Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Reality on Her Fingers

My dad, divorced from my mother for more than ten years at that point, told me that what she really loves is jewelry. She has the bling gene, as we call it. That’s not what he said. That’s a little too clever, a little too kind.

She loves costume jewelry, but has a grounding in the real. Always reality on her fingers. On her left hand, she always wears a blue topaz ring she had made. The topaz is set in a simple, modern swoop of solid gold. It’s meant to show off the stone, bold as a blue diamond. The way she wears it, you would swear it was a diamond.

On her right hand, she wears a ruby set in a cluster of diamonds. The ruby is her birthstone. It is pigeon blood red. It is the best you can get. She had this ring made too.

She wears a little silver ring I gave her. She wears a simple gold chain bracelet on her left wrist.

A touch of reality around her neck too. A shy diamond set in another modern swoop of gold, smaller, more delicate—a stylized teardrop. It sits against a black backdrop, created shadow. The diamond is from her mother’s engagement ring—her mother’s first engagement to my mother’s father.

They took that necklace off my mom when she went into the hospital so it wouldn’t interfere with the MRI. They took her rings and bracelet too.

She had to be in the hospital alone because of the virus. She was there a week. I called her every day, at least once a day. She told me many times about how they had taken her jewelry. She told me many times she was sure she would get it back. She had faith they were good, honest people, and that she would get her jewelry back even though she couldn’t quite remember where they had put it in her room. It seemed she thought about that more than she thought about her infection, her surgery, the second attempt at her surgery, and what life would be like after.

She recovered enough to come home. Once home, it took her another two weeks to recover enough physically and mentally even to want to put her jewelry on again.

She fished it out of her purse. It was all jumbled up in a green, semicircular plastic holder that looked like something you would put false teeth in. All that reality. All her reality. All those gems.

She put the topaz on first. This was what she earned—her badass career—the woman she was before retirement—the woman who made male lawyers quiver and go limp—the woman who could afford a topaz like that and all that swoop of gold.

She put her ruby on next. This was the woman she was born, badass in essence from the start. The little girl who chopped down an entire row of bird of paradise in front of her mother’s house because she didn’t like the way they looked at her when she got home from school. She planted snapdragons there instead. Their fierce little faces were sweeter.

The gold bracelet. She fastened that on herself. She bought it somewhere borderline seedy while on a Caribbean cruise—her first. First of many with a group of globetrotting women, badass as she was, exploring everything, planting their flags everywhere.

She needed help with the engagement diamond necklace. I tried for more than fifteen minutes and couldn’t get it. The clasp is so tiny, I wondered how she ever got it on in the first place as her well kept fingernails are long and lustrous and mine are bitten to the nubs. It should have been easier for me having my actual fingertips to work with, but it was impossible.

She sighed as I handed it back to her. She looked down. “I don’t like to be without it,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how easily the nurse took it off.”

Finally, she slid the little silver ring with the created pink gemstones I gave her for her birthday on to her little finger. The ring had turned black. Something they injected her with had burned her inside, leaked out of the injection site, run down her arm, and burned off whatever real silver there was on the ring. This was before the MRI. Before the box. Before she was bereft of everything. Before it was all protected.

That silver ring I gave her—the timid whisper that is my life’s contribution to hers, turned black in her illness—she wears it anyway. Right alongside her gold and precious. She wears it anyway.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Natively Unquiet

Tell me about silence.

If you threw the Empire State Building into a raging sea, no one would know the difference. Deepak Chopra said something like that, advocating for meditation. I bet the people of New York would know the difference–their skyline sadly quieter again.

But not silent.

There is no such thing. Like time and god, it’s something we conceptualize, track our lives by, aspire to. But there is always some sound. There is always some imperfection. Our own breath. Our own heartbeat. The mortal body regulating itself as it slowly, calmly perishes.

And that’s not a bad thing. Humans will never be gods and humans will also never know silence or be silent. We are the creatures we are, natively, and we are an unsubtle, noisy lot.

When I try to be silent, movies related to the logistics of eternity flicker across the insides of my eyelids. I’ve learned (sometimes) to watch and not participate, like seekers of silence and stillness are supposed to do, but even when the films are silent films, there is still the sound of the flickering, still the hum of electricity to projector that bolts through the physical brain. The slapstick of memory and trauma and dream and inspiration plays itself out and I laugh. As silent as I am, as unmoving as my belly and throat are–still there is the laugh.

That’s probably the foundational sound of the universe–the breath and heartbeat sound even she can’t get away from when she curves back into herself to resettle before birthing herself, from herself, again.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Exceptional Vehicles

Let’s talk about driving. What goes unnoticed? What do we take for granted?

All you people take driving for granted.

I can’t drive because I’m legally blind and it is one of the most horrible kinds of crippling, or at least I imagine it is. Having never been an independent driver, I wouldn’t know.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a notion to go somewhere and just go. Cold night, playing Freeze Out like my dad used to do with us girls in the car—all four windows down, whoever rolls theirs up last is the winner—but with only myself as competition. I’ve never had to keep myself awake with only myself and the double yellow lolling out endlessly before me in the dark dark desert between here and Las Vegas.

I don’t know what hitting 100mph is like on that same highway, in the middle of the night, when I’m sure the CHP isn’t watching.

Yellow line, lulling you to sleep. Blaring the radio to fight it, Botts’ dots rumbling your eyes open again. The danger. The responsibility. The irresponsibility. The win when you get there somehow, miraculously, safe.

I wish I could stand somewhere alone that I drove to alone that I decided to drive to alone, and that no one but me, alone, would know about it.

Freedom. A grass is greener freedom as my side of the fence is on foot or riding the bus or in a cab or mooching rides from patient friends.

It’s hard to be independent when your broader movements are, by necessity, dependent—when, at the very least, the bus driver is going to know where you came from, where you went, and, if you ride enough, most of what your story is.

I sound bitter.

I am a little bitter.

No one to blame but the DNA. I was born wing-clipped in Southern California. Apparently my genetic material never heard the song “Nobody Walks in LA,” or heard it and thought we would be the exception.

Special genes do make one exceptional.

I am exceptionally half-sighted. I am exceptionally good at scheduling my errands around my friends’ errands so I don’t trouble anybody too much.

I am exceptionally blessed with the gift of the gab and, by lack of automotive freedom, have gained masses of unlikely friends all over the country because of it. There is not much else to do when you’re stuck in transit together, breathing each other’s air, than to become compatriots.

Rwandan refugee cab drivers in Nashville—that ride share guy in DC who asked me what color palm trees are—the Uber lady whose dog just died yesterday—the bus driver who wouldn’t take my ticket without putting on gloves first (she was new and we weren’t virus-stricken yet)—the disability cabbie who brought his family along at eleven at night to pick me up from work, his wife sweetly piping up into the conversation from the back—the Pakistani guy who asked me to marry him—the Russian guy who also asked me to marry him—that other guy who asked me to use my employee discount to buy him a coffee pot “for church.”

I suppose all of these, in truth, are my own kind of exceptional vehicle and, once-in-a-while bilious drivers’ envy aside, my clipped-freedom grass is brilliant green because of them.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

It Grows and Grows

Talk about disease.

It puts me ill at ease when my mom starts talking about my grandparents’ cancer—how they were dying at the same time, in hospital rooms next to each other. Lung cancer.

They smoked together. I’m sure he lit her cigarettes when they were dating. A sexy gesture. A sexy pull. Firsthand smoke to firsthand smoke. Breathing in each other’s breaths. Secondhand to secondhand. Thirdhand smoke in each other’s clothes. They breathed it in when they were dancing close.

Thirdhand smoke in their clothes still, even their clean clothes that my mother had to divvy up amongst relatives or donate after they passed. You never really can get rid of the smoke, the breath, the illness, the cancer. It grows and grows.

My mother’s marriage was falling apart as her parents were dying. My father was useless.

One day, after having worked a full day and spending most of the evening sitting at her parents’ bedsides, my mom came home to find that my father had put my sister and I to bed in our day clothes. She tells me he didn’t even bother to take our shoes off. That’s the part she couldn’t get over.

Unemployed and couldn’t be bothered to take our shoes off.

Unemployed and he would do the laundry at three in the morning with all the lights on in the house and Hank Williams roaring from the record player.

She wasn’t spending her evenings with him. He couldn’t throw a toddler’s tantrum, so he chose Hank Williams instead and, “You did say you wanted me to do the laundry, didn’t you?”

The cancer grew and grew.

My grandparents died and my mom got a divorce in the same year.

I once asked my mom if she was glad my grandparents weren’t around to see her get divorced. I asked her if there was some relief in it for her—in their passing. I don’t remember how she answered. I know she spoke, but all I really remember is the silence while she thought about it.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Prose, Writing Exercises

Lesser Sickness

Tell us about a sickness you once had.

My pediatrician just about whalloped my mom after listening to my lungs and determining I had pneumonia. My mom hadn’t believed me when I said I was sick. I had asked to stay home from school, day after day, and she pushed me out the door anyway, thinking it was just another case of chronic truancy, from which I had suffered mightily my freshman year.

I remember geometry class. I sat at a group table by myself and put my head down in my arms. I coughed and sweat and almost fell asleep before the coughing woke me up again. Two dudes I didn’t know walked by on their way up to the front of the room to talk to Mr. Wahl. One dude said to the other, “Why is she like that?” The other one said, “Because she’s sick. Can’t you see?”

Weird my mom didn’t see.

That makes me want to get into all the other things my mom didn’t see, but then we start getting into blind Freudian territory and I don’t particularly want to go there.

Tell me about your mother.

I don’t want to go there.

I’d rather focus on how I felt vindicated when my doctor announced I had pneumonia and not a case of the terrible truancy. One of only a handful of times I can remember actually being happy to be sick.

Speaking of psychoanalysis:

Have you ever wished you were sick, like physical sick, so you would know for sure what the hell was wrong with you? Have you ever wished you were sick, physically sick, so you would have a clear explanation for why you feel like shit all the time and a clear method to fight it?

Sometimes, when I’m very blue, I imagine myself in the hospital and…

I just realized how gross and self-indulgent it is to talk that way when people are dying of the virus. Why my mind didn’t go there first is beyond me. Blind Freudian territory again. Perhaps I’ve quarantined my head too far up my own ass to remember why I’m quarantining in the first place. It does things to the mental health. It brings a lesser sickness, or, in my case, exacerbates the lesser sickness that already was.

Truancy, I suppose, is a lesser sickness than pneumonia. Tough loving your children is a lesser sickness than ignoring them completely. Depressive narcissism is a pretty bad sickness, but a lesser sickness than the actually dying have.

The actually dying of the virus at hand. We are all actually dying. Most of us aren’t newsworthy, at least not to the nation.

This took a darker turn than I intended it to. Mostly I wanted to champion myself to the world that, in 1993, in the autumn, Michelle actually was sick despite what her mother thought.

Let it be known.

-M.

30 Day Writing Challenge, Humor, Prose

What I Did This Summer (Almost the Worst Thing I Can Think Of)

I moped around a lot. I saw Dr. Sexy. I told him I moped around a lot. He tinkered with my psych meds. We added more of the one that makes me feel like I have the flu for a few hours—the one that’s supposed to treat Parkinson’s but is not diagnostic, thank all the gods for that. It didn’t help—hasn’t helped. Summer is almost over and I’m still moping around.

I bought a blue lamp to help with my blues. I decided I get summer SAD. If that isn’t a thing, I invented it just now and that’s another thing I did this summer.

I bought a blue lamp to help with my blues because, being albino, all this goddamned sun gives me the blues. I get up in the dark and draw the drapes when the sun comes out because summer sun is brutal even through a window shaded by mock orange and concrete. In other words, I’m in the dark a lot. That’s another thing I did this summer: I was in the dark. A lot.

And my drapes are tinted maroon, so it’s red light all day and, as I am not a bat, red light makes me want to sleep instead of invigorating me to spread my wings and fly away, fly away, fly away. (I went to a Queen concert too this summer. Did you catch the reference, or did it fly away?)

So the blue light is to combat the red light of the no-light room I spend most of my time in, writing writing writing. Plugging away. Doing yarn crafts.

I’m making latch hook stockings for friends for Christmas. I’m making a wall hanging depicting foxes in a forest for a family of Foxes for their collective birthdays in November. I’m making a latch hook draft dodger for a friend’s mother. I’m making a penguin tree skirt. I’m making another wall hanging, this one of cardinals, for another friend for Christmas. I have no idea how to properly finish any of it, especially the round things. I’m going to have to learn to sew. That’s another thing I did this summer: started about twenty new projects and gave myself a reason to learn how to sew.

Of course, there is also iron-on binding and I could have merely given myself twenty reasons to learn how to iron in a straight line, but that’s not nearly as sexy, so let’s stick to the sewing thing.

My mother was in the hospital for a few days which meant I had to be a real grown up adult for a while—a real, grown up adult dealing with geriatric parent issues. I handled it swimmingly. She’s out of the hospital now and, as swimmingly as I handled it, I hope that’s not a stream I have to swim up again any time soon.

I ran for 25 minutes straight for the first time. I started listening to Dianetics. I did those two things at the same time. Abject nonsense takes the mind off how awful running really is and gets you more quickly to the place, post-run, of how wonderful running really was.

I told Dr. Sexy that I was able to run for 25 minutes straight for the first time. He’s a runner. Body body body. He was happy for me, but when I told him I intended to run my blue off, he cautioned me that the mental health benefits of exercise cap at thirty minutes, so I don’t need to run a marathon in order to be a happy human. I told him not to worry. I was never going to be a compulsive exerciser. Body body body. I’m sure he believes it.

I started this 30 day writing challenge. I started this essay for day 2 for which the assignment is to write the worst thing you can think of. This essay didn’t turn out half bad, but it has no proper ending. I could justify that by saying summer isn’t technically over yet and I could yet do more stuff, but I’m not gonna. Not having a proper end isn’t the worst thing I can think of, but it’s a lovely clunk that fulfills the assignment, so clunk. There it is. The end.

-M.

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.