Working It: The First Sexual Harassment Post or “Yes, His Name Was Dick”

Yes, His Name Was Dick

When I was a student at Stonehill College in the early 1980s, I had a regular part-time job down the street. I was a cashier at the now defunct Fernandes Supermarket at the corner of Main and Washington.  The area is now a modern mini-plaza with a mini supermarket chain called Tedeschi’s, a mini restaurant called “The Fresh Catch,” some little boutique shops, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. But thirty years ago, the Fernandes Supermarket was the main attraction, and I was a one of their first line cashiers, working 25-30 hours a week. I attended college in mornings and early afternoons, and I worked late afternoons, evenings, and weekends. I always had a lot of cash in my pocket.

I was good at the job and became one of the “courtesy booth” workers. Given the fact that I can be so rude, it was ironic, me in a “courtesy” anything, but I did my best (most of the time) to provide customer service to those needing to buy postage stamps, play the lottery,  or laying down 12 items or less on the conveyor belt.

Tuesday nights were slow at Fernandes. I could literally stand in that courtesy booth for an hour with no customers. When May came around in 1982, and I was sophomore at Stonehill, I decided I would discreetly study for finals while I waited for customers. While studying a book wasn’t very professional of me, I was 19 years old and not very professional. Frankly I was bored and had big tests coming up. I opened a big hard cover book of something: English? Philosophy? Required science for non-science majors?  It was well into the evening, more than 30 years ago, and I don’t remember exactly what I studied that night.  But  I read, I underlined, I highlighted, on a slow Tuesday night, as I waited for customers.

Dick probably saw himself like this guy

Dick probably saw himself like this guy

We had many different front end managers. Mr. Reardon was our main store manager and at night, there was a rotation of men (all men). Tuesday night was Dick’s night. Dick was a tall, awkward, gawky guy, in his early 30s, I would guess, with light brown hair, a left over mustache from the hairy 1970s,  and with a mildly bucked tooth smile. Had he been a good guy, I might have considered his face pleasant. Because he was such an asshole, he impressed me as goofy verging on ugly. Of course, ugly or good looking don’t matter when someone harasses you.

His personality made him look more like this guy.

His personality made him look more like this guy.

“What are you doing with that book?” Dick asked.

“I’m studying for finals,” I said. Don’t think I was a nice, sweet girl trying to explain myself. I was 19 and full of sarcasm.

“Put the book away. You’re at work.” He wasn’t wrong.

“No. Why should I? There’s no one here, Dick, and no one can see the book, anyway, unless they come into the booth.” He’d come into the booth.

“Put it away.”

“No.” And so I didn’t.  Only a 19-year old who doesn’t really need a job could be that brazen. I felt I could speak to Dick that way because our relationship hadn’t been all bad. He’d admired the way I’d handled a difficult fellow employee when I told her, “What works for me is I pretend to be normal. I say normal things. I do normal things. Although I feel like I’m faking at first, eventually, I start to feel normal.”

“You should be a psychology major,” he’d said. I thought he liked me and was just giving me shit about studying in the courtesy booth.

I don’t know if it was that Tuesday night or another night when Dick was managing, but sometime after that incident, he managed to corner me in the fake “office” with no actual ceiling, just the supermarket ceiling so high above. Or maybe it did have a ceiling but for some reason, I remember it only as walls with the color green. We were the last two left in the store and I had just finished counting my drawer. I was preparing to leave. He walked toward me. I had no idea he was walking “at” me.

“I’ll see you next week,” I started to say, and all of a sudden, all 6 feet plus of his tall lanky body was pressing against mine and I had my back supported by the back wall of the makeshift office.

I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember what he said. How I wish I did. I don’t remember a lot of fear, but a little of it. I didn’t believe he would really do anything more than what he was doing. Maybe he would try to kiss me. Maybe he would fondle my breasts or try to squeeze my ass. Maybe he did. It didn’t go too far because if it had I would have been traumatized. But the idea of more, such as a rape, seemed inconceivable. We were standing in the middle of a supermarket with cereal and produce and frozen peas right outside the walls. The florescent lights were bright as hell.

At the time, I thought Dick did this because he found me attractive. I was only mildly attractive. I did understand when the fear started to creep in, when he didn’t let me go after the 1st or 2nd or 3rd request, that his actions were about power. Still, I thought it was about attraction AND power. All these decades later I know this was about anger and power. I had angered him when I defied him about closing my books. Perhaps on other occasions when I disrespected him, as we all did.

I also don’t remember how I got away, but I did. He didn’t keep me pinned for too long. Maybe he’d hoped I would respond in kind rather than indicate I wanted him to leave me alone. Maybe in his head, he was “coming on to me” and not harassing me. 

As a young worker in a supermarket, back in the day, I wasn’t aware of sexual harassment issues or laws. Several years later, I would become aware, and take mandatory training in the issues surrounding sexual harassment, after I finished college and eventually began a career working in corporate America.

Back then, I told Steve, another assistant manager, what had happened. Steve was a street smart guy, who treated us all with respect.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, or something to that effect. Perhaps I was more frightened than I recall. I must have been afraid to spend another Tuesday night as the last shift cashier with Dick.

“It will never happen again,” Steve promised. And indeed, it never happened again. I can only imagine Steve spoke with Dick. Dick probably denied doing anything wrong and Steve probably said, “I’ll break your fucking legs if I ever hear you laid another hand on Cindy or anyone.”

That is how we took care of sexual harassment at Fernandes in 1982,  by having a tougher guy talk to the other guy. Eventually, Dick was fired when it became known that each Tuesday night, he exited the supermarket with a cart full of unpaid groceries. 

If you have a sexual harassment story you are willing to share, please do. I realize for many, this is a traumatic experience, and in my own particular case here, I didn’t suffer trauma. I have been lucky in that the times I’ve experienced harassment (and there have been a few), it never went so far as to affect my life or career or my state of well-being. I know for others, the opposite is the case. 

Posted in 1980s, Harassment, Work | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Working it

The other day I was walking down the long aisle at work. I work in a cubicle environment capable of seating 300 people per floor. I can’t say how many cubicles are on the my floor, since it’s been years since anyone made me count them (yes, I once had a job that included counting and taking inventory of cubicles) but it’s daunting to look from one end of the floor to the other.

image

This is only about half the hallway. It’s at least twice as long.

I experience existential moments these days, as I traverse the long perimeter and wonder: What is the meaning of life? How did I get here? Do I really spend the best days and years of my life sitting in a square box made of wood and fabric, my ass plunked down in an ergonomic, high end plastic office chair, alongside 300 other people doing the same thing? I don’t mean doing the same jobs, but existing similarly in this cubicle environment?

This could have been me but I have no musical talent.

This could have been me but I have no musical talent.

Wasn’t I supposed to be a rock star? Remember when you were little, Cindy, singing into the handle of the Hoover vacuum, which reached your mouth perfectly as a fake microphone, belting out “It never rains in southern California, but girl, let me warn you, it pours, man it pours?”  Come on, I was eight. I even took up the guitar at age 11, but I kind of sucked. I was also aware that I couldn’t sing for shit. But I could fantasize.  Then I started to write in my teens and thought: I’ll be a famous writer! Oh, yes, yes, that one. I was a pretty good writer. But pretty good is a long way from GREAT, ASTOUNDING, ORIGINAL, BRILLIANT. I’m still a pretty good writer, even with a few publications to my credit, but not famous, not brilliant, etc.

This is how the hallway looks by the end of the week.

This is how the hallway looks by the end of the week.

A college professor? When I was younger, I thought, yes, the perfect marriage of my writing interests and my academic interests. But after that first master’s degree, I didn’t want to be broke for another 5 years getting a Ph.D. with no promise of a teaching job, so I sucked it up and began my career in “business.” I was 28. I’ve spent the last 25 years of my working life “doing things” in the cubicle-d world of business. 

I actually don’t mind the cubicles. I have had offices here and there throughout my years of working and have often felt isolated and depressed in them. I thrive on the activity of others around me. I think thriving in such an environment depends on temperament, what kind of job you are doing, how much you get paid, and whether your co-workers and bosses are good people or assholes. I’ve experienced all variations. Right now, I’m in a good place. I cannot mention where I work and would appreciate if you didn’t either as I want to keep a separate existence between my writing and my “paying” job.  However, when I talk about past jobs in future posts, I will name the places.

What I would like most is to hear from you. Tell me about your work experiences. And by work, I mean anything you consider work – past, present, future. You might work in an office or work at home or be a homemaker, a mother, a stay at home dad. I want to hear your stories. Please comment here and tell me.  Let’s talk! Thank you.

Posted in Fantasies, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

What Do I Have in Me?

20141224_002730503_iOSMia is my little 8-pound cat who I adopted, along with her son, Timmy, in 2011. From the start, it was clear that Timmy was the outgoing, affectionate animal, curling up on my chest, leaning his backside against my neck, and purring himself to sleep. Mia would let me touch her, sometimes. I could pat her, sometimes. It depended on how defensive she was feeling. She was not an unfriendly cat, just not very affectionate, not very trusting of the human touch.

Four years have passed since I brought these cats home, and now Mia loves affection. She will push her body into my hands and arms when I sit on the floor with her. Her purr is loud and wonderful. She will meow at me until I pick her up and kiss her head and cheeks. Again, her purr is loud and wonderful. The other day, while she was pushing herself into my arms, she performed one of those adorable signature kitty moves: She plopped on her back and exposed her belly with her paws curled in the air. The purr: loud and wonderful.

My mother was watching and said, “I didn’t think she had it in her.”

Still, Mia has her emotional and physical boundaries. When she has had enough, she swats at you with her paws. She does not hurt you, but make no mistake, she’s telling you she’s had enough.

Tonight after work, and after a swim at the local sports club, I ate dinner: a perfectly roasted chicken, red roasted potatoes, carrots, broccoli with fresh melted deli cheese, brown rice with dried cranberries, and cranberry sauce, fresh, prepared with an apple. I cooked all of these items myself. The chicken was spiced deliciously with fresh onions, garlic, orange and green peppers, and Goya Adobo, a mix of salt, pepper, garlic and turmeric. Some olive oil to baste it. The chicken meat was moist and nearly addictive. The brown rice with cranberries was a treat and the broccoli tasted delectable. Who knew broccoli could taste that good? The cranberry sauce was chilled and zesty and refreshing.

This was not just one of the best meals I have ever cooked, but one of the best meals I have ever eaten.

I didn’t think I had it in me.

My mother always cooked. She stopped cooking sometime last year, several months after being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, when the pots and casserole dishes became too heavy to pick up, like leaden weights hanging off her stick arms. Her arthritic fingers no longer able to grip. She lost most of her appetite. She can no longer pick up a 9 pound chicken, handle it, spice it, place it in a 5 pound Pyrex and get it into the oven. That’s my job now.

Except for a few forays on my own in my younger years, I have always lived with my mother or her with me. Who lives with whom is a matter of perspective and not all that important. I have spent my life with my mother, and perhaps that is one reason for my failures at romantic relationships, my strange commitment to her, leaving me noncommittal to whomever I have dated. That’s one reason. I’m sure I could come up with a few other equally fucked up reasons for my failures in relationships.

Let's Dance, put on your red shoes and dance...

No weddings in my future, just a cat or two or three

A successful, romantic relationship that lasts more than a year is not something I have in me, not now, maybe someday, maybe not.

Still, I am happy to say that one positive that has come out of my long-term relationship with my mother, and even out of her illness, is my new ability to cook – and to cook well. That’s one thing I’m sure have in me, which I never knew I had.

Meanwhile, Mia and I will make known our boundaries, growing wider, not yet wide enough, as we struggle with the intimate relationships in our lives.

Posted in Aging, Caring for parents, Cats, Cooking, Food | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Broken things

The Broken PlateThe mirror in my upstairs bathroom medicine chest almost fell on my head. The mirror is separated into thirds, with each third opening when you push it, screws holding the turning mechanisms together, and  magnets holding the doors closed when pushed. Personal things are hidden behind the mirrors: antiperspirant, several tubes, half-used, of anti-itch cream, for a variety of uses, expired, floss, gauze pads, band aids, and items I am unable to recognize after 12 years of storage in this medicine chest. It’s just one more area that I need to purge of uselessness.  One of these mirror doors almost fell on my head  because the cabinet is stuffed to the gills; technically, the leftmost mirror popped out. Talk about potential bad luck. I was having trouble closing the mirror against the chest, and I pushed too hard one day. (Oh, the metaphors for life that come to mind based on mirrors, pushing too hard, useless items stuffed inside, etc.)  I could feel the mirror falling and was able to catch it before it broke my skull. The mirror is still whole and sits beside the vanity, with the screw that broke off the hinge on the floor. My orange and white tomcat likes to play with the broken screw. He does this while I pee. I watch him and wonder when will have the energy to fix the medicine chest. Do I even have the skills?

I’ve been able to superglue the screw and hinge together with great success; however, every time I try to re-install the mirror in the vanity, the top screw breaks off again. You see, there is not enough room to fit the bottom and top into the grooves with both screws in place. In other words, I am taking the wrong approach, trying to squeeze this thing in and breaking it over and over. (Why do I feel as though I am somehow discussing my romantic life here?) I need to come up with a more creative (and less lazy) solution. I have one in mind. I will spare you for the moment.

Speaking of broken things. I wrote an essay while I was a student in the Solstice MFA program in creative writing of Pine Manor College entitled, “This Time I Fell in Love with the Daughter.” The essay is essentially my coming out story between the ages of 18 and 24, the longing and struggles I faced in the 1980s, and the eventual revelation that I was a lesbian. The essay is about broken friendships, broken hearts, and broken people, so I find it apt that the essay has been accepted for publication by The Broken Plate, the national literary journal of Ball State University.

For some people, this is an uncomfortable essay because it is raw and vulnerable. Yet it has done well out there in literary journal land where 95% of my work gets rejected, with the venerable Gertrude Journal writing to let me know the essay reached the finals and that they saw much promise in my writing. Please continue to submit, etc.  I think there were some other “good” rejections for this essay. I’m thrilled, however, that the students of Ball State University have chosen this essay for their publication. Thank you very much.

“This Time I Fell in Love with the Daughter,” is the sixth of eleven standalone essays from my final creative thesis at the Solstice MFA program. There is a final chapter to the thesis, but I don’t believe it is standalone, so I can safely say I’ve published more than half of that thesis. The thesis is all about broken things — parents, lovers, friendships, sex, hearts. I keep trying to finish it, as it could be a full length book. I keep changing the name of the book based on my mood. Right now I’m calling it Marcella Songs: Essays on Valiant Failures in Love.” It’s all about shattered mirrors.

There is a lot broken in our society and around the world these days. I don’t have to tell you if you read the news or the pseudo news on Facebook. Part of me would like to jump into the fray and the arguments, but I cannot. I get too angry and I alienate people. So I don’t discuss politics much, but I continue to think of myself as a writer and hope my personal stories somehow achieve a universal theme and make a tiny dent in improving something in this world, any little thing.

I did get the third of the mirror back in place. It took extra effort, not something I’m known for these days, as my workouts wane, my writing production is in the toilet, and my performance at work is only mediocre. Still, I brought a step-ladder into the bathroom and had to glue the broken pieces while I held them in place where they belonged, rather than trying to squeeze something in a space it couldn’t squeeze. (“I held them in place where they belonged,” again, ripe with metaphoric possibilities, but I suck at metaphor.) So, the mirror is back up and functional (to a degree), chipped a bit in one corner where I had manhandled it, and not fitting exactly as before. It’s still broken, but it got up again.

Thank you for reading about broken things.

 

 

Posted in Creative Nonfiction, Creative writing, Essays, falling in love, lesbianism, Memoirs, MFA Programs, publishing, Reading, Solstice MFA Pine Manor College, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A little Halloween tale

HandbagsDress Me Up and Send Me Out

from my chapbook, What’s in a Butch’s Purse and Other Humorous Essays, Winged City Chapbook Press, 2014.

The Toledo Blade, October 18, 1967*

 “Halloween Costumes. All rayon, full length. Generous bright colors. Each with molded vinyl face mask. Choose from Devil, Astronaut, Princess, Skeleton, Witch, etc. 69 cents each.”

When I was a kid in the 1960s, I sported drugstore-shelf Halloween costumes that my mother bought me each year – green-faced monster shirts, wicked witch dresses, super hero red capes, and in a rare femme moment, Lucy from Peanuts hopped up in a blue skirt. The costumes were made from rayon material that that would crack in my hands if it got too cold out, which it usually did on Halloween night in New England.

The costumes came complete with a molded vinyl painted mask and an attached elastic band to hold it on around the back of my head. The face masks resembled Yogi Bear, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Superman, Batman or Casper the Friendly Ghost. Forget all the high tech shit and specialized costume boutiques you can find these days. Forget artistically making up your face with grease paints. I grew up in The Age of Rayon and such cheapo costumes were my Halloween get-ups.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire 1960s outfit was highly flammable and made of noxious chemicals straight from the Monsanto plant. I’m surprised I didn’t burn to the ground since nearly all the parents smoked back then. One errant match and poof: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Elmer Fudd dynamited to cartoon heaven, nothing left of the Wicked Witch but a puddle of green gunk.

Daily News, October 9th, 1968*

“Flame Retardant Halloween Costumes, sizes tiny 3 to 5, plus small, medium, large. Both cute and spooky, animals and characters. All have well ventilated masks. 99 cents.

I donned these costumes over my regular clothes. You were a total goof if you put on a winter jacket to keep warm. Yet I recall as a young child doing that very thing – pulling a big winter coat over my Felix the Cat costume, or rather, my mom pulling the coat over me to keep me warm.  My neighborhood friends, too, had been bundled in winter coats by their moms, the whole lot of us looking like a tiny squadron of geeks. We all wondered: What was the point of the costume if it was hidden behind winter jackets?

When we were a little older and allowed to trick or treat through the neighborhood without parental supervision, we flung our jackets behind the bushes determined to exhort the full trick-or-treat terror upon our neighbors, scare them shitless with our rayon pants and jerseys and plastic molded masks filling with carbon dioxide.

The spit started to roll down our chins from breathing into the masks. We tried to limit how often we lifted the masks up (so we could breathe) and let them hang on top of our heads, because we would be ruining the spooky effect of the 69 cent costume, or if our mothers had really splurged, the 99 cent costume with the supposedly better ventilated mask.

“I still can’t breathe, Ken.”

“Just keep the mask on, Cindy.”

“I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Come on, it’s just a few more houses!”

Ultimately, we were left inhaling back all of the air we’d just breathed out. The masks had little ovals for your eyes and a little round hole for your mouth, maybe two nostrils dug out. But the things never fit our faces, so there we were breathing our oxygen and carbon dioxide mix back and forth behind the mask. We started to feel a little lightheaded, a little trippy. This was the 1960s.

I have yet to mention the cars to look out for on those Halloween nights as we walked along darkened streets, a bunch of little kids with Halloween bags and dressed in oxygen-deprived masks and flammable costumes. Teenagers drove by throwing eggs, spraying shaving cream all over the driveways, and screaming out of their hippie vans, “Happppyyyyyy Halloooooweeeen!” High on pot, LSD?  Who knows? How could they see us in the dark in our little store-bought get-ups?

Newspaper Ad, October 8th, 1969*

 Masks 59 cents each. Character and animal faces glow when lit by the light in the dark for safety!

As we made our way through the treacherous Halloween night, we held tight to our plastic pumpkin pails, half filled with candy, most of which I didn’t like such as nauseating Bit-O-Honey chew candies, hard and horrible to the taste. We shivered our little asses off so some idiotic adult could dump a few stale fun-size (tiny) Tootsie Rolls in our bags and pails. Would a Hershey Bar have killed those people? Sometimes we got lucky and someone had Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Those tiny-sized ones, where you needed to eat like ten of them to feel as if you’ve had a candy bar.

We trudged on, little goofy Halloween troupers. We pulled the plastic masks back onto our faces once we reached the next doorbell, to be scary. Plop, plop, someone gave us fun-size Three Musketeers. They’re okay. Pull that mask back over your face before you reach the next house and pretend you’re scary. “Trick or treat. Trick or treat.” And the neighbors respond, “Hi Cindy. Hi Ken, Hi Andy, Hi Robin.” They knew exactly who we were. Plop, plop. “We have homemade Rice Krispie bars for you!” I hated Rice Krispie Bars. That’s not officially candy. Basically, they’d thrown us cereal and marshmallows.

And then finally, after a long night, at about 8:30 p.m. we had to go home. It was there that our mothers would have us spill the contents of our bounty and go through it with us to check for un-wrapped candy–someone might have laced it with LSD, just for an especially scary trick on Halloween. We checked with our moms for slits in the wrappers or in the occasional apple, as bad as getting a frigging Rice Krispie Bar, to examine for razor blades–another wonderful “trick” from our more psychotic candy-givers. By the time the inspection was through, all that was left was a roll or two of Sweet Tarts (good), a few fun size Hershey Bars (good), a Rice Krispie Treat (shoot me) and a half pound of Bit-O-Honey chews (gag me.) I felt I had to pray to God before I ate each piece of candy, hoping it wasn’t poisoned or sabotaged in some way that might kill me. Or nauseate me (think Bit-O-Honey).

What an awesome holiday, huh???

Yet somehow we kids lived through all this toxic, flammable, oxygen-deprived costuming without a problem, and ate the Halloween candy we’d collected without any hallucinogenic incidents or razor-blade sliced apples. We survived Halloween the way we survived drinking tap water without dying and eating rare-cooked hamburgers without getting sick from e. coli bacteria. We went out to play a few blocks down the street without cell phones to text our moms saying that we were okay. There were no cell phones in the olden days. And when I say our moms bought Halloween costumes at the “local pharmacy” I mean it; we shopped in places called “Thayer Drug” or “Dykeman’s Pharmacy.” Chains like CVS and RiteAid had not yet been invented. We came home for dinner when we were supposed to everyday, or if we heard our mothers call out the backdoor to us. We told time by the position of the sun. This was long ago and far away, for my younger readers, one or two decades after the dinosaurs became extinct.

*Most of these ads can be found in a Google Search, by entering, “History of Halloween Costumes Timeline.” The origin of the October 8, 1969 ad is unknown.
This short essay is included in my Chapbook, What’s in a Butch’s Purse and Other Humorous Essays. For ordering information, see Winged City Chapbook Press.  or email me at cindy.zelman@gmail.com. You can find the e-book on Amazon.com, bn.com, or in iTunes.

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Mother’s Day 2014 – I don’t remember writing this

Apparently, I wrote this in the spring, but I just stumbled upon it in my files. I don’t remember having written the piece, though parts of it are familiar when I read it.  I think I decided against posting it on Mother’s Day so as not to depress my audience during the holiday. Very thoughtful of me, right? You should know, that although my mother is still functioning all of these months later, the “decline” I mention in this piece has become more pronounced, which is to be expected, I”m sure. That doesn’t make it easy.

Mother’s Day, 2014, and in terms of the weather, it’s one of ten perfect days we get each year in Boston. A perfect day is 80 degrees, no humidity, no clouds, crystal blue sky, and soft breezes. Aside from these ten days, the weather sucks: it’s too hot, too humid, too cold, too windy, too rainy, too gray, too stifling, too raw, too anything. But today is perfect. There are nine perfect days left, so I expect a few in June and a few in September, and one or two sprinkled amid the stifling hot summer months.

There is nothing else perfect about today. I said it’s Mother’s Day. When I read Facebook I realize Mother’s Day is supposed to be a joyous event to celebrate our wonderful mothers, dead or alive. My own mother is in between dead and alive.

She should be out in this sunshine with the perfect breezes and sky, before it’s all lost to the body she resides in, the one that is slowly declining. But she can’t get out. I can’t get her out. It’s as if there is a glass wall between us and she must stay on the inside of it, while I look reluctantly in at her from the outside. I turn my head and  leave.

I am at the deli, cheered up by the endorphins and caffeine streaming through my blood, ordering my mother sliced deli meats, cream cheese, buying a quartered pullet because she wants to cook chicken soup. These are part of her Mother’s Day gifts. There was the time when she would have driven down to the deli and market herself to buy these things. There was a day when I would have driven her, but she would have gone into the stores herself. That particular day was just a couple of years ago. Now she can’t get there, even if I take her.

It’s Mother’s Day, the weather is perfect, and my mother is in decline. She has stage 4 breast cancer. She is 84.

Yesterday I was shopping in Bob’s to try to find her polyester stretch pants, the kind she wore in the 1960s and 1970s, like Laura Petrie wore on the old Dick Van Dyke show. I tried to explain to her that they may not make such slacks anymore, not in the way she remembers them.

“Polyester pants were now basically workout gear,” I say to her.

“I know that, I know that,” she said, a little abruptly. The answer was miraculous enough – that she knows that, which I believe she does, but that she heard what I said, without the nearly constant, “What?” .

As I was driving to Bob’s yesterday, and while I was in the store trying to find polyester pants, I kept seeing my mother bent over. These days, 90% of the time, she walks through the house bent over and gasping, as if she’s in great pain. For the first time since her cancer diagnosis, I thought: I think she’s going downhill, she can’t stand up straight. I felt so sad, nearly sad to the point of speechless, maybe to the point of tears, although most of the time, she makes me feels so frustrated. It’s very hard to repeat oneself up to four times in nearly every attempt at communication.

It’s Mother’s Day and I’m not even home with her right now. It seems cruel, on the one hand, to leave her alone on what might be our last Mother’s Day together, and yet, I don’t know what I would do with her if I stayed home. She would still insist on creaking up and down the staircase bent over in pain to do the washes, to load and unload the dishwasher, to get in my way as I try to prepare some food. I cannot offer to help her. I cannot say, “Look, let me do the washes.” She would look at me dumbly, as if I’d just spoken in Greek or Chinese. Her mouth would hang open. Her aged faced would look nearly ghastly and close to dead. I can’t take it, the emotions inside me crash and bang and I have to keep it all in so I don’t make the situation worse for both of us.

On a very bad day, she will let me load the dishwasher, and that’s when I understand she is terminally ill. I have been banned from the dishwasher in the past because I apparently am very bad at loading it. So I watch her load and unload it, and the laundry, bent over like a what? Like an old lady on her last legs. Like a dying woman.

I don’t know if being bent over so much of the time is from the cancer, the osteoporosis, the collapsed vertebrae, or just from old age. But she has most definitely declined. And as she declines, it becomes more and more difficult to talk to her.

I received a call a few days ago from a woman who works for the Steward Medical Group, a company that owns all kinds of doctors’ practices and medical facilities in the area. Although the call, and the knowledge the woman had of my mother’s medical condition, felt a bit like invasion of privacy, I suppose as owner of these facilities, they have access to medical records.

She was an older woman herself. I could tell from the crackle in her voice. She said, “I’ve seen your mother’s diagnosis. I’m calling to find out if she’s able to afford her medication. I see here that she just wants comfort. I’m trying to find out if she has the pain medication she needs.”

I tried to explain the situation.

“Well, she lives with me, you see,and right now, she’s still functional. She can go up and down the stairs, use the bathroom, take a shower, all that. I’m there with her, well, actually, I’m at work, but I’m home with her, I mean I live there. I mean, she lives in my house.”

“We will also be having a social worker call on a regular basis to see if she can be of assistance to her and to you.” That would be nice, to have someone of assistance to me. I could have used that person eight months ago, when I was trying to get referrals and appointments, but I am sure I will need the help now or soon.

“Um, okay.” The help sounded like a good idea to me, yet I’m always suspicious when some outside entity starts watching over you. Yet, what’s the difference if they try to control my mother’s life, which I don’t think they are trying to do, but if they were, what’s the difference? How much longer can she have left?

“You can try calling her if you want,” I said to the lady on the phone, since she had expressed an interested in doing so. “I will warn you that she doesn’t always get what you’re saying. You might have to repeat yourself. I don’t know if she’s kind of deaf. I don’t believe she is demented, but she’s hard to communicate with. Here is the number.”

When I arrive home in that evening, my mother tentatively walks into the kitchen and hesitates, and I know she has something to say about the woman who had called me, and then her, earlier in the day.

“I don’t understand what she called for. You’ll have to explain it to me.” I do my best, not entirely sure either what the woman had called for since she is not Hospice.

“It’s the Steward Group,” I try to explain. “You know, they own the hospitals and even Dr. Choi’s practice.”

Silence.

So I say it louder, no response. So I say it louder still, no response, so I say it perhaps a fourth time followed by, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” and a bit pissed, she replies, “Yes, I understand.” I guess she chooses not to respond

“They are a company that owns the hospitals and the doctor’s practices.”

“I know who they are!” she says.

I say, “Don’t worry, they are just calling because it’s their job.”

“She said some other nurse would be calling me. I told her to call you, that you are handling all this.”  It is the social worker who was going to call her, who will now be calling me. My mother doesn’t understand, and this makes it so hard to help her. And this is why she is alone right now on Mother’s Day, because it is so hard to help her. And I’m a bitch, or I’m at the end of my rope, but the rope needs to be longer, because she isn’t gone yet.

A few hours later, my mother says, “What a jerk that woman was. You know what she asks me? She says, if it’s an emergency, you will call 911? What does she think I don’t know that? Why doesn’t she call 911 for me?”

“She’s just trying to be supportive.”

“What?” That eternal “what?”

“Nothing,” I say.

I have been trying to decide about where I will live when she’s gone. Will I stay in my house, give it a makeover, maybe find a roommate and feel comfortable again within those walls? It is my home, after all, and there is so much good about it. But will her ghost in every room freak me out? Will the house just feel strange and bereft and make me feel insane with her missing from it? I don’t know.

I have been looking at condos in the area, most of which give me a great deal of anxiety – the complexes look horrible, some of them are nothing more than converted apartment buildings from the 1970s. Projects once, projects still with the low owner occupancy rate. I might be sharing walls with noisy neighbors, punks, screaming children, heavy metal played at full blast at 2 a.m., or maybe the condo association will piss me off and I’ll walk into a meeting with an automatic pistol. The automatic pistol, you should understand, would be my mouth.

But today, before I went to the deli, I drove into Knollsbrook, which is a condominium community I lived in as a teenager. It’s one of the nicer developments in my area, like a small town all its  own. Way, way in the back, there is a one-floor, 1,200 square foot, 2-bedroom- 2-bath unit for sale. I’ve seen those units. They are beautiful. I could afford it. The outdoor porch is enclosed in screen. The view is of the woods. I want to sit in that screened in porch with my two cats, listen to some soft music, read a book, do some writing, and start my life over. I want to buy this place, probably one of the nicest and one of the most affordable units in the complex, but I hear they won’t take animals. I hear you can get fined or even thrown out, if you have pets. Yet I hear they may not enforce that. And  as I drove in the first thing I saw was a couple unloading two dogs. They might have just been visiting.

I want to look out my windows and see the perfect landscape, the snow removed without any effort from me, swim in the three outdoor pools and the one indoor pool, as I did as a teenager.

I am searching for the place I will live when my mother is dead.

It’s Mother’s Day, and Knollsbrook looks perfect for me, but I have to leave and buy deli meat and a quartered chicken and cream cheese and bulkie rolls and bring them home to my mother and try to talk to her so she won’t feel alone on this day, perhaps the last Mother’s Day she will know.

Posted in Aging, Caring for parents, Memoirs, Mothers, Parents, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Double Wide – Yet another relationship story

I thought I was done with my relationship stories, yet I have found another one. Names and minor details have been changed to protect identity. This is a first draft. I don’t know if I will continue with this one, but I thought I’d post it, as a friend once requested I write it.

“Double-Wide”

Lisa is straddled over me on the couch hiking up her blue-cotton sun dress and kissing me nonstop, deeply and passionately, as if we have fallen in love all of a sudden, like an unexpected downpour in summer. I don’t like her much, but I guess she’s my new girlfriend. The entire time she has me pinned to the couch, I worry my mother will come downstairs and see this girly-girl swarming me and coming on like torrential rain. An apt image, given how wet she tells me she is, when she stops kissing me for a second.  Okay, we’re not teenagers. I’m a grown-up woman and so is she, but I’m worried about my mother seeing this spectacle, not because we are lesbians, or in her case, acting the part of a lesbian, but because this is embarrassing — this femme has her sundress hiked up and she has me clamped to the couch. I have muscles in my arms and a lot of upper body strength, but I can’t get up.

“I’m so wet,” she says again. Oh, Mom, do not come down those stairs. I cannot toss her off of me. So we kiss. It’s a little like drowning.  I don’t want to drown, but I allow myself to drown. Why? God, it’s complicated. Isn’t everything?

My mother called me at work at 4 p.m. on Friday, one of hottest days of the summer in July of 2011.

“The air conditioning isn’t working,” she said. “The house is very warm.”

“How long has it been out?”

“I don’t know, since one o’clock.”

I didn’t ask her, because I was afraid I’d scream, but why did she wait until near the end of the work day Friday to call and tell me the air conditioning was out? The temperature was close to 100 degrees. It was easily the hottest day of the year, and now I would need to leave work early to see if anyone could come out to the house to fix the a/c.

I called Lisa. I was attempting to keep her at bay, and to find a diplomatic way out of this friendship about to turn dating. I’d asked her to do meet me for an ice cream, a completely unromantic activity.

“Lisa, the air conditioning went out at my house,” I said, about to cancel our ice cream meeting. But before I could get the next sentence out, she said, “I’ll be right over.”

“Okay,” I said, when I really meant “no,” but she’d already hung up the phone, anyway, and presumably dashed to her car to come to my rescue.

Lisa and I pulled into my driveway at about the same time. She exited her vehicle wearing her blue sun dress, and I exited mine wearing blue jeans. She smiled wide, as we entered my house. It felt like a thousand sweaty degrees in there. My mother was in the kitchen. She was 81 that summer.

“Mom, this is Lisa, a friend of mine.” After the introductions, Lisa got down to work.

“We’d better get the bunny out of the hutch and onto the floor,” she said. She was right. A rabbit can die from heat stroke, and the stone floor in the kitchen stayed quite cool. So, as the rabbit rested on the floor dropping shit pellets and pee, and Lisa stood centimeters from me with her face stuck right next to my own, I frantically looked through the local shopping guide to see who could come over on a Friday evening and fix the a/c.

It took three tries, but I got someone to answer on the third phone call. He sounded drunk.

“Yeah, I can fix your a/c, but I’m eating dinner,” he said. “I can come over after dinner, around 6:30.” What he said made sense but the way he said it – with slurry speech – made me very nervous.

I sat on the floor with the bunny. Lisa sat next to me. She made small talk with my mother. I was angry at my mother for not having called earlier so I said nothing.

At precisely 6:30 p.m., the doorbell rang, and I was afraid to let in this man I’d called. He hulky, with a red scraggly beard, and his eyes didn’t look right, drunk or nuts or something. He had spaghetti sauce in his beard and on his shirt. Somehow, that made him seem somewhat less threatening, although not anymore inviting.

“I’m John,” he said. “Can I come in?”

Against my better judgment I let him in. He had no internal filter, he made that clear. He leered at Lisa in her little blue sun dress and said, “Damn, you are looking mighty fine, lady.” I tapped John on the back, more than once, with my knuckles, until he finally turned around, and I said, “Hey, Mr., I’m the one who owns the house. I’m the one who is going to pay you.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” he answered, “She’s looking great. So, tell me what the problem is.”

I explained to him that all the equipment in the house turned on but the unit outside didn’t.

“Ha,” he said, an out of place chuckle. “Yeah, yeah, I can fix that.”

I seriously doubted he could fix anything. I had one hand on my cell phone ready to call the police. He was still lewdly staring at Lisa whenever he could turn his head away from my (apparently annoying) voice.

“I’ll follow you outside,” he said finally. So we went out the door and around to the side of the house where the a/c unit was. He lifted the top of the unit and giggled, scaring me further because what was so fucking funny? I could see Lisa staring out the window at us, also scaring me, two strange people surrounding me, filling my space on this sweltering day. How does one so quickly become surrounded by strange human beings, spaghetti man and come-on girl?

“Oh yeah, yeah, I can fix that, I just gotta get a part from my van.”

John went to his van and came back with a small tubular item. I have no mechanical abilities and I couldn’t fathom how that little tubular thing could fix my big a/c unit.

Lisa continued to stare at us through the window. I was sweating.

John pulled the old part out of the a/c unit and pushed the new one into it. He shut the lid. It took him 3 minutes. (The bill was $290.)

“That’s it,” he said.

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s it. These things last about 10 years. This will be good for 10 years. Go turn on the a/c.”

We both went back inside and I turned on the a/c. Son of a bitch, it worked! The guy with spaghetti sauce in his beard and on his shirt, the lewdly staring creep who had come to my door, fixed the a/c.

“I can fix all appliances,” he said. “Everything. Whatever you need!”

“Fabulous,” I said, as he handed me his card, as I directed him toward the door, “I’m sure I will need that.”

“Bye, honey,” he said to Lisa.

When he left, my mother went upstairs as the house began to cool. I put the rabbit back in his hutch. Lisa and I fell to the floor laughing over the absurdity of the situation.

“The slob was a mechanical genius.”

We cracked up again, rolling on the floor. Laughing like that with someone is such an intimate act. I wasn’t thinking of it in those terms, but looking back now, I see this was the beginning of my mistake with her, which would arrive within the hour.

I had met Lisa at my personal trainer’s. She had recently joined the workout group with a friend of hers. I didn’t notice her, at least not in any kind of love-interest way. I did notice that she was very verbal, very intelligent, and extremely intense. I didn’t think she had noticed me at all. I didn’t care.

I can’t recall exactly when the transition happened, and Lisa started to notice me and I noticed her attention. I had purchased a bike and wanted to go bike riding over the weekend. Nothing too strenuous, just a few laps around the local park under the trees, by the pond, safe, easy, a way to get outside and exercise.

“I love to bike ride,” Lisa said at one of our workout sessions. “I’ll come.”

I thought: great, seriously, this is great, someone local can meet me at the park, and I don’t have to do this alone. I was so used to doing everything alone.

“We can go out for coffee after, Lisa.” I said.

Her smile was wide and a little over the top. I put it down to her intense way of expressing herself in any situation.

That Sunday, she showed up at the park with an ancient bike, all black, a man’s bike, probably from someone’s basement, probably it had been abandoned there for decades, but Lisa had dug it out for this occasion. Obviously, she hadn’t ridden a bike for years. I pulled it in from the back of my head, her statement, “I love to go for bike rides.” Maybe when she was five?

Why was she here?

We made it around the park once, 3.9 miles. I wanted to go around two or three times. You don’t burn any calories on a bike till you go at least 10 miles.

“Let’s go for coffee now,” she said. And I said “okay” because that’s what I always say.

At Panera, as we were sipping coffee, she stared at me as I spoke. I hadn’t told her I was gay, but I figured now was as good a time as any. Why? I didn’t know what else to talk about. When I told her, she said, “I know,” because that’s what everyone says when I tell them.

“I’m looking for someone,” she said.

“A man?” I asked. She didn’t say anything. The last I’d heard from her at the gym was about a breakup with a guy. I wanted us to be clear.

“A man?” I repeated.

“I don’t know what I’m looking for.” She stared right into my yes.

“Fair enough,” I said, thinking this isn’t at all fair.

I still didn’t understand the series of mistakes about to happen, that would lead to her pinning me to the couch in her blue dress.

I was working out on the elliptical at the gym on an early Tuesday evening in June, when Lisa arrived, strode right up to me. Her smile was wider than any smile I’d ever seen, but rather than find it beautiful, I found it disconcerting. Her smile felt aimed at me, like a pistol, and I didn’t get it, what was about to transpire.

“This has been the best Tuesday ever!” she said as I did rotations on the machine. “Ever.”  And then she stared right into my eyes and said, “This is the best part.”

Was she in love with me? Why was she smiling at me like that, as if she’d just discovered the love of her life sweating on an elliptical machine?

What did I say back to her? Something like, “I’m glad you’re having such a good day.”

Yes, I said something lame like that. But I didn’t know exactly what she was getting at, since every word she spoke held innuendo and therefore was not straightforward. I could only read her face, which was brighter than the June sun at noon, and that smile, wide as a ruler. Okay, wider. She had shoulder length light brown hair. In a way she was pretty. It was hard to see her as pretty because her personality was so overwhelming. Overwhelming on her was like a facial feature, like a too-big nose on a small head, although in reality, her nose was quite small.

“Yes, the best Tuesday ever,” she repeated, and I became even more uncomfortable.

There was a point, between June and July, when she made it clear she wanted to date me. I tried to warn her off. I brought up our age difference.

“You’re 32 and I’m 49,” I said. “I’m an old woman to you.”

“I loooooovvvvvvveeee older women.” Okay.

“I hardly know you. We barely know each other.” Another good argument, I thought.

“That’s what dating is for!”

I had spoken to my trainer about Lisa. At the time she said she liked Lisa. She was intelligent and pretty and fun. I couldn’t argue with that. Lisa worked at MIT, had a sharp mind, and as I said, if you could look past her overbearing personality, she was fairly pretty.

So I set up the ice cream date out of fear. Fear of what? Fear of hurting her feelings or fear of having an adult date with this young woman. I set up what amounted to a play-date for grown-ups, meeting at Big Daddy’s Ice Cream Parlor in Stoughton, where we could sit outside and watch the traffic go by. Great ambiance for a five year old. But we never made it there, to our non-date, because the a/c broke and because we fell to the floor laughing over the lewd spaghetti repair man, and became intimate through shared laughter. I became vulnerable: Lisa and I had shared a moment of mutual support.

“Do you want to go out to dinner?” I asked after we’d stopped laughing. “Out to dinner” sounded much more like a real date, but I couldn’t see going for an ice cream now that she’d gone through this air conditioning debacle with me.

“YES!!!!!”  Well, you can imagine.

And then, as if she’s already become a high maintenance girlfriend, she said, “Why don’t you go to your car and turn on the a/c? Last time, it took a while to cool down.” I think that statement unnerved me as much as any; she sounded like a wife.

Okay, I said, with a nervous pit rolling in my stomach.

I took her down the road to Rick’s, a family restaurant, where I sometimes bring lesbian dates. A few years back I’d had another woman falling all over me at the piano bar in the middle of the floor, as we requested Beatles’ songs from the piano man, and while we provided the heterosexual nuclear families an education in “gay.” Across the street was The Randolph Country Club, an actual gay bar. That night my date and I went straight from terrifying the straight patrons at Rick’s to a party across the street complete with cross dressers, beautiful gay men, and an assortment, let’s say, of gay women. The spectacle, then the spectrum.

I had no intention of making this dinner with Lisa into a “date.” I just wanted to thank her for hanging in with me during the air conditioning crisis at home. Still, I squirmed in my seat as they served us the warm bread and butter, as her smile was so wide — double-wide — it was if she were opening her legs for me to enter. I found something unnervingly sexual in that unabashed smile.

I don’t remember a word we said to one another. I imagined we joked again about Mr. Spaghetti man. I do, however, remember leaving the restaurant with her because this where the real escalation into “dating” began.

She kept bumping into me as we walked through the parking lot. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. She was bumping into me on purpose, and smiling, of course.

Do you know what I did?

I took her into my arms and kissed her.

Have you fallen off of your chair? Even looking back, I am ready to fall off of mine. Why did I kiss her? I can’t count the number of times I have misled women, as well as myself, confused them (and myself) by acting in ways nearly opposite from my words. “I love being with you,” and then I go home, for example. Or, “I don’t want to date you,” but I kiss you deep and long in a public parking lot.

I don’t get it either and I believe this is what therapy is for. I imagine now I kissed her because she wanted that from me, and I wanted to make her happy. She’d made it clear that she wanted to date and who was I to say no to her? Why say no to a bright, relatively attractive young woman who appears to be crazy about me?

Bra shopping finally did us in. During that hot summer, it became apparent that I was in dire need of new bras. I’m small-breasted so bras are never top in my priorities, as I can get away for years on the same couple of bras or can get through a day or two in a sports bra. But this was the year of the bra. Lisa wanted to go bra shopping with me. As we seemed to be dating, I said, “Sure, why not.”

I don’t recall what store we were in. It might have been Sears, but it was a department store with many dressing rooms.

“Can I come in?” Lisa asked. I hesitated. Her question felt at once like an invasion of privacy and at the same time, harmless. We hadn’t slept together. She would be seeing a good portion of my body. I didn’t want her to come in.
“Okay,” I said, “Come on in.”

So, there she stood, with the double-wide grin that made me feel swallowed or fucked or something smothering due to its inability to reign itself into any semblance of controlled emotion.

“Turn around, please” I said. I needed to try on another bra, and I was shy about having her see my naked breasts. Lisa moved to the corner and turned her back. Before I had the bra in place, however, I felt her body against my back. She used her hands to squeeze my stomach and held on tight from behind. I could feel her nether regions pushing into my ass. Oy.

“Does this bother you?” she asked when I failed to respond to her overture.

“Yes, it does.”

Oh my god, I actually told the truth.

She was upset. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” It’s okay, it’s okay, I assured her but it wasn’t. I knew that statement “Yes, it does,” perhaps my first statement of truth, was the end for us.

I am not a liar. I don’t blatantly lie to women I date or to anyone. But what I am is self-delusional, hoping always that I can overlook issues in a girlfriend that in the end I cannot overlook. I try to convince myself that I need time, need to get to know her better, need to lighten up what my usual type is – relatively feminine, usually pretty, much girlier than I am. Of course, Lisa was girly enough, it was the force of her personality that was so hard for me to take. In any case, the self-delusion always breaks at some point, and I am left with no choice but to face the truth and the speak it.

After the bra incident, Lisa and I ate lunch at Panera and I had very little to say to her. She called me from home that evening to continue apologizing. I said to her something along the lines of, “What you did wasn’t wrong or bad, Lisa, it just made me uncomfortable. I think we should not date. This isn’t the right relationship for me.”

The honesty was just gushing out of me at this point.

She called again the next day, or rather, she texted. I had a trip planned to Colorado in a few weeks and before I told Lisa I didn’t care to date, she had (over eagerly) agreed to take care of my pet rabbit while I was away for 12 days. My mother was not up to caring for such a creature, which requires particular feedings and tray cleanings frequently.

“Even though we aren’t dating, I still plan to take care of your rabbit,” she texted.

“Really? I don’t think that’s a great idea.” That’s all I needed, to leave this woman with a key to my house.

“Yes,” she texted, “Even if I killed you, I would still take care of your rabbit.”

Oh, my, right? “Even if I killed you…”

“Don’t bother, Lisa.” For the next few weeks, I was looking over my shoulder for this woman. I expected her to come at me, with that smile a mile-wide grimace, screaming crazily as she stabbed me in the back, right through to the chest. At least, I expected to come home from work one day and find my rabbit being boiled in a pot, like the crazy shit that happened in movies.

But nothing happened.

It would be fabulous if I could say that after being mauled on my couch by this femme woman in a blue sun dress on that very hot July night, and realizing she wasn’t right for me after she mauled me again in a dressing room while I was bra shopping, I moved forward in my life never making the same mistake again. The truth is, the self-delusion I experience continues to be a fault of mine, no matter how much I work at it in therapy, and no matter how old I get. In different shapes, ways, forms, and experiences, there is conflict inside myself – give the relationship a fair chance, convince myself that it can work and realize in a nanosecond that it’s not what I want.  I end up hurting the other person, at least superficially, sometimes more deeply.

This is my bane, my fault, and my folly.

Posted in Flirtation, Freaked out, Humor, lesbianism, Rabbits, Sex, Women, Writing, Writing Humor | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments