The 21st century kicked off with as auspicious a beginning as one might hope for, in the form of a first love inviting herself into my life with a pleasantly unexpected phone call. She was a fellow student of my creative writing program whom I’d been acquainted with since freshman year, wickedly smart and suddenly into me with an intensity I was helpless to resist. Despite this, though, we were still just a pair of dumb kids, straddling that margin of post-adolescence where our hormones organized themselves into ranks and assailed the ramparts of common sense. Inevitably, I fell for her hard, and when she broke up with me after an old boyfriend reentered the picture I hit bottom with a thud so loud it echoed for a long while afterward.

It was the summer of 2004, and like most liberals, I was absolutely steaming out the ears about George W. Bush.  Unlike most liberals, though, I had taken it upon myself to write a novel about it.

Looking back, I’m not sure what exactly I was thinking.  Even if I had completed the book in three months, it would never have reached an audience before the 2004 elections. But regardless, there I was, sitting in hipster cafes on Portland’s Alberta Street, writing a novel about a preacher who had gathered together an odd bunch of bicyclists and zinesters and strippers, and who was preaching to them about the evils of the Bush Administration.

People Notice

By Summer Block

Humor

I was at work on Monday morning, an editorial assistant in an office in downtown San Francisco, and I wasn’t clean. I had spent the weekend on an impromptu road trip that started with digging fresh-baked pies out of a bakery dumpster and ended with sleeping in a Mitsubishi Diamante on the side of the Interstate 5 and now I was sitting in my cubicle wearing the same outfit I had been wearing when I left the office on Friday afternoon.

“No one will notice,” I told myself, “if you skip one shower.”

My wedding date was set for June 16, 2001. My ex-husband, Jim, and I spent every spare minute over six months planning the day down to the last detail. We reserved a large, beautiful cabin with the sleeping capacity for 75 people at Silver Falls State Park. We ordered wine and beer and worked with a caterer to feed the 50 guests we’d invited to our wedding, and we bought enough extra food for the 20 people who would be staying in the cabin with us for the three-day wedding festival. We found the perfect minister in the classified section of The Willamette Week and hired a local Celtic band. We had our simple, country-peasant wedding clothes custom tailored. We invited friends and family from every corner of the country. We were ready to get married.

Guests started showing up four days before the wedding. Many of Jim’s friends from his youth in Chicago came into town. His mother and her husband, his father and his girlfriend, and all three of his sisters also came.

Unfortunately, and much to my unhappiness, nearly nobody from my pre-Portland past was able to make it due to time and money constraints. Unlike Jim, who came from an affluent, middle-class childhood where almost everybody he knew had grown up to be successful, most of my kin were destitute outlaws skulking in the margins of society. Despite the fact that my mother was severely depressed and making every effort to kill herself with alcohol, Jim and I agreed to include flying her to Portland in our budget. We also paid for my sister, Kim, and her two children to come for our party. It was a time for family and loved ones, so we consciously ignored the fact that having my mom out would potentially be disastrous.

Most of us have holiday traditions that—good or bad—we take part in each year. My recent trip home reminded me that in my house, an important custom is the telling and retelling of family stories. The favorites—the ones that never seem to die—are those in which one of us has fucked up but good. We love reliving the times we made an awful mess of things.

In high school I had a friend that was a few years older than me who had come home from college over winter break. So I stopped by his mom’s house to say “hi” and catch up—it was the first time I met his family. They were decorating the house and putting ornaments on the tree—an important ritual that they had saved until my friend came home from school.

At some point, his mom very excitedly pulled out a box and proudly showed the rest of the family the brand new angel she bought for the top of the tree. It was this big, puffy white mass of satin and lace and gold garland trim and it was like her Christmas present to herself, she was so stoked about it.

The stoke levels registered much lower with her sons.

My friend, who had mastered the dramatic monologue, told his mom in no uncertain terms that the angel had no business on their Christmas tree. He held up this 1970s-era fiberglass star—flecked with rash-like patches of glitter remnants and specks of paint that could only serve as a sad reminder that it once had color. He then launched into an impassioned speech about how that star/abomination had been on their tree every Christmas for as long as he could remember.  He said, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without this star on the tree.”

His mom and that puffy angel never stood a chance. She tried to make a case at first, but you could see in her face that she knew she was fighting a losing battle. This sad, rusty old star symbolized the very meaning of Christmas and the angel would never even leave the box.

Until…

Triumphant, my friend tried to place the star on the top of the tree, which was just out of his reach. After watching him make a few attempts, I (FOR SOME FUCKING RIDICULOUS REASON THAT DECADES LATER I HAVE YET TO UNCOVER) offered to help.

I mean, sure — he was a foot taller than me and, oh yeah, I had ABSOLUTELY NO BUSINESS GETTING INVOLVED! But at the time it seemed perfectly natural to step in and take possession of what he had just very elegantly demonstrated to be an irreplaceable family heirloom.

I don’t think I held that star in my hands for more than four seconds. To say that I “broke” it would be a gross understatement—like saying Nicolas Cage “breaks” movies. I crushed it. I reduced it into a glittery pile of sentimental dust and assassinated the ENTIRE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS while my friend and his family watched in horror.

That star was Kennedy and my hand was a magic bullet and we all stood silently in the Dealey Plaza that was their living room for what seemed like an eternity. I held out the handful of shiny garbage pieces while my face turned red, wishing I could just disappear, or die, or install a flux capacitor in my Chevy Nova and relive the last minute of my life like it was Opposite Day.

There just wasn’t a “whoops” big enough to express my regret.

My friend very politely pretended that it was no big deal and that he hadn’t literally spoken the words, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without this star on the tree” only moments before. I left his house faster than Nicolas Cage makes terrible decisions.

Every Christmas as I’m trimming my own tree, I think about that night and wonder if the Franco family’s Christmas traditions, which I assume feature a satiny, lacey, gold-garland-trimmed angel tree topper, include the telling and retelling of the story of the year Christmas was ruined when some interfering ditz came over and made an awful mess of things.

We were already seated, drinks had already been ordered, when we realized to our horror that this particular restaurant had a belly dancer in it.

Now this is a mistake I almost never make. Decades of aversion to public spectacle have instilled in me an almost preternatural ability to suss out the wedding MC, the door prize, the strolling violinist, the birthday party clown. I have a sixth sense about restaurants, plays, concerts, and boardwalks, and yet now it had failed me. I grew rigid and watchful, eyeing the door. Drinks or no drinks, we would obviously have to leave.

Like a fool, my dinner companion stopped long enough to put on his coat and then she had us. She was right beside us now, dancing. I would rather have a leprous beggar under my table than a belly dancer beside it. I felt a raw physical revulsion and the crazed impulse to press my wallet into her hands and beg her to just take my money and leave.

The last time I was in this position I had been talked into going to a teppanyaki–style restaurant with some friends in China. We sat around a semi-circular table with a griddle in the middle of it while the chef chopped and tossed and sweated his way through some sort of culinary performance. And what were we supposed to do? One can’t very well hold a regular conversation while a man is performing for your ostensible pleasure only a foot away. So we should do what – watch him in silence? Include him in our conversation? Smile and nod while he watched us eat the food he had prepared? At one point the chef created a sort of volcanic cone of onion rings and set it alight with a small burst of flame and a sad little flourish—so should we clap? Who claps in a restaurant?

But if knife tricks are mortifying, dancing is a thousand times worse. Especially sensual dancing. Do people like this? I have never met anyone above eight years old who seems genuinely amused by tableside antics, strip clubs excepted. I cannot patronize a restaurant that will engage belly dancers, mariachi singers, or god help us, magicians. (Unamplified musicians are okay so long as they stay firmly perched on their raised platform and make no attempt to make eye contact with me.)

And when you leave the restaurant, it’s only to find yourself on a public street, prey to sweltering fur-suited sports mascots and mimes suffocating under a layer of gleaming silver body paint. Los Angeles, of course, is full of street-side entertainers, juggling and doing “The Robot” and dressing up like The Green Lantern, driven by twin desires for public attention and spare change. I know that theater is a tough profession, and I know that drama majors don’t have it easy. Nor do Medieval Studies majors reserve the right to throw stones (unless it’s some sort of Society for Creative Anachronisms thing). But I don’t think it’s so unreasonable to ask those who sacrificed their youth to the performing arts to follow the lead of us writers and poets, where your two career options are marrying a lawyer or slowly starving.

If restaurants and sidewalks are unsafe, theaters are a thousand times worse. Now I will concede, one does go to the theater to be entertained. However, I strongly prefer to be passively entertained. Any audience involvement, from raising my hand to choosing a playing card, is my own version of the Theater of Cruelty. For reasons as much aesthetic as psychological, I tend to favor plays that are unlikely to include audience participation: “The Cherry Orchard,” say, over “Tony and Tina’s Wedding.” One reason I love the opera is that I’m pretty sure no one will ever ask me to jump in and sing the mezzo part.

I know not everyone feels this way. Some people like making a spectacle of themselves, and for those people there exist pie-eating contests and reality TV. They are the ones who’ve just been waiting for someone to call out, “I can’t hear you!” But my opinion is not so rare, either; I know many people who agree with me. (One clever acquaintance always chooses his theater seats by making sure that there are no house lights anywhere above him – a genius idea I have since adopted.)

We the easily mortified are easy to spot: we sit up too straight, lean slightly forward in our seats, and wear a common facial expression of nausea and terror. So to actors, dancers, clowns, and mascots worldwide, I say, take pity on us. Call on someone else. Surely in your years of the Meisner Technique you picked up enough interpersonal psychology to be able to tell when someone despises the very sight of you. So why not ask that woman furiously waving both hands in the air and shouting “Me! Me!” to join your improv game?

I went to a spa for the first time the other day.

Booked myself a massage and a facial at Burke Williams. It’s very fancy, and when I checked in I was immediately escorted to the ladies’ locker room, where there were Jacuzzi baths and showers and a sauna and a steam room and dozens of beauty products and expensive blow dryers and fuzzy bathrobes and towels, all of which were available to me.

I’d been told when I made the reservations that I should come at noon, as this was when the spa opened, and I was free to spend the entire day there, soaking in various baths with other naked women.

My spa escort brought a number of rooms to my attention during the tour.

“This is the Silent Ladies’ Room,” she said. “You can come here and be quiet.”

Inside, there was a woman being quiet.

“This is the lounge,” she said. “You can sit here quietly.”

Then she brought me to my locker and told me to get naked and please remember to wear my special spa slippers. “They’re in your locker, along with your bathrobe.”

I put on my bathrobe. It was very large, too large. I put on my spa slippers, which fit perfectly. I found this strange, because I am an average sized female, but my feet are smaller than average.

I had an hour before my massage appointment, so I walked to the steam room. On the door was a large sign that said: “Do not use the steam room if you are wearing contacts.”

I was wearing contacts.

So I went to the sauna. Same sign on that door.

I noticed a bowl with bananas and apples. I hadn’t been told anything about the bananas.

Could I have a banana?

I looked around me.

No one.

I quickly took a banana. I hid in one of the showers while I ate it, just in case.

It was still only 12:20. My appointment wasn’t until 1:00. I walked around. Where were the other naked ladies?

I went to the Silent Ladies’ Room.

I sat quietly for a moment.

I went to the lounge.

There were more bananas in the lounge.

I stared at the bananas for a moment, then grabbed one, unpeeled it, and ate it. Right there in the lounge. An employee walked by as I ate the banana. I got nervous and stuffed a giant piece into my mouth, just in case she was planning to take it away from me.

She didn’t take the banana away from me, though, so I became bold and took another one and ate that right there in the lounge, too.

There was nothing to look at in the lounge. There was a fireplace, but I’d hardly call that entertainment.

Another lady in a bathrobe and special spa slippers entered the lounge. I got nervous in her presence, so I got up and went back to my locker to get my cell phone. Maybe I had some good emails.

No service.

I ate another locker room banana.

I went back to the lounge, and sat down. My masseuse walked in and asked if I was “Leonora.”

“Yes,” I said. Because there’s really no point in correcting her.

She put her hand on my back and kept it there as she guided me to the massage room and spoke to me in a thick accent. This made me feel as though I was in trouble.

In the room, my masseuse told me to get naked.

Everyone wanted me to get naked.

She left, I got naked, she came back in.

“No no, darling. You need to be on your stomach,” she said.

I predicted she might want me on my stomach, but it seemed rude to have her enter the room with me not even facing her with a nice smile.

“Oh my goodness! So many tattoos on your body!” she said.

“Heh heh, yes,” I said.

“You have large bruises here,” she said, poking my right butt cheek.

A few nights before I let a stranger in striped pants and a feathered hat spank me with the riding crop at the after party for the TNB reading series, and he wasn’t very gentle.

“Oh, ha, yes, that’s because of this person, I don’t know his name, and this event…it’s really not a big deal,” I said.

Then massive amounts of oil were poured all over me.

As she rubbed me down, the masseuse verbally pointed out all of my bruises and scars.

“What happens here? You have bruise here, also,” she said, holding my arm.

“I think I fell,” I answered.

“You have scar here,” she said, tapping my chin.

“Yes, yes, I drove a scooter into a parked car,” I said.

“You have bruises, many bruises here,” she said, holding my leg in the air.

“Right, I’m fairly certain I was sleepwalking,” I said.

“Also many scars on toes,” she said.

“Scooter accident again,” I said.

This went on and on for the entire massage.

Then it was over. She told me to drink plenty of water and guided me back to the ladies’ locker room with her hand on my back, telling me about how I should really use the steam room.

I had an hour before my facial.

I stood in the ladies’ locker room. Now there were more naked ladies in there with me.

My contacts were still in, so I still didn’t use the steam room.

I ate another banana.

I accidentally looked at a woman’s bush for too long, and she caught me. I pretended I was looking at something behind her. Hmm, that’s interesting, what’s that? A used towel? Interesting.

I got into the Jacuzzi with two other naked women.

No one was speaking, even though we were not in the Silent Ladies’ Room or the lounge, where we were free to sit quietly.

It made me uncomfortable, to not speak to my naked Jacuzzi partners, so I got out, put my robe back on, and ate another banana.

Then I went and sat in the lounge quietly. I pretended to be very relaxed.

The lady doing my facial came to retrieve me.

She also placed her hand on my back as we walked to the room.

We got to the room, and even though I was there for a facial, I was told to get naked again.

The lady smeared many delicious smelling things on my face and then, for some reason, massaged my feet, which are not a part of my face at all.

As she was removing the face mask she’d applied to my skin, she tapped my chin.

“You have a scar here,” she said.

Then I was brought back to the ladies’ locker room with her hand on my back.

I took a long shower, and then dried off while trying not to stare at an old woman’s naked body.

I put two bananas and an apple in my purse, and then left the locker room.

Many people put their hands on my back as I was walking out, all of them asking how my stay had been.

“Oh, very relaxing, just wonderful,” I said. “Your bananas are very nice.”

Parking was twenty-one dollars.


In Vladimir Nabokov’s short story, “Signs and Symbols,” the narrator says of one character that, “Living did mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case—mere possibilities of improvement.” I have always found that line to be profoundly depressing and if you’re reading this, I wish with all my heart that your life is not an acceptance of the loss of one joy after another.

My own life, I have realized, can partially be characterized by the acceptance of one embarrassment after another. I have decided to chronicle these embarrassments (the list will never end as long as I am alive and participating in the world) starting with the Blue Ribbon for the Most Embarrassing Thing Ever:

My first husband and I had just moved to Toronto from the Bay Area. We were renting a basement apartment with no kitchen. We used the window sills, where the winter temperature hovered around 20 degrees, to keep milk and juice, and ate all our meals out. I had no friends, no job and nowhere to go. I spent a lot of time reading in the apartment and a lot of time walking around and looking at things.

And then I joined a gym. It was a yuppie place near our apartment with lots of good-looking twenty and thirty-somethings’ who thought they were cool because they were at that point in life where they had just started to make a lot of money but didn’t yet have kids, dogs, ageing parents and the things that remind you that you are not really that cool and that the world around you needs less cool and more hard work. My husband and I were young enough and dumb enough to think that we were cool, too.

The first day at the gym I went to a yoga class where I stretched and twisted and roped up my very limber body with the thought that no one in Toronto could possibly be as flexible as someone from California. In short, I was showing off.

After the class, I followed the other yoga students into the locker room where they proceeded to take off their clothes and step naked into the hot tub (it was a single sex locker hot tub). I took off my clothes, too, and also stepped into the hot tub even though I’ve never really liked hot tubs. They’re too hot for me. I like warm tubs.

About ninety seconds into the soak, I began to feel light headed. I sat on the edge of the tub for a moment, then stepped out and started to walk toward the bathroom, as I was feeling a little queasy. Before I could make it to the bathroom I unexpectedly hurled a shooting stream of vomit onto the gym floor. As the vomit was coming out I could feel my vision shutting down, like a computer screen turning off.

I passed out on the vomit on the floor.

This little episode is the Blue Ribbon of embarrassment because it combines the three most humiliating human events into one tidy, pool of shame. It has, 1. Public nudity. 2. The projectile externalization of a body fluid in public. And 3. Passing out in public.

To have done them simultaneously, and then to have so perfectly lain my body atop the vomit was, in my opinion, quite a spectacular feat.

I called the gym the next day and cancelled the membership. And then we joined the Y.