I’ve taken up counted cross-stitch again. Right now I’m doing a portrait of TV’s “The Golden Girls.”
Something’s off. Sophia’s glasses, I think. Or maybe it’s Blanche’s turtleneck.
I started too high and now the top half of Dorothy’s head is missing. It’s too late to take the stitches out though and Bea Arthur will just have to forgive me.
Like sands through an hourglass, so are the slow and empty days of my life.
I went to visit my friend Andrew in D.C. last weekend.
An undertaking of this sort is never a simple matter for me. It involves serious thought and preparation. Weeks of storing up interesting anecdotes with which to enchant and amuse.
The thing is, I am not an interesting person.
I’m best in small doses. I’m good for a 45 minute phone conversation. Three hours. Five hours tops.
But once my cache of funny stories is gone, once my well of salacious gossip has gone dry, I’ve got nothing.
I’m deathly afraid of being exposed for what I am: boring.
My friend Brian once asked me, “You don’t drink. You don’t do drugs. You don’t have sex. What DO you do?”
I didn’t have a proper answer so I just smiled. I tried for a mysterious Mona Lisa smile, but I don’t think I quite pulled it off.
Andrew met me at the bus station. It had been a hellish ride. A two-and-a-half hour trip had somehow become six hours. In anticipation of my eventual arrival, I’d jotted down some thoughts.
“The bus is not so much a Greyhound as a three-legged asthmatic Poodle.”
I perched on the window ledge of the Baltimore Travel Plaza. Trapped between a Sbarro and a KFC, not a magazine rack in sight, I set to editing.
“Three-legged asthmatic poodle.” Is that funny? Or is it too much? Maybe I ought to choose just one descriptor. Three-legged OR asthmatic, not both. And how to capture the dingy splendor of my current surroundings?
I smiled at a towheaded twentysomething in a Towson State sweatshirt.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
He didn’t hear me and I felt silly, embarrassed.
“The Baltimore Travel Plaza,” I write, “is how I’ve always imagined purgatory.” A woman seated at a plastic table next to me screeched into her cell phone. “Girl,” she starts, “you won’t believe what just happened to me.”
“The bus station is attached to a Best Western by a dirty hallway full of broken arcade games. This is the place where hope goes to die.”
When I see Andrew, I’ll tell him these things. I’ll try to make him laugh. I will sculpt the minutiae of my days into something resembling a life.
I’m unemployed again.
Again sits at the end of the sentence, wagging its finger at me.
I’m unemployed again and, frankly, prospects for long-term employment are bleak. This means that I have little to say. I’ve taken to telling the same stories over and over. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” I start.
I don’t leave the house much. I have three sweatshirts, three pairs of slipper socks and two pairs of black lounge pants. I rotate these. Today was a WVKR sweatshirt day. Or, more accurately, this has been a WVKR sweatshirt week. My pants have a hole in them and I keep telling myself that I should go to Target and buy another pair. It’s cold, though. And there’s nearly three feet of snow on the ground.
Moreover, of I go out, I run the risk of seeing someone I know. They will ask me what I’m doing with my life and I’ll be forced to respond. To make some quip about majoring in unemployment.
The other day I went to Barnes & Noble to buy copies of BUST and Lilith. Both magazines had published pieces of mine and I was excited.
As I stood in front of “women’s interest,” a thin figure came up behind me. Someone I’d gone to high school with. We exchanged news and commiserated over our shared state of limbo. She said she was thinking about culinary school. I said I was considering social work. I laughed a lot. Loudly. This is what you do when you are uncomfortable and have nothing of interest to say.
“Well, I’ve got to-” she began.
“Yes!” I told her. “I understand.”
This happens to me a lot on the phone. There’s a long pause. Someone begins to speak. “I should probably-” The other jumps in. “Absolutely.” Nervous laughter from me.
I paid for my magazines and walked back to my car humming a Bishop Allen song. “The News From Your Bed.” It was a University of Haifa sweatshirt day.
Back at the Baltimore Travel Plaza, I’m talking to an older woman. She’s from Ohio, I’ve discovered. In town visiting her mother.
“My sister and brother-in-law live in Cleveland!” I exclaim. This is not a particularly scintillating factoid I realize, but I say it with conviction, willing her to view it as revelatory. We are connected.
Because she is kind, she acts interested. We make small-talk about the incompetency of Greyhound employees. I feel cheered.
When we finally arrive in D.C., the woman’s greeted by her adult daughter. I wave at her, but she doesn’t see me. I put my hand down quickly, hoping no one noticed.
I learned how to do counted cross-stitch in fifth grade.
In the middle school at Tower Hill, there was no recess. After lunch was chorus and band. You were required to do one or the other and if you did both, your week was covered. If you didn’t, you had Octave. Octaves were short-term electives. One for each trimester. The most popular Octave was table-top football.
Needless to say, counted cross-stitch was somewhat less well-attended.
It was the first Octave I ever took. My first choice at a new school. There were two of us and Ms. Pepper, a somewhat forbidding eighth grade math teacher.
I took to cross-stitch quickly. I like order. Following a pattern. I like directions and endpoints and knowing how things ought to look.
At the end of the trimester, I’d made a small floral scene with a hummingbird. I gave it to my mother and signed it in thread. “Love, Marni.”
I never did table-top football, preferring silent reading or study hall.
Synonyms for “dull.”
I gave Andrew a tight hug. Andrew is anything but boring. He is beautiful and wonderful and maddening. He’s impossible to pin down. There are things I want from him that I’ll never get but I keep coming back anyway.
It was past 7:00 and I was nearly three hours late. As we navigated the still-slushy streets of D.C. I kept up a constant steam of chatter.
I gave him my best material. Nursing home stuff, mostly.++ Stories about the aged and the addled. Old-people-do-the-darndest-things type shit.
After several minutes of this, he stopped me. “Okay buddy,” he said. “This is your last one.”
Slightly panicked I said, “but this is all I’ve got!”
I cried myself to sleep every night the first summer I went to sleep-away camp. My counselor Robin would come and smooth my hair and I liked that. But I was nine and I missed my mom. She sent me a letter, chiding me. “Stop crying,” she wrote, “you’re making your cousin Abby homesick.”
I cried a lot during the semester I spent in Israel in college, too. I was 21 then so there were no excuses for my behavior. And yet. Many long-distance calls home consisting of stifled sobs and hiccups and “o-o-oh G-d”s. I made very few friends – five, actually- and wrote far too many self-indulgent e-mails. I’d gone abroad partly to see if I could do it. I could, it turned out. Just not very well.
I’m bad at parties. I hide. I’m bad at parties and also new people and new places. I like the familiarity of hour-long procedural dramas. I like reading Anthony Lane’s nasty reviews in the New Yorker. I like long friendships and old photos. I’m a nice girl. Nondescript, maybe, but nice.
My friend Claire once told me that she gets bored with people easily. “It just happens,” she said.
I couldn’t understand it. Once I like someone, that’s it. I’m in it for the long haul. You cannot shake me. I’m fiercely, stubbornly loyal.
I met my friend Jill when I was 10 and I’ve spent almost every New Year’s Eve with her since.
The world places a high premium on “new.” New is cool. New is now. I’m not that. Not cool, not new, not interesting.
And sometimes I wonder if there isn’t something to be said for that.
“Okay buddy,” you’ll say. Enough whining. Enough self-justification. “Okay buddy. This is your last one.”
++In the fall, my grandmother broke her leg. She hadn’t been able to walk properly in years- a possible side-effect of radiation treatments- but could, if needed, get herself in and out of wheelchairs, car seats, etc. The fall made it impossible for her to stay in the apartment she shared with my grandfather in independent living. It also fostered a precipitous decline in her cognitive abilities. Since she’s been in “skilled nursing,” my mother and her sibling have been spending several days a week there. I’ve tried to go as often as possible. Hence all the nursing home stories.