In the Distance That You’ll Never Reach

A few months ago, I realized my vacuum cleaner was trying to die. As gift-giving December holidays approached, I refused its plaintive pleas for the Abyss or the Arthur Kill. No, no. Sometimes the money’s spent and I have to save up, dust bunnies be damned. Thus, you haven’t been to my apartment in a while. Your respiratory system is grateful.

Last week, I called Siobhan and told her to gird her loins for retail battle. Today, she picked me up before noon.

Siobhan: Christ on a cracker! What are you wearing?
Tata: Jeans, sneakers, a sweater and what is your freaking problem? Where is your coat?
Siobhan: I just came from the gym so I’m still hot.
Tata: You feed me straight lines like I’m crooked and hungry. What’s with the makeup?
Siobhan: War paint.
Tata: Right. To the Oreck store away!

I don’t have a brand loyalty problem but when I make larger purchases, I try to buy American-made. Sometimes, it’s out of my reach to choose this way, which is what we find at the Oreck store, where an ordinary cannister vacuum cleaner costs more than my rent. I squinted at Siobhan. She squinted at me. In unpleasantly raw and windy weather, we drove to Sears. We jumped out of her Ford Excoriator into a gust that destroyed our hairdos.

Siobhan: Make a run for it! Save yourself!
Tata: It’s too late! My look’s done for!

We walked around in circles looking for the home appliances because we’ve walked in circles arund that store all our lives and each time someone rearranges, everyone within a five-mile radius feels a disturbance in the Force. We turn a corner, we walk and – a choir sings! – there are the vacuums. They range in size between the tiny five-pound stick vacs up to vacuums I could wear to a costume party. I scope the whole display quickly and turn back to find Siobhan talking with a salesperson, and Siobhan is kind of…twitching. The saleswoman turns around and it’s all I can do to maintain eye contact. This exotic, very attractive woman has shaved off her eyebrows, applied makeup with a kitchen spatula and painted on eyebrows that are trying to join hands behind her head. Siobhan was twitching because we are out-war-painted. We’re sure she’s armed. We are.

Tata: I need a vacuum. I have a sick cat who sheds a great deal but I will always have pets. I am allergic to dust and need to be able to vacuum my drapes. What can you do for me?

That sounds capable and straight-forward, doesn’t it? Now imagine you’re trying with all your might not to shout, “DEAR GOD! WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO YOUR FACE?” I completely forgot that I wanted to buy American. In fact, I may be losing feeling in my extremities as I try with every fiber of my being not to grab a tissue and run for some paint thinner. She guided us to a European model I could easily lift above shoulder level with one hand and it’s got a drapes attachment and it’s on sale and it’s so purple Siobhan keeps saying, “It looks fast!” I lose my mind.

Tata: I’ll take it.

What? I didn’t see that coming! What happened to my philosophy?

No Eyebrows Lady: Do you want the warranty?
Tata: Yes! Yes! Stop looking at me!

I don’t actually say that. Back at my place, Siobhan reads me the assembly instructions in French because we can’t stop laughing. The old vacuum and a heap of packaging have gone to the Broom Closet In the Sky or the Arthur Kill – along with my principles.

You’re Not A Stranger To Me

Larry, the little black cat bent on stealing your soul, has wedged himself into a spot in my hall closet I would not have imagined was cat-size. He disdains my company and I do not blame him. We have had quite a day, which neither of us would relive on a bet. Though I know him pretty well, I’d be hard pressed to say if the cat was a betting man, but I know I’m not. Today proved to be a test of my courage as a thinking person who endeavors to live an examined, humorous life. So let’s start with this morning.

The recent ritual: I wake up, utilize the modern indoor plumbing, scratch the cat, medicate him, place him gently on the floor, and entice him into the kitchen, where I give him fresh water laced with arnica montana for pain, and prescription kitty kibble over which I pour tuna fish water. Then I undertake the tasks involved with caring for me. This morning, when I gently put down Larry, the little black cat bent on stealing your soul, his legs seemed unsteady. He took a few steps gingerly, then his legs appeared to give out. I placed him gently on the heating pad covered with a cushion and some crunchy paper. I brought him water, some soft food and his catnip mousie. Fifteen minutes later, when I went to work, he was still there.

At work, I was useless. I would start tasks and forget where I was. I did things, then undid them in self-defense. I called the vet’s office and found a substitute veterinarian in office. We talked things over but the nice man couldn’t infer anything, he said, “without seeing the animal.” The last visit to the office was traumatic for everyone, so I was reluctant to drag out the cat of his home. I said I’d probably be calling back. The doctor mentioned the office would close at noon.

I stopped at home at 11:20 to assess the situation. If the cat were obviously healing up, I’d let the wheel spin. If not, I’d have to make a quick decision. I found the pussycat behind the couch and put him on his feet. Then I lay down to scratch him, to see how he behaved. I looked at him all over. His face was swollen on one side. My courage wavered. I hesitated. Then I called the vet’s office, we quickly considered what would happen and I agreed to bring the cat in. I called my job and said I didn’t know what was going to happen but I wasn’t coming back right away.

It is at this point that, in retrospect, I become very funny. As I put the cat into the cat carrier, my face starts leaking. I’m not even aware of it as I drive across town but I’m dabbing tears on my coat sleeve. The staff at the vet’s office is used to seeing all kinds of things and so no one says a word as my makeup runs down my cheeks while I’m talking in a level tone of voice. I cry like this in the waiting room, while we’re weighing the cat, during the examination, while the substitute vet administers an antibiotic, and while we talk about the protuberance on the side of the feline face. Larry, the little black cat bent on stealing your soul, needs his head xrayed while I need mine examined. The xray will have to wait until Monday morning. If the problem is infection, teeth and absess can be removed. If the problem is a tumor, we put him to sleep.

I have known for five years this was coming but it’s painful. The trick now is to keep a lightness about this, to handle him gently. When my grandmother was dying, all sorts of strange ideas were in the air. I learned a lot about devotion the months I sat in her hospital room every day but one, and somewhere I got the idea that I would be as brave as I had to, she would die, then we would all go home. Our lives – including hers – would pick up where they’d left off when she got sick. When she did die, the family became confused and never really got its bearings again, not to mention I’d left my husband, found a comedy troupe and become Me.

Larry, the little black cat bent on stealing your soul, has a toothache. He has had a happy life. There’s no need to be sad for him; he may even pull through! It’s selfish to be sad for myself; it would be arrogant not to be. That is what love of all kinds is: a promise, sorrow later, but it’s worth it. Love of all kinds comes to us as a way to understand our lives. When that changes, our lives change, and how we visualize our lives also changes. The cat is now the last real tie to my old lives. It looks as if I will soon have a new life again. I am very sad, but in a Hindu sense he and I will both be free.

Right Behind You, I See the Millions

Once upon a time, the most scandalous things used to happen to Middle America on soap operas. I mean the most scandalous things like infidelity, rape and murder. Baby switching and getting trapped in mines happened weekly, like they were a big idea. And that may be our problem with my favorite soap All My Bianca.

This is Bianca, third child of reigning diva Miss Erica Kane and the only one who has known all her life who her parents were. A few years ago, the soap opera world went mad when Bianca came out as a lesbian. I thought, ‘Delightful! It’s past time we had beautiful damsels kissing without smearing their lipstick. Cosmetologists everywhere will dance in the streets!’ Unfortunately, Bianca’s love stories take place mostly off-camera (or – for most of the last year – off-continent), as American soap fans may not be ready for something as simple and natural as women in love.

This reticence did not stop the writers of All My Bianca from penning a transgender character in love with gentle Bianca, who this time came out swinging. One open-handed slap later, Bianca’s just as irrational as every other character running from room to room without a single thought unmotivated by panic. Of course, I don’t expect decent plot or character development on a soap, and I’ve stopped expecting anyone to think anything through without drawing the dumbest possible conclusion. A little over a year ago, the writers concocted a scenario where Bianca’s baby was stolen by her best friend where the unspoken inference was that the best friend and her husband would be better for the baby than a single mother. I had a knot in my stomach for months but other soap fans hated this plotline with a surprising vehemence. Thus, I have been shocked this week to see outright mob violence on my soap.

This is actor Jeffrey Carlson, who plays Zarf/Zoe, the canvas on which the writers paint this study of a conflicted person with the wrong conflict in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Never in the decades I’ve watched soaps have I felt that squeeze in my chest, that bone-rattling fear of the mindless, angry mob. Characters I’ve enjoyed watching for years are making me utterly sick. No one thinks anything of grabbing Miss Zoe and literally manhandling her. No one mentions that a series of crimes has been perpetrated against this person for being a sexual suspect, not a murder suspect. No one even notices. No one questions the brutality and cruelty. There’s one character who asks the mob to see Miss Zoe with their hearts, which makes me want to scream: Don’t talk to a mob, princess: get on the horn with the fucking FBI.

The deeply disgusting thing about this is that in 2007 – two thousand goddamn seven – people still have their heads so far up their clutched sphincters that a transitioning person appears to represent some kind of threat to the thin-lipped hetero lifestyle. It doesn’t. Nobody’s marriage is a threat to anyone else’s. Nobody’s love story has to bother anyone else. And if people need to externalize internal identities, what is it to anyone else?

I brush up against some of this almost every day and I can’t figure out why people can’t just let it go. I’d like to stop being pissed when someone examines some aspect of Me, finds it unconventional and tries to correct it. I am not saying I encounter what others do, but I am saying hatred and prejudice and violence are everywhere, and we are utterly soaking in it. Which is nothing new. Which people blog about daily far better than I ever could. Which is making me so, so angry at All My Bianca I might have to stop watching it until the male characters quit beating Miss Zoe like an overstuffed pinata.

I miss Greenlee. She quoted Auntie Mame and spit out remarks that made me howl. She was bitchy and charming and had a fantastic athletic build unlike others on the soaps. I hated how the wardrobe department never put an entire outfit on her even in winter, but you can’t have everything. Greenlee as a straight female character was more secure in her manhood than all the current characters with penises.

It’d be nice if that were going around.

We Will Lie Upon the Lawn

I get frustrated.

Tata: Where have you been? I thought you’d never come back!
Siobhan: After lunch, I had to finish telling the story about the night Hannah jumped out of the truck.
Tata: Omigod, that is one of our Number 1 Hits. Hey, does it end the same every time?
Siobhan: Yup. Hannah goes to the hospital, I take amusing pictures and you go to Ecuador!
Tata: That’s a lot of outcomes for one story.
Siobhan: Yeah. I could use a Tab. Good thing I have pictures or nobody would ever believe it.
Tata: Before you forget that story you’d better write it down so we can argue about it in the old folks home.

Yes, we’re aging, and I can’t remember half the crap we’ve done. I’ve mentioned my memory loss before, haven’t I?

Siobhan: …and then this crazy thing happened, and so-and-so did this terrifying thing and then we –
Tata: We? I was there?
Siobhan: And we thought we were going to die and you did this! After that, we drove home on the Pulaski Skyway because we no longer feared death.

Lately, I’m less interested in what we did ten years ago than in what we’ll do in the future, since in all probability, in twenty years we’ll be crazy cat ladies, together.

For what experts say is probably the first time, more American women are living without a husband than with one, according to a New York Times analysis of census results.

In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000. Coupled with the fact that in 2005 married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time, the trend could ultimately shape social and workplace policies, including the ways government and employers distribute benefits.

Several factors are driving the statistical shift. At one end of the age spectrum, women are marrying later or living with unmarried partners more often and for longer periods. At the other end, women are living longer as widows and, after a divorce, are more likely than men to delay remarriage, sometimes delighting in their newfound freedom.

Awesome. I hope I can get support hose to go with my combat boots. In point of fact, a few weeks ago, I went to the salon of one of my most gifted, very distant cousins and said, “Carmello, I’m turning myself in. I look awful. Fix me.”

Carmello: What do you want, a haircut?

He looks doubtful.

Tata: I want to close my eyes for a while and when I open them, I want to look like you think I should look now. When do you have that kind of time?
Carmello: Can you take a day off work?
Tata: I adore you, so I’ll say I can take off an afternoon.
Carmello: Wednesday the 17th.
Tata: I’ll bring my Uranium-242 card.

I might take pictures.

The Detectives Shoot, Shoot, Shoot, Shoot

I’ve been watching two hours of the Italian channel four or five days a week for – what? – two months now, maybe three? After not even trying to speak Italian since 1983, I have the nerve to be annoyed when I catch the words and can’t figure out what’s going on, even with the oh so hinty moving pictures. Why? Because I think I should understand Italian. Why? Because once upon a time I put some effort into it for a number of years. Why? Because I have always thought I should understand Italian. You’re right. My logic is dizzying. I can report progress: the words are now clear enough to my ear that I know what to look up in the dictionary.

That should be a reason for optimism. I should be thrilled I remember anything, after twenty-three years. It’s not rational, but I expect more from myself than this. I expect lightning bolts to shoot from my fingertips, too, so what I think of Me borders on the cartoony. It’s this Should thing that gets me into trouble, tugging me this way and that. Should isn’t real. Should is judgmental. Should sits on the porch and watches who comes and goes. I threw out Should years ago, but he came creeping back.

Friday night, at a dinner party, the war bubbled up through conversation. Sometimes, when you have eye contact, you forget who else is nearby. After an excited sentence or two, our host stopped speaking. She looked around the table anxiously and said words that shocked me.

Host: Are we safe here?

I nodded. Conversation continued. The woman at the end of the table escaped the war in Rwanda and struggled for four years to get her family out of refugee camps. They’d walked to Kenya. If she went back, as a former government worker, she’d be executed. It was as if the dam burst and water found its level. The person next to me remained silent but everyone else gushed and burbled. I said there was only one course of action: all the troops should be withdrawn, we should stop pissing off Iran because our military has recycled soldiers past the point of all reason and is failing in not one but two wars and cannot sustain a third effort, and the whole administration should be shipped steerage to the Hague for war crimes trials. I thought that might be a bit radical for the assembled but nobody stopped smiling. One person hooked a thumb in the direction of her husband.

Wife: That’s what HE thinks!

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that – but I did. Maybe the 70% of us who’ve been too polite to talk about our opposition to the war should set aside manners and be quiet no more.

Should. Should?

Kinda Cool And Inspired Sorta Jazz When He Walks

Maybe four or five days ago, Larry, the little black cat bent on stealing your soul, made a tent of my blankets and refused to come out. Unless I burrowed in after him, I didn’t see him at all. I brought water and food to the doorway of this tent and occasionally I heard him drinking. A few times, I heard him rooting in the food bowl and scraping litter in his box. I wondered if events were coming to a head with the sick pussycat. Yesterday, on the advice of the town’s enigmatic holistic medicine maven, I doubled the amount of arnica montana in his water bowl. Then I called the vet. My conversation with the doctor proved more encouraging than I thought it might be but I didn’t and don’t want to take Larry, the little black cat bent on stealing your soul, back to the office if it can be avoided. The last visit included a blood draw, which freaked the cat completely. He hasn’t really regained his composure since then. The vet said to administer the yucky oral antibiotic.

This morning, I woke up to a rejuvenated kitty, and I became very optimistic when the pussycat stood on me and demanded vigorous scratching. For about an hour, he acted just like himself, then settled behind the couch, where he stayed for hours. Finally, I picked up the couch, then picked up the cat, then medicated the cat, who gave me very dirty looks before retiring to the bedroom, where he sits, perturbed, on a pillow placed next to the radiator.

It’s a cozy spot. In a few minutes, I’ll swoop him up and dose him again. Because I love him madly.

Go On When I Close My Eyes

Where exactly does a story begin?

Dad: This ain’t gourmet, but it is palatable. And, as Jim says when we’re on the radio, “I’m not looking for a Nobel prize; we’re just trying to get to noon…”

1/2 cup Bisquick
2 eggs
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup milk
Blend above ingredients.
Stir in:
1 cup cooked ham, diced
3/4 cup shredded cheddar or Swiss cheese
Pour into pie pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes until knife inserted in middle comes out clean.

Tata: This is more funnier – like – because there ain’t no – how you say – broccoli in that ingredient list. So it’s magic!

Dad: Yes, it is. And it’s even more magic because your sister called me and said, “What can you do with leftover ham? Whatever it is, I have to have everything I need in my house already.” I was expected to immediately give her 57 ideas – like Heinz’s 57 varieties – so I did a google search “recipes for leftover ham with ingredients Daria already has.” Google told me that “for” and “with” were unnecessary grammatical markers and “already has” has no ontological significance.

So, in addition to being clairvoyant about her cabinets and that garage space that will never see a car, there can be – I suspect you didn’t know this – broccoli, by sheer force of will. It’s a new culinary approach in keeping with not burning whales or killing rain forests for their blubber. You just will it into being, choosing organic of course, and – poof – there it is.

Or it could be punishment for making Google work for a nanosecond on food they don’t like.

Ah! This is a trick question. Where does the story begin? In earliest childhood, where little girls believe daddies can see all and have magical powers: New Brunswick, NJ, 08901.

Then I Break Down And Say

Yesterday, I stood on the threshold of the orthodontist’s inner office, determined to make my point.

Tata: Dr. Rivera, it’s not you, it’s me…
Dr.: Omigod, girl, you are the funniest person I’ve ever known!
Tata: You’ve known this day was coming. It’s no secret I’ve been unhappy.
Dr.: I can’t breathe!
Tata: Be brave: the braces have to come off.
Linda, his lovely pregnant assistant: Stop it! You’re giving me cramps!

Fifteen minutes later.

Dr.: Wait, you’re serious?
Tata: Off. They have to come off. Not next month. As close to this very moment as possible.
Dr.: But – serious?
Tata: As a sucking chest wound.
Dr.: You can’t leave me – I mean us.
Tata: Darling, everyone wants me back. Because I have no attention span, almost everyone gets me back. You’ll be rewiring my retainer in no time.
Dr.: Bite down on this disgusting glop. Come back on the 26th.
Tata: Kek kek kek kek kaaaaaaaa.
Dr.: You’ll miss me – I mean us!

Well, I won’t miss breathing through my nose while rubbery goo is ossifying into a timeless 3D portrait of my teeth – but hey, if a body turns up in a shallow grave, Dr. Rivera will recognize the tiny gap between those two teeth that just won’t close. Even my teeth are spiteful! Even so, I’d heeded Linda’s advice and scheduled a cleaning at my dentist’s office for this afternoon which coincided unfortunately with a 24-hour knock-down drag out between me and my best friend that we managed to conduct between my appointments.

Siobhan: You insufferable bitch!
Tata: Pot to Black Kettle! Come in, bitchy Black Kettle!
Siobhan: If you never speak to me again, you still won’t shut up!
Tata: Hold that thought. Orthodontist appointment.
Siobhan: Kick some ass, sweetie!

For the sake of the home audience: I was completely wrong in this fight, and the wronger I was, the meow meow funnier Siobhan became, but I forgot to ring the bell at the end of Round 1 yesterday and got very busy at work today before I went to the dentist. Then this afternoon, which is to say almost a whole day later:

Siobhan: FINE! I give. Do I need to apologize?
Tata: What? I was at the dentist. You don’t owe me an apology for anything.
Siobhan: Did you tell the orthodontist that you were done? You were going to tell the orthodontist that you were done.
Tata: Yesterday, I informed the orthodontist that it was time to remove the braces. The fourth time I said it, the doctor and his assistant believed me. Have I mentioned how fucking sick I am of people not listening to me? I am fucking sick of it. Anyway, when they understood I was serious, they took impressions of my teeth for a retainer, which should arrive in the office on the 24th. I have an appointment on the 26th to have them removed.
Siobhan: Know what would make your life easier? If you could openly carry a gun. Take painkillers before you go on the 26th. Wait, there’s more, isn’t there?

Yup, because my dentist’s office is precise in that when I have a 10 a.m. appointment, my dentist is there, tapping his watch at 10 a.m., so I am never late. This time, my dentist was walking around the office, avoiding eye contact. I should have realized this was my cue to leave, but I am a slow learner. The oral hygienist lumbered in ten minutes later. Anyone else with an ounce of sense would’ve run from the office, but I love my dentist and would only leave him at gunpoint.

So there I was, and I could see something was wrong with the dental hygienist as I sat down in the chair.

DH: So let me ask you something: what do you do think about a husband who says, “Unless you give in to my demands, our marriage is over.” But then I found a note from his girlfriend.
Tata: I think you should divorce the controlling bastard. But without malice.
DH: He wants to introduce our two small children to this girlfriend, who is different from the one he left me for a year ago.
Tata: She’s a plot device in someone’s Lifetime special. Don’t let it be yours.
DH: Okay, but what do you think about my custody thoughts –
Tata: I think I should know your name first. Breathe – two – three – four…
DH: Um, next time you come, you should take a painkiller first.

I’ll be sure to do just that.

Waiting For You, Right Here On Earth

Tata: I forgot to tell you a thing. It is of vital importance.
Siobhan: What could it be?
Tata: Okay okay okay, so there was Italian Christmas Eve and Italian Christmas Eve 2: Electric Boogaloo. Or New Year’s Eve, as the other humans called it.
Siobhan: Yep.
Tata: So Christmas Eve, I kept hearing people burst into fake operatic warbling followed by short bursts of laughter and I couldn’t figure out why but it’s no big deal because unlike most people in real life, I’m seldom startled when a song and dance number breaks out.
Siobhan: It’s one of your more endearing traits, certainly.
Tata: Thank you. I think. Anyway, New Year’s Eve, there’s that warbling and laughing thing again. So I said, “What are you crazy people talking about?” Auntie InExcelsisDeo said, “Tony and Diana were having a fight and she said, ‘Shut up!’ He said, ‘I don’t like your tone’ so she sang, ‘Shut UP!'”
Siobhan: Oh good. An in-joke.
Tata: …which won’t be funny until you arpeggio your last boss. That bastard is still in your office, right?
Siobhan: I have a meeting in five and my document is …just…about…done! I’m sick of this project, and I feel an aria coming on.