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This past October 9, the world celebrated what would have been John Lennon’s 74th birthday. On that day, the Internet buzzed with its usual indefatigable hum of remembrances, best-of-lists, think pieces and social media posts in memoriam. We don’t need to discuss the importance of John Lennon or his impact on the collective cultural consciousness—it is there everyday. As I can attest, even three-year-olds know how to sing the tune to “Imagine.”

I made a huge mistake yesterday.  I looked in the mirror. Here in my mind’s eye, I am a crisp, shiny red apple, but in the mirror, I more closely resemble that cucumber you forgot about for two months in the back of the refrigerator.  Remember how it was swollen and foamy?  Remember how it collapsed in your hand when you tried to throw it out? Remember the little brown puddle it left on the shelf? Yeah. I’m closer to that cucumber now.

Passage

I write across distances, from the gray waves of the Irish Sea to the blue-green waters of California’s Pacific coastline. More than this, I write across the elapsed seconds, minutes, hours, and years of my life. Only the other day I looked at the sweeping second hand of my watch and thought, how many times in my life has this perfect circle turned its course and marked time’s passage? In that time I’ve lived on two different continents, been married twice, have two children, three college degrees, and fallen in and out of love more times than I can admit. early evening, and across the tops of avocado trees, the spiraling of a red tailed hawk, the scent of the plumeria, grafted from an ancestor’s garden. A new world unfolds.

40

By Peter Schwartz

Letters



There’s no greater monster than the amnesia we feed into from our nightly perches.   I’ve forgotten more in forty years than you’ll remember in your whole life.   Apologies won’t help so I’ll just give you one quick piece of advice then be done.  You’re your own children and have the choice to stay young or grow up which will effectively kill them.  Be whatever you can live with then never look back.  That’s all.

Sorry, as usual, there’s more.  Numbness must be the most common state in the world, and yet, if you show people this, if you make no effort to hide your lack of feelings, I can almost guarantee you will have problems.  If 99 people out of a 100 pretend something, that 1 person who doesn’t ruins the whole charade. That person will be attacked until he or she pretends, or worse.  So go ahead, live on Mars, but make sure you make regular Earthly appearances.  And smile, but only a little bit, and never, under any circumstances, show them all of your teeth.

Don’t try to be clean in this life.  You’ll only disappoint and frustrate yourself and those around you.   I hardly know anything about happiness but if I imagine the happiest person on earth, it’s a woman with period blood smeared on her face, shooting hollow points at the police.  Or a young boy who has no idea it is not normal to eat egg noodles with margarine 5 times a week.   I tried to hide everything from you and I believe you hate me for that but I also believe that it is easier to hate a single person than the whole world, so, that is my gift to you.  Either way, happy birthday.

As you grow older, you may become shocked at how expensive everything is.  Fresh fruits and vegetables cost what meat once did.  And if you want either without pesticides or growth hormones, forget about it. Yeah, poisons are so common they don’t even call them poisons anymore.  And sorry, but this is just the beginning.  Emotionally, things can really get expensive.  If I smile at a toddler in the supermarket, more often than not his or her parents will give me a dirty look like I’m going to molest him or her right there near the canned beats.  Ridiculous, but if trust were sold by the pound it would cost somewhere in the thousands or even millions.  And the price for trying to love someone?  Well, you see what happened with us.

Okay, I just read these last two parts over again and realize they totally contradict each other which might confuse you.  I’d mention something about my intentions being good but I think we’re way beyond that.   So, I’ll use this to illustrate my last point.  Never be afraid to contradict yourself.  If you say one thing and then another, it doesn’t necessarily make you a liar because that’s just the nature of language.  It plays tricks.  It’s better to be big, to be a billion zillion things that nobody can piece together or make sense of than to be small and probably still misunderstood in the end.  That’s exactly where I went wrong with you.   I tried to shrink myself into something you could understand because I didn’t want you to feel overwhelmed like I always have, both as a child and as an adult.   I wanted your world to be something that could sit on your dresser, that you could stare at like a simple pet as you brushed your hair, or turn away from as you read a book.  It can’t be though.  Sorry, but the price of that kind of calm is dying inside.  Happiness is a giant monster that must be hunted.  There is no escaping the wilderness.


Love,

You-know-who.


I am firing my ego on the summer solstice. At least, that’s what I’m going to tell everyone when they ask.

“Hey, Gloria,” they’re going to say. “I couldn’t help noticing you’re bald now. Interesting. And what caused you to make such a noticeable and off-putting decision?”

I know I’ll be asked and that I’ll need to have a pat answer ready. I could tell them that I’m in solidarity with a friend who is going through chemo. I could tell them that it was a dare. Basically, I could lie. But I don’t want to lie.

This is what I’ve decided to say, “Why yes, coworker/associate/check out clerk/person on the bus, your astute observation is correct. I am in fact bald now. I’ve also quit looking in mirrors between now and December because I have a book to write. I had to fire my ego.”

I figure this answer is esoteric enough to preclude further interrogation, yet full of enough truth to satisfy. They’ll nod their heads knowingly, as if fully understanding that one must shave her head to accommodate the muse.

At least that’s what I hope will happen.

Grasp eagerly, girls, for fine gifts of crimson-bodiced
Muses, for the sweet peal of lyre.

My own once tender flesh has fallen into clutch
Of age, once dark hair turned leper white.

My heart plumbed by time, knees unfit for my own weight,
Which once sprang to fawn-like dance.

Oh I do go on about these things, but what to do?
Eternal youth is no human’s birthright.

For Tithonus of the tale, kidnapped by love-struck,
Rose-armed Dawn, and taken to world’s end,

Despite his immortal mate, and all his fine youth,
Could not outstrip white-haired age.

 

Translated by Uche Ogbuji

 

I’ve noticed a few silvers in the mirror lately and I’m kind of freaking out. Not in the way you might be thinking. I’m not afraid to grow old. I’m just afraid of grey hair. There’s a difference.

By the age of 30, my dad’s hair was dipped and preserved in silver like a knight’s helmet of radiance. It was beautiful hair and I never associated it with being “old”, per se. He had a youthful heart clear up ‘til the end. His hair wasn’t old – it was dignified.

I like silver hair. I think it’s actually sort of sexy. It shows that a person has earned his or her Scout badges and is probably worth talking to. I have beautiful friends with beautiful silver hair. I love it.

On them.

At 36, I understand full well what’s expected of me going forward. No midriff exposing halters. No Spandex. No more dancing on bars. I’m not saying I’m ready to lie down and let the Grim Reaper have his way with me. I’m a mother. A fighter. I’ve been known to jump out of a plane. I once joined a Chinese protest which ended with me being escorted out at gunpoint. I’m persistent, a lover of fun, and just a little bit scrappy. Let age try and get me. I’ll kick it in the head. In the teeth. I’ll bite age in the ass.

So, why am I afraid of the greys?

It was 1984. That year is all jumbled in my head. It was back in the days before the Wall had come down. Before Perestroika. George H. W. Bush did not yet know he was “not gonna do it” at that juncture. Nobody had a home computer, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as Gore had not yet invented the Internet. Phones made a funny series of clicks when you pressed the number buttons and they always had a cord. Adventurous non-Asian Americans ate “Oriental food” like chop suey and Chun King Chow Mein from a can. There were no milkshakes in the yard – let alone a best one. Stretch denim and fleece had not hit the scene yet. Reality television was called “the news.” Life was in muted color, yellowed around the edges and prone to appearances of people with bad hair and even worse teeth.

At age 11, I was more awkward than most. And as this particular Year of Our Lord suggests, I was constantly under the scrutiny of my mother, who strove to keep me from falling into the clutches of unforeseen harm. My mother has a lot of motherly concerns: absence of a coat in winter, inadequate lighting – but nothing sends her into spasms of terror faster than the appearance of a freshly showered coif.

When I was younger, I would be putting the final touches on getting ready for school, when my mother’s silhouette would appear noiselessly at the bathroom door.

“And just where do you think you are going with that wet head, young lady?” She would ask, emphasizing the offense with raised eyebrows. “It is the middle of winter. You could catch pneumonia and die if you go out like that. I had a friend who died of pneumonia because of a wet head. Think about that for a minute. Her poor family.”

My mother has an entire graveyard worth of friends who have died due to unthinkable circumstances. They have fallen off three-legged stools, choked while eating in bed, fallen on screwdrivers while running…and yes, failed to dry hair adequately.

“Mom,” I would say, “It’s 60 degrees out. It’s not that cold.”

“Well, it’s too cold to be traipsing around with a wet head, that’s for sure. I want your hair dry before you leave this house.”

Obediently, I would take out the hairdryer and blast my head for several minutes. Gathering my coat and backpack, I would break for the door.

“Not so fast,” She would call from the kitchen as I turned the knob of the front door to catch my bus. “Wait, please.” She would then hustle to the door where she would proceed to run her fingers through my hair.

“It’s still wet,” she’d report.

“What? Where?” I would ask, trying to feel for myself.

“In the back. You can’t feel it because it’s in the back. Stop trying, you’re going to pull your shoulder out and cause permanent damage. That’s the last thing you need – permanent shoulder damage. Run back upstairs and dry it some more, please. And Erika?”

“Yes?”

“No more morning showers in the winter. Understood?”

At age 11, I was already more awkward than most kids. I was pudgy. I had a face that, according to my well-meaning father, would someday catch up with my nose. My arms and legs were covered in thick, brown wool, and I had a monobrow, the fact of which I was mercifully ignorant. I dressed entirely in outfits from a place called Anthony’s, which was mostly frequented by little old ladies and tired looking women pushing shopping cartfuls of children through the aisles. To make matters worse, my mother kept all of my sweaters in mothballs over the summer, so no matter how new my outfits from Anthony’s appeared, they always had a hint of the geriatric to them.

But most importantly, I had overactive oil glands on my head which made daily cleansing a requirement. Later, in my teen years, this excess oil problem would make a public mockery of my T-Zone. By the time I made it to my junior year, there was so much oil in my face and hair it would warrant the attention of OPEC. Men in robes and turbans would show up on our doorstep and attempt to make deals with my parents for drilling rights.

Regardless, my mother was resolute. There would be no hair washing in the morning before school. No daughter of hers would die of pneumonia from a wet head.

This was, of course, a problem. When I washed my hair before bed, I would wake up with large swirls and bumps, creating the impression that I had a large tumor growing under the surface. I could wet it back into place, but then we were back to square one with the whole wet head problem.

So imagine my relief when one morning my mother handed me a canister of MiniPoo.

MiniPoo, despite sounding suspiciously like something a hamster makes in the privacy of its cage, is a white powder intended for use in one’s hair for cleansing purposes.

When you can’t shampoo…MiniPoo!

Marketed to invalids stuck in their hospital beds, it is the answer to the problem of the wet head on a cold day. Simply shake the talc-like powder in your hair and brush out the oil and dirt. Et voila! Hair like a mink.

And who doesn’t want hair like a mink?

The picture on the canister showed a gorgeous shiny haired brunette who looked as if she had just stepped out of a salon. I’d shake that white powder into my slick brown locks and watch it go to work cleaning up like a baguette on an empty plate of peppers and Italian sausages.

At first, my roots would turn an unsettling color of gray, so I’d brush and brush the dirt and oil away. When the gray would not completely disappear, I would settle on trying to make the color of my hair uniform. It may not have glistened like the girl’s hair on the canister, but at least it didn’t make a cloud when bumped. At some point, I’d start to get frustrated when I would notice that the roots running down my part had attracted the MiniPoo, turning the white powder into a kind of a paste. I’d rub my head with a towel, trying to grind it in and out as best I could. When my hair was somewhat under control, I would notice that my monobrow was a distinctly different shade of brown than my hair. It was nothing that a little puff of MiniPoo couldn’t solve and I’d set to work rubbing that monobrow until the drapes matched the…table runner.

Thinking I had at long last conquered the problem of bad morning hair, I would grab my favorite moth-free sweater and head to the bus stop. Completely oblivious to the strange looks I was getting from my peers, I would take a seat alone at the front of the bus where I would strike up a conversation with the bus driver. Our bus driver was the father of my fourth grade teacher and often had funny stories to tell about when he was a young kid in school.

“Oh, those were the days,” he’d say. “Young Tim was always sneaking out of the house to go down to the dime store. There was a young lady he was sweet on whose father worked there.”

“Those were the days,” I’d nod, flipping my freshly MiniPooed hair back over my shoulder and releasing the sweet scent of an entirely intact sweater.

At school, the kids would give me a wide berth, although I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until a kid in my homeroom class asked me what my room number at the nursing home was that I began to suspect that my new look wasn’t working for me.

Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t working for me then and it’s not going to work for me now. In a way not entirely unlike Benjamin Button, I’ve already been there, done that. And while I may have been raised under unusual circumstances, I simply refuse to return full circle to that reflection. And while I haven’t yet picked up the bottle of brown elixir and gotten to work freezing my hair in perma-youth, rest assured it is coming. Oh yes, it is coming.

I realize that the years may someday get the best of me. My hair dye may fail or I may get too old to regularly apply. The monobrow will no doubt return and I’ll be sitting in my attic apartment with the trunks filled with old clothes preserved forever with dichlorobenzine and camphor. My family will bring me pureed meals and give me the requested up-to-the-minute reports on the weather. At some point I’ll take permanently to my bed, never again to get up to use the toilet, let alone the shower. In those final moments, I will be transported back to my younger years – back to the fifth grade – and I will know with the wisdom that comes with age: I could lie there and let my hair become a grease pit so that when I die I could donate it to science, or perhaps to the chicken wing place down the street; or, I could MiniPoo, and die…with dignity.


 



This morning I found parity while looking, scrambling really, for socks and I found Drunk Hercules instead. Herc is a key chain fob that broke years ago, a tiny reproduction of a statue of Hercules, loaded to incoherence and leaning back with his johnson in his hand to have a slash. At some point years ago Herc shifted his drunkenness out of my handbag into my top drawer where the undies and socks reside, to live near the frills of my last vestiges of youthful lingerie. I discovered him after pulling out seven socks with no mates and digging deep into the unknown wastes of underwear I haven’t seen for years, where he was wrapped up in a garter belt. And looking at both Herc, of whom I’m so fond, and the utterly impractical garter belt, I realized that Herc would live on down there in my drawer but the garter belt had reached its expiration date.

Over the years I’ve peeled away the sexy detritus of youth as I settle deeper and deeper into being a fabulously premature retiree. My world reaches as far as the chicken coop and my son’s school and I have little need of a garter belt in either of those places. I never did, really, since I always found the conceit of garter belts a little too Frederick’s of Hollywood. But when I was younger, I wore them under army fatigues and utility boots, so they became a different sort of message. I’m not sure what the message was, even after all these years.

But the inaugural blow against sexy underthings was becoming happily married. That happened almost 15 years ago for me, and sexy undies have been in slow decline ever since. The first items on the block were the really ridiculous ones, lingerie I don’t think I ever actually wore: slips that I bought from consignment stores, sets that were cute only on mannequins and Kate Moss, absurd gifts from people that knew in some corner of their mind that I would never, ever be caught dead in anything that looked as silly as a mesh bodysuit.

The next to go were the regular work-a-day bras. Once I got pregnant, my tiny demure chest became vava-voom-tastic, and I needed some weird architectural wonders which were followed by the least sexy of all lingerie: the nursing bra. By the time I caught my reflection in a mirror after a year of wearing that most utilitarian of lingerie, I resolved not to wear them at all. Once my chest deflated I bought tank tops and camisoles, freeing myself from hooks and straps forever.

I used to keep one nice pair of undies and one nice bra for special events, the ones where I was required to look less like a scrappy boy and more like an adult female. That happens less and less, which is my choice really, but it’s a little sad to realize that if I was expected to show up at the Grammy’s I would be hard-pressed to find proper underwear for whatever outfit I decided on. More alarming, I would be more inclined toward Spanx (girdles, for those baffled by modern parlance) than some slightly sassy lingerie set.

I visited thongs (a.k.a. Butt Floss) only briefly in my twenties; they had been replaced by bikinis almost immediately. And then came the marketing coup called “boy-shorts” and I thought I had won the lingerie lottery. My undies have been reverting to an almost completely androgynous identity over the years, unnoticed by me until finding Hercules wrapped in my 40-year-old garter belt (it belonged to my mother before it belonged to me, passed hand to hand through the generations, a provocative idealistic hope unrealized through four decades).

So I can’t decide. What to do with the garter belt? Leave it as a symbol of the past, a saucy, ridiculous paean to youth? Abandon Herc to my sexless socks and boy shorts? I mean, he’s pretty loaded; I’m sure he’s got the beer goggles of millennia going for him. Maybe he wouldn’t notice that he was down there with completely sexless underthings. But he’s a Roman, after all, and Romans were a randy bunch, always looking for a good time in any way possible. Maybe it would be an insult to strip his home of all sexual frivolity despite the fact it will never be used again in my life.

Maybe when I die, hopefully at some ridiculously ripe old age, both Hercules and that garter belt will live on in my drawer, a little testament to fun and friskiness. My son, then grown with a family of his own, will find them there while breaking up housekeeping, and face a little mystery about the person he knew as “Mom.”

I have skinny jeans and I’m not happy.

I’ve never had skinny jeans before.  Of course I’ve put on weight since my college days – probably around 20 pounds (I was 5’8″ and 125 when I graduated.  Hate me?  That’s okay.  I hate me too now).  But I never noticed a dramatic change.  It just sort of snuck up on me – this morning.

Sure over the past 10 years I’ve given birth twice – once to twins – and I noticed that I am rounder, softer…a bit more “zaftig”.  And it’s not like 143 pounds is even so bad.  I actually feel pretty good about myself naked.  My butt is still kind of yummy, when I suck in from the side I can achieve a lovely silhouette, and my boobs have magically maintained a firmness and defiance of gravity despite the shifting landscape upon which they are perched.  It’s just that there’s more “stuffing”as my daughter referred to it recently, and I never really noticed.

I had always been thin.  Naturally thin.  I spent my life eating exactly what I wanted, when I wanted, and it burned right off.  When my 10 year old was a toddler, I could eat the macaroni and cheese off her plate and still look fabulous.  It wasn’t till I hit 40 that I noticed the hint of Spaghettios on my butt.  But I chalked it up to just not having a lot of time to exercise.  I could get rid of it whenever I wanted to.  Or so I thought.

“I’m so lucky, I have a fast metabolism,” I would say to friends who dared to eyeball the cup of chocolate pudding occasionally found in my hands.

And I believed this twist of fiction.

My jeans always went out of style, or I had long since lost track of them, before I ever outgrew them.   And if I did have a pair of jeans long enough to notice they were getting ‘snug’, I always had a great reason why they were no longer hugging my hips, but rather strangling the bajeezuses out of them; they were in the drier too long, I’m bloated…it’s Thursday.

Maybe if designers had kept the waistline of jeans up around my midsection, I would have had some sort of “control” group — some reality-smacking way to gauge the growth.  A “constant” against which I could judge the ever increasing, pudding-and-childbirth-induced wave of flesh.  Maybe then this wouldn’t have happened.  But no.  My fat responded positively to this fabulous new trend and like a tube of toothpaste being squeezed flat from the bottom, the “paste” came up and out the open flip-top cap.  Hey, if they closed, they fit.

But this morning, I went to put on my favorite jeans, which had disappeared for about a year and had  resurfaced after a good closet cleaning.  They didn’t close.  And it wasn’t pretty.

I couldn’t use any of my old excuses, and I had to face the music.  And put down the pudding.

So now I have “skinny jeans.”  And maybe – just maybe – one day they’ll fit again.  If I diet and exercise and don’t pick at my kids’ chicken nuggets.

Or maybe, even better, I’ll just wait for them to go out of style.

It starts when we’re children, the desire to be older than we are. We “lie up” for the first two decades. We tack on a year or two depending on the situation, whether it’s to impress someone we’re talking to or to reap the benefits awarded to an older person. I used to lie about being older a lot. Somewhere though, and I don’t remember when exactly, I caught on. “I see where this is going,” I told myself.

You don’t get any of those days back. Not the ones that actually pass anyway. I’ve written a thousand things in the past explaining why I have ended up doing what I do for a living. The underlying theme to it all is that ultimately I cannot wrap my mind around the concept of waking up at the same time every morning and driving to some office to play some other person’s silly little games in exchange for a set sum of money.

I want to remain Pan.

I am content to continue to trick the world into paying me to do what I do now, which is basically just to travel and think. In my head I’m still a seven year old kid laying on the living room floor dreaming of dinosaurs and booby traps and foods covered in ketchup. I don’t want to grow up. I won’t. They can’t make me. They can make me pay taxes and tickets and they can hold me accountable legally for a bunch of ridiculous laws and rules, but they can’t take my days from me. I keep telling myself that anyway.

I may have found a way to keep the vultures at bay mentally, but physically… physically they are beating their wings at the walls and doors like the end of a Hitchcock movie. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been neglectful of my body, but I also have not done the greatest job of self-preservation. If the body is a temple mine is one of those that the Incas abandoned centuries ago.

Fifteen years ago I was in amazing shape. I was young. I had never touched a cigarette. I was running a sub five minute mile. When I think of the last fifteen years however, I am surprised any part of me is still mobile. A decade and a half passed where I ate fast food literally three times a day. That rhythm was only broken if someone I knew cooked. It certainly wasn’t going to be me. I was been anything but inactive over that particular stretch, but that was my competitive streak and not an attempt at actually exercising.

Even after all of that abuse, I managed to squeak out an eight minute mile a year ago, ending with me throwing up and almost drowning in fountain in Dallas while my “friends” Titus and Rachel laughed at my convulsions… but I was really proud of that eight minutes. **

And then I quit smoking. My body started making decisions for me. My body decided that if I was going to deprive it of one vice then it was going to force me to fix all the rest. And now we’re mad at each other.

We had an agreement, I thought. It would keep my metabolism an ungodly high rate and I would continue to feed it delicious What-a-Chicken sandwiches with cheese. That was the contract. You fix whatever I do to you and I’ll make sure it’s worth it. Well, one of us reneged on our end of the deal. I took the cigarettes away and it slowed down my metabolism. In return I had to cut out the relentless pursuit of double cheeseburgers. When those went my body decided it would jab at me with hunger pangs. I met those with attempts at running to distract myself and that was met with knee pain. My body is resistant to anything healthy. It fights it like a virus. We’ve battled every day for over a year now.

I still won’t eat vegetables but I am over the fast food part.

I realize it may appear a little whiny to be upset over what has never been more than a ten pound swing in my weight, but it is principle. Other people deal with these things, not me. The people with regular jobs and kids and mortgages. Not me. I have to find a way to justify growing up in this one regard. I have to convince myself that I have to make these adjustments now in order to better run my little Neverland.

That will all sort itself out though. I’m going to take my motorcycle out and go play in the sun. I’ve wasted enough of my day already.

-S

** The rest of that story can be read here:
http://www.sladeham.com/rant_archive.php?act=more&ID=172#172

I just used my boyfriend’s shaving cream to shave my legs and now they smell like a man.  On the one hand, I’m still shaving my legs, which I consider a coup in the war against the loss of my beauty regime.  On the other hand, my legs smell like a man’s face.  Sometimes that’s okay, but it’s better when you’re lying in bed with oxytocin rushing through your veins and the sheets rumpled beneath you rather than fresh from the shower.

I used to have my own shaving cream, fancy bath oils to make me smell pretty, creams to make my skin glow, creams to slow the aging process, top of the line make up to cover the aging process, expensive hair products and monthly mani-pedi excursions.  Truth be told, none of it was for anyone other than myself or maybe, as fellow TBN’r Kimberly Wetherell suggests in her short documentary, for other women.  Regardless, I loved it.

Thanks to the bankrupting war on Iraq, Bernie Madoff, those parasites at AIG and a global recession, I am cutting back with the rest of the world.  I’m grateful to have a job, a roof over my head, food on the table and Maybelline in my bathroom cupboard.  “Maybe she’s born with it?”  Maybe she’s broke!

Berlin seems to house an above-average percentage of folk who look like life has been pretty damn hard.  Perhaps it’s the horrible weather, perhaps it’s the harsh, mineral-filled water, perhaps it’s the marathon chain smoking or the beer. I’m often surprised to find out the 50-year-old woman next to me is actually 35.  It’s not helped by the trend toward androgynous fashion, either.  Of course we have our beautiful people in Berlin, but it’s not as important or prevalent in the culture as it is in places like New York, Miami and L.A.

The truth is, life probably is pretty damn hard.  Berlin has always been a poor city.  It’s where you come to live cheap, protest and create weird art.  Everyone here seems to be starting over and barely making it.  La Boheme is alive and well all around this city and, while there is some fantastic art in all its forms produced here, even moderately famous people are squatting or trying to squeak by on unemployment and an occasional commission.

What to do?  On the one hand, it’s an absolute release to escape the daily pressures and expectations of image that was part of my life in New York City.  On the other hand, there were parts of that I truly enjoyed.  Come on, I’m an opera singer.  I’m genetically coded to play dress up.  It’s nice not to feel like the fat girl in a sea of anorexic waifs, but at the same time, being a “girl” in some ways is something I really enjoy.  There has to be some middle ground.

For now I’m doing what I can not to lose myself entirely in the tightening of the purse strings.  I’m learning how to use TRUblend and remembering how to paint my own toes.  I guess if my legs smell like my boyfriend’s face, I’ll count that as a win over not having a razor to shave them with at all.  The creams will have to go.  I will try to embrace the grey when it comes and remember to love the creases around my eyes.  I have enough to get by–more than some–and I guess it won’t kill me to finally look my age.  Oh God.

1

At six, the old man teaches her to play poker.

They sit at the kitchen table while her grandmother cooks dinner and her baby brother watches intently as he teaches her the basics of cards. Aces are the highest, then kings, and so on. She likes the face cards best because they seem to wink at her and whenever she has them in her tiny hands, she always wins. She picks up on it quickly and by the time dinner finds its way to worn tabletop, she’s beaten him ten times over and has accumulated a somewhat large pile of pennies.

He lets her keep the pennies, much to her mother’s chagrin. Her father, on the other hand, thinks it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.

2

At eight, almost nine, her grandmother passes away and the house changes. The old man’s smiles become rarer and it takes him longer to acknowledge things than it had before her grandmother had gone into the hospital and never came home. It lasts a little over a year and then, suddenly, he is himself again.

Well, almost himself.

Even at nine, she knows he’s different. He has to be, her child mind reasons, because she is. Maybe no one notices it, maybe she never makes a show of it, but she is different. Slightly cracked in the same way a beloved China teacup often is.

By the time she turns ten, it’s like the tide has come in and washed it all away. They move on.

3

She’s twelve when he teaches her how to bet perceptively during a poker game. They sit at the kitchen table with a deck of cards between them and a pile of pennies and he teaches her how to win.

‘Don’t bet too high outright, they’ll know your hand is big and they’ll fold. You won’t get anywhere.’

He picks up his cards and, after considering them for a few seconds, tosses three pennies into the center.

She consults her cards – three sixes, a two, and a misplaced jack – and matches his bet.

‘Dad says you were shot, back in the war.’ She doesn’t really know what the war was, but she knows it wasn’t Vietnam. Her dad was in Vietnam and the old man is much older than her dad.

He tosses out three cards, waits for her to toss out her two, and then deals them each a set of replacements. ‘Yep, in the leg.’

Her two new cards – another two and a new seven – don’t really help, but she adds three more pennies to the pile anyway. ‘Did it hurt?’

He matches her three pennies. ‘Yep.’

‘Who shot you?’

‘Germans.’

‘Did they know you?’

She doesn’t mean the question to be sarcastic, but that’s how it comes out and she freezes. The old man looks at her over the tops of his glasses and she feels herself blush.

‘Grandpa,’ she starts, hoping to apologize for her momentary lapse in respect.

He begins to laugh, loud and hard, and she blushes a little more. ‘Nope, they didn’t,’ he says once he regains his breath. ‘Probably a good thing, too.’ He tosses his cards down – four eights – and leans back a little in his chair.

She puts her cards down. ‘Because if they had, they’d have shot you twice?’

He laughs even louder this time and pulls the pile of pennies toward him.

‘Been talkin’ to your dad, have you?’

She thinks back to what he said about keeping her cards to herself. She looks at him with what she hopes is a good poker face and shrugs. ‘Maybe.’

4

She’s nineteen and she knows something is off.

It’s Christmas Eve and they’re up at the house to exchange gifts and visit. This is her second Christmas in college and she’s glad to be home. The old man is happy to see her and he’s moving around fairly well, despite the fact his leg has gotten more arthritic and he’s a year older than he was last Christmas. They’ve gotten him a new cane and a really warm flannel shirt that she picked out and his favorite candy. It’s a simple Christmas, but he’s a simple man and she knows he’ll love his simple gifts.

‘How’s college?’ he asks her when she sits down next to him and kisses his cheek.

He smells clean and his cheek is scratchy from a five o’clock shadow he forgot to shave off.

‘It’s good. I’m glad to be home.’

He looks at her and his eyes can’t seem to focus and for a minute the world stops spinning.

‘Liz?’ he asks in a soft voice.

Liz was her grandmother, a woman who died ten years earlier.

She shakes her head very slowly. ‘No, grandpa. It’s Meg.’

His eyes come back to rest on her face and he smiles, reaches out and pats her cheek. ‘You look good, kid,’ he says.

She smiles. ‘Thanks. You look pretty good, too, old man.’

He laughs and she tells herself that she imagined the earlier moment. It’s easier than accepting the old man is finally getting old.

5

She’s twenty-one when they move him into a home.

It’s a combination of Alzheimer’s and a stroke no one knew he’d had and the realization that they just can’t take care of him anymore. To her, it feels like they’re abandoning him, though she’d never speak those words aloud to her family. It isn’t her place and she doesn’t know everything, just the bits and pieces that filter down from her mom.

She decides to visit him on her next trip home. She drives to the nursing home and tries not to hyperventilate in the parking lot. She isn’t good with sick people, isn’t good with hospitals and what they mean. It’s hard when it’s someone she knows and it’s terrifying when it’s someone she loves.

She asks for his room at the front desk and is led to it by a nurse she knows, the mother of a boy she went to high school with and who she sees occasionally when she’s home. The nurse tries to prepare her for it, tries to comfort her before the door even opens, but she very gently pushes her away. This is something she needs to do on her own – she hasn’t told anyone she’s here for the fear they would have wanted to come with her.

She opens the door and says hello.

He is positioned on the bed, sitting upright and staring at his hands. At the sound of her voice, he looks up and a wide smile crosses his leprechaun face. It makes her happy to see him smile and she returns it with one of her own.

‘Hi, Liz.’

Her smile falters slightly.

‘It isn’t Elizabeth, grandpa. It’s Meg. Your granddaughter.’

He looks at her and his demeanor changes. He isn’t smiling at her anymore and the expression on his face isn’t one she’s ever seen. She imagines it’s the same expression he turned on the Germans all those years ago and it makes her heart stop.

‘I don’t have a granddaughter,’ he says, his voice cold and confused.

She backs out, closes the door, and runs to her car. She doesn’t speak for a day and when she finally does, she tells her father and it is the hardest conversation they’ve ever had. The doctors ask her not to come back and she can’t help but feel like it’s her turn to abandon the man who taught her how to bluff and what fresh blueberries taste like straight from the bush.

It breaks her heart.

6

She’s twenty-five when the old man passes away.

She flies home for the funeral and a very somber Thanksgiving meal and she spends two days trying very hard to be strong for her dad. Her brother helps, as does her mom, and she manages to make it through her stay without too much sadness.

In the middle, there is laughter and alcohol and the opportunity to spend time with family members she does not see often enough and they all wonder if the old man knew this would happen, that his death would finally bring them all together for a holiday dinner.

It’s two weeks later, when she is back in Maryland and she has a chance to slow down, that it hits her. She’s on the commuter train, on her way home from a long day at work, and she’s reading a book about baseball – the old man’s favorite game. She thinks about her memories, about the million little things he taught her. Before she can stop herself, his memory invades her senses completely and she’s overwhelmed by his death, by the fact his mind was gone for so many years before his body joined it.

Surrounded by people she does not know, she cries heavy, salty tears for the memory of her grandfather and for the memory of the old man he once was.

In loving memory of my grandfather, Winston Hunt, the best old man a silly girl like me could have ever asked for.