man still, who always has an eye for a new pair or Tony Llamas, or Luchese boots, Pendleton shirts or $500 knife sets, even a Harley, given the opportunity.

He’s a man who enjoys nice things and likes to look sharp. My little brother J.R. and I took him to get his head shaved the other day in anticipation of his chemo. Don preferred a real barber to the chemical kind. We took pictures on his freshed mowed head in the barber’s chair and we took pictures of him in his kufi cap, part of the West African wardrobe he acquired on a trip to Africa to teach teachers how to organize.

Don has devoted his life to public education, whether raising up kids or elevating the status of the teachers who are tasked with the raising. He was an influential union leader in New Mexico and truth be told, Governor King knew my brother better than he knew me. Don IS somebody. His current job is gathering up homeless kids in Albuquerque to help keep them in school. His dining room table is littered with construction paper get well cards addressed to
“Mr. Whatley.”
Mr. Whatley, who often does a lot of wardrobe shopping for his charges, large and small, although they probably don’t get Tony Llamas.

As I sit here at the airport, gazing at the mountains, my thoughts are interrupted by a trio of loud-mouthed, Bible thumpers sitting behind me at the gate, talking about witnessing for the Lord. They must be on their way to save somebody.

“I am so grateful to the Lord that I’m not under the devil anymore,” says one.

Congratulations. God bless, God speed, and hurry the hell up and go stand in line, because I don’t want to hear you anymore.

Witnessing for the Lord, in my experience, is best achieved in quiet places.

Like in my big brother’s bedroom last night, where we lay in the dark and talked about God.

I had gone in to say goodnight, but climbed in next to him instead. I laid my head on his shoulder, so thin now, because of this devil which is cancer.

I told him I was angry and he told me it’s okay.
I told him I was sad and he said he is too.
I told him I loved him and he said he’s proud of me.

I asked him if he was looking forward to getting started on his chemo and he said yes.
“It’s weird to think I’m actually excited about having my body bombarded with toxic drugs, but I am.”

He’s already behind on the count because his pancreatic cancer has spread to his liver. But in a blessed gift of clarity, his thinking has been muddled by the morphine, he crafted an analogy. He compared his cancer to standing in the batter’s box.

“There’s an infinite number of things that can determine how that ball comes across the plate,” he said in a voice weakened by pain and fatigue.
"Standing there, is both thrilling and frightening, because you might get a piece of it and smack a line drive or a home run," he paused, " or you might get hit with the ball."

“So I have two choices. I can drop my bat and walk away or I can stand there and take the pitch,” he said. “I’m gonna stay in the box, because either way, it’s gonna be okay.”

Don has a deep and abiding faith. Before he became a teacher, he earned a degree in theology, he was planning to become a preacher. He volunteered to drive the church bus and on Sunday mornings, he’d go gather up kids from the projects in Ft. Worth and take them to Sunday school. I remember this, because he’d pick me up first and I’d ride along with him. He eventually decided that teaching was a better fit than preaching, but he’s still gathering strays, only now, bringing them to school. Talk about witnessing for the Lord. And even though he went through the self-searching, everything up-ended, anti-establishment, anti-organized religion, long-haired hippy phase, like all self-respecting baby boomers, his faith has not left him. He is not afraid to get hit by the ball.

So, okay, brother Don, I’ll keep on swinging too. I’ve been dinged by a wild pitch or two, but I guess I’d rather go down swinging. Life is short. Love is good.

The sun is high, they’re calling our flight. I catch my reflection in the plate glass window. I look 9,000 years old.

But my hair looks great! All is not lost because I’m having a good hair day. And like my brother taught me, it’s important to look sharp. Appearance matters. And, as he and my sister-in-law reminded me yesterday, I am an available woman.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Eyesight, Hindsight and First Kisses

There’s one good thing about dating men in their 50s, their eyesight is as bad as yours. Nonetheless, I’m glad I tripled checked my look in the mirror, before I headed out on date #2 last Saturday. My mustache was looking rather unkept.

Feeling all foxy, (shout out to all you fans of the 70s) moments before his arrival, I got out the 2X magnifying mirror. It was both depressing and near debilitating. I was horrified to realize that I’d been walking around for God only knows how long, with every-which-a-way-hairs poking out from under my Clinique foundation. Ten or twelve of those short stubby bastards had taken up residence above my top lip, and the oft returning chin hair had sprouted again too. It was just too funny, I had to force myself to stop laughing as I plucked them out, then answered the door with a tender top lip. Note to self: buy some lip wax or a new mirror. The last one broke, uh, like seven years ago.

So, date #2. It was actually was quite pleasant.

He showed up with flowers, both endearing and slightly corny. (Okay, don’t yell, I know it was very sweet.) And he is cute --tall, six foot or so, with sparkly brown eyes and a well trimmed goatee and mustache, (looks better on him) and nicely dressed-- pressed jeans, a striped button down collar shirt, blazer and loafers. A far sight better than the last guy I dated, James, who wore Sam’s Club velour shirts and velcro strapped sandals, all the way to December, because being the short, Hungarian-Irish barrel-chested guy he is, he was always warm. I was always trying to tidy him up.

This new fella is appropriately dressed AND well behaved. He opens the car door for me.

“Wait, okay?” he said sweetly when we arrived at the restaurant he’d picked out. “I’m kinda old school,” as he came around to open my door. So mannerly, so hard for me to sit still that long. But I did, and I’m an old dog.

If you were to look up “neighborhood bar and seafood shanty” in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of this place. It was a jumbled mess of brand confusion; a sports bar, with baseball and hockey on big screen TVs at the bar, a little nautical, with lighthouses and fishing nets draped here and there, a dash of Cajun seasoning vis-a-vis purple and green mardi gras beads dangling from the nets, plus a pinch of Margaritaville, a.k.a. fake palms trees dotting the dining room; all this -- topped off with a Chicago style blues band kickin’ it at 9:00. The guys with the mullets near the dance floor were down with that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a food snob, except for my aversion to chain restaurants. We got a quiet table near the back and ate fried alligator and scallops, even danced in a little corner next to our table. And guess what? I was nervous! He’s a fabulous dancer! He’s taken lessons for years, even belongs to a dance club! I was a little flustered in his most capable hands. I was also worrying that those hands could feel my back fat. But it’s very humbling every now and then to feel a bit nervous in some situations, it doesn’t happen that much anymore. Twelve years as a single mom with four kids has somewhat forged balls of steel, it’s refreshing to hide them under a skirt every once in a while and let the genuine article lead.

And I followed. Didn’t mind a bit. Didn’t mind that first kiss either.

You know the feeling. When you’re walking and talking and you get to where you’re going and there’s that momentary, first kiss pause. Funny how so many of them take place in parking lots of bars and restaurants. And so, you’re walking and talking and you get to where you’re going, and your conversation just trails off in mid-sentence, (I had one guy say that kissing me was the only way he could shut me up!) and then, boom, there you are, kissing. It’s exciting and predictable at the same time. I always have to crunch the restaurant peppermint by the time we get to the car, it’s not very lady like spitting it out. So, there we were kissing, in the parking lot, a very lovely, first kiss.

It was quite nice. Really. Quite, pleasant.

I want heart stopping.

I have had two first kisses in my life that stand apart from all the rest, as if I was climbing back inside my own skin, which I had been missing for a, long time. In both cases, the first brush of his lips felt as if someone had thumped my heart with a rubber mallet, the involuntary reflex of my heart flipping upside down inside my chest, more thrilling than the steepest roller coaster, swirling, sweet, curious, intense-- like morphine is to pain.

Neither of these first kisses were with my husbands. That should tell you something. My first husband was the great, sweet, reliable, “would never leave me or hurt me”, boy next door. In reality, he was the boy around the corner. He was smitten with me from the time I was sixteen. Poor dude, he caught me on the rebound from...

Heart Stopping Kisser #1

His name was Tully and I loved him with undue devotion.

I don’t care who you are, everyone remembers their first real love. Except with me, the memory is clouded by the near constant cloud of marijuana smoke that hovered over this nubile love. Between the pot and the Boonesfarm Strawberry Hill, and the devilish gleam in his Irish eyes, the first time I kissed Tully felt like magic. None of the other couples making out in Casey Collin’s family room that night were destined to be together like Tully and I. The very minute we stopped kissing, to look into each other’s bloodshot eyes, Only the Beginning, by Chicago started playing on the stereo--

“Only the beginning, of what I want to feel forever.”

I was crazy in love, with this lanky, long-haired, Irish kid, who nobody called by his first name. He was simply, Tully -- a ne’er do well, artist, painter, dope smokin’, laid back, player, constantly clad in one of those green, Army surplus store parkas. Remember those? The ones with the fur trimmed hoods?

He had that furry hood pulled up over his head the night he snuck into my bedroom.

It had just started snowing, when he came loping up the driveway, round about midnight, and knocked softly at my door. What in the hell were my parents thinking, giving the 16-year old the back bedroom, past the kitchen, past the walk-in pantry, at the opposite end of the house, with an outside door?

I’d let the dog in, ostensibly because it looked like snow, but strategically, to keep him from barking in case the Irish boy came calling. Grateful to be indoors for one night, Bowser, (back in the day when outside dogs slept in their dog houses) laid on the floor, while we peeled off Tully’s snowy layers. He was much like a soaked pup himself. We pulled down the covers, (my mother’s antique quilt, the sacrilege !) climbed into my wrought iron bed and made crazy, teenage love, but quietly, since my parents were sleeping in the front bedroom. When we were spent, and this was after some time, considering we were rambunctious teenagers, we were actually laying there, in a post-climax coma, when I heard someone in the kitchen! Tully was out cold. I was in cold sweat, not knowing if I should try to hide him or just stay still. I opted for a combo -- I covered up Tully’s head and didn’t breathe.

The cupboard door squeaked, then I heard the clank of a glass on the ceramic tile counter. He coughed. Not Tully, my step-dad, who for some inexplicable reason was in the kitchen at 2:30 in the morning. Had he heard us? I blew out the bedside candle, just as the light from the pantry slid it’s terrifying fingers of light under my door. It wasn’t a real door, since the extra bedroom appeared to have been an afterthought, it was one of those cheap folding doors with no lock. I lay there petrified, frozen still, barely breathing and scared shitless, with 170 pounds of slumbering testosterone in my bed, thinking “why did I blow the candle out, he’ll smell the smoke and think my bedroom’s on fire!!!”

But, no, my step-dad was nosing around for something in the pantry.

Rummaging, rummaging, rummaging.

My God, what was he looking for? I hear the crackle of cellophane and jump. Tully stirs, pulling the quilt off his face. I shush him, pointing to the light under my door. His eyes grow wide, as I’m sure his penis got shorter. The pantry light goes dark and we can see the feint light of the kitchen now. We hear him opening the package of duplex sandwich creme cookies my mom and I had bought at the grocery story that day. My step dad was a severe diabetic, with whom my mother fought for 25 years, trying to keep him on a diet. He was as busted as I was, although I would have been disinclined to wag my finger at the cookie crumbs on his pajamas had me come bustin’ through the folding door. We hear the glass being set in the stainless steel sink, then, the horrifying sliver of pantry light under my door again, the cookies being put back on the shelf, cans rearranged to hide the open package, then blessedly, the light goes off, the house grows quiet.

And before my step-dad had time to take a
middle-of-the-night leak, Tully donned the Army surplus parka and, like the thief in the night he was, left out through the back door. By now, it’s a full-on blizzard. I watched him from the door, shuddering from the cold and the thrill of it. I’ll never forget seeing his foot prints in the driveway, musing that nature would cover his tracks by dawn.

He was buried on my 18th birthday. Killed in a gruesome car wreck on a New Mexico mountain road, coming back from a party during spring break. The news reports later said he’d been decapitated. I could have been spared that little detail. I remember hating the media, hating what I considered to be the miserable, vultures who got a hard on reporting other people’s tragedies. Ironic, that I would become a TV reporter just a few years later.

“Sissy....did you hear the news?” my mom was pacing when I walked in the front door.

I actually hadn’t heard yet, with no real-time, world wide communication back then. My girlfriends and I were immersed in Jackson Brown on the 8-track, driving home from our own little spring fling at Elephant Butte Lake in southern New Mexico.

“Tully. Oh honey, I’m so sorry. He was killed in car wreck tonight.”

Down went Frazier. First and only time my legs have buckled beneath me. I went to the floor, with the requisite number of “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God’s” you’d imagine from a young girl who’s just found out that her first love, the sweetest one, the meanest one, the one who broke her heart, but whom she loved still, was dead. He was drunk. He was driving home from the mountains and he smashed into the back of a semi-truck.

I didn’t have the strength to go to his wake, which was in the Tully home. Nor did I go to his funeral. My mother made stuffed Cornish game hens and baked me a birthday cake. She watched me roll the food around in my mouth, no appetite.

“You have to eat, Jean,” my mother said and I humored her, best I could.

We still have pictures of that birthday, my eyes swollen nearly shut from crying. I couldn’t look at the camera. I was profoundly sad. And I felt shabby. I was eighteen, set to graduate in a month and in fact, would be the big ass, commencement speaker come graduation day. But I had already been the other woman. Tully would come knocking on my bedroom door when he’d have a falling out with the real girlfriend, Rose Ellen Petrocelli, the straight laced Italian girl who apparently was destined to be his bride. Even on the night we met, (I found out later) he was on the prowl after a dust up with the girl next door, probably because she wouldn’t put out.

I did. I loved him, or so my sixteen-year old heart and brain reasoned, and surely, surely, he would love me back. Love me more. Love me better, because I gave him everything.

How eternal some truths are.

I told him he had to choose and he chose her. He went back to Rose Ellen, the Italian Catholic girl whom the Irish Italian neighboring moms approved of. And when he died, Rose Ellen was the grieving girlfriend who earned a front row seat at his funeral. They didn’t even know about me. They didn’t know how much I had loved him. And even though I’d moved on, by then dating a sweet, wonderful guy whom I later married, I never got the chance to say good bye to the rascal Irishman.

I told his little brother instead. 20 years later, on a dance floor at the Albuquerque Hilton Hotel, I was dancing with his younger brother Tom at our 20th high school reunion. I hadn’t seen him since high school (and I thought Tully's death had put a damper on my graduation! )
I had long since left New Mexico, moving around the country as a TV news reporter, at that time, married to husband #2 and future felon, who was also in the TV news biz.

Tom and I were dancing to some God-awful Bee Gees song that the reunion organizers thought we’d like, but they were off by about seven years. “Let’s Get It On” and “Free Bird” were Top of the Charts in 73’, not that Barry Gibbs crap. But I wasn’t on the dance committee. Tom Tully was the dance committee type -- he’d been in student government and ski club, the antithesis of his slacker big brother. By 1993, he’d been living in Wyoming for years, hadn’t married at that point, a geologist, I think. Tom looked so much like his brother, it was like seeing a ghost. I wanted to pour out 20 years of regret and sadness to some member of the Tully family, I wanted somebody to know how much I had cared for their long lost boy.

“I still think of your brother,” was all I could manage when the crappy song ended.

“Me too," Tom paused. "He would have been 40 years old today."
The sadness in Tom’s words hung like the disco ball over the dance floor.

I could not speak. My eyes filled with tears. We just looked at each other and I think I muttered, “so good to see you.” I don’t remember how I found my purse, found the door, found the lobby, and the concrete stairs out of the hotel, found my mother’s car, then Central Avenue heading west, away from the city, across the Rio Grande River, and then up, up, up Nine Mile Hill,
Old Route 66, the western highway in and out of Albuquerque.

I parked in some vacant lot up on the mesa, the city, down below. It was probably as dangerous as hell out there, by myself at night, who knows? I threw my head back and tossed out buckets of 20 year old tears and cried outloud,

“I’m so sorry you died. I wish you'd gotten to stay. But, I just want you to know, I’m all right.”

I doubt he died feeling guilty about me, but I felt better letting him off the hook anyway. I wiped my eyes and took in the vast expanse of sparkling city below, it looked like thousands of shiny diamonds sprinkled on a black velvet drape. I finally felt peaceful. And then, I fell asleep in the damn car.

Nearly a decade later, in 2002, in a completely random, bizarre twist of fate, in almost the SAME exact spot, I would experience the other “most breathtaking first kiss of my life” overlooking the city lights from Nine Mile Hill.

I’ll tell you about that one in my next post. I’m going out with pleasant kisser on Date #3 tonight.

BTW, we never got around to talking about dead boyfriends, or the ex-husband who just got out of prison, when we were at the seafood shanty the other night. Just didn’t seem prudent.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Dating Disclosure Dilemmas

Telling the man I just met on Yahoo that my ex-husband recently got out of prison for being a pedophile probably won’t inspire a lot of confidence in me. I hate it when people shudder, like they barely missed being hit by a bus. That’s usually what happens. I don’t want to drop the “p” bomb in between the salad and the main course and ruin a perfectly good meal.

Do I wait until the third date? If I tell him tonight, on the second date, there might not be a third one. There’s just so much to explain. In the past, I’ve waited until they could see that I am a perfectly normal, felony-free, sane, stable, accomplished, hard-working, multi-tasking, single, professional woman who’s raised four kids on her own for the past seven years, and to a large extent, long before he was ever sent to prison.

Why bog down what could be a perfectly normal “interview?” That’s what I call these Internet dates. Not that I’ve been on a slew of them, less than a dozen, matter of fact. But really, that’s what it is. I have been a journalist for more than 20 years, and I know a fact finding mission when I see it -- not in any duplicitous kind of way, just the facts, ma’am.

When the tables are turned, however, when do I go down that prickly path of recalling how my life imploded the night my ex was arrested? How do I begin to explain what this seven-year combat tour of duty, has been like? I scoff when I hear other divorced women gripe about only “having every other weekend free.” Try 2,390 solitary night watches with kids ranging in age from 13 to 23, on the day this “Extreme Single Parenthood” began? And when do I segue into how my heart swells up like a deployed air bag every time I even speak of my children, whom I love with a ferocity that words fail to describe? Because, when I do talk about them, I cry. Damn hormones.

If I mention that stuff too early in the discovery process, the “prospect” either thinks I’m a pervert or an accomplice (like his sickness rubbed off on me) or that I’m invincible, (I’m not) or that the uberbond between my children and I is impenetrable, (hmm, that might be true....) or they think dating me will be difficult, (that’s probably true, for none of the reasons above.)

It’s been my experience, that men are far more comfortable with more run-of-the-mill baggage: alcoholics, bi-polar disorder, stranded former housewives who’ve never had a job, high maintenance divas who get fired from jobs, women with bratty kids, or kids in jail, (easier to swallow than an ex who’s a sex offender) lesbian experimenters, compulsive gamblers, compulsive shoppers, compulsive eaters, compulsive liars.

The ex-con, ex-husband notwithstanding, when would the timing be right to tell this new fella about the fella who inspired this poem?

Sometimes life grants us moments, so perfect,
a person could die happy, having had just that one.
I had such a moment,
your face bathed, so golden,
the sky, your eyes, so breathtakingly blue,
and you held me.
Fiery orange and pinks gave way to twilight hues,
the eyelashes of the sun descending like a blanket,
good night.
And the world at that moment
was perfect.

When do I tell him about that, the most inspired, romantic, passionate day of my life? And the free fall which ensued shortly thereafter. How do I help him understand what I am made of, how I got this way? When a person has experienced the highs-of-the-highs, (non-drug induced) and the lows-of-the-lows (mostly, not self-induced) is it important that the person they’re connecting with has too?

How will any man relate to a woman who revels in the notion that life is stranger than fiction, (“you can’t make this shit up!”) who’s coped with a broad spectrum of panic; ranging from;
“what has he done?” (on the night the cops arrested my ex-husband) to “what is happening?” as my son lay in an emergency room clear across the country, to “what’s my balance?” -- the magnetic stripe anxiety I feel every time I swipe my debit card at the checkout.

Oy vey, there’s so much to tell! Such is the disclosure dilemma I face every time I try to date again.

But, I really am a nice gal. Cute, too. I don’t want to end up the poster child for “unlucky at love.” Really. I want somebody to hold. I want somebody to hold me. I want to go on trips to lovely locales, stroll down the sidewalk, stop in some pretty cafe, for a bite to eat, hold hands and tour museums and ancient ruins and night clubs and wide open spaces sitting on top of majestic mountains and then have sex. Maybe even on the mountain. Hell, I just want to go to Home Depot with somebody other than the dog. The next time there’s a crisis, I’d like to not go through it alone. I’m so fucking tough at this point, I scare most men. But really, I’m a turtle, dude.

I’m such a little, tiny, turtle.

But, I think I’ll wade into all of this detail. I’ll know when it’s time. When I feel as though I’m being dishonest by not saying anything, I’ll know.

And then, there’s all that other stuff.

Gotta go. I’ve gone through my closet and everything makes me look fat.
I’m going shopping.

As soon as my toe nails dry.