[Screen fills with photo of a blond[ish] woman wearing black-rimmed glasses, most of her features obscured by a hand playfully raised to block her image from the camera. She is wearing Dr. Seuss pajama bottoms, a fraying, olive green, long-sleeved t-shirt, a gray bathrobe, and electric-blue Uggs that are lightly flecked with bleach spots.]
Deep, Authoritative Voice-Over: Saturday, November 15th, 2014, began like any other weekend day for Heather Aronson, a middle-aged housewife and mother of three living in an upscale neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She rose, cooked her family a nutritious breakfast of coffee and vitamin pills sorted into cunning little colored bowls, checked her Facebook for “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” requests, then started the first of the day’s seventeen loads of laundry in silence, letting her family sleep. Seven or eight hours later, when they were all finally up and dressed, she turned on the television to keep her company as she matched up socks. As always, she selected “Forensic Files” from her DVR list, choosing an episode she was pretty sure she hadn’t seen before. And that’s when things began to go terribly, terribly wrong.
[Screen fills with video of a pretty teenager with wavy hair, a tear escaping her almond eye as she addresses an unseen interviewer.]
Wavy-Haired Teen: Well, she thought she hadn’t seen it before. But it turned out that it was the one where the guy kills his wife for the insurance money.
Unseen Interviewer: Isn’t that the plot of all the episodes?
Wavy-Haired Teen [voice breaking]: Yes. Mostly. Except for the serial killer ones.
[We hear the sound of three notes chiming just as the screen fills with the image of laboratory beakers on a lurid blue backdrop, the words “FORENSIC FILES” blazing into focus in capital letters. Fade to commercial for an arthritis pain reliever. Fade to 36 commercials for incontinence and erectile dysfunction. The notes chime again, and now the lurid blue backdrop features the blurry image of a syringe. We return to the video of the Wavy-Haired Teen, who has now straightened her hair.]
Wavy-Haired Teen Who Has Now Straightened Her Hair: No, I’m her other daughter.
Unseen Interviewer: Are you sure?
Wavy-Haired Teen Who Has Now Straightened Her Hair: I’m a completely different person. My name is Sami. And I’m taller.
Wavy-Haired Teen Whose Hair is Still Wavy [voice breaking; a tear escaping her almond eye]: By one inch.
[Screen fills with video of a gray-haired man pacing, his hands clasped behind his back as he talks to the unseen interviewer.]
Gray-Haired Man: It’s horrible. I have no idea who I’m talking to, ever. I’m not even sure how many of them there are.
Deep, Authoritative Voice-Over: As Heather Aronson, a middle-aged Pittsburgh housewife and mother, was folding clothes one Saturday morning in November, the unthinkable happened.
[Screen fills with actors who vaguely resemble the Gray-Haired Man and the blondish woman from the original photo. They can be heard arguing beneath the voice-over, their voices occasionally rising.
Deep, Authoritative Voice-Over: Heather’s husband entered the room, and it wasn’t long before he fell into a rage.
Actor Playing Gray-Haired Man: Laundry, AGAIN?? You work too hard!
Actor Playing Heather Aronson: Oh you silly thing, you!
Actor Playing Gray-Haired Man: Are those my pants? But…they still had some life in them. I was going to wear them again today!
Actor Playing Heather Aronson: But Darling, you wore those pants three times last week! Also, clothes having life in them is kind of a good reason to wash them, don’t you think?
Deep, Authoritative Voice-Over: Suddenly, the deep, authoritative voice-over on the Forensic Files episode playing in the background interrupted their fierce argument.
Recreated Deep, Authoritative Voice-Over From Recreated Television Program in Background of Recreated Scene: Instead of Shirley’s husband, the killer turned out to be a Canadian man named Mark Jarman.
Deep, Authoritative Voice: Hearing the name “Mark Jarman,” Heather dropped the socks she’d been about to roll together into a neat little ball.
Actor Playing Heather Aronson: Oh my God! I used to go out with a Canadian man named Mark Jarman!
Actor Playing Gray-Haired Man: Oh my God! Was he a…killer?
Actor Playing Heather Aronson: I don’t think so! He was my roommate’s Creative Writing T.A.! People were always getting him mixed up with an American poet who was also named Mark Jarman. But, oh my God, I think he wrote a story about a serial killer!
Actor Playing Gray-Haired Man: Then it must be him!
[On the television screen in the background of the recreated scene, we see a close-up of an actor playing an actor playing Canadian Killer Mark Jarman.]
Actor Playing Heather Aronson: Oh, wait: that guy’s blond. Never mind.
Actor Playing Gray-Haired Man: Oh. So…the poet was the killer?
Actor Playing Heather Aronson: Don’t you ever listen? The poet is an American!
Deep, Authoritative Voice-Over: With virtually no warning, Heather’s husband, whom we’ll call “Jack,” picked up the two socks she’d dropped.
Actor Playing “Jack”: Are you sure these even match?
[Close up of pudgy man in his thirties, wearing a laboratory coat. He holds a pair of socks in one hand and, with the other, raises the lid of a large white machine.]
Pudgy Man in his Thirties, Wearing a Laboratory Coat: Using a system called “photo reverse polytelemerasion,” we can “copy” the socks closely enough to print out information that allows us to contrast the distinctive stripe patterns on their heels and cuffs.
[Close up of a photocopy of the socks.]
Pudgy Man in his Thirties, Wearing a Laboratory Coat: As you can see, these socks were, in fact, an exact match.
Actor Playing “Jack”: Okay, well I’m going to go for a run now.
Perky Woman on Recreation of a Commercial in the Background: With so many looks, you can see why everyone wants a 3-way!
Actor Playing “Jack”: Wait, what?
Perky Woman on Commercial: 3-way Poncho, that is.
Actor Playing “Jack”: Oh.
Actor Playing Heather: You have to admit, that was pretty weird, wasn’t it? How often do you almost have an ex-boyfriend show up on an episode of “Forensic Files”?
Actor Playing “Jack”: Ha ha ha, hopefully not that often! Ha ha ha, that sure was weird!
Actor Playing Heather: It sure was! Ha Ha Ha!
Authoritative Voice-Over: But for Heather Aronson, the weirdness had just begun. Coming up: a second ex-boyfriend shows up on the very next episode Heather watches. This time: for real.
to be continued…
In relating the story of my tragic third and final choice of dress for my wedding last September, I am reminded of the old saying that, before you take an aphorism to heart, you must first make sure that it is not stupid.
For example, let’s examine the saying “Dress for the job you want and not the job you have.” Sure, it sounds good on paper, but how will you take your drive-thru customer’s order if your astronaut helmet garbles sound? Will hospital scrubs on a dental hygienist ever be anything more than sad? More to the point, what if the job you want is to be Cat Deeley, the 6-foot tall, thirty-something model/hostess of the reality show “So You Think You Can Dance,” but the job you have is to be Heather Aronson, the 5-foot tall, middle-aged hostess of the reality show “Thanks For the Salty, Slow-Cooked Beef, But I’ve Decided to Become a Vegetarian”?
I know what you’re thinking, because, as a trained and board-certified psychopath, I can totally read your mind. You’re thinking: You’re a fucking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death, and then play around with your blood.
To which I say: Okay, but let me finish my point.
Here’s another aphorism that sounds okay, just before it turns out to be completely idiotic: “Everything we really needed to know we learned in kindergarten.” Please. Did you know, in kindergarten, that you have to bring both photo ID and your social security card with you when you open an account at PNC? Did you know about fibromyalgia?
Did you have any idea that a cute little 60s-style white mini-dress with an empire waist and three-quarter length sleeves could look absolutely smashing on a beautiful and willowy model/hostess on tv, but would appear sort of shapeless and dumpy on someone who is more or less the opposite of Cat Deeley, not to mention totally show your bra straps because the neckline will be too wide?
No, because in kindergarten, you knew nothing about bra straps. Nobody in kindergarten knew anything about bra straps.
Please stop thinking about your kindergarten teacher right now.
Finally, let’s parse the aphorism “You get what you pay for.” Except for those times when you’ve cheaped out and bought an inferior quality product, when has this saying ever turned out to be accurate? How many times have you paid for a giant bag of chips, but gotten only a handful of chemicals and despair? Who here has used up every last little gabillabyte allowed by the texting and data plan she paid for, without having to sign up for a gazillabyte more that she will never, ever use?
And who hasn’t gone in to Free People and paid one hundred and eighteen dollars for a white lace mini dress that looks kind of like the one Cat Deeley wore on Top Six night of So You Think You Can Dance’s season 10, only to realize, in the middle of her wedding, that what she is actually wearing is a tunic top, and no pants?
Please stop thinking about the no pants.
Which reminds me of yet another aphorism: Once bitten, twice shy.
Wait, no it doesn’t.
I guess it’s like my mother always said: I should have studied to become a telepath, instead.
(With apologies to the Talking Heads.)
(And to the estate of Phyllis Diller.)
(And to anyone who has to read this.)
I can’t see until I put my face smack
Up to the mirror, where I discover—
Not sleeping ‘cause my head’s on fire
Has turned me into something freakish and dire.
PHYLLIS DILLER! Qu’est-ce que ce?
Have I put my contacts in the wrong way? Or do I
(dun dun dun dun) really look this way??
Ohh ohh ohhh
PHYLLIS DILLER! Qu’est-ce que ce?
I fu-forgot what I was going to say. Better
um, um, um, umm…go the other way?
Oh oh oh OH. Where did I put my shoe?
I start a conversation I can’t even–Spinach?
I like it a lot! But I’m not eating anything.
What was I going to say? Oh, I’ll have the veal!
Say something once.
Say something once.
PHYLLIS DILLER! What the hey?
Fu-fu-fu-fuck! Are these spots on my face? Better
Buff buff buff buff BUFF buff them all away.
Ohhhh ohhh ohh ohh
PHYLLIS DILLER! Go away!
Why are you haunting my mirror today? I am
Done done done done done looking this way!
Oh oh oh nooo! Lie lie lie lie lie yoooouuu.
Who says I’m fat?
But my ID says–
Born in 1974.
Right, Heather. Try twleve years more.
Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah yah
You’re a pain and you’re unkind!
You hate people and you’re not contrite.
That’s my name.
And we’re practically one and the same, now that–
Hon hon hon hon—menopause done came!
Oh no. No.
Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same. Ask you
what? What what what what was I going to say?
Oh oh oh oh, I I I I don’t know.
Folks, I cannot tell you how embarrassed I am to admit this, but it looks like I might not be qualified to give you advice about mid-life marriage after all. Because, as it turns out, I have married the wrong man.
I know what you’re thinking (because, like a bug in the headline of a Buzzfeed article that you will never, ever click, I have crawled into your ear and burrowed into your skull). You’re thinking: “Their lives were ruined…ruined by the fundamental error of their matrimonial union: that of having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling.”
To which I say: Nuh uh, Dude the Obscure.
Our lives were ruined by a fundamental error of our permanent contract, period.
As in, my “husband” forgot to sign it.
Luckily, though, it turns out that I still have a husband. Because our male witness, who later “married” our female witness, scrawled his John Hancock in the space on our ketubah (the Jewish marriage contract, which is largely ceremonial, but still) where the groom was supposed to sign.
Are you following this? Because I appear to be stuck in the part of your brain that stores recipes, and I’m not getting anything but “serve with onion and pan juices.”
(Mmm, pan juices.)
Let me explain: for our first “anniversary,” I pulled our ketubah out of its storage tube and took it to the art store to have it framed as a gift for my “husband,” because I am cheap like that. I then gave it to my “husband,” who opened it and did the appropriate oohing and thanking that one gives when receiving an only mildly thoughtful gift, and, after a couple of days, even broke his own rule about not hanging pictures on our walls until all the kids have left the house or one of us has died or something, and went to hang it up in our bedroom.
And that’s when he discovered that, in the eyes of God, at least, I was really married not to him but to John Hancock (which luckily is not his real name, because I have a teenager who can’t even say “Cochran Street” without giggling).
So you know that one friend you have where you do everything the same, at roughly the same time, and it’s not because you’re copying each other but because you’re just so much alike that this synchronicity comes naturally, so that you’re practically sisters in your head? Well, I have a handful of these. In fact, having a freakish amount of stuff in common is kind of my measure for whether I’m going to be really close to another woman—close enough to weep together and laugh together and raise glasses at one another’s weddings, and then weep together and laugh together and take the glasses out of one another’s hands so we can throw up when those marriages end only months apart.
My oldest and dearest of these sister friends, a woman I’ll call “Shirley” (if only so she can tell me not to), is getting married again next month, which means that she is actually more than a year off our previous synchronicity, when we served as bridesmaids for one another twenty years ago in the space of single month. We’ve shared clothes and beds and boxes of Cheezits, marriages and births and horrible losses and new-found love, and sometimes even I get us mixed up when I look at old pictures, because we are practically the same damn person (though one of us has better hair).
My newest of these synchronous sisters, a woman I met because of an online writers’ group and whom I’ve known for scarcely a month, turns out to share not only my rough height and age and newly married (again) status and even a new house on the exact same street, but even my identical car, down to its identical color.
(I can tell by the shiver in your medulla oblongata that like me, that shit just gives you chills, amiright?)
And then there are my two Philly sisters, a couple of women I find so easy to talk to that sometimes we type to one another on a group Facebook message all the live-long day (when we’re not working, of course, which is, you know, like all the time, of course, otherwise). Like me, they are short and mean and are parenting awesome teens, and sometimes we think so much alike that we type the same lame phrases at the exact same time, so that it feels like what I’m reading is a cartoon bubble of the thoughts in my head.
(Though I will admit, now that I’m deep in the recesses of the thoughts in your head, that what really happens in there is more like “hungryhavetopeefacebookgroupbewilderinglyfuckedupmmmpanjuiceskneehurtsmuskratlove”)
And then there’s my wedding witness friend, the one with whom I would have said I had the least in common, since she’s not only a doctor and a lab director, but is also tall and has dark, curly hair. (Yeah, yeah, C, I know you’re also a doctor, but have you measured yourself lately? Case closed, jury dismissed.) She and I met more than a dozen years ago, dandling our then-two-year daughters on our knees, our then-five-year-old sons trying to solve time travel on the playground while we wept over the recent deaths of both of our moms. We separated from our husbands just a few years later, picked up each other’s children when our exes failed to show up on time, vetted our online dates at weekly Shabbat dinners, and eventually raised our glasses to toast one another’s engagements in the space of less than a year.
But now we share not only all of that, but also a spouse.
Because it was her fiancé who signed the ketubah in the space my “husband” was supposed to. And then she “married” him a couple of months later. Which means that she is now, for all intents and Mormon purposes, my brand-new Sister-Wife.
So while I am undeniably sad about having to leave the man whose adventures and misadventures and great love and not so great sense of humor and surprisingly vast collection of cow creamers I have oft described here, I’m trying to stay positive about all that I’ve gained.
Like a ton more kids, all roughly the same age. And a dining room that has wallpaper on the ceiling. And a synchronous sister-friend who not only lives in my house, but who, because I married “Mr. Hancock” (I mean it, “Maddie,” stop it!) first, I totally get to boss around.
Though I’m probably going to have to start a completely different blog, and I still haven’t told you about the third wedding dress.
Also, I appear to be stuck in a truly awful place in your head where you’ve stored all your Captain and Tennille songs. And let me tell you right now that never has “Love Will Keep Us Together” sounded more annoying, or more tragically wrong.
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As the morning fog lifts above the garbage bins and my Nissan Rogue and the workmen taking the first of their seventeen breaks on the retaining wall across the street, I am reminded that it’s that time of year that every mid-life bride should embrace: late September, when cool nights pass into days brushed gold by the dying summer sun. It’s the perfect time for a menopausal wedding: when there’s a slight chance of rain but no chance of that white stuff (fro? slow?) that sometimes falls from the sky; when it’s warm but not so warm that you can’t dance and have a hot flash without bursting into flame.
I am also reminded that it was precisely because of weather such as this that I convinced my then-fiancé we should wed last September instead of this past March, as he had originally proposed. Which, in turn, reminds me of yet another reason why I love my now-husband so much: because he listens to my suggestions before vehemently rejecting them and then, ultimately, capitulating.
I know what you’re thinking (because I am one online quiz away from completing my Kaplan Telepathy and Air Conditioner Repair degree): you’re thinking, Heather, you’ve been married for nearly a year! As such, you are practically a love expert. Do you have any love advice you’d like to share with us?
To which I say: Boy howdy, do I!
No, that isn’t even remotely what we were thinking. Just because you put it in italics does not mean that we actually—
I guess, if I could boil it all down to one piece of wisdom (and still have enough broth left over for lunch), I’d have to say that the most important thing I’ve learned over the years is that getting someone to love you is not half as important as getting yourself to love him.
Okay, but actually, we were thinking, wait, garbage bins? Did you put your writing desk in front of the driveway or–
Sure, that sounds obvious, but think of the musical questions we ask ourselves in our youth: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” or “Will you still love me tomorrow?” or “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi, ce soir?” or “Do you like pina coladas?” Note how each question is focused on the needs of another: Do YOU want a drink made from pineapple? Do YOU want to sleep with me in French?
I submit that as we near death, we discover that truly being in love with someone, and staying in love with someone, has ultimately more to do with understanding our own needs than it does with obsessing over theirs. Because, face it: we are just too tired and forgetful and cranky to deal with shit. Forget how he feels about us: will WE still love him in the morning, when he’s sleeping off yet another girlie-drink hangover? Do WE want to feed a 64 year-old every single goddamn day, or could we maybe get take-out, for once?
I feel almost certain that had Whitney Houston lived long enough to make it all the way to menopause, she would have changed the musical question from “How will I know if he really loves me?” to the far more important “How will I know if I really love him?”
But Heather, how WILL we know if we really love him? you ask.
Umm, actually, we were wondering about whether you called us “Howdy Doody,” before.
That’s an excellent question! As a love expert, I have to admit that the answer is largely subjective. It’s like Justice Stewart once said of pornography: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. (And yes, real mid-life love also looks a lot like that, though the lighting is dimmer, and there’s usually more hair).
But as Justice Stewart might have also said, you can glean any number of objectively loveable traits from a bunch of random and subjective examples, and then make an acrostic that spells out a word that can serve as a mnemonic device in the likely event that you immediately forget everything I just said, if you managed to remember that you were reading something in the first place and hadn’t already wandered away to find that thing you were looking for.
For example, another reason I love my husband so much is that he is the sort of man who decides one night that from now on he’s going to answer “Allrightarooney!” to any question he receives while on call for his medical practice.
And then he doesn’t go through with it.
Yes, this is a very specific reason to love someone, but I think you can extrapolate from it a couple of traits that are universally useful in a later-in-life spouse: 1) that he’s eccentric; and 2) that he’s not so eccentric that he can’t keep a job.
For the middle-aged person, eccentricity in a loved one is paramount because it helps you to distinguish him from other loved ones, like your children or your pets, or that one workman across the street who has the same build and roughly the same hairstyle but a completely different lunchbox. And I can’t emphasize enough the necessity of your later-in-life spouse’s ability to retain his job: not just for the income, but because, at least for a few hours a day, it keeps him out of the house.
Wait: was that supposed to be something that we were thinking?
No. Sometimes I just use italics for effect.
But that’s really confusing. Like, right now, we don’t know if you said the thing about italics or we did, because it’s in italics. Couldn’t you just stick to capital letters or–
Another good way to know if you love someone is if, on occasion, he manages to be helpful around the house. For example, just a couple of days ago, I was making dinner with one of my daughters (the one with the wavy hair, I think), when my husband walked over to the cookie tray full of tofu that we’d covered with towels and heavy books.
“What’s going on with this?” he asked.
“We’re pressing the tofu,” my daughter said.
My husband leaned over the tray. “I have read every single one of these books,” he whispered.
“Umm, those are cookbooks,” my daughter pointed out. “What are you doing?”
“Shh,” he replied. “I’m trying to impress the tofu, like you said.”
As the above example also illustrates, it is equally important to determine whether or not your late-in-life spouse has a sense of humor, and, if so, whether it is or is not bad.
Take my husband, for instance.
See what I did there? I straight up offered you my husband! I could only do that if I knew you wouldn’t take him. Which I totally did. Because his sense of humor is so thoroughly awful that no one in her right mind would ever try to take him away from me.
Worse than yours? How is that even possible?
Seriously: sometimes, he makes puns so dreadful they make your ears weep, just before they beg for the sweet release of a Van-Goghian death. For example, he will say “Yeah, but will he parsnip?” when you mention that the window guy is planning to turn up around three in the afternoon.
The objectively lovable trait? That he is exclusively mine. At least if he insists on opening his mouth.
Better still, as he himself points out, his sense of humor practically guarantees an invalidated prenup, should our marriage ever reach the point where pun evidence gets introduced in a court of divorce.
Which it will never, ever do.
Because my husband is also the type of man who will chaperone my straight-haired daughter (who is, I believe, younger than the wavy-haired one) and her friend at the Demi Lovato concert when I refuse to go, even though he will be the oldest person there by at least 40 years. At the event center, he will encourage the girls to call him “Homeboy,” and he will not complain, overmuch, about the nearly hour-long wait between the opening acts and the time Ms. Lovato deigns to take the stage. And for weeks after, unbidden, he and that daughter will smile at one other and then burst, full-throated, into Demi Lovato song (which is only marginally better than bursting into flame).
In short, my husband is an embarrassing enthusiastic stepfather who is eager, despite his own recently emptied nest, to father the extra chicks who have fluttered down into it. Objectively speaking, a late-in-life bride could do a whole lot worse than to fall in love with a guy like that.
But Heather, what if we don’t have kids? you ask.
To which I say: are you sure? Check around. Sometimes they’re just watching Netflix in their room, and you forgot.
Hurry, though, please, because the sun is now bouncing off of the Rogue’s windshield, and it’s getting harder and harder to type.
It’s just a thought, but you could always pull the blinds or something. Or, you know, move your desk away from the–
Okay, so you can’t find any kids stashed around the house, and you’re still not certain whether you truly love someone, you say? Then there’s one final thing you can do: set him free.
Seriously? Set him free, and if he comes back, he’s ours, and if he doesn’t, he never was? That’s your wisdom? Like, from a poster forty years ago??
No, not like that. Like this:
Break up with him. It doesn’t matter when; you can do this early in the relationship, or you can do it after an entire year or two has gone by. It also doesn’t matter why: maybe he said something stupid in front of your kids, for example, something you maybe know right away that he doesn’t really mean, but it’s too late: the words are out of your mouth, and then you are out of his apartment.
Go home, and wait for him to call to apologize, so that you can show him you mean business this time; you’re both probably going to be way better off this way. All things must end.
Now wait for it to happen: the relief that has always, always come when you’ve broken up with anyone before, eventually. Wait for the next morning, or the one after that, or a few days or even as much as a week later, when you wake up and stretch and think, ah! There’s so much lovely room in my bed! Instead of: oh no, he’s not here. He’s not here. He’s still gone.
And if that morning never comes?
If you’ve set him free, and now even a month has passed, and you still want him to come back?
What happens if we’ve set him free and we still want him to come back?
I was waiting for you to tell me. Wait, did you think the part about wanting him to come back, or did I write it?
Oh. Well, then: duh. He’s yours.
Allrightarooney, let’s make an acrostic from what we’ve learned, shall we?
Now go down the list and what’s that spell?
And what does this help us remember?
That’s right! That it’s already your anniversary, and you forgot to pick up his gift!
Man, I really hope that that was your thought, and not mine. Now excuse me, please, but I have to go fix the air conditioner. Because it is unbearably hot over here.
If memory serves, it was the Stegosaurus in Dinosaurs Divorce who taught us that it’s okay to be angry over a breakup that affects you.
But if memory doesn’t serve, and just makes you go up to the counter and get your own recollections, it’s possible that it was the T. Rex. Or, I don’t know, maybe it was some other greenish creature who quite frankly looked a lot more like Arthur the Aardvark than a dinosaur (and Arthur the Aardvark doesn’t even look like an aardvark) who gave my kids that helpful advice.
Anyway, it’s really the sentiment, and not the species, that counts. So when I learned only just last week of a breakup that had happened many, many months before, I found myself casting back to the first dark days of my own divorce, when my ex and I turned to terrifying, extinct creatures to deliver to our children the sort of explanation and comfort that we ourselves were unable to provide.
And the words came roaring back: It’s natural to feel Sad.
And while I could also hear the long-ago complaints of my children (Why are you roaring, Mommy? Those aren’t even real dinosaurs. This book is stupid!), I’m not going to lie: I felt better just thinking of them. Because I was Sad. And Angry and Afraid and Confused.
But mostly Confused.
“I don’t understand,” I said to the Verizon “customer service” agent. “How did my Wireless bill get ‘de-coupled’ from my regular bill? What does that even mean? And why wasn’t I told about it before it showed up as a separate, past-due bill that threatened to cut off my service?”
“Could you spell your name for me again, ma’am?” the customer “service” agent helpfully explained. “I’m afraid I can’t find any record of your account.”
“I—wait: which name?”
“Ma’am? You have two names?”
“No, I have ONE name, now, which is my maiden name, but I used to have a married name. And now I have a bill from you and a bill from Verizon Wireless in two different names, and—“
“Ma’am, you’re not married? I see here that there’s a Mr.—“
“No, I AM married now, but I got rid of my first married name and took back my maiden name and didn’t take my new husband’s name because it was so much work to get my maiden name back!”
“So you’re planning to get divorced again, ma’am?”
“Wait, what? No! Why are we even talking about me? This is about you and Verizon Wireless and why I used to get one bill from both of you and now I get two bills in different names and different addresses and—“
“Ma’am, I’m going to have to put you on hold.”
“No no no, don’t put me on hold, please? Please, I’ll be good, I promise!”
“It’s just that this will be the third time I’ve been put on hold with you guys in the past two hours and each time you do it I wait and wait and then it rings for like, a minute, and then there’s a click and it HANGS UP ON—“
So then I was Sad again.
It’s okay to cry, I roared to myself, like a simplistic and badly drawn prehistoric creature. In fact, crying can help you feel better.
But here’s the thing: it didn’t. In fact, crying almost never makes me feel better. Usually, it just swells my eyes to little slits and makes my nose glow with the light of a thousand suns. Plus, I get a headache.
No, the only thing that was going to make me feel better, I realized, was to put Verizon on my list.
Which is when it occurred to me that I might have some self-help wisdom to impart to the world as well. After all, I am nearly as old as a dinosaur, and, when I feel yucky, almost as green! There’s not a lot to it, but then again, there isn’t a lot to Dinosaurs Divorce, either, once you take away the illustrations of mommy dinosaurs drinking martinis or daddy dinos carrying suitcases out to the car. But at least my advice rhymes:
When you feel Sad and Angry and Afraid and Confused, make a list and feel less abused!
It totally works. For real! Try it!
You can call your list whatever you want (I call mine “People of Earth: This is Why I Hate You”), but the important thing is to take all that rage and frustration and terror and despair and immediately scribble it, with great force, into a yellow legal pad.
“But, Heather,” you say. “I don’t understand. How could just making a list possibly change the way that I feel?”
To which I say two things: “Because you’re writing it on a legal pad, duh”; and “You are this close to going on it.”
Still, I recognize that you, for the most part, are actually me, so I’m going to hold off on putting you on the list for now. Let this be a warning, however: keep it up, Ms. Judgy McJudgerson, and I’m gonna have to buy another legal pad for all the things “you” do that piss me off.
In the rare event that you are a reader who isn’t me, though, I’m providing a (very) excerpted list (this one is pretty much from last Tuesday) to give you an example of how to get started.
Thus, without further ado, I give you:
People of Earth: This is Why I Hate You (Volume 1)
1) Standing in Doorways, Chatting or Texting. People of Earth, ask yourself just one important question: Are you a door?
Then get out of my way.
2) Saying “Worrying” or “Concerning” When You Mean “Worrisome” or “Of Concern.” Stop it.
I’m not kidding.
3) Swinging Left to Turn Right, When You Are Not a Great Big Truck or Even a Medium-Sized One. Not only is this a confusing practice, but it’s completely unnecessary and almost always makes me, stuck behind your pointless maneuvering, miss the fucking light and set a terrible example by swearing in front of my kids, you asshole.
4) Ignoring Me While You Chat on the Phone at the Register, Then Acting All Huffy When I Politely Say “Excuse Me, But Would You Mind Doing Your Job for a Couple of Minutes?” Self-explanatory.
5) Being Verizon. This includes the Gwyneth-esque de-coupling; the robo-calls; the mysteriously slow-speed FIOS; the bills with the taxes for the taxes and the triple-play that doesn’t include three things and the Wireless bill that somehow adds two $50 monthly service fees and makes them equal $130; the putting me on hold and then hanging up; the fulfilling my request for the return of the Voice Messaging that had somehow disappeared (leaving only its fee behind) by adding the option of “Choose Your Own Area Code” and making me spend at least fifteen minutes of valuable writing time by trying to figure out why anyone would want to do that (for disguise??); making my friend Jamie and her daughter Allegra waste two hours of valuable writing/studenting time trying to get Allegra’s mysteriously missing service back; making me pay over the phone for the stupid decoupled wireless bill and then sending not one, not two, but THREE “Important Information About Your Account” notices over the next three days so that the postman probably thinks I’m like some deadbeat or something instead of just someone who is Sad and Angry and Afraid and Confused about why you broke up with regular Verizon in the first place and whether I’m going to have to spend every other weekend being enraged by just one of you when it was so much easier hating you both in the same place, all the time.
There, I think you get the general idea. Don’t you feel better already? I know I do.
Now, if you want to try this yourself at home and don’t have a legal pad handy, feel free to go ahead and start your own list in the comments.
(As long as it’s not about me.)
(Because that would make me Sad.)
(And then I would have to start a whole new list, and put your list on it. And legal pads, like justice, aren’t really free. Plus I just sent all of my money to Verizon.)
Select the best response for each question in order to find out which exciting thing you are that I was too busy to write about over the summer because we were packing and unpacking and repacking and then moving that same stupid barrister bookshelf thingie a million times and I never got a single moment to myself. Good luck!
Which Word Best Describes You?
Pick a Favorite Tree
Elm. Wait, no: Oak.
I mean, Birch. I think? The one with the leaves, over there?
Joshua, because U2
The one that falls in a forest, if you would only listen
Giving (you know, that passive/aggressive one in the Shel Silverstein book, who gives you all of the things until it’s practically dead, because you just take and take?)
Which of Your Children’s Recent Activities Would Be Your Greatest Source of Pride?
Graduating from high school.
Weathering the loss of all three family pets with grace and strength.
Moving eleventy thousand boxes and that one freakishly heavy couch.
Being mistaken for triplets on a summer college tour.
Helping to outrun tornadoes in Iowa by going “Oh no! Don’t look over there! Oh my God! Just GO!”
Celebrating the legal drinking age in Portugal, which, to hear them tell it, is 14 if you’re with your father.
Making sticky rice and mangoes for dessert.
Smuggling in not one, but two boxes of Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs without getting put in airport security jail, unlike some mothers who shall not be named.
Choose Your Favorite Seventeenth Century Poet
Just kidding, he’s not a poet.
He’s that guy from Miami Vice, who used to be married to Melanie Griffith.
Yeah, I can’t come up with any others.
Wait: John Milton. Psych! That’s my brother’s name.
I’ma make up some names now. Guidmon. Lord Frenulum.
Sir Walter Peacock.
Choose Your Favorite Potato Chip (and then give it to me)
Do you have any Munchos?
No, not Cool Ranch Doritos.
Why would you even BUY Cool Ranch Doritos?
And I mean, as opposed to what? A Hot Ranch Dorito? An Uncool Ranch Dorito?
Check again. You probably have Munchos at the back of the cupboard.
What do you mean, the bag is empty?
I can hear the chips when you shake it, you know.
Give me that bag Right Now. I’m Serious.
Oh great. Just GREAT. Look what you did.
Please. Of course I’m not going to eat Floor Fritos the minute you leave the room.
Just, hurry up and go get the broom, okay?
Congratulations! You Got: Crazy Italian Tenant Called The Police When You Came for the Inspection on Your New Home.
You are bewildered, and, to be honest, sort of terrified. Because the crazy Italian Tenant is, like, screaming, seriously, and stomping around in the rain in her Uggs and her cute little ski jacket, and even the Pest Control guy looks like he wants to throw up.
Next Week: It’s been nearly a year, and I’m still married.
Back in the day, in that time between legally becoming an adult and actually becoming one (which, for me, was roughly the span between the ages of 18 and 32), we used to drink a fair amount. And by “we,” I mean “me,” and by “fair,” I mean “a lot.” And because I have always been a multi-tasker, I used to like to combine that drinking with other forms of recreation, like shooting pool, or dancing, or playing “Barbies Nobody Wants.”
I know what you’re thinking, because I used one of my last three magic beans to open a portal into your brain. You’re thinking: This explains so much.
And you’re right: it does, including the 63 percentile drop in my math score from the SATs to the GREs, as well as some inexplicable relationships, that one pair of zebra-striped pants, and a couple of group poems written on cocktail napkins.
What’s that? You’re also thinking, But wait: what is this “Barbies Nobody Wants” thing?
I tell you what, I’m pretty busy packing for our big move right now, but there’s really no point in feeding and clothing an Exposition Fairy and giving her a roof over her tiny head if she isn’t going to help out around the blog now and then. So let’s have her explain, shall we?
Exposition Fairy: No.
Me: I wasn’t asking.
Exposition Fairy: Honestly, do you really think your “readers” are that stupid? They weren’t thinking any of that But wait nonsense. Because what’s not to get about “Barbies Nobody Wants”? They’re Barbies. That nobody wants. The end.
Me: Well, but you still have to explain about–
Exposition Fairy: And what do you mean, “tiny head”? My head is a perfectly normal size for a fairy. In fact, according to Wikipedia–
Me: Okay, so here’s how “Barbies Nobody Wants” works: you sit around brainstorming the worst possible Barbie or Barbie accessory you can think of, like Agoraphobic Barbie, who–
Exposition Fairy: doesn’t come out of her box. They get it.
Me: Or Coroner Barbie. Or the Barbie Weasel.
Exposition Fairy: Are you working your way to a point?
Me: Or Canadian Barbie. Or the Barbie Bag of Day-Old Bread.
Exposition Fairy: How are any of those worse than some of the actual Barbies they’ve come out with, like, I don’t know, the Spanish Teacher Barbie your friend Amy’s brother gave her?
Me: That! That, exactly, is the point toward which I’ve been working!
Exposition Fairy: Pretentious Grammar Bitch Barbie?
Me: Ha ha! What a delightful fairy you’ve been! I, for one, am going to miss you.
Exposition Fairy: What’s that supposed to mean? Was that a threat?
Me: But I’m not going to miss you for two.
Exposition Fairy: Because you’re not pregnant?
Me: See? You get me, after all. So guess what I’m thinking right now. Go ahead.
Exposition Fairy: You’re thinking that this is a really lame way of trying to tell what is ultimately a fairly sad story about how much you miss your mom. And that you should have just tried to tell it in a straight-forward manner, but now you’re stuck with all this silly bantering with me, and I don’t really even exist, but each time you delete this stuff, you find it impossible to do the material in a way that doesn’t just sound like you feel sorry for yourself.
Me: It’s like you have magic beans.
Exposition Fairy: Look, why don’t you go back to boxing up office supplies and I’ll finish up here, okay? I’ve got this.
Me: Are you sure? What about the part about the Francies? What if you tell it wrong?
Exposition Fairy: How’s this? Once upon a time, a very long time ago, there was a little girl whose mother wouldn’t let her have any Barbies.
Me: But not because she was a mean mom—
Exposition Fairy: But the reason the little girl’s mom wouldn’t let her have Barbies wasn’t because she was mean (though technically she was, to some people. Technically and spectacularly, actually. Just hardly ever to the little girl).
Me: Oh my God. Just let me do it.
Exposition Fairy: Please. Her co-workers gave her a “Miss Congeniality” banner at the office Christmas party one year. Because of sarcasm.
Me: You’re ruining the story.
Exposition Fairy: Sorry, sorry. Okay, the reason the little girl’s mother wouldn’t let her have Barbies was because the little girl’s mother was a feminist. Who felt that Barbies, with their unrealistic measurements, were setting a terrible example for little girls, and sowing the seeds of body dysmorphic disorder—
Me: Though she wouldn’t have called it that—
Exposition Fairy: –and which, ironically, she herself already had.
Me: Stop. Let’s just stop.
Exposition Fairy: We’re halfway there already. Long story short: the little girl’s mother did, however, let her daughter have Barbie’s younger and flatter-chested cousin, Francie. Who looked, coincidentally, more than a little bit like the little girl’s mother, herself. Except—
Exposition Fairy: –the little girl’s mother had a way larger chest. Barbie-sized, in fact.
Me: Those were confusing times for the little girl.
Exposition Fairy: But the important part of the story is how, once the little girl’s mother indulged the little girl with the Francie, she put her heart into it, buying the little girl other Francies to keep the doll company, as well as a Ricky or two (a freckled, teen-aged boy doll), and even a handful of Skippers (don’t ask). Best of all, the little girl’s mother even designed and sewed clothing for the little girl’s Francies and Co., including some really cunning and intricate southern belle outfits when the little girl fell into her Gone-With-the-Wind phase. The mother even signed up to be an assistant Brownie Scout Leader for the little girl’s troop, so she could help all the little girl’s friends make southern belle clothes for their dolls–
Me: –which were mostly Barbies–
Exposition Fairy: –too.
Me: They were made out of felt squares, and red velvet, and the hoop skirts had actual wire running through them, to make them stand out.
Exposition Fairy: Seriously, I’ve got this.
Me: I just don’t want you to leave out the part about how magical it all was.
Exposition Fairy: It was very, very magical. Even though the little girl never got to have a real Barbie, what she had, she realized when she grew up, was something so much more special. She would take out the Francies from time to time, smooth out their hoop skirts, and remember her mother at the troop meetings–the only mom with a college degree; the mom who would soon go back to school and get her MBA; the mom who would set fire to her husband’s Playboy magazines the day after she threw him out–bending over another little girl to show her how to sew the hook-and-eye clasp at the hoop-skirt’s waist. She was a little girl who didn’t have a Barbie, but who had the weirdest, most interesting mother of all.
Me: And then, the minute I had a little girl—
Exposition Fairy: And then, the minute the little girl grew up and had a little girl, her mother sent the baby—
Me: –an honest-to-God Barbie. And not just any Barbie, but a Princess Barbie—
Exposition Fairy: Or maybe it was a Wedding Barbie—
Me: Long blonde hair, huge boobs, no waist or hips, and a puffy white dress, and maybe a mirror that made noise when she looked into it to admire herself?
Exposition Fairy: Or wait, is it this one, with the multi-colored ball gown that kind of looks like a flower? Which, by the way, I would totally wear.
Me: You would look adorable in that. That is such an Exposition Fairy dress.
Exposition Fairy: So but, anyway, the mother sent her grandbaby girl, who was all of like two or three days old, a by-God Barbie. And in a couple of weeks, she sent her another.
Me: I think I packed that one in the other box. The one with the string you pull to grow her hair?
Exposition Fairy: And for every special occasion after, a Barbie. And then, for her first birthday, an entire BARBIE HOUSE.
Me: The Barbie Beach House! It was green, and had a swimming pool on the roof. And you could hook up this hose-thingie and make water run in the shower! Look, look, here’s the hose. And part of the white plastic railing that ran around the pool, to keep the Barbies from falling off the house!
Exposition Fairy: And then the grown-up little girl had another little girl, and now the Barbie-gifting doubled. The Barbies acquired possessions along with real estate—a car,
Me: These Barbie Unicorns with light-up feet! Look, this one still lights up!
Exposition Fairy: –and, one amazing Christmas, some baby Barbies and a little roller-coaster theme park for them to play in, complete with go-carts with seatbelts to strap the babies in. When the grown-up little girl’s mother would come to visit, she’d play beauty parlor with her grandbabies, using tens and hundreds of little barrettes and ribbons and pony-ties to style the Barbies’ hair. And then, shockingly, suddenly, when the grandbaby girls were only 4 and 2, when the grown-up little girl was still in her thirties and her mother was only 64, or maybe 65?—
Me: –she died.
Exposition Fairy: Should I stop?
Me: Why stop now? This is the part the whole post’s about, right? About how I lost my mind?
Exposition Fairy: Right. Okay, so the mother died. And then the grown-up little girl came home from her funeral in Iowa, and she sat down to play Barbies with her own little girls. But it was all wrong. There weren’t enough. The girls needed more Barbies. And the Barbies needed more things. The grown up little girl went to Toys backwards-R Us and bought some more Barbies, and then, to give them room to spread out, a Barbie Town House. And a Barbie Mini-Van.
Me: And a Barbie Bus. And an Airplane. Don’t forget the Barbie Airplane.
Exposition Fairy: Week after week, for a year, then two, the grown-up little girl went out to gather up Barbies. There were Barbies of all colors. Asian Barbies. African Barbies. Barbies from Chile. Barbies from Spain. Designer Barbies from tv shows, like That Girl and I Love Lucy. Barbies from the Wizard of Oz. One day, she even brought home a real, commercially made Gone with the Wind Barbie, and a Rhett Butler Ken, each of whom cost nearly a hundred dollars.
Me: But she couldn’t stand to look at them, and so she mailed them to a friend.
Exposition Fairy: Right. Those were the only Barbies the grown-up little girl didn’t want. Eventually, she cleared a room in the basement and gave it entirely over to the Barbies, who needed the space for their seven houses, their stables, their horses, their fairy land, their amusement park, their castles and their camper homes.
Me: The Barbie Room.
Exposition Fairy: It was a great room.But eventually, the grown-up little girl got divorced, and had to sell the house, and the Barbies crowded into a much smaller room in a much smaller home, and maybe the grown-up little girl moved past the grief that had caused her to compulsively buy Barbies, or maybe she just ran out of room to add any more. And then, one day, the grown-up little girl’s girls took the Barbies to their father’s house, where they could spread them out.
Me: Ha! And then he got remarried.
Exposition Fairy: Right. And the Barbies eventually came back, minus a lot of their real estate. Plus, because the grown-up little girl’s girls were growing up, the Barbies came back with tragic haircuts and missing limbs, their clothes sliced up and sewn up into funky and curious styles the girls themselves had made up, without quite actually knowing how to sew.
Me: Because their grandmother didn’t have time to teach them.
Exposition Fairy: Right. And then one day, the grown-up little girl remarried, and then, many months later, she and her new husband put in an offer on a house. Which was accepted. Then, after much craziness, it became clear that the grown-up little girl was actually going to move again. And that she and her kids were going to have to sort through the years of toy accumulation and get rid of the things they no longer wanted, now that the grown-up little girl’s kids were very nearly grown-up.
Me: So the grown-up little girl made her nearly grown-up little girls pull out the Barbies, to figure out which ones they wanted to save to someday show their own little girls, the way the grown-up little girl had saved a couple of Francies, along with a hoop skirt or two.
Exposition Fairy: So they spread out the eight huge boxes of the Barbies that remained from the gifts of the grown-up little girl’s mother, and the years of the grown-up little girl’s grief, and they designated a pile for those they would keep, and those they no longer wanted.
Me: But it was really hard to make the call. The grown-up little girl couldn’t remember which Barbies her mother had given her girls, and which she’d acquired for them, and the girls couldn’t agree on which ones they could easily give up.
Exposition Fairy: Which leaves us with this pile of potential donations, in which, so far, there’s just one headless Ken. And what looks like—what is that? Is it a shark?
Me: It’s a killer whale, from the Barbie Amusement Park. A Barbie Killer Whale.
Exposition Fairy: Okay, that’s worse than the Barbie Weasel. Or the Barbie Bag of Day-Old Bread.
Me: No it isn’t. Never mind, let’s keep that. We need to keep the Barbie Killer Whale.
Exposition Fairy: So the moral of the story, as you can see, is that, eventually, everyone grows up. And when we grow up, we have to leave behind the games of our childhood. Even “Barbies Nobody Wants.”
Me: Okay, I think I’m going to have to ask for my magic beans back.
Exposition Fairy: Actually, I think one of the Unicorns ate them.
Me: Wait, I don’t think we figured out what this has to do with feminism, did we?
Exposition Fairy: No, I don’t think we did. But don’t look at me for answers: I only have a tiny head. And I’m not even real. But I am wearing a really fabulous Flower Fairy dress. And sometimes, that’s meaning enough.
Me: By the way, thanks. For an imaginary creature, you’re kind of all right. I appreciate the help just now.
Exposition Fairy: Nice try, but don’t think you can distract me with flattery. Put the headless Ken back on the pile.
Have you ever had that thing happen where Life gave you lemons and you squeezed them into a big frosty pitcher, and you were all “Yay me, making lemonade!” and then someone took a drink and started making noises like “pah” and “urkh” and “blggk”?
That’s because it turns out that you need more than just lemons to make lemonade.
What you made, idiot, was lemon juice.
Well, that’s pretty much all you need to know about the beige dress I bought to replace the blue-lace dress that I’d bought for my mid-life wedding and then undergrew (ingrew? Whatever the opposite of “outgrew” would be), and then had brilliantly altered (if, by “altered,” we mean scrunched up, folded over, and tacked down like a piece of wrapping paper that had been cut too large for its gift).
It’s not that I didn’t see the opportunity Life had given me with this particular basket of lemons. Believe me, in the weeks that have passed since my last post on the topic, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder why it was that I didn’t just order the same blue-lace dress in a smaller size. The thing is, while I’m pretty good at figuring out what you are thinking (because I was bitten by a telepathic spider while on a field trip in high school), I’m woefully bad at determining just what it was I had been thinking the minute I’ve moved on from any particular thought.
For instance, a few hours ago, while gathering laundry from one of my daughters’ bedrooms, I had what I’m almost certain was a great insight into why it was that I’d hated that beige dress, and I was about to put down the laundry basket and run to the computer to get it down when I glanced at my daughter’s iPad and remembered that it had been playing an Abba song when I went in to wake her this morning. Which got me to wondering why the song itself hadn’t woken her, and from there it was just a short hop to trying to remember exactly which Abba song it had been that was playing, and within moments I was mentally looping “Waterloo,” trying to parse the lyrics that my teenaged self had probably misheard.
Was it: “In my mind, a Waterloo, Napoleon surrendered/ Whoa yeah, and I have met my distant me in white, I think, in a way,” and if so, what, exactly, did those things mean? More important: what did I used to think those things meant, since I don’t remember wondering about their meaning before? Something about a marriage, probably, since the distant me was wearing white. Unless, maybe, she was in a hospital? But why was my mind a Waterloo, and was I happy that Napoleon had given up on its battlefield?
And then I remembered that it’s 2013, or maybe 2014, and that I don’t have to stand around holding a laundry basket and wondering about lyrics when I can just do what the young people do and use the Google on the machine. And so I did.
And then it occurred to me that it wasn’t so much a case of me mishearing as it was of Abba mis-singing.
My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender/ Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way/ The history book on the shelf/ Is always repeating itself.
What the what? I asked myself, like a history book, repeating on the shelf. How could these lyrics make any more sense than the ones in my head? And what sort of person who isn’t so much a person as she is maybe a wise old animated bear starts a song with the words “My, my?”
Waterloo – I was defeated you won the war/ Waterloo – Promise to love you for ever more/ Waterloo – couldn’t escape if I wanted to/ Waterloo – knowing my fate is to be with you/ Waterloo – finally facing my Waterloo.
So the song was about marriage? But, like, a very brief marriage, since the bride gets exiled to Elba the minute the ceremony ends?
So then I got to wondering exactly how it was that whoever wrote this song came up with the concept. I imagined the members of Abba sitting around in some Bjorn guy’s basement, eating lutefisk pizza and throwing out song ideas like “Ja, okay, so what if love is like war?” and someone saying, “You mean, all your men get killed and then you lose, and you have to get married?” And the first one goes, “Ja, ja, that’s good! Let’s make it our song’s metaphor, ja?” And then they jump up to search the history book on the shelf, but they can’t find any famous Swedish battles.
And then their little grandmother, who looks very much like a wise old animated bear, comes down the steps carrying a plate of Napoleon pastries for dessert. “My, my!” she exclaims when she sees how busy they are, and then suddenly everyone’s singing.
My, my, I tried to hold you back but you were stronger/ Oh yeah, and now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight/ And how could I ever refuse?/ I feel like I win when I lose.
Right? Like, if they’d actually sat down and written the song, they would have noticed the way the line “and now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight” completely fucks up the meter and kind of dribbles its way to the catchier lines, so that if you’d never read the lyrics, you’d just la-di-blah-blah the words in your head until you got to the ones that didn’t suck?
Which, it struck me, is exactly why my teenaged self hadn’t questioned the lyrics: because it had just la-di-blah-blahed through the ones that didn’t rhyme or make any obvious internal sense, so that what I was mostly hearing, after “my distant me in white,” was “Waterloo, blah-di blah-blah-ba-di Waterloo.”
Which, it then struck me, is exactly the way I often write, la-di-blah-blahing until I get to whatever it is I really mean to say. And while, ideally, I then go back and edit out the la-di-blahs, sometimes I end up with entire passages of them, and with no catchy musical hooks to keep my audience with me until we get past them. Which -Waterloo – made me remember my Waterloo. My Waterloo: forgetting the thing I was telling you.
And no it was not about shoes. It was about the dress that I’d chooooose!
And then I remembered that I’d had a great insight, and now it was gone. Or, at any rate, it was now buried under a non-stop looping of a catchy but incredibly stupid song.
I tried retracing my steps, telling myself the story of how, just after I’d discovered that my blue lace dress no longer fit, I’d dragged my teenaged daughters to the mall, and this time they weren’t nearly as nice about it. But every time I tried to write a sentence, it got translated into Abbanian:
So I packed the girls up for the mall/ Where they didn’t want to be at alllll!
Mother do/ You have some friends who could go with you?/ ‘Cause it’s true: we’re getting pretty sick of dressing you.
And then I remembered the thing about the lemons. By which I mean that I remembered thinking about the thing about the lemons back in August, when I realized I needed to redo the entire process of picking out a wedding dress, and thinking, hey, Life has given me lemons, and now I will get to make a much more beautiful lemonade! and then realizing, as I was trying on my twenty-seventh dress at Nordstrom, that beauty isn’t really an issue where lemonade is concerned. That Life had given me lemons, but unless Life also felt like giving me some sugar and ice cubes and maybe a big old silver spoon with which to stir it all up, I should just buy this Adrianna Papell lace fit-and-flare dress in beige, and go home.
And so I did.
I left it hanging in my closet for a couple of days, telling myself that it probably looked better on me than I thought it did, but when I finally broke down and tried it on again, it didn’t. It looked like a beige lace fit-and-flare dress that kind of squashed my chest. Because it was summer, most of me was pretty much also beige, so, if you squinted, it was sort of hard to tell where the dress and I left off – there was flare, here and there, and equally beige was my hair.
And then I remembered that I don’t even like lemonade. I crawled into bed to watch So You Think You Can Dance with my daughters, thinking about how Life was like the worst Secret Santa, ever, and then the television screen filled with Cat Deeley, the hostess of SYTYCD, and she was wearing the most amazing little 1960’s-era bell-sleeved, empire mini-dress in a blinding white.
And then I remembered what my brain had burbled up when I saw that dress: my distant me in white.
Because THIS, I realized, was what I really wanted to look like on my wedding day, minus the Cat Deeley. (Well, I mean, of course I’d want to look like Cat Deeley, but I would have to grow at least a foot taller, lose about twenty years as well as pounds, and then buy a Cat Deeley mask. And a wig. And an accent.) This, and not blue lace, and definitely not beige fit-and-flare, was my ideal mid-life wedding dress.
So now, sitting at my computer, laundry basket at my feet, I thought: wait, what? Was this my morning’s insight? If so, I must have had it because I’d heard “Waterloo” on my daughter’s iPad, and it had brought back words that it turned out weren’t actually even in the song.
Thus, as insights go, this one was really pretty feeble: lyrics I’d misheard nearly forty years ago made me not wear the second dress I’d bought for my mid-life wedding.
Which begs the question: which were the lemons Life had given me? The first dress, not fitting? The second, not flattering? Was the distant me in white the sugar, or more lemons, and if my brain had linked an image of my wedded self with a song about how marriage is what happens when you lose a battle, then this entire post was turning out to be a big fat la-di-blah-blah.
Still, sometimes, when Life gives you la-di-blah-blahs, you have to sing.
So I cranked my computer’s volume to Anthem and, in my best Swedish accent, began to sing along with YouTube’s frozen-frame photo of Abba, circa 1975: “So how could I evah re-fyus? I fee like I wean when I loooous!”
And then ten or twenty minutes later, the phone rings, and my husband wants to know what I’ve been doing, and I tell him what I would tell anyone who catches me in the middle of dancing around a laundry basket going “Whoa whoa whoa whoa Waterloo”: “I’m writing.”
“About the beige dress?”
“Okay, well, don’t wanna interrupt. Love you.”
“Love you,” I say, and in my mind, a Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender.
Gettysburg/ Now that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard/ Vietnam/ Kind of rhymes with Antietam.
When you have three children attending the same high school at exactly the same time, some parts of your life become surprisingly easy. Suddenly, everyone’s following approximately the same schedule (with staggered risings, so that not everybody is trying to brush his or her teeth at once). Drop-off times and locations are the same; pick-ups (if there are pick-ups; the weather theoretically gets nice enough in Pittsburgh that they can walk home at least once or twice a year) are roughly the same. Winter and summer breaks begin and end on the same days, and all three kids can be dragged travel to the same spring break destination simultaneously (unless, as one sometimes does, you leave one or another by the side of the road). Sure, you may be the busiest single mother on Parent-Teacher Open House Night, but usually the kids share at least one Creative Writing or Spanish or homeroom instructor, so you don’t have to go all the way around the four-storey building much more than twice.
And then one morning you glance up from your silly little wedding dress blog because your cell phone is vibrating, and the messages from far away begin to come in: Everyone okay?
Is everyone safe?
Are they okay?
This is 2014. You know that messages like these mean that something has happened, probably nearby, and because people far away from you already know about it, it’s most likely going to turn out to be something pretty bad. Your brain flits quickly past the likelihood of acts of God (tornado, earthquake, freak storm), since you write in front of a relatively large window and have not yet lost sensation in your limbs. It stumbles around for a minute as you reread the messages, trembling while it holds the word “they” to the light.
They. They. They.
The word suggests a group of people, of whom you aren’t, quite, a part.
These messages are asking about your kids.
Which means, because this is 2014, that something bad has happened at a school. Words burble at the edge of your consciousness: SandyHookAdamLanzaWestVirginiaDylanKleboldColumbine.
You start clicking bars on your browser because you can’t remember where the CNN tab is, and pull up the Yahoo “news” page you’d long ago stopped reading because it was almost entirely full of ads, and there it is: 20 Stabbed at Pittsburgh High School.
And, even though you’re not very good at it, you do the panic-stricken math: if that’s your children’s Pittsburgh high school, which is a very large Pittsburgh public high school, the odds are still suddenly very high that someone you love—someone you made–has been hurt.
You wait just a heartbeat before clicking, because this is what you’ve always done at the moment of potential or actual crisis: you freeze.
And then you click.
And God, thank God, thank any and many and every God: it’s not your kids’ school.
Later that day, you go to the doctor because you are sick, and the local news runs without interruption, and you are sicker. 14 year-old stabbed in the stomach. 17 year-old with knife wounds to the abdomen. 18 year-old with cuts to his hand and arm. These are the ages of your children. These are not your children, but they are somebody’s children. Somebody fifteen miles away looked up from her work this morning because her phone was blowing up with texts, and she saw the headline, and it was her child’s school.
And then there is the stabber, the person who did this awful thing. 16. You fasten on his face in the window of a squad car, and you want to be full of rage, but he is a child. He is little in the back seat, his head turned away from the camera; he is small enough that he has probably been bullied, which is a thing you know because your children are small.
The news anchors, already four hours into a story that has only just begun, use the word “bullied” many times. The screen fills with teenagers, blonde, be-capped, bloodied or befuddled teenagers, and soon the stories of heroism start. “He stepped in front of me and took the stab.” “This kid was getting stabbed, but he pulled the fire alarm, and then he got stabbed again.” “She put pressure on the bleeding with a sweatshirt.” “The principal tackled the kid, and then this other kid held him down.”
The screen fills with the image of the tiny stabber in the back of the squad car again, then switches to a girl with brown hair, who could be one of your own girls with brown hair, who says: “There were a bunch of kids bleeding on the lawn.”
Why do you freeze at the moment of crisis? You can’t be sure, of course, but at least part of the explanation has to do with your childhood.
Because your father was in the Navy, you moved a lot when you were little. Your first real experience of school was at the Yokohama Lighthouse Kindergarten, in Japan. There, when the school’s alarm went off, it meant that you were to leap under the classroom’s big, heavy tables, because this was either an earthquake drill or an actual earthquake. By first grade, your father had quit the Navy and moved the family to Vermont, where you and your older brother were very confused the first time the school alarm went off, and everyone filed calmly outside—for a fire drill. By the time your mother divorced your father and moved you to Iowa, when you were fifteen, you knew the drill thoroughly, and got up to go quietly outside when your high school’s alarm sent your fellow students into the hall to huddle against the lockers while the tornado siren raged.
Now, an alarm goes off, and you have to wait for someone else to do something before you know exactly what it is that you’re supposed to be frightened of.
Or you just stand there, afraid of everything.
You don’t text your children, because they don’t need the drama; if the school wants to let them know there’s been an incident, then the students will know. But in the early afternoon, your youngest daughter, a freshman, starts a group message thread to her siblings and you. “Did you hear about that stabbing today?”
“Yeah,” her sister, a junior, replies. “My homeroom teacher’s daughter was there. She’s fine, though.”
Your son, a senior, doesn’t chime in, possibly because he is in one of the few classes where it’s inappropriate to pull out your iPhone and text. But the freshman adds a sentence you can’t quite parse, because it’s one of those texts without punctuation. “The guy who pulled the fire alarm and saved a bunch of people probably posted a selfie with his stab wound on instagram.”
Eventually, you decide that the message is a jaded one: that even the day’s heroism will probably be followed by stories of selfish, stupid acts. But no (and, in a way, yes): later she tells you that the “probably” was meant to modify the notion that lives were saved; the guy who pulled the fire alarm (and probably saved a bunch of lives) actually did post a photo of himself on Instagram, brandishing his bandaged arm.
It’s one of Pittsburgh’s rare, beautiful days, but you drive to school to pick the kids up, anyway. You get there much too early, so you sit in the car, watching a mother and her toddler walking up and down the sidewalk across the busy street.
The toddler keeps veering too close to the road, and you mutter “Watch out!” or “Come on, lady!” to the mother, who cannot possibly hear you.
But it doesn’t matter, because you’re not really talking to her.
After all, you are the mother who took her kids to school.
At least there are metal detectors there, you think.
This morning, your son stays home with a stomachache. Your daughters gather up their belongings for the drive to school, and you confess that you ran out of plastic forks, so you had to put a metal one into the older girl’s lunch bag. “Sorry,” you say. “It’ll probably set off the metal detector.”
“No it won’t,” she says. “They don’t put the backpacks through the metal detectors.”
“They don’t?” you ask. “But, but isn’t that where you’d put a weapon if you had one?”
“They don’t even do anything if the detector goes off when you walk through it. If you’re white, anyway,” the younger one says. She shrugs. “Even though—“
And then you’re all thinking it: even though the person most likely to carry a weapon into a school and use it on a large number of people is a white, adolescent boy.
Like the one upstairs, sleeping. Like the one locked up in juvenile detention, despite having been charged as an adult. Like the one in “extreme critical condition” at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital down the street, whose knife wound, you learned in a press report this morning, came “within millimeters” of his heart. Like the boy who pulled the fire alarm at Franklin Regional, who definitely took a selfie and probably saved a number of lives.
How are you supposed to know which one will become which?
Or what to do, if or when he does?
“By the way,” your freshman, full of the safety knowledge her childhood has taught, says to her sister. “If you hear a fire alarm, you should just run. I heard a girl talking about it on the news last night, how she was walking into the school when she heard screaming, and then the alarm, and she just ran. You have to run.”