Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Adventures in Travel: Things don't go as planned

Two days ago, we dropped off our daughter for two weeks at Girl Scout camp and got on a bus to Chicago. At which point in the bus station, I have a pretty significant marital spat with my husband which almost involves me telling him to stay behind in St. Louis because I'm pretty mad.
But after the first three hours of the journey and not talking, we manage to make up enough to decide to try to have a good time. We check into our pretty cool hotel downtown and have dinner and a swim. We had all day the next day to spend in downtown Chicago. After breakfast, we head for Navy Pier and almost make it to the walkway when I wipe out on the sidewalk, turning and dislocating my ankle.
I didn't notice for about ten minutes that my phone had flown out of my pocket. I crawled out of the hot sun around the corner to the shady area where I felt so sick, I lay on the sidewalk and just cried. When I noticed my phone was missing, John went around the corner to look for it and it was gone.
I immediately started cussing out the imaginary "piece of shit" who stole my phone. Now I had to go to Urgent care and the phone store! I managed to limp back to the hotel lobby and put my foot up on the couch. John got me some ice and brought me my iPad so I could activate "find my iPhone"
We noticed it had been carried across the street to the Ohio St beach area and there it was. I cussed out the thief some more. Then I said, hey, John, send a text that says "Return this phone to W hotel for a reward" and see if they bring it back.
I then shut down the phone and put it in Lost Mode with John's number on it. John went to Walgreens to get me some ankle wrap and I sat on the couch icing my ankle. He returned with my phone. Apparently a nice family had found it and intended to turn it into the phone store but went to the beach first. As soon as they saw the Lost Phone message, they called John and he met them at the entrance to the tunnel. He offered them a reward but they refused to take it.
First lesson of the day: jumping to the worst conclusions about who had my phone. I wonder why we always go to the worst scenario. I was pretty grateful for the return of the phone. I thought about the phones I return to my Uber passengers and am grateful that I seemed to have gotten some good phone karma. But it bothered me that instead of being hopeful about who had the phone, I had been hateful and angry. I had been all "what a piece of shit" to steal my phone"
My next stop was getting an uber to Urgent Care. Fortunately, my ankle is not broken but I did do significant soft tissue damage given the dislocation. They gave me a gel cast and crutches.
The doctor told me to stay off it and rest it up.
Me: does not tell her I am going to London.
I thought of my mom going to London with a broken arm about eight years ago. I had gone to New York with her for four days to help her get through the first part of her trip and then put her on a plane to London. She never once thought about canceling her trip. Neither did I, frankly.
We took an Uber to the Blue Line and John helped me down the stairs with my luggage and said goodbye. I sent the crutches back to St. Louis with him - I simply couldn't manage them and my bags. He said "Can't I just donate them?" I said "No way, we already bought them, and besides, I'm sure I will need them as a theater prop." Yeah, it's an illness. So he took them back to St. Louis with him.
When I arrived at the airport, I immediately asked for assistance and they brought me a wheelchair. Part of me was thinking- but I can limp... but the other part of me was like- don't act like that, you aren't taking a wheelchair away from anyone, there is enough for everyone, you are legitimately in need of assistance. It's hard because I want to be the one helping someone else but sometimes I need help, too.
And my second lesson in humility was having mobility issues and realizing what goes with it. You have to have a lot of patience because you're relying on other people to do things for you.
So, yes, you do get to board the plane first, but that evens out because you are pretty much the last one to get off, and after that, you have to wait for a chair. There were 33 wheelchairs on that plane. So, pretty much no one was letting mobility issues stop them from going to London.
I can still walk, albeit very slowly. I managed to get on the underground and get to my flat okay. Fortunately the Underground station is very close to my flat and I didn't have to change stations. I hope that my ankle gets to feeling better, I am going to try not to do to much. I was mourning not getting my 20.000 steps of exercise in from walking through the airport but I am grateful to all the staff who helped me.
And I suppose I am also grateful to be overcoming obstacles. Things don't go as planned. You have to overcome things, or get through them. I try to be positive about it. I did have a wash of depression as I had to manage the fact that we had a lousy day because I fell and I never made it to the beach and we didn't walk around Chicago at all. And we wasted time fighting.
I have a lot to be grateful for. The plane landed and it was an absolutely gorgeous warm, sunny beautiful day in London. Seventy three degrees. A rarity in the land of rain. A family that cared enough to return a lost phone. A husband who went out of his way to take care of me when I was injured. A flat in London to rest my bones in. So, I'm sore, but I'm here and I am making the best of it when things don't go as planned.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Best Gay friend

Lots of us hetero girls start out with crushes on our best gay friend. I was no exception. I had a massive crush on my friend Jon but it didn't outlast the friendship. In fact I knew it was silly and ill advised and it was just a phase I got over. I was never upset he put me in the friend zone- it was as it should be. Jon also had a crush on my boyfriend at the time which made things interesting, it was also something I was not overly worried about. We all just knew where things were because we were painfully honest about all of it.
In spite and maybe because of our crushes, we managed to form a tight friendship that stood the test of all the ugly things we were going through as teenagers.
I met Jon at Rocky Horror, he played Frank though he was about as wrong physically for the role as he could be. It didn't matter. We loved him so. And he was the most fun. One whole summer, we spent every day together, going to the drive in, hanging out at the airport, walking the mall. And in the winter, his parents threw him out of the house he lived in. His dad never accepted that his son was gay.
Jon got a car with no plates on it and lived in it that winter, along with my boyfriend. He would drive to pick me up every day and we would just spend the day together just doing whatever teenagers do. Hanging out in the central west end, ordering coffee and soda and taking up a booth all day long. At night, they would take me home late and I would sleep in my bed while they would find a place to park where they wouldn't be bothered.
We spent the days in deep conversation about all the things we cared about and wanted to be. We talked about stupid things, about important things. About growing up with abusive fathers.
For a while, Jon shared an apartment with a girl down on the south side and we all ended up crashing there. I ran away for a few months and we all lived there til we got kicked out.
My best memory was planning our birthdays together. Jon's birthday was May 6 and mine is May 12. I was turning 16 and he was turning 17 so we planned a party at my house. I took the bus to Clayton one day and bought this elaborate cake at Lake Forest Bakery.
Half of it said "Happy birthday Vanessa - sweet sixteen "
His half said "Happy birthday Jon-- 17 BS 4711"
which was a kind of a sideways reference to the tattoo Tim Curry had when he played Frank.
My mom was not happy about the rowdy party that followed with spiked punch and loud friends. But we had fun and it was over before midnight because we all went to Rocky.
When I was 17, I moved in with my boyfriend (it didn't end well but that is another story) and somehow, we lost touch with Jon. I got pregnant before the end of the year and once I had the baby, I pretty much was abandoned by most of my friends. With Jon, I just don't know what happened. Sometimes we are close for a long time and then things change.
He was going through his own struggle. I spent two years of my life with him as one of my best friends. And at some point I found out he had AIDS and that he had died. This was long after I had gone looking for him and had failed to find him. This was one of those rumors, but it is probably true.
During the times that Jon got repeatedly kicked out of his house, he had been making money by being a male prostitute. There was always some gross guy to be serviced in the park back then, and it was pretty much the only way as no one wanted to hire him. Jon was a good kid. I wonder who he would have grown up to be and who he would have been today.
I still miss him in that wistful way and I never forget his birthday, which is today. Happy birthday, Jon. I still love you.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Price of Gold

When I saw Ben across the room of a crowded bar, my heart jumped a little bit. He was more than just a little good looking and he was looking at me, too. I know people say if you don't want to date an alcoholic, don't pick up guys at bars but it didn't seem to matter where I met guys, they usually had a love affair with alcohol. But he had those dark brown eyes and a beautiful shock of black hair and I couldn't look away from him.
I don't know what it was about them, these guys with their deep, dark tortured souls, but it was one of those patterns in my life I would seek therapy a few years later to figure out. But at that moment, he could have been anyone. He could have been that guy who went out once a week and just had a few beers. The night was full of possibility.
After successfully looking at him across the room enough times, he came over to talk to me. And we had this really nice talk that ended up outside in the warm September night. He told me what he did for a living and showed me his pretty car and then asked if I wanted to go out with him some time. He told me repeatedly that I seemed like a nice girl and what was I doing at a bar.
That's the kind of thing I would learn later, after countless hours of therapy, was a red flag. There were lots of little red flags, I would both pay attention to and ignore because he was so good looking and so charming and I just wanted to kiss him.
He asked me for my phone number and I gave it to him, then surprisingly, he confessed "I have a girlfriend, though. Is that a problem?"
My head whipped around quickly. "Of course it's a problem."
"What do you mean?" He asked with lazy confidence.
"It means I don't date guys with girlfriends. I'm not some chick you can have on the side. If you break up with her, call me, otherwise, lose my phone number, I don't want to hear from you."
And I walked away. Frankly, I was super pissed off. Ben had led me on, basically lied to me. I was furious and disappointed. I hadn't liked a guy in a long time and it made me sad and angry. Still, I hadn't even kissed him. I had walked away with my dignity and my pride and kept my standards.
Two weeks later, he called me. I had put him out of my mind so much that I barely remembered who he was but he told me that he hadn't been able to stop thinking about me. He said "I broke up with her, I finally did it. Will you please go out with me now?"
I remember blushing on the phone and being pleased and flattered. He broke up with her for me? Wow. I could barely even process it, and I said yes faster than I should have. I didn't even think about it. Part of me was terrified to get involved with him and part of me exhilarated. It's one of those things that I jumped into. We got intensely involved very fast.
On our first date, I met him downtown, he had rented a fancy hotel room and was throwing money around. At the hotel, I said "So, here's the thing. I just don't sleep with guys on the first date, so if you're expecting that because you have a hotel room, I can just go home now and save you the trouble."
But he assured me that was not it. At that point he confessed, he had just moved back in with his parents and just wanted a night out. I'm sure he wouldn't have turned down sex on the first date but he never even was overly bothered by my refusal. To be honest, he behaved really honorably. He never pressured me for sex or made me feel uncomfortable or unsafe. He was pretty awesome. But over the course of the evening, he did get pretty drunk.
He told me to park in the hotel garage and he would pay for my parking at the end of the night. After a whole night of bar hopping, we ended up back at his room and there was some pretty intense making out but no pressure to go any further. He took his gold necklace off and put it around my neck.
"I like you so much, I just want you to have it." He said.
It was sweet and touching.
The night got very late and he passed out. I looked at my watch and knew I had to get home. It was almost five in the morning. I tried to wake him to tell him I was leaving and get the money for the parking garage but he wouldn't wake up.
There was cash all over the room, cash that had fallen out of his pocket, his wallet was bulging. Part of me thought I should just take it, he had promised me the cash for the parking. He probably had no idea how much money he had spent that evening and wouldn't miss a twenty. But I found I couldn't do it. I just couldn't take that money without him handing it to me, it felt wrong. I had about three dollars on me. That was it. I felt pretty stupid, but I had to get home. So, I left. I did the walk of shame out of that hotel in my pretty black dress and sexy boots and went down to the parking garage to get my car.
When I approached the gate, I felt the guy looking at me like I was a prostitute.
I explained to him that I only had $3 and could he please take that and let me out. I told him the guy had said he would pay for parking but passed out. The parking attendant looked me up and down. I felt truly pathetic. He took pity on me and lifted the gate. He must have thought I was the worst prostitute ever, couldn't even get paid.
The next afternoon, Ben called me to tell me he had just gotten home. He was soft spoken and romantic and asked when he could see me again. I was excited about seeing him again.
Then, he asked me "So, this is kind of embarrassing but I have to ask..."
"What is it?" I said "You can ask me anything!"
"Did you... I woke up this morning and my necklace was missing. Did you take it?"
I sat there for a moment, just stunned.
"Did I take your necklace?"
"Yeah...I'm not mad or anything, I just kind of need it back."
I said "So, when you woke up, did you see all that cash lying around your room?"
He said "Yeah, I guess it was pretty messy."
"Yep," I said. "Looked like your whole paycheck was just lying around. Must have been a few hundred dollars, I don't know, I didn't count it. I just left it there. I mean, I could have robbed you blind and you never would have known it, you were passed out cold."
I could not repeat to him the humiliation of the parking garage incident. Could not. It was still burning in my cheeks every time I thought of it.
"You took that necklace off and put it on me and told me I could have it. But you can have it back if you want it."
He hesitated. "I don't remember giving it to you."
I assured him it was fine if he wanted it back. I didn't even like the stupid thing, in fact I really had no desire for it now.
"I would be fine giving it back to you."
"No, it's okay. I'm just glad you didn't steal from me. I guess if I gave it to you, and you want to keep it..."
"I don't."
"Why? It's real gold."
I had no idea how to explain to him that the worth of the necklace had been destroyed by his accusation. That the worth of the necklace had never been about the price he had paid but the way he had felt about us that night.
In the end, I gave it back so that it wouldn't sit between us like a seed of doubt. But I kinda wish I had kept it, just on principle.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Funeral for a Friend

When I was thirteen years old, I met this guy I couldn't put in a nice category. His first name was David but we called him by his last name, which I won't use here. At thirteen, I was fully hitting puberty, my level of deep thoughts was way beyond that of any peers my age and I was just beginning to fully rebel.
I had decided that my body was my own. I was feeling the full autonomy of myself. I was in full on hatred of my controlling paternal figure and much to my delight and chagrin, I was becoming attractive to males ready to exploit me.
David fit neatly into none of these categories. He was about five years older than me, at that age, kind of a big deal. And I didn't like him very much. He was always sarcastic and mean to pretty much everyone.
David held the spotlight at the Varsity during the Rocky Horror Picture Show.. He stood up on the armrests of the seats and held the spotlight on all of the performers so the audience could see us. I have no idea why he did this. It's a totally thankless thing to do. There's no glory in it, but he did it every single weekend pretty much without fail.
I was a pretty shy kid, so I did more listening than talking but hanging out with this crowd was making me more talkative and bringing me out of my shell. I can remember pretty clearly the distrust I had for David. I was wary of him and stayed out of his way and just regularly assumed he didn't like me.
At some point, I started getting to go to Denny's with the rest of the group if I could get a ride there and back home again. I was often pretty reckless and impulsive about getting a ride. I would pretty much take a ride from almost anyone. This caused trouble for me more than once. It was the reason why I accepted a ride from David the first time. I didn't necessarily trust him but I knew him. And he gave rides to lots of the young ones who went to Rocky.
I remember thinking, damn, that's nice of him, but also out of character for who I thought he was. He said such mean, sarcastic things. He made fun of me all the time. After a pretty awful experience one night when a guy who drove me home pretty much demanded sex from me, I started accepting rides from David most of the time.
He was not the least bit interested in me sexually and I wasn't in him either. Most of the boys I knew back then who weren't gay either wanted to control me or fuck me and David wanted neither one of these things. I was never sure if we were friends because he kept me at arms length, but as I look back on it now, he was very careful who he became close to. And he was fully capable of not keeping your secrets and stabbing you in the back at will. I didn't trust him. I watched him take information given to him in confidence and spread it around in the most unkind way.
So- what was it about him? I wish I knew. Somewhere along the way with all those rides home, often I was the last person dropped off and I did talk to him about my life. Granted, I told him those confidences that I did not care if they made the rounds of our tight knit little crowd of misfits. Sometimes, he would just ask me a lot of questions and I would candidly answer. I did not think he cared very much about me, it never seemed like it.
But he was always keeping me safe, even when I didn't know it.
As friendships do, ours grew. It was an odd, misfit sort of relationship but we were from an odd, misfit sort of community. I remember putting together odd clues that he did, in fact, like me as a person. I remember thinking it odd that he would give us kids a ride home when he practiced such disdain for humanity in general. David just seemed to hate everyone. I watched him closely because he was not an easy person to figure out and I loved a challenge. It's the writer in me, I guess, I know too well that what we are putting out there is not necessarily who we are. And duality was not some thing we made up.
I could feel myself as a different person when I was around my friends at Rocky-- different than who I was when I was at school and different than I was when I was at home with my family. In a way, I felt my most authentic self at Rocky but this was not true of everyone there.
It had not escaped my notice that lots of people were putting on a show while crying for acceptance.
David was definitely putting on a show and I am quite sure now, from this distance, that he was trying to figure out who he was but back then, he had me convinced he knew who he was and that he could see everyone else and you know, for the most part, I believe that was genuine. I know this guy, he was an old soul in many ways and he was carrying a wisdom lots of people his age had no idea about.
But back then, I remember getting a phone call from him one day.
"Did anyone invite you to see the Exorcist with us?" he said
"They must have forgot. I guess you'll need a ride, though."
"Yeah... I..."
"I'll pick you up at 7, be ready."
And that was how it went. He picked up four of us.
It has not escaped my attention that he was the unofficial leader of our little group, and you were in or out sometimes on his whim. Though no one was ever asked to leave Rocky, David could make your life miserable. David did not ask to lead us, but he commanded so much anyway.
I think he tried to discourage me from being there many times, but I was persistent enough to stick it out and I feel like it was this day when he made me part of things. It was after this day when I was invited to everything where before I was not always part of it. I think he admired that I didn't wait for permission. In a way, we appreciated each other's rebellions. He recognized a stubbornness in me and my ability to both avoid him and look him in the eye. In some way, the whole group was vying for his acceptance and I have no idea when he figured out I didn't care if I was accepted or not. I was asserting my right to be there and acceptance was merely secondary.
But it was this time that I began to notice David watching out for me. Quietly, behind the scenes, he was revealing he gave a damn. And when he realized I was about to start actually dating, it became the topic of our rides home. He wanted to know who I was interested in and why.
He would poke at me with intrusive questions making me look deeper into everyone I might like.
"Yeah, but do you really think that guy deserves your time? Isn't he just treating you like shit?"
And I would protest quietly about what I could put up with and he would say "That guy is a piece of shit."
And I would say "Isn't he your friend?"
And he would respond "Yeah, but he's a piece of shit, I hope you seriously don't date him."
David was not ever in love with me and had no attraction for me. He neither wanted to fuck me or control me. He wasn't gay. He was one of those rare males who was interested in who I was. For reasons that confused me. He didn't want to be some authoritarian person in my life. He didn't want to date me. I wondered what box to put him in. I couldn't wholly figure him out because he was determined I not know him, but what he didn't realize is his effort to know me was revealing it itself to me.
I'm finding it impossible to give a complete sense of him here, but I want to write down my best memories of him.
David was the worst person at crossing the street. In front of the Varsity, he would walk out in front of an oncoming car and hold up his hand for the car to stop. Inevitably, it would stop, but I used to caution him that he was going to get hit by a car someday and he laughed at me. "They'll stop." he said. "They always stop." He said this with a casual authority and an arrogance that always worried me. He was unconcerned with his mortality and that bothered me. Though as a side note, he was not a reckless or careless driver himself, I always felt safe with him. And I never felt he put anyone at risk but himself.
When I was sixteen, I ran away from home several times. My father was quite abusive and I wanted out. I didn't tell David about this but he found out one night when my mother came looking for me at the Varsity. My friends rallied and managed to sneak me out the back door and escape once again. This whole evening was regarded as a major crisis and a bunch of us ended up at David's house in Clayton, I don't even remember how. We had never been there before and this was not something we had done on any regular basis. His parents were not reported to be that supportive of what he was doing. There were rumors around him constantly. That he was some rich kid, that he was unhappy. I wish I had known more of him but he kept his life cloaked in secrecy and you were as likely to get the truth as you were to get a complete fabrication from him. It amused him to lie about stuff and see how far he could take it. It also amused him to toy with people like me.
I remember him recording private phone conversations and then playing them for the whole group as part of some elaborate joke. I hated that part. He could be such an asshole.
This particular night, he called me into a side room by myself and started lecturing me about how I was screwing up my future. He pressed me to open up to him and I wouldn't. I was scared and I didn't trust him. The whole time he kept telling me how much promise I had and how smart I was and how I could bear it for a couple more years. That I would be able to get out after that but if I screwed this up, it was going to mess up the rest of my life. I broke down a little and talked to him a little. He was so intense that night. I had never seen him like that. I had never seen him take care of anyone like that. Yet of course he did, I just didn't know about it. Underneath that sarcastic asshole was a real person who showed he cared. But in the back of my head, I was wondering if I was being tape recorded for my humiliation later. I wasn't, though.
Probably the most real he ever was with me was on that night. What was going on was genuine.
Sadly, I did not listen to him. His effort to save me from myself and my own worst impulses did not work. I wish I had listened to him, he was more right than I let him believe. It was the last time he intervened.
David hated my boyfriend at the time. For every good reason there was. Shortly after this, David had a private New Years eve party at the bar of the Quality Inn. Everyone was invited and everyone went, this was the night I discovered amaretto sours. I wasn't really drunk but I was kissing everyone at midnight and having a great time until suddenly and epically, everything went wrong. The owner of the venue noticed underage drinking, the cops were called, a girl bit another girl's hand in a ridiculous fight and every punk rock boy that had been slam dancing moments before put their fold up hunting knives in the ceiling and fled.
I stood in the lobby after my boyfriend had abandoned me and watched David having a stand off with the male manager and the female owner of the club he rented for his party. He stood there stubbornly listening to these two yell at him about the giant clusterfuck the party had become and then the yelling became personally abusive. He squared off and very calmly looked at the guy and said "I only have one thing to say to you..." I held my breath, I knew what was coming. David was famous for this phrase, his timing was always impeccable, he played the pause for maximum effect as he went for the kill.
The man was infuriated beyond reason and he balled up his fist and laid David out on the floor in one punch.
David was knocked unconscious and his girlfriend immediately rushed to his side along with the rest of us. There was so much yelling and confusion, it was hard to tell what was going on but we knew the cops were arriving in just a minute.
David came to pretty quickly, looked around him from the floor and locked eyes with me. Quickly, he looked from me to his girlfriend and says to her words I will never forget. "The cops are coming- we have to get Vanessa out of here, she'll get arrested for curfew. Hurry, get her to the hotel room and keep her there till all this is over."
Suddenly and quickly I was whisked away to their hotel room (in the same building) and kept there until things died down.
I cannot imagine what was through his mind to have focused on my safety after he had just been assaulted but there it was. A kind of measurable proof that he cared about other people.
It was that night my then boyfriend had purchased a beer from David with a silver dollar that he stole from my house. A week later, David returned that silver dollar to me when I presented the case that had been pried open with a hunting knife now residing in the ceiling at the Quality Inn. It was one of the many things that had been stolen from my house over Christmas. David looked at me with pity and asked me one more time if I was sure that I wanted to date someone who stole from me. I remember shrugging helplessly and blaming love and loyalty for my foolishness.
"Your life." he said. That was all. He seemed done trying to fix me. That was all he had to say. It's clear that what he said stuck with me.
A few months later, David was struck by a car crossing the street next to Dennys. I cannot describe what it is to lose a friend in this way when you are sixteen years old. Someone that you had just begun to figure out. Someone who could be such a sarcastic asshole and the most loyal friend at the same time. Someone who inexplicably gave a damn about me but didn't really want to advertise it. Lots of people said they were glad he was dead. I wasn't. He was twenty one years old, though he felt so much older to me.
He was so much more than anyone realized. He was so much more than he realized. I often wonder who he would be now, so many years later. Would he have fulfilled his own potential? What would he think of me? Would I finally have lived up to his ideal of me? He saw something in me at a time when I was throwing away whatever there was of me. It's what you do when you're sixteen.
I still think of you, David. I still think of the impact you had on my life. I still think of what happened after you left us, how we had to confess to one another that we were indeed just mortal after all. But most of all, I wish I could talk to you now to figure out what you meant or what was in your head. You have remained one of the most fascinating figures in my life and I think you always will be.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Grave to Cradle

In 1993, I had my first story published in a magazine called "Gotta Write Network Litmag". Shortly after that, several other magazines picked it up and re-printed it. It was the first time I was ever paid to write. It's not a true story. But it was inspired by true events that happened. When I was sixteen years old, a dear friend of mine was struck by a car crossing the street and the story grew in my head because of this devastating loss.
Here it is, in its entirety.


Now, he could remember everything. Even his own birth. There was a time when pictures came and went like a disjointed painting. Then, it all came rushing to him like a tidal wave and he simply knew every detail of his life. It overwhelmed him at first but soon after, acceptance came.
It was strange, things were so clear to him now. He was confused the first time he came to a conscious state in the ambulance and the darkness had enveloped him like a silent, stifling coffin. The van was shut off and there was no one around. His throat began to ache with thirst for a coke he had never been able to drink, and the accident came back to him.
The memory flashed through his mind like an ancient silent film. The pain had been violent, intense, covering his whole body. The drunken man staggered out of a blue Volkswagen with a freshly opened beer in his hand.
"Heyyy, this Bud's for you, man, looks like you could use it," he laughed, sat down next to the man he hit and began to cry, heaving, his shoulders heavy with the weight of what could not be undone.
He chilled every time the ambulance drove by there. He had died a little more than seven months ago on that street and felt compelled to press against the window of the van and breathe the scent of his own death. The memory senses there were incredible. The paramedics had revived him the first time right there on the street. The sounds and colors were vivid, crimson blood, red and blue flashing lights, the neon sign of the gas station across the street, a woman's scream among the sirens in his ear, the chill of the March air reaching down into his soul.
He died three times on the way to the hospital, each time he felt himself being pulled back from oblivion into pain. The pulls were hard, knocking the breath out of him. The last time was weak and he fought it. He turned around and severed the rope between life and death, hoping he could go to a place where he couldn't feel that terrible pain and the blood would be merely an illusion. Yet, he found himself stuck where he had ended, in the ambulance. He was sure he was being punished for not wanting to live.
The paramedics hovered over him after his death.
"Has he got a wallet?"
"Yeah. His name is David Somers... birthdate... God, he's only twenty one..."
Dave turned his face from that memory. He didn't seem to be able to leave the ambulance, but when he focused his energy, he could visit that street in front of Denny's restaurant. Sometimes, he wished he could get close to the window and gaze at his friends, laughing and complaining about the food, staring into the night as their thoughts turned to him. It seemed as if he was confined to these boundaries, but why? He wanted to sit amongst them wearing the cloak of his sarcasm, inserting the appropriate remarks as their laughter echoed around him. He wondered if they knew he missed them. If he could have followed his body, he might have sat on top of his coffin, cracking deadpan jokes at the irony of his funeral service. And perhaps they would have heard him. But he watched the days go by from the ambulance.
Death had changed him. He smiled at the ridiculous nature of his thoughts. Of course he had changed, he had no body to feel with and no one listened to his bitter humor. He thought he would see other dead people, maybe his brother who had committed suicide years before, but there was no one. Was he condemned to live in his own world where no one could see him or hear him. He wondered about Heaven and Hell and the same questions that had consumed him when he was alive tortured him in death. Where was the fire and where were the angels?
So, he existed in his memories, laughed and cried as the memories flew across his mind like a colorized version of an old movie. His mother's face came most clearly then. He loved to watch her face as the doctor handed him to her. He had fallen asleep in her arms only minutes old, his mother used to say he could sleep through anything. And now he didn't sleep at all.
Dave felt the bouncing of the ambulance as Greg and Tom climbed in. He had come to know them well. He could feel their thoughts and emotions. Sometimes, he even tried to enter their bodies but they seemed completely unaware of him except for their unexplained chills.
"Where are we going?" Tom looked tired as he asked the question.
"Corner of Hampton and Manchester." Greg replied.
"Not exactly. Some guy beat her up and raped her. Female, 27, third trimester of pregnancy."
"Raped a pregnant lady? Sick bastards in this world." Tom said.
"Shut up and drive. Let's get this over with so I can go home." Greg muttered.
Dave picked up Greg's thoughts clearly as the paramedic flashed through the memory his daughter coming home after being raped. He watched as Greg tried to hold it together while his emotions cascaded between anger and helplessness and fought for control. Greg took in a ragged breath as he focused on the task at hand.
The police were already on the scene when the ambulance arrived. The doors of the ambulance burst open and the light poured in. Dave stared out the open doors as the living world breathed deeply in the twilight hour. The trees swayed in the soft breeze, wearing their colorful fall coats. He could almost feel the briskness of the October air as the wind rushed in, circling his soul with life's breath.
Greg gently escorted the woman inside the van and began checking her vital signs.
"I'm in labor..." she sobbed. Her face was covered with purple welts and her breath was hitching. Her eyes darted around, large, brown and soft.
"Can you tell us your name?" Tom asked quietly, seeking to calm her.
"How far along are you, Holly?" Greg wiped her face with a cool cloth.
"About thirty weeks...oh God..." Her face wrinkled in pain as the contraction peaked. She grunted in agony and then got control of her breathing.
"Holly, we're going to have to examine you to see how dilated your cervix is. It's probably going to hurt given your recent trauma but I need you to try to hold still, okay? Can you do that for me?"
"I'll try." She stared up at him with wide eyes. Sweat had caused her red hair to hang limply, clinging to her face. She was flushed and her face was drawn. As Tom pulled up her skirt, he could see blood and dirt caked to her thighs.
Tom washed her legs as Greg put on the surgical glove and began to examine her.
"She's between eight and nine centimeters. We may not have that long, this baby's coming..." Greg said to Tom.
Holly's face tightened up and she twisted into a ball.
"No, no, you have to lie flat," Tom said.
Dave sat next to her and touched her hand. He felt connected to her somehow but he was sure he didn't know her. Yet, there was something familiar about her. He wanted to reach into her sadness and pull her out. He wasn't sure why but she reminded him of someone he had known. However, the memory was elusive and he couldn't quite reach it. Her body relaxed as the contraction ended.
"Listen to me," Dave said, gently, wanting her to hear him. "Remember the movie?"
"What movie?" She said.
Dave was startled. He hadn't been sure she would hear him. Greg and Tom had never heard him when he spoke. Still, he was not surprised as the connection between them was vibrantly alive in the air around them.
"What'd she say?" Greg asked, standing at the foot of the van. Tom turned and shrugged, preparing the IV fluid bag. "You can squeeze my hand if you want to."
"My baby... is it going to be..." the pain cut off her words.
"Breathe, Holly," Dave said. "Your baby is fine. It's a boy, a healthy boy, just like you wanted."
"It's not born yet, how do you know?" Holly gasped.
"Holly, you're going to be fine, okay?" Greg said "I'm going to take another look now."
"Okay." Holly rode through another contraction.
Greg smiled. "Ten centimeters, Holly, are you ready to push?"
Holly nodded and looked up. Dave put his hand in hers and she squeezed. He could almost feel it as he closed death's eyes and suddenly felt alive again as the baby took his first breath.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Taking Inventory

Over the years, I have been a loyal person. When I decided someone was my friend, I basically stood by that person no matter what. When I was in my late teens and twenties, a lot of people abandoned me when I had kids. They moved on with their lives and stopped inviting me to do things. I was very grateful for the few who remained. Probably too grateful. There were two women in particular who remained that became increasingly toxic presences in my life.
As I look back, I can see the ways they damaged me. I remember asking my therapist again and again what to do about this or that that these two had done to me. And I contributed to the cycle by complaining about each of them to the other.
After many years, I figured out I was in abusive relationships.
I'm not going to say all of it was bad or all of it was their fault. It wasn't.
I had to figure out my own shit and learn what was good.
In a way, rebelling against their definition of who I was helped me become a better person.
In their own way, they were both very good and very toxic people. And they had their own demons.
I do wish I had cut off the friendships much earlier in my life.
But I suppose I still had things to learn.
And that is the lesson here that I take inventory.
What did these lousy experiences teach me? A lot. So much.

One of the women, I'll call her Maria, she used to support my dreams by "understanding" that I had them while shooting them down and telling me if I was a good mom, I would stop pursuing them. And she would pretend to support me but at the same time regularly sabotage me.
The other woman, I'll call her Katie, she said something not long ago that was instrumental in making sure we weren't friends any more.
I was discussing my plans for my next big project. And she said "I believe that you'll do it. You'll accomplish it. Looking back on us when we were fifteen, I never would have believed that girl would accomplish anything like this. But I can see you doing things now."
And I am sure she meant that as a compliment. But it wasn't. It was a clear message that she never saw my potential, though it should have been obvious to anyone who was paying attention. She was supposed to know me so well, but I now realize, she only saw in me what she decided to see-- and I think she never really saw me.

Many years ago, a girl I worked with at Cicero's was hanging out with me. We got into a deep conversation about hopes and dreams. I told her I wanted to make movies and write and direct. I can't remember her saying much about that. It was what I was dreaming about and also what I was pursuing in school.

Many years later I saw her again, out with friends. By this time I had made a couple of movies. She said these words to me. "I remember when you used to talk about what you wanted to do when we were working at Cicero's"
I said "oh yeah, I was pretty angsty back then."
She said "I confess - when you said all that, I thought to myself, she's never going to do any of that. And then you did. I was surprised."
I smiled a little. But it kinda made me mad at the same time. Why would you tell me that? What is the purpose of that confession? Is it to make me feel bad?
So, I went back and asked my best friend, the woman who has known me the longest- if she had seen potential in me.
She couldn't believe I was asking her that because she said it was obvious I was going to do things.
And I thought about the people I knew that I saw accomplishing great things.

I'm so blessed with so many good friends now at this point in my life. And it is because of these missteps that I am able to appreciate this all the more.
I've been able to learn from all this pain.
I've been blessed to have recognized and overcome all these abusive and toxic friendships.
Yes, I hung on to them too long. I tried too hard, I forgave too much.
But what did I learn? What did I take forward?
I learned to write well about complex relationships. I learned to appreciate really good friends. I learned that it isn't the end of the world if you end a friendship.
I learned that sometimes you still get to walk away and hurt for years, but it was the right thing to do.
A couple of months before I made the decision to walk away from Katie once and for all, she said to me "I'm afraid I'm going to lose all my friends, I have almost none left because I drive people away."
And as usual, I assured her that I was loyal and would stand by her.
And then I woke up when she was abusively texting me a few weeks later, accusing me of imagined wrongs. A symptom of her mental illness and extreme anxiety.
And I realized I had a choice. I could just walk away from her and not go back.
That I probably should have done it years ago.
That I shouldn't need to go to therapy because my friends were being toxic to me.
That the relationship was abusive and needed to end.
That it is possible to be in an emotionally abusive relationship with a female friend.
That it had been many years since I had any fun with her because every interaction was stressful and involved me walking on eggshells to try not to set her off. Though I should have known that I can't control her mental illness symptoms, but I can control my involvement with her.
That her refusal to get the mental health therapy she desperately needed was pretty much my final clue that things weren't going to get better.

I realized that my damage was where I was operating from when we began that friendship and that I have worked hard to repair my damage. That not all my friends were reflections of my damage but I had trouble recognizing when I needed to end it.
That my loyalty has hurt me- a lot, but I am not sorry that I try to work things out.
I don't give up easily, which is why I have had some minor success in accomplishing things.
But I am now learning when to walk away and that it is okay to walk away. That not all things need to be forgiven, that sometimes we can just move on.
I'm always going to have feelings about all of it, I'm just grateful now for the lessons.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Uber Stories: On Women and sex

Lots of people ask me when they get in my car and notice my gender. Aren't you scared to drive at night? Not really. Most people are pretty cool and I don't mind so much. The rewards have been pretty significant. I'm interested in humans and when people get in my car, I get a piece of their story, little by little.
Here is a snapshot of several stories of women I have driven.
They often open up and they open up in so many interesting ways. Sometimes we tell deep truths, sometimes the deep truths are beneath the surface and we never speak of them.
I picked up two women around 11 pm. They were sharing the ride and going to work in different places. One was going downtown to waitress at a Hookah Bar and the other was going to the Hustler Club to strip. I spent many years as a waitress, so we had a long drive and a nice discussion about the benefits and perils of waitressing. I was not really clear on the relationship between the women but I noticed there was complete acceptance for one another's work situations.
It was very much "gotta make a living" going on.
The fact that the stripper was so open about where she worked with no measure of shame was interesting to me. I have never felt the extreme need to hide my profession but I have often felt a little bothered by working in places I considered beneath my overall skills.
One time a girl I went to high school walked into the restaurant I worked in and happened to see me behind the bar dropping off cash for the bartender that night. She looked pityingly at me when she said "oh, you work here?" and I said "Yeah, I'm the manager."
At those words, her face physically brightened. This was a more acceptable job for my exclusive private school education, I guess? I was upset and humiliated. She has no idea that bartenders more often make more money and work fewer hours than restaurant managers. Sigh. And she had no idea I bartended twice a week to bump up my earnings.
But somehow, the title made HER feel better. Which bothered me. And I guess it still does. But mostly, I'm beyond caring about someone else's definition of me. Those jobs, they humanized me in a way that make my writing better, richer and give me more empathy to people than working higher up ever will be. So, while I will get where I want to go career wise, this was never a waste of time.
So, I try not to judge people by their professions so much. I know I am going to find people working at McDonalds that have genius level IQ's and probably can't get a job elsewhere. And I know that there are just a whole lot of regular people out there making a living and we are more than the definition the job gives us. We are humans.
We all have to make a living somehow.
After I dropped the waitress off, I had another twenty minute drive with the woman who worked at the strip club. I asked her how she was treated. She had a few stories. "I wish guys wouldn't be so gross with me all the time. I don't want to hear how they want to lick my asshole."
And I was thinking-- damn, that's not so far off from my waitress days, where I heard statements like that every day from some drunk fool.
Except I'm not naked while they're saying it to me. I try to imagine how vulnerable and tough she has to be to stand up to that, and to deal with being kind to people that don't deserve her kindness.
Still, she said she didn't mind it most of the time, that she was able to find gratitude in the many good people that worked there and all those who stuck up for her and held together to protect one another. That she always felt safe and protected by so many people.
I find I want to poke through her statements with my own pre-conceived notions about stripping. But I fall silent. I don't know enough about this world and I realize what I need to do is just listen to her and accept her and even support her decision to work there. Though I want to smash the patriarchy that allows this to continue to exploit women while old white men make money off their naked and vulnerable bodies, still I support the choice a woman makes to go into sex work. Though honestly, I wish it could be something different. When I think of the damage it does...but I let that go in that moment, and decided to just be there with her.
I told her this as I dropped her off.
"I want you to know that every man or group of people that I drop off at any strip club, I say these words 'I want you to remember to tip well. Tip your bartenders, your servers and your strippers well. And I want you to remember that every single one of these people who wait on you and strip for you, they are human. And you should treat them respectfully and decently. Don't be a dick.'" She laughed at that, and thanked me for the ride.
It really was the only way I could sit right with myself for driving people to the strip club to participate in something that I don't sit right with was to remind them of our shared humanity.
The second story I want to share with you is a woman I picked up from a dive motel at around 11 at night. She was nervous to get in my car, it was her first Uber ride.
I smiled big at her and said "Aren't you glad you got a girl to drive you for your first time?"
She said yes and smiled a little more easily.
I assured her I was going to treat her really well and get her to where she was going and make her first uber ride really great. I had wondered briefly at the location I was picking her up. It was a no tell motel, the kind you know you can rent by the hour.
This in itself was only one piece of evidence, so I tucked it back in my mind as I spoke to her and asked her about herself. We landed on the topic of her son, as so often happens with women, we discuss our children. In there are our hopes and dreams and how we define ourselves because our children change and shape who we become. They alter us in little ways. This woman found so much joy in her child and it made my heart happy. She talked about her divorce and the shared custody and when her boy got really good at video games. She spoke of how he excelled in school and was put in the gifted child class. She glowed when she talked about his future, the one she knew he would have.
And in that, I could see she was burying herself, but I loved her joy and her pride and the smile in her voice.
She began to prepare me for the journey we were taking. It was a long drive, forty five minutes out to a little town in Missouri I had never been before.
The ride was not on her credit card, but on a mystery man paying for her journey. He had texted me instructions and a cell number to let her know when I had arrived to pick her up. This was not unusual in itself either. I often gave rides others would pay for. But there was something about the two pieces of evidence that clinked together. She began to speak of the mystery man and his wealth and affluence.
She described how many cars he had and how fast he drove in them and her first trip out to his house.
"What does he do for a living?" I asked.
She was not really sure or she had asked and it wasn't really clear, but he was super loaded-- that was what she knew. She also mentioned he was nice to her, that he treated her well and was a pretty good guy.
She talked to me about the first time she went to his house.
"I was terrified." She said.
Huh, terrified? That seems an odd reaction to going to someone's house.
"We kept getting further and further away from everything and we started going deep into the country. Finally we get to this really thick woods and we keep going further and further into the woods and the further we went, the more scared I was that I wasn't going to make it out. He was driving really fast and whipping around every corner."
And I wanted to ask why. Why did you keep going?
But I didn't because after all, I knew the answer. You do the things that scare you when you talk yourself around the fear. When you try to convince yourself you're being crazy, that there's no reason to be afraid and your instincts are wrong. And when your instincts are dead on, you berate yourself and when your instincts are hyped up and it turns out okay, you tell yourself you were just crazy all along. Even if you aren't. You convince yourself. It's pure survival. Sometimes our fight or flight is out of proportion to the situation and other times it is not.
And as I drove through the night and we started to get further and further away from civilization and the lights of the city and the perceived safety...I began to feel the little fingers of fear creep into my stomach and crawl around and begin to wrap around my heart and squeeze.
But this third and fourth clue in the little mystery was starting to cement my theory. And I knew at this point that I didn't have to ask this woman what she did for a living because there was no doubt I had picked up a prostitute on her way to servicing her client.
I briefly considered asking her. I thought about it, hard because I wanted to know, and I had a thousand questions to ask her about what she did and what led her to this point in her life and the curiosity distracted me from asking myself too strongly-- what are you driving into?
I decided to refuse the curiosity and deny it satisfaction. I wanted this woman to keep her dignity and let the stories of her brilliant boy and her pride in him and keep her warm with safe and good conversation. I liked her and I didn't want to shatter this moment and make her wonder if I was judging her.
As we drove through the last leg of the journey, through those thick and dark woods, I turned on my brights and kept the conversation witty and light to take the edge off the fear. She said "He wants you to go down the driveway and wait for a minute so he can bring you a tip."
"Oh, how nice." I say out loud but those fear fingers are working overtime squishing my heart.
My heart beats strong, throwing off the fear. Got your stun gun on the ready? yeah you do, Vanessa. This guy won't know what hit him...
We arrive.
I see him open the door and the anticipation is a tangible crack of light streaming from the door.
She gets a text.
"oh, he's not coming out. He wants me to come get it. He's such a dork."
I breathe relief. He's afraid of ME seeing HIM.
Good. I feel safe. She comes out with a ten dollar bill and thanks me for the ride, the company, the conversation and for making her first uber ride a good experience.
I want to hug her, but I don't. Instead, I smile brightly at her and wish her well. She's going to be one I remember.

These conversations, these connections-- they mean something to me to have this human experience in that short time I get with people. Every ride is its own story.