Okay, now that you’ve noticed, we might as well discuss this thing. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about; you looked right at it and cringed. My long pinky fingernail, that’s what! I was trying to keep it hidden, tucked into my palm, as I always do when I’m in the presence of people who cut all their nails to be the same length—“omni trimmers” as I call them—but, the more I think about it, I really shouldn’t have to hide. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.

You are nervous, you’ve noticed, but you haven’t got any drugs to help with that, and visiting an unethical psychiatrist in order to acquire a prescription for those drugs would have a negative effect on your ability to obtain health insurance, should you ever feel inclined to do so. You sit on the edge of your bed, feet firmly planted on the floor. You are attempting to ground yourself, so as to move through the nervousness and enter a calm reality. The floor is cold, though, and it is physically painful to keep the sensitive soles of your bare feet flat upon the surface of the freezing floor. You begin to bounce your feet up and down rapidly, and because you had been leaning your elbows on your knees, and resting your head in your hands, the rest of your body shakes along with your bouncing feet. You allow a noise to escape from your mouth – a hum of sorts – and the shaking effects the hum as well. With your eyes fixed on an arbitrary spot on the wall, your feet bouncing on the freezing floor, your elbows jerking up and down with the bounce of your knees, your head wobbling along with the rest of your body, and this jittery, moaning, staccato hum escaping your mouth, you appear to any voyeurs looking through your window to be something of a dunce.

I was sitting outside at my favorite coffee shop; one of the last times I would do so before I moved away from the sleepy streets of Beaumont for good. The man sat across the patio from me at a cluttered table in a puddle of sunlight and his own eccentricity. I have long since come to terms with the fact that I am a divining rod for insanity. I can spot it in a crowd, and in some instances I am even magnetic. It doesn’t wait for me to find it, but instead fights its way to the front. I’ve seen a lot of crazy people.

This guys though, this guy was a rare gem. A trucker’s cap covered his balding head, which on its own would not have been unusual. He was also wearing a fanny pack and a tube top, however, and had eight mountaineering clips attached to his belt with nothing on them.

And he was carrying a record player.

It wasn’t my first encounter with this man either. He was the non-athletic type, and I somehow imagined that he lived as a stowaway in his mother’s basement, occasionally trying on her clothes when she went to work and exploring the inner workings of his turntable. The first time we met, he cornered me on that very same patio and proceeded to discuss with me the different types of solder. It was more of a monologue on his part than an actual conversation.

“We used to use lead based solder back when I was on the inside. Lead. Lead is good. Now everything’s lead-free and useless. It’s better they say, but it’s not the same thing. It all depends on what you want to join. Sometimes I just put things together to see if they’ll stick. Did you know you can’t solder something to a mouse? Won’t work. Not even with 18 gauge rosin flux. It just runs. The mouse I mean, not the solder. Ask me anything about solder, and I can tell you.”

I’ve learned since then to simply keep my earphones jammed deep in my ears whether I’m listening to music or not. It buys me the freedom to observe without participating. That day I watched, intrigued, as the man alternated between tasks, sometimes rolling cigarettes, sometimes strategically arranging the napkins on his table, and sometimes taking a moment to run his tongue along a lighter shaped like a deer’s head.

The latter was deeply disturbing.

Years ago I used to make a habit of randomly picking up homeless people and taking them for fast food. I’ve always been fascinated with other people’s stories. I’m a collector, and the vagrant population has more than most. You won’t get an earful of inner-office drivel from them. You’re not in danger of having to listen to them prattle on about their misbehaving children or how the neighbor’s dog won’t stop tearing up the flower beds. Their stories are never that mundane.

It was never unselfish. I in no way ever felt like I was doing some great service to these men. At best – even if they were in fact starving to death – I was only buying them one more day, and it was unlikely that they were going to figure things out in those twenty-four hours. Still, a Sonic burger in exchange for the chronicles of another human being always seemed like an acceptable trade to me.

More than anything, I grew curious as to whether or not these people were truly unstable and wild or if some of it was just an act. One I remember particularly clearly was named Big Chief. Over tater tots he regaled me with tales of having removed himself from the grid on purpose. Crow’s feet and thick lines cut their way through his face as he talked, making him look like a living Fredrick Remington sculpture and his Native American roots came through audibly as well, his voice possessing the broken, yet soothing, cadence of his people.

“They are watching,” he said. He glanced repeatedly in the sideview mirror as he talked. “If they knew where I was I would be dead, and you too most likely. If I can be on a different car every night, they cannot catch me.”

“You hop trains?” I asked.

“It is better that way. In 2002 the world will end, and only the ones of us with places to hide in the jungles will be safe. I have gold buried across the country, so when the economy falls, I will be ready.”

“Gold?” I was a bit incredulous.

“And jewels.” He pointed to his pocket, where I saw the metal spiral of a small pad of paper sticking out. “It is all in here. When I worked for the Secret Service I saved every check they gave me. I was there when they shot Reagan. Every dollar I made went to buying precious stones and metals and only I know where it is all hidden.”

The world didn’t end in 2002, however, and I never saw Big Chief again. I imagine him sometimes though, hiding in the forest on the outskirts of some sleepy town as night falls, burying nuggets of gold and marking their locations in his tattered notebook.

When I was eighteen I worked at a grocery store. A homeless man named Redbeard frequently hovered outside one of the entrances, begging quarters from soccer moms as they wheeled carts full of food to their SUV’s. It was a brilliant ploy, accosting these people with assertions of hunger when they couldn’t possibly argue that they had nothing to give. I never understood why these customers were so quick to go to their purses rather than hand the man a bag of chips or some lunchmeat from their carts.

We called him Redbeard not just because of his matted red beard, but also because of the invisible parrot that sat on his shoulder and gave him advice. There was a pizza place next door to the store and one day I invited Redbeard to join me on my break. Over lunch the imaginary bird miraculously disappeared and a much saner man emerged.

I grabbed another slice of pizza. “You don’t really believe there’s a parrot on your shoulder, do you?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he replied with a gleam in his eye. “But I do kinda look like a pirate, don’t I?” It was true. He did.

“Honestly?” he continued. “They won’t give you anything if they think you can help yourself.”

There was some obvious logic to his argument considering that he was sucking down slices of pepperoni on my dime. That encounter though has forced me to take a longer look at the crazy people I come across, which is what I found myself doing on that coffee shop patio with the man I knew only as The Record Player.

Like the vagrants in my past before him, he somehow ended up with a name like a Batman villain. They should have had their own line of action figures. Legitimately crazy or not, I could envision a metropolis filled with them; a world where Redbeard and Big Chief knocked off banks while The Record Player scrawled cryptic riddles on construction paper and left them behind to confuse the cops, as they all idled away into the night in the back of a boxcar. If they were ever captured, their insanity pleas would be airtight.

My own past is not exactly devoid of crazy moments, and I can’t help but wonder if I, too, have been labeled the same way by much saner people somewhere in the past. Crazy is such a relative term anyway. What right did I really have to sit there and judge this man? Maybe he continued to cross my path for a reason.

Perhaps it was even Life’s way of keeping me humble. “Don’t get cocky, Slade. Regardless of what you think about yourself, you’re still two tables away from a guy licking a lighter.”


I’ve dated my fair share of crazy women, or rather women who do crazy things.

I’ve been with a bulimic, an anorexic, a cutter, a girl who went on to smuggle drugs from Mexico into Texas and who went to jail for it.

I’ve dated poets, artists, hippies, Johnson & Johnson reps.

All crazy.

And when I moved to Fargo for grad school, I told myself I was done dating girls who I thought needed saving from their craziness.

But, of course, I found this to be impossible.


I should have known from our first encounter that Emma was not the girl I should have asked out for coffee.

We stood next to each other in the back room of a Moorhead bar, she was this tiny little blond hipster girl wearing a tight track jacket, and we watched a local band fizzle through a set. Emma and I flirted between songs, and before she left for the night I asked for her number so we could do the coffee-date thing.

And then she was gone and I felt all warm inside and the band played on.

But Emma reappeared 15 minutes later, tapping my shoulder.

And when I whipped around I saw there was mascara or eyeliner (all the same to me) all over her temples.

Not in a pattern that made me think Emma had been crying and wiping it onto her forehead, but more in a pattern that made me think she tried to apply her mascara/eyeliner without a mirror and someone kept bumping her elbow.

She craned her neck up at me and I recoiled at the black lines on her head, and in a squeaky valley-girl voice that I would soon come to hate, she asked: “Um, do you have any gum?”

So to recap: Emma left the bar, came back 15 minutes later with shit all over her face, and then asked me as if she had been standing there the whole time if I had any gum.

I didn’t have any gum.

And somehow I didn’t have the intelligence to call off our coffee date.


We went out twice before I told her that I think we should just be friends, and oddly enough she took me up on that friendship offering.

But like any opposite-sex friendship where there had been kissing and heavy petting at one point, there was always the possibility that it could happen again.

And it did.

Friends with benefits, I guess.

All this is to say that I spent a couple months hanging out with Emma, learning more about her family and friends, learning that her deceased father had left her a lot of money.

Like, a lot of money.

Which isn’t a big deal, except that I was pretty damn broke and she always made me pay for our friendly dinners, drinks, anything.

And this isn’t what made her crazy; this is what made her totally frustrating.

What made her a bit crazy to me is that she saw a therapist regularly and that she didn’t seem to change the things she was working on.

At all.

And there I’d be, home working on a paper and she’d call from her therapist’s office asking for me to pick her up.

And she’d say, “Pleeeeeeease. I’ll buy you some ice cream.”

Feeling guilty, feeling the need to help this girl like I’ve felt the need to help all these girls from their craziness, I’d go pick her up and drive us to the ice cream stand… and, much to the dismay of the moths in my wallet, she wouldn’t have any cash on her and I’d have to pay.


Emma often offered to buy me something, or offered to pay me back, but it never transpired.

And my resentment grew.

One night she called me saying that she was sick, that she had thrown up all over her bed and bathroom floor, and she asked me to go to the store for several items (that added up to nearly $35) that would help her clean up and and several items (that added up to $20) to make her feel better.

“I’ll pay you back,” she squeaked into the phone.

She never fucking did.


Near the end of that summer session, I tried hard to avoid Emma.

Didn’t return calls.

Didn’t answer the door.

Didn’t back down from the just wanting to be friends label I pressed upon our shoulders.

But one summer night I answered her call. She wanted to know what I was doing the next day, and I told her I was going to the Moorhead public pool. I had been spending a lot of time there since A) we were in the middle of a brutal heat wave and I didn’t have air conditioning, B) it was right around the corner from my apartment and C) it only cost a dollar to get in.

“If you want to come with me,” I said, “that’s cool. It only costs a dollar so you only have to bring a dollar.”

I mentioned that it only cost a dollar three times in our three minute phone conversation:

“It only costs a dollar so you only have to bring a dollar.”

“The great thing is that it only costs a dollar to get in.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow with your towel and the dollar you need to get in.”

I told myself that if she didn’t bring that fucking dollar, then she would be watching me enter that fucking pool without her.

Emma arrived the next day, we walked to the pool and I waited for her to approach the window first.

But she stayed back.

“Go ahead,” I said, ready to pounce.

“Um, I don’t have any money on me,” she said.

And pounce, I did: “Emma, what the fuck? How do you not have a dollar on you after I told you to bring a fucking dollar? Come on. It’s one fucking dollar that I asked you to bring for yourself because I’m done buying you shit all the time when I’m broke and eating Totino’s frozen pizza and drinking water every night.”

She stared at me on the verge of tears.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I guess I’ll go home.”

I slapped down two bucks and met her poolside, finding a way to relax, finding a way to not be annoyed by her voice.

We went for a dip, and I did what I do every time I leave my belongings unprotected: I kept one eye on my shit and one eye squinting into the sun.


Emma and I made it to the deep end, a couple of dolphins somersaulting and snipping at each other’s tails.

I made a regular belongings check and shook water from my hair like a dog and made another check on our stuff and… holy shit, two little kids were rifling through our bags.

“Some kids are going through our stuff!” I gurgled at Emma.

I splashed and dove underwater, resurfacing only when I had to.

I got to the shallow end of the pool where the two little kids were still digging around in our belongings, and I’m moving as fast as I can.

As fast as one can run through waist-deep water.

My arms, swinging wildly at my sides.

A teenage lifeguard up on her ladder saw me, we made eye contact, and I pointed to the kids and blurted “They’re stealing our stuff!”


I emerged from the pool like a cat who had fallen into a bathtub: claws out, scrambling for footing, hissing.

The little girl, Indian and cute and thin and maybe eight years old, was wrist-deep in the pocket of Emma’s jeans.

I grabbed her elbow and put my face inches from hers and tried to ask her what the fuck she thought she was doing, but all I could manage was “Blaaaaaargh!”

Batman, I am not.

She jumped out of her skin.

Eyes bigger than the red and white life preserver hanging on the fence.

The boy who had been searching my bag froze.

The lifeguard closed in, every sun-bather and swimmer at the pool turned to watch.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I finally managed to ask the girl.

She opened her hand to give me what she had stolen from Emma’s jeans, and that’s when I had this surprising moment of gratitude.

I was about to see how much money Emma actually had.

I was about to see how much of a dupe I had actually been those last couple months, paying for her top-shelf medicine and extra-large slushies with added strawberries.

I was about to see who was crazier, her or me.

Tell me she found a crumpled up dollar bill.

A mobster’s roll of hundreds.

A couple of twenties sandwiched between unopened packs of gum.

The little girl opened her palm over mine, tipped it, and out fell two pennies.

Two pennies.

Clink.

I laughed right into her tiny scared face.

The lifeguard grabbed the shoulders of the little boy and we had our thieves.

The lifeguard wanted to call the police.

Apparently these two were part of a larger group of kids who had been causing trouble the whole summer.

(An hour earlier I had seen a few of them with their arms shoved up inside a Coke machine, hoping to get a paw on a loose can.)

I said that calling the police wasn’t necessary, but she called them anyhow.


When the male cop walked into the pool area ten minutes later and interviewed me from my beach chair–everyone watching, quiet, trying to hear–the cop ended by asking “And how much did she get?”

“How much money? Two cents. The little girl only found two pennies.”

He laughed and repeated, “Two pennies. Nice.”

And I felt sad for everyone involved, including myself, and I said, “The poor thing couldn’t have picked a worse person in the city to steal from. This chick I’m with is totally crazy.”

My mother holds me in her arms under a tree – or so the story goes, I am too young to remember on my own – and explains that daddy is broken and has to go to heaven. In heaven he’ll be fixed, she says. If he comes back here, he’ll still be broken, that would be bad, and we wouldn’t want that, right? I guess I agree to keep daddy in heaven because that’s where he stays. I really wouldn’t want him to be broken. I mean, I don’t think I would. At least he’d be here though. No, I’m sure I wouldn’t. Not really.

He is buried. I don’t know where. Then he is gone. We leave town, move to New York City and soon everything is different.

I grow up and go to school. I go to camp and take dance lessons. I read books and play in the park. My mother remarries and we have a new family. Somewhere in between she writes a book about our loss called Rachel and the Upside Down Heart. It allows people to ask us questions and it allows us to give advice. We’ve moved on quite nicely, we are told. We agree. We are fine.

I don’t know when I realize there might be a tangible access to him, a grave. He is in New Jersey I learn, B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery, to be exact, just over the river, near Newark. I wonder if I can see him from my balcony.

Visiting him never seems like an easy option. My mother is always full of excuses. The roads are confusing. We don’t have a car. Next year. Maybe.

Somehow, when I am old enough to drive, I round up a car and rally my mother and we are off. We may float over the Hudson for all I know. I have no memory of that day before standing in the rain in front of his grave.

It is very odd, almost creepy, to see your own name on a headstone. ZIENTS. There it is. I am not used to sharing my name with others. I am the only Zients in my immediate family since my mother remarried. It is one of the reasons I love going to dinner with my grandfather. “Ah, Mr. Zients, right this way. Your table is ready.” I love the sound of it. It makes me feel special to share his name, our special bond. But seeing our name like this makes me pause. I know that my father died, obviously. But there it is on a tombstone above some grass with his casket and remains of a suit below. He is all alone too. No one by his side. My grandmother is there, true, but she is just a little too far, a little too out of reach. To his left and to his right are empty plots. At least I know my grandfather will fill the space next to my grandmother. I do not know if I, or my remarried mother, will do the same for my father.

My mother has brought a candle that she and my father purchased together many years ago. My mother is the overly-sentimental-keeper-of-unnecessary-nostalgia type. I usually find this irksome, but right now I love her for it. We light the candle at the base of his grave, and my mother strolls away so I can meet my father.

“Hello,” I begin. “I just graduated college. A real big girl. I’m doing great.” I lie.

“Stanley, my stepfather, you know Mommie’s husband, well, he adopted me,” I explain, half expecting lightning and thunder to strike me down as I do. “Grandpa said it was okay. It’s a good thing, actually, but still, if it bothers you, I’m sorry.”

It begins to rain a little bit harder. I begin my goodbye, imagining, as I am prone to do, that I am not just talking to some wet grass off the New Jersey Turnpike and that he can actually hear me. As I do, the candle goes out. Damn rain I think to myself, ruining my moment. I turn to my mother and complain, “the candle went out.” She walks over to join me and it goes back on. Hand to God, it goes back on.

For a brief moment I am jealous that he chose to show himself as my mother approached. Was he talking to me or to her? Why couldn’t he have been clearer? I want to think it was to me, or even to us, but what if it was just to her. It did go back on when she walked over. Nothing changed as I stood there, except that it went out. He hates me. It’s quite clear. I am not important enough to overcome the rain. It’s true.

This is stupid. The candle went back on. It is magical actually. He was talking to us. Yes, he was talking to us. That is tremendous, really quite spectacular, a sign from above, if you think about it.

My mother and I hug and cry and declare it lovely. Lovely indeed. This is what we call beautiful we discuss, and we decide it is the most beautiful day ever in the history of ever. We leave the cemetery and head back to New York, and I feel worthy of being alive.

We drive, maybe in silence. I’m sure there are no words that would be right. No words to express what I now know, that my father up on the slant of the hill above my grandmother and the other to-be-filled spots is king of the cemetery. He reigns there, all powerful. And he’s watching out for me. I love that. I smile and feel comfortable (or at least as comfortable as I can) leaving him behind.

I drop my mother off, loving her just a little bit more and race to the East Side to pick up my friend Jennie. I had it perfectly planned before the day even started. I was going to spend the morning in New Jersey with my mother and would still have enough time to make it out to Long Island in the afternoon for Sam’s funeral. When I planned it, it almost seemed appropriate to do them both on the same day.

Jennie had called a couple of days earlier to tell me Sam had died.

Sam Mazlow was one of three brothers who owned Mazlow’s, the restaurant where Jennie and I had worked for several summers out on Fire Island. We’d started as busgirls and worked our way up, all the way to waitresses. Mazlow’s was our life for four months out of the year and now one of them had died.

“Of course, I’ll be there,” I explained as she told me about the service. I thought about our summers and the trouble we got into and the safe haven that Mazlow’s and their whole family served for us. I knew them well, even though I hadn’t worked there for a while. Paying my respects all the way out in Long Island, it was the least I could do. What a shame, really. He was too young. It’s really quite a shame. I made a note to bring my mother’s book.

I pick up Jennie and all her curly hair and head out of town for the second time that day. I want to tell her about the brush with the other side that I have just miraculously experienced in New Jersey. But it is a somber day and so is she, so I soften the story and just present the facts, leaving out all the grandness and glory. She is supportive and interested, but only as far as she can go. She could never fully understand. It was just between the three of us, a mother, a father and their daughter.

We drive, again in silence and my mind wanders, loving the concept of just the three of us – a mother, a father and their daughter. Mommie, Daddy and Me. I bathe in it for awhile because it is so foreign.

I don’t think anyone meant to dismiss me as a full-fledged family member, on either side. But that’s how it feels. I was too strong of a memory to be fully embraced by my father’s family and too weak of a presence at nine, when I met my new one, to demand my own niche. Even my grandfather, whom I adore, drunkenly referred to me in a toast at his 75th birthday party as a walking reminder of his dead son. It is not pleasant to think you trail grief from room to room at family functions. So I smile and mind my place and don’t make waves and hope it will adjust itself. But when the candle relit, I knew I was worth more than that. He was telling me he hadn’t dismissed me.

He should know I’ve never dismissed him. I wonder about him all the time. I picture him wooing my mother through the streets of Florence, Italy and finally proposing on the Ponte Vechio. I watch and rewatch his broadcasting videos and think about what else he could have accomplished. I know he would have been a huge, huge star. I check behind doors when I am home alone convinced there is someone there, a constant presence, a watchful eye that always makes me question my behavior before I am about to do something naughty.

I have imagined he hadn’t really died. It was all a ruse. He’d been wandering the streets with amnesia actually. And only, when the gods intervened, convinced I could handle it, and it was time for us to know each other properly, he’d walk back into my life and all would be explained. I’d take him by the hand and say, “It’s okay. I’m here.”

Or he’d pick me up from ballet one day before my mother had arrived and explain he was really a secret agent and the world had needed him and that was that and I needed to understand. I’d tell him I did. He’d say, “Good girl” and we’d grab my leg warmers and off through the back door on some adventures together.

I still see him in strangers on the street. I am constantly told people see him in me.

My head spins at the cosmic importance placed on the day, but as we head out of Queens I suddenly decide my father is an asshole, a real prick. Good riddance. Then I scramble for forgiveness and cry out to erase those thoughts from my stupid, stupid head.

What could he have possibly been thinking that day? Was it a hit on the head, a chemical imbalance or, waiting for me as well, an all encompassing “crazy” gene? Did my then four-year-old self flash before his eyes as he placed the noose around his neck? Did that image make him pause from what he was about to do for a moment, even just a second?

I spin recklessly out of control in my head as Jennie studies the map. Then the goddamn car begins to spittle and fiddle, and soon we are on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway. The car is smoking and it is still raining, and this isn’t how I planned it at all. And how the hell did the candle relight? And now, above everything else, we’re going to be late.

A nice man stops and helps us. He brings us to a mechanic who says he can fix it, easy. We wait and get donuts as he does. Jennie is silly. She must think something’s wrong. She reminds me to breathe.

We finally arrive at the memorial drenched and stressed, but otherwise intact. The Mazlows, Carl, Renny, little Renny, they all just keep coming. More family from all nooks and crannies, from everywhere. I spot Erica, Sam’s widow, who smiles as she greets everyone who comes her way. I stop my approach and quietly judge her. How can she possibly be smiling at a time like this? That isn’t proper. We mingle and make our hellos and then there’s Ryann, Sam’s daughter, who is beautiful, all brown big eyes who embodies all that’s wonderful about being seventeen. I offer her my years of survivor wisdom and take her address to send her my mother’s book, which I have stupidly forgotten.

“It’s hard,“ I tell her.But it will pass. Really, I swear. Look at me. I turned out just fine.“ I smile all knowingly.

We hug and she says thank you like I have just whispered a secret in her ear that her father is really just outside.

When I get home I am all too aware that I have lied to Ryann. Why would I lie to her? She’s so pretty. Did I even know I’d lied? No. I meant it. I did. But because of me, she now expects an easy road ahead. What a dreadful, awful person I am. But I didn’t know what to say. I had to say something. I had to. That’s my job. I’m good at it. Or at least I was. What will I do now? Will I run away? Keep crying? Call her up and tell her it really sucks, like a film that wraps around your entire being or a stench that never washes away? Will I pretend? Pretend I even know what’s wrong?

I am jealous of Ryann with her big sprawling family. At least she knew her father. Like those whiny girls in gym class who complained about their parents’ divorces and only getting to see their dads on weekends. I wanted to punch them in the face and scream, “At least you have a father, you stupid little things.“

I want to tell myself to shut up, but only crazy people do that. And then I get it. I’m right on schedule. Today’s the day, the day I’ve been dreading, but secretly knew would arrive. The day I become broken. Well isn’t that perfect. It is my destiny, obviously. My father went crazy, and, according to my mother did not show signs until his early twenties. Well, here we go. Dammit.

The wind rattles the cheap windows in my fourth floor walk up and the pink paint continues to peel. I light a cigarette, my new dreadful habit, and put on my overly appropriate new favorite song, Joan Osbourne’s Crazy Baby and collapse on my bed.

My bed, which I just shared with Alex, the bartender from work, whom I don’t even like. He’s kind of an asshole. But I was bored and declared it French night and he could keep up when I ordered en francais and that’s all it took and then we were here. There are studies that say girls without fathers tend to be either prudish or promiscuous. I had always leaned towards prudish, but recently, I don’t know why, with the likes of Alex, Steve, Barney, Robert, I am single-handedly trying to prove the prosmiscuous studies right. I’m disgusting.

I am a failure, a fraud from the “put together” life I’ve led.

I call my mother and quietly tell her I need help. I am grateful she does not judge and we agree to call a therapist in the morning. Anticipating my next worry, she assures me that she and Stanley will pay for it. And so it is done. I’ve staved it off for today anyway.

I smoke my Parliament Lights, unsure of what has just happened. The stereo wails and I sit and wait, aware of every sound. My hand shakes holding the cigarette, as I think about the simplicity of a candle and some rain and of him up on the hill alone. I search for a moment of calm inside my little apartment, because I know that crazy swirls in the wind right outside my door. And I’m pretty sure it’s looking for another way in.

 

The obligatory social functions one is committed to once you have a child are difficult for shut-in’s like myself. If I was childless, younger and spoke completely off the cuff, no problem: my outbursts might be confused for joie de vivre and risqué spiritedness. Instead, I often feel I’m on the verge of ostracizing myself from the parental community. But worse, since he’s somewhat defenseless and completely at the mercy of elementary school rites and rituals, I fear at any given kid-centric event I just might put the nail in the coffin of any future social prospects for my son.

And because I have a distinct flair for standing out, this comes with a high amount probability. It’s for this reason that I need social hazard insurance: in case of social calamity my son will be protected in the future.

If I had such a policy, it would have come in handy the other day.

We were at a birthday party in a gymnasium. The kids were thundering about, and the parents took refuge away from flying balls and the high velocity scooter-derby by huddling en masse by the coats, making chit-chat. Those honed in the art of chit-chat know the unwritten rules: be funny but not too bawdy; and leave no ammo for others to use against you later. For those of us who are not artful in following these simple rules, every social exchange becomes fraught with the potential for disaster.

As acquaintances known to each other only through hallway encounters while waiting to pick up our kids from school, we often reminisce about parental misadventures. At this particular birthday party, we swapped stories about our wicked, wicked tongues, cases of dropping F-bombs in front of the kids. I have a particularly keen awareness of this problem since “Fuck” was one of our son’s first words. Each parent shared a gem of parental folly. We laughed and commiserated. We bonded over our shared experience. All was right with the world.

•  •  •

When my son was about three, the depth of his obsession with transportation began to make itself clear. He taught himself to read, not because we helped him, not because we gave him reading aids, but because he loved trucks. Before he could read the logo, the “X” in FedEx was the first letter at his disposal. “X!” he would shout from the back seat as we drove through town. “Ecccccccckkkkkkkkkks!!!!” flinging his arms wildly to get our attention. “X! X! X!” in case we hadn’t seen it yet. When FedEx pulled up to our house, it was as though heaven reached down and blessed him, his eyes traveling over the logo with piety and beatitude.

And we’re indulgent of his passions, so even though my husband and I don’t know anything about vehicles other than how to drive them, we encouraged his interest.

It was his love of conveyances which inspired a little journey to the zoo. But this time, rather than drive we were going to take the MAX train, the special highlight of the trip. We would park the car and have a lovely day at the zoo after experiencing the wonders of train travel. A trip on the MAX? It was ideal. There was even an “X” in its name.

Armed with snacks, distractions and a stroller, we began our journey.

It became evident that I was unprepared for this trip as soon as we approached the stop. The train was already there, and I was pushing the empty stroller while encouraging our son to keep up. But he had spied a public fountain which was far more enchanting. The train came and went, our son transfixed by the jumping arcs of water near the homeless wanderers and early-morning winos.

It was just as well since I hadn’t figured out how to use the inscrutable ticket kiosk and the map of train stops. It would be a poor start to the day if we were to make our first stop in the wrong direction, and then get the boot for not having a ticket. Keeping a hairy eyeball on our son and our stuff, which I had to set down while struggling with the bills and change I needed, I finally conquered the kiosk and we were armed with correct fare.

And we waited.

The train we had missed was the last one for twenty more minutes. I had a bunch of crap, a stroller, and a curious son wandering back to the fountain surrounded by homeless men sleeping on the benches. I struggled desperately to make him less interested in the water, which he would soon be wearing, surrounded by the sleepers who he would soon be waking. If this was the set-up for anyone else, they might have taken the hint: Today is not the day.

But I do not take hints; I soldier forward. And eventually the train came, its sliding doors opening wide to ferry us to our destination, that mystical pixie land called “Zoo.”

It was a nice trip, I suppose. We probably saw some animals. But because this story has less to do with the destination than the journey itself, I remember none of it except the moment when I realized we needed to leave. Immediately. For my son has the same curse as myself: low blood sugar-insanity in extremis.

We all get a little tetchy now and then when we’re hungry, but my son and I turn into Class A certifiable nutjobs. And once the horse has left the stable, we’re in it deep. All my snacks and baubles and happy-MAX plans were now hanging in the balance at the tips of the extremely frayed nerved endings of a crotchety three-year-old. He was over it. He wanted to go home.

But we had to take the damned train back.

Now my plans revealed themselves for what they truly were: Beelzebub’s secret designs to make my life more interesting. I stuck this fire-brand of a tot back in the stroller and ran to the MAX stop, praying that no matter which train came first it was the one that would magically transport us back to our parking spot all the way across town. My shoulder bag was falling while I was inexpertly folding the stroller to load on the train which had just pulled into the station. It was crammed with passengers, and I was unable to work the stroller up the steps while holding my son. I was fumbling wildly, the pressure of hasty passengers around me, and practically threw the stroller under the train just to get rid of it while flinging the angry three-year-old Grumpasaurus up the steps. Feeling utterly inadequate to rise to my task, somehow I not only kept a hold of the stroller and my bag, but my son too. Somebody, perhaps recognizing the desperation in my face, gave us their seat.

I sat down, tried to pull the stroller close to my feet to leave enough room for the standing passengers, and hoped that the train trip alone was enough to soothe the savage in my lap until we reached our car, thirty minutes away across town. And it seemed to work. The train worked its mojo upon him, becalming this cross wild thing with the manifold pleasures of public transportation, which, through his eyes, I saw in a whole new light.

There was no shortage of things to poke or pull. The bell to request a stop beckoned him with its brightly colored tape. The bars overhead with their jolly handles enticed him to stand and jump for them, though they were tantalizingly out of reach. The passengers didn’t look at me with parental recognition and compassion, they glared at me as though I was a terrible mother who couldn’t keep control of her brat. Then they looked away to gaze impassively out the window.

The doors opened and closed, picking up more and more riders as we approached downtown Portland. The passengers became more interesting. The train car was filled, people pressed together hugger-mugger, all looking up and away from each other trying to maintain that polite symbolic distance we’re all fond of. I was struggling to give them more room, sitting on my bag, mashing up my stroller, grasping my son.

I was distracted momentarily by the stroller having been kicked into the aisle when I felt the eyes of all the passengers fall on me with a new intensity. I looked around to divine what they were looking at, but couldn’t find the source of their interest. I puzzled at them to find some clue to the mystery while a voice was speaking over the intercom. I couldn’t understand what was being said.

Do you need help, ma’am?” I whipped my head around looking for someone who needed aid. I gazed up at the operator, perched in a little glass enclosure above us. He was looking directly at me, scowling. “Do. You. Need. HELP, ma’am.”

My son had found the emergency button and was pressing it with delight. And why not? It was bright red, right above his sweet little face. It reached out and beckoned him like a siren’s song, “Come to me, little boy, come play among my bells and warnings, let’s play together and laugh…”

I bowed my head in humiliation. “No, sir, I’m sorry, sir.” I begged in my expression for everyone to forgive me my scandalous inattention to the basic tenets of public transportation, pleaded through my eyes that I was a novice, a rank amateur, lost in the jungle of rush hour traffic. There was little compassion staring back at me; the train had stopped for me alone during rush hour on a hot, packed afternoon.

Thankfully, a distraction offered itself once the train started moving again and the passengers went about their business of looking anywhere else but each other: a woman started babbling incoherently across the aisle from us. She was in her forties and wore her age in the rough lines etched into her face. She was edgy and twitchy, mumbling angrily to no-one in particular, which was fitting since everyone was doing their best to ignore her.

Everyone except my son.

Because he had not been educated in the Art of Public Transportation, he was unaware of the subtle rules and regulations of ridership and did not know the cardinal rule: Do Not Engage the Crazy Person. For him, she was by far the most interesting thing on the train. He stared at her with open-faced, earnest curiosity as she mumbled and sizzled, waves of crazy juice oozing from every pore. She was other-worldly to him, and it showed on every inch of his sweet innocent face.

She must have felt the beta-waves from Universe Number 10 beaming from my son, because she turned to face him…

•   •   •

I was recounting this tale to the parents at the gymnasium birthday party. We had reached the crescendo, the high point of the story.

“She must have felt him look at her,” I continued. “She was getting louder and louder as she looked for her audience. She turned around, looked him in the eye and said…”

I paused for effect, pointing into my tiny audience with a menacing finger, recapturing the moment with Oscar Award conviction.

“‘Yeah, I killed my whole fucking family, and I’d do it again, too!'”

But I was pointing directly at a newcomer who had just stepped into our group, and her expression was devolving precipitously from sincere interest as she approached to see what all the fuss was about, to sincere shock as I my final words trailed off and I lowered my finger from threatening her further.

A blanket of abstract embarrassment fell upon the faces of my parental audience, much like those of the people on the train who could no longer ignore the wacko menacing my three-year-old. Except now I was the wacko, verbally assaulting an acquaintance, a woman I already struggle to make polite conversation with because we have so little in common, a woman who is a leading member of the PTA and, of course, the gatekeeper to all social engagements with her son, who is my son’s friend.

“She was describing an encounter on the MAX,” someone explained after a long two seconds of silence began to oppress us all equally.

“Oh,” the woman said.

Someone else volunteered, “We were talking about dropping F-bombs…”

I looked sheepish. “I was talking about a crazy person who was yelling at my son,” I said. “I didn’t mean to point, um, at you.” I paused. “Or threaten anybody, of course.”

Kaff.

Conversation stuttered a bit, choking along while our group foundered about looking for the new thread of shared experience. Our latest member, who I had just terrified by threatening the murder of my whole family, gamely came up with some unsurprisingly tame story about her son using “damn” for the first time. Then, in some silent compact, we all agreed to move on to some other subject.

•   •   •

For people like us, those of us only comfortable in our own skins with the people who know us best, who guarantee a level of forgiveness that we just can’t expect from the greater society, these innocuous child-centered events fill us with terror. Birthday parties are always another opportunity for me to inadvertently threaten bodily harm to someone, or out myself as a complete social basket-case by saying exactly what I think to exactly the wrong person.

So when you meet “me” at your next school event or child’s birthday party, that person who is funny right up until the point when they raise the stakes just a little too high, have mercy on them and realize that they suffer far more greatly than you. You will laugh at their antics, and be embarrassed on their behalf, but they will go home and wonder when anyone will invite their kid to anything ever again.

And when they can invest heavily in social hazard insurance.


I decided I was mentally ill when I was seven years old. I had just seen Sally Field in Sybil, and I agreed:

It was all green. And the people!

[Later, when I performed this scene for my acting class at the performing arts high school I attended, much to the chagrin of the real actors there, my teacher, Heloise Jones, insisted I reached octaves only discernable by dogs.]

Everyone always said my dad was crazy, so I assumed that I was, too. Figured it was like inheriting his brown eyes and Cherokee skin. 

With a loco padre lurking around the hacienda, I learned pretty early to hide as much as possible, so I used to spend a lot of time watching television in my dad’s room. Dad had converted the garage into a dance studio, so he spent most of his time out there teaching lonely old women how to foxtrot.

His bedroom was a ghost town during the day, so I’d hide on the floor in between the bed and the wall and watch cable all day, sometimes with the sound off, just to be sure no one would find me.

[It’s no surprise to anyone in my family that I turned out to be a filmmaker.]

Dad got cable before anyone else in our neighborhood. He loved technology and always had to have the biggest and best of everything, whether he could afford it or not.

Usually not.

Sybil was on cable all the time, and it was one of my favorite movies. It was the most honest thing I had ever seen on television. Kermit and Miss Piggy had nothing on Sybil, and Sesame Street was for babies. I was seven, and I was already grown up.

I didn’t feel especially crazy. I didn’t hallucinate or hear voices or scratch myself all over. I didn’t drool or stutter or even fart all that much. But I knew I was crazy nevertheless. Like how people know when they’re poor (which we were, too.)

Problem was, I didn’t know how I was crazy.

Crazy people have designated crazy skills. Sort of like superheroes. Batman has all the cool gadgets. Wonder Woman has the Invisible Plane and Lasso of Truth. Aquaman has badass underwater chops. These skills are specific to the superhero.

It’s like that for crazy people, too. Berkowitz had voices; Frances Farmer had psychotic rage, Woody Allen has…well, he has a lot of things.

My sister’s crazy was a little red diablo named Rage. She used to chase my brother around the kitchen table with a butcher knife when he wouldn’t get up from the piano fast enough so she could practice The Theme from E.T. before her next piano class. My brother tended to hog the piano, and he didn’t take either of us girls very seriously, which further infuriated Sister.

The first night she broke out the butcher knife, I let her off the hook and didn’t tell Mom. After all, no blood was shed. By the third time, I told Mom I thought Sister should be put in an insane asylum. I knew it was only a matter of time before someone lost a limb. Probably my brother. Mom thought I was being funny.

I wasn’t.

In elementary school, the principal could always discern the fighting climate by the placement of my sister’s shirtsleeves. Rolled up: there was big trouble brewing. Rolled down: smooth waters.

My brother’s crazy was pretty easy to identify, too. He played the piano for monster stretches at a time. On the weekends, he practiced up to eight or ten hours at a time; hence my sister’s predilection for butcher knives.

My brother had the piano, and my sister had her knives.

What about me?

Sometimes, I’d feel like that little bird from that kid’s book, “Are You My Mother?”

“Are you my crazy? What about you? How bout you?”  I’d wonder as I ate my meals one section at a time, hopped over sidewalk cracks, or reorganized the kitchen cupboards at midnight.

Soon however, the anxiety over finding my brand of crazy was usurped by the fear of getting my ass kicked by one of the neighborhood girls, usually Cora Rodriguez.

Cora and the rest of the girls hated me because one night, I made out with Cora’s older brother Max behind the skating rink. Apparently, he had a girlfriend he forgot to disclose.

When all the other guys at school were wearing skintight Jordache jeans or those ridiculous parachute pants, Max wore baggy Levi’s with holes in the knees. He drove a 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, and he smelled like bacon, maple syrup and marijuana, an intoxicating combination, I assure you.

If we had been making out in his car, I’m sure I would have given him my virginity. To this day, I spread for Mopar. But on that particular evening, his car was in the shop getting new brake pads, so he had to settle for third base.

(I did eventually lose my virginity in a 67 Camaro to Max’s good friend Diego.)

But on that pivotal evening, behind that broken down skating rink, underneath a sycamore tree that flanked a field of fertile corn, I made out with the most popular, most beautiful, most badass guy at the high school. It was all too Sixteen Candles.

And just as all movies come to an end, so did my affair with Max. By the next morning, it was all over my junior high school as well as the high school. I was officially branded a slut, and therefore guaranteed an ass whipping.

As I played pick-up sticks by the flagpole, trying to pretend I didn’t hear the whispers, Cora and her minions jumped me. They jumped me again at morning recess, stole my lunch, followed me home, whipped me in my own yard, and then scattered like chickens when my little sister came to the door.

This was my routine for the next three months.

Then one night, I sat down at the piano to practice Bach. I had a concert coming up, and I was working on Invention #13. It wasn’t coming along. In fact, had Heloise Jones heard my rendition, it would have hurt her ears, too. My fingers stumbled for the notes. Tripped on the tones. I’m sure our dogs were barking.

Brother dashed into the room. Sister gave chase, waving a butcher knife over her head.

“Don’t think I won’t do it,” Sister yelled.

“I know you will!” Brother replied as he darted through the swinging door then dodged into the den.

“Just stop it,” I screamed. “Just stop it!” Neither of them gave pause to notice me. Around and around they went like Tom and Jerry.

And that’s when it hit me like a golf bag full of lightning bolts. Sitting there at the piano, screaming as loudly as possible for the madness to stop and banging on the keys like a lunatic toddler, I realized they couldn’t see me, hear me or even smell me. I was invisible. And I thought that was way cooler than being crazy.

I figured it must somehow be related to Evolution, like I had learned about on cable. According to this program, over time, the more an animal needs a certain trait to survive, the more likely it is that Evolution will grant the request. Like a fairy godmother, Evolution had bestowed upon me a special power, not unlike that of the cuttlefish. To protect against predators, cuttlefish can alter their skin color at will. Because of this evolutionary gift, it has survived for eons.

Maybe I could be like that. Like the cuttlefish – an ever-changing ebb and flow of translucent colors. Maybe if I practiced being invisible and got really good at it, I could survive junior high school and Cora Rodriguez. 

Maybe I could survive Dad, too.

It would mean hours of dedicated practice. I’d hide in my room or by the side of my dad’s bed and work on it for hours, usually while Sybil was playing. I’d get super quiet, and I’d close my eyes and imagine the cuttlefish, its shifting colors, its three hearts pumping turquoise blood to its nether corners, willing a disappearance.

I knew there were Buddhist monks who could change their body temperature through meditation, so I’d practice all the time. I just knew if I trained hard enough, I could harness my power and use it to protect myself.

My training ended one spring morning when Cora Rodriguez and her cohorts ambushed me in an alley of blooming dogwood trees on my way to school. Cora pushed me to the ground. I fell into a pool of pink petals. For a few suspended moments, I watched her laughing, until I remembered my special power.

I’d show her.

I closed my eyes, centered my breathing, and summoned the cuttlefish.

Suddenly, I felt a sharp bite, like a cold snake snapping his fangs into me. It was working! The transformation was painful, but it was working!

When I opened my eyes, Cora stood with a knife in her hand, blood dripping onto the spent dogwood blooms. It took me a few moments to realize that the blood was mine. I reached down to the side of my belly where I felt the wind cooling my insides. My shirt was ripped. I lifted it and saw the wound, milky blood and bones.

“Hey!” I said, then burst into tears, probably because I couldn’t think of anything clever to say.

Cora and her friends howled then scampered off when a burgundy Crown Victoria turned into the alley. I stumbled to my feet, and I noticed it was Mr. Ruper, the retired mechanic who lived on the corner with five Chihuahuas. Sometimes I took him extra blackberries when we came back from the country. I inched a step towards him, my bloody palm held up.

But Mr. Ruper didn’t stop. He didn’t even wave.

Mr. Ruper hadn’t even seen me.

“Fine time for my special power to work,” I thought, then stumbled home, cleaned my wound with mercurochrome, and taped my stomach back together with a box of Scooby Doo band aides.

That night, Brother and Sister played Scrabble while I watched “Love Boat.”

The following weekend, I moved in with my grandparents on the other side of the lake, though that was not the last time I would tangle with Cora Rodriguez or turn invisible.

But it was the last time I ever saw Max.