Like the Deserts Miss the Rain

This morning, I awoke suddenly. The upstairs neighbors were having completely successful sex in the room directly above my bed and I opened my eyes during the energetic butt-slapping, heart-pounding, plaster-peeling, furniture-wrecking, neighbor-waking, pet-perturbing “Who’s your daddy?” ten-minute portion of our program. I think.

I had to get up anyway.

Yesterday, Paulie Gonzalez started cleaning out the storage unit and last night, he brought a truckful of my things to the apartment. I had just winnowed the post-move still-boxed stuff heap down to about five boxes but now there’s enough Rubbermaid Roughneck Storage Boxes piled in the living room to consider it a questionable remodeling job. There’s a whole box of Johnny’s letters to me, manuscripts, postcards and playbills. We were prodigious corespondents from the time he went off to college in 1980 until we both got email in the mid-1990s. Another box holds Christmas lights, my motorcycle helmet, my rollerblade pads, helmet and skates. If I ever want a concussion I’m fully equipped to get one. My grandmother’s drapes fill two containers, old grant applications and supporting documentation fill two more containers. These things don’t bother me; in fact, I missed some of them terribly. I’m not sure how much of this I need anymore but I suspect a ruthless cleaning will see most of the paperwork hurled into the dumpster outside – though not the letters, postcards and manuscripts. They stay.

In 1995 and 1996, I was involved in a huge collaborative art project that ate my life. Don’t get me wrong: the work was good, and well worth any sacrifice, in my opinion. In the process though I lost almost everything, then fell into a deep, life-threatening depression, during which medication wiped my memory clean. It is a miracle I survived – or not. I was actively trying to kill myself so we know I’m crappy at it. Anyway, everything about my life came to a point at an arts festival in September, 1996. Five crates of props, scripts and crafts projects from that festival sit in my living room now. I should demand someone remove the cheese grater jabbed in my lungs. I would rather chew off my own feet than try staging that art project again but throwing away the props…I don’t know if I could do it.

The crate that really hurts, in an “it hurts but throwing it away would kill me” way, is the one filled with my journals. This morning, I bit my lip and cracked the lid. A few composition notebooks from high school, journals from the years after I came back from Hartford with a baby I didn’t know how to care for, from when I was married – all this covering 1977 to 1990 – these form less than half the notebooks. The majority are filled with the crazy years devoted to art and madness: 1991-1998, I think. I opened a few of them. I sound the same to me as I did at fourteen, nineteen and twenty-eight. God! I am one of those Slow Children. Where’s my sign?

A lot of my life is missing from my memory. Like the Reynolds Wrap ladies say: this leads to easy clean up. What is this tacky thing? I don’t know? Out it goes! But the journals are problematic. On some pages, I see a girl who needs a good spanking; on others, a woman who needs a good whack with a mallet. Oh look! I fall in hot, sweaty, stupefying love with a psychopath! Now, a fine-smelling man who can only have athletic sex with me in public parks! Oh snap, the brilliant, bipolar art student I love falls for a dance student and brings her to our house so I go to a Fourth of July party and meet a married mad scientist, who pursues, woos and wins me, and when his wife finds out –

That’s enough of that. I clap the lid back on the crate. I miss being Me terribly, but there’s only so much Me I can stand.

You Used To Love to Dance

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
United States House of Representatives
2371 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515-0508

My dearest Nancy,

I suppose it’s my own fault for falling in love with you. You’re everything to me, Nancy, everything! Your credentials are impeccable, your children are successful. People in your way have a habit of dying tragically and leaving you a voting bloc. You’ve bewitched me with your easy elegance and lovely smile. Your incidental resemblance to Jacklyn Zeman made me cross a room once to ask you about gay and lesbian affairs, and I’ve loved you from that moment to this.

After all these years, when you look deep into my eyes and talk about the Dalai Lama, torture and and wetlands restoration, my knees still go weak. When you whisper sweetly you’ve told Bill O’Reilly to go fuck himself, I wonder how I can ever leave you – but you didn’t really tell him that, did you? With us it’s all fire and sweat and chemistry, and in the heat of the moment, I lose myself in believing we’re on the same side. We believe in the same things. When the heat cools, when I brush the hair from your eyes, sometimes I know you’re not really with me. Maybe you’ve been faking it all along.

I don’t know – have never known – why anyone would work so hard hiding what they are. I wrack my brain, in the darkest, loneliest nights, for an answer but I don’t know why you can’t be left-leaning self with me. I trace the delicate line of your shoulder as you sleep, knowing that in the pantheon of the nakedly ambitious you stand under the sign marked FIRE EXIT. Perhaps, then, it’s a sign of your growth, when you couch your words so carefully I can see through them, see all the way through them, in a way you’ve never let me see before. Though it’s heartbreaking to see the truth about us as well, I know you never meant to hurt me.

Goodbye, my darling. I’ll miss you. I think.

Princess Tata


Johnny writes from the frontier:

This new movie with Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash has me concerned. I hope it’s not going to be as unwatchable as the one with George Hamilton as Hank Williams. Or the one with Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis. Or the one with the Bee Gees playing the Beatles. But more than that, I’m worried about my own acting career. It’s not that I’m ambitious. I’ll be happy if I go down in film history as a supporting actor in the George Thorogood story, playing one of the Destroyers. Recently, though, looking at my hairline in the mirror, I’m starting to think I should downsize my goals even further and go for the title role in the Phil Collins story. I know, it’s against all odds, but it’s a chance I’ve got to take.

Last week, his parents went out to visit Johnny and his hot veterinarian wife in the new-ish New Mexico desert digs, where Johnny’s promised me a room of my own.

Johnny: I may die.
Tata: Are your parents having sex in my bed? Because that’d be ironic.

When I was 17, his parents rounded up all Johnny’s younger brothers and stuffed them into a motor vehicle in a manner that would interest DYFS, leaving Johnny home alone. He and I and Dr. Nnud – our accomplice in many crimes with expired statutes of limitations – drank our way around a split-level suburban home. We did so many whippits that the night before his parents returned we swept the cannisters into a lawn trash bag and filled another with empty bottles. We had an excellent time watching Enter the Dragon by staring at the Bruce Lee in the middle. One night, we ate something that was a little off. The good doctor ralphed. Johnny ralphed. I couldn’t ralph. Johnny fed me Ipecac, which makes everyone ralph. I still did not ralph. I went upstairs to Johnny’s parents’ room and fell asleep on their bed.

A week later, Johnny’s mom handed me an earring. We’d cleaned the house pretty well, so I was surprised. “Where did you find this?” I asked. She smiled, “In my bed.”

Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You

I get the Cablevision internet phone service called Optimum Voice for a flat rate so I can call my brother, my sisters, Dad, Grandpa, Siobhan and Paulie. The service has its pros and cons. The fee is less than I paid for regular service and my two-tin-cans-and-string constant connections with Daria and Siobhan. On the other hand:

Siobhan: What the hell’s wrong with your phone?
Tata: What? Nothing. Why?
Siobhan: Did you notice I didn’t call you?
Tata: No. I called you, right? I didn’t notice except I guess I did. Please tell me immediately what you are getting at.
Siobhan: You had no phone all afternoon.
Tata: Hmm. I guess it was just me, Larry and the voices in my head murmuring, “Kill! Kill!”
Siobhan: If only they’d whisper useful things like, “Check your dial tone! Re-grout the tub! Comb the soap!”

Every weekend for the last month, I’ve had no phone service for some period of time. Since I hate the phone, hate paying for the phone, hate talking on the phone, hate the ringtones, hate the interruption of whatever I’m scheming about, hate the whole thing, I haven’t been too upset about it. Every weekend, I call Optimum Voice and tell another disinterested customer service representative it’s happened again. In fact, since moving into this apartment on 19 August, I’ve called Cablevision twice a week most weeks to report some new problem. It’s fatiguing. Setting up the voicemail took three calls to Optimum Voice for a service I should have been able to set up myself. I talked to no less than seven technicians and about half of them were outright rude. You should be shocked that I haven’t said “pigfucker” even once in this context.

Daria: I’ve hit a parenting roadblock. Sandro has strep and wouldn’t eat all day. When he wanted Wheaties, I gave him Wheaties. He wanted bananas. I gave him bananas. When he wanted chocolate milk, I said, “What the hell…” and poured that over the top. If he upchucks I’m calling right back.

I hold a black belt in Ten Words Or Less but the dojo belongs to Daria.

Daria: What up, Dog?

These may be the most densely packed three words you’ll ever see. They unpack this way: “Hi, how are you? I’m calling to tell you two of my three children spent the night puking into every container in my house, including the bathtub and the laundry basket, and the six-year-old woke me up at 2:15, saying, ‘Mama, my tummy hurts’ just in time to throw up in my bunny slippers and since it was too late anyway I heard myself say, ‘Tyler Two, go back to bed.’ I dissed my kid! Can ya believe it? My husband is on a business trip to the golf course but it doesn’t matter because he’s coughing like an old-fashioned fire alarm and the baby’s upset by all the noise. Remind me: why do I have three kids?” I leave a message on her machine.

Tata: I want my two dollars!

This does not unpack. It means “I want my two dollars.” Sort of. It means: “Transmission received,” or “Just checking in,” or “I am eating delicious melted cheese.” Daria, Todd and I quote early Saturday Night Live, Steve Martin, Better Off Dead, and a few Gene Wilder movies. For years, I called Daria’s house and said the same thing:

Tata: Do you take pictures? Well, give them back!

…Until the time her mother-in-law answered the phone and indignantly asked, “Who is this? Who is this?”

Oops. Sometimes I am stupid. At least now I know what it’ll cost me.

A Picture of You, In Uniform

The phone rings. I let go of my end and click on the receiver. It’s Paulie Gonzalez asking if I remember where his tax forms went.

Tata: Sharkey’s here.
Paulie: Oh yeah? What’s he doing?
Tata: Standing in my bedroom holding a tape measure.
Paulie: Stuffing your pinata?
Tata: Measuring my windows for new shoes.
Paulie: Do you remember where you saw my W2s?
Tata: In the living room, with that highly flammable pile of 2005 receipts.
Paulie: I should turn them in, huh?
Tata: Or take up decoupage, you betcha.

Paulie’s dad’s moved into the one bedroom apartment with him. Paulie’s thinking about buying a house because if he doesn’t he’s going to the Big House for tossing his dad into the Raritan.

Now, that’s a fridge you’d clean with a chisel.

Sometimes when I watch TV, I recognize the conversation has taken a turn to the code-wordy. There’s a Stanley Steemer commercial where the white lady in the white sweater talks about her almost-white carpet. She’s gabbing and gabbing and then she says this weird thing: “When I called [someone else], I didn’t know who was coming over.” If you don’t have the secret decoder ring I didn’t know I didn’t have, this phrase might mean she exchanges Christmas cards with every professional carpet cleaner in a ten-mile radius but sometimes they bring dates. I don’t know what she’s insinuating, but what she’s saying sounds more like every carpet cleaning brings her a factory-fresh bunch of potential emergency organ donors.

There’s a new Bally’s commercial for month-to-month membership that tosses around the word commitment like signing a contract gives you herpes. I don’t know what that means, since Bally wants you to pay them and break your commitments. But still pay them. When you break your commitments.

There’s a whole series of diet code words I don’t understand. There’s one commercial for cortisol fighting snake oil that turns my brain on its z-axis. The spokeswoman says, “When is a diet pill worth $150 a bottle? When you’ve tried everything else and failed.” I suspect this pill solves your weight problem by making you lightheaded when you open your credit card bill. There’s also a bunch of really hinky-sounding ads for some vague get-rich-working-from-home scheme where those testifying say things like, “Last month, I made 75,000!” They do not mention money. I wonder if they’re making 75,000 phone calls to ask Dad for ten bucks.

We are definitely standing at the corner of What? and WhatEVER!

Recently, I received a very strange phone call at work.

Tata: Ta speaking!
Nurse Addie: This is Nurse Addie from KGB Dental. Are you Tata?
Tata: I am.
Nurse Addie: Are you a patient of KGB Dental?
Tata: I am.
Nurse Addie: Are you a patient of Dr. Newsome’s?
Tata: I am. Listen, we’ve met. You know me, Nurse Addie.
Nurse Addie: I see. You have an appointment with Dr. Newsome today?
Tata: I do. At 3:30.
Nurse Addie: No.
Tata: No?
Nurse Addie: No. Dr. Newsome no longer works for KGB Dental.
Tata: Get out! What happened?
Nurse Addie: (Squealing) I so don’t know!
Tata: (Yodelling) Omigod, you so have to find out and tell me!
Nurse Addie: (Back to droning) You’ll have to see the new orthodontist on the 16th. After we hire him.
Tata: NO!
Nurse Addie: Oh yeah.

Today, I met my new orthodontist, and he, poor soul, met me. He is less than thirty, and still has that dewy complexion that is the red flare signalling youth. He restrings rubber bands around my mouth. Though he’s dressed as if I’m radioactive, I feel a little bad that it’s been more than five minutes since I brushed my teeth. He drops the spool of rubber ring ribbon down the side of my face and behind my neck.

Tata: Now I know what it feels like to be gift-wrapped.
Young Doctor: Gift-wrapped!
Tata: My days of answering the doorbell in a red ribbon are over.
Young Doctor: You did that?
Tata: Of course. Say, isn’t that a ten-year-old in the next chair?

I considered adding, “…and aren’t I nine hundred years old?” but saying that to the bespectacled doctor whose eyes are less than six inches from my crow’s feet seems rude. After all, if he’s looking down my sweater I’d hate to interrupt with You, my sweet, are too young to fit under my Age Limit Limbo Pole, too young to play original Trivial Pursuit with me, too young to discuss movies or music all night with over a bottle of buttery shiraz, and I won’t be old enough to flirt shamelessly with medical professionals until I’m twenty years closer to actually being nine hundred. I laugh and skip the euphemism. He might not understand.

Tell Me All Your Thoughts On God

Ned knocks on my door at about 3:50. His hands are shaking. He paces around my living room, stuttering, until I’m dizzy.

Ned: I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know if if if –
Tata: I’ve got my keys.
Ned: Are we are we doing –
Tata: Where are you parked?
Ned: I’m not sure I’m not –
Tata: What happened to your windows?
Ned: Long story. I was driving out in the fast lane in Pennsylvania and this utter dickhead was matching me mile for mile. I sped up, he sped up. I slowed down, he slowed down. Suddenly, in front of me there was a dead deer in my lane.
Tata: Omigod! Did you slam into the median?
Ned: I would’ve slammed it and flipped. No.
Tata: Did you – just tell me what happened!
Ned: I hit the deer like a ramp, went airborne and flew like drunked-up Knievel.
Tata: No! Yeah?
Ned: In retrospect, what seemed to be blood all down the side window was really shattered. The windshield’s nothing.
Tata: Anya’s expecting us. Park here.
Ned: I’m not sure I’m not sure are we are we is this the the the right thing?
Tata: We’re here! What’s up, babydoll?
Anya: On the next General Hospital, tunnels will cave in and your mom answers her own phone.
Tata: Nobody would believe that.
Ned: I brought you organic cookies. They’re not made of hay.
Anya: Thank you so much! I’m going to eat them right now.
Ned: Thank you so much for…for…for…
Anya: Would you like to meet the new baby?
Us: Yeah…
Anya: There she is.

Ned and I look around the living room. We don’t see anyone besides ourselves and Anya. We look at each other. We look back at Anya.

Anya: She’s right there, on the couch.

Still staring at my sister, we walk over to the couch. What appears to be a small pile of washcloths now has a tiny round head sticking out. The head is sleeping. Anya rearranges the receiving blanket and a whole tiny person appears. This is my new niece. She is impossibly small. We stare. She opens her eyes and yawns. I always forget kids aren’t born with bookbags and reading lists so newborns are always shocking. At eight days old, Sunny has already been the subject of controversy.

Tata: Darling, I’m so sorry. I really should have called you but Grandma’s official line is, “I’ve called to tell you something” and mine is, “I’ve called to tell you something she forgot to call and tell you.”
Miss Sasha: Mr. Sasha said I landed on you too hard about this.
Tata: No, no. You’re right. I’m wrong. Poland’s all yours…
Miss Sasha: No dice! I want the Sudetenland.

Ned and I push open the back door. The box of Fang’s ashes fits in the palm of my hand. Ned can barely move and he can’t make a sentence. For a minute, neither of us knows what to do. Anya’s husband was supposed to mark out a burial spot but he worked late the night before at the family store. Also: the lawn pinwheel marking my sweet little Zorak’s grave probably died a blizzardy death some time ago. Ned’s brain has short-circuited with grief. I take a small spade from the potting shed and start digging near where I think we buried Zorak. After a minute or two I hand him the spade. He digs while I retrieve a shovel, which he uses to dig a broader, deeper hole. He places the box in the hole, a favorite toy and a picture. We cry our eyes out. Anya has one neighbor who only ever sees me sobbing, dirty and holding a shovel. That she hasn’t called the cops and the Do Not Dig Hotline is a miracle.

We cover the grave, tamp down the dirt and discover the back door’s locked. We paw it like bedraggled Great Danes because we can see Anya’s got both hands on an entire human being, so we walk around to the front door, where we meet Anya’s mother-in-law, who recognizes us at the couple who wore matching tuxes to her son’s wedding and smoked cigars. Despite this, she is still nice to us. Ned and I stare open-mouthed as the baby mews and the toddler strips and the mother-in-law empties a bookbag full of wet clothing. I just about faint when the toddler reaches into the potty, so Ned and I hop in the car and zip three blocks to Charlie Brown’s for burgers.

Burying one’s beloved pet is serious business. Charlie Brown’s is full of beer. Ned drinks coffee. I drink Guinness. For three hours, I drink Guinness. Ned drops me off at home. Though I assured Katy at thestain that apres-burial I’d embark on a drunken interstate crime spree, I settle on the couch and wait for Larry, the little black cat bent on stealing your soul, to sit on my lap and try conning me out of mine.

Man. Woman. Birth. Death. Infinity. Cats.

Talking Through Time

Few things remind me of my limitations like an afternoon spent minding the family store. Anya, Corinne, their mother and their kids have gone to an upstate auntie’s house for the afternoon. The CD player perfumes the store with Waterlily Flower Music. That is the name of the CD that would have driven me out of my mind until fairly recently but now amuses me. While I was listening to a couple of CDs just like it awhile ago, it took me almost an hour to notice the store didn’t actually smell like tropical flowers.

I can’t remember where I read this. When accused witches said they flew on broomsticks, their accusers wrote that they were impelled to accept this as fact. I must paraphrase but essentially the magistrate said: Not to believe is to deny the testimony of the senses. It may have been ergot poisoning working its hallucinogenic magic on whole villages at a time that led the Inquisition to burn millions of witches at the stake but just as often it was spite and greed. Many facets of those prosecutions perplex me.

1. As a fairly secure, twentieth century American woman, it is hard for me to understand how an idea could be important enough to destroy lives over.
2. How could anyone find in him- or herself the hard-hearted malice necessary to burn a human being or an animal alive, indifferent to its unimaginable suffering?
3. How is it that for centuries – centuries – nobody said, “Wait…”?

I have been a notoriously dreadful judge of character most of my life. I freely admit that as princesses go, this one has kissed princes and toads in nearly equal numbers. Good judgment. Bad judgment. I can’t claim any special insight into the soul. Millions of people wake up every morning and fire up brains with greater horsepower than mine, so I get really confused when I see a parade of naked emperors.

Over at Tami, the One True, a commenter (in the interest of full disclosure: a person I know well) asserts that the reason we’re at war now is:

I think it’s a reaction to Vietnam. For years we’ve heard that the reason that it was a clusterfuck was that public protest undermined the effort and made pariahs our of patriotic boys. The pendulum swung and instead of the soldiers feeling shame, the public that had been critical felt shame.

Eager to avoid and make amends, a penitent John Q hesitated before unleashing the awesome force of critical thought.

I know him to be smarter than I am, industrious and accomplished; when he expresses an opinion, I consider it carefully before donning stilettos and foxtrotting holes through it. I gave his idea some thought. Perhaps he’s right about the public’s attitude. I know that in the days and weeks after the Towers came down and the Pentagon went up in flames, I distinctly remember watching the news and listening to the drumbeat growing louder in the distance. When the flag-waving started, I knew brown people somewhere were in for a heap of shit.

In my lifetime, flag-waving has foreshadowed military might unleashed in an uneven power struggle with non-white people. When I was born in February 1963, we were already involved in Vietnam for about four years, depending on whom you believe. In any case, for people born after – say – 1957 until about 1970, our childhood version of normal reality including war rumbling on and on in the background. This abstraction came with one concrete fact: young men became rare birds in the local flock. Older brothers disappeared. Politics divided us. More than anything, it was a desperate time that stretched on and on, and the desperation became normal. When the war ended, a lot of Americans wandered around in circles for a very long time, still having the same arguments and holding the same pointless grudges. You know what? It was a really shitty time. Don’t remember it that way? You were probably young, attractive and smoking a lot of dope. Have a seat. We’ll come back to you.

In the autumn of 2001, a politically varied group of my closest friends on a list discussed military action in general and against Afghanistan in particular. At the time, I said I hadn’t heard any convincing argument for war at all. A manhunt’s a manhunt and not a war. Congress panicked, and the nation panicked – and I understood that being attacked by foreign actors on our native soil shook America so deeply that we as a military power were about to run around like Richard Simmons at a Hostess Twinkie factory. In the days before we attacked, I felt feverish. It was during these conversations, during which one of my friends totally lost it and has never spoken to the rest of us again, that my feelings about Vietnam as a formative experience crystallized: there is seldom, almost never, a reason to invade a soverign nation. In most cases, war is a failure of diplomacy. I am opposed to war, not just this one. I am especially opposed to wars in which combatants cannot be distinguished from civilians, and that this would occur was clear to me from the beginning. Those jokes about Middle East politics aren’t just jokes.

It was clear to me from the beginning that the rhetoric didn’t make sense, that we were doing something just to do something, that the plan had no end stages because it hadn’t taken the Afghani people into consideration. It was clear that the American people were scared shitless, and who could blame them? It was also clear that I couldn’t articulate much of this because all I could think of was the useless, pointless losses of mothers and children and limbs and dumb, rumbling normal. Because now people my age, who were too young to fight in Vietnam, are mostly too old now to fight in Iraq, but our missing older brothers have undertaken warmaking again, this time from the driver’s seat, and this time with our children in the crosshairs.

We have, in the wake of our worst moments as Americans, returned to our childhood normal, and to our denial, and our feeling that it belongs in the background. The administration didn’t stumble on that idea all by itself. It had a lot of help from people who went to school and birthday parties and celebrated Christmas and spared a thought for missing older brothers only when reminded. Self-absorption is characteristic of children. What is our excuse now? How is it we go on listening to fantastic stories and waiting for our children to be burned in the public square?

As I was writing this, chickens came home to roost. A clean, attractive woman, probably about my age, walked into the store and asked if I knew where she could find a soup kitchen. This kind of conversation has never happened in my presence in this town – in New Brunswick, yes, and I’d know what to do – but not here. I looked up the address for Elijah’s Promise and wrote down directions. Half an hour later, the woman was back. It was plain from the way she was talking that she was not well and the story she was telling was not quite right but I had no way to determine what might be true. She certainly needed professional help. I tried to find her a spot in the women’s shelter, making phone call after phone call. Finally, a woman picked up on a homelessness hotline. We went around and around in progressively more horrifying circles: where could this woman spend the night? How about a hot meal at least? No matter how I phrased it or changed the question the answer was the same: Middlesex County had nothing to offer this woman. No food. No shelter. Nothing. I asked about soup kitchens, emergency services, anything. She asked if I wanted her supervisor to call me back and explain it. I asked, “Is that going to find this woman a bed or a meal?”


“Then what’s the point if I understand why?”

I gave the woman the two cups of fruit and gelatin I had. I gave her a spoon. I apologized to her for being unable to help her but the truth was that I was shocked beyond my ability to think things through and find solutions. I had nothing more to offer her than two lunchbox snacks that wouldn’t fill up a five-year-old, and the hope that she’d make her way to Elijah’s Promise the next day at lunchtime, when they would feed her. My face hot with shame, I sent her out of the store into the street on this November night. But let’s not make me more important in this situation than I truly am.

Why are the shelters full and the budgets cut? War. Hurricanes. Bankruptcy. Our utter failure to recognize ourselves as part of the fabric of problems and solutions. Middlesex County had exhausted its monthly budget before the second Saturday. This woman is plainly in need of mental health assistance. I gave her Jell-O and a spoon.