We were driving from the airport to the place Ahuimanu, which in Hawaiian means A Gathering of Birds, where there was to be a feast of welcome for my young son. I had brought him back from the Mainland along with my second wife, his stepmother, a woman who had come to hate him.

We drove through a tunnel under Nu’uanu Pali, where in 1790 Kamehameha the Great’s warriors forced Kalanikupule’s warriors over the pali, which means cliff or precipice. Nu’uanu is where that particular pali is.

I started thinking about Hilina Pali, which is over on the Big Island where I live. It’s near Kilauea volcano, and there are feral goats. In a little fenced patch of land about as big as your living room there is a kind of plant called ma’oloa enclosed there against the goats. That little place is where most of the ma’oloa that are alive in the world are hanging on and will continue to hang on if the goats don’t breach the fence and eat them.

At the bottom of Hilina Pali is the place Halape, where back on November 29th, 1975, there was an earthquake and a local tsunami in the night. A man I knew was camping there and the sea took him.

When we came out of the tunnel through Nu’uanu Pali, I thought about warriors leaping, falling, falling onto the roadbed, though in 1790 when they struck, it would have been forest.

I made the left turn and drove past the Japanese cemetery with its famous koi ponds, which are a notable tourist attraction, and then I drove into a residential district near Kaneohe.

I stopped at a traffic signal and I saw a hand-lettered sign taped to the pole. It said “FOR SALE: BABY CLOTHES – ULUA POLES” and I started thinking about that, rather than worrying about bad things that might happen at Ahuimanu, which which is what I had been doing.

Ulua are large strong-fighting ocean fish that you can catch from the shore if you’re willing to perch on rocks and cast out and wait. It is not like surf casting along the Atlantic, where you stand on a sandy beach and heave out over the waves, and sometimes can’t even see past the surf.

 

With ulua fishing you’re up on lava rocks with waves below, and if you aren’t watching and don’t listen carefully you might not notice that the sea has gone silent, which can mean it’s about to rise suddenly and take you.

I wondered about the combination of baby clothes and fishing poles on the sign.

 

I imagined that there was this young man who was new at the father business and a little weary of it, so when his wife said she was going to Honolulu to shop, he said he would take the baby for fresh air. When she drove away he went to their garage and chose a pole, and went to their freezer and got aku belly for bait. He wanted a day on the rocks and a nice ulua for them to eat, but he knew if he said he was going fishing she would never let him take the baby.

He put the car seat beside him on the rocks while he fished, and his son started to cry and he turned to see why and he stopped paying attention.

Oh they rose up and were carried down like the warriors, but more slowly, and they didn’t smash on impact, but sank beneath the surf. The car seat bobbed up, and he tried to get to it, but the waves dashed them against lava and they both died.

And I imagined that now the mother wanted to get rid of everything that reminded her, so she made the sign and was waiting and hoping someone would take the clothes and poles soon and it would be finished.

 

The house at Ahuimanu is tucked up close under the pali. There are no waterfalls when it isn’t raining, but a dozen or more appear when it rains hard. One falls from so high on the pali that wind dissipates the water long before it reaches the valley floor.

My aunt called that one The Crooked Straight and when it floated against the pali she would stop what she was doing and sing from Handel’s Messiah. She had a beautiful voice and a sweet nature, but she had died by the time I saw the sign on my way to Ahuimanu and her house below the waterfalls.

At Ahuimanu my uncle was giving a welcoming speech in Hawaiian when my wife rose up and struck my little boy in front of the guests, because he was not paying attention the way she thought he should have been. I was not quick enough to stop her, but I took my son in my arms to make him safe, and soon after we got back to the Mainland I threw her out.

She went down to North Carolina and then I divorced her. I don’t know where she is now.

Everything she left behind, I sold.







When I was twelve, my mother and my newly acquired stepfather moved our post-divorce family to Newport Beach, California, along with my black Labrador retriever, Skipper.  Skipper did not like Newport Beach.  Although he was living in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Southern California, his new back yard was limited to a small cement patio; coming from his former living quarters, with a back yard replete with grass and flora and swimming pool, he was apathetic to the trade-off of status and an ocean-view.  Despite his growing depression, he never lost his inflamed sexual appetite.  Even the leg of a patio chair served his purposes.

Skipper was not the only one having trouble adjusting to paradise.






Soon after our move, I took Skipper for a walk, and he chose a choice piece of lawn in front of a mansion that overlooked the ocean.  He did his sniffing thing, becoming more agitated and excited at one particular section.

His hind legs scrunched and he plopped his rear close to the grass, in position.  His legs trembled and he pushed out a green-tinted (what had he been eating?) poop, and then another, and then one more: three logs, a defecation code, pointing to the sea.  Amazingly, they were the same size, as if he’d measured them with a ruler.

Since our move, I’d made a bad habit of not bringing the obligatory plastic baggie for excrement disposal during our walks.  Along with my general adolescent indolence, it was a misguided rebellion, using my dog’s waste product as a temporary graffiti marker in the perfectly groomed, staggeringly beautiful surroundings.

Just as we were making our get away, a hand grabbed my elbow and pulled me back.

“Pick it up,” a man ordered.  He was middle-aged and balding, with glasses.

I explained that I didn’t have a baggie.

“Use your hand,” he said, shoving me, so that I had to crouch on the grass.  He continued to grip my arm, leaned over.  “Push it in the gutter.”

I begged the man to allow me to go home and get a baggie.

He wore Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, but he looked uncomfortable, as if he belonged in a business suit.  His feet were pale and his legs were hairy.

“Do it,” he said.

Humiliated, I rolled the three sticky segments with my fingers, one at a time, across the sidewalk and another patch of grass, until they dropped into the gutter.  I did it as fast as I could and I had to scoot on my knees as I moved.  The man continued to grip my arm, moving with me.

“There’s more,” he said.

I felt the tears on my face.  He was referring to the glistening byproduct left on the individual blades of grass, wanting, I understood, for me to use my fingers to pinch and slide the residue off.

Instead, I stood, and he pushed me.  Skipper and I ran.  The palm trees, mansions, and grass blurred together.  I was crying loudly.

Dogs weren’t allowed at Big Corona Beach but we went anyway.  I left my shoes in the sand, and I unhooked Skipper’s leash, so that he could swim toward a group of seagulls lolling on the current.  There were blotchy marks on my arm where the man’s fingers had gripped me.  The waves crashed around me, and I lowered my hands, so that the foam washed my fingers.

I vowed never to tell anyone, and to get my revenge.

I was going to do the old tried and true light a paper bag full of dog poop and ring the doorbell and run trick, appreciating the idea of the man stomping out the fire and getting Skipper’s dung all over his nice Italian leather shoes.

As it turned out, I was too afraid.  What if I wasn’t fast enough?  The man had really scared me. 
I settled on cracking a couple of eggs in his mailbox.

I wish I could report that Skipper and I carved out a fulfilling existence in our new surroundings, but the truth is that we never adjusted.  And one afternoon, I came home from high school to discover that my mother had sent Skipper packing.  For the best, she said, informing me only that his new home was on a farm somewhere, and that he had enough room to run and run and run to his heart’s content.  And it was that image of Skipper that consoled me, imagining him chasing all kinds of fowl and farm animal; playing an endless game of fetch; attempting coitus with varieties of things, both animate and inanimate; and, when in repose, resting in a patch of shade, and panting slightly—tongue quivering at the side of his mouth, eyes squinted—in complete pleasure.

As for me, I continued to rebel against Newport Beach, mostly in ways nonproductive.  And twenty-three years since the day I came home to find Skipper gone, I still carry a photograph of him in my wallet.

My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is obsessed with school buses. There’s a bus stop right on our corner that provides a full morning of excitement. More buses pass our house on their way to pick up “kids go big school.” We must cross paths with at least ten more on the way to daycare. Each time a bus passes out of view, my sweet baby demands, “More bus, Mama!” She thinks I control the world.

Of course, it’s developmentally appropriate for her to have this unshakable faith in me. I love her so much for her trust and optimism. But because I am so acutely aware that I do not control the world, it’s also occasionally painful.

My obsession with control started early. When I was five years old, my parents separated, and my mother and I moved away. I had been pretty happy in my small town Catholic school. I knew most of the kids before I started kindergarten, and my cousins were at the same school. My teacher was warm and friendly. My new school was a different story all together. I wasn’t used to city life where I didn’t already know everyone. It was mid-year, and all the kids had established friendships that didn’t include me. Then there was the teacher. Oh, the teacher.

I was familiar with nuns, but this one was different. Sr.Mary wore a down-to-the-floor black habit with the full head covering. Only her face showed. This type of habit was long out of fashion in the 1970’s, but she was a throw-back in more ways than one. I was scared to death of her. Her teaching style was far more authoritarian than I’d experienced previously, and I could tell that she really didn’t like me. When she broke the class into group activities, she’d take me and one other child aside.

I didn’t understand why we were singled out, but eventually it became clear, if not the reason, at least the purpose. At first, I was mere witness to the torture of my little companion. Sr. Mary had a full litany for poor Tasha. Her parents were divorced and, according to Sr. Mary, Tasha’s mother had abandoned the family. Somehow in this twisted old nun’s mind, Tasha’s parents’ divorce and the fact that they were African-American were irredeemable sins. The nun claimed all “negroes” go to hell when they die. The fact that Tasha wore braces on her “crippled” legs was punishment from god for both being African-American and having divorced parents. Tasha’s father was a member of the city’s professional football team. Each time he left town, which was a lot during football season, Sr. Mary would tell Tasha that her father wasn’t coming back just like her mother hadn’t. She was destined to become an orphan.

Eventually, Sr. Mary set upon me. She told me that, while I was at school, my mother and father would have a terrible fight, they would stab one another, and I would become an orphan. Just like with Tasha, this insane nun had figured out my greatest fears and then went about convincing me that they were a destiny over which I had absolutely no control.

Tasha and I never exchanged any words about our shared torture, just knowing glances when we were called aside. We shared a common shame. Each afternoon as the other children played with blocks or dolls while they waited for their parents to pick them up, Tasha and I sat paralyzed in fear, waiting to see if her father and my mother would arrive or if the day Sr. Mary predicted had finally come and we were orphans.

School became a nightmare. I had horrible dreams about blood, my parents’ death, being all alone, and Sr. Mary. Around the time that my parents decided to reconcile, my mother found out what the malevolent Sr. Mary had been doing and withdrew me from the school. But Sr. Mary had one last prediction. She said my parents wouldn’t stay together and that we would all go to hell. She was right about the first part.

I remember feeling a tremendous sense of relief to be away from that psychotic, but I also felt guilty for leaving Tasha. Perhaps it was survivor’s guilt. In some way, I also felt isolated to be separated from Tasha. After all, we were both on the same road to orphan-dom.

The next school year was first grade, a full day of school with bus transportation. Each morning’s goodbye with my parents at the bus stop was like then end of a World War II epic film. I just knew that this would be the last time that I would see them alive and that when the bus dropped me off in the afternoon, they would be dead in a giant pool of intermingling blood. I would be an orphan.  

Sr. Mary was gone, but my paralyzing fear was not. I symbolically transferred it from her to the school bus. After all, the bus and the school where it delivered me were the only two places I was ever apart from both of my parents. Since my child brain was convinced that I could somehow keep my parents from killing each other, the school bus was taking me away and thus creating the opportunity for Sr. Mary’s prediction to be realized.

I screamed and sobbed at the bus stop. The bus driver offered to let me sit right next to her. My mother bribed and threatened to get me on that damn bus. Didn’t she understand that I was trying to save her life?

One of Sr. Mary’s forewarnings came true. My parents’ reconciliation didn’t last, and they divorced when I was seven. My mother and I moved to a neighborhood where I walked to school, and my school bus phobia subsided. But my white-knuckle grip on everything else I could conceive of controlling did not. I became hyper-vigilant about my surroundings and pathologically organized with my toys and books. As an adolescent, I developed an eating disorder. 

Adulthood and therapy smoothed out a lot of those rough edges, and I evolved into a run-of-the-mill control freak. Through my twenties and most of my thirties, I went about doing quirky things like alphabetizing my spice rack. I found that my obsession with control and order was also a great asset. After all, that was the aspect of my personality that made me good at my job.

Then I got a rude awakening. Four years ago, while living in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina blew my fantasy of control out of the water. Puns intended. I had moments of panic and despair and railed in anger at god. It was hard, but eventually I rallied on, feeling a bit free to relinquish my compulsion for control.

Parenthood mellowed me more. When waiting to adopt a child from Africa, you either go with the flow or go crazy. And parenting an infant who has been orphaned requires the patience and flexibility of the Buddha. I was feeling the groove, that is until the recent “economic downturn.”

It’s difficult to be a single parent and self-employed while facing economic uncertainty. I think I’m doing a good job of keeping my priorities straight and my fears at bay, but I have my moments. There aren’t a whole lot of nuns in full regalia roaming the streets, so my old symbol of panic—the school bus—sometimes flips the switch. You know, the bus I’m supposed to welcome. The one I’m supposed to materialize.

I didn’t realize that my daughter can see my face in the rearview mirror from her car seat behind me, but she can. One morning, as a bus turned a corner and rambled up a hill, she said, “More bus, Mama!” I gave my usual reply of, “Let’s look for more.” A moment later, she spied one and exclaimed, “Look, Mama, bus!” Then she sweetly added, “No more sad Mama.” 

And so it goes. It took me a while to see how the past connects to my present and how an everyday experience can have a hidden meaning waiting to be confronted. I am raising the child Sr. Mary predicted Tasha would become. My daughter relishes the sight of the very symbol of my worst childhood fear. Each day, I have the choice to fall back into old patterns of panic and control or release and relish my child’s bright-eyed enthusiasm. 

Let’s look for more!

Does Nick Cave know about my love life?

I found out my wife was cheating on me. Not the greatest feeling in the world after a decade of marriage. I admit, there were times when I met another attractive woman and thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I could just…but I put that thought right out of my mind and went home a committed guy.

Not that sex was the only thing to the petit mess that our marriage was. There was me, the writer, and what she thought the writing life style would bring her.

When we dated, I was the quirky artist guy. She thought listening to Nirvana made her alternative and Nora Roberts was literature. We’d go to my place and make out to Tom Waits on the turntable and I’d send her home with a Bukowski book. Did I mention we were Jehovah’s Witnesses? A woman who read anything other than a Watchtower publication was pretty alternative in my universe as a 25-year-old virgin. I was seen as quite a threat to the congregation elders for not keeping up in my bible reading and spending many nights at the public library reading Burroughs and educating myself in the world of literature. Unfortunately the belief system of God’s day of judgment entangled the synapse of my brain, so I had to keep my alternative reading and music cravings on the down low in those days.

A couple of years into our marriage I made a lot of money in the computer industry, which in turn paid to kickstart her career. I gave up the job early enough, before it sucked my soul, to pursue writing. The computer career only worked because I was smart and understood operating systems, not because I actually pursued it in school or anything. I had a tendency of disappearing from my cubicle for an hour reading Tolstoy in the bathroom or sneaking out to Gregg Araki’s latest film. I was excellent at my job at a hands on level, but not a corporate guy who really gave a crap about the future of Sun Microsystems.

In my ex-wife’s mind, my decision to become a writer meant that we would frolic with Danielle Steele at society events. I would make Stephen King caliber money and the film adaptations would pay for her shoe-buying habit. We’d both survive the upcoming apocalypse because I’d write under a pen name.

Let’s back up.

Our first date was a Nick Cave show…don’t tell the elders. There was a silence in the crowd when I yelled for Nick to play one of my favorite songs, Hard On For Love.

“What?” Nick turned around to our side of the stage and walked in our direction.

“Play Hard On For Love!”

“We have our set taken care of, thank you,” Nick replied and hearts spilled out of my eyes and onto the floor. Nick Cave was my favorite musician and I had just had a conversation with him.

From there:

  • Marriage. Sex. Wow, it’s warm in there.
  • I keep writing and taking the wife to see live bands. Don’t tell the elders.
  • I make more money than I ever make in my life and she spends it well.
  • I drop out of the religion, she freaks out and double times as a Jehovah’s Witness to get us both through Armageddon.
  • I go to Nick Cave shows alone.
  • She hides my “worldly” books and places Watchtowers on the table when her mom comes around.
  • I write a novel loosely based on my experience growing up a Jehovah’s Witness teenager. Scared that her gay fashion friends will find out she’s a JW she wanted me to use a pen name. Uh, no.
  • She cheats on me.
  • She repents to the congregation elders for her adultery. They understand. I was such a bad influence.
  • She does her best to take everything monetary.

After three months of grieving, utter shock, weeping in cafes while trying to write, and drinking myself into a stupor, I finally gave it a go with a girl in bed.

Wow, it’s warm in there.

Nick Cave was scheduled for two shows at the Warfield and they were in three months. I made calculations of the women I had been seeing, kissing, dating, and really enjoying. I picked a few to test and see if they were Nick-Cave-date-worthy. We would dance and sing up front and touch Nick’s hand as he’d sweat on us. Oh, the glory of all that is Nick Cave.

I scored an interview with Nick at his hotel since I’ve been a writer and covering the entertainment scene for years. Nick Cave. My favorite singer and me at his hotel.

I interviewed him over the phone before, but never in person. I didn’t tell him about my divorce. Or how I held a personal contest to win a date with me and go to a Nick Cave show. I did tell him I asked him to play Hard On For Love years before at one of his shows.

“What did I say?” Nick asked.

“Our set’s taken care of, thank you,” I replied, remembering every word, every smell of our history together. I told him I stopped yelling out songs at his other shows because I didn’t want to interrupt.

“We probably just didn’t know how to play it,” he said and told me how the version they had in their set for the tour is a lot harder than the recorded version.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds hadn’t played Hard On For Love at any show for twenty years. They wouldn’t play it when I was with my ex-wife, and it took him until 2008 to put it in his set.

None of the ladies were Nick-Cave-date-worthy. I went to the show alone. Dateless.

Inside the Warfield I saw some friends at the front of the stage and stood behind Lia, a girl I had been a friend with for a while. We danced and we sang and Nick Cave sweated on us.


Then, Nick said, “This next song is for you in the hat.” I was wearing a hat and he pointed in my direction in front of everybody at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. I pointed at myself and said, “Me?”

“Yeah, you with the facial condition,” referencing my bushy mustache.

The girls next to my friend in front of me yelled, “His name is Tony, His name is Tony.”  They didn’t know I interviewed him earlier and we talked about Hard On For Love, giving the illusion that Nick and I were really tight. The band went into the song and my friend Lia held my hand and everything flashed before my eyes.

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • Marriage. Betrayal. Divorce.
  • The animal drive in my life that craves literature, music and film.
  • Holding hands with Lia. It’s not a date, but a great person to share the moment with.

Lia and I hung out a lot after that show. Still high on Nick Cave. Bar hopping and meeting up as buddies until one night it hits me…..there’s more to us than friends. She’s smart, she’s beautiful, she’s strong and I wasn’t used to someone like her. I messed up our friendship, but she agreed to mess it up as well and now she’s my girlfriend.

I reflect on how Nick Cave wouldn’t play my request for Hard On For Love when I was with my ex-wife. How he never played it through my whole marriage. Then, when I’m there with the right girl…whom I didn’t even know was in the romantic running, let alone the perfect date for a Nick Cave show….then, not only does Nick Cave perform the song, he dedicates it to me.

I am the fiend hid in her skirt
And it’s as hot as hell in here
Coming at her as I am from above
Hard On For Love.

Hard On For Love performed in Croatia on YouTube


Writing caregiving essays recently, has put me in the mind of my first marriage, and its disastrous conclusion (recall the surfing Buddhist who happened to be my best friend), which in turn got me to thinking about its disastrous beginnings, which got me to wondering how we ever made it six years in the first place.

In a future post, I hope to treat you all to a little archaeological expedition of my former life, wherein together we will sift through the rubble of my first marriage (laughing at my sadness and folly), its rapid decline, and my subsequent foray into to bikram yoga, hair dye, and ragtop convertibles.

But today, kids, I want to talk about foundations, and how not to build them. In the spirit of non-fiction, I’ve changed only the name of my former wife, who will not kill me if she reads this. I hope. She’s pretty fair in that respect.

Molly got pregnant two months after we met. The next week I left for Greece.

You see, there was this other girl, her name was Sarah. She had freckles and a big messy head of hair and she liked to drink red wine and get naked and paint bowls of fruit. Sarah once loved me madly, a long time ago in Tucson, but I hadn’t loved her back. She was living in Athens now, where she drank red wine and got naked and painted bowls of fruit. I don’t know what made me change my mind about loving Sarah, but I did. So I bought nonrefundable tickets to Greece, and I bought them months in advance, before I’d even met Molly, let alone got her pregnant.

So you see, I wasn’t running from anything.

Bowloffruitposters


When I arrived in Athens, I wasted little time in
informing Sarah that I loved her, that in fact I’d always loved her but hadn’t known it, and that I was prepared to keep on loving her until the industrialized world were in ruins, or the Chiefs won the superbowl, and that I hoped, I prayed, that she still felt the same way.

Sarah said that I hadn’t just said what I’d just said, or at least that she hadn’t heard it, and how dare I say it, and that I was never to say it again ever. And that I was welcome to stay so long as I understood this.

I took that as a no.

And from that moment forward, her studio apartment began to seem awfully small. What with all those bottles of red wine and all that fruit, there wasn’t much room for the two of us. I didn’t want to stay, yet the prospect of leaving that apartment was among the most desolate I’d ever known. I couldn’t afford a hotel or even a hostel if my money was going to hold out, but fortunately ouzo was well within my means, so I took to the streets, getting lost nightly, falling down stairs, pissing on ruins, speaking my six words of Greek to anyone who would listen.

Nobody listened.

I was heartsick and homesick and I ached in my belly with a hunger for something vague and incomprehensible, something that either had been and was no longer, or never was, or perhaps something I’d only tasted. Maybe it was food, maybe it was more ouzo, but I doubt it. The latter seemed like a reasonable solution, if nothing else.

Ouzodoll

So I drank ouzo until I was flat on my back and I howled at the spinning moon and nobody howled with me. I kicked cans down empty streets at dawn and turned my collar up against the chill and tucked my hands up under my arms and plodded on with purpose and determination through the Grecian night to absolutely nowhere.

I begged the Gods for a sign and one fine afternoon they delivered me an alley cat half-crazy with starvation, and I watched the wretched little creature fight for her life and give birth squeeling beneath a porch, only to die with a whimper. And I watched a barrel shaped old woman in black knee socks and orthopedic shoes snatch up the litter with expert dispassion, and stuff them pink and squirming into a pillow case and drown them in a nearby fountain in the name of mercy.

And I walked on.

Secretalley


And the only thing that brought me comfort, the only thing that offered me ballast in these mutinous and uncharted seas was the thought of Molly and I together, six thousand miles away.

And so it happened that I was half a world away when I fell in love with Molly MacDonald and her silver tooth caps and her books about Entomology and the tiny pink scar running diagonally across her forehead. And I was six thousand miles away when I fell in love with our unborn baby.

And from six thousand miles away I could see our future. We’d be poor, but that was okay, because Molly could always smile and illuminate the world with the flash of her silver teeth, and we could push the stroller down to the park together and loll around in the grass in the shade of an alder and have picnics, with peanut butter sandwiches cut into tiny squares and cold canned green beans in little plastic bags, and the whole world would be beneath the shade of an alder. And when we were done we could stuff the sticky bags into the sticky plastic pocket in the back of the stroller, and go home and put the baby down for a nap and make love and read E.E Cummings aloud and eat dinner for the rest of our days.

Shadytree1big


What I remember most about Athens, more than its crooked streets and billboards and crumbling walls and eight million cats, is its phone booths. The fact is, I’m nothing less than an expert on the subject of Athenian phone booths. For, not only did I sleep standing in phone booths, I started calling Molly collect at all hours of the day and night, from all quarters of the city, so that thumbing through my psychic photo album now, I find nary a shot of the Acropolis, nothing of the blue Agean.

Just phone booths.

Last_phone_booth_in_new_york


Here I am in a booth on a windy back street near Plateia Karaiskaki, where I’m begging Molly not to have the abortion. But I’m too late.

There I am in a phone booth amidst the chaos of the Plaka, with its smell of cat piss and onions, where Molly’s telling me she’s met a guy from Los Angeles named Sal who owns a bar.

Here I am in a port authority booth with a spider web crack in the glass and the initials Chi Epsilon carved into the reflective metal above the keypad, where Molly is telling me she’s moving to Los Angeles.

That’s me in the shadow of the Parthenon, where tourists from Edinburgh and Boston and Yokohama are mulling about, while Molly tells me she’s slept with Sal, and I imagine him with a uni-brow, stinking of Leather cologne, emptying himself inside her with a grunt.

And there I am a day later in a murky hotel lobby in Psiri, beneath the watchful eye of an Albanian clerk, where Molly confesses that she hasn’t really slept with Sal, that she’d only been saying it. Either way, I believe her.

Here I am on a side street off Athinas near the Hotel Attalos, outside the scariest Chinese restaurant ever. The guy behind me in the wool cap is wheeling about the booth like a turkey buzzard trying to hurry me off, as I beg Molly to forgive me for leaving, and for not having said a few simple words in time. The phone reciever smells like my grandfather’s aftershave, as I beseech her not to move to Los Angeles, not to move anywhere, without me. I beg for forgiveness, for absolution, for a future with or without babies.

For two weeks in Athens the phone booth was my confessional. For two weeks I called Molly collect. For two weeks she accepted the charges.

Wilma_oct_23_phone_booth

 

I’m no fashion maven, but I know what I like. And it’s not paisley dresses. Molly was wearing a paisley dress when she picked me up at the airport. We clumsily embraced. There was no kiss.

At first we drove in silence but for the rain and the swish of the tires and the thrumming of the wipers. Somehow the conversational fare reserved for such reunions simply wouldn’t do. How was your
abortion? Fine. How was your lover?

Thanks for picking me up, I said at last.

Sure, she said, staring straight ahead.

That was it for awhile. Gazing goggle-eyed out upon the luminous sprawl of Renton, I began to wonder if my optimism had not duped me again. From six thousand miles it all looked manageable.

You look great, I said. I like your dress.

I hate it, she said.

We drove on. The wipers started squeaking.

As we rounded the back side of Beacon Hill and the skyline burst upon us, I felt somewhat at ease. I was home. I never wanted to leave again.

I’m leaving next week, she said. I’ve got a job set up.

You mean–

No, something different. Something through Kelly.

You mean the one that pisses her bed? I said.

No, the one with the big tits, she said.

Oh.

I had a dream you fucked her, she said matter of factly.

Fucked Kelly?

Yeah.

Uh . . . okay.

You like big tits, right?

Well, yeah, I guess.

Does Sarah have big tits? Did you fuck her big tits? Did you get her pregnant?

And how about Sal? I said. Does Sal have a big dick?

I wouldn’t know.

Didn’t that hurt? Two days after the–

I said I wouldn’t know, she said.

We drove on. She stared straight ahead, gripping the wheel fiercely.

I didn’t touch Sarah, I said. She’s just a friend. I told you that.

Friends, she said.

The rain was letting up as we hit downtown. Molly killed the wipers. I cracked my window some. The fresh air was good. We took the Seneca exit and came out on Sixth Avenue. It was still early.

You wanna get a drink? I said.

Where? she said.

Wherever.

Molly swung a right onto sixth, and we headed north from there. For awhile, anyway.

In our room that morning as we changed into our bathing suits, stuffing towels and Coppertone into the souvenir Pan Am flight bags our father had gotten for us on a business trip, Glen told me how it would go.

“Answer her questions, but don’t start a conversation.”

“But Dad told us what to say last week. Remember? He said when we meet her to smile and say, ‘I’m state your name, very pleased to meet you, Kate.’ ”

“Yeah, I remember,” said Glen. “You can say it, but you don’t have to mean it.”

“Okay.” I watched him put a book into the bag and then slip a small white bottle of roll-on deodorant in after it. “Why are you taking that to the beach?”

“Don’t want my pits to stink.”

“You think girls from school will be there?”

Glen’s face went red as he zipped up the bag, then mumbled, “You never know.”

“I think she’ll be tall,” I said. “Taller than Mom, probably.”

“If you’re nice to her I’ll punch you,” Glen said, tucking the towel under his arm. “Hard.”

The snow was piling up outside, a white blanket six inches thick and gleaming in the moonlight, reflected up through Darla’s bedroom window. I had just finished reading a story to the girls from Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Treasury about sledding down a steep hill. Toad, the pessimist, is leery of such a dangerous undertaking, but the eternally optimistic Frog assures him they will be safe and have lots of fun.

Flying down the hill they hit a bump and Frog falls off. Toad keeps talking as if Frog were still on the sled, but a passing crow tells him he’s talking to himself. Toad looks back at the empty sled, freaks out and quickly crashes into a snow bank. Later, he tells Frog winter is fun, but staying in bed is much better. Safer too.

“I like that one, but it makes me cold,” says Emma, hugging her shoulders. “Can you tell us a Florida story?”

“Yeah, a Florida story!” Darla says, scrunching down under the covers.

So I begin as I always do.