Saturday, December 20, 2008

still, still, still

This morning I had breakfast at Scarlett's new house. She has taken to calling me up and inviting me over in the mornings. She knows I won't eat breakfast unless someone reminds me, and she knows that breakfast is one of the things that anchors me to the earth at times when I would like to float away.

I have not been writing much lately, but it's not because nothing is happening. On the contrary, lots of things are happening, good and bad. I'm just not writing about them right now. For months now -- every since Boing Boing, really -- I've felt like I only had one or two more entries left in me, but then I think of something else I want to say. I can only see ahead of me a little at a time, like driving at night when the headlights only light up the next few yards of road. But that's all you need to keep going.

Anyway, Scarlett feeds me breakfast and then her friend Jason calls to tell us there are twenty harpists playing in the rotunda of the capitol building and we need to get down there right away. So we get on our bikes and go.

The rotunda is full of people and even though everyone is trying to be quiet, any rustle or cough fills up the space with whispers and echoes of whispers. Twenty harps are in a circle in the middle of the rotunda, played by twenty girls of various sizes, wearing twenty red dresses. "Greensleeves" floats up and away to the roof of the building four stories up and people are crowded around all three balconies, listening, trying to be quiet enough.

The music seems to have no beginning and no end, delicate vibratos bleeding into and out of the endless echoes of the space. The smallest harpers are very small, six or seven maybe, and they are very serious. Their hands move like seaweed in a current. I shut my eyes.

Listening to music is never easy for me, requiring a certain kind of concentration I cannot maintain very long. There are too many voices in my head competing for a hearing. With my eyes shut, I try to force myself to follow the notes of this music that washes up and down like small, soft waves rising over my head. The song ends and we all clap and the clapping is so much louder than the music. Another song begins, notes hanging on the air, persisting when they should fade. Like bells. The tune is familiar but I cannot place it and then the words come to me. Still, still, still, I can hear the falling snow.

Honestly, I don't like Christmas music. This song is better than some of the others because you don't hear it as much, not as much, unlike, say, The Little Drummer Boy, which is like a nasty virus. You hear it once at the grocery store and its in your head all day. I'm so glad I'm leaving town tomorrow, getting away from the awful Christmasiness of everything.

And yet, it's pretty. It's a pretty song, and it's being played by little girls with hands like seaweed, and the words are about stillness, which there can never be too much of. I feel something rising like a bubble in my throat and then I lean over and kiss Scarlett on the cheek because it's a beautiful world after all and sometimes you have to kiss someone.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

in the flesh

I love to fly. I love the ritual of checking in, getting the boarding pass, going through the security line and the scanner and being released into the airport, which I can't help seeing as a place of temporarily relaxed responsibilities.

Airports are the only places one earth where I let myself stop at the newsstand and buy an armful of glossy magazines. The flight home to see my family is not as long as it seems, but it's one small airport to another and there is usually at least one long layover in Dallas or Houston, so it can take all day, a day I spend leafing voluptuously through pictures of luxury goods I will never own.

I don't go home often. My dad had hip surgery three weeks ago, which is why I'm going now. He turned seventy this year, my dad, his birthday ten days after mine. He is still built like a bull, a thick yoke of muscle and fat around his shoulders, legs like the girders of a bridge. But he is stiff. He can hardly move any more for pain, and spend the last year mostly sitting in his chair.

My brother's wife, the hospitalist, oversaw his recovery after the surgery. I called her a few days after the operation to ask how he was doing. She tsked down the phone line. "Your father is a terrible patient," she said. "He won't take his blood thinners and he won't let us draw his blood because he says he's afraid of needles. This morning he kicked the physical therapist out of the room. He keeps saying the surgery was a mistake because he's going to die any time anyway."

We agree that somebody should do something right away. Except. "Your mom won't say anything to him," she says. "And your brother won't either."

That leaves me.

I won't go to the ranch. My brother will pick me up at the airport and I'll stay at his house with him, his wife, and my niece. My mother will drive my father up to meet us tomorrow and we will go to his follow-up appointment with the doctor. I will work with my father to find a few simple yoga stretches that will help his hip regain mobility as it heals. I will do this because I wish I were a good daughter, and I hope this will make me one.

Suspended above a patchwork earth, I flip through pages of models walking on white-sand beaches in jewel-encrusted sandals and I learn that something called "the ethnic look" will be big this winter. We fly over trees that look like broccoli and mountains that look like rumpled sheets. We will never land. And then we land.

The last time my father hit me I was seventeen. I had been living and going to school in the city for nearly two years. My parents were coming to pick me up for a visit home. I don't remember what I said that set him off. Some stupid thing. I remember I was carrying my stuff in a milk-crate and I dropped it when he grabbed me by the back of my jeans. My things spilled across the neat-cut lawn in front of the dorm. My dad spun me around to face him and his closed fist struck once across my mouth and then the back of his hand on my cheekbone as it swung back, bam, BAM. In the parking lot. At school. My friends and teachers everywhere. No one seems to be seeing anything. We are invisible in our fucked-up-ness, like always. It's the perfect crime.

He jerks open the passenger door of the pickup and throws me inside, into my mother's lap. She doesn't say a word. The whole ride home, all two hours of it, she silently comforts and then restrains me as I alternate between crying and screaming. I tell my father I'll never forget this. I tell him someday he will be old and he will look to me, and I will care for him if I have to, but I will never love him, never forgive him, this is it. I tell him if I ever loved him, it is over. I say it like a curse and a vow. My dad stares straight ahead, like nothing is happening. It's my mother who finally tells me to shut up.

She doesn't remember this. Not any of it, apparently. Her memory, always selective, is becoming more so. I guess she has a right. I brought it up a few years ago, after it had finally dawned on me, in my 20's, that my father's manner of parenting was unusual, that most kids don't get spanked in the head with a fist.

I wondered what my mother would say about it now that we were both adults. I brought it up, of all times, in the basement of the church where my cousin was getting married, while she and I sat with our hand-work. I hoped there would be some explanation. There wasn't. She looked at me blankly, her hands loose around the sewing in her lap. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't remember. You know I don't like to think about things like that."

She must have seen my disappointment because next she offered brightly, "Did I ever tell you how he tried to break my arm? We had some guests over and he thought I didn't get dinner ready in time. You wouldn't remember. You were tiny." She giggled softly.

I don't remember, but now I see it flash right in my face: my father's face twists in anger as my mother's face twists in pain. I don't want to see it. I grieve. I wanted to think he took it all out on me because I was strong, because I was the one who could take it just like a man. I do remember sitting at the top of the stairs, folding the hem of my nightgown in my hand like a letter, listening to their voices spiral up and up, my father in anger, my mother in pain. Saying to myself, if it gets any louder. If it gets any worse, any worse than this, I'll go down. I'll do something. Something, anything. I don't remember if I went down. I want to think I did. So now we both have things we'd rather not remember.

My mother looked down at the sewing in her lap. "Well, you two could never get along," she said. "You were a difficult child."

I guess. I know was a willful kid. No one could ever get my head. And I was tender; anyone could hurt me just like that. I hated working on the farm, too, and that was the kiss of death as far as me and my dad were concerned. He couldn't never stand a shirker and meanwhile all I wanted to do was grow up and move away and never again run alongside a hay trailer in the dust in the 100 degree weather and 80 percent humidity throwing up forty-pound bales while the sweat ran stinging into the scratches on my face and my arms. Not ever again.

My parents get to my brother's house in the evening. We go out for supper at one of those horrible family-restuarant chains in one of the endless strip malls out of which the city of my brother's choice seems to be entirely constructed. My father asks me about the project, and I tell him, but I must sound cocky because he cuts me off quickly. "You think you've got the world on a string," he says. "I know. I thought the same thing. Just don't forget you're half me. That means you're half stupid."

In the morning, I drive my father to the doctor's office and sit with him while the nurse comes in and takes his vital signs and then she walks him down the hall for an X-ray. Later the doctor comes in and together we stare at shadowy pictures of my father's bones inside his wounded flesh. The doctor is an Indian kid, barely my age. He is breezy. He says everything looks as good as can be expected, although that means nothing and everything could still go horribly wrong. Have a nice day. Dismissed.

Back at my brother's house I kneel down in front of my father's chair and take the weight of his leg in my arms, cradling it as I ask him to move it this way and that. His large muscles are strong, but the small rotators inside the hip joint are so stiff and weak with disuse that he can barely use them. These last years my father's body has become a cage, tightening on him bit by bit, shutting him in closer and closer. I remember when he could chase a run-away bull five times around the little seventy-acre farm we lived on then, barely losing breath. I remember my father as a hurricane, and now he is old.

Touching my father's body quickly makes me tired, makes me hurt in the small of my back like I've lifted something too heavy. Because I'm trained now to see pain, I see it in him everywhere. I see how he props himself up, forever falling both forward and backward, held up by nothing but will. Oh, Dad.

When my father was my age, his father killed himself. "Died of a broken heart" is what they told me when I was little, but I put the details together piece by piece, how my grandfather took his country doctor's little black bag out to the barn one afternoon, drew the careful overdose of morphine into a clean syringe, and died there in the sunlight and the hay.

He had been depressed for years, and there was no medication for him like there is for me, no 20 milligram tablet of complex molecules that make life livable. He self-medicated with single-malt scotch until they took his medical license away and then there was only the electro-shock therapy my Dad drove him to in the city once a week 80 miles on back roads through the dry country. My dad told me once that his father never remembered where they were going -- the electricity scrambled his brain too hard to make a memory of the pain -- but he remembered that he didn't want to go. My father took him anyway.

My father lives in pain, the bitterness in his head a slow feed into his blood. It will eat every cell in his body if he lets it, and he is letting it. If he were just the guy who used to hit me and yell at me and throw me out of the house at night like a Christmas puppy the family's gotten tired of, then I wouldn't care. then I would lock him in the closet with all the other scary things from childhood and I'd be free. But he's also the guy who taught me to swim and do my taxes. He's also the guy who wrote to me on my birthday and said, "You do things I would never be brave enough to do."

So I'm here holding my father's leg in my arms, aching with his lifetime of aches, whispering to his marrow, "Please don't die" and "Please just let me be."

Before my parents leave the city, my mother wants to go to the grocery store, and I go with her. Once she is back home at the back of the valley she may not see the inside of a grocery store for weeks. She buys big bags of beans, sacks of potatoes and rice. She asks me super-casually what I'm doing for Christmas and I tell her just as casually that I don't know. Nothing, probably.

"You're not thinking about coming to the ranch?"


Not since the Christmas Eve he took my bag out and threw it on the porch and said "I don't really care if I see you again or not." Anger lit my body like a flame then and I yelled without knowing what I was yelling, only seeing the fear in his face as he backed away down the steps of his own house and out into the yard, and liking it. Liking that he was weak now and I was strong.

Sooner or later I'll have to go back, and I will, but not this year. I don't know if my mother remembers that Christmas Eve battle or not. We don't mention it, like we don't mention so many things. Her forgetting accuses me of too much remembering. Her forgetting disappears me bit by bit. No wonder we don't know each other.

Pulling out of the parking lot she says, "You know your Dad really loves you a lot. He says you and your brother are the best thing he ever did with his life."

I nod. I feel as if this is supposed to mean more to me than it does. I know my father loves me. He's always loved me. But loving me never kept him from hurting me, so -- at least in that specific sense -- it doesn't matter if he loves me or not. I love him, too, for what it's worth.

I am beginning to realize that forgiveness is not a simple catharsis, one spasm that releases into peace. I forgave my father years ago, officially and full-heartedly, for everything he did -- everything he couldn't help but do, everything he could have helped but did anyway. But it seeps back up to the surface like one of those haunted bloodstains that marks the spot no matter how many times you scrub it away and it seems I will have to go on forgiving him for the rest of my life, which means, most likely, long after he is dead. He broke my heart a million times. I will wipe away a million layers of myself before it's gone.

The next morning I fly home. The plane is suspended from the sky by string. C. is waiting for me by the airport escalator as I come down. I watch him watching for me and when he sees me he lights up.

That night I can't sleep. At least, I think I'm not sleeping until I start up in the dark, groping wildly for the lamp. C. sits up beside me. "Baby?" he asks.

"Is it normal to think about killing your dad?"

He draws the back of his hand across his eyes. "You want to kill your dad?"

"Not now. When I was little."

"Oh." He lies back down. "Sweetie, every little kid wants to kill their dad sometimes. That's why there are myths about it."


I call my dad a few days later and ask him how he's doing. He says he feels better. He promises he's doing the excercises I showed him. He sounds a little brighter. I let myself feel hope. Maybe everything will be OK. Maybe the pain will go away now. Maybe there'll be one moment when we can just look at each other, one time before he dies.

At the end of the call I tell him I love him. I started doing this a few years ago. I know it makes him squirm. I don't care. Or maybe I do. Maybe I take pleasure in it, even. Maybe loving my father is my best revenge. The heart is a strange country.

There's an awkward pause, like there always is. I hear the strain. He has to think about it every time. And then he says, "I love you, too" all in one breath, like he's putting one burst of strength behind getting it out. And then he hangs up the phone, like he always does, fast.

Friday, November 28, 2008

undressed for the holidays

First, let me introduce the newest product in the collection of the Museum of Temporary Gratifications: Pumpkin & Goat's Milk Face Mask. Pumpkin is full of wrinkle and blemish fighting and collagen-boosting ingredients like Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and zinc. Goat's milk plumps and hydrates. I use this one during break-outs and when I start fussing about the lines by my eyes. It leaves my face firm and smooth and dewy. Be warned however, that the Vitamin A (sold as retinol in many face products) is powerful, and this mask is best used just once or twice a week.

Second, I am pleased to announce the Museum's holiday sales bargain: totally free shipping on orders over $50! Load up for the new year on ridiculously well-made brownie mixes and lovingly crafted beauty products. Please order by December 15th to ensure delivery by Christmas.

Third, Jane of Lost in the Hostile City was kind enough to honor me with the Superior Scribbler Award, which I get to pass on to five other people. I love giving awards, so here goes.

The rules for this particular award:

1. Post the award on your blog.
2. Link me for giving it to you.
3. Link the originating post here.
4. Pass the award on to five more deserving people.
5. Post these rules for your recipients.

There are so many awesome blogs I've been reading lately. Fortunately Miss Jane already tagged Lux and Casey, but here goes:

1. Davka: Deer Girl Medicine I love this blog so much, I feel like I must have highlighted it before, but apparently not. She's amazing folks. Amazing voice, amazing stories.

2. I'm completely hooked on Letters from Johns, a blog where men (or, I suppose, women) post about their experiences as sexual consumers. Fascinating, eye-opening reading. Thanks to Susannah Breslin of Reverse Cowgirl for creating this site. I'd give Reverse Cowgirl it's own award, but Susannah Breslin is a rockstar and doesn't need my help.

3. Karmic Delusion, the blog about "Strippers, Prostitutes, Porn, and Buddhism." Finally.

4. Lauri Shaw of Servicing the Pole is posting an entire novel set in and around and among strippers and strip clubs and stripping, chapter by chapter. Good stuff. Check it out.

5. Panther in Pumps. Disturbing at times, but fierce and true.

Monday, November 10, 2008


"This makes no sense to me," Scarlett says. She shoves the textbook across the table at me. "I mean, I'm reading it, but I'm not reading it."

I scan the paragraph she's pointing at. I can't say it makes a lot of sense to me either. It's written in this horrible textbook-ese, all these dry words not quite adding up to information about colonial assemblies in pre-revolutionary America. "I think it's just saying that -- fuck, I have no idea what it's saying."

Scarlett slumps down and rests her forehead on the table for a second. It's not really that bad, though. Actually, she's been happier lately than I've seen her in a long time. On Saturday, she moved into her new house. She borrowed truck from our friend Jessie's husband, and I went over to the place she'd been staying to help her get the heavy stuff. We moved the dresser and then the mattress, but the bed frame wouldn't go. It was too big. So we picked it up -- it was light -- and carried it. The new house is only blocks away, which is good, because I like having Scarlett in the neighborhood.

A few months ago she got hooked up with a doozy of a job, managing a small commercial kitchen, which is work she knows and is good at. Her bosses are already talking about a promotion and a raise. And now this history class at community college. If she proves to them that she's dyslexic she can take her classes self-paced, and maybe this time she can finish, but she has to get a certification of disability from a doctor on a list of doctors they gave her, and that could cost a few hundred dollars. There are other expenses, too -- unpaid traffic tickets, old warrants, defaulted credit cards. When you've been poor a long time your poverty starts to have this life of it's own, starts to grow and feed on itself. Getting out is not all at once. Getting out is tough.

Me, I need money too, like I always do. The project, the project, the project. In relative terms, it is almost done, which means it won't be done for months, and we'll get a little money by the end of the year, but not nearly enough. I don't really worry. The project has had it's own weird will to live this whole time, and one way or another it will get finished. But this month I had to dip into my own money to pay the project's bills. Just a couple of hundred dollars, but it scared me.

We've started talking about dancing again. So far, just talk. Niether of us is crazy about the idea, but we are both of us getting to the point where it no longer seems optional, if it ever was really optional. So, we talk. We compare notes. We've heard from this old friend or that one that this club is bad, and that club is bad also. We heard the good manager everyone liked at Sugar's is dead and we hear there is no money anywhere. But they always say that and the only way to find out is just to go. I tell Scarlett pick a day and we'll go together, and if there's no money, there's no money. We'll be the Cool Girls Club and hang out in the locker-room all day long.

Scarlett sighs. "I'd like to be feeling better when I go back," she says. "I want to go in feeling a little sassy, not all sad and used-up." Early in the fall some pretty boy blew through town and broke Scarlett's heart. Dancing with a broken heart is no fun. I'm not entirely sad to see it, though, because I remember a time when Scarlett wouldn't have unbent her heart to break.

I say maybe she'll find her sass again when she hits the stage. Maybe she'll find it because she has to. "Maybe," she says. She looks down, starts drawing her finger through a little pool of spilled coffee, making x's and swirls. "Do you ever feel're done with dancing, but dancing isn't done with you? Do you know what I mean?"

I nod. Because yes, I know what she means.

"I think maybe," she says, picking her words out one by one, "Maybe, you have certain experiences when you're younger, so that, you know, you end up knowing things most people, maybe, wouldn't even want to know. But since you already do know, you think, I should learn from this. I should just go forward, because I can't go back. I can't not know."

I touch the back of her hand. My fingers are a telegraph. They say: Go on.

"I know I've put myself in a lot of bad places," she says. "I've done things that some of my friends don't even know why you would want to do. But, I..."

Yes. Go on. Yes.

"And then yesterday I started crying while I was in the kitchen, cutting up vegetables. I was just thinking, you know, I'm not ever going to have that. What they have, you know? That...I guess I mean innocence. I'm never going to be innocent."

I reach up and touch her soft cheek. She is crying just a little bit. I love my friend so much. She is one of the easiest people to love that I've ever known. I think it's because she loves you back so whole-heartedly, and because she understands how important it is to love your friends and to be loved.

Scarlett and I were waitresses together at the same little diner by the highway when I was nineteen and she was twenty-five. She was the new girl, and I trained her. One day she asked me what I was doing after work. It was fall, just turning cold. I said I was going home to bake a pie and warm the kitchen up. She said she'd come over.

We sat out on my big front porch with our coats on rolling cigarettes out of her pouch of Drum tobacco and she told me a lot about herself right away, like she knew it was a strange story and she wanted to get it all out of the way at once. I put that story away and some of it we've never talked about since, or only obliquely, like we're talking now. I don't know everything, but I know enough to admire the strength and will that hurled that small body forward through the maze of grim statistics that was her early life, enough to understand why anger was her only friend for so long.

When Scarlett and I were first friends, I was not talking to my family much at all. I must have told her this. I think I said something like, I don't know why I should feel disappointed; it's not like I've ever had any family other than the one I have, so I don't know where I got the idea that it was supposed to be something different; maybe from TV. And Scarlett said, "You don't always get all the love you need from the people that raise you. But if you're lucky other people can love you, later."

Scarlett and I have been mothering, sistering, brothering, cousining each other for most of a decade now. My wayward daughter. My wisest aunt. I love my friend so much.

On Saturday we carried the bedframe over to her new place down quiet streets through lemon sunlight and a rain of yellow leaves. Her new room is big and bright, with lots of windows. She bitches about the state of the bathroom and the color of the paint, but I think she's happy. She takes me outside to show me the garden which comes with the apartment.

The garden is beautiful -- a crumbling red brick wall and a little greenhouse with only a few panes broken. The remains of some flower beds, vanishing under weeds and drifts of leaves, but easily salvaged. In the far corner, a hot tub that just needs some of the copper replaced, and a trench dug to lay in the electrical lines. The sketchy outlines of what could be paradise. She stands there looking a little scared and a little lost. And innocent. As innocent as I've ever seen anyone look.

"It could really be nice out here if somebody took some trouble with it," she says, half-heartedly. Half a heart is better than no heart. "It could really be something. It could really bloom."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

the anniversary

November 9th is an anniversary of sorts for me. It's the day in 1997 when my friend Sara died of a blast to the head from her meth-head half-brother's shotgun, one night while she was napping on the couch in front of the TV. He killed himself right afterwards. Sometimes I think about their mother, how she must've woken up to the noise, gone into the living room and found she had no children.

I met Sara on the first day of high school. She moved to town from some other small town a few counties over. I remember the first time I saw her. It was early, early morning, before the first class started, before the building even opened. The sky was pearly and a girl I'd never seen before walked up to me with long hair blowing around her like Botticelli's Venus. She asked me how to get to the choir room. I didn't know, but I was in choir, too. We found the room together. Together, we learned to make pear notes. We loved each other right away and easily, like you can do at that age.

Sara dressed like everyday was Halloween, an excuse to decorate herself -- long black dresses, tattered cheerleader skirts, horns, gloves, veils. This was new to me. My only aim for my appearance had ever been to be invisible. I let her take me to the Salvation Army and dress me up like a young Jim Morrison, in silk shirts, velvet jackets, boots. Dykes, they would hiss sometimes when we walked down the hall together. Sara hugged my arm. "Don't worry," she whispered. "They don't even know what they're talking about."

We would lie in bed some afternoons and I would pull her long hair over me, a sheet of copper silk, like my mother's hair before chemo. Sometimes she would ask me to dress her, turn her back and let me do up the buttons. I would pull the fabric tight around her tiny waist, her small, perfect breasts, easing each button into its hole, watching the white curve of her spine disappear beneath her clothes.

We took turns planning the perfect suicide. I chose getting drunk in a snowstorm, passing out and freezing to death. That's stupid, Sara said. Everyone will think it's an accident. She said she would rig up a camera so that the noose, as it dropped, would trip the shutter. Everyone would see her face at the moment of decision.

We planned our funerals, too. I wanted an epic funeral procession, driving all night, through rain if possible, and throwing my body off a pier at dawn. Sara wanted crowds of people in elaborate costumes, Ozzy Osborne, drugs. But when it came it was nothing like that.

I was not at home when she died. I was at school in another city. My mother drove the two hours to see me, to tell me what had happened in person. She didn't know how to tell me on the phone. At first I didn't believe her. "You're lying", I said. "I'm not going back with you. Get out of here. Go away."

She said, "Baby, why would I come all this way to lie to you?" She held out her arms to me and I felt myself smash, like a glass dropped on the floor.

The last time I saw her was in the city park. I kissed her goodbye. One the drive back to school, the sky was purple with clouds. I stared at them and saw her lips, her hair, her lips. Two weeks later she was dead.

I went home for the funeral, which was cheap and stupid in every detail. A church that was four trailer homes in the shape of a cross. A preacher who remembered her only vaguely, as a little girl. Carnations, the flower for ugly prom dates. Gladioluses in horrible hunter's orange and a tape recording of organ music.

Afterwards Miss Bobbie stopped me, the lady who owned the antique store where Sara and I would go and try on hats after school. In a shocked whisper she told me she'd heard that they -- whoever they were, whoever it is who tidies up after a murder-suicide -- found jewelry with pentagrams Sara's bedroom, a copy of The Satanic Bible. I remembered her reading it out loud to me: "Man has always created his gods," in her steady, husky voice, "rather than his gods creating him." Miss Bobbie said she knew I was a good girl and she had known my grandmother and to remember that God sees everything and there will always be a judgement. "You don't know what you're talking about," I said. "I'm sorry, but you have no idea."

After the funeral, I went to my parents house for lunch. The first bites of food fell into my stomach like lumps of clay, and it felt like they would sit there forever, because my insides were not moving at all. Inside me everything was still as stone. I did not feel like flesh and blood anymore. I got up and went outside and my father yelled after me "You're excused." My mother followed me, asked me if I wanted a coat. I said no. I wanted to be cold. I walked out a long way into the middle of the pasture, the sea of bone-colored winter wheat. She didn't want to die. It was all just talk. She was more alive, more bright, more warm, than anyone in the world.

I knew her so well, or felt I did. I knew what she would say before she said, what she would do before it was done. I knew her better than I knew myself and loved her when I did not love myself at all. That she loved me too was almost the first I knew that there was anything in me to love. I held myself in the cold. Don't worry, chickadee. I'll never let you go. I will keep you. I know you so well. I know what you like, what you do, what you are. I will be you. I will make a place inside of me and you will live there. Nobody will take you from me while I live.

She didn't want to die. Those fantasies were only fantasies of leaving, escaping into the real world. Escape at any price, even if it meant you had to leave things behind, like your clothes, your body, your name, who you were. Out there we would have new clothes, new bodies, new names.

After the funeral, I went back to school in the city. To my complete surprise, life went on as usual. For a while I grieved every day and all day. After a while, only parts of every day. Then only some days.

It was a fairytale, of course, that dream of keeping her forever. Like love always is. I couldn't have kept her forever even if she'd lived. Especially if she lived. It was a promise made at the very, very end of childhood. I couldn't have made that promise if I'd been any older, wouldn't have believed so fiercely in the alchemy of love and grief that I could have transmuted, by will alone, her soul into my body.

Because it is true, I know only now, years later. She is still in me. If I forget it, it is because having her in me feels so natural now. Even in the mirror, I see how our features have grown alike. I see where and how my life would have been different if I had not been living it for both of us. Everyone who's ever touched me has touched her, too.

If she had lived we might not even know each other any more. Anything could have happened. And yet here she is -- I even see her face, her white face sitting underneath my heart, blurred a little as though through ice, but there.

I am so sorry, love. I didn't mean to take you prisoner. If there ever were a way to set you free, I'd do it, even if it meant I'd never see you again. But for now it's safest here, inside me where it's safe and warm, and we can keep each other company.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

a good night for freaks

C. was at school yesterday, Tuesday classes running well into the evening, and when he called at 8 p.m. it was to say he was going over to a friend's house to watch the results come in. So I was on my own, toggling back and forth between the CNN website and nytimes, watching the east coast hover between red and blue.

When Indiana and Florida got stuck too close to call, I went out and bought a bottle of cheap red wine at the big Eastside grocery store where all the checkers speak Spanish. I voted there, early, last week. I voted there in the last two elections, too, and voting there always gives me hope because the people in the line with me are people from my neighborhood, people who look like me. I can stand in the line and think, this is going somewhere.

I bike home with my bottle of red wine. I check the computer. Indiana and Florida still deadlocked, but CNN has just called Pennsylvania for Obama, and screaming and cheering errupts from backyards all around the block. Here and there, a bottle rocket goes off, pow.

Texas has been Bush country since 1994, you remember. For fourteen years we've seen whole swathes of citizenry edged closer and closer to the margins. Children dumped from the public insurance roles. Emergency rooms over-flowing night and day with sick people who can't afford to see a doctor until they are more or less dead. Kids whose sex education classes don't teach them about birth control, and if they get knocked up the doctors show them government-mandated bloody flashcards and tell them abortion could make them infertile, could give them cancer. No money for special education, no money for mental healthcare, and the jails and prisons overflowing with the illiterate, the sick, and the desperate.

I pour myself a glass of wine, and a second. In summer of 2000, my friends and I laughed at the idea that our governor would be elected president. "People are too smart," we said, and standing in line at the grocery store with my neighbors, I really thought that. But it turned out that a lot of the country, maybe half, didn't agree with us. I remember writing in my journal after the election, "This country is going to swing the the right so hard and fast we aren't even going to recognize it in a few years." I remember saying to friends that the best thing that could happen now would be if Bush fucked things up so hard five ways from Friday that it brought about a great populist revival. And in 2004 we tried again, but it didn't happen.

Tonight something is happening. I hear the yelling go up all around me and I hit "refresh" again and again to see the map turn blue. I am not an Obama fanatic. I don't even really like to call myself a Democrat or a liberal. I just want a president who might care about me and people like me. What everybody wants. But it feels like it's been somebody else's turn for a long time now. I want it to be our turn.

More wine. CNN calls Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado, sweeping towards the coast, and then all of a sudden it's over and everybody is saying Obama is the next president, it's popping up on every screen and the yelling outside is ecstatic, more fireworks. I don't want to be alone. I don't want to be inside. I hit the last slug of wine from the bottle, go outside and get on my bike. I head downtown, toward the bar district. It's dark and cloudy and then a pack of bikers swoop past me, going the other way, yelling. I yell back and then cars start honking. People are leaning out the windows of apartment buildings, shaking the Obama/Biden signs torn out of front lawns.

Then more bikes join me and as we turn onto Sixth Street it's a little parade of us, all hollering and throwing kisses. It's a regular Tuesday night down there, more or less. Drunks talking into their fists and a few packs of lonely dressed-up girls buying pizza from the street carts. They look startled, but some of them yell back and the bars open up their doors so the music can spill out into the street. We swoop west down the street, picking up up speed and sound, till there is yelling and honking all around us and then the corner outside the five-star Driscoll Hotel is packed with people screaming, running into the street to high-five people leaning out of cars. I pull my bike over and join the crowd on the sidewalk, waving at the cars like all of us are one big parade. Yelling from the balconies and yelling from the street and yelling from the cars, new cars, beat-up junkers, taxis, delivery vans, and these are all my neighbors, these people yelling. People who look like me.

About the time the police get there to control the scene, I push off. I am screamed hoarse. I don't even know if I feel happy. I think I might feel hopeful, but I don't want to be let down. I don't want us to let ourselves down. I want this to mean something. I've been in the streets before, but always to protest, never to celebrate.

On the corner at a red-light, a black woman in a heavy flannel waves and gives me the power fist. I wave back. She walks over and I see she is missing an eye, the lid pulled down smooth and stitched to the cheek. "Right on," she says, and I agree, "Right on." She asks me if I have a dollar. I have three quarters. I give them to her.

A block or two away from Sixth Street, it is just a regular Tuesday night, bone-quiet and a little cold. I realize how hard I'm sweating, how wet my shirt is. I pass the homeless shelter, people outside coughing and sorting through their stuff. I pass the corner with the crack dealers and the crack heads and the people hanging out for no reason, and they don't even look up as I go past. I want to whoop at them and tell them everything around us is changing and thing that were never possible before are possible now, for us, for our children, forever. I want to say something, but I don't. I know it's harder than that. I want to think that something is happening, but we don't know yet if anything will happen, if the yelling in the streets tonight will go anywhere, or mean anything or if it's just more yelling because people like to yell.

I don't know. We won't know for a long time. We just have to keep trying. The hardest part is now.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

real red

I find it's good for morale to get out of the house at least once a day. When you work from home on small projects that interest only yourself and a small band of other oddballs with whom you communicate mainly by text, it can get lonely. Lonely isn't the most familiar feeling to me. Usually the more alone I can be the better. But when I realize I've gotten to the end of another day without seeing another face or talking to anyone but myself, I do feel oddly unmoored, that old feeling of being separated from the world by a pane of thick glass.

So I make up reasons to go out. I seek out errands. The printer needs ink! Fantastic! Bikes away. Sometimes there are no errands. I still go out, to one of the handful of little cafes in the neighborhood. I sit and drink coffee and do the crossword puzzle. No one has to talk to me, I just like knowing there are other people around. I like it when the waitress comes by and asks if I want more coffee and I say yes, please, or no thanks, and she says, sure thing sweetie, OK honey, take care now.

Back when I was dancing, I saw plenty of people. And plenty of people saw me. I always had nice nails and got my eyebrows waxed once a week and my hair cut once a month. I dressed like it mattered how I looked, and that was an interesting discipline for me. Before that I'd worn the same uniform every day since freshman year of college: wife-beater undershirt, jeans, belt, and a sweater if it was cold. It's a style into which I am woefully prone to relapse. I'm already slipping comfortably into the role of local eccentric -- mismatched socks and ripped jeans and my hair in my face.

Poor hair. Hanging in my eyes in those little wisps my mom always said made me look "like a beggar." Brittle and breaking at the ends like a cheap wig. I bleached it too many times, stripping it to bring out the red. It looks brassy in the sun, yes, and cheap, and all the bad things they say about bleached red hair. But in the dark club under the pink and blue lights it was the red like a beacon that had men coming up to the stage -- certain men with their fists full of bills, fives and tens, not ones, whispering, "Are you a real redhead?"

And the answer was yes. The answer wasn't, "sort of". Sort of a redhead. Not as red as my mother, of course, not that wild carrot color, that unbelievable almost pink, but then I don't have her ice-gray eyes either. My eyes are darker and the red in my hair is darker, too. It hides under the nut brown and the copper and the mahogany. You'd have to take me outside and stand me in the sun and turn my hair over in your hand, and then you would see it, yes, red, like rubies and like fire.

But that wasn't the answer. The answer was "yes." Yes, I am a real redhead. And they would sigh -- I love redheads -- and it was couch time.

Before I started dancing, when I was only thinking about dancing, I worried more about my hair than anything else, more than I worried about the fact that I didn't know how to dance. My hair was short as a boy's, and I knew strippers didn't have short hair like boys. I danced in a wig until my own hair grew out to stripper-worthy lengths. I always thought when I was finished dancing I'd cut it all off. That's the way I thought when I was 22, 23, that my life would have lines in the sand like that. Long hair. Short hair. Dancing. Finished dancing. Real me. Stripper me. False self that I will wear like a shield and discard when I don't need it any more.

It hasn't worked out just like that. It turns out that your experiences make you, whether people are calling you by the name your parents gave you or by a name you gave yourself. I own it all, everything I ever did. The memories are mine. Not Grace's, but mine. It will never be finished. It will never be over, not while I'm alive. We don't finish things. There is no finishing.

I don't know if I'll dance again. I can't say. Till the day I lose my waistline or my teeth, I could always go back if I needed the money enough, or if I just felt like it. I don't know if I'll feel like it again. I know I don't feel like it now. At the moment, I want to be naked on a stage in a roomful strangers about as much as most people do, but that could change.

I've taken breaks before, often. I took my longest break after the car accident, when I broke my ribs and pelvis. I didn't dance for a year, and during that year I practiced yoga asana three hours a day and meditated every morning and every evening until the creator spoke to me through the lips of homeless people at the bus stop and I loved everyone in the world, including the most of the world that I had never met and never, ever would meet. That didn't last long after I started dancing again, but I hope I've kept a little of it. Nothing is finished.

I know when it's time to start dancing again because I dream about dancing. I dream about locker rooms, girls who are always kinder to me than dancers have time to be in real life. In the dreams there are bright lights and glamour, in the old sense of the word, too - glamour as something in your eyes so bright you cannot see. In the dreams it is a game. Put on the clothes, put on the shoes, and see who you turn into this time. There is fear, sometimes, but it is the fear of being at the top of a roller coaster, the fear you put on yourself for the pleasure of it. And there is the customer, the money, the blood-joy of the hunt.

I haven't dreamed about dancing since I stopped last spring. It could happen any night, but it hasn't happened yet. Instead I dream other things. I dream landscapes folding into other landscapes; I dream old friends back again, alive again; I dream colors ; I dream sex. I dream riddles I am still solving as I wake, clues fading in the light from the window in the morning.

Sometimes I do miss it. I miss the feeling of being beautiful that you mojo yourself into each night before you walk out on the floor. I miss the locker-room, the crudeness and the rawness of being back there, where anything goes and however crazy you feel you will never be the craziest one there. I miss the money. But I don't miss it enough. Not yet.

And if I forget what I look like, like I do forget, if I forget I have a body and a face, then the men at the corner remind me, like they did this morning as I biked past on my imaginary errands: Hey, mama, hey sexy, eh mami, you looking good, hey beautiful, you got a dollar?

Peace. Peace be with you.

And also with you.

six things you didn't know about me until now

Thanks to the very lovely LiaStarLight for tagging me with the Six Random Things Meme, thus providing me with a ready-made quick and dirty blog entry to satisfy the masses (that's you) while I spend the rest of the week filing various pieces of paper with various people whose job is to make sure people like me file various pieces of paper. If I file all the papers correctly, I get a bag of money by the end of year.

So here you go. Six exclusive, previously unrevealed biographical factoids about yours truly.

1. My blood type is O negative, the universal donor. I have to admit I derive some small, obscure sense of pride from this, even though it wasn't my choice or doing.

2. My Myers-Briggs Type is INTJ, although very close to being INFJ. Though I know MBTI is debatably founded in pseudo-scientific bushwah, descriptions of those types do strike me as accurate.

3. My learning style is visual-kinesthetic. I am almost completely unable to decipher information presented auditorily, which probably explains why I suck at karaoke and struggled through lecture-format classes in school.

4. My first declared college major was chemical engineering.

5. I am a better shot with a shotgun than with a pistol. (But who isn't?)

6. As a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a journalist or a spy.

I am supposed to tag six other bloggers now, but I'd rather take volunteers than call people out. If you would like to pick up the meme now, just say so in the comments section and post a link to your blog. The first six people to pipe up will get linked from this post.

First up: The Crow! (I'm excited about this one...she's a smartie with an extremely random P.G. Woodehouse quote in her header.)

More brave volunteers:
Frank of Vader on Ice
Clever Monkey
Amy and the Fifth Beatle
Jody Ekert of Inside Out Australia

And as a final, special treat, six delightful random things from one of my favorite people on earth, my brilliant and talented friend Pamela at Pamela's Lounge, a blog created to house scraps of prose that drift loose while she writes her first book.

And now I have papers to file. I promise something more substantial by the end of the week.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Yesterday I sat in front of the computer for too long, staring at the typed notes and annotations, treatments and revisions, the blueprints of my project, my horrible two-headed baby that nobody loves but me. I stare at it too long, until I see it start to come apart, the overworked materials of it collapsing in front of me, criss-crossed with false starts and dead ends, the integrity of it's structure hopelessly compromised. I saw that I have spent two years of my life doing nothing, entertaining myself, a kid making mud pies. I saw it, finally, the nothing in the middle of it all, the emptiness of my whole enterprise.

I got up and went outside. I left the monstrous project squatting on the desk and walked out into the street where I could see the sky. Used to be I would have sat there at the desk, willing myself to start bleeding from somewhere. It took me a long time to see that my blood is not really going to fix things.

I unlocked my bike from the fence, feeling my pulse pick up as I began to pedal. The evening light was yellow, lying over the whole neighborhood like a veil, the old bungalows wrapped up in vines, the new condos, clean and cheap, the shells of still more condos, as progress marches relentless over us. Maybe that will all be ending now, as the banks all crash. Maybe the condos will stop and vines will grow over the raw steel and the scaffolding. The old houses already look like the holdouts of a lost civilization, and they are the happiest houses anyway.

One peeling cottage leans in on itself, molting its gingerbread, dwarved by pecan trees. In the yard a pregnant girl, belly huge and ripe, waters her garden. The amber-colored light thickens til it is like the light at the bottom of a green bottle. She stands there in her lawn, watering the green grass with her green hose and her dress is green, her skin is green, her hair is moss. She stands there, blossoming and bursting and burdened with possibility. I am in love with her as I ride past. I want to be the mosquito humming in her curtains all night long. And then I pass her with the breeze in my hair and she is behind me, gone.

Nothing is resolved since I left the house. I have no better idea than before how I will go forward or what I will do next. But I am happy. I coast down hills, picking up speed. I remark to myself because no one else is there, that if you could bottle this feeling and sell it --

And of course it does come in a bottle. Ten milligrams a day -- twenty for a tough bad week. My happiness is as natural as a perfect, white factory egg, but it doesn't feel like that. It feels like part of me, ordinary, unremarkable. Which is itself a kind of minor miracle. I remember being nineteen, first time in a therapist's office at Student Health Services. I was there because I needed help not killing myself. Not killing myself was something I'd been working on for years, but it was harder at some times than at others.

They gave me a test to take to see if I was depressed. I filled it out with great suspicion. Doesn't everyone have "persistant feelings of emptiness or worthlessness"? Come on. I can't be the only one to "cry for no reason" and "feel they are hurting or bothering others just by being around"? This is the human condition, no? This was life as I knew it, had known it, for almost as far back as I could think. If other people were filling this test out differently, they were kidding themselves. Is there anyone out there, really, who doesn't "think the world would be better off it they were dead"? Nobody can be that happy.

The psychiatrist at Student Health Services said I should think about medication, but I was unequivocally opposed. So instead we talked about my childhood, everything that ever made me feel like shit. Dug it all up and waded through it once a week for four weeks until my student benefits ran out. It might have helped. I didn't kill myself. Over the next few years I turned down anti-depressants repeatedly from doctors at the Student Center, and later at the People's Clinic. I didn't want to kill myself, but I thought pills were weak. I didn't want to medicate the darkness in me, I wanted to kill it. Pin it down and choke the life right out of it. Beat it to a bloody shit with my fists. Then and only then I would know that I did, in fact, deserve to keep living.

When I met C. and fell in love, then I knew what happiness was like. And it was so sweet, it was so good. When I started to feel sick again, I went to a doctor and I asked for medication right away. He gave it to me. The first weeks I felt sick and strange, like my head was a helium balloon that any second was going to lift right off my neck and float away. Then that went away, and everything was, for lack of a better word, normal. The kind of normal that other people know about, the normal kind of normal. The kind of normal where sometimes you are happy and other times you are sad, but then after a little while you are happy again. The kind of normal that is, in point of fact, amazing.

I coast home. My computer is waiting for me. Nothing is any better than it was, but everything is OK. At the beginning of the project I had the vision of how the final thing would be. Those visions are so beautiful, so strong. You fall in love with them, and thank God, because only love would get you through what happens next. You can't help but fail, finally, if your vision really was so perfect. You can't help but fall short. If you don't fail you didn't try hard enough. That's all.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

masha's baby

Amy Jean is steaming oysters in the kitchen. It is finally October, the brief prime season of oysters and other lovely things. The air is golden and almost cool enough to need a jacket. In a few weeks there will be frost at night, and the fat pecans will start to fall off the trees all over the neighborhood, some nights so heavy it may sound for a minute like hail and the nights will be crisp enough to crack.

Amy Jean's big wolfhound is scrabbling to reach under the kitchen door and pry it open to get outside. When the door won't open she looks up at us with a pitiful whine.

"Masha, where's your baby?" Amy Jean coos. "Where's your baby, Masha?"

Masha woofs and throws her shoulder frantically against the door.

"Masha! Down!"

Masha pretends to lie down, but cannot rest. With her front legs, she drags herself on her belly across the floor to Amy Jean's feet, little whimpers begging please, please, please and help help help.

"Masha, what's the matter?" Amy Jean teases. "Can't you find your baby?"

Masha leaps up, runs, and crashes into the door again. Amy Jean laughs and Masha throws her a bruised look over her shoulder. A missing baby is no laughing matter.

The things is, Masha has no baby. A week ago, she went into pseudocyesis, false pregnancy. All female dogs go through false pregnancies, but Masha's are severe. It's got her tits swollen and her head all turned around. She hunts all day for the babies her body tells her she should have and cries for them all night.

Amy Jean lifts the steamer of oysters out of pot in a wet cloud that smells like laundry and wine. Some people say that oysters smell like pussy, and to the degree that both smell like clean ocean, like salt water and abundant life, then yes. Amy pours white wine into the shallots simmering in the pan, so then there's vinegariness and butteriness and onion in the air, too, and the steam catches in our hair in tiny drops.

A year ago Amy Jean started to talk about having a baby. I was careful not to seem surprised. Amy Jean can have a baby if she wants. She has a real job these days, the kind with Opportunities for Advancement. She has a long-time boyfriend who would probably come around to the idea. She lives in a real house with real furniture. Babies, why not?

She wanted a baby a lot. A whole lot. I'd never seen anything exactly like it. She reminded me of someone terribly hungry, so close to real starvation that they can only think of food and everything in the world is either Food or Not Food and nothing else matters. But because things were not quite right and she was not making quite what she would like to be making at her job and because her boyfriend was not quite ready, she didn't have a baby. Then in June she found out she had cancer instead. The cancer is over now, but the irradiated iodine they killed it with is not good for fetuses and Amy Jean will not be having a baby for a while. Amy Jean is quite cautious. All my girlfriends are quite cautious, and none of us have babies.

"Masha, leave the door alone," Amy Jean says. Masha backs up reluctantly, turns toward the hallway and finally throws herself down on her side in an agony of grief. I rub the back of her neck with my toes. Poor Masha.

I don't think I've ever felt it, that particular hunger. If I had I would know it, right? When I was growing up I always insisted that I was never having babies. The older people would nod knowingly and pat my leg and say you feel like that now, but don't worry, when the time comes you'll want it, everyone does-- a prospect I found only slightly less terrifying than the threat that Jesus would be saving me, whether I wanted him to or not. I want no overwhelming desires, no mystical overthrows of my will, no terrible hunger like Masha's terrible hunger.

I like babies just fine, I swear I do. I love my niece. She makes hilarious faces and endearing noises programmed to make me feel pleasantly protective. She laughs when jiggled and jumps when I jump and registers no objection to being dressed as a woodland creature for her auntie's entertainment. So far, she is perfect.

She doesn't make me want to have a baby, though. Not this year, anyway, or the year after that, or probably even the year after that. I am very busy for the foreseeable future. And if it goes on like that, I will probably never have a baby, and that shouldn't be a tragedy. Shouldn't be. I think.

There's a morality story, though, for women like me, and it's about a woman who always thinks she'll have a baby later when she feels like it but then she wakes up one morning in her early forties and realizes that a baby is exactly the one things she wants more than anything in the world. She has the hunger in her, and it is too late to do anything about it. It is a terrible threat.

Choices are frightening things in themselves. Don't worry, say the grown-ups in my mind. You'll change your mind. Everyone does.

The steam has split the mouths of the oysters into little moues. We crack the open and set them on the plate. Amy Jean goes to the kitchen door, wiping her hands on her skirt.

"Masha, you want to go out? You want to go out and look for your baby?" Masha snaps alert, body electrified with purpose. Amy Jean opens the door and Masha bounds out, barking. She will call and sniff the bushes for an hour for a puppy she will never find.

Amy Jean pours two glasses of white wine. I pick up the platter of oysters, trembling to be swallowed, and carry them to the table.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I am crossing the road, walking home from lunch with my boyfriend during his break from school. Lunchtime traffic runs steady through the arteries of the neighborhood, streets that are normally quiet. I wait for minutes before I can get across the main road onto my own street, and when I do get a break it is only a short one and I have to hoof it. The car in the far lane, a sleek late-model import, has to slow down for me a little. It flashes its headlights at me in what I assume is irritation, but I am safe already.

The car slows further and turns onto the side street with me, crowding me onto the curb. The driver is a man, alone. He is looking at me. I put my hands in my pockets, make my walk unfriendly. He pulls past me and away. Up ahead at the stop sign he pulls a U-turn and comes back, slows down again. His fingers lift from the steering wheel in a little wave. The car nudges towards me to an almost stop.

I make my face a mask of hostility. I meet his eyes, and my eyes say, No. Go away. He shows me his teeth in a smile. A man in the sagging of his middle years. Eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses do not look sinister, do not look like anything. Face so forgettable it hardly is a face, but I know it now and will know if I see it again.

I used not to know what this was, this kind of encounter. I thought prostitutes wore feather boas and boots and hung out on neon strips with rows of other hookers, smoking cigarettes. It never occurred to me that I'd be mistaken for one, a regular girl just trying to walk home from work in a sweaty T-shirt and jeans rolled up my calves. I didn't realize that most prostitutes look like regular girls, because they are regular girls, who will also have sex with you for money.

I don't know when I figured it out exactly. Some time after I'd seen how the mostly regular girls in their mostly regular clothes linger around certain corners not too far down the street I just crossed. Sometimes just one of them, or maybe two or three, but somehow always circulating alone, never seeming to have anything particular to do: waiting. Some time when I caught the expression on one of the almost faceless drivers of the anonymous cars -- some combination of hesitation and hope -- and I realized he was waiting on me. I was the one who was supposed to do or say the thing that would set this transaction in motion. Ah.

After a while I taught myself a kind of rolling swagger that I thought looked tough. I wore men's jackets and hoped I looked like a boy from behind. I made my face like stone -- I don't see you, you're not there -- and kept walking. And the cars would pull past me and drive away, fast. And my heart would slow down and I'd be left with just a little lingering lick of anger.

They're not bad men, probably, so I don't know why I dislike them like I do. I don't ignore them anymore. I wait for them to pull up by me so I can meet their eyes with my full coldness and my full contempt. They don't look like bad men. They just want their dicks sucked by a mostly regular girl walking down the street on a mostly regular day who for a sum of money will get into the car.

I don't know why I dislike them like I do, why I want my look to sting them, why I want to see their faces fall. They aren't hurting me. The girls up the street want their business, and that's fine with me. I just want to walk home from lunch in peace. But I do dislike them. I dislike their soft bodies inside the shells of their cars. I dislike the expectation on their faces.

This guy ducks his head a little to get a better look at me. I meet his eyes. Don't roll your window down. I'll spit on you. Is every woman a possible trick to you, or is it only in my part of town? His smile falters and he looks away. The car speeds up to the end of side street, turns out onto the main artery again. He's gone. Maybe he'll get his blowjob and maybe he won't. Better hurry. Lunchtime is almost over.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

the rules for riding bikes

So Ike ripped Houston a new one and here inland we got a run of sweet, cool weather. Sorry, Houston. Way to take one for the team. It'll get hot again, one more time. We all know this. Summer will give us one more run for its money, but it's days are numbered and it's like a different world now.

At the laundromat yesterday people were smiling and holding the doors for each other and a girl no higher than my waist with pink overalls and a long french braid watched me over the counter while I folded clothes and asked me if I was a teenager, and then how old I was and if I had any children and if I did have any children would they be boys or girls and what would their names be? I was loving her for her deep, old eyes and her shy, slow smile. When her mother came and took her hand and told her it was time to go we waved goodbye for a long time.

On Saturday C. and I had a fight, a big one. Over nothing, over whether it is OK for one of us to cross the road without the other while we are bicycling, and then we were out in the yard yelling at each other for all the neighbors to hear and then I got back on my bike and rode away. All day the edges of the hurricane system were blowing over us -- scraps of clouds going unnaturally fast, long banks of gray hanging in the sky like the bellies of pigs. We never got a drop of rain.

On Friday I fired Josh. He doesn't do the things he says he'll do any more. When he told me at the last minute that he couldn't make the job we'd scheduled I felt the second of total calm I feel before I get furious and then I fired him in three short sentences that ended with "fucking unacceptable" and hanging up the phone. I don't know that I've ever ended a conversation like that in my life, ever. Not with Josh, not even when we were sleeping together. Before C. I wasn't really one to fight with lovers. Fighting isn't worth it unless there's something serious at stake. Sleeping arrangements aren't that serious.

The project is serious. I've worked too hard to get tripped up by someone else's sloppiness, I don't care who it is. I don't know what the matter is with Josh. I don't know if he's doing coke again or if he just thinks he can't fired because we used to fuck. It doesn't really matter why. I'd drive myself crazy if I let myself care. I'll never understand him any better than I'll ever understand myself. I feel quite cold about it, and relieved to feel that way. Not everything can be my problem.

I fight with C. because I'm serious. Because I can't leave him, won't leave him. Because we love each other so much that we're stuck with each other and so we have to make it work. No picking up stakes and moving on and finding someone else who won't zoom through a yellow light ahead of me and leave me stuck. I fight about stupid things, because I'm still learning. And maybe because there's something in the air, some kind of hurricane mojo, the freakishness of waiting for something to hit you that never hits you, because the day before they were telling us to buy bottled water and hunker down and now it isn't even raining.

I rode my bike through the dark, headed nowhere, turning right and left at random. For a while I felt pleasantly disconnected and free, but then it caught up with me -- the anger and the boredom and the loneliness. And I thought, if I were a man I would go to a strip club now. And I thought, no wonder they are such depressing places to be.

I stopped at a bar in a neighborhood a long way from mine and I had a beer and then C. called my phone and I answered and he said, "I'm sorry. We'll figure it out. We'll make a list of rules for riding bikes. We're smart people and it can't be this hard."

I say I'm sorry, too and I'll be home soon and C. says to take my time. I try to take my time but I can't wait, so I slam my beer and coast home in a happy haze. C. meets me at the door and we lie in bed for a long time without talking. Over and over again I think I hear rain, but it's only wind. And when we wake up all the clouds are gone.

Monday, September 08, 2008

casual friday

On Friday I went to a pool party. I didn't mean to go to a pool party. I meant to go out with my friend and colleague Corinne for end-of-the-week drinks. The last few weeks have been tough going for the project. A presentation week before last was received very badly. On Wednesday a major non-financial partner withdrew from the project completely. Apparently I have generated controversy. Apparently everyone thought I was a nice girl who would do something nice. The project is not nice. It was never trying to be nice. Nice? No. Not nice.

Corinne tried to save me, but even she agrees that the project is not very nice, and if nice is what her people were expecting there is no point in trying to make this partnership work anymore. "We can still be friends, right?" Corinne asks, via text. We can still be friends.

She calls me as I'm leaving my house to meet her downtown, and she says, "Let's not go out. Let's go to Dave's."

Dave is her boyfriend. He has a condo on the lake, with a hot-tub. Going there and drinking beer out of the fridge will be a million times better than going to some bar. I agree, change course. I am covered with sweat when I get there. Corinne hands me a beer, asks if I want to freshen up. I take my beer into the shower. Cold beer in my mouth. Hot water on my face. I am so tired.

The day before I ran into a friend in the grocery store and she asked how the project was going. I told her we'd hit some rough spots. She asked what kind and I tried to explain, but talking about it made me feel worse. She said, "Honey, everybody gets to this point. You get to a point where you think you can't go anymore, but you do, and that's what separates you from all the people who don't make it."

I say, maybe I am one of the people who doesn't make it. I have to think about that. I have to let myself contemplate that that could be the truth. I say,"Maybe I'll just say fuck it. Maybe I'm done." I want to pretend for a second that it could be that easy. As easy as that fantasy I used to have of just buying a bus ticket, leaving town, leave the whole mess. Let everybody else work it out. Fuck it. I'm done.

She said, "You'll pull through."

My heart goes bang, starts racing. Maybe I don't want to pull through. I pick up my basket, start backing away down the soap aisle. "I'm sorry. I have to go. I really can't talk about it."

"Call me," she yells after me. "I'll cook for you. You look like shit."

I turn the handle in the shower, cranking the hot water slowly over to cool. I've started seeing an acupuncturist. She says I have a heat imbalance -- too much yang energy, too much activity, masculinity. She tells me to spend time doing yin activities, soothing, passive, feminine. Like what, I ask her. Swim, she says. Go for a walk in the morning when it's cool. Sit still.

I let the cool water run over my face. I could stand here forever. But not really, because this is a stranger's house and my friend is waiting for me downstairs. I turn the water off. I towel myself off and leave my hair down so it can dry.

"Your hair's so long," Corinne says as I come downstairs. "You should wear it down more."

"Is Dave home?"

"He's out by the pool. He'll be out there all weekend. We can go in a little bit, but I'm warning you now, it's a sausage fest. You'll think you're in a frat house. Beer?"


We sit on the couch and drink. Corinne says, "Look. Keep doing what you're doing. It's a good project. Now you don't have to worry about making us happy. You can do it your way and take as long as you want."

Yeah, it could go on forever. Just me and my project. Me and my fucking stupid fucking project.

Corinne says, "Let's go out to the pool."

We go out. It is a sausage fest. A bunch of guys. I forget how many because they all look alike to me. Eight? Ten? Throwing a football and splashing and shouting. Guys. Normal guys, who are like a weird foreign culture to me. I've never actually been to a frat party. But here I am and here they are, comporting themselves in their natural habitat. Corinne sit down and I take the deck chair next to her.

I am too tired to party. I lean back in the deck chair and keep drinking beer while the last of the sun dries the last of the water in my hair. Guys keep coming by and talking to me. Sometimes I open my eyes to see who it is and sometimes I don't. I can't keep their names straight anyway.

Some guy comes by and asks me about my job. I guess somebody told him about the project. I say yes, that is what I do. He says, "Wow. That's so great. Listen, I've been looking for someone..."

He tells me about the project he has in mind. I laugh. It's a funny idea. It's a silly idea. It's the kind of idea a guy like this would have. I tell him I love it, and it's brilliant, and it will make a million dollars and everyone will love it.

"So, how much?" he wants to know.

I shut my eyes and do a little math. I name a number, a ridiculous number.

"Done," he says. "Here, let me get your contact information."


"Honey," C. will say later, "Honey, I have a suspicion he was hitting on you."

"No shit. What difference does it make?"

C. will shrug and make a face. But that's all later. Meanwhile there's food on the grill and groups of people keep shifting and reshaping and going in and out of apartments. The last of the sun goes down and Corinne comes over and says, "Let's go inside."

Inside we start to talk about the project again, not what people think of it, but the real stuff of it, the parts I love, that keep me up at night, the stuff that makes us want to do the stuff we do, and suddenly I start to cry. For a while I can't stop. Strings of sobs like little implosions suck me in on myself, and in, and in. Corinne gets me water and sits by me quietly. She and I might be really good friends one day. I might pull myself together and get myself out of this. I might take the pool guy's project and we might make a million dollars. Stranger things have happened.

Monday, September 01, 2008

new stuff

New additions to the Grace Undressed Souvenir Gift Shoppe!

Cayenne & Praline Brownie Mix: During my first winter in the Lonestar State, a room-mate introduced me to the joys of Abuelita's-brand hot chocolate, a variety popular in Mexico, which comes as a flat cake of sweetened dark chocolate, spiced with cinnamon. To this, she added a tiny pinch of cayenne pepper for surprisingly delicious treat that warmed our inside when the weather was nasty and gray. This brownie mix duplicates the joy of that lovingly doctored chocolate. It is spicy, with a mild heat that brings the best out of the deep, dark cacoa powder I use.

Cookie Scrub: I originally invented this recipe to deal with the razor bumps I used to get when I shaved my Area. (I was going to call it Pussy Scrub, but I didn't want to get slapped with Etsy's "mature" label.) The combination of exfoliants (ground oats, brown sugar) and moisturizers (cocoa butter, coconut oil) is a double whammy for preventing unsightly shaving-related rashes. It also works wonderfully well on the rest of me, including the gnarly patches of dry skin I get on my upper arms in the winter. I now pass on the secret of my velvety soft skin to you!

Letter Writing Service: A reader suggested this, and I am delighted to offer it. Writing letters is pretty much my favorite form of communication. (Talking on the phone makes me nervous and texting is for hipsters.) Writing to strangers about the topics of their choice sounds like as much fun as writing this blog, only more personal. My areas of interest and expertise include yoga, film, natural health, current events, history, knitting, crafts, and cultural studies of call kinds, to name a few. I stand ready to take on whatever you can throw at me, so bring it on!

For those who are not signed up with Etsy and do not wish to register for one more damn thing in their lives, you can "donate" the amount of your desired purchase, and leave me a note detailing your order. Please remember to include shipping.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

dog days

It's not how hot the summers are here as much as how long they go on. Temperatures started topping 100 degrees in May this year, and for a little while it's bracing. You think you'll fight it out, but by August you are desperate and the sun seems to hang smug and sullen at dead noon all day long. There's a vicious, personal quality to the heat of these late summer days, like summer has it's teeth in your neck and it's going to shake you till you're limp, wring the last bit of juiciness out of you before, if we're lucky, it dies in late October.

On Saturday I went to a house-warming party of sorts at Scarlett's new house. Lorna, the owner of the house, was there, and our friend Amy Jean. The three of us sat on the couch while Scarlett wrestled a rented snake down the drain of the bath-tub, which is clogged, and which Lorna, for reasons obscure, does not which to take up with the landlord. It was valiant effort, and she said she didn't need any help, which everybody knew wasn't true, but everybody for the moment wanted to sit down in the cool of the front room. After an uncomfortable while, Lorna quietly got her things together and fled the house. Amy Jean and I stayed.

Amy Jean and I are alike in small ways that surprise me. We are the same height, and built the same. We both pull our hair over our shoulders and play with the end like nervous children. We both look up the answers to our questions. Amy Jean has a way of never quite meeting your eyes or answering your questions, though what she says is always interesting, and I wonder if I am like that, too.

Amy Jean, like me, is interested in the body. Today she is telling me about the physiology of laughter. She tells me "grotesque laughter" is the term of art for the laughter you laugh when things are too horrible. She says the endorphins from laughter protect the brain from permanent damage by painful events.

In June Amy Jean was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Doctors caught the cancer very early. They destroyed her thyroid with a radiated pill and now she will have to take hormones for the rest of her life, but she is alive and doing well. She laughed the day of the radiation and the day before and the day after. Come to think of it, I have never seen Amy Jean cry.

I have never seen my mother cry either. Cancer treatment was not as advanced in the 80's as it is now. The doctors at NIH put a scalpel up my mother's nose to cut out the lemon-sized tumor deep in her head, coring her brain like an apple. She survived. She would be different forever, in subtle ways, like someone with three quarters of a brain might be, but she lived and that was good.

After the surgery we went to see her in her room in the hospital. She laughed so hard while we were there that the hospital pudding went up into her recently-violated nasal cavities and came out her nose. I sat on her bed and laughed with her while my father wept and my brother was silent.

At first, Amy Jean did not want the radiation. She was going to cure herself with cabbage and kale and Good Thoughts, but she was very sick and everyone said she should act fast. Her long black hair has white hairs in it now. They look like stars in the sky at the North Pole at midnight. Everything about Amy Jean is so lovely and so cool. Her eyes are the color of beach glass, blue green and full of light.

Dog days. Last vicious days of summer. Spare us. I show Amy Jean the rash between my fingers. Tiny shoals of blisters that dry up and peel away just to bloom again on the next layer of skin below. "I thought it was poison ivy," I say. "But poison ivy wouldn't keep coming back like this."

She takes my hand in her cool hand and turns it over in the light. "It's eczema," she says. "I have it, too. Look."

She holds her hand next to mine, and sure enough it is the same. I notice how much alike our hands are. We have the same kind of skin.

Scarlett comes in the room with her hair in her face. She has lost her battle with the rented snake. She is angry at Lorna for leaving. She is angry. She is on the verge of tears. Scarlett cries often and easily, hot little floods of crying. Amy Jean and I let our coolness wash over her now. We tell her to stop with the snake and chalk it up to a valiant effort and call the landlord. Scarlett is afraid to make Lorna angry in case she loses the room in the house. We tell her everything will be OK, because everything always is OK, even when it isn't.

Maybe we're wrong. Maybe we should let her cry. Maybe we should cry with her and scream and smash glass and throw furniture. Maybe one of these teasing gray humid morning we've had all week will turn into a thunderstorm and crack the sky over the city and rain down a torrent that rips up all but the deepest roots while the rest sweeps into the river in a flood of trash, all the way down to the gulf and the ocean.

Maybe we should all be crying. Maybe it's the effort of not crying that is killing us. Maybe the tears are building in our blood until our bodies turn on us and kill us. Things are rough and only getting rougher, and the promise of relief is just enough to keep you here but not enough to cool your face. That's how you feel in Texas at the end of the summer.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

junk hunting

You know it's going to be a hot one when the cicadas get started before noon. Scarlett is back in Texas, home from New York on the advice of friends like me who said sometimes the smartest thing you can do is bail on a bad time. In the weeks since her return she's been abject and elated by turns, her bad days just bad enough to scare the people who know how bad things can get.

Twice a week she comes over and eats lunch with me, which is good for me because I am at the point of obsession with work that I will forget to eat if I'm not reminded, and good for her because twice a week she gets free food. For the first few weeks she surfed from couch to couch, but now she has a part-time job at a coffee shop and our friend Lorna cleared out her junk room to give her a place to stay. So, that's good.

This afternoon she comes over for lunch, and I know she's not happy almost before I hear her feet on the porch. She's sad, she says, because of all the boxes sitting packed in her room, and nothing to put them in. "I feel like I'm living in a fucking squat with my mattress on the floor," she says.

I listen for her breath and hear it where I knew I would, high and rapid in her chest, making her heart beat like a pair of desperate wings. Her voice shakes with the effort of containing herself.

We get on Craigslist and find someone who is giving away a futon frame. The post says it's out by the curb, free to the first person to roll up and take it away. Scarlett has borrowed her mother's car for the afternoon, so we drive over to the address in the listing, a blank little street in a treeless part of town. It's right in the hottest part of the day, and the air-conditioning doesn't work in the car, so we drive with the windows down and say as little as possible.

Last week I had to sit Scarlett down and say Listen. You can't come over to my house in the middle of the day and yell at me. I'm too busy and too tired and my patience is at too low an ebb.

And she said, but I'm not even mad at you.

And I said, but when you're mad, you're mad at everyone. You're an equal opportunity hater. I might not be the one you're yelling at, but I'm the one you're yelling at, so chill.

She did chill for a few days. Around me, anyway. And I let myself hope, again, that this meant she was feeling better and now everything was going to be OK. When you love someone, you have to hope for things like that.

I read the address out for her and sure enough the futon frame is still there by the curb. It's a nice one. Well-made, substantial. Too substantial. It is never going in the back seat of the car. We try for a bit anyway, putting the back seats down and trying to twist the frame this way and the other way. The sun is right overhead, dead hot and mercilessly bright. We give up and put the frame down by the curve, stand wiping our faces off in the alley with the tails of our t-shirts.

"Nope," Scarlett says tightly.


We get back in the car. "This is such shit," Scarlett says as we pull away. "I'm so sick of not having things I need."

Scarlett's never been good at hanging onto things. She loses apartments, jobs, lovers, friends, and she never takes it lightly, the way some people do who've been losing things so long they've got the knack of it. For Scarlett, it always seems to hurt.

"I guess it's back to the shake joint," she says now, knuckles white on the steering wheel. "That's what everybody keeps saying. 'Why don't you just dance?' Why does that always have to be the answer to everything?"

"It's not the answer," I say, carefully. "It's an option. It's quicker and easier than some of the other options."

"But it's not always easier."

"No. It's not always easier."

"I need glasses. I need my filling replaced. I have warrants. I don't know what else I can do."

I don't know either. It is convenient to walk off the street and get hired and make a few hundred dollars the same day. The convenience is undeniable. But.

"It's almost too convenient," Scarlett says, reading my mind. "It's like...this pretty little toy with sharp edges."

"It's a compromise. You have to understand the compromise before you make it."

"I don't think I'm very good at compromises."

It's true. She's not. Sometimes that's a good trait. Myself, I tend the other way. If my ends seem to be in sight, I will endure far more than there is any point in enduring. I've lived years of my life that way. Scarlett knows this. There's a reason we're friends.

"If you start dancing again, you should know exactly what you're doing it for," I offer. "Dancing for survival is the worst. That's when you really feel stuck. You have to have one thing in your life that you really love. At least one thing you care about so much that it makes everything worth it. You have one goal and every day you do one thing to meet that goal, and as long as you do that one thing you can feel OK."

Some of this I believe to be good advice and some of it I know is superstition, but I still believe it and it's all I've got so I hope it's something. She frowns like maybe she's listening. "Look," she says, suddenly excited.


"A dresser!"

We pull over. There by the street, a five-drawer bureau stands next to a row of garbage cans. It's sadder than it looked at first. We walk around it, fingering the peeling veneer until a sheet if it pulls off in our hands.

"This is trash," Scarlett says. "Somebody is throwing this away for a reason."

We stand there for a second longer, trying to make the dresser into something it isn't, trying to make it into something somebody could use to make a life. The sun wants to melt us like wax.

"Oh, well," Scarlett says. "The last thing I need is another sad piece of trash in my room to look at every day when I wake up. Oh, well. Oh, well."

We get back in the car.

I tell her we'll figure it out. I don't know what I mean by this. I don't know what it is, even, let alone how we are going to figure it out. I just know that sooner or later things will be better and sooner, probably. Sooner than she thinks.

I've seen so many things slip through her hands. I've seen her start her life all over more than once, except you never really start your life over. Those cardboard boxes drift from house to house, from friends' garages, from the backs of cars, from rented storage rooms, and there never seems to a place to put everything away. I don't really know why. As old a friend as I am, I don't really understand why her life is made of the scraps of other people's lives. I don't know when she'll be happy, but I do hope it's soon. If you love someone, you have to have hope.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

with the devil in the woods

I've been trying to teach myself to sleep again; I seem to have lost the knack. I get tired, but when I lie down my eyes don't close. I practice breathing: in for four, out for four, hold out for two. It works like a charm, but only if you remember to do it, and keep doing it. My mind tends to skip off like a stone. I have a lot to think about.

One day a while ago, I get a text from the Satanist. "Want to go for a walk?" Sounds fun, so I bike over to his house in the late afternoon. I think we'll stroll around the block a couple of times and call it a night, but he's got these graphite walking sticks and headlamps and we are going for a Walk.

We cut through the neighborhood a long way, and onto the municipal hiking trail and across the river. We get into the trees and the sun goes down and it is quite dark. I don't remember what we talk about. My mind keeps wandering and I am probably not saying much, but I'm having a nice time. It comes out of the blue when the Satanist tells me he fantasizes about fucking me in front of my boyfriend. He says it so casually it takes me a second to think about it, and then I say, "Yuck."



I want this line of conversation to end, and I don't want to return to it. I don't want to be riding the brakes on sexual tension all evening, and especially not out here in the dark, in the woods. I'm not scared, but it sounds like hard work, and if I'm going to work I want to get paid.

Everything changes after this and it keeps getting darker, because that's what happens at night.

"Where are we?" he asks, after a while.


"You were leading."

"I was?"

"I'm following you."


So now we are lost, but I can still see the lights from downtown and we keep heading towards them. We cross a bridge to the right side of the river again, but once we're on the bank nothing looks right. We're by a busy road that I ought to know but I don't see any signs, and I could swear there was no road here. I must have been here in the daylight a thousand times, but it doesn't feel like it. To my right I see downtown, closer and brighter than before. So that's good. To my left I see a stretch of dark highway and lights and cars that could be anywhere, any city, any time. The Satanist points left. "This way," he says.

When I look left I don't know where I am. I feel dizzy, like the sky is pressing down on the top of my head and my knees are going soft. I point to the right, towards beautiful, glowing, comforting downtown. Once we get there there'll be other people and all the streets will have names. We'll know exactly where we are and his house is just a stone's throw away. We'll say goodbye on his front porch and I'll get on my bike and ride home and everything will be OK. "This way," I say.

He grabs my hand. I pull back. We look at each other the best we can. It is dark now, completely dark, and the only lights are cars on the road zooming past, too bright and then gone again. "You're being weird," he says. "You've been somewhere else all night."

I start to nod. This is true. I've been somewhere else for weeks, actually. But he's not done. He's raising his voice, and this is the first time I realize that we are actually fighting.

"You're in fucking space and I don't even want to be around you right now but I can't get away from you."

I feel a sweet relief. If what we both want is to get away from each other then it's easy. I point back to the right again. "I'll go that way."

"Fine," he says. "Give me my shit." He snatches the walking stick out of my hand, and the lamp. He's angry and rough and it's the first time I really feel scared of him. I feel like a big dog just snarled at me. I'm glad I'm going my way, not further into the dark with him. I turn around and don't look back.

That was weeks ago. We haven't talked again, and I don't know if we will. I don't think about it much. I have a lot on my mind. I still can't sleep.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

the lunch meeting

A few weeks ago I was offered a short-term consulting contract in an area not unrelated to my current pursuits. The woman who offered me the contract is a contact I know through the dayjob. The only job, now, I guess. The Job.

I respect her enormously. She is not much older than me, and she has a very difficult job. She is ambitious and straight-forward and concerned for the welfare of mankind, and I am flattered that she wants my two cents. On Monday we meet for lunch. I have a stack of papers, two notebooks and a clipboard.

She arrives 20 minutes late and frazzled. Hard week, she says. Crunch time. We exchange expressions of sympathy.

I circle things and underline things and ask questions.How about this? I say. And, Let's be specific. Can we say this?

I notice she isn't eating, hasn't touched a thing, and then abruptly, she pushes her plate away. "Let's go my house," she says.

I say yes, although this is not a particularly good idea. I haven't been sleeping well, and I am running on coffee and enthusiasm purely. On her sofa, my thoughts, so carefully arranged, begin to unravel. We are no longer talking about the particular job I am here to do, but about the nature of the work itself, and the nature of things in general.

"It's hard," she says. "It's hard to get taken seriously. Don't you think? When you're younger than everyone else and you're a girl, and people think you're attractive? It's awkward. It's weird. Doesn't it bother you?"

It probably used to. A lot of things used to bother me about the way I might look to other people. Being young and a girl was part of it. I didn't worry about being attractive that much, I guess, because I didn't think I was. I worried more about my scruffiness, my way of always looking like I just rolled out bed, after sleeping in my clothes. I worried somebody important would look down and see the heels of my shoes held together with duct tape and upholstery nails and know I was a fraud.

"You must know what I mean," she says.

I nod. Maybe it was stripping that cured me of that particular strain of self-consciousness. At the club, it mattered what I looked like, so I learned to put on make-up. I grew my hair long and learned to curl it in big, loose waves like a centerfold. I learned to know which looks from men meant they thought I was pretty, and which looks meant they thought I was pretty but not pretty enough, and which looks meant I was an ugly cow they wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. I learned that their opinions were worth exactly what I could extract out of their wallet, and no more.

When I do the work I do now, I have no age and no gender. I want to look whichever way will get me in the door fastest, which generally means neat, demure, and slightly frumpy -- a look I call Sunday School Teacher Applies for a Bank Loan. As long as I get where I want to go, people are free to think I'm pretty, or not, or smart, or not, and if they under-estimate me, well, that's not necessarily to my disadvantage. Age and sex are just masks, anyway. Not masks we get to choose, but still, masks.

"I pretend I'm a forty-year-old dude and I'm just tricking them into thinking I'm a 28-year-old woman," I tell her. "Then I feel sneaky and smart."

She laughs, which is good. I want her to laugh. It's nice that she likes me.

"You want to get high?" she asks.


It's a bad idea, and I know it. I'm so tired, my thoughts are held together with string. Seven seconds and the THC hits my brain, things start to unravel. I tap on my clipboard with the butt of my pen and we try again. It's useless. The problems we are supposed to solve start spiraling outward. The solutions retreat. Before I know it she is telling me the plot to The Golden Compass and we are talking about organizations of people as living bodies, with individuals as their genetic material. Then I am explaining the multiple-mutation theory of inherited cancer susceptibility -- a gene has to mutate a number of times before it becomes cancerous, but you can inherit an already mutated gene that is like a tiny ticking bomb, so that only a single mutation is required, just one, and then: oncosis.

"Oh my god," she says. "My boyfriend is a cancerous gene. He's mutated too many times, I think. He's broken."

I know her boyfriend. He is a charming drunk who goes home with the hottest girl from every party. I respect him tremendously as a professional in this field that we are all in. As a person, less.

I excuse myself and go to the bathroom and when I come back she is crying. She takes her glasses off and wipe at the tears with her fingers. "I'm leaving him," she says. "He'll never be OK. I thought I could fix him, but I can't."

I nod. I have had my own share of unfixable men. I am myself a pre-cancerous gene, probably. Too many more divisions and my structure might begin too change. But all cells are pre-cancerous, I guess. Given enough time, enough adverse events.

"I'm proud in a way, I guess," she says. "I held everything together with hope for years, but I don't have any hope any more. I really thought I could help."

She bows her head. Later I will wonder why I didn't just hug her. It's not like I'm averse to hugging. Hugs are cool. But for tears I hold still, like I would hold still for a hummingbird. It doesn't seem to me that grief always needs to be comforted. So often the pro forma gestures of comfort seem like the would-be comforter's own discomfort. Here, pat-pat, everything's fine, stop crying, please stop. And then the crying person is suposed to say, yes, OK, thank you, I feel better now. And stop.

Other people's crying doesn't bother me. The tears we weep from grief and joy are chemically distinct from the tears we cry when we get dust in our eyes -- they have stress hormones in them, and endorphins, and birthing hormones and orgasm hormones and falling-in-love hormones. Which is to say what everybody already knows, that crying is how we squeeze the pain out, deliver ourselves, and gain release.

I hate to see people get hurt, but I think I might like seeing people cry. Crying has always been hard for me. When I was sixteen or seventeen I learned to induce tears by inflicting pain on myself. It was an accidental discovery, a blind instinct. In certain states of unbearable feeling I found out I could cut my thigh with the tips of a pair of nail scissors. The pain alone didn't bring the tears on; it was the sight of the blood that never failed to shock me, and then I would cry. I would be wracked with crying, and afterwards I would feel dreamy and sweet and usually fall asleep. You can still see the scars. When I started dancing I was afraid people would ask me about them, but no one ever did.

Sometimes the best comforter is to see the pain and know it's there, that bright streak of blood that says, yes, you are hurt. Some hopes have to die. Sometimes the structure of our hope becomes malignant, and it had better die than keep dividing.

I try to hold the space. I sit quietly and give her all of my attention. She cries and cries, and then she takes a long breath as the endorphins kick in and do their work, and I see her shoulders settle down, I see her chest rise and her belly soften and then she smiles.

I don't leave right away, but I put my stack of papers and my two notebooks and my clipboard back in my bag. We go onto the patio. She shows me her plants, names them for me. We take her dog outside and throw a ball. But I don't stay too long, because people who have cried need their rest.

I worry she'll feel self-conscious about it later, so I'm happy when I get an e-mail that says, "Sorry we didn't get more done. Next time. I had a good time, though."

I had a good time, too.