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I hate the patronizing way people talk to you as you get older. I mention to my Allstate agent that I recently earned my MFA: "God bless you," she says, amusement in her tone. Um--why not "Good for you"? When M.J. learned M. was going back to school, her response was, "At her age?" So, what are people over fifty supposed to do--stop living? I think God values life more than that--I don't think God wants any of us, no matter our age, to hide our lights underneath bushels, or to dampen our glow in narcotic activities like television.
1973. Third quarter, I got a B- on my English paper, never realizing I had to come up with a solution for how schools should be more democratic, and a B in college algebra, probably from staying up so late studying that I didn't get stuff in class. My rank dropped--number 4--not valedictorian or salutorian. Depressed--I'd failed.
But I started NU optimistic--until my mother began calling my dorm room nonstop. She threatened to kill herself because I'd left home; the NU counselor suggested I ask my aunts to help, to call her weekly. They refused. I had no family.
1974. Summer, M. told me about a security guard opening at the F. Museum; I joined a friendship circle, going out for pizza, dining at Greektown.
One evening, I discovered my mother had opened my mail: "I'll open your mail if I want to." Angry, I decided to visit my grandmother; my mother tried to stop me, threatened to tie me up. I escaped, never went back; M.J., a new friend, took me in.
I asked cousin N. to help me get my things; Aunt P. sobbed: "What if your mother hurts her?" No worry about me; I went alone.
1975. I decided to leave NU, take a year off to write. But on Tuesday morning, Sept. 9, I apparently ran for a bus and didn't make it; I awoke in a hospital bed, a plaster cast covering my right leg, radio church music letting me know that it was Sunday.
I stayed with the S. family, eleven-year-old J. becoming a little sister to me. Mrs. S. baby-sat a two-year-old daily, Sesame Street and the Electric Company and Mr. Rogers always in the background. I did precious little writing--little did I know, my broken leg would lead to my career.
1976. I celebrated the bicentennial, cast painted red-white-and-blue, partying with security guard friends on Rush Street. In August I graduated to a walking cast, became cast-less in October, said goodbye to crutches in December. In September, I threw an anniversary-of-my-leg party.
Still on crutches, I attended a McCormick Place conference on disabilities and began volunteering for CCHC. I started at Circle, lost amidst steel and concrete, majoring in elementary ed. I worked part-time at the museum, lived in a studio apartment on Winthrop. Volunteering at C. School as part of my studies, the nun scolded me for my shabby coat.
1977. King Tut invaded the museum, people lining up at 9 p.m. for the next day's 9 a.m. opening. In the fall, I became friends with M.T. again and joined Circle's version of Key Club. I fell in love with W.'s understanding good nature, naively not realizing he was gay. I was promoted to departmental assistant and began working full-time. I dropped out of Circle, somehow unable to finish my independent study project on Pawnee Indians, earning my first ever F in school. Looking back, I was still adjusting, realizing I had no relatives who would be there for me.
I had a Script Frenzy idea--why not make a movie based on Joanne Greenberg's book about a deaf-blind poet who falls in love and breaks his heart, who remains friends with an incarcerated supervisor who stole from clients--but who the protagonist remembers as one of the few staffpeople who treated them like people. Realistic--his social security payment is lowered when he sells poems. A tricky movie--I could picture it from the point of view of the guy in jail. Or--voice-over reciting the protagonist's poems. It could begin with the supervisor thrown in jail, the protagonist writing him on braillewriter.
In search of St. Patrick's day green, I hit Unique Thrift Store and leave with treasure--two shirts, two sweaters, name brand and flawless, for six bucks. I cross the street to a different world--Starbucks, where I buy what M.K. told me was the cheapest Starbucks coffee that was good--an Americano, decaf, and because I've been using my Starbucks card, get a free shot of sugar-free caramel, and I grab the last seat--an easy chair by blazing fireplace. Bliss. I hope my son is having fun at the museum, wonder if he's holding M.'s hand--he said she ordered him to. Sweet.
1978. J. is fired from the museum for "poor attitude," and this strikes a nerve; E. and I begin organizing a union. I also volunteer with Chicago's UFW chapter, applying for UFW's summer California program. They say yes at the last minute; I ride down to La Paz, California, with another volunteer whom I'd never met before. Back, I stay with R., become E.'s roommate, and work at S. House, a halfway house. I join the Park District orchestra and a library writing class. K. and I become involved, though we start to realize we have very different ideas about life.
1979. After Valentine's Day, K. dumps me. I listen to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and try to feel strong, fail. I work at B.B. Day Care and lunchtimes browse in a used bookstore that plays Bruce Springsteen and serves coffee. I become involved with A. though we don't think alike either. Summer, I go to Michigan and work at I. Music Camp and receive a poisonous letter from a friend I'd regarded as a sister, revealing huge cracks in our friendship. Home, I work in Walgreen's cafeteria, then land job at the art museum where I'll work almost five years.
1980. Summer, E. moves to Texas, and I move to a Wrigleyville apartment with J. I take a Greyhound cheese-and-cracker youth hostel trip to Montreal, New York, and Washington D.C.. Fall, I move by myself to McL. Street.
P. dies; I'd met her at S. House, advocated for her to move to a regular wheelchair-accessable apartment to no avail.
My cat Amigo seeming lonely, I adopt Orphan Annie; they cuddle together by the space heater.
I take violin lessons on the South Side and play with the Park District orchestra. I write stories and poems and letters to the editor.
1981. Summer, the museum is overwhelmed with the Vatican art exhibit and I'm hired to supervise fellow cashiers who don't want to be supervised. I begin to job hunt, applying for a receptionist job at C. College that I don't get, but I have an epiphany--C. College teaches creative writing--haven't I always wanted to be a writer? I apply and get ready for classes in February 1982. Needing money for winter gas bill, I become a PCA part-time for J., who lives downtown. I adopt another feline, Belly Button, who fit in the palm of my hand when I met him.
1982. I start classes in February. The encouraging story workshop method, focusing on strengths of student works instead of flaws, inspires me begin writing a novel about F. Museum friendships. I challenge myself to write twice the weekly four-page requirement, and in the summer I continue to write novel instances. I take a sign language class and have another epiphany--in addition to being a writer, I want to advocate for disability rights, maybe become an interpreter.
In the fall, T.N. teaches my intermediate fiction class, and he will be my teacher/mentor for most of my C. career.
My son is jealous of me, and I'm jealous of him.
"I don't see why you mind getting old--it'd be like being a kid with nobody bossing you around," he says. "You like your job, and you know your life will probably be the same five years from now--I have no idea what my life will be like."
True. At Starbucks, seeing students with laptops and open books, I think--they're studying, preparing to have the kind of job I already have.
And yet--I envy the potential, knowing your life is still soft clay, for you to mold whichever way you like.
I feel groggy after my yogurt and banana-and-peanut-butter lunch, and my 7-11 walk and caffeine coffee didn't help. Of course, today is Daylight Savings Time Monday, and I woke up before 6 a.m. (which really was 5 a.m.) for a Peapod groceries delivery. Tonight I'm supposed to go to a "shoptalk" of the Children's Book Writers society, but will I be nodding off while published folks spout off ideas? I'm sure if I don't go, I'll regret it--but right now I'd like to curl up like one of my cats and snooze instead of working this afternoon or networking this evening!
My son and I come home, sun already long set; inside, strewn on our carpet, socks. Dirty. Not signs of poor housekeeping--not that I am any kin of Martha Stewart--but signs of loneliness, of love. Undoubtedly Helenore, our cat, retrieved them from clothes hamper and carried them (in her teeth) out here, probably with piteous meow. I've seen her do this--meowing as though feline heart were breaking, sock between her teeth, then dropping the sock at my feet. Smell is a primary sense to cats--could the sock, redolent of me or my son, be like a photograph, imbued with sentiment?
"You bum!" she exclaims.
"You didn't call me last night! You bum!"
I quickly explain that we got home late--after eleven--and she interrupts, "I'm just kidding. I hope you know, I'm just kidding?"
But I don't mind. I'm glad she likes my ritual before-bed phone call; glad she introduces me to strangers and friends alike as "my daughter," though she's full-blooded Italian and I'm almost full-blooded Irish American. Glad my son and I are always welcome in her home, where we're expected to just go in the refrigetor rather than ask permission. Her "You bum!" makes me feel loved.
I sleep with sunglasses on. We take knobs off the stove, store them in a drawer when we're not cooking. When I pour water, I immediately put a lid over the glass. Why these, um, unusual habits, you ask? We have cats. Undeclawed cats who run races over my head at night (our apartment does not have regular bedroom doors). Once I woke up, and in the kitchen, one burner blazed--apparently a cat, leaping to top of nearby refrigerator, had turned the knob. Our cats regard water cups as invitations; I'd prefer to drink water untouched by cat tongue.
Story studio write-in: people sit in a white-tabled conference room, no talking, the only sounds the clicking of laptop or Alphasmart keys or the rustling of marked-up manuscripts, each of us in our own fictional or self-reflective worlds. I glance around but no eyes to catch; if not writing, people are staring into space seeing--what?--I wonder where each person is; it's almost as though other people are here with us, imaginary heroes and heroines, or remembered ghosts from the past that haunt us still. And these imagined or remembered beings are more real than the flesh-and-blood ones in nearby chairs.
1983. M.'s wedding shower; I become involved with F. the photographer. But after I say we need to see each other regularly, I never see him again. M. leaves for Japan; my Irish-born grandmother dies the same day. I study poetry and write about unions, doing research in R. University's ornate library. Summer, I study Shakespeare and travel with a disability rights group to Washington for the Jobs, Peace, and Freedom march. Fall, I tutor at C. I hang out with J., going Friday nights to Mother's on Rush Street, dancing with men we meet to Michael Jackson's Billy Jean.
1984. One January evening, as I type a story for school, a knock--a man introducing himself as my half-brother C.
My story is published.
I leave the museum to work as director of a disability rights group; the group's president believes it is OK to scream at me--I quit.
I graduate, apply for grad school.
I find a job as a secretary and hate it. I volunteer with a group fighting for wheelchair-accessible buses and become involved with T. I write an article about disability rights that gets published; I throw a party.
Grad school is not inspiring or encouraging.
1985. I decide to quit grad school. At MH, I become friends with two other secretaries, and Friday nights we go to Mondays or to a bar on 8th and Michigan. T. dumps me, we get back together again, then he dumps me for good, and everything feels empty. I quit volunteering with the accessible bus group. But J. and I become best friends, phoning every day, and I enjoy regular mostacholi Sunday dinners at her house. I get hired to work for a special ed rights organization, organizing awareness presentations for school groups and giving advocacy training to parents.
1986. Midnight, I toast "Happy New Year!" with J. and her family. I start dating T., a presenter where I work. Summer, conflict at work when C. denies S. vacation time; V. and I advocate for S., although in the end I let V. down, overpowered by C.'s personality. April, my father's mother dies; my half-brother CJ calls, asks if they can visit--an hour later, CJ and four half-siblings I've never met and my father are in my dining room. September, T. moves in with me; December, we visit my father and siblings for Christmas, my first holiday with my father.
Multha-Gea, Ka-Jay-Ma-Theth-You. I don't know the correct spelling--it's Gaelic--but Multha-Gea means "Virgin Mary" and Ka-Jay-Ma-Theth-You means "How are you?" I learned a few Gaelic words from my grandmother after much pleading; she didn't especially want to teach me the language she used with her sister P. in their daily telephone chats; interruptions meant pinches.
Still, Gaelic words sound rough and practical like Guiness and boiled potatoes--so I use them as cuss words. Stub toe? "Multha-gea ka-jay-ma-theth-you!" Spill milk? "Multha-gea ka-jay-ma-theth-you!" Neighbors must think I'm invoking fierce obscene curses in some exotic language--when really I'm only inquiring after the Mother Mary's health.
In 7-11 a loudmouth jeers. "The Black man talks about history. Huh! I have insurance, why should I pay for the other guy?" The 7-11 worker seems to verbal nod--maybe in agreement, maybe to keep the customer from switching to Speedway. Maybe he too finds the words repulsive but considers the loudmouth hopeless. I pour my coffee, hear a voice, "Are you OK?" I mumble, thinking it's a routine question from another 7-11 guy. "Keeping warm enough?" I look up, see a man in a police jacket. I small-talk about beautiful weather--"The sun makes all the differenced," he agrees.
Script Frenzy Brainstorming: Hexing the Ex:
-Andrea's mom is a feminist, her father a male chauvinist pig who sides with Martin instead of his own daughter.
-Andrea and her friends send Martin an embarrassing singing greeting.
-Andrea climbs stairs with baby, diaper bag, and stroller, while phone rings.
-Martin fights for custody.
-Martin's mother never liked Andrea and blames her for breakup.
-After Andrea does a hex (beating Martin's underwear with a stick), we see Martin waking up in pain.
-Andrea moves to a cheaper apartment.
-Martin is an artist who doesn't works hard enough because of his drinking.
Andrea's mom: All men, pigs. Figures he'd wimp out on being a father.
Andrea: Dad never wimped out.
Andrea's mom: Just because one man isn't a pig doesn't mean all men aren't pigs!
Andrea's dad: How is Martin? How is he managing, on his own? Imagine he's pretty helpless.
Andrea: I'm the one dealing with Chelsea and the terrible twos. Neighbors banging on walls, every time she has a tantrum.
Andrea's dad: Ah, he just feels tied down. Sowing wild oats. How's his job? Accountant, good job--
Andrea: What about my job? My dream to go to art school?
The cartoon La Cucaracha shows a vendor selling 100% meat tacos, with a sign--Free Vegan Tacos--bring in veggies you picked yourself in the hot sun for pennies a day. I support rights of farm workers--years ago I gave away all my worldly possessions and went to California to volunteer for the UFW. But I'm also a vegetarian who sees no reason to eat meat if I don't have to--incensed that animals are bred to live cramped in crates until slaughtered. Concern for animals does not mean lack of concern for humans, and I resent the implication that it does.
Candy: The meeting of the Hex Your Ex club will come to order!
Andrea: I'm still not so sure about this, guys--and I gotta get going, the babysitter charges if I'm one minutes late!
Bianca: I like the hex where you beat his underwear and he wakes up feeling like you whacked him!
Andrea: I don't believe in physical violence!
Bianca: You don't have to beat him up bad. One whack might do it--
Candy: Might be worse--he won't know what hit him--maybe he'll think he's imagining it--like he's going crazy--
Andrea: Well--maybe one whack.
Psychic: So you want to throw a little bit of imperfection in your ex's life?
Candy: She sure does! We've been talking broken bones but Andrea is too nice.
Bianca: A bad cold?
Candy: Too easy.
Bianca: I've got it! Hives all over his body and he can't get rid of 'em!
The psychic, Candy, and Bianca look at Andrea.
Andrea: It's temporary, right?
INT MARTIN'S BEDROOM MORNING
Martin tosses and turns in bed, groaning, not fully awake but scratching at himself. He awakens, looks at huge hives all over his body, runs to the mirror.
Martin: What the fuck?
S. compliments me on being prolific, when really I feel scattered. I get ready to send a submission packet for one of my novels or my memoir, and then I read the sample pages and wince--too many passive verbs or awkward sentences or a boring opening--squeaky chalk on blackboard--so I drop my novel-in-progress and tweak the old work--but taking the time to "fix" it pulls me out of the creative zone for my new work. Is there a better way? On the positive side, at least I've finished a few full-length works I think are worthy of being sent out.
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