Bohemian Rhapsody

Dinner Party 101: The Host on High

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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