Family, Humor, Memoir, Nashville, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Life

Christmas Onions 2000

My first Christmas in my first apartment alone, trying to be a big time grownup. I made French onion soup for dinner. I called home to California earlier in the day. I had read a scripture, I told my mom, something about getting my house in order, and I felt I needed to do that, which involved me staying in Nashville for Christmas, again, alone. She wasn’t convinced, but because she couldn’t fly out and physically drag me home, she accepted it. 

I was trying to be so adult. I was trying to prove something, though, looking back, I can’t imagine what. Was I trying to prove that I could withstand severe holiday depression? Was I trying to prove that no matter how badly I wanted to off myself that season, I didn’t need my family to help me not become a statistic?

I called my Hungarian violin teacher after I called my family. He was a big part of my life then as music was a big part of my life. I also adored his stories of escaping communism. Communists used to make Hungarians eat diseased cow meat and chocolate made from blood. Zsolt was also disappointed I wasn’t coming home. He was put off by my choice of Christmas dinner. He said, “Well, maybe you could float an ornament in it and make it more Christmasy that way.” I laughed and felt lonelier by the minute.

God I was miserable then—a miserable sort of miserable that radiated in waves across the country from Nashville to my little city Berdoo.

I was new to keeping my own appliances then, just as I was new to keeping my own household in general. For example, while I had used a garbage disposal many times as a kid growing up, I somehow never learned that putting onion skins down one is not such a great idea. By the time I had all the onions in the Christmas soup pot sautéing with butter, beginning to oddly smell like apples, my garbage disposal was filled to brimming with onion skins. 

I ran the water and turned the disposal on. It growled like an offended demon and the water didn’t go down. It began to spit up chopped onion skins in great belches, making of the sink water a slimy, stinky soup of its own. I stopped the thing. “That was not bright,” I told myself.

I grudgingly lugged my plunger into the kitchen from the bathroom. In retrospect, it is amazing I had a plunger given that, when I first moved it, I hadn’t realized until I was in dire need that toilet paper doesn’t grow on the roll. 

I stuck the plunger to the drain and plunged for dear life. More and more onion skins belched forth from the disposal along with other unspeakable things most likely from tenants past. I sucked everything out that I could. 

The water still didn’t go down. The chopped onion skin and unnamable goo mocked me as it danced its spiral around the sink.

I ended up having to strain all that onion skin and other detritus out of the sink with my bare hand, letting the water slip through, but retaining the chunks that clung to my fingers. I pulled the trash can up next to me and went to town. I think a year might have gone by. 

The sink came clean, the water went down, and the garbage disposal growled happily, its gut no longer sick.

I washed my hands at least three times. I washed the plunger. I raised the plunger over my head and made He-Man muscles. 

“I am the Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe!” I proclaimed to my empty apartment.  

“I am the Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe!” I shouted again just in case the ghosts I lived with hadn’t heard. 

I lowered my plunger and shrugged my shoulders. Shoving the onion skins down the disposal was not the only terrible mistake I made that lonely Christmas. Not by a long shot.

Elegy for My Empire, Prose, Still Life Prose

But for the Grace of God Go I to the San Bernardino Greyhound Bus Station at 4:00am

348s.jpgFrom the low, brown hills at 3:00am, urban coyotes sang and yipped their eerie cantata to the full Snow Moon as she presided over an inland California landscape decimated by February heat. The lean beasts are starving, I thought as I crested one of the hills and looked out over the wearily glowing city below.

Down in the valley, the commute crawled. Twenty-five in a school zone, it was all school zone. And what wasn’t school zone was torn up streets, reflective orange pylons scattered unreasonably, disaster preceding a fancy new city bus line that promised to proceed, expressly, from nowhere to nowhere. I reached downtown by 4:00am and pulled into the Greyhound bus station at 6th and “G.” The two corners opposite me were both weed-eaten lots upon which the ghosts of condemned early 20th century houses hulked, listlessly reminiscing to each other about the long-gone days of the city’s glory, when the scent of orange blossoms and the low whistling of Santa Fe trains permeated the predawn air. On the corner next to mine loomed an Economy Inn—the skanky rooms of which you could smell from the street. They did not smell of orange blossoms.

I awaited my friend.

I leaned back in my seat and yawned. The light from the motel sign cast everything in gold. The streetlights added a flickering orange. A damnation on this place of perpetual electric sunset.

To my left, a stocky, bald man in an Ozzfest T-shirt strode back and forth in front of the station’s locked gate. He smoked a butt he had found on the ground and muttered to himself between ashy inhales. His tennis shoes were white as the Holy Dove.

To my right, a teenage Latino boy rode a children’s bicycle to a trashcan on the corner and began rummaging through it with his bare hands. He pulled one store-brand cola can after another out of the bin and rattled them into a white kitchen trash bag hanging from his handlebars. The moon and the motel light caught each one as it breathed briefly in the open air, and cast their multicolor reflections on the boy’s arms. But for the reflections, the boy was dark. His hair, bicycle, and clothes manufactured from shadows. He was attired so as not to be seen, but I guessed very few people looked at him anyway.

Under the motel sign, a passel of brown-haired angels. Each wore tight yoga pants and a hoodie at least two sizes too big. Each had her arms crossed over her breasts. Each flipped her hair on a steady count. Each joked with the others—a stream of swears, gallows humor, how small that last John’s dick was. They were cold. They were obviously cold. In the afternoon, while they slept, it would reach ninety, but now, under the cruel Snow Moon, it was a biting fifty-five.

Their faces were lean, their hands thin and graceful, their legs slim enough to be easily broken.

I flicked my eyes back again to the stocky man still enthralled by demons and the teenage shadow who was on his third trashcan now. Someone, I thought, should write about these. That would be a great help—a harrowing social cry. Someone should write about these, because, “Who needs food when you have art?” say the artists who have never been hungry.

-M.

Nashville, Prose, Writing Life

Itches, Indulgences, Resurrected Love Affairs

curl_of_smoke_by_cuperdy-d4wy7e5I have indulged too much in black cigarettes. I have indulged too much in telling the story of how they remind me of a happier time.

Me, smoking them in autumn outside my favorite place on Earth, Cafe Coco in Nashville; cold wrought iron table; purple scarf from Thailand wrapped around my head; black and white herringbone wool coat wrapped around my body; one, fitted O. J. Simpson black leather glove on my left, non-smoking hand; my red, hard-shell computer case glowing with its white apple on the back, the white keyboard dingy with use. I wrote some good stuff out there. I made even better plans for the even better stuff I would write if I took the time I was taking smoking black cigarettes to lay words on screen.

I’ve remade my Cafe Coco the best I can in my California backyard—the only independent coffee joint I know of around here. I have an outdoor table that gets cold in the pre-dawn hour. I have little house wrens that dive-bomb the seeds I leave for them the way fat sparrows would dive-bomb Tater Tot debris at the Cafe. I have cold, over-sweet coffee. I have my computer, now hard shell purple, but with the same dingy keyboard and glowing apple. It’s too hot for the herringbone wool, but in the cold mornings I still sometimes lay the Thai scarf over my hair.

I have my black cigarettes as much as I want now, no making a trip to the special smoke shop next to the underground club with the seedy mulletted man behind the glass counter. The cigs sit easy on the shelf at the local 7-Eleven. There’s less glass in them, I can feel it in my throat. There’s less clove too. I lick the tips as ritual before I smoke and they are less sweet. Like a love affair resurrected out of necessity, some of the fire is gone. There is too much and too little. There is longing for something new with the same cold heat there once was.

I have indulged too much in my black cigarettes. I have indulged too much in telling the story of how they remind me of a happier time.

-M.

Love, Prose, Writing Life

What Bold Extremes I Have Inside

Sunset in Ojai, CA
Sunset in Ojai, CA

I have wanderlust and I have agoraphobia. I have the life of the party and I have extreme shyness. I have beauty and I have ugliness. I have back-breaking kindness and pitiful hate. I have a tongue for healing and a tongue for tearing apart. I have the darkness of smirking devils and the light of smug angels with halos bolted to their goddamn exalted heads.

I am a lover of the sun but a creature of the dark. I am built for it, physically, but I will pain myself with the sun in the morning on purpose because it’s good for me and I have an unholy love affair with it. My eyes reject it. My skin rejects it. But oh, my stupid heart.

I have gone for days before without saying a thing. I was training in high school and early college to be an opera singer. A bitch of a teacher in those college years once told me, “I think you think you sound better than you actually do.” Later that night, I crumpled on the floor in the music room and cried in front of the mirror. I walked home in the rain on narrow streets where the cars couldn’t help but splash mud up over my shoulders. I got quieter that day. The canary I held in my heart singing died in the mine, hung stiff, upside down on her perch, her feathers black with coal dust.

I can be happy. I can, out of the blue, say, “Weee!” when we turn the car sharply. I can take a friend’s hand and run in a random direction in the middle of a walk, and whisper, “That’s not us. Let’s go!” I can curl up in my bed in the heat, sweat in my blankets until they become stiff with it, blame my friends for abandoning me when I haven’t called them in weeks.

I’m always ending on a bad foot when I’ve got two good feet to dance on, when I’m alone. When I’m alone, I’m a freakin’ rockstar, baby. And sometimes, when the moon is right, with you.

Like that time in Ojai when we watched the sunset from the overlook in the park all full of blooming cacti and bird of paradise and new agers taking themselves way too seriously. And you joked I was one of them knowing out of my bare brain the moon was waxing near full in watery cancer. And I did a little dance for you in the parking lot—the dance of the groovy water moon while the sun set and the park was closing and god spit great gobs of splashy spit on us from above and you smiled and smiled and smiled.

-M.

Nature Prose, Photography, Prose, Writing Life

Sunrise: From Nashville to Berdoo

IMG_0625
Late Winter Sunrise: San Bernardino, Inland Empire, SoCal.

Today I am grateful for the sunrise under which I started my morning writing. In the east it looked like the heavens and earth were on fire. In the west the clouds spread in great pink streaks across a periwinkle sky. These are all common things to say about the sunrise, I know.

IMG_0628
Late Winter Sunrise and Hibiscus Flowers: San Bernardino, Inland Empire, SoCal.

I remember The Phantom Tollbooth and how one of the characters our heroes meet is Chroma the Great. He conducts the sunrise like music. Each rising color makes a tone or phrase of its own. I adore that book and I adore the movie and I adore the image. When I lived in Nashville I would sometimes (OK rarely) take a walk at this time of day and a little earlier. I didn’t have to worry about coyotes and other stray dogs trained to be killers there, not to mention actual killers. But in the hour or so before sunrise, I would walk along and look up at the sky and swear I could hear the planets singing as they moved both imperceptibly slow and unbelievably fast. It was as if I were a voyeur to their sacred praise of the gods and each other, crouched in the moist green, as I was, in a simple, working class neighborhood at the center of the Tennessee valley.

So I am grateful for the sunrise this morning and for the planets’ tender singing. It is wonderful to know they sing and praise and move on their courses everywhere, even over the concrete and brown grass, thirsty coyotes and other stray, unloved dogs.

-M.

Memoir, Prose

How Do My Breasts Look? (memoir)

go_cougar_womens_tshirtMy first boyfriend and I sweat together in my room with the door closed and his hand under my navy blue “Go Cougars!” T-shirt. I lay on the floor halfway underneath him, one of his creeping hands at the waistband of my white cotton shorts, the other pushing my shirt up. His alien fingers probed their way under the pale pink of my little girls’ bra that had been too tight for months. He didn’t kiss me. He gave me a hickey on my midriff instead and smiled, proud of himself the way he and his friends were often proud of their own farts. He got serious then and tugged at the band of my bra. I lay there bare-chested for the first time with a boy, still wearing my T-shirt that was now rolled up under my chin. He unceremoniously pinched my left nipple, then my right, frowned and announced, “Your boobs look funny.”

I don’t need a whole essay to tell you I never got over that.

In my later teens I’d stand sometimes in front of my mother’s full-length bedroom mirror and pull my Garfield pajama shirt tight over my chest and belly to get a better view of the curve of my breasts in relation to my other curves. I’d shift right and left—diagonal—I’d bounce, look back over one shoulder, turn around with one arm up behind my head, but I couldn’t tell. I’d pull my shirt up and wonder for a while at my nipples. I couldn’t figure them out either. Too big? Too small? Too low? Too pale? I didn’t know.

I once used a French class report on impressionist artists as an excuse to look at a lot of paintings of naked women so I wouldn’t look like a perv for getting close to the page, squinting at them, and comparing. One red-haired woman, all in fading yellow light, a royal blue wrap around her shoulders and her white underthings visible at her waist, appeared to have breasts that went at near right angles at the bottom—her tan nipples pointing this way and that. I thought surely mine weren’t quite as different as that, and even then, some artist found hers beautiful.

When I got older, I got brave once and asked a lover what he thought of the funny-looking breast issue. I should have known I wouldn’t get a straight answer considering his face was between them at the time.

But maybe that’s my problem—thinking “No!” kiss, “Not at all!” nibble, “Absolutely not!” muffled through busy lips—was not a straight answer.

-M.

Memoir, Prose

Envy (memoir)

Danny LeavesMy oldest dog—a red, hairy, shedding beast of a border collie/German shepherd mix will be turning ten this August and, at 50lbs, he still loves it when I pick him up and hold him in my arms like a baby.

He isn’t afraid of anything.

Whack him on the top of the head or his big fuzzy butt with a rolled newspaper and he barks, jumps, turns in circles in happy play, which it is.

He thinks his own farts are awesome—smiles a wide, bottom-toothy smile, spotted tongue lolling out the side like a broken window shade. Sometimes they make him sneeze. He wipes his nose on the carpet or, if I’m lucky, on my pant leg.

He isn’t afraid.

He isn’t afraid of the big blue vacuum monster either. He stalks it like the wild beast of mechanation it is, goes on the offensive, attacks with abandon.

I’ve had him since he was three months. I brought him home from the pound shivering a week before Thanksgiving. But I’ve come to the realization the shivering was an act to woo the weepy-eyed rubes, like me. I was wooed. I admit it.

He isn’t afraid of anything

He isn’t afraid because he was never taught he should be afraid.

I picked him up in my arms like a baby ten years ago—all six disingenuously shivering pounds of him, and he never had anything to fear after.

He lies on his back with his legs straight in the air and lets me scratch his tender belly with my toes, even if I’m standing up at the time—and my balance is terrible. And he knows my balance is terrible.

No fear.

No fear.

I think I’ll write this down. I think I’ll call it “Envy”.

-M.

Prose, Writing Life

By the Humping Doggie Balloon Animals, I’m Sure It’s Obvious My Poetry Reading Went Well

IMG_0517My big poetry reading was yesterday. I was so nervous I thought I was going to die or poop my pants, or turn around in a circle chasing my tail to the end of the universe and back. I contemplated backing out. I contemplated what the train ride and board would cost for me to slip away to Kalamazoo when no one was looking. But I saw myself in the mirror and the face that looked back at me said, “Oh, no you don’t.” So I didn’t.

I’m not going to lie. Smokey-smoke was involved. I took a puff or two, or five, before we left. They were little puffs, I told myself, little puffs to preserve my throat, so I needed a few more of them than I would usually have. My sister put on some Jazz to calm me down and, post-smoke, I walked around the house in my long, full skirt, swinging my hips, happy and relaxed, mouthing my poem to myself over the music.

My sister—ah my lovely, sparkly sister—did my makeup. We went for a 1920’s look, which is my look, but one I have no idea how to achieve on my own. I don’t know what magic happened there, but highlighter was flying all over the place and the time she spent on my eyes was akin to the hours Degas spent brush-stroking puffy little ballerinas. I came out with a slimmed face, big, big dark, alluring eyes, and Cupie lips. I ended up with a feather in my platinum hair.

My sister pinned a little button on me. She bought it for me in advance. It is red and white and says, “It’s my first time.” It was my first time, well, first time in a long time (almost twenty years… don’t tell anyone) and, Jesus, the nerves started to come back.

My brother-in-law took the twisty-turny way to the bookstore and the smokey-smoke kicked in again. I giggled all the way there and laughed uproariously at the view, at the drop, at the too-close-for-comfort turns. I thanked my brother-in-law in all seriousness for his coming, his driving us, his being such a good sport about having to go back in the house twenty-six thousand times when we were getting ready to leave in order to retrieve all the this and that my sister and I had forgotten.

I was the first to show up, the first to sign up—lucky number three in big black marker on an unsuspecting piece of blue flyer paper. We were there almost an hour early. Nervousness makes for punctuality overachievement. After I signed my name, my sister and I walked down to the dollar store to buy our winning lottery tickets. The cashier said, “May the odds be in your favor,” and surely the movie reference with a smile means we are going to win. (I could be sitting on the winning ticket right now as I write this, incidentally.) An old man interrupted the transaction to buy an orange juice out of turn, but when you’re in the process of winning the lottery, little things like that just don’t get to you the same way they used to.

My sister said this dude we talked to outside the store, who also claimed the winning lottery ticket, was flirting with me. I didn’t see it. It’s entirely possible I didn’t see it because I was being stubbornly vain and not wearing my glasses so I would be extra pretty-ful. We’ll call it that and choose to believe my sister.

We made it back to the bookstore, the reading began, and us in the second row.

A comedian started it off. His spirit was incredible but he moved his shoulders up and down too much. Good spirit, bad body twitch. Gods bless him.

Up next a mentally challenged lady, probably the most badassed among us. She read a love poem to Roger and used a funny voice at some point. She lit up my eyes. She made presents for the featured readers. She made cookies for the rest of us. She had to leave early. She said she liked my feather, or my tattoo. Either way, when I got up to read after her, she made me feel like the millions of bucks I’m about to win.

Then it was me. Me and my “It’s my first time” button. I got extra applause for it being my first time and also because my sister and brother-in-law were sitting there, a well-dressed and enthusiastic entourage. “I’m going to do the Naked Hemingway Poem,” I said and launched in. “And the way he looks at you is obscene,” I said, leaning on the “obscene”, raising my eyebrows, and I knew I had it.

I wish I could write more about my turn, but it’s hard to describe something that went by in two seconds. I can tell you I made the slightest little bobble, but picked it up without panic. Not a stutter, just a sentence that I had to rearrange a little to get back on track. No one noticed, and not that “No one noticed” that means we’re too kind to tell you we all noticed, but that it fit in seamlessly.

I can tell you I kept my eyes open and moved my head around as if connecting with this groupie or that. I can tell you I held on to the mic the whole time which surprised me and, next time, I told myself, I won’t do that.

Then it was over and my sister was woo-ing for me. My sister wooed and got others to woo also. Big, big smile. I flounced, or at least I felt I flounced, off stage back to my seat and my teeth were so big in my smile that they might have been seen as a sign of aggression by primates.

The MC thanked me and told me to come back. He doesn’t say that to all the first-time readers of course (yes he does). He was only talking to me.

There were a lot of other readers then. The featured readers were wonderful. The magicians, the comedians, the musicians, “Baby won’t you call me Daddy one more time…” all wonderful. There was even a balloon animal guy. I got to be his assistant. He made a lovely little pink doggie while I held the banana string of a purple balloon he would use to make the next lovely little doggie… then attach the two… humping. Because it is near Valentine’s Day, you see. Romance was in the air.

You just don’t top that.

The hardcore stoners were well-represented. One’s poetry came from his cell phone and was totally decent. One was a bearded hipster, had no poem to read, but wanted to tell us all how rockin’ we were anyway—how much our awesomeness touched him. My secret was I was among them, only if even a little. By that time, just enough to keep my hands from shaking as I held the mic and did my little dance.

I ended up with the humping doggie balloon as a souvenir. I ended up with a fabulous memory. I ended up with a triumph to stick in my dusty cap. I ended up with the beginnings of finding my “tribe”, as my sister put it.

I ended up being, for the first time in a long time, myself.

I smoked two black clove cigarettes when we got home. I earned them. That night, I was the black cigarettes and body magic woman that I have always dreamed of being—that I thought I lost.

I smoked those two black cigarettes and swished my skirts in the moonlight, decompressing with my sister until two thirsty coyotes, a mother and a baby, started to make their way down the hill.

I slept well. I slept very well.

-M.

Elegy for My Empire, Prose

End of the Line Berdoo (memoir)

350px-SanbernardinostnYesterday, on the train, I saw all the ugliest parts of the cities from Berdoo to LA—the Route 66 cities luxuriating in their own decay. I saw the backs of sound walls all helpless against the graffiti, like a tender woman with a black eye someone tattooed over to shame her, permanently. I saw the trash glittering in the sunset—white against scrub and brown like pearls of waste and carelessness. I saw fire from a metal shop shooting up into the darkening sky. I turned my head. The fire turned my head.

I was jealous other cities had prettier stations than Berdoo does, that they had more healthy bike-riding young women and man, that their passengers stepped livelier, looked less like shopping cart ladies, sounded fresher, dressed fresher, came from places and were going to places where they didn’t know what it was like for us at all—we who dwell, and don’t work, and close our eyes, and listen for gunshots at the end of line.

-M.

Family, Memoir, Prose

Unaffectionate Boy (memoir)

Natanon was near the last one to deplane and make his weary way through the Roy Rogers airport. He met us by the empty spinning of the baggage carousel. His mother sent him to us from Thailand to finish his education in the States.

He was sent to us to get a little time with his dad.

He was dressed in black like a cowboy villain, but almost bald being only two weeks out from a stint as monk in his hometown of Phuket. His father and grandfather hugged him welcome. He smiled, but his shoulders were drawn up. He and I shook hands. He smiled again, but looked down at his shiny, square-toed shoes.

Later that day with the family, eating fast food Chinese— a mystery to him—he slid his cookie’s fortune across the greasy table for me to read to him, his English still a little weak. I read it low-voiced like a mystic and, as benediction, exclaimed, “…in bed!”

His English and teenage hormones were just strong enough to make him blush, drop his head and silent shake his drawn up shoulders down, with laughter.

-M.