You Can Call Me V

“Excuse me, but can I help you over the snowbank?” I asked the elderly woman wearing a lavender parka.

“Oh thank you, this weather is impossible. How am I supposed to run my errands? Apparently it’s all because of global warming, but who knows. I mean how do you ever really know something for sure?”

“Here, let me hold your hand.”

“You’ve got a grip like a large man, did anyone ever tell you that? It’s a good thing, it’s a compliment.”

“Oh, well, thanks.”

“My name is Vivienne, but you can call me V. What’s your name?”

“Mary Ellen. It’s a pleasure meeting you V.”

“Likewise. It’s not every day that someone asks if I need help. Apparently global warming has erased everyone’s good manners too. The world’s gone to hell in a hand-basket, but what are you going to do? I mean you either kill yourself or you just get on with life, those are really the only two options.”

“That’s one way to put it,” I said, arching an eyebrow.

Well this lady is a character

“Today I need to buy a few groceries. Then I’ll bake cookies – I always bake cookies on Thursdays. I have to call Deloris and Maude, they’re my last remaining friends. We check in on each other every day to make sure no one bit the dust overnight. Thursdays I also clean my bathroom. I have a maid who comes in once a month to give the house a good scrub, but I also like to clean. I never want to be one of those sad old ladies who lives in filth.”

“You have a busy day ahead of you. What kind of cookies are you baking?”

“Jam Thumbprints. Have you ever had them? They are incredibly tasty. Very nice with a cup of tea. I eat 24-36 cookies a week, depending on the recipe. Last week I made pecan sandies and the week before that it was gingersnaps.”

“I don’t see how you’re going to get on the streetcar safely with all this snow, why don’t I stay here with you until it arrives,” I suggested.

“That would be wonderful, I love to chat. It gets lonely living by myself. My kids drop by once a week, but I don’t care for them much. That’s a horrible thing to say, I know. But at my age there’s no point in mincing words. My son Lenny is an absolute failure and he’s chubby too. Three marriages, three divorces. But thank god no kids because he would have been a dreadful father. He’s one of those men who a certain kind of woman always likes to take care of? Do you know that type?”

“Actually I do. My friend Melissa is always dating those kind of men. Maybe she’ll marry Lenny.”

“HA!” chuckled V.

“And my daughter is the corporate head of something at Loyola Bank. I honestly don’t think she has a soul. All she cares about is making money. More more more. I think she’s after my house. This neighborhood is considered trendy now – that’s what I read in the weekend paper. Hipsters are moving here, whatever they are—”

“That guy next to the mailbox is a hipster,” I whispered to V.

“The one with facial hair and jeans that are skinny like tights?”

“Yep.”

“His pants are ridiculous, how does he even get them on? Anyways, the point is that I think my daughter wants to tear down my house – HER childhood home – and build a McMansion as soulless as she is. But she’s in for a big surprise: when I die the house is being donated to The Women’s College Hospital. I’ve already got all the legal documents drawn up, my neighbours are both lawyers.”

“Wow. That’s a surprise all right. I think it’s wonderful that you’re donating your house to the hospital, they do excellent work. You haven’t mentioned your husband, did he already pass on?”

“He didn’t pass on, he died. He died fifteen years ago that bastard. He promised me he would always be by my side. Every night I spray his pillowcase with Old Spice, it was his favorite. And I talk to him before going to sleep. I mean obviously he doens’t talk back, but it calms me. I probably sound like a whack-job right now, but it’s the truth. What about you Mary Ellen? Do you have a husband or what is it a…a partner? Or maybe a wife? I shouldn’t leave anything out. I try to keep up with the times you know, I have a subscription to People Magazine.”

“I have a partner, his name is Jared. He’s a hospital administrator.”

“What does that mean exactly?”

“Honestly V I have no idea.”

V laughed loudly.

“What do you do for a job?”

“I decorate people’s homes.”

“Oh you’re one of those creative types.”

“Yes, I am. Look – your streetcar is almost here, I’ll help you on.”

“Stop by sometime for a cup of tea and cookies. I’m just up the street at 15 Greenwood. You’ve probably noticed my house before: in the summer my tiny lawn blooms with hundreds of cosmos, they stretch out over the sidewalk.”

“Oh your flowers are amazing! The cosmos look like tall skinny colorful people who are having a wild party! Give me your hand V, let’s get you on this streetcar.”

“Thank you. Don’t forget to come visit me. I’ll give you cookies to take home to your partner too.”

“I will V. Safe shopping today.”

“Look, the hipster is getting on the streetcar too. I’m going to sit next to him and ask him about his pants.”

I watched as V sat down next to the skinny jeans guy and he turned and smiled at her. She was hard to resist.

Photo: Artist Louise Bourgeois photographed by Herlinde Koelbl. NY Times

A Special Occasion

“Why are you wearing a vintage prom dress on a Thursday afternoon?”

“It’s not a prom dress. It’s what Betty Draper would have worn to a fancy lunch in the city. Plus, we’re in a restaurant for the first time in ages, so I wanted to dress up. If I’m going to catch the new variant then I’m going to catch it in style.”

“Totally. I broke out my Ted Baker shirt for the occasion.”

“Noticed, you look very handsome.”

“Here are your drinks: two champagne cocktails. Cheers. By the way, I love your dress.”

“Thank you so much. I love your peach-y hair.”

“Pandemic-Peach,” she said with a smile.

“Cheers to finally seeing each other in person,” said Pippa.

“It’s so amazing to have a drink with you, instead of drinking alone on the couch watching HGTV,” said Elliott, relishing their first sip.

“The booze business has been going gangbusters during the pandemic. Maybe they created the virus so that we would all stay home and drink.”

Elliott laughed:

“That’s a Netflix movie right there.”

“You never told me what happened with the guy you started lockdown with.”

“Jerome? Well, we holed up in my condo for three weeks, but then I had to send him home. He was a compulsive throat clearer.”

“Oh no.”

“Ya. I felt bad because maybe he was just anxious, but I couldn’t take it. Plus, he refused to watch comedies. And I thought, how the hell are we going to survive covid without watching comedies? So he had to go.”

“100%.”

“Pips, I’ve missed you so much. But I have something to ask you and I’m worried you’re going to get upset.”

“Oh Jesus just ask.”

“Well, during the whole lockdown insanity when we were doing zoom calls, you were always wearing fancy vintage dresses – kinda like the one you have on now.”

“True.”

“But I mean that’s not exactly normal for such a long period of work-from-home life. Not once did I see you in tie dye sweats like everyone else. It was vintage glam the whole time. So I’m just checking that you’re doing okay, you know like emotionally.”

Elliott exhaled then took a long sip of their cocktail.

“Have you decided what you’re having or do you need more time?” asked Pandemic-Peach.

“I’ll have the Niçoise salad with a side of frites,” answered Pippa.

“Same.”

“Great choice.”

“I totally get it Elliott and I love you for your concern. It’s just that…you know how I’ve been collecting vintage dresses for years? But I never wear them, I’m always saving them for a special occasion.”

“Ya I know, so?”

“So, when my oncologist told me I had only two to five years left to live, I decided that cancer was my special occasion and I started wearing all my dresses.”

“That’s not funny Pips.”

“It’s not meant to be funny, it’s the truth.”

Elliott sipped their drink:

“These champagne cocktails are delicious aren’t they?”

“So tasty,” she said.

“Honestly What The Actual Fuck Pippa!” Elliott exclaimed, a little too loudly, causing heads to swirl.

“You’ve been dealing with cancer and you didn’t tell me?! Did you tell anyone? I thought we were close friends, I would have been there for you.”

“My cancer, my way of dealing. I didn’t want to manage everyone’s emotions, it felt like too much pressure. Anyway, no one was allowed to visit me at the hospital because of the pandemic. It was just my parents and I.”

“Poor Marty and Elaine, they must have been freaking out. Did they bicker the whole time?” asked Elliott, more calmly this time.

“Shockingly no. Who knew that it just took me getting cancer for them to be civil to each other.”

“What kind of cancer?”

“Abdominal.”

“I remember you kinda disappeared for awhile off our zoom calls and off Instagram, did you have surgery then?”

“Yep. I was in the hospital for two weeks. You should see my scar, it’s hideous – ten inches long. And immediately following the surgery my doctors poured hot chemo into my abdomen and swished it around for forty-five minutes – they call it Shake N’ Bake.”

“Wait what?”

Sounds like a horror movie doesn’t it? But for certain abdominal cancers they do chemo that way, it’s called HIPEC: Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy.”

“Jesus. I can’t bear the thought of you being shake n’ baked alone. I feel like we all should of been there up in the gallery watching you, like in Grey’s Anatomy.”

Pippa laughed.

“The pain must have been horrible. You poor thing.”

“Ya, the pain was otherworldly, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. The narcotics were fabulous though and I loved my nurses. Plus, there were a few hot surgical interns.” 

Elliott started crying while taking a sip of their drink.

“You crying while drinking a champagne cocktail is a pandemic mood for sure,” said Pippa, reaching out to hold their hand.

“Right?” said Elliott thru tears.

“Everything is okay. I’m not dead, so that’s a win. And we’re here together in this moment, in this beautiful restaurant, probably catching an as yet unnamed new variant,” Pippa said continuing to hold their hand.

Elliott laugh-cried and then dabbed their face with an extra napkin that Pandemic-Peach magically appeared with.

“You could get a cool tattoo incorporated into your scar,” they suggested.

“Oh I like that idea.”

“Two plates of frites and two Nicoise salads,”

“Thank you,” Pippa said smiling at Pandemic-Peach.

They ate without talking for awhile. The banter, laughter, flirting and exclamation points around them filling the silence.

“It sounds like springtime in the park when all the birds are busy chatting with each other,” said Elliott before eating a forkful of frites.

“I know. I’m loving this vibe. It’s so joyful.”

“So what’s next in your cancer treatment?”

“I’m getting a cat scan in three months. Until then I just chill,” said Pippa, finishing the last of her salad.

“How’s your anxiety?”

“My doctor gave me a prescription for Xanax, but I’m finding weed more helpful. I’m micro-dosing and if I do it properly it feels like I’m wearing a cozy cashmere sweater all the time. It just keeps me feeling soft-like.”

“I feel like crying again but I won’t. It’s just so unfair that you got cancer at thirty-two. And why did your oncologist tell you how long you have to live? That doesn’t seem helpful.”

“I asked my oncologist for her opinion, so she had to tell me. But I mean my surgery went really well. The shake n’ bake went really well, so let’s just see…Life is not fair. Life is primarily mundane, interspersed with moments of chaos and stress. If you’re very lucky it’s also sprinkled with moments of joy – like this moment right now – so that the monotony, chaos and stress feels worth it. Otherwise I think we would all group-jump off a bridge.”

“But tell me how you really feel,” said Elliott and Pippa threw her head back and snorted with laughter, causing the table nearest them to eyeball her.

“I need to use the loo, be right back” Elliott whispered.

Pippa looked around at the crowd and noticed that everyone looked a little dressed up. They might not have been wearing vintage lunch dresses, but they had clearly put thought into their outfits, shined they shoes and sparkled their ears.

“The bathroom has the most divine wallpaper,” Elliott said, showing Pippa a photo.

“Snazzy flamingos.”

Pandemic Peach arrived, dropping off a platter full of sweet delights.

“Oh My God yum! Did you order this Elliott?”

“I figured we needed to cram as much joy as possible into this afternoon. And I wanted to celebrate you: I love you Pippa. You are the razzle to my dazzle.”

“Love you to the rainbow and back.”

“Ok, which one should we try first?”

A Simple Life

“Why do you have to bring such chaos into our lives? I feel like everything you do is complicated and noisy.”

“First of all, thank you so much. What a lovely thing to say – that I bring chaos into our lives. Second of all, I bring color into our lives, not chaos, there’s a big difference.”

“Well then you need to tone down the color, maybe add a little beige to it. I just want to live a simple, quiet life.”

“A simple, quiet life? What does that even mean?”

“It means the fire alarm always goes off when you cook. It means when you have your girlfriends over for wine and cheese it turns into an insane eighties dance party and you get mad at me for not joining in. It means you make super random decisions like you’re suddenly going to bake pot brownies, but then you don’t measure properly and the marijuana sends you into a paranoia spiral. A simple, quiet life is the opposite of all that.”

“Wow, okay, well…. The pot brownies were an innocent mistake – you know I’m partially dyslexic, I messed up the numbers. The fire alarm is because I like to try new recipes and sometimes they don’t go exactly as planned. What are we gonna do, eat baked salmon every night? And you should have joined our dance party, we were having fun. Remember fun?”

“You exhaust me.”

“Well you bore me!”

Amy put on her big chunky heeled boots and stomped loudly out of the house. Half an hour later she was back with three bags of groceries. She turned on her Spotify 80’s Hits Mix and started cooking.

“Guess what,” she yelled,

“I’m cooking without a recipe, so get ready for more chaos!”

She took a sip of Pinot Noir and twirled around the kitchen, using the spatula as a microphone to sing along with The Go Go’s:

Can you hear them
They talk about us
Telling lies
Well, that’s no surprise

An hour later:

“Dinner is served – even though I’m still pissed.”

Dave joined her at the table. The kitchen looked like a gang of toddlers had trashed it, but he didn’t say anything. At least the fire alarm hadn’t gone off.

“Tonight’s menu features Thai chicken and coconut rice.”

“Smells good. Thanks for making dinner.”

“You’re welcome.”

“This is actually really really good.”

“Take out actually and I’ll happily accept the compliment.”

“This is really really good.”

“Thanks. It love it,” Amy said, taking a giant bite.

“I didn’t mean what I said earlier, or maybe I meant some of it, I don’t know. But I love you. It’s just this fucking pandemic. We’re with each other 24/7, it’s not normal.”

“Preach!” said Amy, raising her glass in the air. “The other day you were so irritating that I was about to hop a plane – Covid be damned – to somewhere sunny where there are cabana boys and umbrella drinks.”

They continued eating in silence.

“Maybe we should take a mini-break,” said Amy.

“But where would we go? The U.S. border is closed. And anyways, I don’t feel safe flying yet.”

“No, I meant take a break from each other.”

“What?”

“Don’t get upset, just listen for a second. Relationships are suffering in the pandemic and divorce rates are skyrocketing. We don’t have kids, we don’t even have a cat. So why don’t we take advantage of that flexibility and try living ‘together but apart’ for a few months. It’s actually a very popular trend, it started way before the pandemic. Even The New York Times wrote an article on the phenomenon – lots of couples are living separately and they’re really happy.”

Dave wiped his mouth with his napkin.

“No. No way. That sounds like a one-way ticket to divorce.”

“Why don’t you read up on it first before you say no. It has nothing to do with divorcing. You could have more of the simple quiet life that you like and I could be…me.”

“This is just your pandemic stress talking. Let’s keep things as they are, I don’t want to rock the boat.”

“Well maybe the boat needs to be rocked. Maybe the boat needs to be fucking flipped over!” cried Amy.

“This is what I was talking about earlier – everything is always chaotic with you. You’re suggesting a major life change in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s complete insanity.”

“Fine. Do you mind cleaning up?”

“No problem.”

“Thanks.”

Amy went to the living room, took her laptop and googled “Caribbean destinations that Canadians are allowed to visit” and scrolled through the covid rules and regulations. Then she booked a hotel and flight, leaving in one week and staying for two weeks.

Yes, I’ll be on a plane, probably a crowded one. So yes, I’m taking a chance. But our boat needs to be rocked. And I need a cabana boy and an umbrella drink like yesterday.

I See You

“I can’t do this anymore, I’ve made such a mess of my life.”

“You can do this and you will. And never mind a little mess, life is messy, big deal.”

“Wait a second, who are you? Are you a ghost? Am I dreaming? Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that sleeping pill.”

“I am you. I am your other half.”

“I thought that was for lovers. Like you find your other half and then you live happily ever after.”

“No, not at all. Finding your other half is about becoming your truest, most beautiful, most whole self.”

“I’m not sure I understand. I’m not sure I even believe you exist.”

“Whether you believe it or not it’s true. I’m here and I see you. You are glorious and you are worthy. But first, you must let me in.”

“How? Do we need to perform a ceremony?”

“Of course not, you’ve watched too many movies. You let me in by believing for one minute – just one minute – that you are deserving. One minute every day focus on that. It won’t be easy. It sounds easy, but it won’t be easy.”

“And then what?”

“And then one day you’ll realize that what felt like a crazy homework assignment no longer feels crazy. And when it no longer feels crazy is when I – your other half – have joined you on this messy, colorful, most divine journey called life.”

“This is kind of a lot to take in.”

“I know. But what do you have to lose? You put trust into that eight step skincare routine you do every night, so the least you can do is give me a chance.”

“True. Alright, well, even though I’m doubting my sanity right now, I’ll try. Because honestly, what good is great skin if I’m living such an empty life.”

“All those fancy serums wasted.”

“When does this start?”

“Now. I’m going to disappear and I’ll reappear if you complete your assignment.”

“It’s kinda like spiritual homework.”

“It’s exactly like spiritual homework.”

Illustration from The Origin of Love (from “Hedwig And The Angry Inch”)
Notebook by Cactico

Snow Angels

When I was a child I used to make snow angels in our backyard with my youngest brother. Dressed in our bulky snowsuits, we would lie under the beautiful star-filled sky and move our arms and legs in rhythm. We would remain lying down and then just talk. I remember telling him all about the planets one time because I was obsessed with Saturn’s rings. Eventually we would get too cold, or our mom would call us inside, but before leaving we would admire our angels.

Now, this same brother thinks he is an angel, an actual angel. And not just any angel, but Archangel Michael, the only angel who is mentioned by name in the Bible, the Quran and the Torah. My brother told me this about two months ago when we were sitting outside on a patio on an unseasonably warm day. I was drinking wine and he was having a beer. I asked him what it meant to be Archangel Michael and he replied that he could create miracles.

I’ve been dealing with my brother’s mental illness for many years now and I sometimes use humor to cope. So in my mind I thought:

“Fabulous! If you can create miracles then can you please start by eradicating Covid, (or as he calls it, “the plague”) and then next can you please cure me of Peritoneal Mesothelioma?

Instead I listened to him, nodding my head and I ordered a second glasss of wine.

In some ways my brother is lucky. He lives in a nice apartment on a nice street and he has enough money to live comfortably. My parents supplement his disability – disability payments put you living at the poverty line by the way. And my mom buys him new winter coats and boots and running shoes when he needs them. He needs new running shoes fairly often because he self-medicates by exercising obsessively. Dangerously long jogs and bike rides in the middle of the night. He keeps vampire hours staying up late, then waking at dinnertime.

He will not see a doctor, let alone a psychiatrist. Based on years of spending time with him and research, I’m guessing he’s on the schizophrenia spectrum, the autism spectrum and has OCD. Of course I could easily be 100% wrong.

Had he been born into a different kind of family, he could easily be homeless. One time I saw him walking down the street having a very animated conversation with himself and I thanked God for bringing him to our family where he is protected.

This holiday season, like so many others, I am burnt out. I have nothing left to give or say. I just want to take a Xanax, curl up under a blanket and listen to old Kate Bush songs. I don’t want to decorate or bake or cook or make conversation. But oh what I would give to make snow angels with my brother again. To have him back for just one night.

Marissa

“Open the box,” said Henry.

“You bought me something?”

“It seemed like you needed a little pick me up. Last night you were saying the pandemic was making you feel hopeless. I thought this would help.”

The box was the color of brown craft paper and it was tied with natural twine ribbon. It smelled like patchouli.

Marissa hated the scent of patchouli. It reminded her of a faux hippie girl named Star who had stolen her boyfriend during sophomore year of college.

She opened the box and there lay a gray stone with the word HOPE inscribed on it.

Oh God.

“The salesgirl said you just hold the rock in your hand, focusing your mind on things that bring you joy while massaging it.”

Jesus.

“Wow, well…this is pretty cool. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’m going on a run now, wanna Netflix at 9?”

“Okay.”

Henry kissed Marissa on the tip of her nose.

When he left the house in his olive Lulu Lemon running shorts, Marissa called her best friend Nica.

“Henry gave me a rock that says HOPE.”

“Oh my god, those gray ones right? The ones that say things like LOVE and GRATITUDE. Are they even real rocks? I’m sorry, that gift couldn’t be less you.”

“I know. And I feel like a horrible person because I don’t feel grateful. Whenever Henry buys me a gift I feel like it shows that he doesn’t really know me, like he doesn’t pay attention to who I truly am and that feels so shitty.”

“I totally get it. Like last Christmas when he bought you plaid, flannel pajamas – I wanted to strangle him.”

“Oh I forgot about those. I ended up wearing them all winter because what am I going to do? I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”

“Marissa, maybe you need to hurt his feelings. Maybe you need to scream ‘this is who I am! I need you to really see me.’ Feeling seen is all most of us want anyways.”

“You’re right. Why are you so damn wise? What are you and Jen up to tonight?”

“It’s date night, so we’re trying out that new Mexican restaurant downtown. Hopefully the tables will be spaced out. I’m not comfortable eating inside restaurants yet, but Jen really wants to go and we’re vaccinated, so…”

“You’ll be fine. Have fun and give my love to Jen.”

“Will do. Enjoy your rock tonight.”

“Very funny.”

Marissa put the HOPE rock on her desk in her office, then took a shower and applied a charcoal mask.

“What happened to your face?” asked Henry dripping sweat on their bedroom floor.

“It’s a charcoal face mask, it helps to clear out the pores.”

“You know that’s all bullshit right? None of that stuff actually works. It’s just skincare companies taking advantage of womens’ insecurities,” Henry said as he peeled off his drenched running gear.

Please stop talking.

“Do you mind not taking off your sweaty running clothes in the bedroom? It smells up the whole space,” Marissa said from her side of the bed where she was relaxing.

“You’re in a mood tonight.”

Marissa couldn’t stand the smell so she went downstairs, grabbing a washcloth and towel from the linen closet on her way. When it was time she wiped off the mask with the warm cloth, then followed with a splash of cold water. She dried her skin and inspected herself in the hallway mirror. Her pores looked smaller and clearer and she felt good. What the hell does Henry know about charcoal face masks anyway?

She poured herself a glass of Pinot Noir and settled on the couch with her new book, “H is for Henrietta.”

“Are you going to read that whole series about witches?”

“Yep.”

“I don’t understand what you like about those books.”

“I don’t understand what you like about the war books you read.”

“Where’s your HOPE rock? Aren’t you keeping it with you?”

“Um no, it’s on my desk.”

“Well you can always grab it if you need it.”

“I will, thanks.”

“Do you want to watch that new documentary about the opioid crisis?”

“Not really, life is upsetting enough right now.”

Who is this man? What is wrong with him? Why did I marry him?

Henry poured himself a glass of wine and sat down on the couch.

“What about Justin Theroux’s new show on Apple TV?”

“Okay.”

A quarter of the way through the first episode, Marissa asked:

“Why didn’t we try harder to have children? I feel like we gave up too soon.”

“Can we just watch the show and discuss this later. Not that there’s anything to discuss, we’re better off not having kids – the world is a disaster.”

Marissa got up and opened another bottle of wine, even though the first one was still half full.

“That’s a really expensive bottle, why are you opening it?” Henry asked, his voice tinged with irritation.

“Because we’re living in a fucking pandemic that’s never going to end so why not drink the good stuff?!”

“You’re spiralling. You need your HOPE rock.”

“I hate that rock! You should know that I would hate that rock, you’ve been with me for ten years. I feel like a cardboard cut-out wife that you just project things onto. Like you think your wife should like HOPE rocks and plaid pajamas and rock climbing and Patagonia and cheap wine and fake diamond stud earrings and being childless and being pet-less. But I’m not that person. Why don’t you see me? Why don’t you want to see me?”

“Just because it’s a pandemic doesn’t give you the right to lose your shit. Get it together. And if you don’t like something, speak the hell up. How am I supposed to know that you don’t like Patagonia jackets?”

“Because I read British, French and American Vogue magazine every month. Because I’ve dressed beautifully every day of the pandemic instead of wearing sweatpants. That’s why you should know.”

“I can’t talk with you when you’re this emotional. If you want to calm down and have a rational discussion after the show is over that’s fine, otherwise I’m putting the headphones on.”

“Put them on then. I’ll read my witch novel and maybe I’ll find a spell that I can cast to turn YOU into a freaking HOPE rock.”

And hour later Marissa was in bed, still reading “H is for Henrietta” and still fuming.

Henry came into the bedroom and lay down.

“I had a vasectomy when I was 28. I’m sorry. I never wanted children.”

What?

Marissa felt her face morph into “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.

“When we were first dating you told me you wanted two kids.”

“I lied; I was in love with you.”

Marissa opened her bedside table drawer and took half a sedative.

“You shouldn’t take a pill, you’ve had wine, you – “

Marissa shot Henry a death stare.

“Okay let’s just go to sleep. We’ll talk in the morning when we’re fresh. We can’t let this pandemic tear us apart. I just read an article about how Covid stress is causing the divorce rate to skyrocket.”

Marissa didn’t answer. Applying her favorite Dr. Haushka lip balm in the dark, she was thinking about the time she told Henry that she liked the names Olive and Ryder for their children and how he had agreed enthusiastically.

“I know I just told you something shocking and you have every right to hate me right now. But just know that I lied because I was scared of losing you. I love you Marissa. I’m just as in love with you now as I was ten years ago. And I’m sorry about the HOPE rock.”

Marissa applied more lip balm.

“I know we’re childless, but we don’t have to be pet-less.”

Marissa was starting to dose off, her mind tranquil like it had been glazed with marshmallow fluff.

“We could adopt a cat.”

Mary

~ Inspired by a True Story ~

“Your hips are too narrow, you’re going to have trouble giving birth.”

“Oh.”

“Back in your places everyone. Let’s take it from the top.”

After rehearsing the modern dance choreography for an hour and a half, Mary was exhausted. At the bus stop she pulled her neon orange beret down as far as it would go, it was freezing. On the ride home she worked on her homework, but found it difficult to concentrate.

I’m going to have trouble giving birth. Does that mean the baby will get stuck? Will the baby break my narrow hips trying to bust its way out of my vagina? Will the baby die inside me? Will I die? Maybe no one will want to marry me because I don’t have child-bearing hips. Oh My God I’m going to die alone.

“How was dance class honey? Your beef stroganoff is on a plate in the oven.”

“It was pretty good, but my dance teacher said something weird to me, she said I’m going to – ”

“Hold on hon, I have to go wrangle your brothers. They’re fighting like maniacs and your father is at a work event.”

“But mom – ”

Later that night Mary wrote in her journal:

February 17th, 1985

Found out my hips are too narrow to have a baby, so I’ve decided to forget about having children. Anyways, my brothers are crazy – imagine if I had a kid like them?!!!! I’m going to get 3 dogs instead. That creepy guy was watching me dance again, the one who wears burgundy tights. I HATE HIM!!!

After showering and staring at her pores for ten minutes, Mary went to bed. She put on her headphones and listened to The Cure’s “The Head on The Door” for a few minutes before turning off her light. She was exhausted, but she had to say her prayers.

Her brothers didn’t have any Catholic training, but Mary had gone to French Catholic School for three years, so she figured she had a leg up on them. Though, if she were being completely honest with herself, St. Elizabeth’s had been quite stressful. All the classes were in French except for religion class and they were very strict. In first grade Mary used to hold her pee because she didn’t know how to ask to go to the bathroom in French. And their religion teacher was terrifying. Her face dour, with slightly cruel eyes and disapproving of anything joyful. Mary had been relieved when her parents moved her to a secular French school. Still, she figured that having a relationship with God was a good idea, though she mentioned it to no one.

Lately Mary had been asking God for a lot of help and she worried he might cut her off. She didn’t know how many favors she was allowed to ask for.

Dear God,
I hope you had a good day. Please bless mom, dad, Tommy and Mike – even though Tommy and Mike are total freaks. Please keep them all safe, healthy and happy. And when I die, please don’t let it be from fire. I’m still very afraid of fire and I would prefer to die another way, drowning is fine.

I know you are very busy God, like I can’t even imagine what your schedule must be like. I hope you have an assistant, maybe an Angel, helping you keep everything organized. I don’t want to add to your stress, but I do have a couple of favors to ask you:

1. Could you please widen my hips? Apparently my hips are too narrow and it’s going to be hard for me to have a baby. Maybe just a couple of inches on both sides.
2. Also, could you please make that hideous guy in the burgundy tights stop watching me at the dance studio. He’s like 25 or something. So gross.
Thank you for loving me and for watching over us.
Good night.

“Rise and shine and greet the day!” yelled her dad at her bedroom door.

“Dad!” Mary yelled back, half laughing, half groaning, “Stop it!”

After lounging in bed a little longer, Mary hopped up and went straight to her upright mirror. She pulled up her black and white striped nightgown and stared at her hips. Did they look a little wider? No, she must be imagining it. She stared harder, running her hands slowly across her stomach as if she was measuring them. Yes. Yes, they were a bit wider, like maybe an inch on each side.

Thank you SO much God. Now I have options. Maybe I’ll have one baby and one dog. That’s perfect. That’s what I’ll do.

Photo from Periodicult. Mademoiselle Magazine, Danskin 1986.
http://periodicult.com/wp/

Roxie

“Beautiful girl, I love you so much. Give me a kiss.”

“Why do you only talk like that to our dog?”

“What?”

“You never call me beautiful. You never tell me you love me and I can’t remember the last time we kissed.”

“You’re being ridiculous. And you’re making Roxie anxious with your weird energy. See how her ears are pointed back? That means she’s worried.”

“Oh Sweet Jesus.”

“It’s okay Roxie, come here. There you go, belly rubs solve everything.”

“And tonight, like every other night, she’ll lie between us – horizontally – separating us so we can’t cuddle.”

“Since when do you like cuddling? You always say that you can’t sleep in my arms, that you need space.”

“I can’t sleep in your arms because I get too hot. But it would be nice to cuddle before going to sleep. You know, like a normal couple.”

“We are a normal couple. Roxie’s eyes are bulging out, the tone of this conversation is upsetting her.”

“Holy fuckety fuck. She’s a dog. I love her, you know I do. But why can’t she sleep in her dog bed? The one in the corner that cost a bazillion dollars.”

“She’s a rescue dog and rescue dogs need extra affection.”

“Do you want out of this marriage?”

“What? No, of course not. Don’t be so dramatic. And don’t raise your voice, you’re scaring Roxie.

“She has you wrapped around her little paws.”

“Roxie, come here, it’s okay. Let’s all just calm down and I’ll turn off the light.”

“I can’t take this.”

“You can’t take what?”

“Your primary relationship is with our dog, not me. You love our dog more than you love me. You engage with our dog more than with me. You show affection to our dog more than with me. Our dog has a better wardrobe than me for God’s sake.”

“I think you’re having one of those hormonal imbalance meltdowns. Why don’t you take a Xanax and we’ll go to sleep. Roxie are you warm enough? Let me just pull this blanket up over you.”

“I just can’t…”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m getting dressed.”

“It’s eleven thirty, why are you getting dressed?”

“Because I don’t want to drive over to Sheila’s house wearing a nightgown.”

“You’re acting crazy.”

“Actually I’m fully rational and I’m – what’s that saying? – ‘leaning into my power.’ Maybe tomorrow you can take your four-legged wife to her favorite dog park, the one across town. That will give me time to pack my bags.”

“What? Don’t joke about things like that, it’s not funny. We would both be devastated if you left.”

“Actually you might not even notice I’m gone. And Roxie will be ecstatic to have you all to yourself.”

“What if I buy you the wardrobe of your dreams? Will that help?”

“What?”

“You said earlier that Roxie had a better wardrobe than you. So what if I gave you my credit card and you could buy all that Net-A-Porter stuff that I see you coveting on Instagram. Like those black boots with the weird chunky soles.”

“So let me get this straight: your takeaway from everything I just said is, that you think I would be happier in our relationship if I had a wardrobe as nice as Roxie’s?”

“Well, yes. It would be a tangible symbol of my love for you.”

“Wow.”

“Wow what?”

“Just like an all-around wow.”

“Well…”

“How much?”

“What do you mean how much?”

“How much would I get to put on your credit card for my new wardrobe?”

“Three thousand dollars.”

“Five thousand.”

“You’re negotiating with me?”

“You’re a lawyer, you would negotiate too. Plus, you make a ton of money.”

“Fine. It’s a deal. Five thousand dollars to prove that I love you as much as I love Roxie.”

“Okay then.”

“Thank God. Roxie has calmed down, she can tell that things are better between us.”

“I bet she can, she’s an Empath that Roxie.”

“Actually you’re right, she is an Empath. My sweet little girl.”

(Photo: iStock, NY Times article by Jen A. Miller, March 13th, 2018)

LAURA

“Lizzie said I’m too old to wear ‘Mom jeans.'”

Michelle burst out laughing.

“You are! We wore those back in the eighties.”

“I told her that shaming was not allowed in our home and that I could wear whatever I wanted.”

Michelle snorted.

“Do you even look good in those jeans? Because I’m guessing not.”

“I mean they are not my best look ever. I was in Urban Outfitters buying Lizzie a few things and I needed a pair of jeans; the salesperson said I looked amazing in them.”

Michelle was laughing hysterically now.

“Oh my God, stop it Michelle,” said Laura starting to laugh. “Changing the subject now. How’s Joshua?”

“Joshua is driving me nuts. He just asked me for a hundred dollars to buy some new limited edition sweatshirt. A sweatshirt. I can’t believe we have kids.”

“Me either. Remember in high school when we promised each other that we would never marry, never have kids and just travel the world together?”

“I know, such cuties we were. Ok, gotta go. Love you girl.”

“Bye love.”

Laura put the lasagna in the oven then went into Lizzie’s room to gather the detritus of teenage life:
5 dirty glasses
3 towels stained Manic Panic Electric Pink Pussycat
4 empty chip bags
2 cereal bowls but no spoons
clothing everywhere – like an H & M store on a Saturday.
Her bedroom was a tableau of teenage life that you might stumble upon at a cool downtown gallery.

The one thing that Lizzie kept clean and organized was the makeup area in her bathroom: lipglosses, brushes and eyeliners all standing tall and proud in their clear plastic containers.

“I can’t believe my fourteen year old daughter has her own bathroom,” Laura thought to herself.

Growing up she had shared a cramped, second floor bathroom with two younger brothers. Every morning her mother would yell:

“For the Love of God Laura, let your brothers in the bathroom! You can put your makeup on downstairs.”

Laura’s mother would drive them to school wearing curlers in her hair. Though it was mortifying at the time, Laura now appreciated it as a practical mom thing to do.

After tidying up and doing laundry, Laura poured herself a glass of Cab Sauvignon which she sipped while making a salad.

Lizzie slothed into the house with a deflated look on her face. She had dyed her hair pink to impress Violet, her latest crush. Violet was a very tall, very skinny girl who had long straight aquamarine hair. She wore all-black and spoke with a British accent from her years living in London. In typical high school fashion, where getting one’s heart broken was as common as bad cafeteria food, it turned out that Violet was not interested in Lizzie. Violet only had eyes for Brian.

“How could she like Brian?! He’s like – what’s that word you love using mom?”

“Smarmy?”

“Ya! He’s smarmy! And he wears these eighties style polo shirts with the collar up – like ‘ironic-preppy.’ He’s repulsive.”

“He sounds vile. Listen, I am so, so sorry about Violet, but honey on the positive side – your hair looks amazing!” Laura said while kissing her sweet, freckled, fourteen year old forehead.

“Thanks mom.”

“Dinner is fifteen minutes out so don’t eat too much crap.”

Lizzie backward-waved at her from the hallway on her way to her bedroom.

“Smells delicious babe,” her husband kissed her neck as he passed through the kitchen.

“I just need to call Tom Finklestein, be right back,” he said tossing his blazer on the couch.

“Fifteen minutes or I’m never making dinner again.”

The lasagna was a big hit and Lizzie told her dad all about Violet and Smarmy Brian.

“Oh Lizzie, I’m sorry, what an upsetting day. But let me tell you something: anyone who chooses ironic preppy over you has a major problem. As your grandma used to say – For The Love Of God.”

They all laughed. David was very good at making Lizzie laugh when she was upset, it was one of the things Laura loved most about him.

Lizzie’s fuchsia hair had inspired Laura, so in the middle of the night she went into her studio and started working on a new canvas. It would be the final painting in her series entitled “Shirley’s Cakes,” due to showcase at The Topanga Canyon Gallery, where rich Bohemians bought Laura’s artwork.

Her mother, Shirley, had been the love of her life and though she had died over two years ago, Laura still felt raw with grief. Shirley had been an amazing baker and had been especially fond of baking – and eating – cakes. Laura started painting her mother with fuchsia hair and curlers, stirring an oversized bowl of cake batter. The bowl was cauldron-like, as if she was stirring up a magic potion.

As she worked on creating the desired shade of pink, Laura remembered a pink cake Shirley had once baked for her: when Laura first got her period, Shirley had surprised her with a two-layer red velvet cake with pink colored cream cheese icing. It read “Congratulations!” in red cursive and her brothers had been jealous:

“Why does she get a special cake? It’s not fair!’

Shirley had yelled:

“Because she’s a woman today – she got her period! Women deserve period cakes every month.”

Her dad had simply said:

“Stop being knuckleheads so we can eat the cake.”

While painting, Laura often spoke to her mother – out loud. One time David had walked in on her and asked:

“Are you on speakerphone?”

“No, I’m chatting with my mother.”

“Oh…okay…”

Laura told her mother about Violet and Smarmy Brian and about how she and Michelle were planning a girl’s trip to NYC in October.

Shirley always had opinions:

That Violet is faking her accent, she only lived in London for two years. And For The Love Of God Laura, please buy a proper fall coat. Every time you travel to the east coast you’re freezing – you’re such an LA girl! By the way, I love Lizzie’s her new hair color, what a spectacular young woman she is.”

I know. Sometimes I just look at her and I want to cry because she’s so precious to me.”

“That’s how I was with you. When you were young I would just stand at your bedroom door with tears streaming down my face; I was overwhelmed by my love for you.

“I miss you mom. I’m going to make coffee now because I need to be awake when I drive Lizzie to school.”

“Before you go: make sure the gallery prices these painting high. Soon half of Hollywood is going to have Laura Keating paintings in their fancy homes. I’m so proud of you.”

“Thanks Mom.”

Laura made a pot of coffee, then had one of her madcap ideas: she would bake Lizzie a Betty Crocker cake for breakfast. Lizzie loved their yellow cake with the canned chocolate frosting. Laura checked the pantry to make sure she had everything and then, since David was still asleep, she took an army shower and threw on her school drop-off uniform:
skinny jeans, tank top and long, kimono-style robe.

She grabbed some healthy snacks for Lizzie and threw them on top of her black Converse so she wouldn’t forget to take them to school.

At 7:00 am Laura woke her up by standing at her door and blasting The Go-Go’s “Our Lips are Sealed” on her iphone.

“OMG mom seriously?! Stop it with the 80’s music wake-ups!”

“But they’re so fun! Get ready, I have a special breakfast for you.”

“I’m not going to school. I don’t want to see Violet and Smarmy Brian googly-eyeing each other.”

“Wear something fabulous – maybe that new asymmetrical top thing-y, and do one of your dramatic cat eyes. Then just walk down those hallways letting your light shine bright.”

“Mom, you sound kind of lit, have you been up all night painting?”

“Yes I have darlin! Breakfast in 20 minutes.”

Laura gulped down coffee and finished frosting the cake. She poured Lizzie a glass of orange juice and set a place for her at the kitchen table with the cake placed in front of her.

David zoomed through and said:

“I’m late, I’ll grab a Starbucks on the road. Cake for breakfast? You’re nuts. Have a good day babe!” He kissed her on the cheek as he flew out.

“You baked me Betty Crocker for breakfast?!”

Lizzie sat down and Laura cut them both big pieces.

“Lizzie, this cake is to celebrate how fucking spectacular you are. Please don’t ever forget it. Got it?

“Got it,” said Lizzie taking a massive bite. “This is sooo yummy!”

“And another thing: between the cake and the orange juice your blood sugar level is going to crash in an hour or less, so make sure to have one of those protein bars on you, otherwise you’re likely to go off.”

“Will do. Becks just texted me. She wants me to come over for dinner tonight, her mom will pick us up. Can I go?”

“Her mom is that super conservative woman right?”

“Ya.”

“Okay, but just promise me you won’t listen to a word she says.”

“I’m going to tell her you made me cake for breakfast.”

“Oh I love that, please do – she will be horrified.”

They finished eating in happy silence.

Photo:
https://manicpanic.com/collections/hair-color/products/electric-pink-pussycat-classic-high-voltage

Erica

“Your eyes look different.”

“What do you mean different?”

“I don’t know. Something has changed.”

“Maybe my eyes look happy because my best friend is coming to visit this week.”

“No, it’s not that, they don’t look happy.”

“What then?”

“I don’t know exactly.”

“Are you trying to say I look older?”

“I mean…your eyes just don’t look like they used to.”

“We’re lying in bed, in the dark, about to go to sleep and from what I understand you’re telling me I look older? Why in God’s name would you say that? I don’t think I’ve ever had a man say something so hurtful to me.”

“Well I mean we all change over time.”

“I feel sick with sadness, like I could vomit tears.”

The next morning Erica stared at her eyes in the bathroom mirror. She did look older, she’d noticed it a little while ago. It was partly hereditary – everyone on her mom’s side of the family got droopy upper eye lids. But for Paul to say something…

Paul regularly said things that left her feeling small. Little things that in the moment felt like nothing, but minutes later left Erica feeling deflated. And she had become so used to feeling this way that it felt normal. Though he said he loved her sparkly, colorful spirit, he was actually snuffing it out one day at a time. And since words left no physical marks, no one could see that she was being hurt over and over again.

Erica was so upset that she ate six Bear Claw cookies for breakfast and gave herself a stomach ache. Lying on the couch for half an hour she tried crying, but nothing happened. Where were her tears?

Her tears were gone. Her tears were gone because her sadness had, unbeknownst to her, turned into anger. And her anger had, within seconds, turned into action. And action took Erica from the couch to Staples, where she bought six boxes, bubble wrap, tape and large sheets of paper.

Erica circled their condo, taking her favorite possessions. Packing quickly, she drank coffee with spoonfuls of sugar. From their bedroom closet she chose only her most loved clothing, folding it in a small suitcase.

Logging onto airbnb she found an artsy, furnished cottage on the opposite side of the city. It was just a few blocks from the water and had a beautiful rose garden. She paid for three months rent and the owner offered to help carry her boxes inside, where she could store them in the den.

She cleaned the coffee pot and put her dirty cup in the dishwasher. On a leftover piece of packing paper she wrote a note to Paul:

You did not break my spirit. You temporarily took the air out of my spirit. You temporarily crushed my spirit. But my spirit is more powerful than you will ever be. My spirit has come roaring back with her drooping eyelids and my spirit has this to say:
“You were lucky to have me, but I’m gone now.”