lena-dunham-girls-TVAttention people in your twenties: I strongly urge you to elect Lena Dunham as the voice of your generation. She knows what she’s talking about. Trust me. Get out your journals and start taking notes. Let go of everything your mothers and your grandmothers taught you about physical beauty. Silence the self-critical voice that you so carefully nurtured, the one that still dominates the conversation late at night when you’re trying to fall asleep. Reject all that brainwashing media nonsense you were bombarded with during your formative years. Stop those stupid diets. Do not buy a juicer. Gluten is not your enemy; it’s time to wise up.  Just hit the reset button, ladies and gentlemen, sit back and watch the TV show Girls. Lena Dunham is talking to you. She doesn’t have all the answers but I think she does have the solution to one of your biggest problems if you will just listen to her.

Seattle, Summer 1997

Gregory placed his spindly hand on my nude thigh. Even in the hot tub’s balmy water, his touch felt clammy. Across from us, a couple who’d met hours earlier boffed with the force of a meteor shower. Until now, tonight’s cast party had consisted of soggy nachos, half-emptied kegs and stagehands languidly smoking weed in front of the TV. I’d been the high school art-geek a dozen years prior and feared this evening’s revelry, such as it was, smacked of a senior year movie fest. All we lacked was Pink Floyd’s The Wall on the VCR. So when a cast mate suggested nude hot tubbing out back, I acquiesced. I suppose I just could have gone home, but in my twenties, the simplest solution rarely struck me as the best one.


CHAPTER 2


Does This Mean You’ll See Me Naked?

Yes, it does mean precisely that. The funeral director who prepares your body for a final viewing will invariably at some point need to remove your clothing. So, yes. You will be naked.

But you’d be amazed at how many times I’ve been asked that question—and how often, when people voice their fears regarding death, the issue comes up. What is this hang-up people have about nudity? It’s as bad as their hang-up about death! Some of my closest friends have expressed reservations in letting me handle their funerals because of it; even my own sister has mentioned it!

I have repeatedly assured everyone that, as a -professional, I have no sexual interest whatsoever in dead bodies—male or female—particularly family members and friends. Any loved one reposing on my embalming table is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, son, or grandparent and is reverently and respectfully cared for in a totally businesslike manner. Only a sick mind would interpret or insinuate anything else.

Furthermore, preparation room decorum has always been maintained wherever I have worked. All of my coworkers have been men, and in my opinion, men are all pretty much mama’s boys. They therefore reserve a great deal of respect for deceased women. Any little old lady reminds them of their own beloved grandmothers; a middle-aged woman might be the same age as their mothers. And in the case of a deceased little girl, all of us are instantly transformed into protective father figures, feeling intense sorrow right along with the family and sometimes even blubbering in tears as we work.

There have obviously been cases involving improprieties in funeral home settings, but such incidents are few and far between. Many years ago I worked at a home with a man who eagerly reported for work each morning and then made a mad dash to the preparation room to see whether there had been any calls overnight—he supposedly wanted to see whether he knew the recently deceased personally. If so, he was on the horn immediately to report the death to his wife and other acquaintances. But he also made a habit of lifting the sheets covering deceased women so that he could gaze at their private areas. When I questioned him one day, he responded that he was merely looking for a toe tag to determine identity. “The tag is not in her crotch,” I told him. He sheepishly left. But when the same incident occurred again the next morning, I reported him to my immediate supervisor. The man was fired on the spot, and rightfully so.

Body Art

Sometimes we funeral directors do occasionally marvel at the physical oddities we encounter. As a college student working in the county morgue, I saw several decedents whose attributes were, well, noteworthy. Some took the form of off-the-wall embellishments.

A navy man lay on the table one morning; he sported tattoos over nearly every inch of his body, save for his hands and face. A detailed battleship, complete with billowing smokestacks, festooned his chest. On his back, from neck to buttocks, was an intricately designed butterfly. Around his neck was a broken line with the words Cut Here in bold letters. The stereotypical Mom was emblazoned on each bicep, and on each forearm was a buxom lady, each one naked and well endowed. On each leg, from groin to ankle, were hissing snakes with open mouths and forked tongues. And, of course, he had the prerequisite love on his four left fingers and hate on the four right ones. (All such body art is considered a distinguishing mark and is therefore noted and photographed by morgue personnel.)

I entered the morgue another day to find the coroner holding a magnifying glass to the private parts of a naked man. As I stood next to the body, the coroner handed me the magnifying glass and told me to check out the head of the man’s penis. In full detail was a tattoo of a housefly.

A few months later, we used the magnifying glass again to observe another penis tattoo, this one reading Cherry Buster. I had to wonder just how drunk that person must have been when he decided to get that tattoo. Perhaps the finest tattoo I have seen to date, though, is a red-and-white barber pole design, no doubt meant to resemble a candy cane.

Tattoos on deceased women are usually less brazen—flowers, butterflies, and the occasional Harley-Davidson insignia. However, I’ve also encountered Jimmy’s Toys emblazoned above a woman’s ample breasts; Honey Pot, complete with an elaborate arrow directing the viewer to the vaginal area; and most incredibly, Deliveries in Rear inscribed just above a young lady’s buttocks.

Back when I got started, there were not many piercings of note, unlike today. Now men have rings attached to their penises and scrota, women have rings in their clitorises, and both males and females sport nipple rings. Among the more elaborate piercings I’ve seen was that of a young woman who had both nipples and her clitoris pierced, and all three were connected. A gold chain attached to her nipples hung downward in a U shape across her chest with another chain attaching the center of the nipple chain to the ring located between her legs. When her mother asked me for any jewelry her daughter might have been wearing, I nervously explained my findings. Although upset, she graciously accepted the items following the funeral.

Face Down and Naked

In my business, prurience, or at least the suggestion of it, is an ongoing issue. I once prearranged the funeral services of a man who insisted that he be placed in his casket completely naked and face down. At first I assumed that this was his interpretation of the old cliché, “Lay me out face down and naked, so the whole world can kiss my ass.”

However, his explanation was far less dramatic. He’d always slept on his stomach and in the nude, he said, and he desired to be positioned that very way for burial. Also, his casket should be closed, for obvious reasons. I drew red asterisks all over the front of his prearrangement sheet, so that in case I was away when this gentleman passed on, others would be aware of his wishes.

When he died two years later, I informed his daughter of his request, and she readily agreed to it. I placed the man on a dressing table, covered him with a sheet, and then allowed the daughter to view her father and say good-bye before proceeding with the aforementioned arrangements.

Honoring requests of the deceased is something we pride ourselves on, and those requests take many forms. Many family members have expressed to me that their deceased loved one would have enjoyed a less-than-traditional send-off—more of a party atmosphere than the normal visitation and ceremony complete with traditional hymns and a consoling sermon from a man of the cloth. Although many mention a desire to do something different, I can think of very few who have actually carried out such a plan.

There was one memorable one, however. Twenty years ago, I arranged for a visitation and service to be held in the social room of an exclusive retirement center. The facility was ahead of its time, without peer. Separate -condominium-like housing was available for those who were still active and could drive their own cars, and there were also assisted living areas and a nursing home setting. The gentleman who had passed away was a wealthy business owner. His three grown children applauded his zest for life and preference for the finer trappings. His oldest son told me that his father always wanted to have a send-off that involved his Dixieland bandmates, with whom he had played for many years. They had marched on the field at Cincinnati Reds and Bengals games, and the group had remained quite close into their old age.

So the social room at the retirement community was bedecked not with black bunting but with bright green ribbons and noisemakers normally reserved for New Year’s Eve. The kitchen staff strolled around with serving trays, offering finger food and alcoholic beverages. I stood at the room’s rear, pleased by what I observed—folks of all ages eating, drinking, and toasting the deceased. Here was the life of the party, the one they’d all come to honor, lying in a solid bronze casket, dressed in a pair of black tuxedo trousers, a white ruffled shirt, green satin bow tie, and a red-and-white striped sports jacket. His bandmates were off to one side loudly playing “Sweet Georgia Brown” and having the time of their lives. When the band took a break, they all congregated at their late friend’s casket, each tipping a glass in his honor.

The deceased man had left behind a wife and a wealth of memories, especially from their annual trip to Hawaii. At the funeral the next day, in recognition of his love for our fiftieth state, I was asked to play the music of Don Ho. His favorite song? “Tiny Bubbles.” Everyone in attendance received a small bottle of soap bubbles and the obligatory wand. As the mourners and family members passed the casket, they administered a bubbly tribute as the song wafted in the background.

Disrespect can take many forms. A young man killed in an auto accident reposed in his casket with gospel hymns playing softly in the background. His parents were very religious and appreciated the solemnity of Christian music for a churchlike atmosphere. But the decedent’s hoodlum friends requested that I instead play the rap CDs they had brought along. I looked over the cases and discovered warnings proclaiming that the talentless ramblings contained extremely explicit, profane, and sexually degrading lyrics, obviously inappropriate for a funeral. I showed the CDs to the parents, and to my surprise, they said to go ahead and play them. Well, after about three minutes into the first selection, the father frantically begged me to go back to the hymns. He and his family had probably never heard the bittersweet recollections of a “ho” shaking “the junk in her trunk” and feverishly fondling many male appendages until they “shot their spunk.”

Bury Me with Buster

Honoring last requests is often a simple matter of inclusion. Over the years I have placed myriad items inside caskets—fishing rods, a bow and arrow, golf clubs (sometimes a whole set), golf balls, basketballs, autographed baseballs, baseball gloves, and other sports memorabilia, along with complete baseball, football, and basketball uniforms. Unloaded handguns, rifles, and shotguns often find their way into the casket—sometimes because the deceased was an avid hunter, but just as often because someone apparently didn’t want certain family members to take possession. I’ve included playing cards, bingo cards, lucky pennies, room keys from hotels in Las Vegas and other destinations, cigarettes, marijuana joints, pet rocks, favorite books, a tape recorder, a glass eye, sexual devices, jewelry (some expensive, some not), apples, oranges, buckeyes, walnuts, photographs, leaf collections, coin collections, Penthouse and Playboy magazines (once, an entire collection), and occasionally even a racier publication.

Then there are the dead animals—cremated remains of beloved dogs and cats or the recently euthanized dog, which is placed in a plastic bag and laid at the feet of the deceased.

One recent casket-depositing incident caused quite a furor. The late gentleman was thrice married and divorced, and all three of his ex-spouses insisted on attending the services. His current female companion abruptly requested that I remove one of those ex-wives from the funeral home as soon as possible. “Why?” I inquired. She informed me that the woman had just peeled off her panties and placed them in her late ex-husband’s hand.

The majority of gestures are loving, however. An elderly gentleman friend contacted me when his wife passed away. After the service and with the room empty of mourners, he and I approached the casket. He then handed me a $50 bill and requested that I slip it into his wife’s bra. Apparently it was a tradition of sorts—whenever she went someplace without him, he would playfully slip $50 into her bra so she would always have some money with her. This time would be no exception.

It smelled like men. And maybe that was because there were over thirty of them and only three women. One woman was teaching naked yoga and as far as I could see (I dipped my head in to glance at the class), all the followers were men.

What motivated you to write Does This Mean You’ll See Me Naked?

The original premise of my book was to be a primer for consumers to understand that funeral arrangements are not to be taken lightly. Whether someone is arranging for funeral services and disposition for a loved one, or for themselves, one should be more prepared in order to make good, and not hasty, decisions. For most of us, we are all ill prepared for death; we are conditioned to be afraid of death and we deny death in our society. My objective was to inform consumers what they may expect and to provide ammunition to make good decisions, whether it concerns the type and price of caskets; how and why the funeral director charges for certain services and specific funeral etiquette.

Why did you decide to become an embalmer and funeral director?

My older brother was serving his apprenticeship at a funeral home and as fourteen-year-old I tagged along with him at night and on the weekends. My brother and the other gentleman employees were all like big brothers to me- punching each other in the arm, making fun of each other’s mothers- yet when it was time for work, these young men were all business. I was impressed and even touched by the way these men would be so compassionate and helpful to the bereaved family members and friends of the deceased in their care. It seemed to me that such a vocation was truly a gift and perhaps a calling.

What is the most annoying or ridiculous question you are asked about your business?

Ever since I became involved in the funeral business I constantly am asked if dead bodies raise up, make sounds, or do fingernails and hair grow after death. Such inquiries materialize because of the ignorance of death in our death denying society. Most folks know so very little, and probably do not wish to know much, about death and its associated processes. By applying a small bit of thought to the idea, one should realize that since death is the cessation of life, no life sustaining events can possibly occur after death.

Give an example of a humorous or odd occurrence that has been encountered lately.

For obvious reasons, we always retain any clothing items or other belongings of a deceased loved one in our care. Keeping and bagging someone’s clothing came to light recently after we removed an elderly lady from her home after her death. After we brought her body back to the funeral home, we removed all clothing and placed the items in bag to retain for her family. The next day her daughters came in to make the funeral arrangements and at the point of discussing the financial obligations, one of the daughters mentioned that I already had her mother’s funeral money. I wondered if her mother had pre-arranged and paid for her funeral expenses, and the daughter said, “didn’t you take Mom’s clothes off last night?” I told her that I did, and she said, “Well, her funeral money is in her bra.” I excused myself and went to the preparation room and opened the lady’s bag of clothing, fished out the bra, and lo and behold, three thousand dollars cash was inserted in each cup of the bra. The late lady had sewn a small pocket inside each cup of her bra and stashed her funeral money there. Needless to say, that was a great example of why we never dispose of a decedent’s clothing right away.

What would you like to accomplish with your book?

I would like the reader and or consumer to be educated about the funeral business. Hopefully, the reader will come away with knowledge of certain funeral etiquette, such as refraining from using the word “coffin”, an outdated term. A coffin was narrow at the hips and wide at the shoulders–the box that Dracula slept in. A casket is the box that the deceased reposes in today. Ceremonial terms, such as “funeral service”, which is a liturgical rite conducted with the deceased human body present. A “memorial service” is a funeral ceremony in which the body is not present. “Interment” in the burial of the body in the grave–not “internment”. Japanese Americans were placed into internment camps during World War II. And, of course, I would especially desire that the reader would pay attention to the descriptions in my book detailing costs, be it the funeral home’s service charge or the prices of funeral merchandise. By merely digesting the cost information the reader could acquire some needed “ammunition” that would come in very handy should funeral arrangements be on their mind.


The first thing I did after you moved out was rearrange the furniture.

Before your moving truck even made it down the hill to the interstate I was back upstairs, calculating the new equation of chair/couch/bed/desk that redefined “our” home as “my” home. It was easy; the strength I wasted trying to keep us together was more than adequate to the task. With all of your junk gone there was at last room to move, room to breathe. You took away so much but at least you left me with that.

Next I cleaned. Every spill, every stain, every unwashed surface you spent months ignoring I attacked. Your laziness towards housework had accreted in buildup behind the toilet, under the microwave and in all the little crumbs of half-eaten cat food scattered around the edges of the carpet. I swept and mopped and scrubbed, down on hands and knees with a toothbrush where need be. I mauled the carpet with the vacuum, running it back and forth, over and over, siphoning up piles of fur left behind by two cats I hope never to see again and the dog I’d give anything to have back.

I found the ashtray stuffed full of cigarette butts you left for me out on the balcony. Thank you for that.

When that was done I stripped the bed like a carcass, collecting the worn sheet set you’d left behind and hauling it down to the dumpster. A waste, yes, but it was too worn out to be donated to Goodwill. I warned you about that in the store, tried to tell you that the pets’ claws would hook on all those embroidered flowers and tear the comforter to shreds. “But it’s pretty,” you insisted, as if this were the principal criteria for the purchase of any household item, and I chose not to carry the fight further. When the animals proved me right you hated me for it, even while we lay as pages between those covers.

I organized the DVDs and the books and cupboards, discovering in the process that my copy of Shaun of the Dead was missing. My posters and decorations were repositioned and re-hung, liberated from the tyranny of a single bedroom wall. I did this all while playing CDs by Tori Amos and PJ Harvey on my stereo system, thrilled I could once again listen to them without hearing your endless complaints of “Ugh! Chick music!”  

Every photograph of you and I, every image that suggested we had been together in any sense at all, I collected into a shoebox I shoved into the back of the closet, where it remains. I could have burned or shredded them, tossed them in the dumpster along with your sheets, but like it or not you are a part of my past, and I cannot burn you out of my memory. But I saw no need to leave reminders of that lying about.

When all this was done, when the apartment finally looked like a place where I lived rather than where I merely existed, I was still buzzing, blurry around the edges with unspent energy. It was early dusk, the sun still up in the air, and I doubted you’d even made it to the Arizona border. I went for a run, making sure to listen to my iPod so I wouldn’t have explain to the neighbors out walking their dogs why mine wasn’t jogging with me this time. On the way home I bought dinner from that Hawaiian barbeque place you hated, even though you only ever tried one dish.

After dinner I took a long shower, since there was no one around insisting she had to take a bath. I scrubbed myself the way I scrubbed the floor, and made a note to throw out all of those various little bottles of bath oils and emollients you left behind. When finished I chose to stay naked, faint steam rising off my skin in the apartment’s cool January air. I walked around the living room aimlessly, reveling in the freedom of my unclothed body. The lights were on and the blinds half-open, and I could hear you in my head, yelling at me about how someone would see, how embarrassing it would be.

“Fuck it,” I said to you-in-my-head, “anyone spending their time staring in through my windows gets exactly what they deserve.” And that was the last word on the matter.

I watched my DVD of Blade Runner, the film you always said you “don’t get,” because it is how I’ve christened every solo apartment I’ve ever had, and because it is my favorite, and I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like it.

When I finally felt tired I stretched out on the bed, now fitted with my old flannel sheets from college, and marveled at how much space there was, and how relaxed I felt in it. I avoided looking at the empty spot at the foot where the dog should have been curled up in a little fuzzball.

I thought about how much time I would have to write, without you around to constantly interrupt.

I decided to take up learning the guitar again, and to exercise more.

I wondered about the next person I would date, and the next person I would sleep with, and which would come first. 

The last thing I did after you moved out was send an email to my friends, everyone I should have called individually but just didn’t have the patience to, to bring them up to speed on the day’s events. Instead of paragraphs I wrote only two words:

“It’s done.”

trout stream

When I was ten, my parents sent me to summer camp for two weeks. They made the arrangements secretly, knowing a fit was inevitable the minute they broke the news. I was an explosive kid, coming as I did from a histrionic family, and my parents wanted me gone for a while so they could rage at each other without me around to upstage them.

Although I am loath to admit it, I am a prude.  I never would have thought myself to be uptight before now but being faced with the Freikörper Kultur has brought me up to speed.  I am 100% American prude.  What is the Free Body Culture, you might ask?  Why it’s the Society of Naked Germans, of course!  And with the advent of summer, the parks and lakes are overflowing with frolicking, happy nudists.

I have never before been even slightly weirded out by the thought that anyone would want to lie naked in the sun.  It sounds rather naughty and delicious, actually.  That being said, I have rarely been faced with an entire city of people who can’t wait to publicly shed their clothing at the slightest opportunity.  Summer is here or at least June is and even though it hasn’t been anything even approaching warm enough to be called bathing suit weather, anything above 60 degrees Fahrenheit is apparently warm enough to bare it all.  Nobody worries about shrinkage.  One day I was happily cruising around Berlin admiring the greenery and suddenly the next, the view had changed entirely.  One might have fancied oneself in a veritable Garden of Eden were it not for the tattoos and lack of strategically placed fig leaves.

In truth, this year I was well prepared.  Last summer on a visit the boyfriend took me to a lake to replenish our vitamin D deficiency.  He had warned me that everyone would be nude and that was fine, I’d said, but it wasn’t going to be me.  I’m not sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t what was.  We were surrounded by everyone and anyone you could imagine, as long as you could imagine they were all white; Germany not being the most color diverse country in the world.  There were tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, beautiful, those not traditionally considered good looking, some obese folks, someone going through chemo, someone who’d undergone a double mastectomy, someone who was clearly anorexic, spider veins abounded, cellulite glistened in the sunshine, waxed and unwaxed, shaved and unshaved, if you can think of it, it was there.

As I looked around I was overcome with admiration for the group of people so comfortable in their own skin.  So unashamed of their bodies as they existed; a foreign concept for most Americans, let alone New Yorkers who are constantly under pressure to stay at the forefront of the fashion and body beautiful trends.  And I realized I was more conspicuous as the only one with clothes on than I would be if I just let go of my Puritanism and freed my body from its spandex confines.  It was elating to lie naked and unnoticed in a park full of people doing the same.  But I didn’t kid myself either.  The only reason I could do this at all was because other than my equally naked boyfriend, I didn’t know a soul.  There is courage in anonymity.

This year for my birthday, he took me to a spa to relax a little.  Once again I was prepared ahead of time for the lack of clothing.  Given the park experience, I no longer felt the need to take a suit.  But when we got to the spa and into the co-ed dressing room I found I was a little bugged out.  I mean, yeah it makes sense.  We’re all about to be naked together anyway, why separate us for the donning and removal phase?  But regardless of the rationality, I somehow felt more exposed fully undressing that close to strange men.  Then in walked the Swedish bombshells who parked themselves directly next to my boyfriend and proceeded to disrobe.  Wait, what happened to all the every-bodies I saw at the lake?  Where were they?  Why was I wobbling my sizable nether parts next to Sweden’s Next Top Model?  This wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

But we wandered down to the sauna anyway.  Walking through the rooms filled with spa-goers, I felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I couldn’t understand why at first.  It shouldn’t feel so much different than it had the last time, after all I didn’t know anyone there.  But as I took a seat in the very crowded sauna, I began to be conscious of the people around me.  These weren’t the naked folks I’d been at the lake with.  Nearly everyone there was under 40, somewhat toned or put together and were all painfully, horribly, nakedly close together.

I am a natural voyeur, a people watcher.  I love to openly gaze and wonder at the happenings around me.  But when you’re sweating together in a small room packed full of fellow nudists, you somehow lose the freedom to do that.  If you spend too much time looking at someone, you could be quickly labeled a sicko letch and excommunicated.  So there we all sat, carefully avoiding each other’s eyes, peeking out of the corners of our own to somehow get the bearings of our surroundings and not talking.  It was awful.

Today I went to a beach with some friends and was shocked to see the sand bursting with colorful bikinis and trunks.

“Where are all the naked Berliners?” I asked.

A fellow sunbather indicated a sign that said in big, black lettering, Freikörper Kultur, and pointed down the beach.  In that moment I knew.  I knew I was a prude because I was relieved.  I was so relieved not to be faced with the pressure to be naked with my friends.  I knew I couldn’t do it.  As they say, some things are better left unsaid, but there are an equal number of things better left dressed on my body and I decided to agree with my friend Juan’s assessment.  There’s something sexy about a little guesswork, even if it is just a little.  So although I may again lie naked in the sun it won’t be anywhere I might run into someone I know and you can rest assured my blanket will be far enough away from the next guy so I can take in the beauty of a park full of everyone basking in their own glory.  Just don’t tell my mother.

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 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.