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Walking home from school, a classmate beckoned me.
"Hey, I didn't know it bothered you--the snowballs--we were just joking around." The boy grinned at me, and it wasn't a mean grin. "You shoulda told us."
Well, I had said stop and they hadn't, but he seemed sincere.
The week before, a few boys had thrown snowballs at me as I walked home after school, and I'd told my mother. The principal, way ahead of her time in no-tolerance attitudes towards bullying, summoned all of the boys into her office and had them apologize to me. I felt--what word?--vindicated? Validated, maybe.
The guy doesn't show up to replace the furnace for the upper floors--the furnace is actually located in my basement apartment. I discover that he notified the first-floor people that he'd come tomorrow, but he didn't tell me--even though he needs access to my apartment. I feel livid, discounted because I live in a basement apartment, poorer than the upstairs folks.
My son would shrug it off--something came up--oh well. He wouldn't take it personally but would go back to watching baseball, football, hockey, or basketball. Of course, watching sports, my son is no longer low-key and fumes about losses.
At my son's baptism, my Aunt P. beamed when she saw me going to receive Communion, and she patted my hand. "That a girl."
I wanted to throw up, but I just smiled; we were in a church packed with people celebrating the Easter Vigil. Didn't my father, when I got to know him as an adult, tell me that my aunts had wanted me aborted? When I finally left my mother's home, Aunt P. broke down in tears when I asked if her daughter could help me get my things. "Your mother might hurt her!" She didn't worry about me…
The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked briefly at a Woolworth's lunch counter. One day an old man summed me up: "You're one of those smart ones who can't relate to regular people."
Gulp--was that me? I was going to Northwestern at the time, and I was more of an egghead than most people there--no one else had dragged loads of books to their dorm freshman year. Many were there for social life and the prestige; I hungered for learning. Books had been my escape from a miserable childhood.
Did that mean I couldn't relate to "regular" people?
What to write? When I'm not working on my daily 100 words, so many ideas percolate--but when I face the blank computer screen, they're gone. So I think about my lunchtime walk--I'm just back from strolling sunlit leafy residential streets. Part of me thinks--how blessed I am to live here, and to have put my son through Catholic school and now college! But the negative, cynical part thinks--I was top of my class yet live in a basement apartment smothered by credit card debt, divorced after marriage to a jerk. I stare at the screen wishing for a helpful cliche.
Again the 7-11 guy says, "You're retired, right?" Do I need to wear a sign, saying, "I'm not 65 and I work full-time" on my person? How old does he think I am? When I mention working from home, he says, "Oh, that's different." Yes, I appreciate not needing to commute, and I enjoy having my felines about and being able to brew my favorite flavor coffee--but I am working, sometimes overtime. I've pulled all-nighters. I told him, "It's not easy," but no way does he believe me. Of course, my job is probably easier than his--but it's still work.
Didn't get a full night's sleep last night, so now I find it difficult to think and write--still, let me write 100 words! I want to get back into the 100-word habit. I do wonder at writers who brag of getting up hours early to write--how are they able to function? Sure, you have to sacrifice to write--I don't watch TV and sometimes I forego social stuff to write. But giving up sleep seems like giving up eating, and scientists have found that sleep is just as necessary to health as fruits and veggies. I write every day--but I sleep.
Where does my writing time go? With a whole lunch hour to myself, and working at home without the hassle of commuting, I should never complain about lack of time! But my revision of R and C seems to be millimetering along! I think I'll limit myself to checking Facebook once a day, and on my lunch walk, keep to a quick pace on the way home--bettter for exercise so accomplishing two goals with the same strategy! I need to do 100 words a day, too, so I'm not just tweaking words already written--I want to keep my thinking fresh.
Will my critique group like Chapter 7? I can guess some comments--R. isn't that likeable in this chapter. She's negative about sports. She's negative about herself. She's negative about homework. Her friends are much more interesting, even when they're complaining about B.'s basketball skills, leading R. to surmise--"That's how they'd talk about me, if I played" on the basketball team they're coaxing her to join. Yet, I like R. Is it because R. is me? She also reminds me of A., not a negative person at all. What are R's likeable traits, and how can I let them shine through?
I sit at the family café and yuppiness overwhelms me. Part of me thinks--these kids won't have a clue about what life is like for most of the world; they're being brought up to think they're special--but not necessarily that everybody else is, too. Still, when I'm around the not-so-privileged, their children don't seem to be cherished and nurtured as they should. Right now at the café, kids are arriving for a "potty class"--V. would just smack kids if they had accidents. I prefer the yuppie approach. L. would understand my mixed feelings--I need to email her more often.
Will any editor or agent ever love R and C? It's not edgy--R is a quiet kid who's been bullied, who just wants to be left alone--that's until she meets B and her eccentric family. I break rules and switch POV from time to time, and occasionally the adults do help R solve problems. I'm working so hard and have been at this so long--what if this is just a book destined to be shared only with friends? At least some of my shorter stuff has been published--and the important thing is to stay true to my vision of the book.
Our dentist likes to joke.
"Tell me about your baseball team," he'll say, right after he's stuck stuff in my mouth so I can't talk.
He teases me because he likes the Cubs and I like the Sox.
Of course I wear my Sox shirt when I go to the dentist!
Once he mailed me a baseball card.
But if it became worth a million dollars, I'd owe him half.
He has a collie named Millie.
Sometimes he lets her come in the waiting room so I can pet her.
That's better than a sticker after having a cavities filled!
When I told E. I was pregnant, she screamed congratulations--but she told me to "kiss your writing goodbye."
E. isn't a writer; to her, maybe telling me that I'd never be able to write again was akin to warnings about covering electrical outlets or forgetting about sleep for a while. But to me, "kiss your writing goodbye" meant "stop living."
I immediately signed up for a free writing class for women at a city college.
My son is nineteen now, and I think I've done better writing since his birth than I did before, and I now write for a living.
When I take lunch walks on leafy streets, past jogging moms or cell phone chatting nannies, I focus on regrets. Shouldn't have dropped physics in high school. Should have asked for help on my English paper, or stuck with the topic of Ireland, not switched to democracy in education. Then maybe my class rank wouldn't have dropped to 3. Should have gone to U of C. It's as though I'm stuck in senior year and I've let choices as an 18-year-old surviving an extremely dysfunctional home life batter me even now, preventing me from seeing dreams that have come true.
Helinda and Helenore are thirteen-year-old calico littermates. That's probably the feline equivalent of fraternal twins, though like a lot of siblings, they aren't best buddies.
Helinda and Helenore now have health problems. Helenore, the slow-moving, chubby one, has diabetes. Helinlda, skinny, hyper, and always trying to sneak out, has hyperthyroid disease. Twice a day, I medicate them, injecting Helenore with insulin and squirting hyperthyroid medication in Helinda's mouth. I corner them on a cleared-off bookshelf, and I give treats, spoonfuls of Frisky's Meaty Bites.
"It's time for your treat!"
I think they know they're going to get stuck or squirted.
My knee pain reminds me of my broken leg years ago--isolation at the S.'s; no phone calls from M. or RM.; coworkers at the FM not inviting me to parties or get-togethers; unable to go out and take a walk when frustrations seemed like a physical presence; unable to write because of the constant TV--Sesame Street for the two-year-old Mrs. S. watched, cop shows for P. When I was finally off crutches, not needing a walking brace, how wonderful to take walks again! In my neighborhood, I'm known as the woman who walks even though she doesn't have a dog.
Tired on a Wednesday evening; I could be at Grant Park laying on a blanket on the lawn, listening to Tchaikovsky, but instead I'm home by my computer listening to an Irish jig courtesy of Pandora online radio and drinking hot Good Earth Sweet and Spicy tea, lights dim. At first I worried--am I getting old? Why do I feel so tired after a day at work? But who cares? I'm enjoying drinking sweet tea and listening to Celtic music and writing! Why judge what I like to do at this precious moment of life--why not respect my own desires?
Fellow critique group members criticize Chapter 5: "No teacher would be that horrible." You can never give, "But it really happened" as an excuse--you, as writer, are supposed to make events feel real. Yet--could it be that my fellow critique group members are naïve about race? They're white. They may teach Black kids--but that's not the same as having a Black son. I don't want to water down the chapter for the sake of others' rose-colored spectacles. Yet--have I become overly cynical? Am I overly exaggerating the racism I've seen? Are we truly post-racial and I just don't see it?
I'm home after a morning walk. If I'd seen the D. bus, I'd have hopped on it and headed to the thrift store and its half-off sale--and look for the blue jean dress I wish I'd bought yesterday. Instead, I'm resting, writing before the Grant Park concert. Why do I feel so tired? "You're getting old," my son teases. I hope the MRI doesn't show anything weird. I learned I have a mild hearing loss in my left ear. Years ago, a test showed that I couldn't hear some ranges--but years later, test results were normal. Will my hearing get worse?
K. emailed ne, excited to see my name on the alumni list. Excited, too, I sent her a long email telling about my life, suggesting coffee. Something--me being a single mom? Working for peanuts in the social service profession?--must have given her pause. She responded only a year later--and then to talk about a bunch of alums getting together. Funny--after I didn't respond for a few days, she called, concerned that I hadn't responded, worried about me feeling "comfortable" in the group. Yikes. It never occurred to her that now I was the one with second thoughts about getting together.
A group of kids--probably my landlady's grandkids--knock on my kitchen window, throw balls against the pane, run away, giggling. After they do this a couple of times, I go outside.
I hear laughter and talk about the "old lady." Damn--I'm 56--am I now an "old lady"?
Still, I go to the fence. "Would you mind stopping knocking on the window? I'm trying to work."
The kids stare. One small boy asks, "Is that your house?" I say yes, I live there.
I'm glad I went out there--it may be humble, but my little basement apartment deserves respect, too.
I try to explain my poor choice of husband, so I mention my dysfunctional childhood home: "My mother was schizophrenic." The priest's face, that had been giving me steady direct-eye-contact listening, changes--eyebrows raise and she blinks. Suddenly I remember my cousin's graduation party, sitting with some second cousin, chatting pleasantly, until I identified my place on the family tree. How she jerked, how she broke out in nervous giggling, "Oh!" And I remember finding a book at Kroch's and Brentanos, "Schizophrenia and the Family." Finally--others like me. But glancing through its pages, I am dismissed: "Schizophrenics usually don't have children."
I ask about annulment, and clichés drip about the eternal nature of the sacrament and that "no one is as bad or as good as we think…"--an invitation for me to admit my own culpability in the breakup. Yet my only regret is that I married that man in the first place, that I didn't love myself enough to wait for love and follow dreams. My huge consolation prize--my wonderful son--God wanted him born. I'm not going to nod submissively and admit blame not mine. I didn't sleep around, conceive children out of marriage, push him around emotionally and physically.
Father's Day. Daisy wakes me at 6:15 a.m. and I sleepwalk, giving cats their food--one-third diabetic and two-thirds chicken-tuna--but notice a thick envelope by my place at our counter/table. A Snoopy card "to the best mom in the world" and a CD--Bruce Springsteen's "The Promise." Poignant, as "Big Man" Clarence died yesterday.
T. says I deserve something even more on Father's Day, since I've had to do that job, too. And it's funny--my father's other children, my half-siblings, are family, while relatives on my mom's side whom I knew as a child have become, except for MG, merely memory shadows.
I didn't get into the writing zone at Starbucks--worried about the weird forehead headache, on top of the dizziness attack last week--what if I have a brain tumor? Plus, I'd read the obit of someone who went to U of C on scholarship, as I could have…if only I'd known that U of C ranked higher than NU…if only I'd had people who loved me to guide me…if I hadn't worried about my mom flipping out. Oh, to rewrite history! But--as one writer put it--maybe then I'd have been run over by a truck. Let it go, D., let it go.
My namesake jumped to her death from Dunning Mental Hospital; my mother must have thought a lot of her because she gave me this young woman's name. Yet all I know about the other D. is that she found life unbearable and beyond fixing. I only know her weakness, none of her strengths, and I've often wished I didn't inherit her name. It didn't help that my mother warned me, as a child, never to let people call me "Di" for short, as that nickname related to death. Yet she named me after someone she barely knew who killed herself…
I love to dance--but despite being a straight-A student, I confuse right and left, forward and backward. Even when I get them straight, I forget which foot I stepped off on and what I'm supposed to do next. I'm probably like Lois on that Malcolm in the Middle episode-- I think I'm a graceful ballerina while everybody else is moving breakables out of the way. Still, I felt hurt yesterday when my dance partner became irritable: "Do you want to lead or follow? So, move backwards!" I thought this was supposed to be fun at a church benefit; the fun fizzled.
Let me try 100 words again and use it to focus on what I want to write, be it R and the Cousins, preschool Z whose dad doesn't show up for a visit, Witchy, or whatever! A page is overwhelming, but 100 words are forgiving yet give me a frame.
Right now money worries make me crabby; a thief stealing my identity doesn't help. How cowardly--although I guess this stealing is better than someone holding me up with knife or gun. Yet this year has been so financially draining--cats with diabetes and hyperthyroid disease, a son going off to college.
I sit outside on the front steps and write, thinking--why didn't I think of this long ago? Sitting out back by myself is too close to the garbage bin alley, too close to my landlady's yard. Here, I'm out in the world and can soak in inspiration while thinking about how to revise Chapter 8. And the block is alive with children, sidewalks covered with hopscotch chalk. A little girl in pink tights stands by a pink scooter, a small boy rides a bike with a bell attached to its handles. Next door, an American flag waves from brick arches.
I think of my cousin C.--her name so like that of my bestfriend C., the names of her children, G. and J., so like the names of my godchildren, G. and J. When her twins were born, she sent me a nice email, but when I responded, she made a point of telling me, "I won't have time to email you." Hint taken; I don't even have her email address anymore, although when she sends me a Christmas card I send one back, and her G. and J. still adorn my refrigerator. Still, it hurts, being cast off by family.
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