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I like changing calendars to show a whole new month of days, sparkling and hopeful. Who knows--maybe an agent or editor will fall in love with one of my books; maybe some tall dark handsome stranger will approach me as I sit scribbling at a coffee shop, recognizing a kindred spirit. Maybe my son's dream college will recognize his math genius and great personal qualities and offer him full scholarship, don't worry about the FAFSA. Maybe I'll win the lottery I refuse to play; maybe relatives I've never met will look me up and really want to know me.
I'll never be published again.
My first publications--flukes.
Silly to be at write-in with people young enough to be my kids. Probably think I'm a failure--I should have a book published already.
Do skills decrease as you age? Maybe it's too late...
My brother, so successful--I'll never measure up.
Why am I the only person my age range in the coffee shop? Have other writers my age made it or given up?
Friends compliment me because they're friends--probably yawn while flipping through pages. (No wonder they like coming for coffee--I owe them caffeine!)
“I want my daughter to go to your school!” The woman's gold-brown hair fell straight down her back; her dangling earrings and necklaces clashed with Ms. Hernandez's tailored appearance, the solemn crucifix and mute wood colors of the principal's office. “I'm tired of being jerked around by the public schools. You show me you can do better.”
“We've never had a student who used a wheelchair here before,” Ms. Hernandez said.
“Well, welcome to the club. When I had Cherie, I never had a kid with a disability before either. You'll learn just like I did.”
Twenty-two years ago, also a Friday, big T and I were preparing for our wedding. I stayed overnight at J's; she and I sat up late looking through pennies, searching for a really old one to put together with somethings new, blue, borrowed. Big T was downtown watching fireworks with buddies--well, listening because he was/is blind.
Tonight, Friday July 3, I go see “Up” with my son and drink in the line--”The ordinary things are the things I remember most.” I miss J, wish I could call her and reminisce while firecrackers go off all about.
Fourth of July. Firecrackers boom nonstop outside; Michael Jackson sings on my Pandora.com, while from my son's room I hear sports radio voices commentate on White Sox stats. I remember twenty-two years ago, when I'd just got married, my dad and sister driving me and my husband to the downtown Chicago hotel. After checking in, we strolled down Michigan Avenue, still in our wedding finery, cars honking at us as they passed, fireworks lighting up the sky. I feel sad I never remarried after the divorce--will I grow old and die alone, no one to share my life with?
I think of preschool days, D and T tussling outside Old Country Buffet, rolling on the floor. A man laconically said, “Nice kids” meaning the opposite. D's mom rescued me, laughing. “Can't you control your children?” Both our sons biracial, they looked alike.
D and his mom moved away; now, fourteen years later, D in jail for robbery, T in the National Honor Society, praised for maturity. There but for the grace of God. ”I don't have anybody to get me to do bad stuff,” T says.
Thank You, God--but why weren't You there for D?
remember falling in love with classical music. It was December, my freshman high school year, and I was in the beginner's orchestra. I came to class and discovered the senior orchestra preparing for the Christmas concert--it was a public school, but nobody was PC in 1969. While we were barely playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb, they played Bizet's L'Arlesienne suite--and the music, bold with tympani, soared with high octave violins, relentless beat and overlapping melodies that made me envision some sort of heaven beyond the orchestra room dusty with chalk board notes and violin rosin.
Crossing Lincoln Ave., I walk when the light turns green. Turning cars block the crosswalk--one car is turning from behind me but signals me, go ahead--but cars turn in front of me, not waving me on--I run. Some asshole rolls up his window, yells, “Red means don't walk.”
Why do I feel like crying? I was in the right, that driver was a jerk--if I were a different person I'd have yelled some insult. I've never been good at confrontations, don't particularly want to be, but wish I had a way to ward off hurt.
I love that the Cell is so diverse--not just with color and nationality but with different ages mingling comfortably. Going down the ramp after the game, a mom carries her infant close in a snuggly, while her husband and toddler son laugh, swing an empty car seat. Two senior citizen women in Sox shirts discuss bullpen problems. Often in coffee shops I'm the only Baby Boomer representative--here, I feel welcome. But the irony is--at heart I'm a writer who belongs in a coffee shop; at the Cell, I'm a baseball-fan-in-training because of sports fanatic friends and relatives.
During the Hunger Walk for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a young yuppie woman in designer shorts jogs by, yells at us: ”Get off the path!”
A young man in bright orange T shirt with a gentle face smiles, says, “She thinks we shouldn't be here.”
And maybe she thinks that on a deeper level, too--maybe she thinks that the marginalized ones who need food pantries shouldn't exist. A Darwinist eat-or-be-eaten society should prevail, and those unable to land lucrative jobs should disappear, leaving the young beautiful healthy rich ones to rejoice alone on their jogging paths.
“They'll all look at me,” Cherie said, wheeling herself towards the door. “Why the hell don't they have a ramp? I don't want anybody lifting me.”
“Don't say hell,” Cherie's mother snapped. “I don't want notes from this school--especially after the trouble to get you in.”
“Well, there shouldn't be trouble getting me in. You can pay the tuition.” Cherie said, scowling at the step blocking her way into St. Francis.
“Preaching to the choir, sweetie. Don't you think that's what I tell them?” Her mom smacked her fisted hand in the air.
“Killer Queen” plays on Pandora; I remember first hearing it blast from F's room in the sorority house back in 1974 or 1975, the year after I left my childhood home forever, feeling adrift and deciding to become more so, taking the leap of taking the next year off to write, so stupid about scholarships, not knowing I wouldn't be able to transfer easily into dream schools.
F was thin, wore worn blue jeans, loved Queen passionately; I have a vague memory of the sweet smell of pot emanating from her room, of bright neon psychodelic posters hanging wall-to-wall.
Last May I finished my MFA, a whirlwind of writing and revision, spending vacation time at Red Eye, drinking Americanos and going through my manuscript again and again, sticking post-its on marked-up pages. At the very end I took the Montrose bus to a little bindery, ordering copies bound in royal blue, feeling glee that I'd surprise my friend L. with a dedication. I lost weight almost accidentally because my life was either work or writing my novel. I miss that focus, that process towards a tangible goal--although at the time, how longingly I looked at the finish line!
Rachel sat next to Cherie at the table by the concessions.
“Hi,” she said. Did Cherie needed help--would it be rude to ask?
“You're lucky, you can sit in the stands,” Cherie said.
' “I like sitting here,” Rachel said. “I don't like climbing all those stairs.” She didn't say how she liked to sip pop during the game, and you couldn't, in the stands. Why give Cherie an excuse to mention weight? Although Rachel had lost weight, she still wasn't skinny.
“You can tell me if I miss anything. I hate being short.”
My son and I walk to the Davis for the midnight showing: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. A “Sold Out“ sign pasted on the door, I present bar-coded on-line receipt.
One guy wears a cape; a young woman wears witch hat with gold stars. Most people in their twenties, older than my son, younger than me--although I saw a sixty-ish gray-haired woman, two middle-school kids with their mom. During previews, my neck creaks from our third row seats--but pain dissolves with the thundercloud opening, the scattered applause of the audience.
Walking home, deserted streets, magical feeling.
Rebecca inserted paper into slate, punched stylus point into slate indentations. Years ago, she'd practiced with jumbo crayons--now, learning to read all over again.
Teachers were patient. But how long before she could reread War and Peace? Would she enjoy reading by touch?
“Practicing?” Daphne asked.
“You can do it,” Daphne said.
Daphne had been blind since a child, had grown up with braille.
“Did you learn to read overnight when you were little?”
“But I want to read now!” Realizing she sounded whiny, Rebecca laughed.
“You can do it.”
When you're a single parent, your child is a souvenir. Like a postcard from a vacation--you smell sweetness of pines, envision lofty mountains, feel invigorating air. Or maybe, except for one golden morning, it rained every day. It doesn't matter--you can never return--you're back at work--all you have is this photograph.
Your child's mischievous smile, the way he tilts his head--these bring memories. But your child is who he is, separate from you and your ex, you are back at work. But unlike a tacky postcard, this child has value even if the marriage didn't.
Last night at the Sox game, I overhear: “Hey, Walter Cronkite died.”
I recall childhood days, nearsightedly in front of black-and-white TV, hearing Cronkite's voice while seeing images I didn't understand. Black Americans with signs, marching. Why were they angry? White policemen attacking with clubs. Why? War, people dying, in a country with alien name I'd never head of. Why?
And I remember “Lizard Music,” which my son and I read for a family book club. The kid hero idolizes Cronkite, visits a land of lizards where Cronkite is a god, framed reproductions of his reassuring face everywhere.
Still in fluffy bathrobe, I listen to Pandora hip hop while H sniffs out open window slats eying sparrows and robins; the online radio beat makes me feel happy as caffeine. A half cup of decaf (flavored with crème brule creamer) sits on crate by my side, and Sunday morning sunshine feels solemn even though I didn't make it to church. I plan to, next week. It is a connection to God, no matter if some people count how often you go or are as chary of handing out smiles as a miser is of handing out hundred dollar bills--
Forty years ago, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. The summer before high school, I was lonely, the library my only refuge--yet if I stayed too long, browsing in happy bookworm daze, I'd hear my mother's hiss: “I was worried about you.” I was a possession, not a child to be nurtured into happy adult.
But forty years later, I'm washing dishes after an impromptu family party: my half-brother J. and his wife in town, two other half-brothers and families join us for pizza, all happy to come to my place for cake. I am happy.
In the early eighties I went to D.C., marching against involvement in El Salvador. Arriving back in town on school bus early Sunday morning, I walked deserted streets until the Art institute opened; I was scheduled to work the admissions cash register at 11:30 a.m. I found a McDonald's and ate breakfast, used the washroom. Then again I meandered through empty downtown Chicago. How unconnected from the human race I felt back then; my relatives wanting nothing to do with me, afraid I was like my mother; I futilely tried to latch myself onto the S. family, never quite succeeding.
I remember thinking C was the best boss I ever. But after she left the agency, she changed or I did. I was harassed at my next job; when I didn't quit immediately, she said, “I guess there's something to be said for security.” Her tone said “You've settled. Despicable.” Did she know how many resumes I'd sent out? Was she offering to support me and my toddler? One time she said, “You might want to take your writing seriously--not just this junk--” She waved dismissively at work newsletters. Did she know I wrote daily?
Class rankings hurt those at the top as much as those at the bottom; adulation is a drug. I loved school freshman year, reveling in football games with friends, riding home sardine-style on buses with buddies. After being ranked number one in sophomore year, my innocent love lessened; I focused on rank. For suddenly people oohed and aahed, kids who used to mock me stopped. Wasn't that why I dropped physics--true, the teacher stunk, but physics was a regular class, weighted less than honors ones. My son has not been poisoned; “I want to enjoy learning, have fun.”
Friday night; I feel exhausted. I walk a mile to Party City for bubbles, plastic-ware, and a balloon pump for beach balls. Tomorrow's our block party, and I've invited friends. Still have to clean more, need to thaw strawberries for fruit salad, cook pasta for pasta salad, make iced tea. After the Sox game is over, my son and I will walk to Walgreen's, get milk and maybe a lawn chair. Then at ten-thirty I'll unwind to Perry Mason. I love having friends over, love the chance to meet neighbors, yet always the inside nagging: “Have you written enough?”
I'm like a little kid with parties--I never want to go home or guests to leave. Our block party over; I don't want to bring in tables and chairs, the Scrabble and pictionary games. I replay the day--did everybody have fun? I was supposed to be in charge of kid's games--did I do enough? I bought beach balls and bubbles, L brought chalk, one neighbor contributed Bozo buckets. I should have introduced myself to the mom organizing the bike/tricycle parade but felt shy. Instead I focused on friends, overjoyed A with us just like before the cancer.
Thirty years ago I worked in I Music Camp's cafeteria, serving mashed potatoes to future virtuosos, taking weekly violin lessons myself, the professor looking askance at my humble Sears and Roebucks violin. Everyone wore blue corduroy knickers, lived in cabins with tin roofs where raindrops beat timpani solos. A , L, and I hung out, playing jigsaw puzzles, walking to T City, roasting s'mores on campground grills; I remember pungent pines, mosquitoes whose bites became puffy welts--but mostly I remember being obsessed because my best friend back home, my only family, was angry at me; I didn't understand why.
Past and present collide today. My son and I attend R University's open house; I watch other parents and teens, feeling so close to that former self who started college in 1973. How am I now a parent? We bump into a student who obviously has a crush on my son, her whole face grins seeing him; I feel for the girl, remembering my love for BK when I was seventeen.
Later we dine with friends we haven't seen in seven years. Then, my son and M were fourth graders. M looks just the same, but taller. Only exteriors change.
When I write, sometimes I feel stage fright, as though walking onto a stage, bright lights blinding me, a sea of anonymous faces staring at me blankly, no smiles, “OK. Impress us. Prove yourself.” For I've never felt good enough just as I am--I had to excel--prove to my relatives and the rest of the world that I wasn't a carbon copy of my mother. I never mention my childhood to mere acquaintances, knowing I'd be typecast. So I'm always afraid I'll trip, forget my lines; I can never relax. Talk about a recipe for writer's block!
I don't know...
if my book will ever get published
if I'll have romance
or ever marry again
if peace is possible
if I'll avoid living in a nursing home when I'm old
if my writing will improve
if I've helped more people than I've hurt
if childhood scars ever completely heal
if my son will have a happy life doing work he loves
if he'll marry happily and have kids--my grandkids!
if I pray enough, have faith enough
if I forgive those who've trespassed against me, so that I can be forgiven
if I am grateful enough
Whenever I gave a presentation to visiting students, I always laughed when someone asked my major. “Creative writing?” But I think studying writing and literature helped me provide services to people with disabilities. I didn't try to analyze anyone, as someone with a degree in psychology might do, referring to some DSM-IV category. instead, I tried to help, to empathize. I think of literary characters like Mr. Dick in “David Copperfield”; he's an unusual guy who spends his life writing a dictionary he'll never finish. But Dickens doesn't smack a label on him but writes of him lovingly.
I slept poorly again, waking at five, worries running on autopilot. Will I need to get my ex-husband's info. for the FAFSA? What if my son doesn't get enough financial aid? What if he goes into senior slump, risks scholarships? What if he ends up at N, is miserable, and it's too expensive to come home? I haven't lived alone since 1986--will I be OK? I used to love living alone--but now? Then worries veer in a different direction--my son off to college, I'll start another life chapter. What have I accomplished? Why have dreams been illusive?
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