Tag: bohemian rhapsody

Scrabble, and Other Secret Languages

16

Because am I knee-deep in writing The Baltimore Book of the Dead, we’re reposting a column from the very early days of Bohemian Rhapsody — the third, in fact. The Baltimore Fishbowl was just a month old. My ex and I were having a little post-divorce relapse, as we learn at the end of the piece. That does seem like a long time ago. Since I wrote this, four new two-letter words have been added to the “secret language” of Scrabble: DA GI PO TE, appended to the official word list in 2014. I can only imagine what my mother would have to say about it. These days, it’s her namesake, my seventeen-year-old daughter Jane, who is kicking my butt. There’s no one I’d rather lose to.

Originally published June 22, 2011 – I was brought into the fold of Scrabble players in the mid-90s by a food writer boyfriend who kindly scooped me up and resuscitated me after my first husband died of AIDS. In addition to viciously competitive Scrabble playing, the food writer’s recovery program for dazed widows included extravagant piggery both at home and in restaurants, gin martinis, Camels, wave-tossed waterbed sex and the occasional brisk morning walk.

The Hepatitis Chronicles, Part II: Showtime!

18

You know you’re sick when…although you are a self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, a good friend presents you with an enameled silver and turquoise Virgin Mary charm. It is a Miraculous Medal, she explains, representing Mary’s power to heal those who believe.

You know you’re sick when…you whip that thing around your neck in two seconds flat.

With all the hopes and fears and magical thinking it represents, Miracle Mary is my badge of illness. I am an official Sick Person. As of today, February 26, 2012, I take 10 prescription medications and stock a battery of over-the-counter creams, gels, baths, and drops to cope with their side effects. If I can stop clawing my skin off for just a second here — that’s the Telaprevir — I will tell you how this happened.

Back in December, when I last wrote about my hepatitis, I was desperately trying to get accepted into a trial of one of the new drugs, which work faster and better than the approved ones. But my disease had progressed too far — people like me could have a negative impact on study results. There must be a way around this, I thought. For some patients, I was told, running stairs right before the blood draw had boosted a key cell count, so I did this Rocky Balboa routine as if my life depended on it, in the middle of the atrium at Hopkins Outpatient Center.

After it didn’t work on three different occasions, I finally got it: There was no choice but to start the standard treatment.

On January 5, I spent a couple of hours getting trained in the regimen I’d be following in the year ahead. Syringes, bio-hazard disposal cans, pill sorters, and electronic alarms were involved.  Every eight hours, I would have to eat 20 grams of fat — this upset me as much as anything else, as I imagined myself ballooning like a force-fed duck on its way to becoming foie gras. But if you didn’t eat the fat, I was warned, the medicine couldn’t be absorbed and you would get something known as “burning butt” or “poop of fire.”

There was a huge stack of printed materials from the drug manufacturers to inform me about potential side effects. As I shoved them back into the box, a treatise titled “Dealing with Itching” caught my eye. How much could there be to say? Meanwhile, the doctor explained that many of the side effects were cumulative, particularly depression, which set in for roughly half the patients. With whom did I live? she asked. This person might have to be the arbiter of whether I needed antidepressants, whether I was becoming progressively crankier.

Well, I wasn’t sure. Should a person’s 11-year-old daughter really be in charge of this decision?

That afternoon I gave myself my first Interferon shot, took my first handful of pills, ate my first avocado, cream cheese and smoked salmon bagel.  It wasn’t that bad. I was low on energy, headachey, a little feverish, but I’d been sub-par for a year already, so it was no big shock.

A couple days later, Jane came home with news of an epidemic of head lice in her class — of course, raking her nails through her hair as she spoke.

I blanched, knowing full well what an anti-lice campaign involved — like 10 times as much energy as I had. A few minutes later, when I asked her to put in her retainer, she said it might be in her lunchbox, and her lunchbox might be…in Ms. Lewis’s classroom?

“Look!” she said accusingly, surveying my crumbling face, “it’s happening already! You better call and get those pills.”

Nah, I was fine. I made it through an already-scheduled work trip to Pittsburgh and a weekend visit to Austin. I baked scones for friends from Philly in town for a squash tournament. Then something exciting happened.

Bloodwork taken two weeks after I started the drugs showed my viral load down from over three million to 43. Forty-frickin-three. This was not an unusual result, but it was a very good one. I was almost cured.

So, I thought, this is what I was so afraid of all those years? This little nothing treatment? Miracle Mary must love Jewish atheists!

Let the joyous phone calls begin!

The next afternoon, my right forearm began to feel sore. By the time I put Jane to bed, it had gotten serious. I didn’t have a moment free from agony until I gave in at 5 a.m. and called my friend Ken to take me to the emergency room.

By then, the arm was swollen and reddish areas were spreading. I was diagnosed with cellulitis — a tissue infection — and given a little morphine, a little Dilaudid, then sent home with an antibiotic called Clindamycin. How did I get this infection? My theory is reckless scratching caused by Telaprevir + dirty fingernails + depressed immune system caused by Interferon = mad, crazy bacteria having an orgy in my arm. No one else has come up with any better ideas.

The next five days were bad. My arm ended up double its normal size, bright red and burning hot. Layers of dermis had peeled off so that it looked skinned in some places, and spotted with boils in others. My son Hayes almost threw up the first time he saw it. Meanwhile, the Clindamycin was ravaging my digestive system. Soon I couldn’t swallow and had something that felt like hydrochloric acid pouring out of my ass at 10-minute intervals. I had to take four of those pills every day and I shook with terror each time.

Many dear people in my neighborhood were taking care of me — bringing me food and beverages, doing my errands, wrapping me in gauze, driving Jane around — but, as my arm continued to putrefy, all were increasingly insistent that I should go back to the hospital. “But it’s the first week of classes at UB!” I told them. “I can’t miss school! I can’t leave Jane! What about the dog?” And finally: “You are not the boss of me, Pam Stein!”

But in fact, I was not doing anything for Jane but scaring her, and was so weak I had to teach my class flat on my back from my sickbed, via Skype. Immediately following, poor abused Pam took me to the doctor and then on to Johns Hopkins Hospital. The antibiotic was not the right one after all and the infection was out of control.

After fighting so hard not to go there, I loved the hospital. The first object of my affection was my nurse Geri, a big, kind African American woman who tried to speed the process for me as I waited for phlebotomy to show up and draw the blood required before I could start medication.  Soon enough, I was falling apart. “Can’t you just do it yourself?” I pleaded with the resident on the floor after about six hours. “You’re a doctor, right?” As she demurred — this was a complicated blood draw — Geri broke in and said, “I can do it.”

That is just the beginning of what she did. She discounted nothing, fixed everything, and soothed me with endearments and reassurances. After what I’d been through at home, I felt like I was at a spa. I felt like I had a mom.

At night, she was replaced by the awesome Lucky — a spiky blond with horn-rimmed glasses who had three months nursing to Geri’s decades. Eventually I found out she had been a policy analyst in Washington until the corruption drove her out of there screaming. She started nursing school at age 40.

Lucky and Geri and I were bonded not only by their care for me, but by our shared project, my extraordinary roommate, Miss Simpson.

Miss Simpson, a bone-thin African-American woman who sometimes looked like a 12-year-old boy and sometimes like a 90-year-old crone, was very, very unhappy about being in the hospital, though she was rushed in with a fever of 105° the same day as me.  When anyone came to take her vitals or bring her meds, she screamed with fury. “GET AWAY FROM ME. I DON’T WANT THAT.” Our room was in an uproar around the clock, partly because she wouldn’t or couldn’t use her call button when her empty IV beeped or when she needed to go to the bathroom.

This was the beginning of our friendship. “Do you want me to call the nurse for you, Miss Simpson?” Amazingly, over the course of three days, we got to the point where I could crack jokes about her stubbornness. “I like Marion,” Miss Simpson announced one day, though she never opened the curtain between our beds. “Where’s Marion? What’s Marion having for lunch? Why didn’t I get that? I want what Marion has!!!” Lucky said it was like a darn sorority in there.

What impressed me most was the commitment to taking care of her. Miss Simpson refused a spinal tap. “DON’T GIVE ME NONE OF YOUR EXPERIMENTAL TREATMENTS, JOHN HOPKINS!” She put her foot down on a blood transfusion. YOU AIN’T GONNA GIVE ME AIDS, JOHN HOPKINS!” (Actually, she already had AIDS, but maybe she thought I didn’t know that.) No matter how she acted, and she did a fair job of simulating demonic possession, the staff just regrouped and strategized. They brought in her long-suffering sons, her social worker, her doctor. They waited two hours and came back. They smothered her with darlings and dears. They got her well.

Though my primary view was of the Miss Simpson scenario, I was also riveted by what I could make out of the hospital at large. I watched the troops come and go, the phlebotomists from many lands, the meal carts, the laundry wagons, the night nurses and the day nurses, the white-coated doctors on rounds, their pontifications booming up and down the hall, the flocks of nursing students in navy scrubs, the wheelchairs and gurneys rolling back and forth to radiology, the nutritionists and the visitors. “Can I get an ice water for my dad, please?”

One afternoon I opened my eyes and there were two osteoporotic ladies standing next to my bed with bursting tote bags. Since I’d checked Jewish as my religion when I was admitted, these representatives had come to bring me grape juice from Israel, challah rolls, and get-well cards from the children of their temple.

“Wow,” I said. “This is great. I almost registered as atheist, but maybe now I’ll just stay Jewish.”

“You should,” they told me firmly.

On Friday night, Miss Simpson went home and weekend nurses replaced Geri and Lucky. These were sad farewells, and suddenly it was unearthly quiet. I was the last one on the island. But the truth was, my arm still looked like hell and I was happy to soak up a few more days of rest and nursing.

Before I went home on Sunday, the attending physician brought me some big news. My viral load was down to zero. In that light, it was a little easier to put up with everything else.

That was three weeks ago. My arm is largely healed but still hurts and won’t straighten completely; we’re still trying to figure out what’s up with that. My energy level has remained low, causing adjustments in my dosages and the addition of new medicines. The thrush I got from the Clindamycin hangs on. The horrible dryness and itchiness, which I will probably end up writing my own book about, should end at 12 weeks, when I stop taking Telaprevir. Then I just have 36 weeks of the other meds to go, needed to make sure no tiny, undetectable amount of virus is lurking in there, ready to reproduce and take over again. If I remain undetectable for six months after treatment, I’ll be considered cured.

What I don’t have, at least so far, is depression. Actually, I am pretty happy. Lying on my couch in my warm house with my sweet dog makes me happy. Watching “American Idol” and “Smash” with Jane every night is just my speed. My expectations of myself are so low that just teaching a class or putting on nice clothes to go to lunch seem like worthy accomplishments.

When I got back from an MRI of my arm this week, I found Miracle Mary along with my watch and other jewelry still in my pocket.  As I tried to get the chain around neck, I let the end slip and the medallion went straight down the drain of the bathroom sink. Oh no! I was terrified of what losing Miracle Mary could mean.

I thought of all the people I knew who could help me with this, and couldn’t bring myself to call a single one of them. I was tired of asking for help. So — despite the fact that I had absolutely no experience or expertise — maybe I could do it myself? I wedged myself under the sink, turned off the water, unscrewed the connectors to the U-shaped pipe, lifted it out and dumped it into a pan. A child’s toothbrush, some flotsam and jetsam, and Miracle Mary tumbled out. I put her right back around my neck. I put the sink back together. It worked fine, no leaks.

And then I returned to the couch to await the next miracle.

 

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

My Secret Crush

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This Valentine’s essay ran in The Austin Chronicle in 1991. “It’s just a fantasy,” I insisted to everyone who asked. “Totally made up! I mean, look — I don’t even have an aquarium!” On the other hand, I did make a nice soup with coconut milk and I did have a fleeting cub-reporter crush on my editor. Years later, I learned he’d had no idea it was about him. Just as well, Little Miss Troublemaker. –MW

 

The day I met you at Leah’s garage sale, there were so many questions I wanted to ask. Do you have a girlfriend? Is it serious? Are you married? Is it serious? Do you like my hair this way? Do you think intelligent women are sexy? I’ve read that some people do, but maybe that’s only in books. I could change for you, darling — it’s nothing, I’ve done it before. They work wonders today with simple shots and surgery. I could shave my legs for you, even. I once renounced shaving on principle, but now my legs are just something to stand on, their texture of little concern to anyone. You could change all that in a minute. I could be smooth for you. I could draw the silver blade along my shinbone with exquisite care. I would bleed for you, darling, tiny cuts pinking the bathwater, but if it was for you, I would be porcelain, I would be glass.

I want to open your refrigerator, try on your clothes, listen to the messages on your answering machine. I want to find the worn pages in your atlas and take you away. Did you used to smoke cigarettes? Vodka or scotch? Morning or night, gentle or rough, fast or slow?

I had a dream the other night, we were at the movies, you and I, both accompanied by other people. The film was Putney Swope, I recognized the part where the braless black stewardesses are jumping on a trampoline. You didn’t see me, but I was just across the aisle, watching your face in the reflected light, your low, ticklish laugh, your comments to your companion, your hand on the arm of the chair which could have been my leg. After the show there was quite a melée in the lobby, I was set adrift from my life and washed up at your feet, then you bent as if to kiss me and I felt the back of my neck untie, a shiver along the inside of my mouth. A long time went by, the time of seven dreams, seven showings of Putney Swope, and we were still there.

The next time I saw you in real life, sitting in that restaurant by yourself, I half-thought the dream was true. My lips parted in spite of me, wet and involuntary. I had a dream about you, I said, my voice husky with passion. Are you all right? you said. Do you have a sore throat?

Last week I bought a used novel at the thrift store. When I opened it, a small gift card, once used as a bookmark, fluttered out. Gorgeous, it said, won’t you wear this next Sunday night when we go out to dinner? I can’t wait. Your guy. I read that note over and over. I studied the handwriting. And kept it by the side of my bed like a match near a tinderbox.

The main thing is, I don’t want to ruin our friendship. I know it’s not much of a friendship but if I say something to you like: Feel how soft the skin is on the inside of my thigh, that’s going to be the end of it right there. I’ll never be able to shop at Safeway again. Okay, I admit I didn’t used to go to that Safeway; it’s not exactly on my way home, but I’m used to shopping there now. I’m used to searching the parking lot for your car. I’m used to strolling along the back wall of the store, trying to see which aisle you might be in. Hello, I say, passing you casually, lifting a can of shaving cream off the shelf. Hi! you say, how’s it going?

Oh, fine, I say, and you? Would you like to come over to my house and eat butter lettuce? I could make you a wonderful soup with coconut milk. We could watch “Sixty Minutes.” I could show you my aquarium. But how would I keep from staring at your shoulders, your wonderful thick arms, your unknown hands? Hey, I would say shyly, turning off the sound on Andy Rooney. Do you think — would you like me to rub your back?

You know, my biggest problem with shaving has always been how often you have to do it. Leah says it depends on if it’s for looks or for feel. For looks, once a week. For feel, every day. Okay then, every day, no, twice a day, first thing and last, for you!

 

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Believe, Hon: An Ode to Exit 9A

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On February 1, it will be three years since I moved to Baltimore. Driving north on 83 from downtown the other night, I got a little verklempt when I saw the exit sign for Cold Spring Lane. I was almost home.

It’s a joke among New Jersey natives to identify themselves by their exit on the Garden State Parkway or the Jersey Turnpike — I, for example, hail from 105 — but the idea of home as the place where you get off the highway is one any suburban American kid can understand. In fact, I first experienced serious homesickness as the absence of a particular rectangular green sign with white sans-serif type and an illuminated arrow.

This was back in my early 20s, after my college boyfriend and I moved to Berlin with the plan of becoming expatriate filmmakers. Once there, we squatted with some other hippies in an abandoned warehouse where we built a fire on the floor to heat water for coffee and worked our way slowly through the application materials for the Deutsche Film und Fernsehen Akademie. We were gone less than four months when I lost heart; my old boyfriend went to that academy and lives there still.

I didn’t have what it takes to be an expat. There were too many people and things I missed unbearably: my parents, sister, and best friend; my depressed, possibly gay black dog; books and newspapers in English; every kind of food that wasn’t sausage. These were predictable. But there was also a strange, embarrassing category of things I missed that I’d never even known I liked. For example, even if they had had McDonald’s in Europe back then, it would not have assuaged the craving I had for U.S. grease. And though you may think a highway is a highway is a highway, my ache for an American interstate was only sharpened by travels on the fast, faceless autobahn.

I missed my exit.

*

Sometime in the 1970s while driving from Florida to New Jersey, I got dumped off I-95 in Baltimore. Perhaps I was trying to avoid a toll; perhaps that’s just how the highway was then. I spent the next several hours lost in a post-industrial wasteland fringed with bad neighborhoods, trying desperately to get back on the highway. This experience was the basis of my impression of Baltimore for almost 30 years.

The next time I came to town, it was 1998. I was living in Austin then, and out on tour for my cheery book about being a widowed single mother. I met a philosophy professor in the Bibelot bookstore in Bel Air that night and a year later left Austin with my two boys to marry him. I would have moved to Bangalore or Brazil; my heart was already on the moon.

But my professor lived neither exotically nor extra-terrestrially — he rented a farmhouse halfway between Harrisburg, PA, where he was employed, and Towson, MD, where his ex-wife lived with their kids. This midpoint fell in a town called Glen Rock, PA, and though I resided there for 10 years, it never became home. Any tears I shed when I pass Exit 4 off I-83 in Pennsylvania are tears of rue for the bad things that happened there and tears of joy for my escape.

The ru-burbs, as I thought of the place, with its rural farms and suburban developments, its single Wal-Mart, many fast food outlets and conservative Christian mentality were never right for me. For about the first three months, I enjoyed the bucolic Andrew Wyeth beauty surrounding our big house on the hill. The remainder of the time, I was varying degrees of lonely, miserable and bored. In a decade, I made four friends there. When one of them died at 44 of kidney cancer, I knew she would not be replaced.

A year into the Glen Rock exile, the professor and I both got teaching jobs at MICA. We would drive down 83, get off at Mount Royal, park, lecture, and leave. Once or twice we ventured further: the Charles, the Visionary, the Helmand. But we had five kids at home and urban fun was rarely on the agenda. Baltimore remained a blank. In 2008, when our marriage fell apart and I had the chance get the hell out of the ru-burbs, it didn’t even occur to me that Baltimore was where I should go.

Instead, I developed a deep irrational conviction that I had to live someplace with a view of the ocean. The closest thing I could find in driving distance of my job — now at the University of Baltimore — was Havre de Grace. I had seen its lighthouse in the distance as I crossed the bridge into Delaware; I imagined a quaint Breton village in France. Without heaping unwarranted insults on Havre de Grace, a couple of visits proved this incorrect.

I began gingerly to consider Baltimore, and decided to talk to my one friend in town, Laura Lippman, who had come to Austin to write an article about me for The Sun book section years earlier, before she became a literary goddess. Having lived here all her life, having immortalized virtually every crack in the sidewalk in her oeuvre, Laura was convincing. You will love it, she said, and gave me the card of her real estate agent, Ken Maher. You will love him, she said.

We loved each other, and he sold me the house around the block from his in the little corner of Roland Park called Evergreen.

*

Within weeks of moving, I was completely won over by my new home, which was everything the ru-burbs weren’t — diverse, quirky, progressive, friendly. There were Obama signs and anti-war signs and Save the Bay bumper stickers. There were Jews, and though I was no big Jew, it had been weird living in a place where there were about three of us, a place where the Yearbook Club selected a cover picturing a cross coming out of a waterfall and only at the last second did anyone realize this might be a problem. A place where kids drove around flying Confederate flags from their jeeps in the high school parking lot. I preferred to take my chances with the hometown of “The Wire.”

In Baltimore, I could walk to my post office, two coffee shops, a grocery store, a drugstore, the public library, the public elementary school, a swimming pool, and restaurants ranging from Petit Louis to Dunkin’ Donuts. In Glen Rock my driveway was so long, I could barely walk to my mailbox. In Baltimore, there were writers galore, and many reading series, and little of the velvet-rope system that blocked access to the in crowd in, say, New York. Charm City Yoga. The Avenue. The walking path around the Inner Harbor. Broken glass and dryer lint and two-story-high pink poodles, the beloved materials of visionary art.

One year after we moved here, the Snowpocalypse of 2010 shut down the city for a week. What with the aforementioned driveway, a big snow in Glen Rock had meant total and sometimes indefinite isolation. I had gotten to the point where I panicked at the sight of a single flake. Here, the people of Evergreen went from house to house having potlucks all week, drinking up each other’s liquor cabinets like the French who rode out World War II in their wine cellars.

Some things weren’t so magical. It took me about 10 tickets to get my mind around urban parking rules, and longer than that to accept that there really was no decent way to drive out of the city to the south. My search for a boyfriend was a complete failure. But most things that people typically don’t like about the city — the public schools, the crime, the rather vast stretches of ugliness — so far haven’t affected me, knock wood. Perhaps it’s because I moved here from Glen Rock, but Baltimore still looks to me like the City of Lights.

Not long before I moved to Baltimore, when I was still mired in doom, death and divorce, I had a dream that there was some kind of freaky, fourth-dimension portal in my living room. You turned a corner, there was a whoosh of sunlight and you were in a different place — the place you had been looking for all along. I had been in Baltimore several days a week for almost 10 years without ever seeing it. Now my exit would become my entrance, and my life would change.

 

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

Against Coming of Age

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Every day at 8:01, my daughter Jane and I drive to Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, our little car pulsing with the pounding sounds of Z-104.3. Balancing her pink mesh backpack on her knees, swishing a hand in teal arm-warmers to the beat, Jane sings along with PitBull as he offers in his suavely robotic way to pump this jam however we want. Pump it from the side, pump it upside down, or we can pump it from the back and the front!

I sigh and roll my eyes. As the song fades, deejay Jackson Blue takes a call from a listener who wants to know if people think what her boyfriend wants to do in bed is too kinky. A girl they met in the bar last night is involved, and she is really fat!

Punch button, change station. Oh good, we’re back to some double or single entendre song about sex, drinking, or sex and drinking, which go together like…sex and drinking! You like to drink? So do we! Amazingly, despite all the frankness in our house and the various permission slips I’ve signed for sex education sessions at school, some of the innuendos in these songs are not 100 percent clear to 11-year-old Jane.

I can tell from the questions she asks about the 1998-99 season of “Dawson’s Creek,” the TV series onto which we have moved after exhausting “The Gilmore Girls” catalogue, that there are things she doesn’t know. She can’t figure out what Katie Holmes’ character means when she asks Dawson how often he “walks the dog,” even when Dawson explains that he does it every morning, with Katie Couric. When a football quarterback is taunted by a former girlfriend because he has a “soft spot for women in all the wrong places,” Jane has no clue what is being suggested. Recently, she asked me what foreplay was.

I went with “things couples do when they like each other.”

To be honest, I don’t really know if I’ve ever understood what foreplay is. Someone had to explain to me fairly recently that it doesn’t include oral sex. Does Jane know about oral sex? Has she heard the hip-hop classics “Love in Ya Mouth” or “Slob on My Knob”? Isn’t there a middle school oral sex scare? I bet Jane cannot even believe people do that. I don’t want to gross her out by insisting that they do.

Anyway, who needs icky foreplay when you have the life of the mind encouraged by today’s media? For example, last Friday night we pretended we were Ke$ha and Katy Perry, brushing our teeth with a bottle of Jack before getting probed and disrobed by extra-terrestrials. In the morning we couldn’t remember a thing but we are pretty sure it was AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“What’s a bottle of Jack?” I asked Jane, just to see.

“It’s alcohol.”

“Why do you think she brushed her teeth with it?”

Jane is stymied but so am I.

***

Jane and her friends have a group crush on a boy in their class, and this is how they like it. “At least 750 people have a crush on him,” she reported. This is the perfect first love, one step up from mooning over Joe Jonas when you are nine years old, but not all the way to one-on-one romance. That may still be too much to contemplate. (Author’s Note: Please do not tell Jane that I mentioned Joe Jonas, now more vigorously repudiated than ever was he loved.)

But soon enough, it all changes. Suddenly the wave catches you and you don’t just want a sports bra and mascara and girly gossip, you want to pitch all the trappings of your childhood into the fire, and now that you have boobs, dudes of all ages stand ready to help you. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I’ve always had quite a bit of sympathy for Lindsay Lohan, whose transition from sweet little princess to wild, drugged-up slut seems so familiar, so willed, so iconic. If Lindsay is different from other girls, it’s mostly a matter of degree. And of being onstage all the time, with a bunch of bloodthirsty hypocrites watching. Honestly, I hope she finds her way.

The end of girlhood is masterminded by nature of course, but culture gets its mitts on us too, rough, insistent and full of contradictions. Today’s 11-year-old girl knows that she can do anything she wants, have any career, be a mom, make it on her own, with kids or without, with a marriage or not, with a man or with Ellen DeGeneres. She also knows it is time to put her hands in the air and her bootie on the floor and start the party, and find the pictures on Facebook in the morning.

I was not much older than Jane when I got my first kiss — back in the days when “Lay Lady Lay” was a really hot song. As Caitlin Flanagan points out in her new essay collection, Girl Land, which meditates on these same worries plaguing me now, Dylan’s song was not just erotic, it was romantic. Whatever colors you have in your mind/ I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine. Romantic is one thing commercial hip-hop is not — at least not about sex.

Glen Willis kissing me on the golf course in 1970 was not all that romantic either — what I remember most about the first few years of doing things with boys was (a) that I felt nothing, and thought I might be “frigid,” especially since private experiments had demonstrated that I could both experience desire and solve the problem, (b) I kept track of all the boys I kissed in a little notebook annotated with ones, twos and threes to indicate what base we got to, though the exact meaning of the bases was a matter of continual debate with my girlfriends. Really, I didn’t get it. But believe me, I kept at it until I figured it out. And once my passionate soul and my fresh young body caught up with each other, and with a copy of the 1970s classic, The Sensuous Woman, I’m afraid we were trouble.

Trouble. That’s what we’re looking at here, with my beautiful peach of a girl and PitBull and hormones and middle school and Dawson Leery’s daily monkey-spanking. Nothing has ever made me feel as conservative as being the mother of an 11-year-old.

I can’t tell you how much I’m going to miss her.

 

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

The End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)

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My daughter Jane is excited by the prospect that 2012 will be the end of the world, as predicted by the Mayan calendar, the I Ching and the New York Times Style section. She’s sure it will be awesome to witness this cataclysmic, hopefully pyrotechnic spectacle and its unimaginable aftermath.

Not to worry. As Jane herself has taught me, even the end of the world won’t be the end of the world.

In small ways, the world is ending all the time; every day is the proverbial first of the rest of your life. But some days feel quite a bit more like Day One than others. And sometimes these brand new realities arrive with a burst of joy and inspiration and other times they feel more like colliding with the asteroid X/Nibiru as the sun aligns with Sagittarius at the center of the universe.

For example, some time back, I was at my ob/gyn’s office getting a pap smear.

“You still have the IUD,” she remembered, her head between my legs, no doubt staring the thing in its shiny eye.

“Yep,” I replied, in the laconic way of one in stirrups.

“And you turn 40 this year, right?”

“Yep.”

“Well, if you’re thinking of having any more kids, you’d better get a move on.”

“What?!” I squawked. “Are you crazy?” If it weren’t physically impossible at that moment, my knees would have snapped together for emphasis.

With my sons aged 10 and 8, was I going to have another baby? I don’t think so! With my single life running smoothly, would I get married again? Hell, no. Would I sell my beloved house in my home of more than 20 years, Austin, Texas, and move 1,700 miles across the country? Double-triple no freaking way. Would I perhaps choose to live in a rural area in Central Pennsylvania? Had I even heard of Central Pennsylvania? Okay, stop now, you’re killing me.

Of course, I did every one of these things.

When I first started changing my whole life — breaking the news to my sons, putting my house on the market, calling movers, saying goodbye to my friends — it was easy. I was as corny as Kansas in August and high as a flag on the Fourth of July: in love, in love, in love with a wonderful guy. Emotionally, I was already gone. Practically, I was catching up fast.

As a self-employed widow, I had no job and no ex-spouse to hold me back. I knew there were things I would miss from my life in Austin but I didn’t care. I had always looked for the wild card in the deck, and I had definitely drawn it this time. I threw a big party, shoved my cats and kids in the car, and got on the interstate.

Three days later, I arrived at my giant new house in the middle of nowhere — and burst into tears. It was very, very hot and all our stuff was in boxes and I hadn’t noticed the ugly wallpaper in the dining room. But after a brief, tasteful meltdown, I pulled myself together. I had to. Our wedding was in a couple of weeks, in the backyard, without a caterer, and I was expecting 30 out-of-town guests. Definitely no time for a nervous breakdown.

I had never quite gotten my mind around the idea of a second marriage. How do you say all that always and forever stuff twice? It seemed impossible, even tacky. When I got married the first time, it was the happiest day of my life. I still have the video of myself saying those words. Could it be the happiest day of my life again?

Surely the Mayan calendar has something to say about this.

By fall, I was pregnant and thrilled about it, though both my mother and my husband’s mother were dubious. “Shit!” said my mother-in-law, a one-time population control activist. “Jesus Christ!” commented my mother, who told people both my sister and I were “idiots” for having additional children in our forties.

No matter how I’d reacted to my ob/gyn’s question just a year earlier, now I wanted a baby: a new person from all this newness, a concrete expression of us. Nevertheless, I had a tough time during that pregnancy, which burgeoned over the course of my first winter and spring in Pennsylvania. With my sons back in school and my new husband busy at the college where he taught, it dawned on me what I had done.

I was completely alone. I had not one friend, no doctor, no dentist, no place to get my hair cut or my toenails done or buy nutritional yeast. Where was my running trail, my Mexican restaurant? As the snow fell outside my window, the pain of losing everything and everyone I had left finally hit me. Meanwhile, the house had some flaws, my husband was sometimes distant, my children and stepchildren were becoming surly pre-teenagers. Soon I was as big as a house and wearing the same gray sweatpants every day.

On the plus side, my doctor assured me you could take Zoloft while pregnant.

*

Perhaps you have not seen Bride of Chucky, a rather undistinguished horror film featuring a scar-faced baby doll and his glass-eyed, ratty-tressed little tramp of a wife. My favorite scene is the final one in the graveyard, wherein both Chucky and Mrs. Chucky are brought low. But as the crusty detective bends over Mrs. Chucky’s charred corpse, prodding her tiny torso with an inquisitive finger, something stirs beneath her clothes. He recoils, but not fast enough. A glob of blood and mucus shoots out from under her skirt into his face, and a few heaves later, Baby Chucky pops out behind it, and immediately sets on the detective with his pointed teeth.

You know that cannot have been her first baby. They just don’t come out like that when they have to blaze the trail. Once you’ve got a well-worn path, it’s another story. In fact the birth of my daughter Jane in June 2000, though distinct in many other details, proceeded with some of the same eclat as Mrs. Chucky’s delivery.

Alas, poor Mrs. Chucky’s eyelids fluttered shut for the last time after splattering the detective with her offspring. I, on the other hand, felt immediately reborn, as if I would float right up off the delivery table with joy. It was over: the pregnancy, the labor, the peeing every five minutes, the whole damn thing!

Then my first daughter, my second-marriage, pre-menopause bonus, was placed in my arms, and I wafted gently back to earth.

For the next year or so, I had the daily joy of watching my baby girl wake up in the morning. The dark fringe of lashes fluttered against her rosy cheek. Her blueberry eyes, dancing with light. And the first thing she saw — the ceiling fan, the kitty, or, if we were lucky, one of her family — was the recipient of a brilliant, wide, toothless, guileless smile. And then they just kept coming, those smiles, like a stream of bubbles from the mouth of a carnival fish. Sometimes I had to wonder if wasn’t all that Zoloft I took when I was pregnant.

For Jane the infant, every day was a fresh start, one she met merrily and head on, with none but the most cheerful expectations. Very similar to the way she now, at 11 and a half, living in Baltimore with her divorced mom, faces the prospect of total world destruction by every astronomical, astrological and supra-historical means.

Okay, then, X/Nibiru! We’re ready for you. Bring it on.

 

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

A Message from Rudolph: It Gets Better

8

If there’s anything the public school system has taught my sixth-grade daughter Jane, it’s to name the predicament described in this 1939 Christmas poem.

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose / And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows / All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names / They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games

Clearly, Rudolph was bullied.

In fact, Jane has become so hypersensitive to the issue of bullying and has heard so many horror stories (there is some ungodly hybrid of Heather Has Two Mommies and The Laramie Project going around) that she burst into tears in social studies when the teacher merely mentioned the word. Unfortunately, the public education approach to anything, whether it’s drug addiction or the periodic table of elements, is sometimes so ham-handed it becomes a form of harassment in itself.

Weep no more for Rudolph, Jane. Like almost all of the more than 30,000 people who have posted videos on itgetsbetter.org, he made it out the other side. Just picture him in his YouTube clip, eyes moist, nose bright, antlers graying a bit by now, the dark red wall of the barn behind him. I grew up in a pen at the North Pole…at first I couldn’t understand why no one liked me…working his way through the teasing and taunting to the glorious, foggy eve when his incandescent proboscis made him a hero, a beacon, metaphorically and literally, a hottie, like the kids on “Glee.” (Santa is played by Matthew Morrison here.) Then how the reindeer loved him! Those fickle, fickle reindeer.

The reindeer were teenagers, I imagine — who else could bound through the sky like that, who else would be so unabashedly mean? Immersed in that moment when our twinned potentials for empathy and cruelty are first sounded to their shocking depths. The moment when we begin to understand how much we can feel for others, yet how brutally cold we can be. I, who spent much of junior high writing suicide poems, experienced a brief period of popularity when I co-authored a puppet show making fun of everyone else in the class.

And the red nose? Whether you read it as an LGBT orientation, a handicap, a weight problem, social awkwardness, whether Rudolph was a stutterer, a nerd or an ethnic minority, suffered from alopecia, amblyopia, or an actual red nose, perhaps from rosacea or a secret drinking habit or hours of crying in his lonely stall, depressed and isolated — in any case, there should be a cheery anthem and an “It Gets Better” video for all those things. Or It Gets Worse, But Then It Gets Better. And possibly It Gets a Little Worse Again, But Now You Are Older and Less of a Drama Queen.

It takes years to understand that the color of your nose is also the color of your parachute — that what first appears as one’s greatest burden is often one’s saving grace, one’s ticket out of Dodge, one’s high-flying freak flag and membership card in the club. And, as in so many other areas of life, we all need to copy the gay people and reach out a hand to those suffering younger versions of ourselves. Overweight teens with obsessive crushes, giant noses, and frightening, unfillable needs for attention — I am here for you! For you, I tell and retell my inspiring story of true love, exercise and rhinoplasty!

According to Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the world is becoming a more peaceful place. There are fewer killings, fewer rapes, less child abuse. This, he says, is because the human race is actually, measurably getting a little smarter. And, I extrapolate, because we slightly smarter people are shining flashlights into the dark corners, making “It Gets Better” videos and teaching kids about bullying as the red-nosed reindeer flies above us, snout ablaze.

This is the North Pole and we are the only elves there are, complicit and innocent, wronged and wrong, stumbling as best we can through this cruelest and most hopeful of all possible worlds.

 

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

Decline and Fall of the Party People: The Hepatitis Chronicles, Part I

10

I am the opposite of those people who won’t take a sip from your glass or kiss you when you have a cold, who festoon the toilet seat with whorls of paper. I like to say I don’t believe in the germ theory of disease transmission, and if that’s not exactly true, I do feel an ounce of prevention is not much better than an ounce of dirt. Once I heard part of a radio interview with a 107-year-old Russian woman who attributed her longevity to never peeling her vegetables, eating yogurt and drinking vodka. She could have been my guru.

I was the Impervious One. I never missed a day of school or work due to illness. I tramped through Mexico with friends dropping left and right from turista and had nary a cramp. I never got the flu, rarely caught cold, escaped herpes and even AIDS — especially noteworthy since that’s what killed my first husband Tony in 1994. We had a great deal of unsafe contact, including the kind that produces two sons. My sister also failed to get AIDS in a similar situation, adding to my impression I was from a race of half-Russian demigods.

Not long after Tony died I went in for an annual check-up, and the bloodwork showed that my liver enzymes were elevated. This could have been because I had a few glasses of wine the night before, but further testing showed that I had antibodies to hepatitis C.

A lot of people have hepatitis C — 4 million in the U.S., 170 million worldwide. Many of them don’t know they have it, because they have no symptoms. You can be symptom-free for decades, or for life. On the other hand, you can develop liver scarring, which leads to cirrhosis, which can kill you.

How did all these people get hepatitis C? While about half of those diagnosed have a history of injecting drugs, and transfusion was a possibility before they started screening the blood supply in 1992, many people can’t figure out how they could have contracted it. Getting a tattoo or piercing, sharing a razor or toothbrush, and snorting drugs (blood can get on the straw) are possibilities.

Anyway, I was not in the Don’t Know group. I knew, all right. When I didn’t get AIDS from sharing needles in the early ’80s, I did pick up this little bug.

No big deal, I wasn’t worried about it. I had no symptoms and a biopsy showed that my liver was fine. I also didn’t worry about infecting other people, as heterosexual transmission is rare and I was no longer partying with syringes or rolled-up dollar bills. This somewhat reassured my second husband, but every once in a while he would knit his brow and go in for a test. Each time it turned out those faux pas with the toothbrush had left him unscathed.

In utero transmission was harder to dismiss, so when I got pregnant in 1999, I visited a gastroenterologist, the specialty that covers the liver. The risk was pretty low, it turned out, and my daughter Jane was born without the virus, as were her older brothers Hayes and Vince.

Once a year I repeated the blood tests; every five years, a biopsy. Each time they saw me, though my condition hadn’t changed, my doctor and his assistant urged me to treat. The treatment for hepatitis C is a form of chemotherapy which lasts from six months to a year, and at that time the chance of cure was about 50/50.

The interferon treatment was infamous for its side effects — depression, fatigue and flu-like symptoms (whatever they might be. Don’t ask me, the Impervious One.) One of my sister’s husbands, both of whom she met at NA meetings, relapsed on drugs and died in the middle of treatment. The husband who followed him, one of the most even-tempered and physically fit people I know, also had to treat. He became cranky, quit going to the gym and sometimes didn’t make it into work. He was cured, though. Others I knew were not.

Should I inject toxic drugs that would make me feel bad and might not work, when I felt just fine? I thought not. Well, the doctor reminded me, the Catch-22 was that if I waited until I didn’t feel fine, I would have less chance of cure.

Maybe I should quit drinking alcohol, the doctor went on. The recommended limit for those with hepatitis C is one drink per year. I found this extremely amusing, being the type who opened a bottle of wine when I started cooking dinner most nights. My drinking was somewhat curtailed by my second marriage to a recovering alcoholic, but by the late 2000s, he had relapsed, our marriage was on the rocks and I was taking my martinis straight up.

*

Before the Impervious One came the Unstoppable One: my mother, a talented athlete as well as a dedicated drinker and smoker. She had not been slowed down by a couple heart attacks, a quadruple bypass, a colostomy, a reverse colostomy, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. She was still winning golf tournaments and celebrating with Beefeaters when she was diagnosed with lung cancer at 79.

She must have been afraid, but she rarely showed it. First she got tough, then furious and frustrated, then, very late in the game, she gave up. Two days before she died in April 2008, a bony shadow of the Jane Winik we loved, she stopped eating and drinking. The next morning, though, she asked for a cigarette.

If she had it to do over, I doubt she would have changed a thing. She was a stubborn devotee of her pleasures, which she refused to call addictions. For a woman born in 1928, she was irredeemably macho.

I am my mother’s daughter in so many ways.

In the wake of her death and the nearly simultaneous one of my 44-year-old friend Laurie (kidney cancer, four kids, peach of a gal) I was feeling more mortal than usual. Yet when a liver checkup showed the first signs of scarring and the doctor pressed me to begin treatment, I once again backed out. Now, instead of feeling too good to treat, I felt too bad. I didn’t think I could handle all the changes in my life — newly single, newly orphaned, about to move to Baltimore with my third-grader — plus the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad treatment. What’s more, with divorce would come changes in insurance coverage.

Faced with all this, the doctor reluctantly agreed: Maybe not now.

*

A couple of years went by, during which I began to have occasional pains in my upper right abdomen. I remembered from experience with a boyfriend who was a heavy drinker of Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey and often staggered around in the morning clutching his right side that this might be liver pain. I cut down my drinking, but the pangs didn’t stop. This past March, I made an appointment with a new doctor in Baltimore.

Not long after that, it began — The Summer of Pancytopenia and Splenomegaly. Tests showed that I had very low blood counts (that’s pancytopenia) and a spleen that was visibly and uncomfortably about three times the usual size (that’s splenomegaly). This explained why I was so tired sometimes, which I had been thinking was age or perimenopause or low-grade depression or maybe I was just turning lazy. Twice I had to leave my hot yoga class halfway through, which was unheard-of.

My doctor thought the changes in my condition were sudden enough that something else might be wrong besides hepatitis C. Two other liver doctors, a hematologist/oncologist, and a surgeon were enlisted to give their opinions. I had, over the next few months, two ultrasounds, a CT-scan, an endoscopy, a colonoscopy, a bone marrow biopsy, a liver biopsy, a spleen biopsy, an MRI, and scores of blood tests, giving my new health insurance quite a workout.

We baby boomers like to do things in packs, so I was not too surprised when my problems turned out be part of a trend. “We’re starting to see a lot of people like you,” said more than one of the doctors I visited. Many boomers had been walking around with hepatitis C since our salad days thirty years ago, and many were starting to experience the first signs.

The Summer of Pancytopenia and Splenomegaly wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed having smart, personable doctors pay so much attention to me, discuss me in conferences, ponder the mysteries of my condition, discuss whether I should have an operation to remove my now mini-fridge-sized spleen. I was a fascinating puzzle! The oncologist, a motherly Chinese woman, laughed at my jokes. A young, good-looking infectious disease fellow at Hopkins was impressed that I was a writer. The doctors seemed to care about me and even answered my emails. All agreed, when I answered the question “What brings you here today?” that I was an accomplished medical historian. I smiled. I was always good at using vocabulary words in a sentence.

I looked forward to my doctors’ appointments and often dressed up for them, either in blue to bring out my eyes, or in red, which I felt accentuated my health. Perhaps I was developing a strain of Munchausen syndrome, where people feign a disease because they enjoy the attention. Except I wasn’t feigning. And though I liked going to doctors, I was testy about the interest in my condition elsewhere.

I had been famous for being the person who never had the flu. Now I had neighbors and colleagues talking behind my back about my spleen biopsy. I had been through a disorienting identity loss like this before, actually. Because I skipped a couple of grades in school, I spent the first several decades of my life as the youngest person in every situation. So precocious and cute, like Doogie Howser.

My Doogie days were over a while ago, I’m afraid. And now I’m not just The Old One but also The Sick Person. Fortunately, these existential struggles are mitigated by the fact that I am often too tired to worry about it — sometimes so abruptly that I feel knocked to the couch, the lights in my head going out with a dizzy whoosh. I once would have considered taking a nap almost humiliating.

When I started to experience actual ill health, I remembered my first husband and my mother and my friend Laurie and other people whose last months on earth I had superintended while bouncing around like Jesus at the leper colony. Oh, this was fatigue. This was fever and chills. These were the infamous flu-like symptoms. At least, I thought, it was a course in empathy.

Most of the ways I thought about being sick — Munchhausen syndrome, course in empathy, etc. — were ways of being detached from it, my own version of my mother’s machismo. Sometimes though, I did feel the fear. Usually I avoided speaking of it, but one day as I was leaving the examining room of the good-looking young infectious disease fellow, I stopped on the threshold.

“My father died when he was 56,” I said suddenly.  “Three years older than I am now.” My eyes filled with tears as I thought about how much younger my children are than I was then, my children that my father never saw, Hayes and Vince who would be without a mother or a father, Jane so very young. There was no way to put all this into words.

The doctor returned my gaze with clear sympathy and understanding. After a moment, he said simply, “I very much want you to have a positive outcome, and I believe you will.”

This meant a great deal.

*

By this fall, my anemia went away for reasons unknown and I started to feel better. Meanwhile, the myriad tests had ruled out lymphoma, liver cancer, tuberculosis and maybe things I never knew were on the list. I just have hepatitis C, and it has caused cirrhosis. The good news: There are new drugs with fewer side effects and greater success, and they are in trials right here in Baltimore.

The bad news: It took me too long to smell the coffee, and my blood counts seem to be too low to get into a trial. People with low blood counts can mess up the results. So to get the new drugs I might have to wait for FDA approval, probably two years. The company that makes one of these drugs was bought on November 21, 2011, for 11 billion dollars, so things will likely be moving right along.

But the doctors don’t want me to wait. One way or another, I will be treated soon and this time I welcome the opportunity. Because after this, there’s nothing left but the liver transplant list. (I wonder if you can get a fresh young Baptist liver and start from scratch.)

If the Catch-22 has caught me, at least I am not the only one. Many other former badass demigods are somewhere out there canceling their gym memberships and pursuing new hobbies, like napping, drinking decaffeinated tea, and watching all seven seasons of “The Gilmore Girls” in a couple of months.

Oh, guys. We are so busted.

 

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl

 

Great Moments in Dating: Thanksgiving 2009

5

A little while back, my friend Martha Thomas and I went to a happy hour held by a city magazine we both wrote for. I brought Jane and she brought her daughter Mary, since having them play together saved us each the cost of a sitter. They ran off to a less crowded corner of the place while we struggled to get near the bar. Fresh from months of hot yoga, I had exhumed my black miniskirt and heels from their mausoleum.

On the way, I attempted to wriggle past a tall African-American gentleman with short, graying hair and the build of a retired NFL tight end. “Can I help you, baby?” he said with amusement. “Do you need a glass of wine?” He was dressed in an immaculate three-piece suit with a pocket square. As he sized me up, his lips curved in an deep U shape, like a ladle. “I think I need to get to get know you better.”

Not long after we introduced ourselves, shouting to be heard and still smushed together by the crowd, J. Joshua Johnson asked me out. “Would you like to spend some time with me?” he said, smooth as Southern Comfort. “Can I take you to lunch?”

I studied him skeptically.

“It doesn’t have to be lunch! I’ll to take you to dinner, I’ll take you to breakfast, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go,” he said, his dimples deep, his teeth glinting.

At this point, I caught sight of Jane and Mary threading their way toward us. Jane explained that they couldn’t get near the hors d’oeuvres and were starving. “Could we go sit down in the restaurant and order?” asked Mary.

“Well, sure,” I said magnanimously. Then called after them, “Hey Split something!”

By this time, Martha had materialized at my elbow. I introduced her to my new friend. “He wants to take me to lunch,” I told her. The two of them began debating possibilities. Martha, a food writer, voted for a fancy place in the Inner Harbor.

J.J. smiled. “Is that okay with you, beautiful? How ‘bout this Friday?”

Well, it sounded okay to me, but it was also happening a little fast. I suggested we get in touch to confirm.

After his departure, some nearby ladies offered testimonials. A friend of his who owned a deli, clearly a nice Jewish girl like myself, leaned over to comment. “That went well, didn’t it, dolling?”

“He’s quite a smoothie,” I said.

“Oh, he’s a very nice man. You should definitely let him take you to lunch,” she said.

“Go to lunch, yes, you’ll have a lovely time,” another woman, bosomy and blond, counseled. “But no matter what, do not sleep with him for at least three weeks.”

“Three weeks?” I said dubiously. I hadn’t had sex in over a year, and that time was the relapse situation with my ex. Really, I almost hadn’t had sex in two years.

“Three weeks!” she repeated firmly.  She launched into some of the standard arguments for restraint.

“Okay,” I said, “You’re right. Three weeks.” She rolled her eyes, as did several others around us. Sure, they were thinking. That woman is a desperate ho.

When I went to find Jane and Mary, they were seated at a candlelit table surrounded by half-empty plates and glasses. They’d had lobster macaroni and cheese, Caesar salad, garlic bread, and a couple of Shirley Temples. Now the waitress was on her way with cheesecake and a sundae.

“Whoa,” I said. “That’s quite a spread, girls.” I looked around for Martha, hoping she would split the bill.

“You know your friend in the suit?” said Jane. “J.J.?”

“Yeah?”

“Well he came and got the check, told us to order dessert and paid for the whole thing.”

“He even tipped the waitress,” Mary added.

My eyes widened and my head swiveled toward the doors through which he must have exited, as if I’d see a twinkling jet-trail of stars hovering above the white marble floor.

*

The intervening days were filled with the usual preparations and hysteria about what to wear. I ended up in brown wool wide-leg pants, a somewhat suburban low-cut shirt with metallic peacock feather designs on it, and high heels I couldn’t walk in. But there are no high heels I can walk in, so what can you do.

I waited until Friday morning to get a manicure so it wouldn’t get wrecked before the lunch, then ruinously scraped it getting into the car. By this time I was so wound up, I practically had a stroke driving downtown in the pouring rain, and another when I saw the price of the parking lot in the Inner Harbor.

A set of revolving doors led me from the monsoon into the smiling welcome of hostesses and coat-takers. The restaurant was warm and dry, with golden sconces glowing against the polished paneling and thick carpets to buttress my tottering heels. J.J. was waiting for me, as impeccably turned out as ever.

“You look beautiful, darling,” he said. “I’m so glad you came. Order anything you want. Anything.”

As we ate and sipped at balloon goblets of wine, I asked about his childhood. It sounded rough. Between his mother and father, he told me, they’d had 23 children. But the ghetto days were clearly over now. He took calls from people in the mayor’s office during lunch. He heard from his daughter Josie, whose car had been towed up at Penn. Throughout the conversation, he sprinkled mention of a lot of cool-sounding things he owned, boats, beach houses and such.

And he asked about me. Oh, me. You know, I’m a famous ex-junkie AIDS widow. It is really hard to condense the story of my life into polite conversation, but I tried. “I hope hanging around with me won’t ruin your reputation,” I concluded.

“Oh, well. I have some issues in my past, too,” he said, smiling. “I’ll probably tell you when we get to know each other a little better.”

As we lingered, he asked if I’d ever dated a black guy. I told him about Brent, a tall, beautiful boy from Southern California I knew in New York in the early 80s. I didn’t ask him if he’d dated white women. That would have been silly.

We had a warm but not messy kiss in the lobby of the parking garage, which by the way cost $13 an hour. But I was just winging those bills out the window fast as I could, eager to get home and start Googling.

It wasn’t easy, but LexisNexis finally got me to an old article in The Baltimore Sun. J.J. had been the leader of one of two groups of investors competing to take over a hotel project for the city — until his opponents leaked to the press that he was a convicted felon who had done time for attempted murder.

The following Monday, J.J. stopped by my house after work in his vintage red Corvette, electrifying my neighborhood. I was cooking dinner for a friend’s elderly parents and felt awkward asking him to join us. They would have assumed he was a new boyfriend — I’d never even had them over before — but inwardly I wondered whether it was because he was black. Would I be inviting him to stay if he were white? Was he wondering this too?

“Oh, honey, you don’t have to invite me to dinner. I don’t even eat dinner. I’ll just sit at the counter, and watch you cook for a while,” he reassured me.

He certainly watched me. Watched every move. I felt like I was doing something much sexier than cleaning shrimp, as if my curves were highlighted like key passages in a text. “You look like you know what you’re doing in the kitchen,” he commented.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said again awkwardly, “this is so rude.”

“Honey, I keep trying to tell you. I’m perfectly happy. Stop being so nervous, I adore you. Don’t you adore me?” he asked.

I couldn’t help laughing. “J.J., white people don’t say ‘I adore you’ in situations like this. But theoretically, I adore you too.”

“Okay, then what are you doing Friday night?” he asked. “I think I have some free time then.”

By now I’d waited long enough to get to the subject that was really on my mind. I confessed my to Internet snooping, and he sighed, then told me this story.

Back in his twenties, J.J. had owned a nightclub in DC with a partner. The partner had a girlfriend who was married to an abusive asshole, and they’d asked J.J. to help them get rid of the guy. J.J. said hell no. They offered money. He told them it was a bad idea.

Not long after that, the partner called and asked J.J. to meet him at the mall. When he pulled into the parking lot, it was full of police cars. As they cuffed him, he learned there had been an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Mr. Asshole. The wife was the initial suspect, but she told the cops she hired J.J. to do it.

At the time of this unpleasant trip to the mall, J.J. was packing heat — necessary, he explained, because he was constantly carrying cash from the club. That didn’t help his case. Nor did a phone call the wife had recorded in which they had discussed the idea.

Long story short, both of them did time. All-white jury in DC, he said, what do you think. Fortunately, he served five years of a 35-year sentence and was paroled at 30. Having made the most of his time behind bars, he left the pen most of the way to a degree in business and a second wife. (His first flew the coop after he got locked up, so he married the woman who taught college classes in the jail.)

I was filled with outrage and sympathy and disbelief, but not the kind of disbelief where you actually don’t believe. I did believe.

*

Friday night came. But before that, just a half-day before that, came my period. Tsunami style. I was in despair. How was I going to have sex for the first time in so long while I was hemorrhaging? Plus, considering I had already told him I have Hepatitis C (part of the I-didn’t-get-AIDS speech), there were not just aesthetic but health issues. Oh Jesus Christ. Maybe I should cancel the whole date.

But I’d already taken Jane up to her dad’s in Pennsylvania. I’d put on my black pants and dark blue satin top with sparkly buttons. I’d lined my eyes and glossed my lips, and then I’d taken a little detour. I was standing in front of the refrigerator eating leftover collard greens with my fingers. You know, I make great collards. I wondered dreamily whether I should bring him a sample. Oh right, a Tupperware bowl of collard greens and maybe some Jheri-curl cream too.

J.J. lived in Reservoir Hill, a part of town I had not visited before. Once an elite neighborhood, it had since descended most of the way into hood-dom. But J.J.’s place was as close to a mansion as a row home could be, with arched windows and pillars and curved balconies. It was surrounded by a wrought-iron fence draped in chains and titanium locks. Letting me in was a complex procedure.

Inside, though, was a world of wonders.

There was room after room with walls painted in dark jewel tones and windows cloaked in thick velvet curtains. Each room contained a certain type of item, displayed on shelves and pedestals and in backlit glass cases. The first room was Buddhas: golden, wooden, jade, stone, each with its hands in the classic mudra, its face wearing a meditative smile. Next room hourglasses. Some were tiny. Some were waist-high. Some were Victorian, others seemingly Egyptian.

After that, we came into a sort of living room, or at least the first room with couches and chairs. It featured models of clipper ships and framed oil paintings hung almost edge to edge.

Could a straight man really live here? A straight, single black ex-convict? It seemed more like some obscure museum in the 16th arrondissement of Paris than a home. But wait, there was more: out back, in addition to the Vette I’d already seen, there was a vintage Bentley, a huge, brand-new SUV, and a gleaming Harley Davidson the size of a twin bed in its own heavily secured trailer. Finally we went through an enormous basement filled with pallets of rugs, furniture and paintings and God knows what else.

J.J. explained that after he got out of jail he had a little trouble landing a job, so entered various fields of self-employment, antique dealer and real estate agent among them.

Perhaps there had been others.

After a series of winding staircases through media rooms and guest quarters, we arrived at the level of the royal boudoir. The bed was covered in lustrous brocade and meticulously-arranged satin throw pillows. One wall of the room was made entirely of stained glass windows. Another was a plasma television. And from the midnight-blue ceiling were suspended a half-dozen life-size golden mermaid statues.

I had to tell him I had my period. I really did. But first, maybe I should have a drink. He made me a pink concoction in a black martini glass in his marble kitchenette while I sat at his computer trying to get us a dinner reservation and staring down my own cleavage, which waited patiently between dark blue satin lapels. I launched into a short, nervous speech about my period and how I almost cancelled our date. He told me not to worry about it. “Let’s just go to dinner, darlin’,” he said.

Out in the vehicle storage yard, I went to climb into the SUV. Here we ran into a little problem. There was one thing J.J. insisted on, he said. I was absolutely forbidden to open my own car door. Every single time I got into or — much more annoying — out of a car with him, I would wait until he came and opened the door for me.  “What if,” he said, “you go hopping out of the car onto the sidewalk and somebody snatches you up before I even get there?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I said. We had definitely grown up in different neighborhoods. But I had to let it go or we were never going to get to dinner. So I did. For the moment.

At dinner, I realized that I was noticing the race of each of the people that served us — most of them were black men — and wondering what each made of us as a couple. Did they think J.J. was cool for being with me? Did they think I was cool for being with him? Could I have been having any less cool thoughts than these? At some point J.J. told me that the people he worked with were cheap Jews, and in my uncoolness this actually made me feel better.

By the time we returned to his house I was drunk, which made me more relaxed about the whole megillah with getting in and out of the car, and before I knew it I was up there with the flying mermaids. It was my first time in so long, and I wanted it to be special and perfect, I wanted it to erase my ex-husband and all my self-doubt, but more likely it was just going to be an unsexy mess.

My date, bless his heart, seemed to feel that with enough bath towels and condoms we could negotiate the sidewalk sale on body fluids.

His handling of the situation was nothing if not gallant. He murmured compliments about my soft skin and my nice stomach, he didn’t even mention my damn tattoo of my husband’s initials, and though this was probably an abbreviated version of his usual lady-pleasing routine, it was still nice. It did feel very weird to be with someone other than my husband, but I tried not to dwell on it.

Later, lying sleepless and distraught beneath the flying mermaids, I started worrying about my usual bed partner, my beloved miniature dachshund. What could he possibly be thinking, now that it was 3:30 in the morning and I had never come home? I pictured him staring at the front door, his head tilted to the side. I would have left but I knew I couldn’t get through the security system on my own.

At 5 a.m., I ventured a delicate toss-and-turn maneuver. “You all right, baby?” he asked. When I explained that I had to go home to my dog, he put on a pair of pajama pants and padded downstairs to undo all the bolts and padlocks and let me out. We had a muted, pre-dawn farewell. He did not insist on following me to the car to open the door.

Both of the next two weekends he told me he might be able to see me. Both times, I assumed this meant he would see me. But never did he take my calls or answer my texts on a weekend night. I expressed my irritation about this in carefully-worded emails and phone calls. He said he would try to do better.

I said something about what I expect from a boyfriend.

“Am I going to be your boyfriend?” he wondered, genuinely surprised.

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “I kind of thought so, I guess.”

The second Saturday night I sat with a girlfriend at a bar not far from his house, at first expecting he’d be joining us any minute; later, sending plaintive, drunken text messages. I was beginning to grasp, though he never explicitly said this, that I might not be his only girl. I might, for example, be a replacement trying out for the recently-vacated Number 16 spot.

We had sex one other time, sort of like make-up sex though we hadn’t exactly had a fight, at my house at lunchtime on a weekday. As we headed upstairs, I realized this would be the first time I’d been with a man in my post-marital bedroom, the incident with Humberto notwithstanding. J.J. admired the clerestory windows, the framed photographs, my mother’s collection of Herend china animals arranged on the dresser. I flipped the little blue dog to show him its clever gold penis. Then he asked me for some hangers, and spent about five minutes removing the many layers and accessories involved in his fancy work costume, carefully hanging each of them in the closet.

Having thrown my jeans and t-shirt on the floor in a matter of seconds, I lay on the bed in my black underwear watching.

The next weekend was Thanksgiving. He had plans he never clarified but called me on the holiday from a place where he was getting his car windshield fixed. I wondered if he’d been shot at. In between yelling instructions to the repair guy, he said he’d like to stop by before he left town.

“Well,” I said, “my sons are home from college. Would you like to meet them?”

“Sure,” he said, which I didn’t expect. I hung up the phone and turned to my sons, side by side on the couch, watching the Dallas Cowboys game.

“Boys,” I announced casually, “this guy I’m seeing is going to stop in before we go out to dinner.”

“You’re seeing someone?” asked Hayes.

“Yeah, dude, she’s seeing some black guy, didn’t she tell you?” his younger brother Vince replied.

“And he’s coming over? Is it, like, serious?” Hayes asked.

“Oh, I don’t think so, honey.”

I was sitting at my desk in the front room when J.J. pulled up to the curb. “Come here, guys,” I called. “My friend is here.” One of the highlights of the whole relationship for me was the looks on my sons’ faces when they saw J.J. get out of the Bentley. He was wearing a black leather Stetson hat, black tailored shirt and pants, softly gleaming black boots. He was blinged to the gills and really, the theme song from Shaft might as well have been playing in the background as he crossed the street.

“Holy shit, Mom,” Hayes said.

A week or so later, I had planned a dinner date with J.J. and my DC friends, Jim and Jessica and Judy and Lou. I was feeling unsure about the plan, but not unsure enough to cancel. Perhaps the timing was off for the friend introductions. Then things got called off at the very last minute when Lou had emergency heart surgery.

When I called J.J. to bring him up to speed on these developments, he didn’t seem to want to settle on an alternate plan. “You probably need to go down to DC and be with your friends,” he said.

I hadn’t even thought of that. “Not today, anyway.”

“Well, maybe we can make this work some other time, then.”

As usual there was all kinds of noise in the background and it was hard to communicate.

“I can’t really talk right now,” he said, “and you don’t seem to be reading between the lines. I’ll call you later.”

“Okay,” I said and hung up slowly, staring at the words Call Ended on the screen. Read between what lines? Didn’t we have a date? I didn’t understand.

I decided to take his advice and drive to DC where I found my friends not only no longer in the hospital but heading to a French bistro for dinner so the heart surgery patient could recount his story with the proper accompaniment of butter and alcohol. As I gazed out at the snowflakes drifting slowly down onto the sidewalks of our nation’s capital, basking in the glow of good wine and old friends, a text from J.J. popped up on my phone. I will call to reschedule.

But that was the last I ever heard of J. Joshua Johnson, my knight in shining bling, or he of me. One way or another, our three weeks were up.

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

The Story of Job: A Readers’ Quiz

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From A Child’s Bible, Lessons from the Prophets and Writings by Seymour Rossel.

1. “Oh, dry bones! God will breathe life into you,” said ______________.

If the prophet Ezekiel comes to my house I will show him my home mausoleum, located on top of the bookshelf in my living room. Look, Ezekiel, here’s my mother in the silver ice bucket that she won with my dad in the 1965 Husband and Wife Tournament at Hollywood Golf Club in Deal, New Jersey. I would have mixed a little of my father in there with her but robbers stole him, in his hermetically sealed brown plastic box, out of my mother’s jewelry drawer back in the ’80s.

I also have my first husband Tony and our stillborn son, whom we called PeeWee. Originally each was in a red covered urn with a cardiac shape, a big one and a little one, but PeeWee’s smashed when my second husband threw a ball for the dog. I tracked down the young potter, who was older by then, and he kindly made a replacement. It was much larger than the first, as if the ashes might have grown by age 17.

2. “All your children are dead,” said ________________.

All 10 of Job’s kids, seven boys and three girls, whom he worried about constantly, were having dinner at his oldest son’s house when it was hit by a tornado — that’s what the messenger told him. My friend Ellen was home when she got the call about the car accident on the way to the birthday party. Every day Ellen wakes up and gets this news again. Audrey’s dogs Mocha and Cookie are still waiting for her to walk in the door; it has only been three years.

None of my children are dead, except Peewee, and I have let him go. I could not hold on to a sadness that size for very long. Now it is absorbed in the bones and the fluids of my body. I have three other children who have survived their lives so far and I have my dachshund, who is exactly the size of a baby. In the morning when we are rolling around nosing each other, I say “I love you” over and over and he puts his paw, a big paw for such a short leg, a tawny paw with roughened pads and curved black nails, on my cheek as gently as if it were a hand.

3. “Do you still believe in God?” said ________________.

This was Job’s wife, a nudnik renegade at the end of her rope after watching her husband’s reaction to the loss of their children, their possessions and his livelihood. He just sat there on the floor, scratching his oozing sores with broken shards of pottery, something like the pieces of Peewee’s urn. What happened to her after that is not totally clear. It seems she stuck with him.  I have a tattoo of my ex-husband’s initials on my right shoulder blade. It turns out I made a bigger decision when I got those initials tattooed on me than I did when I married him. We were able to undo our marriage but I cannot undo this tattoo. It has been absorbed into the material of my body. After considering having layers of my skin removed by laser, or having the tattoo somewhat hidden by a much larger tattoo of something I chose only for its camouflage potential, I began an affair with my ex-husband.

4. “People should be happy when God punishes them for doing wrong,” said ________________.

Since I started having health problems and had to quit drinking, I have become more and more extravagant in my fantasies of indulgence. I want to stay up all night doing cocaine and drinking Veuve Clicquot. Or have carloads of OxyContin delivered from pharmacies in Canada and wash it down with hits of ecstasy and tumblers of gin and grapefruit juice. I think this is approximately what Job felt, although he expressed it somewhat differently, at least in the King James Version. But instead of being allowed to climb back up into his mother’s womb and sleep forever, or even wash himself clean with snow water, what he got was a parade of moronic friends like Elihu coming over to make insensitive comments, which just shows you how realistic the Bible can be.

5. “If you were really good, God would answer your prayers,” said ________________.

6. “You are being punished even less than you deserve,” said ________________.

7. “God’s justice is always straight,” said ________________.

You are being punished even less than you deserve? Bildad, Zophar, Eliphaz, what were you thinking? Not straight, not just, not God or good, that’s for sure; it sounds more like Old Testament S&M to me. Why do we always want to make people’s suffering their own fault? He was drinking. She was careless. He refused the operation. They were not wearing seatbelts. The door was not even locked. She used poor judgment, she did not listen, she wore a short skirt. Enough, Mr. Potato Head, find someone else to torture with your theories and your chit-chat. Job, did you think of getting a dog?

8. “I am nothing. Forgive me,” said ________________.

Said Job, of course, who would have said anything at that point.  Apparently it all worked out well for him. He got a new house, new kids, patched things up with the wife. His boils healed and he lived 140 more years. What I think is, he just could not hold on to a sadness that size. That is the one gift we have against all this trouble: our weakness. Things go wrong, people are dopes, your body is fragile, the ones you love can’t help, even your children are crushed in the unfeeling vise of time. But if you don’t kill yourself or become a hopeless addict or die some other way, you go on and more things happen. Eventually, some of them are good things. Ask the Jews. Ask anyone. Someday, when we are 140 years old, I will ask my friend Ellen.

 

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.