Bohemian Rhapsody by Marion Winik

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

11

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

13

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.

Little Sweetheart of the Boston Strangler

8

Like so many therapists before her, Tracy (whom you met in the last column) had to be made aware of my romantic history. My taste in men had always been unusual, going beyond the standard predilection for “bad boys” into uncharted territory.

For example, my earliest memory of romance is an attempt to initiate a pen-pal correspondence with jailbird Albert de Salvo, the Boston Strangler himself. It was 1967, I was nine years old, and I had just read Gerald Frank’s true crime bestseller, The Boston Strangler. (This was typical of my reading material at the time, consisting mainly of books my mother had requested from the library for herself.) What you may not realize is that de Salvo was never even charged with the 13 killings he is associated with; he was in the pen for something else. And if you had read the interview in this book, and found out, as I did, about his horrible, sad childhood and marriage, you’d probably want to write him a letter too. Too late, he was murdered in jail in 1973.

I graduated from De Salvo to the boys of the boardwalk in my hometown of Asbury Park, N.J. When we were fourteen, my neighbor Donna Benoit and I both fell in love with a doltish hoodlum named Dave Reis. I can’t remember what was good about him except his shoulder-length blond hair which was very straight and shiny and hung in his face. I think of a missing tooth. We found him on a particular bench where you could always meet guitar-playing ne’er-do-wells, and guitar was our bond. Good thing, as he was not much of a conversationalist. From him, I learned the opening bars of “Stairway to Heaven.” Soon after, he stole my guitar.

Dave Reis was followed by Buddy West, who came in a set with his brother Bobby. Bobby was strawberry blond and freckly, Buddy raw-boned and hazel-eyed. They had an apartment on the top floor of a rat-trap building called the Santander. This was an early experience of bad sex on a bare, possibly insect-infested mattress. Also, they stole cash from my father’s desk drawer and steaks from our freezer. My sister dated Bobby, but Buddy was all mine.

An even less memorable seaside rendezvous was with The Guy With The Convertible That I Bailed Out Of Jail. I recall nothing about him except that the bail was $150.

Why was I like this? Perhaps it was my parents’ fault for bringing me up in comfort and ease, with my own shag-carpeted bedroom, ballet and piano lessons and new clothes each fall, family trips to Disney World. What were they trying to do to me? To rebel against their kindness and generosity, I pretty much had to seek malevolence and dysfunction, or simply spiritual and material impoverishment.

As an undergraduate, I completely lost my heart to my 6’6” curly-haired housemate Mitch, who had a nervous breakdown and a cocaine problem, but was the focus of my hopes and dreams and terrible poetry for many years. Also at Brown I met Jan, my first longterm boyfriend. Just as I had had my enthusiasm for the Boston Strangler, Jan had a fixation on Squeaky Fromme, spokeswoman for the Manson Family and would-be assassin of President Gerald Ford, and had even thought of a plan for springing her from jail. Jan was devoted to bringing down the capitalist state by making free long-distance phone calls and robbing banks as advised in Steal This Book. First, you went through old obituaries in the library to find a baby who would have been about your age if it hadn’t died. You got this dead baby a Social Security card and some other ID, then used that to buy traveler’s checks. You reported the checks lost, got replacements, then quickly cashed both sets at different banks, wearing a disguise for the security cameras. The whole thing made me a nervous wreck and I was relegated to driving the getaway car, a copper-colored 1972 Olds Cutlass given me by my Uncle Philip, who I hope is not reading this. Eventually our revolutionary ideals led us to East Germany, where we could live among like-minded brethren. After several months of unbelievably dull and oppressive socialist living, I rushed back to the States posthaste.

By then my sister Nancy, my best friend Sandye and others of our entourage were living in Austin, Texas. It was there that I met David Rodriguez, an authentic Mexican American street person, at an art opening. My friends and I were at the event for the free food, and in the months to come he would teach us many more ways to get things for free. Hopelessly in love, I hitchhiked with him to Colorado to a creative writing conference. He went to an outdoor concert where he was arrested while trolling around the grounds for pills people had dropped. When the police searched him, they found someone else’s ID in his pocket, someone who was wanted for Grand Larceny in the town of Junction, Colorado, hundreds of miles away. I hitchhiked out behind the police car to spring him. Ultimately, he stole our stereo.

Over the years, I took several trips abroad with Sandye. These provided many opportunities for unsuitable liaisons, as word of a female American tourist passing through town with her easy virtue and her MasterCard will bring out the flower of any country’s freeloading sleazebags. In fact, they’re not all sleazebags, some are quite nice, and for this reason it is possible to think of yourself as doing charitable work overseas rather than just being taken advantage of by the uncircumcised. For example, Dave and his friends were a group of on-the-dole Liverpudlians we met in a bar. They gave us cigarettes and took us to what seemed to be their home, a tent in a field outside Cambridge. Dave was sallow, hollow-cheeked, and so thin I feared I might accidentally suffocate or break him. Though he and his friends stole our camera right after we took the group photos, when I got home there was a letter suggesting he come to the States and live with me. In a trailer, he said.

Perhaps the biggest mistake I ever made was when I went with my bluegrass-loving college friends to the Fiddler’s Convention in Union Grove, North Carolina, in 1977. I didn’t like bluegrass as much as they did, and I soon found live banjo and fiddle combined with very strong LSD to be a form of psychological torture.  Even today I cannot hear bluegrass without experiencing a nerve-jangling acid flashback. However, this unpleasantness was dwarfed by my decision to sleep with a guy named Tim. I remember little about him except his first name and that he looked something like Greg Allman. I met him that evening when he fell into our bonfire. The rest of our romance is a blank until the next morning when he failed to stumble all the way outside the tent for a pee and apparently mistook my sleeping bag for a large tree root.

By the 1980s, things had gotten rather grim. Eddie Gonzalez was my sister Nancy’s first husband’s friend from high school, and I think he may have been the original link in the chain that got us all doing intravenous drugs. Since Eddie is now many years dead of AIDS, I don’t want to go on too much about his terrible complexion, his tedious conversation, or his addiction — all of these I was only too eager to share at the time. Even he was horrified by the stupidity of my crush on him.

As should now be clear, the apparent bizarreness of my first marriage must be seen in context. If Tony was a penniless, gay bartender who had recently lost his job as an ice-skating coach due to his drug problem, he was still a significant upgrade from his predecessors. He was elegant, funny, and sweet and he took good care of me in many ways.

After his death, I repelled the advances of a gorgeous, wealthy, physically fit and socially conscious doctor — yes, a millionaire M.D.  He wanted to take me to Hawaii and entertain me at his marble-floored mansion. I gave him no encouragement, though during a particularly screwed-up period, after his crush had petered out, I tried unsuccessfully to get him to write me a Vicodin prescription. During the same period, I rejected the marriage proposal of a perfectly nice single dad I’d been hanging out with for a few years. I was waiting for the appearance of my second husband, I suppose, whose complex combination of alcoholism, anarchism, anger, OCD, distrust of women, brilliance, and talents in the bedroom made him the romantic disaster of all time. Even the fact that he loved bluegrass couldn’t stop me.

Having heard all this backstory, plus a few more recent updates, Tracy had me write down what I was looking for in a man. I took my assignment seriously and handed in several paragraphs. Tracy came back the next week with her assessment.

“You want to date yourself,” she told me.

That’s ridiculous, I thought. But wait. Did she mean I wanted to date someone like me, or actually me? I had the checkered past, the dubious emotional health, the bohemian habits that I was historically attracted to, and I certainly shared my interests. I often treated myself less than nicely, which would keep me interested, and while I might not be ideal on the erotic front, no one was more efficient.

Unfortunately, still clinging to my multi-decade obsession with lost causes, I was not available.

 

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 Help, Continued: My Life in Therapy

5

Not long after I moved to Baltimore in 2009, I realized that I needed help. I was still a mess about the implosion of my marriage, I was having no luck with dating, and neither hot yoga, white wine, or what was left in the prescription bottle from the last time I sprained my ankle was killing the pain. However, having been in therapy on and off since seventh grade, I knew well that finding a therapist is no easier than finding a boyfriend and often “help” is not a good description of what you get.

The first psychiatrist I ever saw was a Chinese-American woman with a son in my grade at school. I was sent to Dr. Chung after I wrote a long, spooky, cry-for-help poem and swallowed a bottle of Excedrin. A C- in English (I think we would now call this a Jewish F) and a broken heart were the nominal causes of my collapse but I was also fascinated by mental illness as portrayed in books like I Never Promised You A Rose Garden and The Bell Jar. Ah, that Sylvia Plath.

I would later realize that by limiting her responses to mmhmm-mmhmm and tossing any question I asked back to me, my inscrutable therapist was following classic psychoanalytic procedures. At the time I found her quite frustrating and doubted her competence as only a 12-year-old can. To her credit, she did manage to explain some of my self-esteem issues to my bewildered parents, who were as always just trying to help me. But the approximately fourteen doctors I was seeing at the time were making me feel like The Elephant Man instead of just a somewhat chubby, slightly pigeon-toed, crooked-toothed, lazy-eyed preteen. The physical issues were all eventually fixed or went away on their own; my sad little soul would prove more intractable.

My teen years featured an old-hippie psychologist my sister Nancy and I both saw, sometimes together. He smoked bidis with us — Indian clove cigarettes rolled in leaves, very popular in the 70s — and hypnotized me to help me lose weight. One session involved me descending into an imaginary theater and visualizing my favorite food making an entrance on the spotlit stage. My favorite food was Dannon vanilla yogurt. He explained to me that this symbolized the male orgasm.
Also around this time I participated in a therapy group run by the mother of one of my high school friends in her basement. Grassroots-style group therapy was quite a craze back then, as were bean bag chairs, blond-veneer paneling and shag carpeting, and everyone in our drama-club clique crowded down the stairs to the bi-weekly meetings, not wanting to miss a moment of the action. “Group,” as it was known, was less like therapy than like an MTV reality show thirty years before its time, with everyone affected by any betrayal on hand for its confession, a domino-effect freak-out waiting to happen. For example, when I stupidly messed around one night in a red Chevy Nova with Billy Donnelley, who was not my boyfriend but who reportedly had porn-star-type anatomical equipment so often discussed by the boys in our crowd that it was difficult not to be curious about it, the big showdown occurred in a room that contained Billy, my boyfriend, me, all of our various siblings, other girls who had had indiscretions with Billy Donnelley, their menfolk, and our well-meaning, middle-aged group leader. Though Billy and I had not gone all the way, things were never the same again for me and my sweet, young boyfriend. Ah, those stupid ’70s. Like Sylvia Plath, another wellspring of dubious inspiration and poor moral guidance.

In college, where I had developed a pioneering case of bulimia, I saw a Student Health psychiatrist who made me so mad with his insistence that my eating problem was really a sexuality problem that I threw my purse at him in our second session. I think I was still a little edgy after the yogurt thing.

I wasn’t completely discouraged, though I continued to have meager success. More obsessive love, more body image issues, now throw in substance abuse… in my twenties, I practically drove a young Jungian therapist into another line of work. I was losing patience too. At one point, I actually threatened to sue a guy who listened to me for a couple hours, diagnosed me with ADD, wrote me three prescriptions and sent me a bill for $1369. Multiple couples counselors threw up their hands at both my first and second marriages. When I started to believe one of my kids was a dangerously manipulative charmer who had everyone around him bewitched with his lies, I of course sent him to see a therapist as well. She called me after a few visits to tell me that I shouldn’t worry about my son. Everybody lies a little! And he was so charming.

Unbelievably, none of these experiences had destroyed my faith in therapy and so I set out once again to be healed, this time in the living room of an elderly, cadaverous, former Episcopal priest whose main advantage was that he was right in my neighborhood. On our first visit, he said he wasn’t sure he could help me with my problems, since they were so severe. On our second visit, he decided he’d rather not hear the pages and pages of dreams I had written down at his suggestion (though they seemed at the very least to be full of lottery number picks). On our third visit, he pulled out his Bible and started reading aloud. When I called him the following week to cancel our next appointment, I got the impression I had barely beaten him to it.

Then I sprained my ankle for the third time that fall and my friend Ken insisted I go the emergency room. Against my better judgment, knowing from experience that there is nothing you can do for a sprain except RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevate — don’t say I never taught you anything), I let Ken drag me to Patient First. While we were waiting I noticed a paperback copy of the book Desire, a memoir of sex addiction by Susan Cheever, on the chair beside me, atop a crocheted blue shawl. I picked it up to see if they had used a quote from the review I’d written of the book. They hadn’t, and I put the book back. Who had left it there, I wondered. When a friendly-looking, blond, blue-eyed woman gingerly carrying her hurt left arm in her right returned to claim her things, I told her I had looked at her book.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m a therapist!” — obviously wanting to dispel the impression that she was reading it because she was a sex addict.

“And I,” I quickly replied, “am a book reviewer.”

She was taken away to have her arm fixed. But as I sat there, I thought about the woman, feeling more and more drawn to her. This, I was sure, was my therapist. So I sneaked down the hall and peeked in the cracks between the curtains of the treatment rooms until I found her. She and her attending physician looked up surprised as I boldly swept in. “Can I have your business card?” I said.

I saw Tracy on Tuesdays, right after my hot yoga class. We talked about my ex-husband of course, whose anger and blame were still very live issues for me, and about my recent bad experiences with a writer/sailor in Annapolis that seemed to exemplify another disastrous element of my character: the power of good looks and good kissing to blow my circuits, setting free my inner bunny-boiler. One does get to a point in life where it’s sort of exhausting filling in the same old back story, and then even more discouraging to realize how similar the new stories are. But Tracy was a good listener, neither a pushover nor a super-confrontational critic, and I never had to throw my purse at her once.

God knows I have always been too restless and impulsive and impatient for my own good, sometimes drastically so, and I have long suffered with the burning desire to climb out of my head and go someplace else, often with some sort of chemical assistance. While motherhood has made me a much healthier person — as it couldn’t Sylvia Plath — it didn’t fix every glitch. Tracy didn’t either, but she did get me out of the post-marital pain pit and onto more solid ground. I miss her, which is more than I can say for most of my old pay-pals.

Just like love, therapy is always worth another try.

 

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.

Dinner Party 101: The Host on High

6

I have heard it said that the guest list is more important than the menu in determining the success of a dinner party. But either is easily trumped by the behavior of the host or hostess. Even with the best intentions, it is entirely possible to ruin your own soiree. For example, it’s hard for people not to notice that you invited them over, then failed to spend any time with them at all. Why does this happen so often? Well, if you start late enough on the dinner preparations, if you choose too many dishes with last-minute steps, if you reach far outside your culinary comfort zone, you will be stuck in the kitchen all night. Do you care more about the creme brulée than your guests? Don’t answer that, just get out there and entertain.

An equally common dinner party faux pas is telling everyone what is wrong with the meal before they’ve even picked up their forks. If the sesame noodles were better last time you made them, you should conceal rather than publicize this fact. If they really are too awful to serve, don’t serve them. Shut up and let the poor guests enjoy their food without having to devote their evening to rebuilding your self-esteem. Be steadfast: Often I will get through the whole event without breaking down and at the very end blurt, “So no one thought the soup was too salty?” Really, what are they going to say?

One of the most memorable meals I ever had was served by an elderly gent who had my mother and me over for plain microwaved chicken breasts, rawish Minute rice, sliced white bread, and, heaped beside all this snowy white fodder, some violently orange baby carrots, also a la micro-onde. It would have ruined it if he’d apologized, and he did not.

Better to be an Unruffled Slopslinger than a Miserable Faultfinder — or her close relative, the Rueful Dreamer. Because really, you saw this great recipe for Thai noodles in the food section of the paper but you couldn’t get the lemongrass. You might have done your tiramisu, but a simple bowl of berries seemed more seasonal. No, you should not tell people what they almost won, or what they could have been eating. Most people love spaghetti and meatballs, as long as you don’t start raving about the lobster ravioli you saw on the Food Channel.

Speaking of lobster ravioli, perhaps you have met the Insufferable Uberchef. The Uberchef can prepare complex dishes from many different cuisines, and he does. He prepares them all, seemingly, at a single meal. And for each of the many courses and the wines to go with them, detailed notes will be provided. In many cases, the Uberchef will also have an Invisible Man problem, since the reduction sauce with the 30-year-old port can’t be prepared in advance. Perhaps he does not realize Joel Robuchon and Charlie Trotter didn’t make it. Since all but other Uberchefs are afraid to invite the gratuitous gourmet to their humble boards, this condition is its own punishment.

Please note: Because the home team should never be more swoozled than the visitors, or at least not dramatically so, do not start drinking more than one hour before the guests arrive. Once you drop the salad bowl, ladle gumbo all over the tablecloth and knock over their wine glasses, it will be too late.

Worse even than the Sloppy Drunk is the Divorce-in-Progress. It is a challenge to have people over to dinner when you are in the midst of serious relationship issues, and for some of us, this is a permanent situation. Nevertheless, nobody wants to have dinner with the Bickersons. As hard as it is, you have to avoid carping at each other all night and trying to involve people in your long-running arguments. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been guilty of this, but one night I finally saw the error of my ways. We were guests at the home of a couple we knew slightly. He was the chef of the pair, a bit of an Uberchef actually, and was taking his sweet time getting his famous jambalaya on the table. She wasn’t happy about this. Nor did she like the method he used to prepare the rice, or the casserole he chose to put in the microwave, and she liked it less as she finished her second glass of wine and watched the guests fighting over the crumbs in the cracker basket. When, in the final moments before serving, the entire Pyrex dish smashed on the floor, my husband and I worried we might soon be called as witnesses at some sort of trial. I can’t even remember what we did eat, so I hope that’s not one of the questions.

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 Things They Googled

10

If they were young, they googled the things they didn’t know. Some were things they were supposed to know, like the habits of the hammerhead shark. The perfect squares under 100. The phrase “rite of passage.” When they got bored, they googled images of peace signs, photographs of rainbows, a video of a girl singing about Friday and another of a baby laughing and laughing. They googled Anne Hathaway. If they were boys, they googled how to build a bomb. If they could get on the computer when their parents weren’t home they googled things they weren’t supposed to know, things like sodomy and lesbian and boob. Then they cleared the search history and googled hammerhead shark.

If they were old, they googled the things they had forgotten. Names of actors and movies, old sports scores and hurricanes, the vice president under Carter, the ingredients in a Manhattan. The hours of the liquor store, liquor stores open Sunday, directions. They googled things that had escaped them: the definition of “feckless,” a synonym for “regime,” most of the answers to the Sunday crossword puzzle. They googled remedies for burns and bee stings.

If they were lonely, they googled sex. They googled phone sex, cybersex, and sex xxx. They googled long-lost lab partners, old boyfriends, the name of their ex-husband’s new girlfriend. They googled cute pictures of baby animals. They googled the word lonely. They googled “distended stomach” “nosebleed that won’t stop” “numbness” “insomnia” and “cancer symptoms.”

The things they googled were determined by forgetfulness, by need, by desire, by curiosity, and by the endless availability of googling. In fact, there was no point in remembering anything except how to google. They didn’t even have to remember what they were googling: When they googled “When does G,” just that much, Google knew the question was when Glee Season Three would begin. When they googled pleonism, Google quietly looked up pleonasm. Google never made them feel bad about not knowing.

So they googled how to lose weight and pictures of psoriasis and checklists for diagnosing ADD. If they were pregnant, there was no end to their googling. They googled when it would rain and how much it would rain and when to plant their gardens. They googled the tides and the seasons. They googled sunrise and sunset. They googled births and deaths. They googled themselves, which was sometimes unsettling, turning up Boston Marathon times and class reunions and even obituaries not their own.

How did they live before Google, they wondered.  How did anyone know anything? How did anyone remember, while driving through Mohntown, Pennsylvania, the name of the young blond actress in the movie Witness who was from that town?

When they were hungry, they googled. They googled “recipe chard cannellini beans” “recipe apple gingersnap” “recipe rice noodle salad.” How to freeze tomatoes. How to peel and seed tomatoes. Can you add grated zucchini to  cornbread mix? What is that smell in my refrigerator? How can you tell if an egg is rotten? If one egg is rotten, are all the others rotten too? Best no-egg cornbread. Best no-egg omelette.

Best restaurant brunch.

Plagued by the disturbing familiarity of an essay they had read, they googled The Things They Googled, and again Google was there before they finished typing.  It was the short story “The Things They Carried” they were thinking of, the beautiful, heartbreaking Vietnam story by Tim O’Brien. Google showed them where to read it online, and some of them actually did read it, which stopped them for a while from their googling.

Now put down that iPhone and I will tell you:

The actress is Kelly McGillis.

Pleonasm is the use of more words than necessary to express an idea.

You cannot find the best restaurant for brunch on Google, though Google confidently pretends otherwise. But this search works better the old-fashioned way: on foot, by hand, with your mouth. First, you will have to leave the house.

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.

Which Hurts Worse? Sibling Revelry in the Emptying Nest

5

If you are sending a child to college this month, you may be feeling a little sensitive about the imminent outsourcing or termination of most of your parental duties. However, you are not the only person in your house to be affected by the upcoming changes. For example, since all four of her half-siblings moved out by the time she was eight, my daughter Jane has been raised as an only child. The darling of the entire family, she will never experience the ruthless machinations of a fully operational sibling regime. Our own began to crumble in 2006 when the children of my family lost their dynastic leader, my older son Hayes.

When Hayes departed for college a few states south, it took two cars to fit all his stuff, so his brother Vince chauffeured me and little Jane in my car and King Hayes followed in his Jeep. Vince was so excited about his learner’s permit. It was exciting for me, too, especially when he did things like darting into the left lane on the DC beltway when traffic was so thick Hayes couldn’t follow us.

“What are you doing, Vince?” I cried, and a few minutes later, when Hayes still hadn’t reappeared, I called him on the cell phone to make sure he knew the name of our exit. He answered me with a stream of recriminations, though he knew I was not driving and what had just happened was out of my control.

Soon afterwards, Vince got annoyed by my direction-giving and began shouting that I was crazy and he would never drive anywhere with me again. Right then, Jane began whining from the backseat that she needed to go the bathroom. “Now! I have to go now!” she insisted.

A gas station appeared on the right and our maddened group swerved into it. The boys got out of their respective cars.

“Dude!” said Vince to his older sibling. “I’m so sorry about what happened back there!”

“Dude,” said Hayes magnanimously, clapping his back, “it’s cool. I wasn’t mad.”

“God, Mom is such a freak!”

“For real! Let’s go in and get some beef jerky.”

In disbelief, I watched them start to head into the gas station. “I’m hungry too!” said Jane. Her main man Hayes turned around and tossed her up on his shoulders. “I’ll get you a snack, babe,” he said.

“Didn’t you have to go to the bathroom?” I called after her. Damn kids.

In the weeks after we left Hayes in his dorm, things were weird and sad. Certainly ganging up on Mom wasn’t the same. A two-man junta, particularly if one of the corps is Cindy Lou Who, is very different than three against one, or five against one if step-sibling reservists are on tap. And the house was just so quiet without the beatings and rough-housing, without Hayes’s famous game, “Which Hurts Worse?”

Meanwhile, I kept staring wistfully at the leftovers piling up in the fridge; I couldn’t seem to adjust the quantities I cooked for dinner, and Hayes was the only one who ate leftovers anyway. Not only did Vince revile anything encased in tinfoil, Saran, or Tupperware, he was always at band practice at dinnertime and favored pretzels dipped in Tabasco sauce when he returned. Jane, on the other hand, ate pasta with butter and cheese. She also ate pasta with butter and cheese.

One day I ran into Vince’s guidance counselor in the high school parking lot. “Vince seems so different this year,” she told me.

“Really?” I said. “Like how?”

She thought a minute. “Well, the other day I saw him in the hall, and he gave me a smile and said, ‘Hello, Mrs. Dzwonczyk.’ He never did that before!”

Wow, I thought. That is hard to believe.

When I reported this conversation to a friend who was in a similar situation, she suggested that some sort of gravitational shift was underway in our families. She had never realized how exclusively her family’s dinner conversation focused on her older son until he left, and they started to talk to the younger one. “Dungeons and Dragons is so interesting, once you understand it,” she gushed, aglow with her new crush.

How far can this go? I wondered as I stared at a plate of homemade sushi rolls leftover in the refrigerator. “Vince,” I said, “isn’t sushi one of your favorite foods?”

He thought a minute. “Yeah,” he said, “give me that,” then settled down beside Jane to watch “The Fairly Oddparents.” Well, well, well. It seemed Vince had begun to notice a few job openings around here: Eater of leftovers, friend of little sisters, greeter of guidance counselors.

So it goes every fall. The parents go around whining about their emptying nests while the little brothers and sisters move up a peg in the pecking order, unable to believe at first that no one’s swatting them down.

“Do you miss Hayes?” I asked Vince one day while we were watching a movie on television. It was exciting for both of us to learn that our television received channels other than ESPN, the official network of the Hayes administration.

“Well,” he said. “He hasn’t been gone that long.”

“But you lived with him every day of your life for sixteen years, and then he just disappeared.”

Vince looked around at the wide open plain of the living room, vacant of rampaging bison and marauding tribal leaders. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s what I mean.”

*
These days, the boys live half-way across the country from each other and are together only on holidays and vacations. As a college senior, Vince is four inches taller than his brother, an indignity which Hayes may be subconsciously addressing as he transforms himself into a solid wall of bulging muscle, accomplished by adopting the menus and workout routines of Paleolithic man. (If you have a 23-year-old son you have probably heard of this delightful fad.) When they do get together, they mostly just drink and carouse, old friends rather than ruler and subject, or even rivals.  I believe they indulge in an argument or two for old times’ sake, late at night after most of the beer is gone.

They are both much nicer to me than they used to be, though they still answer each other’s phone calls when they won’t answer mine and sometimes I actually have to ask Vince in New Orleans to call Hayes, who lives down the street, or vice versa, to deliver a message.

I keep a black-and-white picture on my dresser of Vince in a swimming pool at about age five, wailing into the camera with scrunched eyes and wide-open mouth. For a long time I didn’t even notice that Hayes was lurking behind him in the background, smirking evilly, until Hayes himself pointed it out, again smirking evilly. When I showed Vince, he seemed filled with nostalgia. He made the same comment Hayes had. “That’s it,” he said, grinning, “that was our childhood.”

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.

True Confessions: A Writing Workshop Confidential

6

In most occupations, if you have an accident at work, you end up in the hospital. When a creative nonfiction teacher has a little job-site snafu, forget the ambulance. There’s plenty of trauma, but not the kind they can handle at the ER.

I’d logged just a year of campus experience when I taught a boy and girl from Florida who’d been friends before college. He was a lazy loudmouth, she a quiet, serious type who’d been ROTC in high school. They were an odd couple as friends, but at least they had each other.
One day in workshop, Mr. Faux Gangsta read us an essay about the night he’d been babysitting the youngest child of a neighbor. Once the little girl was asleep, he smoked some pot he found in a kitchen drawer, then ended up having sex with the mom when she got home. All of this was described in great detail–I had probably written “show, don’t tell” on one of his previous papers. By the end of the story, his friend was staring at him with her mouth open.

“Yes, it was your mom,” he said, smiling broadly and waggling his finger. She bolted from the room.

“Oh Christ,” I muttered as I rushed after her, shouting over my shoulder that everyone, even the non-smokers, should take a cigarette break until further notice.

When the class is personal storytelling, going to school is rarely boring.

I was a child of 41 when I started teaching, pregnant with my daughter Jane. I had no idea that my MFA in creative writing qualified me to do anything income-producing at all, but when my husband’s college found itself desperate for someone to teach a scheduled writing class, I suddenly learned I had the credentials.

Though I was extremely nervous and sure I had nothing to say, I drew up a syllabus, ordered some books, and drove to Harrisburg two nights a week as my belly pushed ever closer to the steering wheel.  I began by assigning the students journalistic pieces, and that went okay. But when we started to work on memoir material, the class caught fire. As it turned out, I had a student who’d grown up living with her family in a bizarre rural religious cult. She was now a stripper. Another had racked up credit card debt in the tens of thousands of dollars before turning twenty. Another had lived through the horrors of high school as a gay teenage harpsichordist.

I had found my calling.

*

Believe it or not, back when I was a student, there was no such thing as creative nonfiction. You could study poetry or fiction, maybe playwriting, but it wasn’t until 1994, more than 10 years after I finished graduate school, that the first classes in the genre were offered. That was when people started realizing that 16th century author Michel de Montaigne and NPR commentator David Sedaris were doing about the same thing.

By then I had stumbled onto the form myself. My first personal essay, though I didn’t know that term, was called “How To Get Pregnant in the Modern World,” and described recent experiments I had been doing along those lines. No made-up plot or characters, no gimmicks of language, a voice very close to my own–what the hell? Was this allowed?

Finding my form as a writer was an incredible relief to me and the excitement carried me through dozens more essays and one book-length memoir. I ventured past humorous storytelling into darker territory: the role of drugs in my relationship with my sister, the sorrow of losing my father in my mid-twenties, my battles with weight, body image and eating disorders, the dream-turned-nightmare of the pregnancy that ended in stillbirth. At first, some subjects seemed untouchable, as I imagined the exposure I would endure, and the shame, and the complexity of getting these difficult, multifaceted stories down right. Eventually I learned to recognize that “don’t do it” reaction for what it is, camouflage and barbed wire around the entrance to the place you are looking for, whether you know it or not.

*

When my husband took a job teaching at MICA, I joined him there. Though at first it was all beer pong and raves and sex in the city, the essays of the art students eventually took a heartbreaking turn. A girl wrote about growing up hungry. Another had been pushed down the stairs by her father. Another had run away from home and was living off the grid in a national park on the Tuesday morning some hobo with a transistor radio told her planes had hit the World Trade Center. She called her mother for the first time in a year.

Absolute silence followed the reading of some of these pieces in class. Sometimes students were crying, or staring fixedly at their desks. I too felt panicky, especially after that disaster with the Floridians. I was not a trained counselor or even a good role model–did I have the skill to steer a group of young people through the waves of anxiety, emotion and judgment swelling around me?

By the time I got to the University of Baltimore, where I teach now, I had figured out my shtick. My students can write about almost anything, and I encourage them to be as brave as they can stand, to forge through the camouflage and barbed wire. But the class doesn’t offer therapy, at least not for the soul. Only for the story.

So, for example, it is fine to lay the smack down about your ex-boyfriend the psychotic control freak and the horrible things he did to you–or the cherished love you found making out with your roommate. But all you’re going to get from me and your fellow students is advice on how to make it a better story. “I don’t understand what happened that night at the Dairy Queen,” you’ll hear. Or, “Dude, you never explained why you even dated her!” The only way readers will be interested in the assholes these people became is if you take the time to show them as you first fell in love with them, wry smile, wild hair, bass guitar, scarred wrists, golden retriever and all. We have to fall in love too. And the only way we can really engage with the story of your betrayal is if you figure out your part in making it happen–how you played into it, or wanted it, or were too weak to get out when you should have. That’s a story people want to read. And if you can find a few moments of black humor, so much the better.

While I insist that we are doing craft work, not therapy, the students eventually figure out what I learned from my own writing–they are pretty much the same thing. When you write about your problems, you are in charge of them–they are your little puppets, instead of you being theirs. And if you can figure out your role in bringing them on–“self-implication,” as we call it in the workshop–you have taken a huge step toward freedom. This is what I hope for all the broken-hearted kids who have had to take my “love medicine,” for the boy who kept bragging about black-out drinking, the girl with the marriage she’d kept secret from her parents, for the boy who survived the world’s most protracted and ridiculous armed car-jacking.

Still, every once in a while, the needle goes off the charts and I feel like half the class is going home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Fortunately, once you’re in the memoir business, PTSD is just another thing to write about.

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.

August in Paris

7

If not actually an oxymoron, “family travel” is dangerously close. What you see if you visit Chichen Itza with the members of your household is the same thing you see in Hong Kong or Yellowstone Park: the exotic relentlessly crushed under the heel of the mundane. For example, the only reason I found to stay up after midnight in Paris during our infamous family trip of 2005 was the same as at home. Where the hell are the kids? And while it is true that I had spent much of the month wishing my family would fall into the Seine, once I actually lost two of the children, I changed my tune.

On the way home from dinner, 17-year-old Emma and 15-year-old Vince had jumped off the subway at the nasty Chatelet stop to find a club Emma had read about on the Internet. Had we actually given permission for this? “Be back by midnight!” I called.

Now, long past that time, I was standing on the sidewalk outside our borrowed apartment, freaking out. The Rue de la Tombe-Issoire was as silent and motionless as a hyper-realist painting, every shuttered pastry shop, every glowing streetlamp, every parked scooter pulsing with ominous portent. On the corner, the red digital marquee of a closed-up drugstore ticked off the minutes. 2:11. 2:12.

At what point should I wake my husband, Crispin? When would we have to call his ex-wife in Baltimore and tell her we had lost her daughter? When to go to the police? I gingerly began to imagine what could have gone wrong. They weren’t dead, I didn’t think, but they could be with bad people. Bad people in shabby apartments with no furniture, with smelly mattresses and uncircumcised penises, with lousy vodka and lousier drugs.

Vince was tall and sort of imposing looking, but he was only 15. Emma was small and vulnerable and, though less reckless than Vince, no wizard of circumspection. But part of my panic that night was that I assumed the two of them wouldn’t do this on purpose. Something had to have happened to them.

At 3:21 a white police van pulled up right in front of me, and three young officers, two male and one female, leapt out. Le Mod Squad. I rushed up to them shouting in broken French.

They looked at me like I was nuts and said to go the main police station and file a missing persons report. Then they went into the alley with flashlights, executed “la mission,” rushed back to the car and sped away.

Practicing for the post-August crime rush, perhaps.

Around 4, I went inside to pee. “Are they not back yet?” my mother-in-law, Joyce, whispered down from the loft. Now it turned out that both she and her friend Sallie had been awake all night. They had heard the phone ring at 1:15, when Emma called to say that they had missed the last train. Her younger brother Sam answered the phone; Emma hung up before I got there. I chided Sam about this, as if he could have prevented it, and the poor boy was beside himself apologizing.  Until I stepmotherishly snapped, “Stop apologizing, for God’s sake!”

While Sam had drifted off at last, his tiny, white-haired grandmother was tiptoeing down the narrow wooden staircase in her bathrobe. Life is tough, people are weak, Marx was right–these are the building blocks of my mother-in-law’s worldview. Much in the world does not pass her exacting muster. Lucky for me, she took to me as soon as she met me: a 40-year-old woman in horrifically short cut-offs (that detail haunts me), floating into her living room like a Macy’s parade balloon of mid-life romantic happiness. Having been hated by my previous mother-in-law, I cherished my good fortune. In fact, this whole trip to Paris had its inception when I said something dreamy about wanting to spend some time there, and Joyce sighed, “I’ve never been. And now I’ll probably never go.”

My own mother hadn’t been either, I realized. And though each of these elderly widows needed little help in most areas, it seemed Paris was my department. I had been several times, I speak a little French, I know a few people.

If I had planned a trip for just the three of us… But this simple, civilized approach never crossed my mind. I never thought of leaving my husband, or the five kids we had between us, aged 5 to 17, or my best friend Sandye and her four-year-old, and pretty soon Joyce decided she couldn’t leave her best friend either, and so we were 12.

I emailed a Paris-based contact to see if he had any leads on lodging. He offered me his place, because he, like everyone else, was leaving for a month during the traditional Parisian summer vacation. Though he had only one toilet and two bedrooms, there was a daybed in the kitchen. Of course we would fit! I arranged two shifts of travel, so we’d never be more than eight at once.

Unsurprisingly, Joyce took a dark view of the missing-children situation. I told her I had spoken with the police earlier and they said I had to go to the station.

“So go,” she said.

Wearily I trudged back out to the alley and pushed open the iron gate. I was only halfway down the next block when I felt so cold and tired that I wondered if I mightn’t wait until morning. I should get Crispin’s opinion, I decided, and turned around.

“Crispin,” I whispered, kneeling by the bed.

One blue eye opened under its gingery eyebrow.

“The kids never came home.”

He pushed himself up on one elbow. “What the hell,” he said grimly. Like his mother, he was quite certain that I should go to the police station immediately.

This is the problem with always acting like you are the most capable person around and don’t want or need any help at all. People will take you right up on it.

I arrived around 5 at the precinct. Outside at a guard booth were a pair of cops, male and female, both smoking. I looked longingly at their Gauloises, but felt that bumming a cigarette might not be best opening move.

Inside was a large, dirty reception area with three more gendarmes lounging behind a long counter. One was fat, one had a mustache, one was fat and had a mustache. They heard my tale–les enfants ne rentraient jamais!–but were unimpressed. First of all, said the mustache, there was nothing they could do right away–no phone call to make, no database to check. A missing persons report was a “grande procedure” and I should come back with our passports around 7, and plan to spend most of the day.

However, the fat one continued, les enfants would probably be home by the time I got there, because the trains and buses started running again at 5:30. Au revoir, madame, they said, executing near-simultaneous Gallic shrugs.

Back at the ranch, Crispin and Joyce were at the table sipping coffee. Soon I had weakly responded to all their questions and we fell silent. Outside, the sky paled to gray.

The Depression-era song “April in Paris” was written by Yip Harburg, also the lyricist of the “Over the Rainbow.” The words are, frankly, uninspired–blossoming chestnuts, singing hearts, etc.–but apparently the mere thought of April in Paris was enough to lift the spirits of New Yorkers in breadlines and to live on for all time as a symbol of romance.

Our family, unfortunately, missed April by a season and a half. Instead, we had August, the month when those who live in Paris leave and lend their apartments to others. One by one, the shops close, the window-gates are pulled shut, the chairs and tables are hauled in. Only the museums staunchly hold wide their portals as the city is given over to throngs of tourists. These are the people of August, people who dare not speak its name, because they cannot. What kind of word has three vowels and one diacritical mark before you ever get a consonant? Août. Really.

So far:

1. Vince had fallen ill–his throat swollen, his lungs congested. Never a stalwart sort, he lay moaning on the kitchen daybed as if on a Civil War battlefield. Reaching our doctor in the U.S. and finding an open pharmacy was a poignant throwback to other family vacations: Hayes’s horrific diarrhea in Mexico at 18 months, Sam’s ear infection in Jamaica, Emma’s impacted tooth in San Francisco, the headaches and digestive problems which follow Crispin around the globe and can be escalated to crisis proportions simply by leaving the Tylenol home.

2. The interpersonal tensions of the group were more than I could bear. One evening, just before we went out to dinner, we had a gloves-off brawl about the location of a particular Italian restaurant. It was me against them, Crispin, Hayes and Vince, and I was right in the end, but that didn’t help. The meta-arguments, as usual, were the killer: “This is your worst trait!” Vince said darkly, meaning that I argue so hard, which seemed a low blow considering they were all 100 percent incorrect, but by then Hayes had done the typical Hayes thing of changing what he had been saying so he was not actually wrong, which is his worst trait, and this move destroyed the fragile alliance between him and Crispin. Vince at one point tried to smooth things over, saying everyone has bad traits, but Hayes shouted him down.

These people are not very nice to me, I sadly concluded (again). And though we were not at home, I continued in my domestic enslavement to them, their clothes, their meals, their dishes, their rumpled beds. And all of this was my fault, of course, since the ultimate horribleness of one’s horrible children is that one has only oneself to blame.

3. Hayes did not want to come to Paris and had insisted on bringing his golf clubs, despite my increasingly hysterical explanations that there were no golf courses in Paris. Now he sat morosely in the tiny apartment, staring at his golf bag. One day we took three subway lines into the outskirts of the city so he could hit balls on a driving range set up in the middle of a racetrack. This did not make either of us feel any better.

4. My mother, on the other hand, was no trouble at all.  During the Italian restaurant imbroglio and most others, she repaired to a table in the bushes in the alley with her martini, her cigarette, and one of the seven books she had imported from her public library. Having passed on the task of driving me insane to the younger generation, she could relax. By the night the kids disappeared, she and Hayes had taken their flight home.

Around 5:45 a.m., the front gate clanged shut; Joyce, Crispin and I all heard it. We looked up from our mugs into each other’s eyes. Then we heard the soft chatter, the familiar voices, and raced out onto the stoop.

When the two of them saw the three of us lined up like that, shrimpy and exhausted, their jaws dropped. They’d had no idea there would be such a problem; only in the last couple hours had they even tried to get home. So we grownups filled them in on exactly what we had been through.

While Vince, who had been my son all his life, didn’t seem too concerned about the worry he had caused–just another drop in the bucket–my stepdaughter Emma felt very bad. It was rather refreshing for me to see the forlorn, apologetic look on her face. I don’t think my boys ever learned to make that face.

Perhaps more time would have been devoted to the aftermath of this crisis if another hadn’t broken in its wake. I received a phone call from my mother in which she used the F word at least 15 times, explaining that she and Hayes had been delayed overnight in Boston, then flown to Washington instead of Baltimore, and had finally arrived at BWI 36 hours behind schedule only to find that Hayes had lost my mother’s car keys.

By this time, stress had sandblasted every synapse in my brain. My primary reaction was, better him than me.

For our last day, I pulled myself together and planned a three-stop outing: the famous Deyrolle taxidermy shop, a top-floor restaurant with a view, a carnival in the Tuileries. We hit the Paris-in-August trifecta. All were closed, despite the assurance in my guidebooks. At the sight of the carnies taking down the Ferris wheel, the youngest members of our party burst into tears.

“Good thing we’re leaving tomorrow,” said Vince, “before they roll up the streets.”

At that point, believe it or not, it started to rain.

Ah well. Soon it would be September, and we would be back home in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, where the fact that everything was open for business and we had four toilets in our house would not make us as happy as you might think.

In many ways, it would be surprisingly like Paris.

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 Life on TV: A Cautionary Tale

16

If I had not recently become aware of hard-to-believe reality TV shows like “Parking Wars” and “Extreme Couponing,” my phone call from a woman named Jeanette who claimed to be the producer of “Ship Happens” might have seemed to be a joke. “Ship Happens,” Jeanette explained, is a new show about the shipping industry, set to premiere this fall.

I thought I knew why she was calling. “So…is this about the fountain?” I asked.

While visiting Austin, Texas, I had fallen in love with a four-foot-high fountain in the shape of Grecian maiden holding an urn. Though it seemed fairly reasonable at $385, I didn’t buy it because it would cost a fortune to get it to Baltimore. The store clerk had suggested I try posting on uship.com, a kind of eBay for shipping, where both professional outfits and people with room in the backseat would vie to bring your stuff to you.

I followed this advice, but there was no vying. I got a single bid for $894, then nothing more, until Jeanette.

On one hand, the call was a stroke of good fortune. I could have my fountain after all. On the other, as I told Jeannette flat out, I didn’t want to be involved in anything that might embarrass me or my family.

“Oh, no,” she assured me. “You would hardly be in it. It’s about shipping.”

The last time someone asked me to be on a reality TV show, I had to fight my whole household to get out of it. The show was “Trading Spouses,” where two completely incompatible families were selected and the mother from each went to live with the other family for 10 days, during which she attempted to reform them according to her diametrically-opposed beliefs. At the end of the ordeal, each family received $50,000, but they had to spend it as outlined in a letter left by the visiting mom.

“You’ll be the atheist family,” the producer told me, and our counterparts would be fundamentalist Christians.

My husband, both my sons and even six-year-old Jane just knew we had to do it. As soon as it aired, we would become America’s most beloved atheists, rich, famous, and sought after, with our own spin-off series. Like the Osbournes!

More likely, I thought, my husband and I would split up (I had already heard one remark too many about “hot Christian moms”), the boys would run away from home and little Jane would be hospitalized after playing with a box-cutter left lying around by the crew. And I sincerely doubted the other mom was going to let them spend the 50K on weed, cars, and the deluxe edition of the My Little Pony Stable.

Anyway, I knew from experience that whatever happens when you are on TV, the chances that you’ll feel good about it are slim. To get high ratings, television requires conflict, embarrassment, heartbreak, and scandal, and that, my friend, is why they invited you.

*

I lost my TV virginity on “The Today Show,” which I visited to promote my first collection of essays, Telling. In preparing me for the show, the producers explained that Katie Couric would not have time to read the book. She would ask questions from a list we’d go over in advance. That sounded fine. I would memorize my answers and I’d be all set.

“The only thing is, if she does read the book, she’ll nuke the script and just ask whatever she wants,” the producer warned.

Unfortunately, that is just what happened: She read the book, nuked the script, and what she was dying to talk about, she said as she whisked me from the green room to the set, was –HEROIN!

I was stunned. Dope was mentioned briefly in just one of the 30 essays in the book, it was nowhere in the list of questions I’d memorized the answers to, and as naive as it seems now,  it had never occurred to me that I could end up having to talk about it on live national television at nine in the morning.

And so the camera found us: Katie, radiant, smiling, eight months pregnant; me, with an expression on my face that made deer in headlights look like they were relaxing by the pool. She introduced me, said she liked the book, and mentioned some of the topics it touched on– having babies, snow days, childhood summer jobs. She identified with a lot of it, she said warmly, but … “Tell us, Marion, how did a nice girl like you end up doing heroin?”

I gulped and started mumbling about the 70s and 80s being a very different time, a time of experimentation, and um, well, a lot of people, well… “You didn’t do it, did you, Katie?” I finally blurted.

Katie’s eyes popped. No, she told America firmly. She did not!

Shortly after, I was on “Politically Incorrect.” Now this was exciting. I was with Martin Short, Jimmy Breslin, and Caleb Carr, the author of The Alienist. But during the pre-show chitchat, I began to see the problem. Short was funnier than me, Breslin more of a character, Carr both smarter and cuter. Why was I there?

I finally figured it out. I was The Girl. I had rarely been The Girl before, but easily fell into the role. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, laughed hysterically at their jokes, reacted with vivid facial expressions to every remark. In the final edit, I don’t offer a single witty comment about Whitewater or the new ban on smoking in public places, but every time someone else says something funny, there’s an immediate cut to me, rolling my eyes, slapping my knee, doubling over with hilarity.

Soon after that I was on a show called “Bertice Berry,” then known as the “Baby Oprah.” The topic of the show was family secrets; I was supposed to be one of the experts–maybe because my book was called Telling. I could see no other reason. This thing was truly a circus.

The main guests were Katherine Anne Powers, who had driven an SDS getaway car when she was barely out of her teens and been on the FBI Most Wanted List for 16 years. She had just come out of hiding to turn herself in. Joining her on stage were the members of a deeply inbred Southern family in which the sister was actually the mother and brothers were the fathers. Some were just finding this out for the first time.

The other expert was a pompous psychologist who tried to hit on me throughout the taping by whispering insights into my ear–“The death of the family is the resurrection of the individual, don’t you think?”–then boldly slipped his business card into the pocket of my silk blouse. My opinion on family secrets was not consulted until the very end of the show, when I was introduced as someone who had done drugs, had an abortion and wrote a book about it. (By now I understood that this was what my book was actually about.) People seemed interested but before I could speak, the credits rolled.

Still, I didn’t know how low it could go. I had yet to meet the mother of all Oprahs, Oprah herself, which happened after my next book, a memoir of my marriage to a man who died of AIDS. The day I was on her show, Oprah had a cold and was in a bad, bad mood. “Where’s my tea?!” she shouted at her minions. They scurried to find it. Shit, I thought. Could this be the tea I had drunk in the booth where I recorded the awful voiceover to my photo montage?

Yes, it was.

From the moment I saw the yammering throng of guests in the green room, I suspected things would go awry. There was a frightening woman from Montreal who looked like Elvira, black hair, red nails, spandex shirt, dragging behind her a petite, bald partner.  “He’s bisexual!” she explained brightly. There was a young military couple from Florida–he had cheated on her with a man one night, then infected both her and their unborn daughter with HIV.  There was a teenage girl who had made a documentary about her dad dying of AIDS. And there were many more. The audience, it seemed, would be composed of runner-up guests, to be called upon if the stories of the main guests failed to fill up the hour.

I had been told this was going to be a show about my memoir, First Comes Love. If I had any lingering hopes in this regard, they were quashed when I heard Oprah’s intro to the program. “TODAY WE MEET WOMEN WHO HAVE HAD THE EXPERIENCE EVERYONE DREADS, WHEN THEY HEAR THEIR HUSBANDS SAY THESE THREE WORDS: HONEY, I’M GAY!”

Most of the women on the show had discovered late in life that their husbands, clergymen and lawnmower salesmen, were into guys. Not me! As Oprah told the audience when she introduced me and my book (which she had clearly never seen before), we would now hear about “the strange life of a woman who actually WANTED to marry a gay man.”

“Why did you want to marry a gay man?” she asked with concern. “Did you ever have sex? Did your husband need to be really drunk to make love to you?”

“What?!?” I stammered in horror. (Once again: not on the approved list of topics.)

She repeated the question, and I thought briefly of hitting her.

Our one moment of “connection” occurred off-camera, when she took a close look at my periwinkle silk shantung Isaac Mizrahi blouse. Her face lit up and she asked me several enthusiastic questions about it.

This show was so boring and lifeless it aired about two years later and, as far as I know, never sold a single book. In fact, the only time I sold any books from a TV appearance was when I was on “The Today Show” a second time, for Rules for the Unruly, and Katie made a comment about the buffness of my arms. This was the highlight of my life, probably, and drove my book up to #51 in the Amazon rankings. It plummeted back to #1,098,394 when consumers learned that it did not contain my buff-arm secrets.

In any case, you can see why I was a little paranoid about “Ship Happens.” Could it really be about…shipping? What was the plot? According to an article in Variety, the series featured “the independent trucking biz and the strange cargo (goats, houses, airplanes) that indie shippers find themselves saddled with.” The article also noted that “Ship Happens” was a working title. Whew.

When I met my own “indie shipper” things began to make a little more sense. One evening, a lovely young woman with false eyelashes and a Victoria’s Secret figure clothed in a form-fitting turtleneck and jeans knocked on my door. “Howdy, ma’am,” she said sweetly. “Ah’m the Texas Cowgirl and Ah brung your shipment.”

Sure enough, a giant semi was parked in the street. With the Cowgirl were a cameraman, a director, and a production assistant, but they all stood aside as she and I dragged the heavy statue into the house.  Then I interviewed her, and found out that my fountain had traveled with a live camel, a grand piano, a guy who shipped himself, and a historic church bell. The Cowgirl herself had only recently become a trucker, when she tired of working indoors and started itchin’ for the open road. She had driven a horse truck as a young girl on the ranch, she said.

At one point, the producer mentioned that some of the “Ship Happens” staff were fans of my writing. Though I was happy to hear this, I sure as hell didn’t want to end up talking about my drug-laced literary productions, so changed the subject quickly. My goal was to get through the experience without saying or doing anything that would ruin my life, and I am still a little worried about that camera shooting from below us as I carried my end of the statue up the steps in my red sundress.

Tune in this fall.

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.

Don’t Sweat the Chicken Soup (Recipe Included)

6

Until you end up with a helpless infant on your hands, the seriousness of first-time parents looks ridiculous. Once there, you quickly grasp the problem. Your child could be hurt in any of 2.3 million ways, 1.9 million of which are your fault. It could even die, an unlikely prospect which will occur to you more than once a day. On the other hand, you could die and it could live. If you think you have little control now, wait till you’re dead. Should both of you survive, the seeds you plant with your early parenting will shape its entire future psyche, so if it turns out to be a criminal, a tyrant, a public disgrace, or just a miserable person, you will be Dina Lohan. Indeed, there are grounds for concern. The question is how to translate that anxiety into action.

*

I became a mother in my late twenties, which was in the late ’80s.  I lived in Austin, Texas, where I had fallen in with an enclave of New Age earth-mother vigilantes. We labored without drugs, breastfed for 18 months minimum, used only cotton diapers and made baby food from scratch. My older son Hayes had no sugar until after his first birthday, and I never left him with a babysitter until then. If babies were not allowed at an event, I didn’t go either. No way, baby-haters.

Hayes’s room, his toys, his stroller, his car seat: everything was chosen with consideration. Every decision, from immunizations to nap schedule to toddler disciplinary style, was the result of research and discussion. Television — NO! Black and white geometric mobiles — YES! Weaning and toilet training were studied like epistemology and calculus. And take it from me: You’ll never run out of conversation with friends and strangers alike if your child uses a pacifier, as Hayes did. This is something people really, really want to give their two cents on, whether they see it as a moral failing, a developmental problem, or a gateway addiction. As a writer, I had a whole cottage industry going with pacifier-related articles and radio broadcasts.

When Vince was born two years after his brother — at home on tie-dyed sheets, with a midwife who took the placenta away in a yogurt container — I raised him approximately the same way. By this time, however, I had furtively acknowledged the usefulness of Pampers, TV, and even baby formula in certain situations. As time went on, privileges long awaited by his older brother came early to Vince, starting with late bedtimes and PG-13 movies (PG-9, it turns out) and continuing through cell phones and unsupervised girlfriend visits. (Put a box of condoms in the bathroom and get an unlimited text-messaging plan.)

By the time of text messages, however, my righteous parenting had long been blown off the map when the boys’ dad died of AIDS when they were four and six. Though I did see a counselor a few times and may have speed-read an article about children and grief, this was not the kind of challenge you face by consulting Parenting magazine. I trusted my gut on how to proceed. Though I had a lot of scary fantasies about how the boys would deal with their loss, I soon observed something I didn’t expect: their natural momentum and healing power. I let them show me. And though the truth was messy and complicated, I told them as much of it as they could handle at any time. I worked hard as a mom but I also took shortcuts. Thank you, Burger King. Thank you, Kraft. Thank you, Kendall-Jackson.

*

At the advanced age of 42, I ended up back in the ugly white bra with Velcro-closing cups, thanks to my baby-freak second husband, who didn’t think his two and my two were enough.
Nursing was about the only way Jane’s babyhood resembled that of her older brothers. Breast pump, no way. Cloth diapers, ha ha. I’m not exactly certain when she started solid food, as her siblings were giving her French fries even as they taught her to play Grand Theft Auto on the PlayStation. She designed her own nap schedule; I left weaning and toilet training to her as well.

Then what happened? Oh, you know, the usual idyllic childhood, including substance abuse, delinquency and felony charges among the family members (cemetery desecration, car chases, ski trips gone bad), followed by marital war and divorce. Not quite as cataclysmic as her brothers’ dead father script, but not what you wish on your five-year-old.

Now Jane, 11, and I live more or less as roommates in our sweet little house in North Baltimore. To be sure, only one of us has a driver’s license and does most of the cooking and cleaning. That one sometime pulls rank and bosses the other around, forcing her to reach into her exquisite preteen diva toolkit to get revenge. Still, we have a pretty good time here, watching “Glee,” planning parties, taking dinner to the neighborhood pool, practicing her lines from the summer camp musical before we go to sleep with our miniature dachshund curled up between us. We will soon be able to share shoes.

Without a doubt Jane has a Leftover Mom — lazy, lax, full of excuses and in her mid-fifties for God’s sake. But with exhaustion has come a certain wisdom. I have observed children born of super-strict parents, helicopter parents, soccer moms, NASCAR dads, potheads, churchgoers and people who have staff members perform 75 percent of their parental duties. I have seen enough mental effort to solve the serious troubles of the human race poured into minor child-rearing decisions. And for those who decide differently: ostracism! scorn! jihad!

 

I do not deny that there are certain minimum requirements for safety, nutrition, health and hygiene. But very few styles of parenting actually blow it in this respect. The bigger problem is that there are too many unhappy, stressed out, exhausted parents who get little pleasure from parenting and are, in fact, about to snap. This snapping can go in many different directions and none of them is good.

The thing that gets undervalued in the quest to do everything right is the need to take some of the pressure off.  You have got to trust that you are the parent your child needs — like Bruno Bettelheim told ’em 25 years ago, Good Enough. Not that you don’t worry or you don’t care. But no matter how hard you try, you’re going to have bad days, you’ll make mistakes, and the best thing you can do is forgive yourself and move on. The reason anyone gets through major hell like my kids and I have faced is because we let it go. The reason anyone gets through a day that starts with whining, backtalk, shouting, curses, something wrong with these eggs, go live with your father, worst mother in the world, don’t touch me, don’t talk to me, cracked juice glass, awful radio station, enslavement to utter bitch, slammed door, silence and welcome to Tuesday! is because they let it go.

Jane and I usually rely on a simple hand on the knee to say it all.

Your inner peace and strength are your child’s greatest resource. This is not bullshit. When you’re okay, they’re okay. All the parenting micro-management in the world doesn’t change the thing that has the biggest effect on your kids: who you really are, in your heart and soul. That is the sky. Everything else is just the weather, the passing clouds.

*

No-Sweat Chicken Soup


Bring about an inch and a half of water to a boil in a small saucepan, adding two sliced carrots, two sliced celery stalks, and a cup of cubed tofu. After about five minutes, add dried-up square of ramen noodles. When noodles are soft, flavor with the “chicken” packet they came with or some more healthful bouillon you bought at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Add chopped cilantro and a drizzle of sriracha sauce and serve to husband as well.

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.

Desperate Housewives of Roland Park

16

On February 1, 2009, my eight-year-old daughter Jane, my miniature dachshund Beau, and I pulled up behind the moving truck in front of our new home in Baltimore, a sage-green rowhouse on a tree-lined street. As the movers began to unload, I went in to make sure everything was clean and ready. It was, except the basement, where a crew of workers were still remodeling a rocky, inhospitable cave into a usable room. The contractor had explained that the job was bigger than he’d expected and they’d probably be around for several weeks after I moved in. No big deal, I said. I didn’t need the space until both boys came home to visit from college.

I stuck my head in the basement door to let the workers know I’d arrived. “Buenas dias!” I called.

Within the first few hours, one of my new neighbors had stopped by with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and her daughter Julianne, also a third-grader. When they left, they took Jane with them to their house. So I was alone in the kitchen, hanging pots on the rack over the stove, admiring a nice frying pan the previous owners had left behind, when an attractive, loose-limbed Latino man in a knit ski cap came upstairs to fill a bucket with water. The minute he set eyes on me, a look of interest crossed his face.

I stepped to the side to let him get to the sink and his paint-spattered plaid flannel shirt brushed my arm. Our eyes met. His were liquid black.

Gracias, senora,” he said when the bucket was full, and turned to go back downstairs.

Como te llamas?” I asked.

“Humberto,” he said, flashing me that smile again before he shut the basement door. He had a way of gazing at me as if I were Aphrodite.

By this time, it had been over a year since my husband moved out. The only man I’d been  with in that time was … my husband. But now that was over; it had been six months since I had last driven over to his house like a zombie and thrown myself onto his bed, the vortex of sexual energy still swirling between us. Half a year, but still I’d felt physically ill that morning when I realized there was a woman at his house. I had called at 8 a.m. with a frantic last-minute question about some stuff he’d left in the basement. When he didn’t answer the phone, very unlike him, I called again. I called his landline and his cellphone about three times each, then texted and emailed. When he finally picked up at 10:30 and shouted, “What the hell do you want?” I absolutely knew.

Honestly I’d known since 8:01.

Have I mentioned the man’s initials are tattooed on my shoulder?

 

My marriage to Crispin Gallagher Sartwell, Ph.D. had ended badly, brimming with blame and misery on both sides, and I’d been unhappy for years before we split. But I had yet to untangle myself emotionally, and I still had either nightmares or sex dreams about him every night. I might never get over it, it seemed.

Nonetheless, now that he was with someone else, that was that. I had to move on. But what to do? Go online? Hit the bars? Beg my friends to fix me up? Start cruising the Central Americans in the basement? Or somehow adjust to a life without love, sex or passion?

The way I saw it at the time, only one of these choices was totally out of the question.

The way I saw it at the time, those were the choices.

Jane started school the Monday after we moved in, so I was alone in the house with the construction crew. Sitting at my desk grading papers, I was surprised when I felt someone standing behind me.

Que haces?” asked Humberto.

Trabajo,” I replied. I speak very little Spanish, but I was able to explain that I am a writing teacher. And a writer. I gestured to my books, sitting on the shelf. Something about the way he looked at them suggested that it wasn’t just that he didn’t read English. It was that he didn’t read.

Tu no lees?

He shrugged. “No mucho.

I pulled down a book whose cover shows a picture of my first husband and me with our baby sons. He pointed to my name and tried to pronounce it. “Mah ree on … Weeneek. Es tu?

Es la historia de mi primera, um, mi primera… marriage. Mi esposo es muerte de SIDA.

His eyes widened. My first husband died of AIDS?

Hace mucho tiempo,” I said. “16 years.”

He shook his head sympathetically and touched my cheek.

Most of our interactions were no longer than that. A couple of times a day, he found a reason to venture upstairs. If I was at the desk, he’d come up behind me and touch my shoulders or stroke my hair. If I was in the kitchen, he would just stand there and look at me.

One day, I decided to use Dr. Sartwell’s Amazon Prime account so I could get free shipping on some books I needed. This turned out to be the very last time I ever used it, because I saw that he had sent a copy of the Kama Sutra to his new girlfriend, who lived in New Jersey. I nearly passed out, even though I realized it was my own fault I found this out, it was none of my business and it was no surprise. I told myself to stop thinking immediately about whether this meant she was an innocent who needed to be initiated in the ways of the world or a super-freak who would try things I never imagined.

But — did we ever even look at the Kama Sutra together? We did have a bunch of crazy electric dildos and stuff from when I did an article on sex-toy home parties for a women’s magazine. I was thinking of the thing that looked like a rubber tarantula and fighting tears when suddenly Humberto appeared behind me.

For the first time, I got up out of my chair and turned to face him. He put his arms around me and I leaned into his chest. He was muscular yet soft, much bigger than me where my husband was about my same size, and there was a sweet unselfconscious quality to the way he held his body, as if he’d never given much thought to his abs, his pecs or his quads, which makes sense when you come from a place where hunger is the biggest physical fitness issue.

Our hug lasted a minute or so, then we pulled apart. “Tu pelo,” I said, looking up at him, running my hand through his newly cropped hair.

No te gustas?

I smiled. “Me gusta mas largo.” If this meant I like long hair, it was only sheer luck.

It went on like this for weeks — hugs, looks, confusing conversations — until I began to worry. By now all the other guys knew what was going on. Did they talk about us? Did he talk to them about me? What if they told the boss?

In fact, the other men were unfailingly nice to me, extremely polite and always helpful when I needed something. Every day, they all trooped upstairs and asked me if it would be okay to microwave their lunches, and we usually exchanged a few sentences about how great the basement was turning out.  At some point, Humberto stopped going back down with them to eat. Instead, he sat at my kitchen counter and opened his plastic container of food and his bottle of orange soda.

Que es eso?” I wondered. It smelled so good. “Tu cocinas?

No, he didn’t cook it himself. He explained that the ladies on his street sold plate lunches to go for the working men. “Ven aqui,” he said, putting a forkful in my mouth.

Having lived 20 years in Texas, I loved this kind of food. In fact, this food could be the reason for the 20 years in Texas. I showed him my jars of pickled jalapenos and habaneros and bottled hot sauces and told him how I love to cook frijoles negros and frijoles pintos. He wrapped up a bite of beans for me in a homemade corn tortilla.

“Mmmmm,” I said as the masa melted in my mouth.

The next day, he brought me a foil package of fresh, hot tortillas.

When Jane got home from school, I rolled one up for her with butter and jam. “Humberto brought these for us,” I told her gaily. “Isn’t that so sweet?”

“Humberto?” she said, eyeing both me and the snack with suspicion in her big blue eyes. “Is he your boyfriend?”

“No, silly, of course not.”

“Then why are you always talking about him?” she said.

Well, Miss Third Grader, that was a good question.

At this point the crew was almost done in the basement and began alternating my project with other jobs. One day, Humberto pulled out his cellphone and asked me to put my number in it. I couldn’t think why since we could barely talk to each other, but I did it anyway. Sure enough, he called me often. He said Hola, I said Hola, then he would say something else which I had to ask to him to repeat 200 times until we gave up. Then he said Adios and I said Adios.

Though we never kissed, unfortunate progress was eventually made on other fronts. He would run his hands over my body, but had a way of pinching whatever he got hold of that I couldn’t stand. It wasn’t your usual two-fingered pinch, but a whole-hand squeeze, as if he were juicing a particularly resistant citrus fruit. Finally I used Google Translate to look up “pinch.”

No me pellizcas,” I told him.

Pellizcas?

Como eso.” I did to him what he was doing to me.

He chuckled and pushed my hand away, but also looked a little hurt. No matter, I hadn’t gotten anywhere because the next time we were together he started doing it again. Had no woman ever told him about this problem before? No one would like this technique, I was sure. Didn’t they complain?

The truth is, I liked it so little that I was beginning to cool towards him. Yes, he was cute but the pinching delivered a message to me that nothing else had.

Really, we weren’t right for each other.

But to put it in Pokemon terms, the ability of looking must be stronger than the ability of pinching, because looking beat pinching in this Poke-battle. When Humberto called a few days later to say he wanted to come over and see me, I didn’t ignore it or pretend I didn’t understand, as I had in the past. I made a plan. He would come on a Saturday, when Jane would be with her dad in Pennsylvania. I’d drive over to where he lived and pick him up around noon — except for the bus, he had no other way to get here.

It took about ten minutes for him to give me the directions since he was saying Fayette but I was hearing Fie-jet, so didn’t recognize the name of one of the biggest streets in town.

The day of our date, I was nervous. Why was I doing this, if I didn’t really want to? I guess it seemed like my best chance or even my only chance to have sex, which I obviously had to do as a phase in my recovery. I put on black yoga pants and a stretchy, V-necked black shirt, and I drove across town to the barrio, where he was waiting for me, standing in the rain without an umbrella.

He was dressed up, sort of heartbreakingly, in an ironed shirt, pants of shiny, thin material and black lace-up shoes. Though I liked him better in the hoodie and ski cap, I appreciated the sense of occasion. When we got to my house, I offered him something to eat. He didn’t want food, but drank plenty of champagne.

With my laptop open on the coffee table and Google Translate running harder than a shredder at Goldman Sachs, I was able to learn many more things about Humberto than I had before. Such as, he had three kids at home in El Salvador whom he hadn’t seen for four years. And their mother — his wife? he was vague on this — had left him. (Actually, it looked to me like he had left her.)

The kids? Didn’t he miss his kids?

Oh, yes, he did.

This is a sexy conversation, isn’t it?

He was tossing the ball for Beau, which only showed how uncomfortable he was, since he usually treated the dog as some kind of large rodent. Despite the champagne, neither of us was the least bit bubbly as we trooped grimly upstairs to the bedroom.

He took off his shoes and lay on top of the quilt.

I took my shirt off — somebody had to do something, right? — but when he started some half-hearted pinching through my black bra, I rolled away.

Then he said, “No tengo un condón. He olvidado.

He forgot his condoms? This seemed kind of hard to believe, so we confirmed the translation. Condón. Profilactico. Preservador. Perhaps I should try to tell him that my tubes were tied so we didn’t need the condón.

Su marido murió de SIDA, no?

Oh, okay. AIDS. Right. I could have attempted to explain that I didn’t have the HIV virus but really, I just wanted to put my shirt back on. Meanwhile, he looked about to cry. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

Estoy muy triste,” he told me. “Mi vida — es muy triste.

Porque? Que es la problema?

Es mi hermano,” he said, and the tears rolled. He told me that his brother was trying to come to the United States from Salvador and was stuck in Mexico. He needed money to pay the coyote or they would keep him there. It was very, very dangerous, like when Humberto himself came he almost died. So, maybe could I please give him some money? He looked at me with tortured hope, his dark eyes wet.

“How much money is it?” I wondered.

He told me.

At this point, my eyes also filled with tears and I leapt off the bed. I mean I felt bad about his brother and I knew I wasn’t Aphrodite but this was really pretty far to fall.

Before I took him home, we sat on my front porch with Google Translate and had as serious a conversation as we could manage. I tried to explain how I felt, and to reassure him that I knew how he must feel. I didn’t think he meant to hurt me, but he had, and I didn’t have three thousand dollars to spare.  Also, I told him, you should never ask a woman for money in her bedroom. It just isn’t done.

He may or may not have understood, he may or may not cared, but it was time for me to drive him back to Fie-jet, where I would give him two twenties toward the cause. Then, if I knew what was good for me, I would close Google Translate forever and sign up for Match.com, where I might not find love but I would at least find people in my age group who spoke English.

Our new columnist 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. Please note: Some identifying details have been changed in the essay above.

Guides