The Memory of Sound and Smell
Certain human faculties are linked to memory, especially sound and smell. For the longest time, if I smelled Chanel Cristalle cologne I'd see I see the pink cowl neck sweater I wore in my senior photo. If I heard "Heart of Glass" and I was back at prom night, all my teenage memories taunting me.
Eight years ago I had a cad for a boyfriend. We never had a song that was ours, and he never bought me a bottle of cologne. For my birthday he gave me a screenplay he'd just finished, some action thriller about badasses trying to blow up the Hoover Dam. Te dedication page was something he inserted in my copy alone.
He wore Banana Republic "M" cologne. For a while after it ended, I couldn't shop at Banana Republic. But despite my avoidance of BR stores, I'd find myself sandwiched on a subway platform next to a young turk on his way to Wall Street wearing "M." And I was back in that cad's dark apartment, watching the his arched eyebrows as I tearfully explained how, when he "didn't introduce me to his parents," it made me feel "unimportant." Thank God Starbucks was never "our" place.
But then I found a real love from a real, good guy. He wore regular-guy clothes; he stuck to navy because it was simple. He loved the underdog and everyday life and real things. Like me. He was true blue. My true blue guy. He bought me my favorite cologne: Chanel Cristalle, with which I promptly made new memories. That is, I "resymbolized" it. I replaced the memory of the cowl neck with strolls through Central Park and his nose on my collarbone smelling the mix of Cristalle and just-snuffed candles. For three years we made memories all over New York: museums and bookstores, trips to his family's house, holidays with cousins. For three Christmases we stood in a snowy churchyard silently watching the place where his father's ashes lay. Our lives wove together with those sounds and smells that three years add up to.
I even went back to Banana Republic. And if I caught a whiff of M, the cad was only the fifth thing I thought about, followed by gratitude that the cad was a lifetime of smells behind me.
There are so many scents that make me think that True Blue guy. The smell of Dunkin Donuts coffee. He and I would meet in the pink and orange neon store near his house: after a day apart, or to negotiate an argument, or to just to sit and love the real things of real people's lives; lives like ours. There is the scent of eggs in his kitchen. Or the odor of electricity and grease on his subway platform where we'd meet to ride the train together, when I'd see his face light up from across a subway car. And there was his personal smell. When he did wear cologne it was Aqua Di Gio, and it would mingle on our skin with the scent of soap and sweat and the Tide in his flannel sheets.
There were sounds that belonged just to him. Music he introduced me to, like Radiohead. But the most unique sound that was his was the ring tone on my cell phone reserved only for him. Work-related calls got the Chicken, friends got the Polka; Mom got the Octave. He got the love song. "Fur Elise." Whenever he called, "Fur Elise" rang out in haunting, reverberating bells.
This spring I went out to Los Angeles to try to find work, and we stayed connected through dozens of late-night cell phone calls. "Fur Elise" made my heart flutter every time I heard it. There were the CD mixes we sent to each other, and his packages I am sure hinted of Aqua Di Gio and Dunkin Donuts coffee.
The calls got detached. The CD's he sent were filled with unfamiliar music. Then there was the call when he couldn't come to LA after all and I could not to back. So we cried and spoke kindness and love anyway. And in one call three years of shared memories became simply that. Memories.
A week later I received a copy of Radiohead's newest album. He had sent it before that last trill of "Fur Elise". Not long after that he met someone. "Fur Elise" rang a few more times, accompanied with arguments and tension and attempts at conciliatory remarks. It turned into to a taunting dirge. Suddenly everyone had bought the same model phone, and they all had their ringers set on Fur Elise: some tool at Blockbuster talking to his pals trying to decide between Pluto Nash or Get Shorty. A housewife in the protein bar aisle at Trader Joes arguing with her husband. And all the calls rang in on Fur Elise with its haunting, aching bells, and every time I heard it, it was a jolt of rejection and emptiness. I could not get away from it.
So I did something drastic. Immersion therapy. I set all the ringers on my phone to "Fur Elise". Each time anyone called me I was forced to hear it. It pierced me each time. But each time a little less. Five months later, I just pick up the phone. But only the fourth or fifth call do I get that jolt of pain, and remember that was the love song that used to be his alone.
This summer I ran into the old cad with his girlfriend. We were pleasant to each other, and it struck me odd that I had ever infused him with such power and evil, when after all, he was just a guy. Even if he had been a cad to me, a lifetime of smells ago.
I went back to New York three times since I broke up with that true blue guy. I've sat at a Dunkin Donuts almost every day. A safe one near Times Square that I frequented, long before I met him. And I'd drink a cup. Sometimes it was just coffee, but then would be our coffee and I'd see him across the pink table, smiling, laughing, frowning. The first time I smelled his cologne was at the Times Square subway station. I cried. Then someone on the sidewalk at 76th and Columbus was wearing it. Then an old man at Fairway. So I immersed myself in that too. A guy friend has the cologne, and for a week I sprayed it onto my collarbone to try to resymbolize it too, make it into something else. But that one would not change. it was still the smell of the true blue guy.
Good friends have held my hand as we've walked city streets, streets that were mine even before I met that man. But how many times have I had to turn away? Turn away as I pass the restaurant we had our first date. Look down as I pass a Greek statue at the Met, because that perfect marble body looks just like his did in the half-light of his room.
It will take a lifetime walking these streets to them into something other than What This Place Was To Us. Maybe I'll start again in spring. But I cannot be here now. Christmas is coming. And I don't want to be back in that snowy churchyard, my hand squeezing his as we look down at the place in the dirt.
And as for "Hail To The Thief." I had to throw that CD away. Some things will forever be associated to a particular moment. That CD will forever be linked to that week I listened to it, when that one true love passed into memory.
Nov 23, 2003
The Memory of Sound and Smell
Sep 21, 2003
As the Ruin Falls
All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary adn self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love--a scholar's parrot may talk Greek--
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now you have taught me(but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.
Sep 15, 2003
A Divine Romance
I heard a pastor say that our relationship with God is like romance. A love story. After all God pursues us; He makes a commitment to love and protect us for forever. And He promises us a live filled with purpose and meaning. In short, this relationship with God is like a marriage.
Well in that case, God and I need to go to couples counseling. Because we are not getting along. He's been acting remote and giving me the silent treatment. He treats me like I'm invisible, when He's the one who's invisible. And He always has to be right. If ever there is a problem. I am the one who has to change.
If this were a real marriage it would be on the rocks. Only I can't divorce him. It's like being in the Mafia. Once you're in you can't get out. Once you've experienced God, you can't go back to not believing He's there. Like the same way AA ruined drinking for me.
I'm in three 12-step programs so I've heard all the stuff about "fire your God and hire another." Or, "make a list of what you want in a God, and look for a God like that." Look, if finding God was like a dating service, there would only be one profile on line. His.
I still believe in God. I just don't know if He really cares about me. And that's worse than not believing in God at all, is to believe He is there, and He doesn't care. That's a faith I cannot live without.
I should clarify. I was raised Lutheran. I did the rock and roll for Jesus thing (got sick of the "Just trust the Lord" slackers), flirted with Episcopal mysticism; then said fuck-it, became a drunk, got sober and got into AA, where God can be the doorknob. I was lurking about a hair-gel church, but when the pastor referred to Jesus as an "awesome dude," I had to flee. I guess I've given up. I'm just a Jesus orphan with a load of Al Anon issues.
Maybe this is a romance. Because this is about love. What drew me to God in the first place was love: the promise of love.
"Jesus loves me this I know," I sang in Sunday School. I read about Jesus in the Bible. How He defended the poor and the outcast. He loved the unlovable. And Jesus was human, He had arms to hold me when I was sad, and robes to hide in when I was scared.
I remember seeing paintings of him on the wall in Sunday school. There's one where He's knocking on a door. Well it was kind of a farmhouse door; it looked like a yellowed Thomas Kinkaid painting. But it was to represent him knocking on the door of my heart. I saw the love and concern in his face as He knocked. And that got to me. Because I wanted to be loved.
My first spiritual experience was at communion. My mom took us to church every week. When communion came my mom would go up as they sang beautiful, woeful songs.
Mom would kneel, she'd receive that little plasticky wafer and a shot of grape juice. Sometimes the pastor would lay his hand on her head and pray for her, sometimes not. But every time she would walk back with tears in her eyes.
What's wrong Mom?
But you're crying. Are you sad?
No. I’m not sad.
I knew she was sad. She was always sad. But at communion she was sad and joyful too. Like there was a place for her sadness to be heard, and a place for it to end. A place where she felt longing and the longing met. Mom wasn't getting love or communion from my father. None of us were.
I wonder now: was her need for God was just a psychological reaction to not getting love from my father? Or can that loneliness never be filled from the best human love? Is the longing for human love just the beginning, and God is always the end?
All I knew was I wanted to cry tears I couldn't cry anywhere else. I wanted to feel loved and close to something. To someone. And it was wrapped up in that mystery.
In high school, I "cheated" on Jesus. Not with other religions like Buddhism or Eckankar. But with things like sarcasm and irony, and John Lennon. Hey, as long as we're dealing with invisible boyfriends, why not pick a cultural icon? John was sexy and smart and funny. No one at church was sexy, smart or funny. No one in the Bible was. I have never found a reference to a joke, or the disciples are yukking it up. Not even a fart joke. Though there is a passage about King David climbing the Hill of Foreskins. But I think that was unintentionally funny. No, at church I only found polyseter nerds in front of the jello molds. Anything smart, sexy or funny, was way, way far away from the Lutherans. Then I met my high school sweetheart. He was sexy, smart, funny. He loved John Lennon. He was a Jew.
So what drew me back to Jesus? Again, love. Or the loss of it. The Jew broke my heart. John Lennon got shot. And I got lost. I remembered that portrait. Jesus knocking on the door, with that concern and love in his face. So I opened the door. And, I did feel Him come in. And I did feel peace and hope and a presence.
But that was 20 years ago. It's gotten so far away from that simplicity. I can chart the history of that slide through the various ad campaigns the church has used to make God marketable.
"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." God as my Franklin Covey day planner
"The Healing Father heart of God." God as your therapist. Great when you're working on your father abuse issues.
Then there was, "Developing a Personal History with Jesus," "The purpose driven life," "The Prayer of Jabez," Amy Grant and Creed, and the What Would Jesus Do jewelry.
Today, I'm no more healed, organized or accessorized than I was when I was 12. I still love Jesus, but I can't stand his friends.
How do you get back to the basic thing? Love? What's drawing me back to God now is grief.
This past year, my father died, my mother had a stroke, f freind got a TV series, two more got writing gigs. And Grief is like a dust bunny lurking under your couch. You go get the Swifter to fish it out, but run that swifter under and out comes these huge tumbleweeds filled with dust and hair and dead skin and soot. And loose change and pen caps, and all sorts of things you had long forgotten, like a stray earring or a notebook of secrets. This was my year for Loss. This was my year of the Swifter.
Well, I did come back. What drew me back to God again was love. The loss of everything I loved. This past year, my father died, my mother had a massive stroke, one friend got a TV series and I went bankrupt. My five best friends got married the same month I wen through a painful breakup. Wait, hold on...
SELF TO SELF: Get over it! “Poor me, I don’t have a boyfriend ... Poor me, I’m not a movie star.” Know what your ancestors’ asked themselves every day? “Do we have enough potatoes to survive winter, and “Who died?"
I know. I want to be grateful. I have a roof over my head, a data entry job and I live close to a Trader Joe's. I don't want to be shallow. I just don't want my sister to be the one to remind me. This is the kind of thing she would say:
SISTER: "It could be worse. You could be living in Somalia."
SELF: I know ... but I'm not!
SISTER: What do you think the Lord is trying to tell you?
SELF That He doesn't like me.
See, my ex-boyfriend used to get angry when I said that. he'd say, come on, Susan. God isn’t personal. God isn’t good or bad. God just is. God is like science. But I'd think, no. Even with science ... Look at the stars. You see such beauty and order, and you sense the Thought that went into their making. But if that thoughtfulness is not extended to me, then all that order and beauty is cold and sterile space that mocks me, because I’ve been excluded from it.
And my ex would say, "you really think God doens't have enough to do all day that he sits around looking for ways to make your life miserable?" I hate it when he'd say that. Because it was true. But that's another argument. I'm still arguing with my sister here.
SISTER: Susie. You're in the desert. When the Lord led people out in the desert, do you know what He did?
SELF: Killed ‘em.
SISTER: NO. God brought his people into the desert so that they could experience intimacy with him.
SELF: Know what else I hate? She's right too. I hate all these know it alls around me. Especially when they know more than I do. Because, when I think of the people whose characters I admire, they've all walked through deserts or hells far worse than mine. And when they get to the other side - the ones who DO get to the other side -- they always say God got them through it. They have a peace and a friendship with God that I want. But the problem is, the man who's stuck in the desert because God put him there, looks exactly like the man who's stuck in the desert because he's lost. And I don't know which one I am. I don't know if I'm here to find friendship with God, or I've been left to die.
My sister would say, "When you're walking through Hell, keep walking. But I can't keep walking, not for nothing. I gotta know: those promises for a future and a hope: do they end here? Do my longings for love, purpose, artistic fulfillment, rent money even ... Are they going to met? Or is God's answer, "Oh well. ... Sucks to be you."
But what’s the alternative? If I stay in the desert, my soul’s gonna fry. I have no choice BUT to keep walking. If I can know that's where I am, that it's for a reason, that God's reasons are good. And, that this darkness has an end. Then maybe I can be here.
I guess I'm in my dark Night of the Soul. I'm just waiting for the sun to come up.
Aug 23, 2003
Ecoterrorism and Trader Joes
So I guess there is this ecoterrorist group out there wreaking havoc on big businesses that threaten the environment. This morning they torched a Humvee dealership out in Ontario. I thought it was just a bunch of vigilante Jetta drivers.
I really am glad they torched that Humvee dealership. Because I am sick of simulating a heart attack every time I look in the rearview and see some suburban tank barreling up behind me, or around me, or speeding past me at 60 MPH in the parking lane, just to get one car length ahead of me at the next light.
There is no reason for the Humvee to exist in society, unless you live in Baghdad. In fact, we need to reconsider the necessity of BMW and Mercedes SUV's because the people who buy them don't drive responsibly. We should also reconsider the new Cadillac SUV, because it threatens to destroy all that is still good and pure in the world of industrial design. It looks like a cross between a Disneyland tram and a combat robot.
They recently published statistics that people in SUV's drive badly. Now we know. They surmised it was because the vehicle gives the illusion of protecting one from danger and injury. Sure, if it's your BMW tank v. a Mini Cooper. But I don't think it's the fact they feel protected. I think it's a breed of people who would pick such a vehicle to drive.
You know them. They're not angry young men. Those guys drive Dodge Rams. The luxury SUV driver is an entertainment exec, or married to an entertainment exec, or they sold a house to an entertainment exec. They send their Ritalin kids to Crossroads and Harvard Westlake and they shop and Trader Joes. More on that later.
It used to be that the only people who drove Humvees were Hollywood stars. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the first one I know to have one. God what is in store for the upcoming campaign. But then B List stars started driving Humvees. I used to see this actor at the Santa Monica stairs in a Hummer. He was a regular on some afternoon sci-fi Greek myth series, like Hercules or Stargate or Deep Six. I think his name was Hans. He drove up to the stairs, got out and walked around with his Weimeraner. I don't think he ever did the stairs. He just drove up in his Humvee. Which I could never understand. I also never figure out why he was so tan, driving around in what looked like a windowless Brinks truck.
Now about Trader Joes. I love everything about TJ's, except the people who shop there. Which I guess means me. But I'd like to think I shop at TJ's for the right reasons. For one, I have been shopping at TJ's since it was only one or two stores in Pasadena. Secondly I'm not there as a groupie. I'm just there to get the healthy food. The protein bars and the wheat free muffins, Okay and the shelled edamame. And good coffee. But I don’t buy the expensive stuff. And I grind it there.
Meanwhile everyone else there is there because they're rich and bored. And they just don’t have good manners. They stand at the demo booth eating the samples so they don't have to buy lunch. They're almost always in bad mood or in a hurry. Maybe it's because I'm standing between them and a case of Charles Shaw cabernet. Rich people with good taste and tight pocketbooks are probably the worst people to be around, especially if they've got a metal shopping cart.
The only group worse is the organic coop shoppers. Not only are they cranky, they smell like wheat grass and BO. You'd think all that yoga would mellow them out. But no. Co-op shoppers are some of the most miserable around. I think it's because they've done all those things they were supposed to do to reach enlightenment, like Kabala and soy isoflavanoids. And they're still miserable. What a wake up call to find you've been to the mountain and nothing is there. You just smell like wheat grass and BO. So the only thing left to do is torch a Humvee dealership in Ontario.
Reminds me of this PETA activist I saw on the streets of New York. It was winter, she had her folding table and protest materials set up outside Bergdorf Goodman. Every time someone went by wearing fur, she would scream, "BIMBO IN A FUR! BIMBO IN A FUR!" The thing was, she was wearing plastic sandals, probably manufactured in Mexico where the factory runoff spoiled the water supply and the brown peasant who assembled them got one peso a week.
So you can't win. And if you're protesting too hard at something, it's probably because you've placed the problems of the world squarely on someone else's shoulders. Like the OTHER people who shop at Trader Joes.
But to get the focus off of myself and onto my original point: while I applaud the torching of a Humvee dealership in Ontario, I fear that this act of violence will not decrease the sale of Humvees, rather it will lift them to martyr status and drive up sales at other dealerships. Like the dealer near my house. Soon we may have more high-end SUV drivers than idiots who drive while talking on their cell phones and reaching into their bag of Trader Joes reduced fat cheetos.
And you thought it was drunk drivers who caused the problems.
Labels: Social Comment
Aug 14, 2003
My mother sold her house. It was time. She can't live by herself any more. Being around my sister, her husband and four kids will give Mom some purpose. She's been a widow for nearly three years, the loneliness of the house got to her.
Escrow closes this coming Monday. We packed up her things: that is, everything she wanted to keep. The Franciscan dinnerware, the silver. The photographs. She left the couch, the china cabinet, and the oversized TV my father bought and she hated. My brother-in-law got all of her things into a U-Haul and drove it away. Mom left the next day. I wasn't when she rode off in my sister's mini van, but my brother said it was weird, watching her drive away from her home for the last time.
And after this weekend, we will all drive away for the last time. The estate sale guys are there now, arranging the stuff we left behind, bringing in leftovers from other estate sales and arranging it all into them into different "boutique areas," as they call it. Anything to make a moving sale look good. They don't want us there for the sale. I don't want to be there. I don't want to watch strangers pick over our things, things that aren't ours that the estate sale farms in.
And I don't want to hear their comments.
"What kind of estate sale is this? Where's the good stuff?"
"This place is a dump."
"Look at the size of that TV. She must have been lonely."
It's creepy hearing it called an estate sale. No one died. Well something did. My childhood died. It's the only house I've ever known.
In 1967 my family moved to Costa Mesa, a bedroom community wedged between the 405, Newport and Huntington Beaches. There's also Santa Ana to the northeast, but Orange Countians try not to think about the Mexicans in Santa Ana. Back then, Orange County was only orange groves and lima bean fields. Dad was an optometrist, and he got a practice in South Coast Plaza. South Coast Plaza was just a May Company, Sears, a Woolworth. Today the mall has its own zip code and is Mecca for the compulsive shopper. It ate up the area two miles in every direction. There are no more lima beans or oranges. Just gridlines of houses filled with people living out lives of quiet desperation.
Our house was nothing spectacular. A middle class tract home, on 3110 Country Club Drive. It sounds like an exclusive address, but our house was on the side of the street that didn't back into the golf course. People knew that.
I remember the night we arrived. The moving van was delayed by a day, so the place was empty. We had no beds to sleep on. Dad brought Nancy and me to our room and I had to sleep on the worn-out cream-colored shag carpet that felt like a cheap stuffed animal When I go down next weekend for the final walk through, the house will look just like it did the night we arrived. Empty.
We weren't supposed to stay in that house. It was supposed to be a starter home. Dad promised my mom in a year we would get a nicer place, on the golf course. Dad had invested a lot of his money in the stock market. We were moving up in the world. The summer of 1968 we put the for-sale sign out. My neighborhood friends wondered where we were going. Across the street to a golf course house, we said.
I was only four, so I was in school only half a day. I went with my mom to various open houses. Houses on the golf course. Houses with fenced in front yards and back yards that looked out over a fairway. Houses with sunken bathtubs and round couches and foil wallpaper; refrigerators built into the cupboards and intercoms and the kinds of things you saw in Disneyland's Carousel of Progress. I knew the houses were rich because they were cold. So were the people who lived in them.
One evening, Dad came home. Mom was chopping vegetables on the cutting board. She wouldn't turn around to look at him. The for-sale sign came down. We never did move out and we never moved beyond the middle class. Many years later I found out what happened. Dad lost a quarter million dollars in the stock market. Dad felt God punished him because he had watched a "stag film." There were a lot worse things he did, but Dad never realized they were worse than watching a stag film. He never understood that his own children weren't satellites of his own ego cluster to manipulate, control and criticize into submission.
It was a stable home, geographically at least. Same house for 37 years. Parents married for 53 years My dad died 3 days short of his 79th birthday and Mom is still alive at 80. Mom went to the same church up to the day she drove away. Contrast that to an ex-boyfriend who moved 12 times before he was 11, whose father died suddenly at 14, who had to raise himself on alcohol, adrenaline and anger and was kicked out at age 18. So I guess I'm lucky. Geographically.
One of my brothers never fully moved out until last week. He has his own apartment, but the "boy's room" was his personal garage. He stored old camping gear, bike jerseys, a pair of clogs, remnants of various hobbies he's dabbled in. Pipe smoking, wine tasting, a pennywhistle collection, a plethora of Christian self-help books. And boxes. Boxes filled with yellowing copies of the Pennysaver, bank stubs, flyers for earthenware mugs, all of it pre-Regan era. When he finally got all his stuff out, he said he felt like he'd had a colonic.
I was at the house last week while we were packing. It was hard to visualize the place as it had been. But I tried to conjure up a memory from each room.
The Living Room
That's where we celebrated Christmas. Mom recalled the 37 years of opening presents and holiday gatherings. It's also my father crapped out every night. He'd come, eat Mom's food and push his plate away for her to clear. Then he'd sack out on the couch all night and curse Wall Street Week in Review or the Pittsburgh Steelers. He'd lie there half awake as the TV blared. I'd go to turn it down or off, but he woke up and turned it back on. I spent my entire teen years hating TV. I missed major cultural events like MASH, Dukes of Hazard, Laverne and Shirley and Dallas. I guess that's not a bad thing.
The living room is also where I got grounded for three weeks. Which lasted three days. It was the summer between my junior and senior year, and I had met a great group of friends in drama. I didn't drink or smoke, and I was 3/4 of my way toward becoming Valedictorian and a virgin. My parents knew I had been out every night hanging with friends. But why was this night more important than all other nights? Dad decided to wake up out of his TV induced coma and exercise his 11th hour rage discipline. So they waited up for me.
"You'll come to no good," dad predicted. "I knew we never should have let you skip half-day kindergarten. You're irresponsible and immature."
"I was four years old."
"And look what happened."
"I've got a 4.0. GPA."
"And a C in PE."
"PE doesn't count. And since when did you give a shit?!"
My mother cried and tried to find a solution."Why don't you bring your friends over here?"
"Because I don't want them to see Dad asleep on the couch!"
The back room
It had been a patio but was enclosed before we moved in. I listened to Sgt. Pepper for the first time on the record player back there. We also had a TV in the back room. One night Nancy ran from the living room to the back room to tell us what channel The Flintstones was on. She ran through the plate glass window and gashed open her right leg. A fire truck and an ambulance came. A policeman tried to put me in my room but I came back out, screaming and crying. Nancy severed the main motor nerve in her leg and had to be put in a cast for a few months. We put decals on the glass doors. A couple of years ago they were no longer moveable so Mom had the glass doors removed.
Not long after we moved in Mom replaced the space age wallpaper with a cheery orange and white wallpaper with nasturtium print. She painted the cupboards cream with orange trim. I remember especially because I have a photo of it. It was Mom and Dad's 24th wedding anniversary. Dad didn't take mom out on dates. But he did for her anniversary, and I baked my first cake. Yellow cake with mocha frosting. It was great. I still have the photo of it.
The kitchen came to be what most kitchens are, the hub of activity. It's been the site of extended family meals, domino games, a place to do the bills my mother neglected after her stroke. The best view in the house was from the kitchen window. You could look out at the front garden my mother managed so well, the western sun setting over eucalyptus trees and the more expensvie houses on the golf course. It also became a place of sadness, as mother removed one leaf in the table and then another, until the table became a small circle where she ate microwave dinners and cans of soup. She didin't like cooking for herself, and after her stroke she had a hard time remembering how.
When I was a kid I had stuffed animals. But by my fourth Christmas I asked for "a cat that moved by itself." That was Bootsy. She later gave birth to kittens in the linen closet. It left a faint smell. Not putrid, but a sweet stale smell of blood and dust and life. When we were unpacking the linen closet last week I swear I smelled it again. Blood and dust and life. I think the whole house is filled with blood and dust and life.
The back yard
When I was six we replaced the living room vinyl pull out couch with a sofa and love seat, which my mother recovered. The vinyl couch went out to the back yard. We got on the roof of the back room and jumped onto the unfolded couch. It's amazing we survived.
There was a rubber tree outside the back door. I loved climbing up climbing the tree, as much as I loved climbing on the roof and jumping off. Its roots eventually pushed up the cement and it became difficult to close and open the door. One day I was trying to shut the door and cursed, "dammit." I think I was five
My mom came rushing out and spanked me silly.
I cried, terrified and upset. "Why did you do that?"
"Because you said 'dammit'."
"Dad says it when he watches football."
My mom dropped my arm, went into the house and cried.
My favorite pets are buried in our back yard. When I was in third grade my mom got me a kitten for my birthday. Bootsy and her prodigy had long been given away or killed crossing the street. But this kitten, Tig, lived until a week before I went to college. He was my best friend. Tig turned out to be kind of a legend. He was huge, 16 pounds. Noble and shy, like a tragic hero. Everyone loved Tig. He wasn't like other cats. He came when you called him. He loved people. He guarded the house and neighborhood with great pride. And he was sensitive too. There were so many days I came home from Lutheran private school, bullied by the resident psycho. Fourth fifth and sixth grade I endured the terror. My mother was too frightened to stand up for me, but my cat did. I would climb up on my bunk bed to find solace. Tig would jump up onto the windowsill and then leap up to my bunk, burrow his face into my side and purr. I don't know, I think God must have known what was coming, and brought that cat into my life to help me through.
The summer before college, I was out spending most days with my boyfriend. I didn't notice Tig losing weight, but my sister was gone all summer and noticed when she got back. Turned out he was riddled with cancer. He died the week before college started. Maybe I had abandoned him for my boyfriend and Tig died of a broken heart. Tig was 12 years old.
The family dog is also buried in the back yard. Last week my oldest brother Rob dug to find the bones. He wanted to take him somewhere to be cremated. He didn't have much of a childhood he wanted to remember. He didn't talk to my parents for six years. In my father's dying days he would ask us in a morphine fog if Rob was coming. We just said, no he's not here yet. On the day of my father's funeral, Rob finally called my mom. She cried, but not for her husband. Rob never found the dog's bones.
A lot of stuff happened in there: Barbie campouts, Parcheesi, and stuffed animal conventions. I remember going to sleep, looking at the Christmas lights outside. Each light cast a color into the area partitioned between each eave. It was like a row of colored light boxes and it made the season magical.
I also remember saying my prayers before I went to sleep as a child. Or the night I lost my virginity as a teenager and then finding out the guy was cheating on me. I remember praying to Jesus to hold onto me because I didn't want to live anymore. I remember how dark that bedroom felt back then.
The summer my father died.
I had just begun to date this guy. The relationship moved fast and I was worried he's lose interest just as quickly. But he drove all the way down from LA to meet my Mom and Dad. He brought flowers. I made him a peach pie for his birthday. My father was bedridden, so I ushered the guy into my father's room. Dad said hello and asked where the guy was from. He said the east coast. Dad chimed in, he was born in Pittsburgh but his mother took the family out west for the community colleges. Dad said that California weather was the best in the country. We stood there a while in silence. Dad couldn't talk much. The guy and I went to the kitchen to make Norwegian cookies with my mother. Later we went down to the Balboa Arcade and took some of those black and white photo strips. Later he showed the photos to his sister who beamed, "you guys are gonna get married, I can tell."
Dad died a few months later. The guy and I used to look back at those moments as signs we were made for each other. We were both Norwegian. He was the last boyfriend to meet my father. The weekend of Dad's funeral, one of the guy's east coast friends happened to be house sitting six houses away. All those signs. And they started with that day he came down to visit my dying father.
I can still see the guy standing in the summer light, listening patiently to my father's slurred speech. Three years later the guy changed his mind. I wasn't "The One," after all. I was just "the first one." His first adult relationship. Like I'm a set of training wheels. All those signs feel like lies now. Or a truth he stopped believing in.
The Entry Hall
Mom repapered the entry hall not long after we moved in. Got rid of that foil water spot look that was a too Beverly Hillbillies. When she papered again back in 1995, they peeled off the1968 paper. There on the paperless walls lay all sorts of childish drawings and scrawls. My name in wobbly cursive. SUSIE with the E backwards. A stick figure cat named BOOTSY. It was like I was like uncovering a lost memory, unearthing your own hieroglyphics. I was standing outside time, looking at my whole life in the present.
I'm going down to the house on Sunday. The estate sale will be over. My brother, brother-in-law and I will do the final walk through. The house will be totally empty then. I wonder if some shadow of my self will rush through like a ghost and pull me back into some event I have forgotten.
A house is just a house. The real life is in the people who lived there. But I will no longer be able to see and touch and smell the life that was lived in it. I will have to rely on memory and photographs, of the blood and dust and life lived there.
So long, 3110. Take good care of the bones that remain.
Apr 21, 2003
I get writer's block a lot. Not that it was ever easy, but I am so easily distracted. Like I'll be sitting at my desk, my document open, and then it hits me. I have to check my email. Or, call someone. Make a list of things to do. Just when the muse hits me, I get an urge to smoke a cigarette. Oh yeah, I don't smoke. Not any more. Maybe that's why I can't write.
Your own home can be a death of creativity. I had a writing teacher say, write at the same place, same time, every day. Another said, if you're having problems writing at home, go somewhere else, somewhere that's quiet enough to write and think but has a little white noise activity to lull you into your creative muse.
And I came upon this great idea for a place for a writer to write. Shhh, don't tell anyone. Starbucks. It's perfect, because they have nice blonde tables, an easy flow of traffic and mildly hip music to lull you into a white noise concentration. And they have coffee. Coffee, the great incanter of the Muse.
Last week I had a couple of hours to kill between appointments, so instead of going home, I went to the Starbucks to write. Actually it was the one in Barnes & Noble. I figured I'd double my chances at finding a good spot. Head up to the non fiction stacks, find a Craftsman-knock off table, sit down with a nice nonfat latte, let the caffeine buzz kick in, and let the muse do the work.
Okay, wrong. First of all, Starbucks heats their milk to a tepid, just above botulism growing warm. When I get there, all the tables are full. So I hit BN. Every table desk and chair is taken there too. Two big black mama's with bags from Jamba Juice reading Ebony. A college couple holding hands and smooching over their biology textbooks. A man and woman doing a table read of And Miss Reardon Drinks a little. Apparently when Miss Reardon gets drunk, she also gets very loud. And there is one guy just sitting there. He's got a book on the desk, "the Big Cats of North America." But it's not even open. And he hasn't fallen asleep over it. He's sitting straight up, eyes adrift in some trance. None of these people have bought anything, they're just sitting there taking up space. I want to scream, what is wrong with you guys? Don't you have jobs?
Oh yeah, I don't either. So I head back to Starbucks, cold latte in my sweaty hands.
Now I really get a look at the torsos taking up space. A couple of Section 8 looking guys. An old man reading the New York Times, apparently from Front Page to Personals. Two guys playing chess. Go to the Park, already. Another guy with gelled hair and a vaguely actory face is giving his guest a booklet on the four spiritual laws.
The best table in the room is in the corner, against the window but out of the way of the afternoon sun. And it's taken up by some young white guy of a nebbish-frat mix, with a PowerBook G4 and a script open on the table. A screenwriter.
So I am forced to take a seat on the black pleather banquette cushions within earshot of Mr. Screenwriter. I settle, adjust the angle of tabletop and pull out my pen.
Mr. Screenwriter is on his cell phone. Has been on it since I got here. He is talking in a nervous staccato rhythm, dropping kind of words you hear in film school. Like, Production Costs and development deals. I overhear him say, "Well if you get in, I'd like to come in on the pitch as your producer." Well, he certainly isn't going to come in as the writer.
A table opens up in the full glare of the sun. But there is a narrow sliver of shade cast from a support column. I pull the table toward me on the banquette. But the chair is in the wrong place. I have to move further to the left. Move my latté. Business cards fall out of my bag so I put those back in. I move my bag down the banquette. Crumbs from a croissant on the banquette and my bag picks them up like a lint roller. Who eats here, Shreck?
I look up. In the three seconds that I was preoccupied with croissant droppings, a table has opened up! A table in the shade, away from Mr. Talking Screenwriter. And an old lady in a velvet baseball cap snags it. She sits down. She has a library book! Hey wont' someone police this place. She can't even buy something here. What's next? A thermos? Lo and behold. She brings out her thermos.
So, I am forced to accept my round table in the shade strip. I open my notebook. And Mr. Talking Screenwriter is on the phone again, talking to someone else. I hear the words "Barry Diller." He has an urgency in his voice now. The desperation of a writer trying to make a deal without a SCRIPT! What? He is getting off his phone. Praise Jesus.
I must have said this out-loud because the Four Spiritual Laws guys look up at me. I go back to my work. But now the sun has moved, and so has my column of shade. My notebook sits in blinding sunlight now. I move further down the pleather, then move the table, then readjust my things. In moving, I have given room for two men to sit near me. They are loud and gesticulative.
"What do you think you bring to the craft?"
"Well, as an actor, my craft is my emotion, and I practice accessing my emotions every day, like a pianist practices his scales."
"Mmm. Very well spoken."
I realize these are the Four Spiritual Law guys. Great. I give them the "One Way" sign. Using the wrong finger.
They are getting up. They're getting up to move to another isolated table in the shade that just opened up! And now that they're gone, Mr. Talking Screenwriter is back in view and earshot.
Mr. T.S.: (nervous). Whssup? I'm at Starbucks. Santa Monica. Cross from Banana. Writing.
I want to grab his T Mobile, shove it down his throat and send the guy on the other end a digital photo of Talker's esophagus.
Just then, the old man reading the New York Times folds up the paper, gets up and puts it back on the Newspapers For Sale rack. He didn't buy it. But he is leaving! Yay Hooray! I slip into his still-warm chair. I sit. Ah! A table in the shade. A column blocks out the view of Mr. Talking Screenwriter. I settle. Press my pen to the paper. The table wobbles a bit but adjust it calmly. All is well. At last, truly at last, I can write!
I'm all out of ideas now. Wish I could hear Talking Screenwriter. I'd have something to write about. So, I get out my cell phone and call a friend.
"Whssup? … Nothing, just writing."
Apr 12, 2003
There is something cleansing about moving every few years. It forces you to streamline, to decide what is really precious to you, and what should be thrown out: like last year's velour J Lo tracksuit. It's like giving your house a colonic.
I've had to do this a few times in the last years. In 1998, I moved to New York. Almost everything I accumulated in my rent-controlled bungalow had to go. Furniture, house wares, those peculiar items that made friends gasp, "What great taste you have! And on such a budget!" I parceled out my personal effects like an estate sale. The entry hall table I never refinished. The wood entertainment center I decoupaged. When I visited my friends as a New Yorker, I'd spy them again. Like that wicker basket in Meredith's bathroom I sponge painted. So Y1K. Seeing my things at someone else's place was like seeing a ghost. A ghost of my former life. Maybe that's why dead haunt the living. They want to visit their things.
Just a couple months ago I moved back to LA and the whole process started over again. I shipped five boxes to LA. Pictures, a few thrift store suede coats. Actually, a whole box was devoted to suede coats. Another, business files. I left a few things in the basement of my New York house. A parka. A crappy ten-speed. Tax returns. Well, some things aren't worth going back for.
Of course, I've always had my parents' house to store a few things. But Dad died two years ago, and Mom is putting the house on the market. We were there 38 years. It's the only house I've known as a home.
So I've had to go through those things as well. Yearbooks. A china tea set I saved from my rent controlled bungalow. The tax returns. I don't know what the half-life of a 1040 is, but I'm going to have a celebratory cremation when they expire.
Then there are the childhood keepsakes. A Scottish doll in a kilt. A wristband from a summer camp. A diary from when age 11. "Kirsten O’Reilly is making everyone go against me. Linda met me under the bleachers and said she wasn't going to go along with it. I was going to ride my bike to the beach after summer school, but I went home and ate salami and watched General Hospital. I hate my hair. Alan + Susie = Love."
I remember puberty. I don't need to read about it. Into the dumpster.
My sister and I had a box of stuffed animals in our closet. We each kept one toy and gave the rest away. I had boxes of slides and photos I had taken of high school trips and plays. I kept a handful of photos and threw away the slides. After all, I never looked at this stuff except every Christmas, when I'd go through the box and think, "I should throw this away." But it stayed in the closet until the next Christmas. Next Christmas I wont' have the closet. Into the dumpster.
As for me, I'd like to let go of my anger.I know anger can be a good thing. A therapist once said, "Anger is your inner child's way of saying, hey, stop! You're violating my boundaries." But children also throw tantrums when they can't have Jujubes for breakfast.
My mom said I was an angry child. "Susie, I hear you say you're angry a lot. And if you're angry, people won't like you." I spent many years trying to be a good girl, but that anger still came up. In starving myself, throwing up, and becoming a religious nut. Eventually, about the time that therapist told me anger was okay, I became very very very angry. And it wasn't a good thing. Like screaming at the idiot at Sprint PCS for selling me a five-year cell phone contract. Or the time I tried to key a car that cut in front of me on a New York crosswalk. Then learning the driver was a thug. Which I found out when he got out of the car with a club.
Another thing I would like to let go of. Regret. I remember the first time I felt the weight of an irreversible decision. I pledged a sorority I thought my best friend Amy was going to get into, even though it wasn't my first choice. Even though I hated sorority life. But I was at UC Irvine, a school I hated in a sterile town of houses all painted taupe. I remember driving back home, speeding past the colorless condos and deserted streets, feeling this horrible pit in my stomach. Go back! Tell them you made a mistake! But I was too afraid to listen to that inner child saying, "Stop!" The next morning I found out Amy was rejected, and so I ended up with a bunch of cute, vacant premed girls. I hated it. My pledge advisor tried to keep me in. "At least you'll always have something to do every Friday night." With a bunch of premed idiots? I never went back.
But my life has been riddled with decisions I regret. At least it seems that way. Like never taking a full time career job because it interfered with acting auditions. But what auditions? A pampers commercial. Playing Woman Number One on a bad WB sitcom. Sure I have the measly residual checks to show I have worked. But here I am, moving back to the town I grew up in, with no viable job or career to make me a full-fledged adult. No mortgage, not even a rent controlled bungalow, and none of my tasteful knick-knacks.
But in fact, if I had made the other "better" choice, I might be sitting on a chaise lounge in my own back yard, wondering what my life had been if I hadn't decided to take the job as a legal secretary. I might not even be sitting in a back yard. I might be working on a Saturday, wishing I had the freedom I have now. Regret will kill you. Because you will spend the rest of your life living in a nightmare of what could have been.
What I would like to Keep
The one thing in myself I'd like to keep is faith. Faith in God. But that's not easy to hold onto in the face of family disintegration, personal disappointment and despair, world war. I've hated him sometimes.
"Go to hell!"
Sorry Susan. Already did that. Came back.
Well leave me alone!
Sorry, promised you I'd never leave you or forsake you."
Okay, then why won't you help me get a career and a love life?"
"Well, you know I help those who help themselves."
I cannot shake Him. I've heard it say, "if you don't' like your god, fire him and hire another." Right, like God is at a job interview and I'm the one behind the desk. "Hmm, it says here you are omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. And you love everyone. Explain Hitler. How hard would it have been to let a rock drop on his head? Really, the Red Sea. Why not a rock? And why not that Pampers commercial?
I know he's always been there. When I was a child and felt alone, like no one loved me, I always had Jesus. He seemed kind of wimpy sometimes. God and Jesus played this kind of Good-Cop, Bad-cop routine with me. God was the mean-assed drill sergeant, criticizing me, reminding me of all the ways I failed him, or just plain ignoring me. But then Jesus would come in and say, hey, it's cool. I still like you. But he didn't fix my problems. Like helping me kill Kirsten O’Reilly, the bully at school. Or making Billy Woldreck like me. Later when I'd ask for direction or success or a parking space, he was outta there. Too busy. Guess he had more important things to do. Like visit Mother Theresa.
But then I had to admit my idea of God was just a reflection of my father, who really was a mean-assed drill sergeant, and Jesus was like my Mom, who was full of sympathy but was too scared to stand up to my father in my defense. I'm a grown woman now but those images are hard to get rid of.
And when I really do think about it, it was never God who moved away or ignored me, it was me who moved away from Him. And when I do think about it, there's that thing about free will. God really couldn't kill Kirsten O’Reilly for me. But he brought me friends. Like my favorite cat, Tig, who showed up the same year Lisa did, and lived until the very month I went away to college. Tig saved my childhood life from despair. And I guess I have to admit he was a divine gift. Even before that, God worked a small miracle like saving Fuzzy, my favorite stuffed animal from sure death.
I got Fuzzy when I was four, before I was Fuzzy was a cat to me, through my brothers teased that she was really a Bunny. Just because Mom got her in a sale bin after Easter at Sears. I was only four, before my parents allowed me to get, in my words, "a cat that moved by itself." I had a string of cats that died on the street outside our house, but Fuzzy endured. I took her everywhere, and eventually her fuzzy fur wore into nubs. Nubby my brothers teased. Nubby the Bunny! Stop! You're' violating my boundaries! I would cry. Actually I threw a tantrum. Fuzzy's pink ears turned gray, lost an eye, and her neck split in so many places and she lost all the stuffing. I cried when my mother tried to throw her away. But Jim rescued her, restuffed her neck and painted her ears pink with shoe polish. Her neck slumped over, but she stayed with me.
One summer vacation we went to Washington. After a day trip to an island, we were going to take a train ride through the longest tunnel in the Pacific Northwest. The boys were thrilled. Trains were the one thing they and my father still had on common, and Dad saw it as his last chance to bond with them, as they were quickly reaching puberty and distancing themselves from him. We rode the hour-long ferry ride back to the mainland and went to the portside diner to wait for the train. That's when I felt it. That horror. I had left Fuzzy on the ferry. I had already left her in a hardware store in Eugene Oregon, and I caught hell for it. I was afraid to tell Dad. But he coaxed it out of me. Dad had the operator radio the ferry. The found her. We waited an hour and a half. We missed the train.
Dad drove the family, silent in the car, out to a promontory to watch the train pass. The boys stood out closer to the tracks, my father a few feet behind on a mound of dirt. I watched from the car. The train flew by, majestic and cruel. The boys watched the train fly by without them, full of resentment. And Dad watched the boys, their backs turned from him, as they would do for the rest of their lives. Dad is dead and buried. But as he lay dying, I bridged the gap that had grown between us over the years, and told him he was a hero to me that day.
I still have Fuzzy. She's the one stuffed animal I saved. She reminds me of what I was like as a child, when my parents were still all-good and all-powerful, when the future was just what summer vacation promised. She reminds me of simple things like kindness. After all, despite the fact she made Jim miss that train, he rescued Fuzzy from the garbage can and doctored her up for me. I guess she reminds me of myself. Worn out, just holding on by a thread. But still I manage to escape the trashcan. Okay God, forget the Hitler episode. I'm still here, obviously you're looking out for me.
Feb 28, 2003
Hi I just started my blog. Here's my first entry. Actually it's from a journal piece two years ago. I just moved back to LA from NYC. Here's a piece I wrote there. More to come
New York Journal #16: Summer 2000
I am not that wild about summer. I don't like the heat, I don't like tourists, I don't like I'm not rich enough to be a tourist. And I grew up in LA, where it is always summer; where there are no changes of seasons, seasons except when Neiman Marcus changes its windows. LA is an endless traffic jam of convertibles and tourists and uppity agents on cell phones; a culture of RayBans and Venice Beach T-shirts and dry cleaners with headshots on the wall. It's not my season.
It wasn't like that when I was a girl. I loved summer then. I could swim in the ocean for hours and go to sleep at night feeling the tide still listing in my blood. I loved summer: not just because it meant no homework, or that my best friend Linda and I could ride the cul-de-sacs on her banana seat longer since the sun didn't set till 8:30. Not just because the peach tree would give us hundreds of peaches for pies and cobbler, or because my favorite cousin Jan and I would harangue our moms till they brought one of us to the other's house to spend a week. "You gotta come down!" Jan would say. Which I never understood because she lived in the Mojave Desert, 300 miles north of me.
The main reason I loved summer was because my father would take us on long vacations for three weeks at a time. For 49 weeks out of the year he would stalk in from work and throw his briefcase down against the wall and curse the Russians or the Democrats or the stock market. We'd sneak away, resentful or frightened. He could never say sorry so he would say, let's take the dogs for a walk. We would walk them around the block and count how many times they went pee, and dad would tell us about the big vacation we were going to take. We would forget the yelling and the scuff marks where his briefcase landed. For those three weeks we were all buddies and the only thing he got angry at were the cops who gave him speeding tickets.
By the time I was ten years old I had seen 36 states, four Canadian provinces and two cities in Mexico. We visited national parks and historical monuments: Bryce Canyon and Yellowstone, the White House and Gettysburg. We were like pioneers in a land rush, racing against a clock. Maybe Dad knew that, because when his kids got older the last thing we wanted to do was to be stuck with him in a car for weeks on end.
Wherever we went, there was a piece of history or geography to learn about, and Dad knew all of it. Yellowstone blew geysers because of the gasses below the earth's surface. The Grand Canyon was made from a river etching itself into the sand for millions of years. We hiked down a huge crater made by a meteor that hit the earth millions of years ago. It was all so big, trying to wrap myself around that sense of time. But Dad explained it and I understood.
When I was five and we had money, Dad bought a new station wagon with cash and the next day we drove to Canada. We sailed to Alaska and rode the train as far as Winnipeg, watching the expanse of country and alien towns speeding by like pages of a flip book. We stayed in a Victorian hotel that had elevators so old a man had to stand inside and take you where you wanted to go. They sold Lifesavers in Lemon Only and Cherry Only, and the wrappers were printed in English and French. The elevator man took my sister and me to the basement, where we walked down a hallway that snaked with air ducts and smelled of laundry drying, until we came to a massive indoor pool. The room echoed from voices and paddling. Nancy cried, it was to big. It spooked me too, it made me think of Victorian ladies in white dresses, sinking to the bottom of the pool like the Titanic. I stood silent, sucking Lemon Lifesavers, hearing the echo of paddling and the smell of laundry drying.
Dad's summer vacations gave me a sense of how big the world was, how different. Once we stopped at an Amish general store that sold feed and Plain Clothes. I asked dad what that meant. He pointed to a group of ugly women in black dresses. Dad said they couldn't have things like zippers because their religion forbade it. I was taken with an idea: if my parents forgot me and drove away, what would my life be like? Would I have a dad with a strange beard who forbade me ride a bike with a banana seat? It fascinated me. It was all America: everyone ate McDonalds and watched the Brady Bunch; but it was a foreign country every time we got out of the car. Here the kids here walked to school through pine trees. There, they watched the sun set over desert. Some played in fields where Confederates died; maybe there were still Union bullets in the ground. I felt like my sister in the pool room: small and sinking like the Titanic.
The last good trip we took was Back East. I was eight, I still idolized Dad. But my older brothers were in high school, they had discovered sarcasm. Dad tried to keep us together with car games and stories about the Civil War, like how the reason Gettysburg happened was because the Confederates wandered into town looking for a shoe factory. But Rob and Jim didn't want to listen or play. This was bad; Dad was taking us to Pittsburgh, his childhood home. He wanted us to make a good impression on his brother. Uncle Jim worked for the Pentagon, he lived in a hi-rise and had a new wife and a blue phone with push buttons. My brothers didn't talk. It was just Uncle Jim bragging about his hi-rise apartment and his blue phone with push buttons. We didn't stay long.
We drove west past corn fields and silos and water tanks that looked like giant daddy long legs. But when we stopped to take a picture, only my sister and I got out. Rob and Jim stayed in the back seat. We drove through Iowa and saw the place where my mom was born. We'd been going all morning when we reached a town with only a few streets and a filling station. Mom pointed the car down a lane. Dad slowed halfway down the block. Mom stared at a house with an oval stained glass window in the front door. She cried a little and we drove away.
We drove on, playing License Plate and I Spy and Animal Vegetable Mineral. Every time my sister and I saw a dead rabbit on the road we made a raspberry sound. Mom hated that game. Three hours outside of Custer's Last Stand my brother Jim got out and started screaming. "I don't want to drive any further! We get up and drive. We eat and drive. We piss and drive some more, just to reach some motel and go to sleep and get up and drive again! I'm sick of it! Sick sick sick!" We got to Dodge City, hopped on the Super Chief and got home a day early. That was the last good vacation we ever took.
The next year my oldest brother Rob went to South Africa. He came home speaking another language, eating curry and disagreeing with everything my father said. Jim was off somewhere playing Neil Young on his guitar. We didn't know where he was much of the time.
The next summer was our last family vacation. Dad rented a motor home and we took the dog and went to New Mexico and Arizona. It was the same trip we had taken five years earlier. I think dad wanted to recapture the time when we all loved him and saw him as God. But everything had changed. My brothers were at that age where they didn't truck with my dad. Rob left the day after graduation to bike across country. Jim hiked to the bottom of Grand Canyon with his stoner friends. He only agreed to let us pick him up at the South Rim after he hiked out. He took his time getting to the top. And everything else was different: my sister brought her friend Jane, she wanted to play with her and not me. We didn't stay at motels and collect miniature soaps. We stayed in campgrounds with greasy people and angry dogs. Mom hated cooking on one burner. And my father. He cursed every time we had to empty the septic tank or gas up the motor home. He hated the man who rented it to him. He'd brought his briefcase and his Russians with him. There was no escaping anymore. The next summer I went to camp. We never took a family vacation again.
My junior year in high school I asked my parents if I could go with my drama department to London and Paris. My dad got angry. "Why do you want to go there? It's unfair for the drama kids who can't afford it. If one of you is going to go, all of you should be able to go!" As if Dad had ever been a socialist. I wanted to go to NYU or Columbia for college. I had the grades for it. Dad wouldn't pay. "No child of mine is going to New York." Or Berkeley. Or Yale. Or anywhere where people were richer, smarter or more educated than he. I took my junior year abroad. I paid for it myself and I didn't asked his permission. He still managed to complain, "what is the point of going there?" I answered, "to get away from here."
I was furious that a man who had given me such a curiosity about the world would want to squelch that curiosity. It was evil, I could hear it in the scrape of his voice. I decided those family vacations were never about showing us the world, they were all about keeping his world together and us in it. Everything was about keeping his world together and us in it. But one by one we all left. My eldest brother never looked back.
It takes a child years to learn that her parent is not God. It takes her even longer to forgive him for it. In the ensuing years -- in between crying, journaling, beating a pillow with a bat -- my therapist asked me what good things my father had done for me. That was easy, the family vacations. "No not things, Susan. Do you remember any time in which he saw you in trouble and came to help? A time when you were sad and he comforted you? Was he ever your hero? Did he ever sacrifice himself for your sake?"
Yes, I repeated. "Summer vacation." Sitting on my bookshelf is a stuffed animal from my chilhood: Fuzzy. Every bit of fuzz has been worn off. One of her glass eyes is just a socket with blue ink painted over the threadbare cloth. Her pink ears have been painted over with shoe polish. I loved her, I took her everywhere. She was my security blanket. Mother Deprivation most likely. On a trip through Oregon, Dad stopped at a hardware store in Eugene. I followed him in. I remember looking at wrenches. Thirty minutes later on the road, I panicked. I had left Fuzzy in the hardware store. With much groaning and reprimand, the car was turned around and we collected Fuzzy on top of the wrench table.
A week later we were due to take a train: a much-anticipated ride that included an eight-mile tunnel. It was all by brothers had talked about. They were on the cusp of puberty, and Dad had begun to feel them pull away from him. But they still loved trains, and this ride was going to bond them. We had taken a long ferry ride across Lake Chelan and were due to meet the train in a few minutes. Dad took me to the dockside diner to wait while he collected the rest of the family from a gift shop. I sat on a bar stool, watching the ferry boat pull out across the lake. I turned around to watch a man pulling at a nob on the cigarette machine. My skin went clammy. The noise in the room faded. My stomach dropped. I had left Fuzzy on the ferry boat. And the ferry boat was gone. My father came back to collect me, he asked what was wrong. I said nothing, He asked me again and I said nothing. I could not move. He took me down from the stool and made me tell him. Fuzzy.
He made us wait for the ferry to return to collect her. We never got on that train. Dad pulled the car to the side of a road that fronted the train tracks. My brothers stood up on a rise and watched it pass. I can still see their backs, erect and pitched forward in disappointment; my father standing off to the side, watching them seethe. I wonder if it was a choice between losing them or me. If he knew. He did know how much that stuffed animal meant to me.
I realized that both were true: Dad wanted so much to keep his world together and to keep us in it. But even more so, Dad was afraid of us leaving him behind. That I could understand. I felt it in that Amish General store. I felt it standing in that dockside diner.
I fell in love this summer. A guy I met at a wedding. He is moving to the east coast, and we have been corresponding via email. You know those initial emails where you try to impress the other person with your intelligence and wit, reveal enough of your heart to make them love you; but not too much to send them running. He emailed me about his upcoming move back to New Jersey where he grew up. He is excited about the cross-country drive. He wrote me, "you get awestruck by the totality of America and the vast possibilities and the endless Kansas nights and all of it ... " I read his words, and all those summer nights came bleeding back. I saw a twilight sky, and remembered one night in some nameless Midwest town, my sister and I sat with Dad on the edge of a motel pool, drying in the night heat, squinting until our eyelashes blurred circular rainbows around the moon. The sun had set long before but the sky wasn't yet dark. How come it stayed light so long? I asked him. Dad explained that light hung in the dust particles. There was more dust in the air here in the midwest, not like where we lived near to the ocean. Then I saw a dashboard, and remembered those nights driving through Utah or Montana, Dad searching the AM dial for a station coming from far away. Maybe another state. Dad explained that at night the atmosphere cooled off and got smooth, so the sound waves could bounce off the atmosphere and travel further. I looked up at the night sky and imagined the stars smoothing out before us. I was in awe of my father. But that was long before I realized he was just a man, an imperfect one; and before he realized I was my own person, not someone he could control.
My parents had an anniversary this summer. I wouldn't say celebrate, my father can't get out of bed. His childhood polio finally claimed every muscle and tendon in his legs. He had a big day last week, he got to sit at the kitchen table for lunch. I asked Dad if the gift for Year 53 was a bag of Depends. Touché, he answered.
He asked what I had done this summer. I told him I had gone to Vermont for two weeks, where I saw fireflies, and how I first saw fireflies that summer Back East. He didn't say much I could understand. His speech is slurred and he can't sit up in bed. But I heard him quite clearly when he said the words he always had a hard time saying: I love you. I think about you often.
I actually am enjoying summer this year. So what if I can't be a tourist in Paris: I have been a tourist in Coney Island. And Vermont. I've spent Sundays in Central Park with a Frisbee, and did swing dancing in Lincoln Center. I have seen foreign films and fell in love, and stayed up til 2 AM talking long distance. Just the other night I heard a live saxophone drifting out of an open window. I marveled, even sound sounds different in the summer; almost thicker and louder and more lazy. Maybe sound waves travel differently in the heat. I should call my dad and ask him, I bet he has an answer.