His fingers, rough and twice the size of hers, gently cupped her eyes from the bridge of her nose to her cheeks. A mere minute ago he had knocked and she slid the stationary and bottle into her vanity drawer. Upon entering, he smiled the sweetest smile, one that showed more in his admiring eyes than his mouth.
“May I come in?” he almost whispered.
“Of course, John,” she replied with surprise, looking over her image’s shoulder at his reflection in the vanity’s mirror.
“I have something for you,” he exuded, but again in a soft tone.
“What is it?” she asked while turning around, eyes hinging on confused inquisitiveness.
“I can’t tell you. I’ve gotta show you.” He held out his hand and lifted her to her feet. She felt a mild guilt, the same that used to plague her but had, for the last two to three years, just subsisted as level and involuntary as the blood that pushed through her body. Without a word he stood behind her and covered her scope of vision. It was a bit unsettling. At first impulse, her hands went to his, but not to pry him from the cinema of charcoal with red-pink bars of light through flesh, only to steady herself. In a beat or two her internal vision focused. Much like waking to use the restroom, flicking off the light, and feeling twice as blind from the gleam snapped to darkness.
She felt him leading her forward with his arms. It steadied them both to hold his forearms. She felt a familiar path...bedroom door, right turn, hallway passed the baby’s room on the left, and soon would be at their son’s, Leo’s, room on the right above the stairs. They stumbled a little between the children’s rooms. It was an opportunity to laugh and relax their braced arms.
“Just a little further,” he promised. At the top of the staircase he told her it might be best to hold the handrail. She did and he lumbered behind her, trying not to remove her blindfold though it was awkward, him being hunched down one stair above her.
“Ok...right here,” he estimated. “Ready?” he called out with much more volume than needed for just her.
“Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday...” rang out a chorus of voices. Before her eyes refocused, she could make out the tones of young and mature in the cheerful medley. As they continued the song, she felt a depth bulging in her chest and around the time the notes rose and momentarily dipped and paused at four syllables to say, “Dear,Valerie” that very same contradiction of crushing expansion released itself in the form of sobbing. She looked from face to face, to clapping hands, to shaking hips, to her friends’ smiles, to her parents’ raised eyebrows that spelled out love and concern, to the contented squeezed eyes of her son and baby girl.
She even caught what she interpreted as her devious nephew, Carl, mouthing the birthday song variation of the birthday celebrator living in a zoo and looking like a monkey.
She was overcome with joy. She wondered how long it would last, wounded by the known truth that this would be one blissful blip in a radar of flat lines. It took quite a while to make her way around the room, hugging and thanking co-workers, in-laws, parents, friends from long ago and recent motherhood Meet-Up groups, and her children and husband.
She was astonished that not once did she hear a sound that would have alerted her into knowing almost twenty people were in the house. They were so quiet, in fact, that she thought she had a full forty-five minutes alone before her husband would be home with the kids.
All this she marveled as she looked at a table holding an asymmetrical pyramid of gifts in the sitting room and the living room table topped with appetizers, entrees, and a sheet cake larger than any birthday cake she had ever gotten.
It was all so wonderful. Each person she conversed with showed genuine interest in how she was, Leo’s participation in baseball, John’s job promotion, and how the baby was gaining significant weight and length.
“Heeellooo, sweetheart!!” her Uncle Freddie oozed. He had always been her favorite uncle. He was kind, funny, and showed all his nieces and nephews love and attention despite being busy with six kids of his own. One eccentricity she would always reflect back on, was him teaching her to chew bubble gum to just the right consistency so blowing a bubble within a bubble was possible. After a few poor losings and many close calls she got it to a perfect baby green bubble inside and sizable outer bubble. Taking it out to inspect it, she ran to the kitchen to show her mother, who simply stated, “That’s nice, Val,” shooting her brother a critical look.
“How long did it take you to get here, Freddie?”
“Ahh, don’t worry about that.” He was always balanced and kind. One who would rather suffer inside and hide it than say, “Well, it took me four hours of driving through the stinkin’ desert to get here in my jalopy.”
Slyly, he looked side to side as if to tell a secret. “Of course I would be here for my favorite niece!!” he erupted into laughter and reached out to give her a hug that lifted her off her feet and swung her side to side. “Want some food, kiddo? You look starved!”
“Yeah, yes, very much,” she trilled as he lowered her back onto her toes.
Uncle Freddie made his way with class and 1970s flair toward the birthday buffet, as she once again surveyed the scene. Everyone was merry-making: drinking, smiling, nibbling, feasting, laughing, playing. For a flickering, celluloid-like slow-motion moment, she looked back over her left shoulder toward the room where her husband retrieved her. As though slowly through the door. Slowly to the vanity topped with bottles and jars. Slowly passed the lotions, powders, tubes of lipstick, her bamboo brushes, her perfumes. Slowly to her dark sleeping drawer. Slowly to where her 4” x 8” slip of stationary waited: the paper framed in vines with a plump robin alighting from its nest, wherein nestled four perfect turquoise eggs. The body reading:
Next to that folded sentence, a collection yielding a full bottle of lethal Dosulepin.
“Here you are, darlin’!” Freddie snapped her from the film in her mind and handed her an appetizer-size plate piled comically high with food.
Laughing during the hand-off, she impressed, “Thank you, Uncle Freddie!” To this, he bowed, winked, and walked off to mingle.
Next, a co-worker asked, “How old are you today?” followed by a series of questions, memories, and hopes from everyone who might never suspect the pills, and the unconquerable sadness, and the robin & vine-fringed stationary.
“That Which Surrounds or Encompasses”: A Native American Jesus
A previous day’s rain water softly slid, smoothly undulated, rippled, shimmered, and morphed over hastily carved veins of silt. Where there was a path to one great blue heron, one great egret, golden eagles, and countless ravens, now a barely clinging 5’ wall of eroded sediment. From the north, a loud buzz of a mechanical steed.
Before I could blink and hide, the quad met a parallel line to where I stood. He remained seated, but watched. Atop four wheels that could cross any creek, canal, or mud-rutted path sat the most interesting man I have ever seen. Though perhaps 60-70 years of age, his skin conveyed surreal health, richness, angles sculpted by learned hands. He resembled an experienced and charming Stipe Erceg. He resembled John Steinbeck’s prostrate summation of Slim.
He straightened his sharp yet broad shoulders, asked if we needed help, then shook the hand of my companion. He then held my hand in his and lifted it to his lips. After we appreciated the landscape together; scanned the expanse of hills he owns; partook of a bulky hand-rolled, smile-inducing masterpiece; and consented to visiting his ranch, he circled about and rode while standing. We watched, mouths agape as he slanted north east, stopped at the canal to look back over at the setting sun, and disappeared. I looked to my companion. I asked if he experienced the same wonder. Indeed he did. “Like Jesus,” we harmonized.
The clouds pulled my attention. A 360 degree turn of feathered, then blotted, then absent, then traces, then dense, then ineffable.
One boring Tuesday, Mike was picking away at guitar when he looked over at me in the kitchen. He asked, with disgust and confusion in the scrunch of his face:
“What’s up with that bandana, wannabe gangster?!?”
“Shut the f#ck up!”
“What, did you cut your own bangs again and f#uck em up?”
I rolled my eyes. My look showed concentration on other topics. He pressed on:
“Lemme guess, the Aqua Net gave you piiiiimples?”
“What, is it to cover your massive forehead?”
He stops playing guitar and laughs hysterically, so much so that he’s whooting and smacking his thighs.
One year later:
I told someone this story a few days ago and he asked: “This really happened?”
Ramona’s Letters, Part I:
Ramona and Me One Night Ago
“Please, don’t sit on that sofa,” Ramona seethed as she entered the screen door. I had not seen her walk up the long sidewalk to the sunroom. Our reunion was not quite how I pictured it the last few days. It was markedly different from the full color, dress-rehearsed episode I had directed in my mind the past few hours. Our only contact: her annoyed look at me from the corner of her eye.
“So sorry!” I mumbled as I gathered the sweatshirt on my lap.
Although I did not see it, I was sure she rolled her eyes. Five unlockings later, we stood awkwardly in her front room. I wouldn’t so much call it a living room because it felt...I don’t know--like even air choked on itself there. Stale. Stagnant. Void.
“They’re in the next room.” With a motion of her head we walked heavily through the vacant, stifled air to what must have been it’s room--his room, then it’s room.
“Is it okay?” I dared not enter without her unmistakable permission. I dreaded being caught in her seething boredom. It was worse that an all-out lashing. At least a lashing, even one that seems to last two to three swipes into eternity, is better than Ramona’s anger.
All was as I remembered it. Plaid curtains and matching beadspread too womanly for a teenaged boy’s room. The pleasant hazy planks of evening sunlight touching the metal foot post of his bed, the square of floor at the base of his bed, his tall frame while reciting something he had composed while I watched him from the abundance of pillows on his bed.
Stacks of books. I knew the ones he read for school and the ones he read for me. How he read. How he read to me.
Ramona’s Letters, Part II:
Ray and Me Once Never Apart
With this memory, I lost all stability. Holding onto the doorframe, for fear of showing her any weakness, I suddenly realized how insignificant the pieces of decorative wood were. There was little strength in the matter that I gripped. Not enough to hold me upright.
“They over here.” Her tone had changed. Instead of, “Mary, hurry the hell up so I can show you and get you outa my sight!” there was a hint at discovery in her voice. She hadn’t discovered the letters. They had been composing them all along. At least that’s what she told me when she called me two weeks ago for the first time in nine years.
I wasn’t ready to leave the door jamb, so I leaned against the wall and waited. Ramona waited for me. Stuck in some daydream of her own I’m sure.
Like a surging of blood, even and pleasant, my body relived the first day he brought me here. In truth, we had only known each other from 10th grade English and for a brief period in PE together. He was elegant in both. His voice, mind, and body, mature. That must be why I felt at ease when he asked me to come over to his house. There was no lure, no camouflage about his intention. That wasn’t his way. He had an unmatched way of making people feel at ease. Because he didn’t over-think, others didn’t and that allowed them to be at ease with Ray. Easy Ray.
We walked through the same front porch door, although without all the deadbolts and doorknobs. He lead me into the living room and into the kitchen. Over lemonade, I thought to ask what we were going to do there...here. It made me too nervous to think he would say something funny and frank. That was his way. I wouldn’t have wanted to say no.
Instead, and what I’ll never forget, is that we were like two school boys spending the afternoon together. We carried our drinks into his room--something forbidden in my mom’s house. We toured the house upstairs and down, walked along the billowing shade beneath the sycamores out back, and went to his room at the end of the tour.
In my fantasy, he was showing me my future home. Holding my hand and out the corner of his eye while taking care to guide me, he asked with his expression, “How does this please you?”
Really, though, he was a teenage boy with a teenage girl, trying to make a friend he could spend the evenings with until his skin and my skin would make what we had and could have had and should have had forbidden.
Yesterday we went to the Green Valley Bowl. Thank heavens we did not run into the "Green Valley Crips"!!!! :) A little history: in the late 80s/early 90s a group of boys moved to this small, small town and started a gang (the GVC as a friend calls them). They "battled" the kids from Lake Hughes and Elizabeth Lake. Every time I pass through Green Valley, I caution in my fake gangster accent, "Look out for the Green Valley Crips, ey!" It is so funny to yell this while passing horses, stray dogs, roosters, and yards strewn with sun-beaten inoperable vehicles.
From 1998 to 2001, I worked lots of lonely hours on the basement level of the Malcolm A. Love Library. My job was to care for the 'ancient' German photocopy machines (fill them with paper, test the copy quality, use my very slim hands and arms to clear paper jams deep within them, assist students with copy accounts, etc.). When I was ambitious, I would test the quality with pages from books from classes = free copies from which to study. Otherwise, I would place my hand on the glass and determine if the toner was even and adequately fused to the paper. It was one of my favorite jobs...surrounded by books all day, spending countless hours rummaging through copies of paintings, fiction, history, anthropology, photography...
Long ago, I watched from the shore a group of people driving through the lake to get to a nice fishing/swimming spot. Their truck got stuck, so they left it and walked down to where they wanted to spend the day. My immediate thought: "Hhmm, that sucks." Out of nowhere, already thigh-deep in the water when I heard them, were the ladies pictured above, who had a different perspective. Amid squeals of joy, intoxicated laughter, calls of struggle with getting up onto the truck bed, and picture requests in Japanese, I snapped a photo. I was difficult to tell if they were drunk or eccentric in what they were doing. My uncertainty made me feel embarrassed for them. Nonetheless, they continued to hug each other, pose, splash in the water, and requests that guys from our group pose with them. Thank you ladies for seeing--where I didn't at the time--an opportunity to party and make a memory.
I had been waiting no more than two minutes, but it felt like ten. My stomach churned. I yearned for fresh air but the handle resisted and would not be forced. Knowing my luck, it would cause the glass to fall from the old rusted cradle that held it precariously in place. Even though the street lights only illuminated the seat behind the driver and a sliver of the front seats, I felt I was being watched. This piqued the need to look like I was doing something interesting while waiting. I exhaled with a note of boredom and self-importance and looked down to my nails. A flake of polish flipped off my nail with a slight scrape from my thumb nail.
“Oh forget this!” I huffed, zipping open my bag to dig among its jumble of contents. “Hmm, how is the rear view set so I can move it back into place?” I wondered very logically. I memorized its placement by sliding into the driver’s seat and taking a mental snapshot of the small bush to the right and a white car centering the long rectangular frame. I fought paranoia and clicked the overhead light to life. I laughed aloud: Already-glossy lips were being re-glossed. She caught me, crossing before the car as I inserted the tip of the applicator into the case, snapped the light, and moved the mirror on the way to pop the driver side lock button.
Her wistful yet indifferent expression sprung from a distant memory. The end of that biking adventure: chocolate.
Sue wrapped the top of the white plastic bag three times around her left handle grip. The Charleston Chew bars, lemonade and strawberry Nerds, Thousand Grand, Whatchmacalit, Rollo tubes, and bite size Snickers destined for the freezer swung heavily with the turn of the bar.
“Ready?” Sue smiled in Jannette’s direction.
“Yep!” she chirped as she turned the handlebar of the brakeless BMX and u-turned on the back tire.
After a short block on Rancho Vista Boulevard behind the Vons and Thrifty, was the means home: the steep curve of O-8.
As most injuries happen, it was one seemingly simultaneous instant between awareness of the impending fall and the fall itself.
“Doooon’t put your feet down!” Sue screamed.
In that same instant, Jannette’s flimsy platform sandal touched blacktop. It was enough to throw her completely off balance, off her bike, and head-first onto the asphalt.
Even now, twenty years later, with a scar on her forehead and shoulder to tell a tale, Jannette watches Sue ride in circles with the same expression.
Playing GodA dollhouse without furniture. Everything she looked at had potential: milk caps, bottlecaps, straws, little boxes, rocks, beads, fabric scraps, pen caps. Pen caps became vases with flowers, milk caps topping plastic cylinders turned to seats, a box with a fold of tissue: a bed, plastic pizza box centers made perfect end tables.
Once inventiveness furnished and adorned this fiberboard and plastic house, she pondered god. She pondered God and played god. The house quaked, furniture fell, fires started, people tumbled down hillsides, and the house itself became horizontal walls once held by tensed plastic bands. What was once whole and recognizable, fragmented. All the while, she wondered if this was how God operated. Did this being decide what would no longer be: whimsically? Sadly? Indifferently? She put all back together and played destructive, punishing god over and over again.
This here is “Miss Rose.” Her fancy is for handsome hazel-eyed young men. She is quite the charmer, utilizing her melodic voice, the sideways glance and single raised brow that lures and hums “Mmm, mmm, mmm, honey!”, and her voluptuous.....cotton candy. As we made our way toward the Pirate Ship, alight with colored bulbs, echoing a discordant music box, my companion received her communicative look. I smiled and gave the “not this time” subtle tilt & shake. She replied with a pleased sigh, “Have him your way, hun.” We passed and her eyes transitioned beyond the crowd as if she was reading her past and present and future, written in the horizon.