In loving memory of my grandmother, DA BOSS

Scan 6

My dad calls me while I’m in the middle of a sketch. I’m drawing a bird with a top hat. It’s just a bird that I wanted to be a little more entertaining. Entertaining to no one in particular. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never figure out the elusive audience question. I keep drawing.

“Can you bring your grandmother a blanket?” my dad asks over the phone.

“A blanket?”

“Yes, a blanket,” he says.

“It’s no problem,” I say. “Hey, you holding up okay?”

“Don’t even get me started,” he laughs, and then it’s silent. I think the line goes dead, until he clears his throat and tells me goodbye.

I took off work the day after I found out my grandmother was dying from pancreatic cancer. I visited her but managed to say few words. It’s hard to see a busy body restless in a hospital bed. My grandmother, was a caretaker for her children and her children’s children — my siblings and cousins — at various points of our lives.

I shade the bird’s top hat, trying not to lean into the dark parts and smear the drawing with my fists. My coonhound, Maya, sleeps on the ground next to my feet. She kicks her legs, and I place my hand on her side, calming her in her eventful dreams. Getting a puppy a few months ago came in handy. After visiting my grandmother in the hospital, Maya curled up next to me in bed while I rolled myself into layers and blankets like a packed piece of sushi.

My grandmother scared me growing up. I thought we annoyed her. She  signed strict notes as “DA BOSS” and left them on the furniture. “SHOES OFF IN THE HOUSE.” “DON’T TOUCH THIS BUTTON.” “CASSEROLE IN FRIDGE.” She used to leave these notes in her absence when she went to bingo. She wanted to give us a lot of time with our grandfather, who had an unearthly amount of patience with children.

We’d be hunched over a TV dinner tray, polishing off a triple-decker turkey sandwich and watching All That or CatDog when she’d return. The first thing she did when she walked into the house would be to heat up some soup or lay out a bowl of fruit for everyone.

She was not a notoriously warm woman. Very critical at times. She complained about our clothing, spending habits, tattoos, loudness, long hair that got all over the carpet. She hated the sound of me picking my fingers and told me so.

She showed her affection in nonverbal ways. Food and things to remember her by. Like her spirit lies in the golden candlestick holders that belonged to her mother. It took me a while to understand. She wore practicality like armor. She helped my sister open her first checking account. She introduced me to her gynecologist.

Don’t get me started on her meatballs. The secret ingredient was veal, which bothered me a little because of the baby cow thing, but I cared more about having a relationship with my grandmother than eating ethically.

We ate on trays in her living room and watched black and white films together or Nickelodeon. And yes, you could eat food off her immaculate floor. Her home was always warm, and there were blankets that smelled like her folded in a basket next to the couch. Pictures of Italians lined the walls. The Sicilian side of the family had dark skin and were frowning in their photos. My grandmother was a young bride with a round face and a modern tea length length dress. This was my favorite picture on the wall. She looked like a glass doll. This is why everyone called her “Dolly.” Her real name was Santa. Yes, like Santa Claus.

After my grandfather’s passing, my grandmother and I grew closer. She texted me a lot. She still sent me coupons and birthday cards, even when they were for other people. When I visited her we’d watch Family Feud together. She thought Steve Harvey was a great host.

Sometimes she texted me late at night because she had a hard time sleeping. It must have been hard sleeping in a home without the man who lived with her for 63 years. They slept in separate rooms. Not because they grew distant from each other, but because my grandfather’s snores rattled the walls.

I walk into her hospital room, and she’s ordering tilapia off a menu. She’s wearing her glasses on the edge of her nose. Her hair is matted in the back, and she’s sitting up in bed. Her color is good. Her cheeks are sunken and pink. She wants mashed potatoes. She asks if they have any gravy, the brown kind. She asks for tea. She reminds the person on the phone that she has ice cream in the freezer my dad got her (Ben and Jerry’s vanilla) that she’s saving for later.

In between our conversation a nurse joins us. She has thick bangs and big eyes. She bows low like a well-trained dog, and all I can see are her bangs. She talks really slow to my grandmother.

“Santa. Would. You. Like. Me. To. Raise. This. Table? she asks. The nurse raises her arms as if to show that she is not full of sudden movements.

Another nurse comes in. She’s thin and fidgety. Her hair is tied into a fishtail braid.

“If you’re giving me another one of those pills, I don’t want it. They make me gassy,” my grandmother tells her.

The nurse laughs when my grandmother refuses the Ensure shake on her tray, which she says tastes like chalk and asks for her ice cream instead. Then fishtail nurse helps her to the bathroom. She compliments my grandmother’s cane, which has butterflies on it. My grandmother closes the back of her gown, embarrassed. I’ve never seen this much of her skin before.

I show my grandmother a post on Facebook that my sister Cassie wrote. My grandmother begins to cry when she reads the post. It says that my grandparents practically raised her and that it was a hard thing to do. My grandmother says, “Yeah we raised her like she was our own kid,” and she sniffs loudly.

My dad appears in the doorway. His work jeans are stained and torn at the knees. He’s wearing a Cubs hat that’s not all the way on his head. He looks worried. He brushes his eyebrows the wrong way and stares off into the distance. He seems happy to see me with his mom. He puts a hand on my shoulder.

“How are you doing, Bear?” he asks me.

My dad sinks into the chair opposite of my grandmother. We’re all silent for a while until my dad recounts the story about how his mother made him get a vasectomy after my brother was born.

“Ma grabbed me by the ear and took me to ‘Dr. Snip Snip.'” My dad sucks in his spit, making the sound of snipping. He uses his fingers like they’re scissors, slicing the air.

“Yeah the doctor who performed the surgery asked me if I had played a lot of sports growing up. Because there was a lot of damaged tissue. They had to dig it all out,” he laughs.

“Dad, no offense, but I’m not interested in hearing more about your vasectomy,” I say.

My grandmother chimes in. “I remember your grandfather’s vasectomy. He was so worried that his thing no longer worked,” she smiles devilishly. “It worked just fine when we tested it out. He gave me the ‘twinkle eyes,’ and I knew we were good to go.”

My stomach hurts. No one ever cares about being appropriate in my family.

I show my grandmother the magazine I put together. She is proud. So is my dad. He asks if he could keep the magazine. I’ve lost track of the amount of these things I’ve helped put together, and this is the first time I’ve shown anyone in my family my work.

I suddenly want to show them all the things. I show them a picture of the bird drawing. I show them pictures of my dog. They respect that I’m taking care of something. It’s not a kid, but it’s just as good, they both assure me. It surprises me how accepting they are. I’m not sure why I think my family won’t accept me.

My grandmother asks me, “Is there anything you can’t do?”

I want to ask my grandmother questions. Little does she know I’ve put together a little Q&A for her. It’s hiding on a sheet of paper in the magazine I brought. I write Q&As for work all the time. Company profiles. Chats with the president of such and such company. Sometimes I’m lazy and ask the same questions instead of coming up with new ones.

“Hey Grandma, can I ask you questions about your life?” I’m afraid of her reaction. She is mostly a private person.

“I don’t see why the hell not. I’m gonna be dead soon anyway,” she tells me.

Q: What made you most happy?

A: Being married to your grandfather. His support, love, passion, understanding, and humor made my life full and happy. There wasn’t a selfish bone in his body.

Q: When you get down on yourself or are in a funk, what do you do or tell yourself to make yourself feel better?

A: I tell myself to be strong. Face whatever.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: No regrets. Though, I do wish I would have been better with money. But then again, your grandfather and I enjoyed ourselves.

Q: If you could have told your parents anything while you growing up, what would it be?

A: I would tell them to be more understanding and supportive of me.

You have to remember my mother was very young when she had me. She was unhappy when she moved from some little hick town in Sicily and came to the U.S.

My grandfather had been in the U.S. for 12 years before he sent for his family. My grandfather was very mean to my mom. She couldn’t wait to get out of the house, and she rushed into a marriage with my father. My father was a cold man. I can’t remember many times when my parents weren’t arguing. Always arguing. My father couldn’t handle my mother. She had a nervous breakdown at one point. She was very sick. She wasn’t the nicest to me either. She stabbed me with a fork, even bit me once. She got better with age, though, and we eventually became closer.

I used to watch my sister, who was 12 years younger than I was. I was like a parent to her, practically raised her. I almost hated her for it. At 17 years old, I had to take my kid sister with me on dates with your grandfather. But he was understanding. On Saturdays he would wait patiently for me to clean the entire house, and then we’d go out.

Q: What did you like to do for fun growing up?
A: I played on a volleyball team for two years. And then I loved roller skating. I went two to three times a week. That was therapy to me.

I liked to travel. I worked at a travel agency and had a great time doing it. My favorite place I visited was Aruba. I liked the entertainment, the live shows. The gowns, dancing, and music.

I met my friend Lari on a plane going to Mexico. We had a blast. I was thin and blonde then.

This one guy came up to me and said, “Hey Seniorita, I want to show you a good time.”

I told him I had someone waiting for me back home. I told him no thank you.

He said: “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

I told him: “No, YOU don’t know what you’re missing.”

I used to love going out with your grandfather. I was happy no matter where we went.

I didn’t like our trip to St. Louis though. We got really bad sunburn, and there were snakes in the water. It was terrible.

Q: What were your hopes and dreams as a child?

A: That’s hard. I think for a while I wanted to conquer my inferiority complex. I thought I was inferior because of my disability. I lost my hearing in my ear when I was three years old. I was in the hospital for a month with a really bad kidney infection. The doctors thought that was the cause of the hearing loss. My parents treated me like I was stupid. I was a loner.

I started going to a school for the mute, deaf, and dumb. I spent one class a day learning how to read lips, which I didn’t take seriously because I was embarrassed. There were really smart students at my school, though. This one chick was completely deaf, and she was a truly gifted ballerina. She used a phonograph to feel the beat.

I didn’t know how bad my hearing was. I didn’t get a hearing aid until I was in my 60s. My kids begged me for years to get one. Finally, I did. The one I have now is an amazing piece of technology. My otolaryngologist did great work.

Q: What three words would you use to describe yourself?

A: Stubborn, private, and strong.

Q: What advice do you have for me and other young people growing up during such dark times?

A: I feel so bad for you guys. What a mess. So much anger right now.

Life is not fruit. Take a piece of it anyway. See if you can salvage it, make it better. Also limit who is in your life. Keep the people you know who care close to you. For the most part people like to gossip about each other. This always bored me. That’s why I didn’t hang downstairs with the rest of the folks in the bingo area. That’s all they like to do –talk about people who aren’t there.

Q: What brings you comfort?

A: When things are going good with the family. That was the same with your grandfather. He always worried about the family. When something went wrong, someone got hurt, he wished it happened to him instead. When Steven got sick, it crushed him. He was the softie, I was the bitch. He loved his grandkids. Being with them was his favorite. I’m glad my grandkids loved me even though I was a bitch.

“Grandma, the world needs bitches.”

Q: Are you worried about anything right now?

A: Not too much. I was worried about my credit card, but nothing is happening with it. It just drops off. And then I’m worried about the pain from the cancer. I mean I’ve gotten through plenty of surgeries (my kids don’t even know about half the surgeries I’ve had) but this is different. I hope I can hack it.

Q: What about after you die? Are you worried about that?

A: Well, I’m trying to pray, but it hasn’t been working. All throughout my life, I had faith without practicing any religion. I tried going to church with your grandfather for a while, but I disagreed with so many things. I felt like a hypocrite all the time too. Your grandfather respected my choice not to go. He always told me that I made up for it in strong values and a good heart.

I don’t know if my grandmother made her peace with God, but I know she’s at peace.

“I’m ready to be with your grandfather. I am 86. My mother was 84 when she died. My grandmother was 94.”

 

 

 

What we saw of Regina from Chicago Theater’s ‘cheap seats’

Cheap seats or not,  what a soul-wrenching show I would like to rewind over and over.

I was an hour early in picking up Alexa, a big deal because I’m always bumbling into her life at least 10 minutes late. We petted her dog Bubba and had a drink with her boyfriend and his dad. They sat on benches on the porch, and I stood and paced until the beer kicked in. We talked about photography, social media uh-ohs, bumblebees, bee stings, and the shifty neighbors across the street. Alexa wore a choker and a long double necklace. She had a single braid in her hair. I was sporting a long skirt with suns and moons, sandals, and a jean jacket. We looked mighty fine this Friday evening. The boys, who were buzzing and enjoying the warm weather, asked if we were excited for our concert, and we shrugged.

It was bumper to bumper traffic to the city like always; good thing we had the extra time, I kept gloating to Alexa. We listened to a few Regina Spektor songs along the way as well as this one by Lorde that reminds me of our friendship. I couldn’t find the song with the one line about friends sleeping in the same bed, which reminds me of when Alexa and I had sleepovers on Friday nights at her house. I joked, “We weren’t kids; we were kind of young adults in college,” to which she said “Yeah, but we were making up for lost time.”

Sometimes I feel like I have to hide my unfiltered, gushing affection for Alexa. First, it tends to put her on the spot. It’s like I’m constantly pointing out that she has whiskers or elephant tusks on her face, and they’re indeed beautiful. That and it oftentimes comes off as alienating to others on the outside. But it’s a wee bit hard not to share this particular kind of love. The older people get, the less time we have for others, and the more scratchy layers we throw on, which can get in the way of enjoying a person. With us, we’ve been throwing off layers left and right. We could walk around in winter in tank tops if we had to. Our friendship has muddled past the deepest defenses and insecurities. I’m beyond blessed for this rarity, and I hope that others can find and work on a relationship like this because it looks good on everyone.

As we continued to inch forward in traffic, Alexa shared with me some of her comments on some writing I asked her to take a look at. She ran out of printer paper, so she printed out my story and poem on fancy stationary. The paper was thick and worn-looking and depicted a turtle wading in water between some reeds. She read her comments aloud. I was grateful for the suggestions she had for this story I’ve been sweating over. She wanted a little more reflection on the narrator’s walk home and thought I should add more detail about a particular prop by reusing it in another spot. It was a pretty thoughtful comment. She gets darn comfortable in a scene. A fellow writer and one of the best readers I know.

She had to pee and apologized about her bladder profusely, and I pounced on the first exit off the expressway. I told her to stop apologizing for something her body couldn’t control. We both apologize a lot for lame things. It was Alexa’s turn this week.

We parked in a garage on Kedzie. Only 12 dollars for the night (what a freaking snag). We walked the few blocks to the theater, using our phones’ GPS because we are two dopey deer that wandered a little too far from the suburbs.

Alexa and I joined the line wrapped around state street. It was a diverse crowd, and there were a lot more dudes than we both imagined. Everyone looked squeaky clean and dressed for the occasion. Two older women stood in front of us. They both wore comfortable shoes, short haircuts, and small silver hoops. They giggled and talked into each other’s shoulders. The woman directly in front of me had drooping blue eyes that hung onto every word coming out from the woman standing in front of Alexa. I was projecting when I said, “That’s us in the future,” but I didn’t care.

A man in a tattered flannel asked Alexa if she had any money to spare, and she rifled into her purse for a dollar to give to him. She said, “Who cares what he spends it on,” as if openly confronted.

It was colder than it was earlier, and I shivered in my jean jacket. A man carrying takeout and walking in the opposite direction of the line stopped next to me on the sidewalk. He asked me, “Excuse me, Miss, but do fries go with that shake?” I looked at the man closer, incredulously. He casually waited while I came up with an answer. I think I was most offended  about the polite commonplaceness of the comment. I mean if you’re going to harass someone, at least have some goddamn originality. I awkwardly pointed to the burger joint right behind the man, and said I bet they had some good shakes in there if he needed one. Alexa had a different take, probably the more accurate one. She said, “Excuse me, but you can’t talk to her like that.” After he scurried away, she told me I had to be more assertive, and I felt like I had failed her and all of womanhood. But if the shoe were on my foot, I would have bitched out the man as well, so I knew where she was coming from.

Finally it was time for Regina. Alexa and I found our seats in the balcony. On the stage was a single light resting on a glossy piano. We snapped photos and double fisted our drinks. One beer and a cocktail. Not the best idea for a show without an intermission. Alexa and I swapped drinks because her Jack and Coke was a little too strong. I couldn’t even taste the Jack, and insisted she take my margarita.

Regina took the stage, and Alexa and I perked up in our seats. From where we sat, she looked like a tiny mime in her lacy black top, black flats, and black skinny jeans with holes exposing her knees. Undone wavy hair sat along her neckline. Her black clothes blended into the black stage, but her small, white face glowed under all the lights. She introduced herself to Chicago in a mousey voice then got comfortable in a large leather chair at the piano. What came soaring out of the piano and her mouth was the opposite of the initial perceived smallness.

Regina started off a little rushed. Her first two songs were effortless, but some of their usual longer notes blended together. By the third song though, she sank her hands into the bellowing elongated notes. Her voice clung to the rollercoaster chords. She has a signature playfulness that feels like you’re watching someone walk across a tightrope or you’re on a beach batting around an inflatable ball. I felt like a ball bouncing around in my seat between Alexa and this other woman. At one point, I told this woman that the current performance was “my version of football,” and she laughed.

Then Regina played some of her more moving, stomach-churners. She sang an entire power ballad in Russian, which she dedicated to an elderly friend of hers who used to visit her backstage every time she came to Chicago. This friend recently passed away. Regina is an artist who is completely engrained in her homeland. You feel her ebbing and longing when she speaks in her native language. I felt myself leaning into an understanding without a translation that Regina herself said we could “Google” if wanted. No translation necessary for me, thanks. I believe you.

She also sang Après Moi, which is in English and Russian. And it’s one of my favorites. I like militancy of the song and the way she seems to toggle back and forth between voices. It’s as if there are two people singing in this song, answering each other, building each other up. “I must go on standing,” is a takeaway line of this song, and you feel the full force of it.

Regina also said a few things that really stuck with me, as I’m sure others. Two of my favorite lines were: “This theater is so fancy. I feel like I want to swear in it … Fuck fuck fucking fuck.” And then there was the speech she made right before her more politically charged songs. She discussed what it was like to come to America as a refugee and her beginning journey as “a hungry, dirty artist sleeping on people’s couches.” She mourned our current political situation, but ended hopefully by saying, “Here’s to better days and better people to represent us.” Her song “Trapper and the Furrier” was menacing and relevant. Regina hunched over the piano all creature-like and banged on the keys, “What a strange world we live in,” she said. “Those who don’t have lose, those who got get given more, more, more, more.” MORE was the emphasis here. “More” was the word that hit the listener in the stomach like a dead-on punch. Perfect targeting.

A drummer and cellist also played on stage. They were equally moving, graceful, and effective, but complemented Regina in a way that reminded everyone that she is an ethereal one woman circus.

Regina kept giving, and the crowd extended its arms and ate her up, as they tend to do in the face of pure musical love and talent. Some people screamed, “We love you,” and she acknowledged each and every clear interruption. I payed attention to Alexa’s reactions. She wiped a tear away during the deeply sorrowful song “Blue Lips,” which explains that “blue is the most human color.” I choked back tears during two of her new babies, “Bleeding Heart” and “Tornadoland.” Lately, I have felt myself in a whirlwind of internal criticism and rejection. My thoughts have been racing so much faster than my words, and I feel like a slave trying to keep up. Excuse my analogy, but sometimes it feels like artistic constipation. So much force, with so little output. All anyone wants to be is heard in the form they’re most comfortable with. Regina established this with eloquence.

“Bleeding Heart” was a saving song, a reminder to be yourself. The light show soared around the crowd, singling people out. Lights moved around in tune with the song and landed on individuals who laughed and blushed at the song’s important reminder.

She was so damn charming. At one point, she forgot the words to one of her songs, and someone had to shout them to her. She stood up a few times and swayed like her body was a Styrofoam noodle. Alexa appreciated that she was an “awkward mover,” and I agreed.

The encore was long, but her show was far from over. We clapped until our hands stung. Finally, she skipped back onto stage. She sang four more songs after the encore. Her voice hit her self-made spectrum of light, torpedoing notes and heavy, low, bellowing notes. At some points, I just couldn’t believe her humanity, and at others, I felt like she knew me on a soul to soul basis.

When Regina said, “I really do believe in friendship, love, and art…” I looked at Alexa and said, “Huh. So do we.”

TGIF

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Fridays are holy days for Alexa and me. I’ve never written about our Fridays. My guess is that I can’t paint them just right. I’ll smudge em up too much. Or maybe there’s something untouchable about them, something that’s reserved for us only. But lately we’re all about being brave and sharing what is most important to us — and that includes each other.

This Friday we went rollerblading through Busse Woods. Though it was a fairly mild winter, we still couldn’t help but seize the first spring-ish day. Alexa didn’t have work, and I was released into the wild early. We hopped into my little red Mazada, which desperately needs a car wash. We parked and feverishly laced up our blades. Alexa wobbled on her feet, asking, “I’m stable, are you stable?”

The pathway was mostly ours. Our muscles remembered the zigzag movement, the loud breeze blasting in our ears. Busse Lake was calm and stretching out in the sun. The trees protruded their nakedness. As soon as we began sweat clung to the middles of our backs.

Alexa and I talked about our plans. She told me how she wanted to be more spontaneous with her workouts, instead of stuffing them into a strict regimen. I told her I wanted to pick up running again, since this time of year is my favorite time to run. We talked about writing. She told me about her blog’s new look and setup, that she wants to work on a new challenge. Her last challenge was not to eat out in order to save money, and she rocked it. I told her about a recent blog I wrote about Trump that wasn’t very good, just something I needed to get off my chest, and also about this book of poems I’ve been putting together that I’d like her help in organizing.

We trucked through the eight-mile trail. We barreled up hills, rounded sharp corners, forgoing the treacherous sticks and patches of tar on the pavement. There was a point where Alexa was trying “too hard to be cool” and almost fell backwards. My heart skipped a beat as she flapped her arms like a crazed bird. We laughed at the close call, and she reminded me of the time last summer we went rollerblading, and I almost ate shit. I had instinctively reached for her arm. “So you want to take me down with you, huh?” she had asked.

We spotted a few of the famous elk lazing around in the grass. It’s amazing how the enchantment of seeing them in a town we’ve lived in most of our lives hasn’t worn off yet.

At the end of the trail, we both sighed our contentment. Even though the blades were off, it felt like they were on. It’s weird how certain movements imprint themselves into your limbs, how they stay with your body for a while afterward.

Before going to Alexa’s, we stopped at the Tensuke Market and picked up some plum wine and seaweed wraps for the sushi we were to make for dinner. I was distracted by all the adorable dishware to eat sushi from. I made a mental note to explore this store on my own, as I never had before. The young man who checked us out bowed each time he received and returned our money, which took us both aback.

Alexa showed me how to assemble sushi. You lay out the wrap, slap some sticky rice on the paper, line up the vegetables, wet the end of the wrap, and roll it nice and tight. The end product awkwardly enough feels like an erect penis. How adult of us to notice this. Anyway, then you slice the log into individual rolls. I think Alexa might have cut more rolls than me because I was talking a lot. I can’t exactly remember everything I said, but I do remember talking and talking. Poor Alexa. That shit has to get exhausting. I get really close to her face when I talk, a pesky habit of mine, which I think used to make her kind of wary. Hopefully by now she’s gotten over my bubble-popping invasiveness.

Her dog Bubba was licking his beautiful, big chops, waiting for us to drop food on the floor in the kitchen. Alexa caved into his demands, giving him a meatball for rolling over. Gale was in the living room, focusing on this new sketch she’s working on of a German Shepherd. She was precise, using a ruler to measure out the face’s dimensions. She showed me the sketch of a friend’s backyard that she had been working on. It’s as inviting as the real thing. The koi fish, the grass, the knick-knacks, Stanley the cat’s tail flickering around the shed. Gale has a way of capturing real life and then some. In my room is a framed sketch that she drew of me. It’s so beautiful I was intimidated to put it up when I first received it. It was like she tapped into something that I sometimes have difficulty seeing and believing myself.

Alexa and I went into her room. We wolfed down our sushi rolls and sipped the plum wine. We scrolled through social media, and read about the Bernie rally that some of our friends had attended. And then it suddenly occurred to us: why didn’t we go?

It dawned on both of us that it would have been really something to be a part of the history we were watching before our very eyes. There was Sanders in his element and glowing, waving his conductor hands, hitting on all the big ones — healthcare, college loans, Wall Street, women’s rights, the lead-poisoned residents in Flint, and the U.S.’s dwindling infrastructure, etc. People of all colors, ages, genders, and ethnicities cheered behind and around him, armed with their “A Future to Believe in” signs. Muse’s Uprising began to play. “They will not control us… We will be victorious…”

Here is a man who has dedicated his whole life to people’s rights, who flies down escalators, who talks with his hands. At 74, he’s awakening a tired and angry America looking for more long-term change. Sanders represents all of them. And he represents Alexa and me. We could have been there, standing shoulder to shoulder with all the others.

In any case, I was happy that I was watching the rally with Alexa. When she got up to go to the kitchen for some more sushi, I gave her hug. I told her, “Man I can’t believe we’re alive right now.”

This was also the same night that Chicago protestors shut down the Trump rally. UIC, one of the most diverse campuses in a melting pot city. This had to have been planned? A publicity stunt. But in any case, the protestors had the place surrounded. They shut. it. down. I’m proud of their efforts, but I’m anxious to learn about the next city to replicate the maneuver — next time with people getting seriously hurt. The truth is I’m scared about the chaos, just like a lot of people I know. The Nazi incitements, the violent Trump rallies, the amount of blatant hatred being tossed about the streets in large hoards of people, which is nothing new, exactly.

I mean everyone seems to be calling this a revolution, and the thing about revolutions if I can remember right from the textbooks and people who are alive to talk about living through one, is that it goes beyond the breaches of electing a president. This is something that needs to be system-wide, population-wide. And I feel we still have miles to go if we want this to happen.

Here’s what I know about organized chaos, since I’ve been somewhat versed in it on a micro level — right now is a chance for great opportunity for those who want to help. During this very alarming time in our country my gut tells me that now is the time to start showing extra strength and kindness. Now is the time for the ones who care to start thinking outside the box to finally get outside the box. I don’t know what that means for me just yet, but I’m willing to be open about it and find out.

I petted the extra soft parts on Bubba’s paws, between the pads. I tried to move him so I could have more room on Alexa’s bed, but failed. He’s such a large animal. His humans keep him safe and happy. And he spends the majority of his day just loving people.

***Alexa and I challenged each other to write about this Friday together. Check out hers here! http://alexawynne.com/2016/03/14/the-politics-of-rollerblading/

 

Sitting in my car

I do this thing where I sit in my car in the winter. Sometimes I read the last bit of something. Sometimes I let the lastest song on repeat fill me. Sometimes I do nothing except let the day’s unresolved extraness leak from my skin and settle into my seat.

I wait until all the heat leaves my car, until my toes are numb from the cold. When I can’t take it anymore I go inside to my warm home that I am lucky to have, even if its ceilings are stained in the blood of dead flies, and it’s on the third floor.

I don’t really know when I started doing this. But I killed my battery doing it the other day. I left my lights on. Sean helped me jumpstart my car.

I’m sitting in my car right now. I can see Sean in the window. It took me a while to figure out what he was doing. My eyes aren’t the best in the dark, but I think I figured it out. He’s holding two ends of a Christmas tree in his hands.

He probably wants to surprise me. I’m surprised alright. Why does he continue to choose me? That’s a legitimate question. Not for him, but for me. It’s my song on repeat.

I snap pictures of him with my eyes. I add more to his living eulogy I’ve been writing inside my head for over a third of my life and go inside.

Inside, Sean smiles and strings lights.

Friday night

Friday = a half glass of some cheap red blend that I keep losing.

I read somewhere on one of those annoying listicles that one of the unspoken rules is not to be on social media while intoxicated.

Pssssh. Well, I’m not.

I will say some listicles are better than others. Just like how some horoscopes seem to fit.

I can hear Sean playing Mortal Kombat through the walls. FINISH HIM. Some bloody maneuver. A severed head, a spine cracked in two.

I’m writing. I’ve got about a half page. It’s shitty shit, but I suppose I’ll keep going just in case it’s not tomorrow.

Peer-to-peer inspiration

I have the privilege to review a screenplay. And it’s really good, too. I won’t talk too much about it. 1. I’m only 10 pages into it. 2. The writer is still at work. Not being sexist, ( let’s be real, most of my favorite writers are pissed off hermit white dudes), but I’m doubly excited because it’s written by a chick. She is someone I would have never thought of approaching in my younger days, but here we are connecting over our craving for writing, connecting over finally connecting to who we are becoming. I’m excited to keep reading.

Taking a long time to warm up to smart people who also inspire me is a pattern with me. But when I do, I’m hard to shake.

My friends and I started a writing group not that long ago. It’s all I want to think about most days. They all have their own thing going — metafiction, fables, a day in the life. I get to live through many eyes and backspacing fingers. I get to see writing planted. We write, it rains, and then there are little buds poking from the soil. I get to see stories alive and growing. I see my friends, and they’re writers in motion. For a lack of prettified language because it’s getting late: it’s freaking fantastic.

Just recently, one of my group members came up with an assignment. We were to make a list of all the things we’ve written thus far. It’s something to see. Everyone has a little list — bits and pieces of ourselves that we’ve shown to each other in different lights. So far I have a quarter of a book, several poems and essays, and three short stories. I had never written a short story prior to joining this group, but now I have nine versions of the same short story. It was better after I made every round of edits, and my group members fixed their beady eyes in between the lines. I’ve gotten really good with criticism. I take most of what people throw at me, but then at times I defend what I really want to savor for my own.

But you know what’s awesome? Finally getting to that point in your life where you can be surrounded by talented people, learn from them, and cheer them on. And in turn, having that come back to you.

“You” who was intimidated by smart, talented people because you didn’t feel like you measured up, that maybe you were just an open mouth, that maybe you were unrefined, classless. That maybe people didn’t want to listen because you spit your gritty words in their faces. But then you changed your tune. You found a way to love through the holes of yourself and reached the other side. You couldn’t see, only feel your way around. Someone was there. Someone reached back. Sometimes loving in the dark overtook you. You were mistaken for fickle, fucked up, emotional, and loose. Sometimes you let yourself believe that you were only these things.

And when I say YOU I mean me, but maybe you can relate.

The office, my office

The real test came to me after my obsessive vulturing over my inbox; the half-crazed pep talks in my car and bathroom mirror. It came after the interviews that were like gut punches no matter how prepared I felt.

The real test actually came after I sealed my first fulltime job – when one of my co-workers spared me the paranoid silence and cut right to the chase with an ultimate warrior question of initiation.

Still somewhat fresh off the hot plate of university, I had the irrational belief that my answer to his question would be crucial to my longevity at my workplace and any chance of a relationship with my peers.

People sometimes forget that the smell of Easy Mac mixed with the almost desperate need to have answers and be liked still cling to graduates’ clothes months after graduation. This quasi delirium/confidence is said to be what one needs to obtain a job.

So, here’s how the test goes.

My new co-worker, Mark, clears his throat and adjusts his glasses before he asks his question. I can feel my armpits moisten. I might as well have my hand hovering over a red buzzer. Mark wears a buttoned up plaid shirt and khaki shorts, which I learn soon enough is an all year round ensemble. He shifts his weight from side to side in a pair of long socks and black Vans.

My eyes catch what appears to be a shaded gun with a ribbon of wording wrapped around it. I read the words “Han Shot First” on Mark’s wrist. Its positioning and curling blackness reminds me of the Dark Mark Death Eaters use to summon Lord Voldemort.

“My one and only question is: what are your thoughts on Star Wars?”

Another co-worker, Jim, pokes his head from his office at the sound of Mark’s question, and the rest of him emerges. Jim also sports glasses and plaid, but has a distinctive swoop in the front of his hair, like a classier version of Ace Ventura’s. He wears a grin that’s hard to pinpoint – halfway past amused, not quite cynical.  Jim and Mark both stare at me, their eyes the unfilled bubbles on a Scantron.

I unclench my shoulder blades and let them sink back into place. But I don’t relax entirely. I still believe this is some version of a moment of truth.

I know the answer because I believe it, but I don’t answer too hastily. I play it cool. I might as well be a high schooler flicking a cigarette. “Well, here’s the thing. I’m not so much into the episode business. The old school stuff is pretty awesome, though.”

The guys look at each other for confirmation. Mark pauses for effect, then he says deadpan: “I think you’ll fit in just fine here.”

And that’s how my first day went.

For the rest of the week, I studied the hand drawn floor chart with everyone’s name that Sadie, the blue-eyed office guru gave me. Eight people. There was a lot to learn. Sadie only laughed a little when I read the chart upside down.

Up until this point, I’ve never worked in a small office before. But I can tell you one thing: if you’re like me, and you generally like to be surrounded by constant interaction and stimulation, by people of all kinds, you’d find this lack of numbers slightly unsettling at first. But then you’d get over it and take what you can get. You would bounce from office to office, trying to learn the ins and outs of the few faces you see eight hours every week day.

In a small office, you notice your co-workers. You notice the tear drop engagement ring or the roughly five pound weight loss. When they’re wearing their hair in a high bun instead of long curls that day. The bike helmet and the sound their leather chaps make when they walk past your desk. The crumbly pineapple upside down cake not just calling your name, but seducing your name, in the break room. When they blaze through the front door on a cellphone or with a downcast stare. When they’re pacing back and forth, checking to see if the mail has come in yet. You notice the niceties over the phone. You realize “have a great day” can mean so many different things.

You notice when they’re there, but you notice when they’re gone even more.

I noticed when Sadie, our office assistant, left and moved to Florida. Except I didn’t know her as the office assistant. I know her as the skinny girl who eats a piece of pie for every meal and hoards Sour Patch Kids in the top drawer of her desk. I know her as someone who laughs only when she means it and who makes F bombs look classy. I also know her as someone who adores her family, likes to shop at Target, cleans obsessively, and who has two pit bulls who sit in your lap when you visit.

Just recently, I and everyone else, noticed when Jim left for Colorado. Jim has a voice that doesn’t apologize for being loud. Despite his large voice and presence, he doesn’t have a pompous bone in his body. And I know this because I went beyond noticing Jim. I listened to him closely and liked what I heard.

One portion of a seminar I attended for work focused on finding mentors and how worthwhile that is for one’s career. Though I’m sure there’s a million definitions of “mentor” sitting around on countless Powerpoint slides that cover corporate leadership, what I gathered is that a mentor should be someone who does what you do jobwise, is someone you trust, and who would give you plenty of feedback and encouragement.

One day, I waltzed into his office. I looked from his monstrous piles of papers to his half-full bottles of Sriracha sauce, to his imploring face, and threw the role of SARAH’S MENTOR at his feet. He had no choice.

I basically said something like, “Hey Jim, sooooo… you’re kind of my mentor. I’ve decided. I hope this isn’t a problem. Okay, great, bye.”

I was hoping Jim would be a woman. The seminar I went to was focused on women in a male-dominated industry flocking to each other for growth and encouragement.

But Jim’s not a woman, and I’m okay with that. I guess I like that Jim is a hard worker and thorough editor, and is pretty knowledgeable about his industry and media contacts.

But if I were to be completely honest, it’s more interesting to me that he can strike up a hearty conversation on what makes a good Marvel movie. I will miss his start to every morning—the unfiltered, logical yet still passionate discussions he and Mark would have on Doctor Who and Star Wars. Sometimes I joined it, like after we all saw Guardians of the Galaxy, and couldn’t wait to get to work to tell each other our own versions of getting to be a kid in a movie theater again.

If I were to admit that I’m also a little sad that Jim’s leaving, I would. Maybe I even cried in the bathroom when I found out he was leaving and had to compose myself before going back to my desk. Maybe. You see, Jim listens to me. He has the ear of a 20 something, and the experiences of 40 year old. He remembers what it’s like to experience life as a scared shitless and suddenly self-aware human. He tells me to give myself credit, and tells me I’m very put together for a young person. He’s helped me in so many ways stomach my first “real” job.

If I were to tell the whole truth, I’d say he’s a mentor because he can openly say what he cares about. He loves his wife. He loves his Westie. He loves his Packers. He loves his baby daughter, who has the mug of a Muppet and a lot of things to say that she’s just beginning to put into words for the first time. You can tell he loves her more than anything else. Jim’s move will hopefully allow him more time to spend with his family.

Though being a Packers fan or any sports fan for that matter, is something I would generally leave out of any story, it serves a purpose in this one.

Jim is the first man I have ever met who can give a real probing, intimate reason why he loves sports so much. Being more of a film and Marvel junkie growing up, he didn’t play them or really get into sports until his adulthood. But now he can have quite the conversation. It turns out Jim is one of those unwavering fans, meaning he goes down with his Packers’ ship or he barrels through the storm with them. The kind who invites the same people to his house every big game in the privacy of his own home. Not the kind who sits in bars and wages drunken wars. Not the kind who cowardly hides behind his Facebook, attacking other fans when his team wins or loses.

What got me was Jim’s story about seeing Aaron Rodgers play. Since I associate sports talk with small talk in elevators, my instinct is to tune Jim out. But I don’t because he’s Jim, and as I’ve learned, he attaches meaning to most things in his life.

Obviously, I didn’t know anything about Aaron Rodgers. I didn’t know he was the kind of scrawny, unremarkable guy with good grades and who didn’t receive much attention from the football gods until much later in his career. Apparently, he’s a little weird too. Jim tells me he quotes Princess Bride and laughs at his own jokes when his teammates don’t understand his references. Jim says he is the player who people said couldn’t, but who did anyway.

Jim told me he was at a game when he saw with his own eyes Aaron Rodgers getting mocked by players from the opposing team. One player acted like Aaron Rodgers, dressed like him and exaggerated his scrawniness. The opposing team’s mascot was beating up the fake Aaron Rodgers. A clever joke. Jim watched Aaron Rodgers’ reaction. He says he’ll never forget it. Rodgers just stared and stood in the middle of the field. Then he plowed through his next plays like the beast the Packers fans know. They won the game.

It’s not unlikely for sports fans to have heroes. Hero worship is often a critique of sports sociology. And maybe the critics are right. Maybe Jim idealizes Aaron Rodgers a little bit. But so what. Jim can’t help but be inspired by Aaron Rodgers, care about his wins and losses, see him as a quirky, relatable dude with a tremendous spirit that affects his entire team and a screaming mass of people cheering him on.

In the end, I’ve learned that co-workers tend to move on. Sometimes, they send you Christmas cards, grab a drink with you once in a while. But they leave impressions whether they know it or not. In most cases they don’t. It’s my belief that we should tell them.

I wish Jim the best because he is one of the best.

On climbing mountains

The sleepy shop owner who just sold us a fly swatter looks at us with eyes like damp leaves when we tell him we have never hiked in the Smoky Mountains before. His jeans have large holes smeared in green like fresh open wounds, but he still has a tinge of nostalgia in his eyes.

I run my fingers over a cedar coaster that sits in the palm of my hand. Sean takes a practice whoosh with the new swatter, whacking dead an imaginary fly. We tell the shop keeper we enjoy his work. We mean it. He tells us it keeps him off the streets. He rolls his head back and laughs like a ruffian.

We can tell that he’s comfortable with silence as he assesses our city nerves. We dart our ping pong eyes around the shop at all the items he borrowed and made from the trees. Propped up against a table, is an intricately engraved mantelpiece. I can make out the carving of an eagle dipping in and out of grooves in the slab of wood. On the tables, there are piles of pine cones, empty nests, flaps of leather—bits and pieces dispersed, yet orderly, like a mechanic’s shop.

“Give me your map,” he finally says. I fumble the map before handing it over to him. He begins to trace the trails on smooth paper with his rugged fingers. He flips it upside down. He might as well be closing his eyes, reading braille. “Here. This one will feel like it doesn’t end. It’s a tough, old trail, but it’s the least crowded. And when it ends, you’ll sure as hell know.”

He nods his head simultaneously with our “thank you” like he already knows. He recedes into his shop like a bear into its den. We look back over our shoulders before we exit. He uses a small knife to carve the handle of something—another fly swatter, an eating utensil, maybe a hairbrush. Wood shavings fall to the floor.

An hour later Sean and I are standing where he pointed his finger on the map.

The wooden sign has chipped, white letters covered in splotches of bird poop. It reads, “Ramsey Cascade Falls 4.0 miles.”

Last night, the cicadas pulsed louder than our two voices. Shaking like hundreds of maracas inside our chests, they made it clear that the land in the mountains belongs to them. As we begin the trail, we can feel them watching us from the trees. They don’t say a thing as we crack twigs and rustle leaves underneath our shoes.

The breeze carries a light mist. I pull up my hood. Sean tightens the straps of his backpack. He is excited to break in his new pack. I remember when he first tried it on in our living room weeks ago. He had said in his deep, booming voice, “Trust me, Sarah. I used to be a boy scout.”

I squeeze Sean’s hand. We have little to say as we breathe in the soft, intermingling scents of pine and wet dirt.

The ground starts off with gravel, which is short-lived. The further along we go, the more the earth juts with jagged rocks. The grass gets heavier and begins to wander like wild sideburns on the sides of the mountain’s face.

Sean spots wild turkeys. He scampers after the mother and her two babies. The mother’s fatty wattles jiggle as she huddles her babies close, quickly escorting them away from Sean, who’s running at them like a jolly pup. His backpack bounces behind him.

I can’t take my eyes off the ground. Knobby vines crisscross through the dirt and make their way back to the trees. They dip into a palate of freckled stones. I pick up a stone and hand it to Sean. It’s smooth and looks like it has been splattered with white paint. He rubs his thumb over it before he slips it into his pocket.

This becomes routine. I find a red spotted leaf. It looks diseased. I hand it to Sean. He slips it into his pocket. White pedals float down from a looming tree. I catch one, feel its velvety skin. I hand it to Sean who slips it into his pocket.

I think of the sleepy shop keeper. I imagine him picking up his favorite things and slipping them into his pockets.

We wear our explorer eyes like 3D glasses. We spot thin brooks, gaping like scars between rocks. We ogle at bright, yellow fungi, flickering in the weeds like road signs warning passersby. Sean squints at the water spiders moon walking on top of water. They’re almost opaque; we can hardly see them. I have the urge to call them Jesus spiders. I point at a mud colored gecko on a boulder. It pretends to be dead. I find a cave. I ask Sean if he dares me to poke my head in, and he tells me not to be stupid.

water spiders Gecko FungiTree

Somewhere we read that a couple of hikers carelessly left food on this trail, and a bear helped itself to their leftovers. Bears start off afraid of humans. And then we give them reasons to track us—like littering our remains. Some rangers shot that bear down when it started attacking people. I wonder if the ground shook when the enormous, brown mass collapsed to the ground. I think about the surface area of plants flattened underneath the weight of a lifeless body, the animals around it watching from safety of their caverns, trees, and holes.

I remember all the objects in the gift shops with the beloved smoky beast tattooed on them—blankets, wristbands, shot glasses.

Passing the den, I hope to catch a glimmer of brown, but it never comes.

The trail quickly begins to elevate. I can feel a squeeze in the back of my calves. I grab at branches, roots, and clumpy ledges for balance. I push my palms into them and propel my body forward. My muscles surge with electricity as the steps get bigger, my leg span gets wider. Drops of sweat kiss Sean’s forehead. Somewhere beyond the next set of boulder steps we can hear rushing water.

Sean pack Sarah climb

This becomes a pattern. We climb and climb until we meet rushing water. We run into little falls collecting into shallow pools. We’re careful not to stumble over the slimy rocks when we dip our hands into the cool water. Sean crouches low over the water, cups his hands to fill them, and splashes the sweat from his face. He replenishes it. I scan his face to see if he looks younger, as if the water is made of secret magic. “What are you looking at?” he asks, and I laugh.

Sean splashSarah falls

We lean our backs against thick trunks that stoop over edges crumbly as pie crust. The trees seem to look down. We follow their gaze that points to the falls. The little falls don’t look so little anymore. The higher we go, the longer their reach. They pile on top of each other and blend into one another. Each fall is a strand, and together they form a luscious, streaming head of hair. The mountains have long hair.

It’s a long way to fall. “Boo!” I psyche Sean out, and he staggers away from the edge with his hand on his heart.

“Hey, um, this is the closest I have ever felt to you,” I tell him. I know it’s not just the adrenaline speaking. And it’s not the proximity to death either, even though with a simple misstep, I could plummet. And I know that Sean wouldn’t be able to save me. The more likely reason is that there’s nowhere else I would rather be but here with him, nothing else I would rather be doing than climbing this mountain with him.

I never thought I would climb a mountain. And if I did, I imagined I could come up with something that wasn’t sprinkled with clichés, but everything I feel is what they say, except more enhanced because I feel it now. I’m here, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is true. I feel pure. I feel centered. I feel strong. Look at me climb. See my hands grab hunks of dirt. See my legs propel me higher.

The best feeling of all is feeling exposed. The vulnerability is as tender as a baby. Mountain climbing is intimacy—like a virginity I didn’t know I had until I lost it. It’s something you let go and give back to the earth. It’s as if you’re designed to do it.

I will backpack these feelings with me when I go to work, when I’m miserable in traffic. I will rinse and repeat, “I am strong. I am pure. I am centered.”

When I feel alone at my desk or even with a crowd of people, I will remember what it is like to be completely filled up with the sight of weeping waterfalls guarded by mountains. Or maybe the mountains are the ones who weep. It’s comforting to think they cry too.

The longer we climb, the louder we whine. “Are we there yet?” we pout with fat lips like kids in the backseat of a car. We drag our heavy limbs.

We hear a pounding like watered down thunder. This must be the end, we think. We pummel through the last set of steps. Our legs ache, but we ignore them. We hobble like turkeys to see what is on the other side of a colossal rock.

We sure as hell know we’re at the end. Water spills from every pore of the jagged, enormous rocks assembled in such a way that pulls the falls together. They knot into one, and I can’t tell which fall is which. The head of long hair is braided. The beads of water bounce from one rock to the next. We feel the spray on our faces. My lips tremble. All I want to do is touch it. I draw in close like a mosquito.

Sean and I cross the slippery platform. He suddenly loses his footing and plops down in the base of the large waterfall. I gasp and hold my breath for a second, terrified the current will sweep him away over the top of the falls, all the way down from where we first began to climb. The falls at the base of the mama waterfall are even more treacherous. They drop down soundlessly, but with violence. They would take Sean. There would be no time for words.

Sean stands up and brushes himself off. No big deal, the look on his face tells me. I huddle close to him, but we chuckle at his close call.

We inch closer to the grizzly waterfall. A family snaps photographs underneath the falls. We watch them grinning like children on their first day of school. One of the little boys is wearing swim trunks, wading in a pool of water. He has collected rocks and piled them on top of one another like a miniature Stonehenge. He had quite the inspiration for his pile of art.

Finally, we each reach a timid hand out to greet the waterfall. The water shakes our hands. It rattles through our entire bodies. Our teeth chatter, as we squint and smile against the spray.

Fallskid falls

“Beautiful,” the shy Sean says confidently. To him, this beauty is a fact. He doesn’t question it. And neither do I.

After our initial transfixion, we accept the sight of the waterfall. Sean and I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watch the falls as if we do it every day. When we pack our things to leave, I feel a swell of pain in my chest. By now, the waterfall has become a friend.

We look over our shoulders for the last time, reluctant to leave. “Hey, let’s run,” Sean suddenly says.

“I accept your challenge, young warrior,” I say.

Sean and I race each other down the mountain. He doesn’t go easy on me. I don’t go easy on him. We’re not even Sean and Sarah right now as we become one bird that takes flight over the familiar rocks and through the trees we’ve met once before.

The bonobo and the blues: Couple finds lost mojo in Memphis

I came home from work one rare day in a swimmingly good mood, instead of my usual wanting to box the imaginary bag hanging above my welcome mat. (I hope to get a real one installed soon, but I’m not sure the crackling plaster can handle it).

It’s not that I dislike what I do. Sure, it’s draining and tedious correcting grammar all day, but that’s not the rub. Keep in mind I’m also new to the whole 9-5, growing older in a computer chair gig. And then I’m hyper and miserable at time management. But pathetically enough, one of the biggest factors is how long it takes me to get to and from my job.

I am one of those people who tends to take traffic too seriously and personally, inviting it destroy my dwindling energy and rest of my day. That damn road. I tell people all the time that I will most likely die on Palatine Road. Yup, that’s how I’m going to go—probably something self-induced while staring at someone’s back bumper, who has a license plate that reads “MY BONUS.”

The good mood came from a particularly awesome interview I had at work. I write for a trade magazine, so the writing I do is about plumbing and other like trades – not the sexiest and sometimes very complex for someone who has only been in the industry for as little as I have been. But still, the occasional intriguing story does fall into my lap.

The reason for my cheer was Audrey, the 100 year old woman who works for a company in Colorado that specializes in plumbing equipment.  Yes, I said “works” as in she still currently works. Only two days a week, but still. Oh, and her 100th year of life is the year she chose to let someone live with her and not renew her license.

Audrey isn’t the kind of living fossil I could poke and inspect for secrets and philosophies. For the most part, she is a normal person with an average amount of knowledge. What is unique about her is that she is a regular person with an irregular attitude—meaning she LOVES work. And she loves people of all substance. Everyone is her family. She’s the kind of person you don’t know, would like to know, and have somehow known all along.

Audrey told me that I gave a great interview and had wonderful questions, something none of my previous interviewees have ever done. She said when she was 24 she didn’t know what the hell she was going to do. She told me I was sweet and asked for my home address to send me things. I told her she should could have my social security number if she liked. I think we’re pen pals now.

My new pen pal put me in a good mood. So when my boyfriend saw me soaring through the front door, he thought something might be seriously wrong. When he found out there wasn’t he began to nonchalantly slip his hand down my blouse and press little kisses into my neck. I giggled, but shimmied away.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Eh, I don’t know. Because I’m just not in the mood.”

“But you’re in a good mood.”

There’s nothing wrong with him trying to capitalize off my good mood. It’s true, I tend to want sex more when I’m feeling jolly or adventurous. But even then, lately, I’ve just been a little off. And my boyfriend, who owns a penis, started to notice that.

There comes a point in every long-term relationship when the so-called kids slow down. We are at that point. Well I am. My boyfriend told me that I only like to have sex with him on Saturdays, and that was beginning to feel like a schedule to him. He was honest about something that has been bugging him. He wasn’t pointing his finger in my face.

I opened up, too. I told him I’m not as interested and slightly bored at the thought of having sex in the same bed in the same few positions in the same way. Then I told him I wanted to connect with him more intimately during sex. Maybe I’m just getting to that point where I want to crack open a hot and heavy pulp romance novel. No, but seriously, I want more slow touching and soft talking instead of the pornographic acrobatics. Or lazy bantering over who’s on top this time. Finally, I just don’t always feel sexy, leaning too heavily on my physical appearance. The thought of my stomach jiggling around just kind of turns me off.

And he was okay with that, actually relieved that it wasn’t because I didn’t like him anymore. So after talking it out, we came up with a compromise because the physical part of our relationship is very important to us, not the most, but still essential. I would break the work like sex schedule. And we would to work on being more spontaneous and focus on our intimacy.

I understand that this sort of compromise is harder than it sounds. Luckily though, Sean and I had a vacation coming up, so that would be a perfect opportunity to re-establish our mojo, something that was quite impressive long ago. We’re the couple who have had sex in a stairwell under a towel. In the woods pressed up against a sappy tree. In a children’s park (at night with no children around, don’t worry, folks). One summer we jumped a fence while drunk and went skinny dipping in some poor soul’s heated pool. We easily forget how sexy (slightly creepy) we used to be, how electric we felt about each other.

So, we saved and planned for a road trip to Orlando with stops in Memphis, Gatlinburg, and then Atlanta on the way home. Illinois, the majority of it being rural (easily forgotten in Chicago or the suburbs), is a tough state to drive through. It’s basically one long, gaping scar of corn. Driving through, I found myself still clinging to my busy, stressed life back home. Sean would grab my hand every now and then, but instead of concentrating on the pressure of his hand on mine, I was distracted with the overwhelming undertones of worry, of which I feel I have little control.

And Sean too is busy. He is one of the go-to dudes at his job and works harder than anyone I know. Needless to say, we warily pulled into our hotel in Memphis around 12:00 a.m. Bug guts were splattered all over our windshield, and exhaustion clouded our eyes.

A rock like sleep in Memphis was all it took to jump start our eagerness to enjoy our vacation and each other, and most importantly—to freaking RELAX.

Our first excursion began with the Memphis Zoo. A little on the Memphis Zoo: though it’s a small zoo, it has hands down some of the best exhibits and most interesting animals. Brookfield Zoo is the rave in Illinois, but especially on weekends during the summer, it’s swimming with kids with sticky fingers pressed up or knocking on the glass of each exhibit, and generally people who shove past you to get a closer view than you.

We went to the Memphis Zoo on a Saturday at noon. No big crowds, no rude elbows. Everyone was polite. I didn’t feel like punching anyone in the face. Not to mention the zoo had pandas, panthers, and a bunch of other animals I have never seen up close.

The bonobo monkey was one of the animals I have never seen. It’s basically like any other chimpanzee I have seen— cocoa bean brown and mid-sized (compared to other primates) with stringy arms and big, pink gums. Except there was one crucial difference—its private parts.

Bonobo 2 Bonobo monkey

The two female bonobos we saw wore their coconut sized, pink, spongy-looking vaginas on the outside of their bodies. And it was as if these parts were turned inside out. Sean and I exchanged awkward glances and tried to not to look the bonobos’ appendages directly head-on.

The bonobos turned out to be an entertaining lot. At first they were lazing around and uninterested in anything aside from picking bugs out of their fur. And then, one of them, stuck her whole fist into her mouth until she vomited.

Everyone watching – Sean and I, as well as a mother and her two kids – was horrified when the bonobo sat unfazed cupping her leftovers in her hand. She used her unoccupied hand to knuckle over to her pal who was splayed out on a pile of hay fondling her brain of a vagina. The bulimic monkey reached her long arm out and handed the other one half of her handful. They both began to happily munch on puke chunks that looked like cornmeal.

This was probably one of the top 3 most nauseating things I have ever seen. I can safely say the others’ stomachs were churning away too. We stood with our ruined eyes unable to look away. I was the first to start dry heaving, something I willed myself to stop immediately.

We were about to call it quits when the bonobos suddenly dropped their lunch and lunged at each other. The bulimic monkey straddled her friend and began to thrust manically, and they both began to rub their big parts together. The poor, red-faced mother we were standing next to turned and shielded her laughing children. And the bonobos had no care in the world. Once they detached themselves, they sidled over to their food, picked it up, and resumed their munching.

It took a while to get over the nausea, but eventually Sean and I were stomach stable enough to talk about what had occurred. We were left in wonder about these monkeys. What the hell were these things? What was with their weird parts and peculiar sexual behavior? We wanted to know more about these freaks. We decided to hit up the old Wikipedia. See full info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo

The bonobo, or the pygmy chimpanzee, is an endangered ape. It is popularly known for its overly interested nature in sex. As it turns out, the bonobo uses sex to satisfy arousal and affection needs, resolve conflict and reduce stress, and for social status.

Bonobos like to get in on in a variety of positions and with different combinations of partners—male and female. This explains the female on female clit rubbing we witnessed. They are the only non-human animal to do it missionary style, French kiss, and perform oral sex.

Oh, and the bonobo has a clitoris that is three times bigger than a human’s. That’s a lot of surface area to stimulate. The clitoral grinding happens about “once every two hours on average.” And this behavior is not just exclusive to the ladies. The male bonobos have a “penis fencing” ritual that they partake in as well.

That’s a lot of sex, Sean and I thought. (Side note: If this isn’t prime proof we evolved from monkeys and are meant to be homosexual, heterosexual, or anything in between, I don’t know what is). We read on to find out they are one of the least aggressive breeds of monkey. That means that sex chills these guys the hell out.

Sean and took a leaf from the bonobos’ page and enjoyed the rest of our night together in Memphis. We sauntered around lazily on Beale Street, soaking in the city’s deep love of music. Sipping vodka concoctions out of orange swirly straws and fishbowls, we listened to the feel-good grooves oozing from every pore in the street.

Sarah Memphis Sean Memphis

Local musicians exposed their souls. We saw a 300 pound man in overalls play harmonica and barrel through bluegrass songs; a woman with a large fro and no bra belt out blues like it was everyone’s business to know what she was feeling in that moment; a scrawny 20-something sail through Free Bird on guitar like he was strolling through a park. In any case, I’d take any of their layers and raw musical talent over American Idol any day.

Memphis Memphis 2 Memphis 3 BB kings

Memphis, one of the birth cities of blues, was buzzing, no gyrating, inside Sean and me. We realized how caged we both were and began rattling the bars of monotony. How were we living like this? What was stopping us from experiencing each other?

We could barely keep our hands off each other by the time we reached our hotel. Sean kept losing his hands in my hair. In the elevator, his eyes roamed my body. I felt my face heat up with an electric smile as I eyeballed his button down shirt, plucking them open one by one in my brain.

I didn’t think it was possible for a couple that has been together for nearly 7 years, but we explored each other like it was the first time. When it was over, our souls belched like they just had a meal of a lifetime. How do we keep this going when we get home? we asked.

Maybe next time I come home with my hands balled up in tight fists, I can remember how good it feels to let go, to forget the day’s past, and to simply fall into Sean’s arms since I know he’s there to catch me. And I’m here to catch him. And we could fix the kinks and tighten the loosening screws of each other. When it’s all over, we can feel a little more like the unique, separate selves we are meant to be together.

I have someone who accepts me for who I am—who loves me enough to let me broadcast our sex life all over the internet, I remind myself. I need to stop acting like my life is miserable because it’s not. I just need to let go of pointless bouts of road rage and other useless bits of anxiety over things I can’t control. All that meaningless stuff should be just as funny to me as it used to be. Then maybe, just maybe I can finally unbutton my pants and enjoy my sex, too.

Love’s blue skies: a letter from aunt to nephew

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Skylar,

I’m starting to warm up to your name in my ears and on my lips. It’s a good name. After all, we are made of bright little flecks of sky, right? You are here, and what they say is true, you’re a miracle. Welcome to Earth, Skylar.

I have only seen you once, and I can still feel your body in my arms. You were wrapped tight in a blanket, a creature stirring in its cocoon. Your head nestled where my bicep and forearm meet. This has been permanently impressed into my skin like a birthmark inked in the womb.

Last summer I cradled a stingray in my arms. Its slippery, cool, gel-like underside pressed against my palms. Its fins flapped over the water, but it remained flat as a board, resting and pressing its smooth skin against my hands, which were quivering against the waves just below the water’s surface. I tried to stay still so I could feel it breathe. And also so it wouldn’t sting me. The terror of being stung seized me, but I couldn’t help but be invigorated by the life I held in my hands. It was pure intimacy to be so close, to hold something so strange and beautiful that  inhabits the sea.

You are the most delicate thing I have ever held. You were heavier than I thought. Probably because the weight of knowing what could happen to you if you fell from my arms was unbearable.

After coming home from the hospital, I retraced your nose, eyes and cheeks in my head. I thought about your mouth sucking the air like a fish. I thought how every now and then, you’d open your eyes and look around, waywardly, almost drunkenly. That day was the first time you ever used your eyes. Your gaze was lost and trying to find your way. You were tired from the long trip, and your best bet was to close your pink, wary lids.

Your mom looked quizzical when I mumbled if I could hold you. “Of course you can,” she said and smiled warmly, despite how exhausted she felt. She stretched out her long, tattooed arms and shared her newborn baby. In your mother’s hospital room, your grandmother and father sat on either side of me. We looked down at you in my arms. It was a long time before we remembered that we, unlike you, had voices in our throats with words to say. Your dad spoke first with a joke to break a silence dominated by loud thoughts.

“I hope he’s good-looking,” he said.

“I hope he’s smart,” I said.

“I hope he has good health,” said your grandmother.

And there we sat and stared at you some more. I thought of the Wizard of Oz like gifts we wished for you. Later on, I went back in time in my mind to change my answer to include a whole list more.

Baby Skylar, please, please forgive me for this: truthfully, when I found out about you, I was sad. I was not on board. I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to get what you what you deserve.

But now that I’ve met you and seen how people on both sides of the family have flocked like birds to be in your life and support you, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and positivity. I hope to be a part of your life. You have already affected mine, and I’ve been in a room with you for less than an hour so far.

Yes, your parents are young. But here’s the thing: plenty of young parents have given birth and successfully raised children throughout history. Even now, young parents have surprised many of the same ones wagging their fingers. Human nurturing is a powerful natural instinct that kicks into gear even during the darkest of times and direst of situations. And even more, people have the tendency to change, to grow like thirsty sunflowers when they know life has assigned them an essential worth-living kind of task.

It’s easy to be negative about young parents. It’s harder to look young parenthood in the face and accept it, embrace it.  It’s easy to turn a cheek instead of becoming another voice of support, another link to the chain that a young family can hold onto.

Your parents have each lived lives so far that they may or may not know exactly how to put into words. Now, your parents work together and make the best of what they have. I hope that you will help them come to terms with some of the tough times they’ve lived through and also remember the beautiful things about them that caused them to rise and move forward.

I hope you are the beginning of a strong, close family. I know how hard your mom fought to keep you, to make sure you arrived safely. I have a feeling she will fill you up with everything she has. You are not a bad decision. You are a living, breathing piece of new life.

For the first time in a long time, I have prayed. Not only for your safety coming into this world, but more importantly, finding happiness in it. What you don’t know because you are too young to know: life is really hard. Especially for those who don’t have much and at the same time are still struggling to figure themselves out. Sometimes when you don’t have much, you feel like you deserve nothing more, like you should stay right where you are. This is a circle that is hard to understand, but is not impossible to leave.

I’m not exactly sure what I believe anymore. When I was a little kid I loved learning about and loving God. Knowing that there is something big out there looking out for you and wishing you happiness is a powerful thing to hold inside you. It can carry you through.

But let me be clear, you can believe whatever you want to believe. I hope you at least believe in yourself. Because that was the other half of the equation for me; I also believed in my own goodness, and I found my own happiness. I found things excruciatingly funny, interesting, and moving. I gave and continue to give with all the love I have.

Skylar, never hold back on the love you feel. I know you will probably get a lot of advice from people throughout your life. It is your decision what you choose to accept and reject, but this is my best, and I hope you accept it. It has been said many times before: love and be loved.

I wish I could say it was as simple as that. Sometimes it hurts and sometimes you love people who don’t know how to love you back or won’t. But it’s never a waste. Don’t let painful experiences with love stop you from loving, seeking people who fully reflect love back, and things that bring love outside your body. One last thing, and certainly the hardest, love yourself. Don’t take that lightly. Please, please, please, love yourself. Make it routine. Brush teeth. Wash hands. Love yourself.

I need to share something very special with you. Do you see this man?

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He is the most solid proof I have for you to love and be loved. Your great-grandfather Anthony J. Cimarusti, passed away a little over a year ago. He was someone who made love look easy, that’s how much he fully incorporated it into his life.

He gave a tremendous amount to his family. He was not a rich man, but he was always available for support.  The times when he gave the most were at family gatherings, where he divided himself up, shared his warmth and time equally amongst us all. We gobbled him up.

He never turned anyone away, especially when they were filled with pain. Every single time I knocked on his door, he opened it, greeting me with a mischievous smile, wave of Old Spice, and a sweater stained in spaghetti sauce.

Up until I was 14, I held hands proudly with my grandfather in public, introduced him to strangers on the street. We walked a lot through parks. He showed me how to feed ducks, how to make the best turkey sandwiches, and how to swing on a swing. He taught me how to drive. He had warm, big tree bark hands that he used to fix things around the house, give big hugs, dance, and sift through books.

He loved movies with classically pretty girls. He loved history, learning about ancient peoples and wars. He loved his country. When I used to work at the library, he would come visit me. “Excuse me, Miss,” he’d joke and ask me for a book.

Then he’d sit at a table and read. I recall books on Lincoln, the Nazis. We would whisper to each other for a little in the book stacks, and then he would be on his way. He left a trail of admirers on his route out the door. “Sarah, I just saw your grandfather. He has such a kind, warm soul,” my co-workers would say. “I love that man,” I’d say.

Everyone he knew wanted in on his overflowing goblet of love that he drank from heartily. Even after my grandfather retired, he still worked as an in-house kind of electrician. People requested him for side jobs, and he continued to light up homes because he truly understood his life’s calling was such more than changing burnt bulbs.

My grandfather was married to your great-grandmother for 63 years. He freed her from a difficult family past. Then he made her happy. He took her to all her school dances. He even scrubbed her kitchen floor on his hands and knees. She took care of him too. One of my favorite memories I have of my grandmother is when she was bent over my grandfather’s hospital bed, and she was massaging lotion onto his feet.

63 years is a long time. It’s hard to understand what that feels like, to love someone after all that time. But it’s possible.

I have my fears about what kind of life you will have, what kind of person you will be. But you will soon realize that for the majority of your life, it is up to you.  I hope these feel like warm wishes, something to fall back on if you ever need it, rather than heavy expectations. This is letting you know that I’m here, and I will always care.

I’m beyond excited to know you, Skylar.

Love, love, love,

Auntie Sarah