Relaxing Into the Stretch

Daria calls my house from the road. Her baby’s baptism is Sunday morning at 8 a.m. for which I plan to forgive her no time soon. Our thirteen year old sister Dara is riding shotgun and handling the Q & A.

Dara: Daria says she’s getting sushi for Sunday.
Tata: She is? Tell her I like her SO MUCH BETTER.
Dara: (To Daria) She likes you SO MUCH BETTER.
Daria: I knew she would.
Dara: (To me) She knew you would.
Tata: Because I’m shallow that way.
Dara: (To Daria) Because she’s shallow that way.
Daria: I know she is. GIVE ME THAT PHONE!
Tata: I hope you know you’re violating state laws.
Daria: Yeah yeah, I’m a menace. Whatcha doin’?
Tata: Standing around naked with half an appliance next to my head.
Daria: No really. What are you doing?
Tata: Trying to get into the shower while my unemployed sisters make small talk.
Daria: Look what time it is! You better haul it!
Tata: Watch me hang up on you.
Click!

Daria calls me at the store. She doesn’t say hello.
Daria: What do you do when people call and want information?
Tata: If I know it I consider telling them. If I don’t know it I say my sisters will be back after August 1.
Daria: I have to talk to your ex-husband about bagels. What’s his phone number at work?
Tata: I don’t know, but my sisters will be back after August 1.

The store’s open door, lovely toys and free air conditioning attract all sorts. Yesterday, I felt a rustle in the air and scanned the room for a customer I couldn’t see. Less than eight feet away stood a man who may have been there for quite some time, and he was staring at me. I jumped, then apologized for keeping him waiting. He’s an artist with work on display in the store; I recognized him immediately. An hour later, he was still talking to me.

Bill: Why do I always do all the talking? Tell me about yourself.
Tata: I lost my memory years ago and now I can’t pick myself out of a lineup.
Bill: How do you get dressed in the morning if you can’t remember which one is you?
Tata: I’m pretty sure the cold, flat one is my reflection. And I’m lefthanded.

Okay, so I exaggerated a bit. Though I’m no raving beauty I’ve had my share – and possibly yours – of stalkers; I’m very cautious around strangers who seem to have picked up my scent on the breeze. When I look up today and he’s walking though the store to apologize for something imaginary I am pleased to see Mom sashay across the floor behind him.

Some people walk. Some amble. Some stride. Mom has two modes: sashay and scurry. If Mom’s scurrying, look out: somebody’s gonna get it, if by it we mean a thorough talking-to on this subject and every other and in the name of all that is holy RUN AWAY! Mom has a penetrating gaze. When she’s listening she’s really listening, so much so that sometimes you want to slide a mirror under her chin to check if she’s breathing. I should probably feel bad about what I’m about to do, but I do it anyway.

Tata: Mom, this is Bill. His giant painting is in the window but Bill also comes in card form.

Then I shut up for forty-five minutes.

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The Fine Art of Acting Nonchalant

My stepsisters – those fools with excellent taste! – left the jurisdiction and me the keys to their store. I’m sitting in a retail establishment filled with bright and shiny objects, jewel-tone yummy whatsises as far as the eye can see and bamboo cuttings of startling vigor. Lyle Lovett croons from the CD player above the counter. They wrote detailed instructions so I could do my part to increase the Gross National Product but neglected a few details:

1. Bring lunch and snacks;
2. Bring toilet paper.

Handmade clay fountains and wall-size water features burble. Mobiles and ceiling fans spin in languid circles. Wind chimes whisper every once in a while. Customers stroll in now and then to escape the heat. As the afternoon shadows lengthen, I’ve tried on every ring on the jewelry stand and fallen in love with a lamp. I’ve never fallen in love with a lamp in my life. I’ve just never been that kind of girl. In my advanced old age apparently I’m capable of becoming some different kind of girl, and this one loves a lamp.

Minding a little shop on the main drag of a town where people actually walk around and talk to one another is miles outside of my current comfort zone. Perhaps it shouldn’t be but my current life is carefully circumscribed. I used to live in this town and loved living here. I was sorry to leave when I moved across the river, which I’d forgotten until this morning but remember now like a favorite song I hadn’t heard in nearly ten years. And my job in the library’s basement seldom brings me into contact with the public, so when the public marched in and treated me like a servant – well, I’m nobody’s servant. When an annoying pair kept me hopping for forty-five minutes and bought nothing, I was pleased I hadn’t blurted out what hideous taste they had because – as Jenny Diver sang – you never know to who you’re talking. They didn’t. For all I know, they might’ve been nice people.

Naturally, between moments when I wasn’t saying, “The striking earrings and more demure necklace draw attention to the face and away from neckline,” while thinking, “Sweet Mother of Pearl, don’t make me look at her tits,” I’ve had plenty of time to think. I wonder about me. I think about you. I’m a one-to-one, in-person person. When I was doing full-contact poetry somewhere different every night, I broke down the fourth wall with a sledge hammer delivery my audience often found disturbing – which was what I wanted. I was very confrontational then. Now I’d rather brew Phyllis Schlafly a pot of tea, sit knee to knee with her, and politely discuss why she should be gently poached in a white wine sauce for the hardships and suffering she’s created, overlooked and blandly endorsed. I would like to sit at a lovely table for two with Karl Rove, pour him a glass of chilled green tea and talk about simple justice and compassion, possibly explaining that he should spend the rest of his earthly existence taking care of destitute, institutionalized Alzheimers patients if he wishes to avoid a truly nasty karmic zap – if I feel especially compassionate myself. And I would like to sit with you in a room for just the two of us, beautiful in its own right and for us both. We don’t know one another – unless we do. You are more than I can know, I suppose, without a lifetime of comparison shopping. But I do imagine you. Are we wearing straw hats and sitting on a shady porch with tall glasses of tart lemonade? Are we wearing black Ramones tshirts and sitting at the end of the bar in a room so dark we can’t study the face of our bartender? We can talk about anything you like, you know. I am not afraid to know you now.

Survey Says!

On the Discovery Channel, it’s Shark Week. Horoscopically speaking, Saturn transited between Cancer and Leo but is spending a week tormenting each and every one of us. Until Saturday, you should regard everyone you meet as armed and dangerous; expect to find your face on the Post Office wall. It should come as no surprise my entire family can’t decide who to punch first. One of my favorite funky modern mystics, Rob Breszny at freewillastrology.com, says that starting tomorrow, “it’s essential that you give off warm, engaging, intimate vibes in the coming weeks.” Coincidentally, my sisters went on vacation and left me the keys to the family business. I’m going to spend the next four days dabbling in retail and smiling over a New Age soundtrack. So, maybe that’ll be my face on the Post Office wall. And…we’re back to panoramas of teeth.

I feel warmer already.

When Opposites Redact

Over the weekend, the enormous blended family threw a surprise birthday party for our stepfather Tom. He joined our story in the mid-seventies and brought with him our two then-tiny stepsisters. At the time, we were up to our necks in hippies; shorthand for this is that we were commune kids. Yes, I know how to milk a goat. No, I’m not going to milk your goat. What are you doing with a goat, huh? Anyway, one night Daria, our brother Todd and I were introduced to Tom in the alley behind the mostly organic restaurant where Mom worked. We did the only thing undersized kids in an an awkward outdoor social situation could: we climbed the tall man. Soon, it was like the tide went out, the hippies moved away and we were surrounded by Quakers, Jews and Unitarians. Absolutely everyone could sing. There was a bluegrass band. We went to a lot of weddings in backyards. I was the oldest kid of a couple dozen. Fast-forward thirty years – we do a lot of fast-forwarding at Poor Impulse Control so no skimping on the Dramamine, please! – and the kids have kids. The adults get to do things like spend a month working at a clinic in Kenya with a determined teenaged granddaughter.

Here we are at the surprise party and the reunited bluegrass band – including Tom – is playing John Prine’s “Paradise” and Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” We hand him a beer and plug in his bass. Guests have brought lox platters and grilled chicken salads and marinated shrimp and hummus and artichoke quiche and three different kinds of brownies and cakes and fresh fruit salads and every bite is fantastic. My sisters run in circles to greet old friends, refill bread baskets, count their children and put husbands to work. I drink a lot of coffee, wash dishes and talk to about a thousand people – unless we’re talking about actual people and I’d guess about sixty. Finally, I sit down on the lawn with three of my sisters, two cousins, my niece Lois. Behind us, all the little nephews wrestle and color with crayons until periodically adult intervention is required: just about every five minutes. Hey, they’re healthy. Earlier in the day, one of the two-year-olds fell face first into a wooden chair, got up and ran after his older brother without a whimper. Unless someone holds up a bloody stump, there’s no need to get excited.

Our cousin Monday on my father’s side, who couldn’t be more marvelous if doves alighted on her shoulders during the cocktail hour, is engaged to Cory. Monday is 6′ tall, wildly attractive and beloved by smart children. Fortunately, she’s a teacher and telling children, “We don’t say ‘ass'” is her job. Her equally marvelous and entirely different sister Sandy is on a mission now.

Sandy: Tell her, Monday.
Monday: Weeelllllllll –

I sit back in my folding chair to brace myself and nearly go over backwards.

Monday: I’m getting married next year in June when his family told me I could.
Tata: They what?
Monday: I was told if the wedding was in April or May, the family would be planting. September and October were also out because of harvest time.
Tata: Okay…farmers…can’t screw around with their livelihood…got it…
Monday: Also: they don’t drink or swear.
Tata: Oh, fuck them. Have they MET YOU?
Sandy: They don’t drink or swear!
Tata: I’m bringing strippers to your wedding.
Sandy: And there’s one more thing…
Tata: Drunken strippers, about six of them. I recommend we issue one to every member of your family. Like party favors!
Sandy: Like fucking party favors.
Tata: I will truly enjoy this – what little I’ll remember of it.
Auntie InExcelsisDeo: At your age? You should be ashamed!
Tata: Well, sure. I could go in handcuffs.

The best part of the afternoon and evening comes as I make the rounds to say goodbye. Mom has dashed off after her grandsons. Tom and his friends are sitting in a circle on the lawn and everyone has a drink in hand. I take a deep breath to speak when someone tells us loudly –

She 1: If I’ve learned anything in life it’s that you should never paint naked.
She 2: Did you paint naked?
She 1: No, he did!

He bursts out laughing. He is one of Tom’s oldest friends and he was painting his kitchen naked and standing one foot on a counter and the other on a ladder when a young friend brought over his first, impressionable girlfriend to meet him. They walked in and found his various parts dangling, as he says now, “like mistletoe.”

She 1: Remember those parties where – when the kids got up in the morning – they’d step over the bodies sprawled everywhere?

Daria, who’s holding a sleeping baby, has sidled up next to me from nowhere. She raises her hand now and says, “Hey! Hey!” We were those kids. The people sitting in the circle were some of the sprawled bodies. It’s still funny. One thing I like about these people is they’re not rewriting and sanitizing their histories.

I thank them for a front-row seat on their glorious antics. Then I drive over to St. Peter’s Hospital to visit a friend recovering from his. Daria says it’s from our parents’ friends that we learned to function as part of a small, responsive group: if you need a car, you call somebody and they lend you a car. If someone needs you to take care of their kids, you go pick up the kids. Give and take. From these same people we learned the – as we know now – rather natural idea that men and women can be friends and friends with their Exes. Maybe your parents’ friends didn’t walk around naked. Trust me, it would’ve been funnier if they had.

I’m Worth A Million In Prizes

Weeks ago, a friend asked me to be patient about a Difficult Situation(tm). Strangely, I agreed, since we’d been friends for eight years and I was a mere bystander, not some imperiled participant. I don’t know what possessed me to think this wouldn’t happen.

Tata: Okay, I’ll keep my trap shut. [Pause] I can’t take it anymore!

While I was actually attempting to stifle myself, my friend was doing everything in his power to undermine his own efforts to deal with the Difficult Situation(tm) and lying about it. To put this vague description into urban guinea terms you definitely understand: it was like the time your junkie cousin borrowed your car to go to a job interview, then called you to bail him out when your car went into the Hudson River. You sensed something was wrong but you hoped against hope that this time, this cucuz wouldn’t fuck you over. When he did, you said, “I feel like a chooch but at least I tried to help.” And that was the last time you tried to help, no matter how much Mama, Zia and Nonna cried, am I right?

Friend: You hate me, I can tell. That makes two of us.
Tata: Tell your story walking, fella. I’m too selfish to dedicate my next wrinkle to your dumb drama.

Yes, that’s what friends are for: to borrow your stuff and test your boundaries. No, wait, that’s not what friends are for after you wise up and quit schtupping each other’s assorted spouses – especially since what you want from your friends is a break from your damn family. (Do family members – by any chance – keep you in a cage, feed you cake and call you pet names like “Puddin'” and “Tasty”? You and Gretel should consider busting out of Gingerbread Death Row.) Though I have seen my friends make efficient car repairs using only an oak tree, steal potted plants from crowded restaurants and fling ice cream cakes from fifth floor balconies, I trust them with my life, by which I mean: to bury me in a shallow grave near a neighborhood with good schools to bring down property values. Trust is everything. I have one friend I trust to disappoint me and in that he is entirely trustworthy. Several friends have drug problems, arrest records, histories with cults, abuse, cruel spouses, and realtors. The one thing they have in common is they can be trusted to care about me.

The thing my lying, undermining, manipulating, spineless and self-destructive friend cannot be trusted to do is care about me, or the eight years of our lives he wasted before he showed me his true colors.

I wonder if he realizes he’s not my friend. I wonder if this makes me more or less open to new people, in some unfolding stage of life. No, I don’t hate him, but I’m not going to give him another chance to make me sorry I extended myself for him. There’s just one thing to say. Say it with me, sports fans: Go in peace, but keeeeep going.

On the Mental Jukebox, Kill Me Now Edition

Good: The New York Times mentioned Poor Impulse Control in passing.
Bad: I failed to amused the reporter, who like thousands of people before him thought he was reading dead-serious dreck.

Good: I may finally have found an apartment.
Bad: HELP ME MOVE!

Good: I did not slit my wrists yesterday.
Bad: Night Ranger’s Don’t Tell Me You Love Me is playing in my head today.