Extended adolescence is all the rage these days. Or extended childhood, or extended young adulthood, depending on whether your particular clock stopped during Star Wars: Episode III or Star Wars: Episode I.
Extended adolescence is all the rage these days. Or extended childhood, or extended young adulthood, depending on whether your particular clock stopped during Star Wars: Episode III or Star Wars: Episode I.
Me 1: Do you feel self-conscious about doing this interview with yourself?
Me 2: In fact, I do. But then again I feel self-conscious about everything. There’s always this little voice in my head that tells me to be quiet, stay in line, and whatever you do, don’t make a fool of yourself. Hence, I sometimes feel paralyzed.
Me 1: That’s odd. You don’t seem like the sort of person who has spent her life “staying in line.”
Me 2: I haven’t. I am constantly in rebellion against that voice.
Me 1: When did the rebellion begin?
Me 2: Sixth grade. I discovered cussing and never looked back. Sometimes I feel like a Tasmanian Devil — the cartoon kind.
Me 1: How many times a day do you check your four email accounts and your Facebook?
Me 2: Shut up. At least I don’t twitter.
Me 1: Maybe you should.
Me 2: I dreamed last night that I was going to start twittering. Is that good enough?
Me 1: I don’t think so. Let’s talk about your new book, Wait Until Tomorrow: A Daughter’s Memoir. Was that always the title?
Me 2: No, the working title was An American Requiem, which is also the title of a piece of music that my mother wrote. The story begins and ends with that piece of music. It’s really an extraordinary composition.
Me 1: As a child you often felt that you were in your mother’s shadow. You say she was admired and respected by everyone who knew her. People were constantly singing her praises. Was she really all that?
Me 2: She was pretty amazing. Musically, she was extremely gifted. As a conductor and choir director, she was authoritative yet kind and genuinely loved. She has some little quirks that became more prominent in her later years. One of the things I don’t talk about in the book is that in her 80s, she managed to unintentionally offend a few people in the town of Edenton where she had settled. I never knew that to happen when she was younger. She might have offended people when she was younger but never unintentionally. So I think it was related to her dementia. Which kind of scares me. Not the part about offending people — just the personality change. But you asked about being in her shadow. Here’s the thing: I know that no matter how good I get at what I do I’ll never be as good as she was at what she did. That doesn’t bother me though. I’m having a pretty great life.
Me 1: Your first book Sweet Fire was an autobiographical novel. This book is a memoir. What’s the difference?
Me 2: Good question, Pat. I made several attempts to write a novel that drew on my experiences as a junkie and drugstore bandit. That was hard. I found, though, that the more autobiographical I got, the easier it became. But I consciously fictionalized a lot of that story because I didn’t want to be shackled by the facts. I blended more than one person into one character. I changed certain facts about my family in order to protect their privacy. And I made the main character much more self-aware than I was. I guess I gave her my later awareness.
Me 1: Share with us one of your petty thoughts regarding your first book and A Million Little Pieces.
Me 2: Sure. I thought, I could have just marketed Sweet Fire as a memoir (which in many ways it was) and then been on Oprah and gotten a million little pieces of money even though I consciously altered certain important parts of the story. But that’s what we all think, right? If only . . . Truthfully, Oprah probably wouldn’t have picked it up no matter what I called it. I haven’t won the lottery yet either.
Me 1: So now that Greg Mortenson has added his international brand of disgrace to the memoir genre, are you afraid people will think your book is full of lies?
Me 2: Weirdly enough, I almost never watch broadcast television but for some reason I happened to watch 60 Minutes that particular night. It was rather disheartening to see that Mortenson felt the truth wouldn’t be enough to sell that story. Anyway, I think I’m safe. I never claimed to be kidnapped by the Taliban. And who lies about wiping shit off an old woman’s ass? (Not my mother’s ass, by the way.)
Me 1: Are you sure that absolutely everything in your memoir is true?
Me 2: No. But I do know that I didn’t consciously alter facts to make it more dramatic or to make me or anyone else appear heroic or diabolic. Memoir is a subjective truth, which is why I say in the introduction to the book that it is my truth — not my mother’s or my husband’s or anyone else’s. It’s also selective. And that’s the tricky part of memoir as opposed to fiction. When you are writing fiction, every scene you write contributes to the arc of the story. If it doesn’t, then you cut it. When you are writing memoir, then you have to choose: this day or that day? this story or that story? You’re trying to capture the truth, and at the same time you don’t want to bore your reader with every bit of minutia from your journal.
Me 1: Your memoir was supposed to be about taking care of your mother in her old age. How did it wind up being about so much more?
Me 2: One of the things that interests me most as a writer is exploring the connections among things — experiences, events, people. So I wondered how was my relationship with my mother similar to the relationship I had with my husband and with my daughter? How did what happened in my childhood affect what happened when I became the parent to my mother? How did the political decisions and changes that were going on in the country relate to my personal life? The book couldn’t be limited to just one thing.
Me 1: Okay, so what are you working on now?
Me 2: Besides getting the word out about this book? Well, I’m doing some writing workshops on the transformative power of writing, and writing a book about the same topic. And I’ve started another novel. I’m also trying to write more short pieces. I’ve started bird watching, and I’m doing some traveling with my daughter soon. I want to do more hiking, more outdoor stuff. So that’s what I’m writing about when I can. It’s difficult to write and teach full time and do workshops, but that kind of tension seems to be built in to the writer’s life. We all are constantly negotiating the competing demands for our time. It gives us something to complain about so we don’t feel so guilty about the fact we get to do what we absolutely love to do.
I just got an e-mail
that a little old lady needs a therapy dog,
so I call the phone number
and speak to the daughter
who herself sounds elderly.
Her voice is all trembly
She is taking care of her 94-year-old mother.
She says she’s tired all the time.
She’s sorry she sounds tired;
she was taking a nap when I called
she was up half the night
her mother had diarrhea
and she had to stay awake
to keep her mother cleaned up.
Her mother is very clean.
Her mother is her life, she says.
She says, the last person who called
had a Rottweiler
but that was way too big a dog.
I said, I have a big dog too,
but although she’s about 90 pounds
she’s a Golden and
gentle as spring rain.
Oh, she says, oh, that’s big.
She has a big heart, I say.
Does she lick? she says,
my mother doesn’t like to be licked.
I say, she kisses,
yes she does,
Oh she won’t like that, she says.
I ask, did your mother
have dogs when she was younger?
She says, not that she knows of
but she did find a picture of her
once, a long time ago with
a tiny little dog.
Maybe seeing a dog
would be good for her,
she didn’t know, it might not
even have been her dog.
I say, my dog isn’t tiny
and she does lick
but she makes people happy,
but some people don’t like dogs.
You should know that not everyone
wants a dog near them.
My mother is my life, she says,
She has some help during the day, she says,
but really it’s up to her.
I say, look here, I have to go away for a week.
Why don’t you take my e-mail?
I don’t have a computer, she says.
I say, okay then, take down my name
and phone number
and think on it while I’m away.
Call me when I get back
We could just give it a try, I say.
I took care of my mother too, I say.
You took care of your mother? she says.
Yes I did, I say.
She is speaking louder now and faster.
I think that this is the lady who needs
the visits from a therapy dog.
The last place she called said a therapy dog was
$150 per hour for two hours, she says
and she tells the guy
that her mother can’t take two hours of anything
but he says that even if it’s 20 minutes
it’s still $150 for two hours.
I say, our organization is all volunteer.
No one has to pay for a therapy dog visit.
I would love to come visit with my dog, I say.
She says she’ll think on it.
Big dogs are a problem
and then there’s the licking,
her mother won’t like that,
she’s a clean woman, she says.
I said that’s okay.
You just think about it
and give me a call.
She says, you really took care of your mother?
Yes, I did, I say.
My mother is my life, she says.
Still, I say, still
you could take a little break,
have a cup of tea,
read a magazine,
if your mother decided she liked
to spend some time with my dog and me.
My mother is very hard of hearing;
you should know that, she says.
At 94, few of us will have good hearing, I say.
I just don’t know, she says.
I’m so tired, I can’t hardly think.
Did you find you got really tired? she says.
Yes, oh yes I did get tired, I say.
I hope this would be good for my mother
but I just don’t know, she says,
the dog is so big.
Big dog, big heart, I say.
She licks, though, she says,
I wish she didn’t lick.
Is there parking around her place? I ask,
Oh yes, she says, that’s not a problem.
She has a house.
She’s lived here fifty years;
been in the same house fifty years.
How wonderful that
she can stay in her own house,
because of your care, I say.
I just wish your dog were small,
she says, and didn’t lick.
Dogs lick, even tiny dogs lick, I say,
it’s one way they get to know a person.
My mother’s a very clean woman,
I’m sure that’s true, I say,
cleanliness is good.
So, you took care of your mother,
Yes, I say, it can make you tired.
You think about it while I’m gone,
I say, I understand if you prefer to wait
for a tiny dog
like the one in the picture.
I’ve never myself known a dog
who didn’t lick, I say.
I’ll call you when you get back,
One day over the summer, as my daughters and I were passing through my parents’ apartment on our way to the back yard, we noticed, through the windows, that the next-door neighbors were pulling up all the grass from their yard and putting in Astroturf. My father, who lives downstairs from us and whose kitchen we always have to walk through if we want to enter or exit by our back door, was sitting in his usual chair in a V-necked T-shirt stained with spaghetti sauce and a pair of boxer shorts, reading Star magazine. He was, at that time, eighty-seven years old. He ignored us as we passed behind him on the stairs. He was reading aloud to himself about Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.
Though I should have known better, for some strange reason I said, “Look, Dad. The Victorines are putting fake grass in their yard.”
My father looked up abruptly. He had not realized we were there, and seemed surprised to see us. His eyes followed my pointing finger and he saw the neighbors laying their Astroturf. “What the hell are they doing out there?” he asked.
“Putting in fake grass,” I repeated. I had already been speaking loudly, but now I raised my voice loud enough that the neighbors themselves probably could hear the conversation. Bartender ear, my mother called this back in the days when my father’s not seeming to hear anything we said was elective on his part. He had listened to drunks repetitive ramblings for so many years that he learned simply to tune voices out. He lived to a private Stan Getz riff in his head.
Now he looked at me accusingly. “Fake rats?” he shouted. “What do you mean, fake rats?”
My daughters started laughing. “Fake grass!” they shouted in unison. “Fake grass, Papa! Grass.”
“Grass,” I explained, over them. “You know, green stuff that grows on the ground.”
But my father wasn’t looking at us, which may have meant that, since he couldn’t see our lips moving, he didn’t even know we were speaking to him. Some days, his ears work better than others, but those days are fewer and farther between.
“Fake rats!” he cried indignantly. “What do they want to do something like that for?”
“Dad,” I began. My daughters and I were all, I confess, basically guffawing into our hands by then. “Dad, not rats! Nobody wants fake rats on their lawn. We’re talking about grass. G-R-A-S-S!”
“Jesus Christ,” my father said, turning back to Lohan and Hilton in Star. He was finished with us and was muttering to himself under his breath. “Fake rats,” he hissed, shaking his head while his eyes perused the pictures of twentysomething celebrities. “I never heard of such a thing.”
My father was not always like this. He used to wear a Brooks Brothers raincoat. He used to have a penchant for tea and marmalade—while other Italian men in our blue collar neighborhood wanted to be Brando, or just Joey Iupa, my father the Anglophile aspired to Cary Grant. Though he went bald in his early twenties, he never had that greasy look some men get. He always smelled good, of Polo cologne. I suspect that, to ward off any appearance of shine, he used to use Old Spice powder on his head.
About ten years ago, my mother began speaking to me in a conspiratorial tone. She began opening conversations with lines like, “Your father has bought this cookie jar in the shape of a suckling pig and is keeping it on his dresser. It has no cookies in it—he just thinks it’s a nice decoration.”
A product of the Great Depression, my father began to hoard cans of ravioli under his bed.
His hearing failed, but he insisted my mother and I merely mumbled. When we insisted this was not the case he said, “Oh Jesus Christ, you two never say anything interesting anyway.”
Apropos of nothing, he would sometimes rail about things like why pregnant women wear skimpy tops. “See, here’s Gwenyth Paltrow from a magazine and even she looks like shit, women shouldn’t do that!–don’t they know how bad it looks?” His face would grow red with frustration when in thirty-five years of knowing him I had never before heard him voice an opinion on maternity fashion, or anything to do with pregnancy, or really even raise his voice except when driving.
One day five years ago, he couldn’t move his foot–which was already riddled by peripheral neuropathy so that he experiences his feet as “round,” without the feeling of his toes or heels—off the gas pedal and had to drive his car into a sign post to avoid harming anyone on the road. After that he didn’t drive anymore, and my mother, in her seventies, got her driver’s license for the first time, and something irrevocable shifted between them.
He needed a cane to walk, but was too proud to use one, so instead he began to fall down a lot. Then he used the cane, but soon needed a walker. The week of his 85th birthday he fell on the way to the toilet and fractured his pelvis. He contracted pneumonia in the hospital and hallucinated being in the apartment of one of his many long-dead friends, Tommy Catalano, and kept saying, “What the hell did Tommy do to these walls?” He didn’t recognize my infant son and called him a “big headed little German who’d turn you in on a dime.” The doctors essentially wrote him off for dead—an eighty-five-year-old man with a broken hip and pneumonia is practically a cliché for which they offer you a special funeral rate—but against all odds he was home within the week, albeit unable to move and wearing a diaper. Then he was stricken with some of the nastier side effects of massive doses of antibiotics; we spent Christmas 2006 changing his diaper almost on the hour while he screamed at the ceiling, begging for the Death he had cheated once again.
He never walked again without a walker. Sometimes, even with the walker, he still falls. As winter snow and ice hit Chicago early this year, he announced he would just not be “going out” anymore.
When my parents were first dating, my father would do things like drive my mother to New York so she could taste the cheesecake. They would drive all night, and once they got there and downed a slice, my father would want to go out to the jazz clubs, and then he would drive home all night into the next day to make it home to work at his bar by evening.
Now, my husband, kids and I spend a great deal of time on a 160 acre farm only a few hours away in Wisconsin. It has a dilapidated old red barn my father would love—he used to stop at roadsides and take photos of barns just like that when I was a kid. But he has never been to the farm—he has never seen “our” red barn. Long car rides hurt his back too much now, and he has difficulty controlling his bladder and can have accidents if cooped up too long. We try to convince him that we’ll pull into every rest stop we see—every twenty minutes if he likes—but he is unconvinced. “Oh honey,” he says. “What am I going to do when I get there anyway? I don’t want to go anywhere anymore. I can’t even walk.”
When someone says something like this to you, you want to turn into a cheerleader. You want to protest that just sitting on the wide front porch and watching the children play in the overgrown grass, that surveying the poetic barn, would somehow be enough. But who are you to say what is enough? My father has already hit the point of “enough,” but then it left without him, and he is still here.
When I was young, my father loved to make fun of old people, to my mother’s horror and my amusement. He would shuffle around like Tim Conway and make puttering noises and twitch his hands theatrically when drinking his tea if there were gray-hairs nearby. The ironic truth is, even his most dire imitations of the elderly did not do justice to what it is like right now just trying to watch my father make it from his bedroom to the kitchen table in the morning: a ritual involving a walker, an entire pill case of tablets to lessen the pain from his osteoarthritis, his spinal stenosis, his temporal arteritis, and his peripheral neuropathy. His journey some twenty feet involves a string of repeated expletives (Oh boy oh boy oh Jesus Christ this fucking body boy oh boy oh boy), and an obsessive compulsive need for a milkshake involving ice cream, milk and bananas. To be clear: the shake has absolutely no relationship to his medical requirements, yet he will not take his pills without this shake, so that if it is midnight and there are no bananas in the house, my husband and I will get a call to go and fetch some or otherwise the routine cannot be followed come morning. If there are no bananas; if my parents are out of milk, hysteria ensues.
The first half an hour of my father’s day goes something like this: He sits in his kitchen chair reading a gossip magazine, maybe Star or People or something of that ilk—something he never would have bought or even perused as a younger man, when he read Royko religiously but otherwise was not much of a reader; when he was into Lenny Bruce and foreign films and smoky jazz and All in the Family and Carson. Now, my father could tell you the latest weight gain of some obscure starlet I wouldn’t even recognize if she fell on me in the street. He reads these magazines because they are “easy,” and nothing else in his life is easy anymore. Early mornings, when he first begins to read, he does so silently like a normal person. If he can read “in his head” and actually comprehend what he is reading, then he knows better than to stand up and try to walk yet, because the pain in his body will still be too intense. But as half an hour goes by and my father’s regimen of pain pills begin to kick in, the words he reads become blurry to his eyes and his mind, and he begins to speak them aloud to keep track. “Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting again,” he might read. (They know each other, right? Or is that Nicole Ritchie? My father would know the answer to this.) Still, he dares not get out of the chair. Finally, reading aloud doesn’t really work either. His brain has become so fuzzy that the sentence sounds more like this: “Lindsay Lindsay Lindsay Lohan and Paris Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and Paris Hilton Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting are fighting are fighting again.”
The pills have done their job. Now he can stand up and make it to the shower. Now, his daughter–can you believe she’s forty!–and his almost-teenage granddaughters can traipse downstairs on their good legs and talk to him about fake rats in the neighbor’s yard, and who knows why people do the things they do, and who cares anymore anyway? But where is the baby—why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her; the little boy they named after him, with his ringlets and his big eyes, who looks so much like his daughter at that age, back when he called her Little Flower—where is the baby, when the only reason he can bear to sit here at this table and get through another day is for a glimpse of him. Why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her—she leaves the baby too much, she works too much, runs around too much, the baby will grow up so fast, she’ll see, then it’s over, then the kids are all gone, even if they live right above you, still, they are gone.
Another day begins.
December 14, 2009
When my father and mother met in 1957, he gave her a fake name. John LaSalle, he called himself, claiming he was visiting from New York to help out a friend who had just opened a bar and needed an experienced hand. He was only in Chicago for a few weeks, he claimed, so obviously he wasn’t looking for anything “serious.” This was, apparently, good enough for her.
My mother was twenty-five, which seems preposterously young in 2009, but in 1957 most of her girlhood friends were already married with children in elementary school, whereas my mother lived alone in a studio on Rush Street, occasionally singing and playing piano in jazz clubs (though she could not read music), working as a secretary by day, and sometimes falling into pits of depression she describes as “black periods,” in which she wrote morose poetry full of lines like “the faltering foot of man who wades/into the guideless brew” and “go my chain.” She had, though you were not supposed to admit it in those days, been through her share of men, including a broken engagement in her late teens. She had traveled the country with two traveling salesmen who dined on steak and made her eat burgers, selling No-Doze machines to truck stops. In California, she had briefly worked as a ballroom dance instructor and been so poor she lived on Hershey bars, but now she was back in Chicago, where she had been raised, with a stable job. Though not thin by today’s standards, my mother was a beautiful woman, with a striking resemblance to a young Isabella Rossellini. Her boobs were something to behold. A semi-famous actor once tried to acquire her as a mistress, but she was not cut out for that life. She had too rigid a moral center, or too much fear, or both, to her betterment or her detriment.
Though this is not ostensibly “about” my mother, I guess what I’m trying to say is that she, while not perfect, was in my father’s estimations “above his station.” Even now that she is seventy-seven, he seems unclear what exactly she is doing with the likes of him . . . though as with most men, this does not mean he has always treated her well. Besides his lacking hair and being older, my father had never lived outside Chicago or even graduated from the eighth grade. More importantly, he was shy to a fault whereas my mother was—and still is—the type of person almost everyone immediately likes. She is outgoing and palpably kind, and she asks a lot of questions (which seem polite and interested if you don’t know her well, albeit bordering on Inquisitional if you know her very, very well.) She’s easy-going and accommodating, avoiding confrontation as though it were a venomous snake coiled at her heel, but that her eternal optimism makes her believe she can easily sidestep and outrun. In public in their early days, she was taken perpetually for his daughter: a mistake they milked with rare and comic perversity.
Yet for all her smiles and pleasantries, my mother is a deeply secretive, easily wounded person who prefers getting to know others to being known herself. She had always been popular as a teen, and into her early twenties—a party girl who won a contest for the prettiest legs; who danced on car roofs in the rain with other bawdy young girls and lived in apartments with a string of roommates . . . but by her mid-twenties, many of those friendships had faded away. Her relationships (platonic and romantic) seemed based more on surface fun than true intimacy, so by the time she met my father in 1957, she was acutely lonely, though she may not have put it that way, or even realized it. She was, as they say, “ripe.”
They met on a blind date. A friend of my dad’s (who was, incidentally, an ex boyfriend of my mom’s) gave him her number after my father chauvinistically proclaimed that women knew nothing about jazz—the fellow said my mother could give him a run for his money. So they met at a coffee shop at two in the morning, because that was when my father got off work. Their conversation lasted into morning, when they moved to the restaurant across the street for breakfast. Afterwards, I am fairly sure they adjourned to my mother’s apartment for sex, though I was (thank god) never told this explicitly. Certainly, they could not have gone to my father’s place, as he lived with his parents in the same small two-bedroom in which he’d been born, in a rundown Italian neighborhood far from glamorous Rush Street. My mother, of course, did not know this. She did not even know he was Italian—which, if you have ever seen my father’s nose, does not speak highly of her powers of observation. When a couple of weeks later, my mother once called him at his “friend’s” bar to tell him she’d be late for their date, she was told there was “no John LaSalle” there, but that the owner, John Frangello, might know who he was and where to find him.
Hence, my father’s ass was busted—my mother recognized his voice and slammed down the phone in fury. Later that night, my father showed up at her door with champagne and cheeseburgers, and for reasons lost to history yet eternal among lonely women in any time, my mother forgave him.
Four years later, they married. If they are both still living in August 2011, it will be their fiftieth wedding anniversary. My father would be eighty-nine.
Two quick details about their courtship, just because:
1) They not only met based on a lie of identity, but married based on one. In order to snag my mother a vacation from work—her boss was rather smitten with her and never gave her any time off—my parents told the man that they were going on a honeymoon to Europe. Only once the other secretaries at her office threw her a shower and gave her presents did my mother realize that everyone would expect her to come back from vacation with a new surname. She had two options: quit her job, or get married. As an Executive Secretary, her position was a coveted one for a girl with no college degree, so it seemed a shame to lose it. “Well then,” my father said, “we’d better get married,” and off to City Hall they went.
2) My father had a predilection for oral sex and was obsessed with giving it to my mother. (Why my mother told me this would obviously be fodder for another post, entitled “Too Much Information: Shit My Mother Told Me That I Never Needed to Know,” but there it is.)
But again, as this is not the story of my mother, neither is it the story of their dating years, their sex life or—later—the lack thereof. Those are stories that are fun, or at least funny, to tell, and that I have explored somewhat in my fiction. Today, however, is my father’s 88th birthday. And so, perhaps, this is a harder story to tell: one that eludes me even as I am beginning it. The story of how you get from point A to point Y. This is a story of knowing point Z—end point—is hovering nearby, forever around the corner, yet not precisely when it will hit. The story of the wild ride, and when, sometimes, that ride goes on without you, long after you are nauseated from the curves and would simply rather get off.
How do you tell a story like that? Apparently, here, you start with the easy stuff. You start off slow, and hope that somehow you can circle things around just enough to create a pastiche, a collage, a portrait that resembles a whole, even if it can never be exactly complete.
“Getting old is a kick in the ass, honey,” my father told me when he was maybe seventy. By then, he had already outlived all his brothers spare one (long dead now), as well as his parents and most of his male friends—old customers from his bar or other bar owners, musicians, or occasional Mobsters whom alcoholism, drug use, high blood pressure or violent lifestyles got killed early. His fifties and sixties were full of wakes, and by the time he entered his seventies, he was already a Last Man Standing of sorts. When our longtime neighbor, reputed Mob boss Joe Lombardo, was let out of prison in the late 1980s, he drove by my father’s house honking his horn and waving, making a loud show of his “respect” for my father, one of the neighborhood patriarchs.
Every night my father dreams of his dead brothers. His dreams are full of barren, frozen grounds and solitary old men, dragged off by hostile crowds in the back of carts. His dreams are full of death imagery and ghosts. He never dreams of me or my mother. In his dream life, he has been standing alone for nearly two decades now.
“The show’s over,” he’s been telling us for years. And then, in the next breath, looking at my daughters, age 9, “I wish I could be around to see them get married.”
Where am I going with this? Where am I going?
I have given myself the week to figure it out. This is the thing about “youth,” even middle-aged-youth: I can still believe in the luxury of time. And so I’ll try again tomorrow.
Do your your underpants express the you you hope they do? What about the locker room or the doctor’s office or when they’re sitting on the chair for the body worker to see (unless you’ve hidden them under your clothes, which is fairly nuts . . . here she’s going to be handling your naked body but no way, no way can she see your underpants) or like if you’re undressing for the first time in front of a lover. Can there be situations in which your underpants make things go very very wrong? Sure. I’ll tell you about it.
Last winter I was visiting some people I know, free spirits, California. I was complaining that I didn’t have enough briefs for a long trip because I buy them so rarely the stores never have the same kind the next time I need some, and I don’t know whether the new kind’s going to work for me. I have only a little vanity but I do have some, and I like to see if what I’m buying looks stupid, like a Speedo on a fat Russian at a Black Sea beach. And they won’t let you try them on, and I buy 3 packs, to save a few bucks, so that’s a lot of money wasted if I don’t like them. It’s overwhelming, so I put off going, and then I get stuck without . . . .
So I’m complaining about my underpant holdings out there in Fallbrook, California, where probably nobody wears underpants anyway. Fallbrook, California is the Southern California headquarters of the Aryan Nation. My friend Lake told me that they picketed one of the banks, something about illegal immigrants, surprise surprise, but nobody paid any attention to them. I figure if there’s a town full of ex-military people spilled out from Camp Pendleton and when the Aryan Nation demonstrates nobody pays any attention, well, that most likely is a place where nobody wears underpants.
But I was wrong.
Out in Fallbrook my friend Rob listened to me complain, went to his bedroom, and came back with some tighty whities. He said, “Here, take these since you’re short.”
He said, “Notice the logo,” which I had noticed and pegged as some silly hangover from those fashion days when clothing had large model and serial numbers printed on it. Dude! My shirt has a lower serial number than yours!
So these underpants are marked 2(x)ist. And?
Rob said that meant they were sized for guys with big dicks.
I said, “Oh great, I wear these into the locker room and other guys say, ‘Hey check out asshole over there, guy wants us to know he’s got a big one.’”
I took them anyway, hoping that not many people knew that secret code, except maybe for the Aryan Nation guys. Rob gave me one 3-pack, and then two more, so I ended up with three 3-packs — that’s nine white Y-fronts.
Upside is that now my underwear drawer is nicely integrated. My black Calvins and my white 2(x)ists.
But the downside is huge. Forget about the dick advertisement.
The problem is that they’re white Y-fronts. When all my black briefs are dirty and I put on the white jobs, I become my father. I become my 95 year old uncle in his baggy tighty whiteys standing there talking to a doctor about his hernia. I become every limp old dude out there, me in my white Y-fronts, just like them.
What if somebody sees them? One time I was going running and it was chilly so I didn’t wear my shorts-with-liner, which meant I had to wear underpants with my lightweight tights. I had nothing else but the 2(x)ists and I thought, Jesus Christ, what if I get hit by a car and have to go to the emergency room and I’m unconscious?
And the ER doc says to the nurse, “So how old you think this guy is?”
And she says, “I’d say 70 or 80 from those loose tighty whities.”
And there’s worse. Like I only opened one of those 3-packs, I left one in Hawai’i, and brought one home to Colden. So there’s a 3-pack of white Y-fronts in a drawer in my house in Hilo. And one of my friends is going to use the house and he’s a very cool gay guy.
He opens the drawer, “Gah! Gah! And I like Don,” he says, “This isn’t something I wanted to know about him.”
The other sealed pack’s in the garage here, in the metal cabinet with the laundry detergent, the paper towels, that kind of stuff. I tossed it in there. Let’s say that my favorite plumber Bob’s at the house and he opens it looking for teflon tape. It’s all over for me, then. He’s going to say, “Oh shit. Look what happens when you run out of something. You got to see stuff you don’t want to see.”
Or what if somebody goes into the laundry hamper?
Comes to the house when they’re hanging on the line?
If Ruth gets angry at me and tells? Emails everybody she knows, with pictures?
So, yeah, you say, throw the damn things out. Stop worrying, get rid of them.
But how? What if the garbage guys see them? It’s not like your homemade porno tapes that you can put in the microwave or pass a magnet over so even if the garbos grab them there’s nothing to see. The bag might burst, and there’s the evidence, right there.
They’ll say, “We didn’t know he was that kind of guy. He seemed all right, but look at this. Next Christmas, we won’t even take his tip.”
I told my friend the Rolfer about all this and she tried to help out. I figured I could tell her because she’s worked on my old body. So she brings over a box of Rit dye. Black. But what if the Jim the UPS guy comes while I’m dyeing them?
“You need to sign for this. Uh, maybe I’ll do it for you.”
He probably won’t take his Christmas card, either.
So I’ll bury them in the yard. Gotta be the back yard. But what happens if the septic tank has to be fixed, and leach field dug up? The last time the septic guy came to pump we got started talking classic British motorcycles, AJS, Ariel, Norton.
He turns up the tighty whities with his Bobcat, he’s gonna say, “Saw a nice sixties Honda 50 step-through over in East Otto, thought you might be interested?”
Even the Japanese beetle grubs under the grass, waiting to grow up and attack my plants, one of them’s gonna go, “Shit, this milky spore grub control’s rough on me but you guys over there, looks like you’re getting it from milky tighty whities. Christ, whoever owns this place is a loser.”
“I got beaten by a fairy,” I said to David, the New York City Marathon finish line director, after I crossed the finish mats, wondering if I was going to puke. A worker put a medal around my neck. I talked instead of puking.
“I ran as hard as I could but the fairy beat me,” I said, and peeled off to the celebrity exit. I felt like weeping. I always do after a marathon, good or bad – it’s a flood, the emotion, the stuff you’ve kept pent up for a few hours because you’re concentrating on running, that stuff takes the easy way out, which is release by weeping. With David I didn’t worry about weeping or not making sense, because he’s seen a good half million marathoners finish and must have talked to a thousand of them. Or listened to them. Or danced away from their puke.
So he didn’t bite on the fairy thing. “Good job,” he said, “Good job. Looks like you’re in under five.”
“It sucks,” I said, drawing my mylar blanket around me, “I blew up. Groin. Groin blew up. Yesterday I told you hamstrings, but it was the groin. And I got beaten by a fairy.”
“Go up to the celebrity tent.”
He led me to a gap in the fence, where orange-jacketed workers checked out my secret stickers, and let me through. I had only had a couple of hundred feet to go and lots of attendants, because I was a celebrity, and we got special treatment before the race and after it, even though what happened during it was up to us. The other celebrities were real celebrities, like P Diddy, or they were friends of the sponsors, or they were like me, one of the guys in the racing business, getting what amounted to professional courtesy. Celebrity status at this race covered a lot of ground, and although I liked what it promised, I had been ambivalent about it because most of the other celebrities were not serious runners. Evidently I wasn’t either, because I’d just been beaten by a fairy.
At the moment, though, I felt like a celebrity. Someone offered me water. A man draped my arm over his shoulder and walked me away from the gate. Another person clipped my timing chip off and thanked me. A woman walked me up the path, looked at me carefully and asked if I was all right. I knew she meant was I physically all right, so I said I was fine and didn’t need anything. At the tent a young woman led me to the bags and found mine for me.
“Can I take anything out of it for you?” she said while handing it to me.
“No, I’m fine. But thank you.”
I wasn’t fine. What I meant was that I wasn’t going to faint, I wasn’t going to puke, my blisters and sore toes were nothing, and my groin didn’t hurt now that I’d stopped running. So I was fine except for the cramps that I knew would be along pretty soon, but in the meantime I could flop down on the Central Park celebrity grass and have some Poland Spring and hope that nobody I knew would find me for a while, wouldn’t out me and my dogshit time, because I wasn’t ready to talk about how much of an idiot I’d been, how I’d forgotten what I knew how to do, that I’d run stupidly and had been beaten by a fairy. Probably.
By this time I was thinking more clearly and wondering if the fairy had really beaten me. Maybe I’d beaten her. I didn’t know for sure, even though when I charged up the last little hill to the finish line, I’d thought that the fairy had been ahead of me, even though I couldn’t see her. The last time I’d seen the fairy she was ahead of me and moving away, but that didn’t mean she’d stayed there. The fairy and I had swapped positions eight or ten times since the 59th Street Bridge, and the last time I’d seen her moving away from me had been back on Central Park South, which had felt a hell of a lot longer at the end of the race than it had when I’d walked down it the night before to get to my free celebrity room in the Sheraton. I’d bet there were a thousand people on that stretch of road, so it was possible that I’d passed the fairy for the last time and hadn’t known it. But in my heart I was sure the fairy had beaten me.
It wasn’t that I wanted to beat the fairy. I wasn’t racing against fairies, or against women in their twenties, which is what I judged her to be. It was more that I didn’t want to be beaten by a fairy. At the time these seemed very different ideas to me, and after it was all over they still seemed different, but I couldn’t have said why. Logically they were identical. Either I beat the fairy or the fairy beat me, or we tied, which I knew hadn’t happened and couldn’t have happened because if I’d gotten into an all-out sprint with the fairy I felt sure I would have kicked her fairy ass, groin or no groin. I wasn’t sure I’d have had the balls to given the fairy an elbow or knocked her into – well, of course not. What had the fairy ever done to me? Nothing.
At least the fairy who beat me was an international fairy – English, because of the Union Jack stitched onto the top of her white fairy costume. I fell in with her on the 59th Street Bridge, just about the time my groin blew up for real. Back on the Pulaski Bridge it had started to go but it hadn’t gone bad until the big bridge. I’d been monitoring it carefully since the halfway point and it’d been deteriorating since then, which was bad because I had 10 miles to go, and had already fallen off the pace, because of the groin. I don’t even like the sound of groin, it’s blunt and ugly. Plus it’s all those little tiny muscles I can’t even remember the names of, little ones so you say, well, who cares about those little guys? Look after your quads and hamstrings and the rest’ll take care of themselves. Except nope.
Too fast, too fast, I couldn’t stop saying to myself, you took it out too fast, you idiot. How could I? Being old and out of racing form and reentering marathoning after twenty years out wasn’t any excuse because I’d known all those things and had meant to be cautious. And I’d even run the race the year before. But, almost unbelievably, I’d started my watch at the gun, and all the way walking and then jogging the 13 minutes it took to get to the actual starting line I hadn’t stopped and reset my watch so I could start it at the line. Me! The professional timer guy, timer of more than a thousand races, of nearly a million runners, making an idiotic mistake trying to time himself. Not starting my watch properly meant I couldn’t judge my pace from the mile markers all along the course.
So I’d run the first ten miles too fast. But I felt good, as I said to my son later, the plaintive cry of the runner who misjudged his fitness badly. When I was young I’d just say, well, I went out too fast so I’ll just have to hang on and maybe I’ll have a good one. Now that I’m old I say, I went out too fast, I’m fucked.
The Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge was the usual mixture of paces. Some runners were attacking it, some were walking, and the rest were passing people or being passed. I was passing people who were walking but about as many people were passing me. When I came up on the fairy I wasn’t too surprised. She wasn’t the only person in costume, although she was the only fairy I’d seen. You don’t really expect costumes in a marathon, because a marathon is serious business. You can get goofs in a marathon, people with stuff written all over their shirts, sometimes funny hats or socks, but not many costumes. But here was a fairy, white with silver trim. She looked good, too; her stride was short and controlled – just right for climbing. I passed her, slowly, wondering if I’d see her again, suspecting that I would.
Back in the pack the runners seem to be part of a giant phase-shifting experiment. We start in the same place, we end in the same place, but at every moment some of us are speeding up, some are slowing down. It’s almost fugal. I saw Nori, the Japanese guy, about every half hour. I came up on another Japanese guy and decided to say konnichi wa, good day, to him. I concentrated on my accent. He was surprised and, I think pleased. I never saw him again so maybe those words, the only words I said before I finished, magically took us so far out of phase that we never fell back in again.
The fairy never turned to look at me, and I never turned to her. I didn’t want to talk to her – it felt as though it would break some kind of spell. I almost did when I passed her in Harlem at the same time we both passed a chubby blue bug, well – something with antennae. I wanted to say, shaking my head, That blue bug is too much, isn’t she? In Harlem I still had hope for my 4:40 or 4:45, because I thought the groin might be easing and I’d be able to speed up even if I had to slow down on the long pull up Fifth Avenue.
The groin. Years ago when I was hanging with some medical guys who referred to people by their complaints.
“Got a toe to see you.”
“Is the tropical ulcer still out there?”
I wanted my groin to get better so I wouldn’t have to find the celebrity doctor, a thoracic surgeon doing volunteer duty. I imagined him calling out from his little tent, I’m ready for the groin.
I walked out to Central Park West to find my son. I was still thinking about the fairy and how I didn’t like being beaten by her. She was probably a fine fairy and on this Sunday she had been the better runner, but she was in costume. There’s a Richard Pryor routine about fighting a guy who knows karate, where he says Kick my ass if you can but don’t be hollerin’ at me while you doin’ it.
That’s how I felt about the fairy. You can clean my clock in a marathon but don’t be doing it in a costume. But is it really that simple? Is that really the problem? It’s not. It’s not really about the fairy. It’s about screwing up when I shouldn’t have, and not liking admitting it to myself.
When I finished, someone put a medal around my neck. I left it on when I went out to the street. I’ve never been one to wear a finisher medal. The year before I hadn’t worn mine, but later David gave me a hard time about it. Everybody wears their medals after this race, he told me, big-time executives wear their medals to work on Monday, with their Armani suits and silk ties, and it’s cool. So I wore mine and yes, everybody said Hey, congratulations. On the street they said it. At the restaurant where I went with my son they said it. At Jet Blue I wasn’t the only one in the lounge wearing one, and they all said it, and we the finishers exchanged glances. In the airplane my seat mates said it. What they all said was, Good job. If I’d run a smart race I’ve have loved it, but all I could think of was, I ran a bad race. I lost control. I was stupid.
I was married then. My wife picked me up at the airport and said, “You’re my hero.”
I said, “I got beaten by a fairy.”
And she looked at me like I was nuts, and I didn’t know what to say, so I said it again, “Don’t you get it? A fucking fairy beat me.”
She said, “Who cares? You’re sixty years old and you ran a marathon faster than a lot of other people did and I don’t know why you’re complaining. How many in your age group?”
I said, “I don’t know. P Diddy beat me, too.”
She said, “You’re old enough to be his father.”
“Christ,” I said, “you don’t understand.”
When we got back to the house I went to my workroom. I didn’t want to do anything childish like throw my medal in a drawer so I hung it on the window latch. The neighbors wouldn’t know what it was, so they wouldn’t tell me I’d done a good job. Then I went out on the net to check the stats. Had I really gotten under 5, as David said?
Shit! No – 5:00:16. Seventeen seconds faster and I’d have been there, not that a sub-5 was anything to brag about.
So much for the absolute time. What about place? Just over six hundred men 60 to 64, and I’d beaten nearly half of them. Not bad. But if I hadn’t been an idiot I could have beaten more of them.
How many runners finished behind me? 8,500. OK, not so bad. I can live with it. But more than twenty thousand finished ahead of me. Bad.
The fairy beat me. Bad. But she deserved the win. So, the truth? Not so bad.