The Skeleton in the Bed

He peeled me off the couch. “Let’s go to bed.” Russ cupped my shoulders and walked me to the bedroom, unleashing a waterfall of relief. He had come home. Why did I fret the worst? I knew he was working late. 

I wasn’t always this way. Usually, I bounced between apocalyptic foreboding and “It will, like, totally work out,” believing in Aquarius, and subscribing to both possibilities in equal measure. My scale has since shifted, the last several years pocking the turnstile, sliding it closer to the whipping post of existential shrift. 

Maybe my undue angst was a reaction to the shooting outside our building last week. I was splayed on that same pink couch, entranced in Yellowstone’s premiere. (It’s Dallas with more horses and better scenery—flora and fauna—if you know what I mean). That night, Russ was already in bed asleep. He missed the pop! pop! pop! pop! let’s go! let’s go! let’s go! outside our windows.

I pulled back the curtain from my dent in the couch (Darwinism in action), and stole shadows darting the periphery like cardboard paper cut-outs, a team of tires screeching into thin air on Mass Ave. I walked to the bedroom, pushing the door open slowly with my index finger, leaning forward as it went, like my incisor was ringed in floss and tied to the door knob. Feet anchored in place, hands on hips, I stared at the lumpy entanglement of pillows and elbows, a molten of down concealing most of his boxers, minus a swatch of yellow, ripe enough for a ballpark dog, and dotted with pickles, dimpled for effect. His pickle pants. I stood there eyeballing him, willing Russ to waken, to sense the danger, the urgency of our fiction turned fact. 

It never happened.

So my guilt was a mere margin, passed out on the pink couch waiting for Russ, who was well past the expected curfew by several hours. I had slept through the second half  of Succession, for the third time that week, but it didn’t matter. My relief was palpable. I stumbled to bed satisfied he was home, falling into the mattress like a mummy laid to rest. 

I was still groggy when Russ’ alarm prattled in the wee hours the next morning like it always did. He hit snooze a few times and I thought about the previous night. 

I said, “Russ, I had a weird dream last night.”

“Oh yeah?”

“It was like I was awake, pretending to sleep, but I couldn’t open my eyes, or it would end.”

Russ was silent. He was used to these enigmatic openers that assembled so naturally on my lips, like grease bubbles crowning pores on the foreheads of teenagers everywhere. 

Cracker came for a visit. I think, anyway. In my dream, he slipped under the covers, and did his little dance, passaging and pirouetting, scraping at the sheets, trying to fluff his perfect spot behind my knees.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, except, his pointy little feet were sharp, like buttercups upside-down, made of broken sea shells.

He was a skeleton.

There was no fur.

That’s why his feet were so sharp.”

Russ didn’t say anything. 

“It was weird. I wondered if I was dreaming this dream, while dreaming it, but I was scared to move, in case it was really happening. I was so happy to see him. I didn’t want it to end.

I half expected to wake-up with red pin marks in my calf from his little fork feet kneading my doughy chicken leg.”

“Did you?” Russ asked, throwing me the proverbial bone, since it was still too early to deconstruct the fundamentals of an occult experience.

“No,” I said, sighing. “But when he finally curled up, he was soft and warm behind my knees.”

And my heart was full.

My family was home.

Helen of Hamilton

I treated myself to Hamilton tickets. Broadway was back, so I was heading straight there, as soon as my ticket allowed. I rode the bus. These days it even departs from outside my door. Now I roll out of bed and go (a flashback to college life!). Previously (pre-COVD), it cost $20 for round trip fare, but now buses are $70, and they are still packed. Despite the price hike, taking the bus is still significantly cheaper than riding the train. One ticket on Amtrak chips my theatre funds into fractions, so I avoid it. Besides, the bus is not even an hour longer, which means slightly more time for reading.

I arrived in New York early enough to have lunch with my sophomore year undergrad roommate. Funny thing about catching up with a friend you haven’t seen in 30 years. It’s not hard at all. We’ve changed, yes, but underneath, we are the same people as we were then. Trust is implicit, even after decades apart. We resumed where we left it, sharing personal stories, discussing our challenges, and wondering what our plans might be in the future. This dynamic of implied trust is a key ingredient for enduring friendships, despite massive gaps between them. I find this feature of the human psyche both fascinating, and somewhat magical, like it’s humans one big superpower. 

After lunch we walked down to 46th St, parting ways. She headed one direction, toward her theatre, and I went the other, towards mine. Crossing the threshold into Richard Rodgers theatre, I imagined the splendour the children in CS Lewis’ novel must have felt, stepping into Narnia from a dark wardrobe at the back of a closet. The theatre was rich in red velvet with burgundy hues, slivers of black, forest green, and navy accenting it. But most of all was the ruby red. Chandeliers, hung like ballrooms for the sky’s constellations, cascaded sparkles and the shadows that danced with them over every surface, like rice tossed at the newly married skittering away from the church. 

 I found my seat. Sitting down, I gazed at the stage, and smiled. You really outdid it this time. If a perfect seat existed, at Richard Rodgers Theatre, I had found it. Level: Orchestre, Row: T, Seat: 108. It was the BaiHui of theatre seating. The single location where every energy in my body had the chance to meet at once. If you’ve never had a needle lightly screwed into that spot by an acupuncturist, I highly recommend it. But T-108 was a close second, my moment of “A Hundred Convergences” for the next three hours.

The theatre filled slowly at first, despite the queues wrapping back and forth,  waiting to cross the entryway like I did. A lady sat down next to me with her son on the other side. I could tell they were New Yorkers. How? I just new. Soon two mothers ushered a gaggle of girls into the row in front. They were all dressed for the occasion in matching dark dresses, sparkling and glittery, their hair knotted in different configurations. The moms bookended the three girls between them.

I counted my lucky stars. First BaiHui, and now three ribby adolescents parked ahead of me. As they settled in, an usher sauntered up and down the aisle, waving seat inserts like powerball tickets. One of the moms, closest to the aisle, flagged her down and grabbed one. She passed the black pillow hand by hand down to a tiny girl sitting in front of the New Yorker next to me. The girl stood up, placing it on the seat, before flopping back down.

No, I like it better without, she said.

Goldilocks. 

The girl in front of me cried, I wanna try it!

Oh here we go…

With those words, my BaiHui moment crossed swords with the omnipotent zen. She tucked the insert under her seat, waffling back and forth on top of it like a toddler trying to locate the hole in the center of the toilet, before settling down to have a pee. 

I could barely see the stage before the butt lift, but now I was forced to sit at 9’oclock, peering between slivers of shoulders to garner a view. I was slightly annoyed. I wondered, Who’s raising these cockamamie twits who don’t consider any impact their expanding comfort might inflict on someone else’s discomfort? Hamilton is nothing more than a play within a play, which is a mimicry of the ongoing play known as America!

I didn’t say these things, but I thought them. I took a deep breath, settling down, grateful I could twist to 9 o’clock on my red velvet seat, watching beautiful art, all while the tween sat unencumbered like Helen of Troy on her throne. 

After intermission, when the girls returned to their seats with their mothers, the tiny girl switched places with Helen of Troy. She took her seat in front of me. I thanked my crossed swords. Equilibrium was restored.

I felt a tap on my shoulder.

Yes?

New Yorker nodded at Helen of Troy sitting in front of her.

Wasn’t she sitting in front of you?

A smirk trickled across my face. 

Yes. She was.

What? They change seats?

I guess so, I said.

Helen had confiscated her butt lifter, tucking it below her.

New Yorker turned her head and stared straight at me.

What’s this?

I believe that’s a chair lift.

What? She have that with you?

Yep. I flipped through the program.

Well now I can’t see anything. Could you see?

Well, I turned sideways a little. I had to look between their shoulders to see.

Oh. This is unbelievable. This is not right!

New Yorker turned her head to stare at the side of my face once again.

You should say something.

What?

Yeah. Go complain. Tell them this isn’t right. I can’t see anything.

I looked at her round face. New Yorker didn’t have a lot of laugh lines, like scrubbing her face with course soap for decades had left it hard. She had succeeded in rubbing all the emotions from it. 

I said, “You’re welcome to complain. Want me to let you out.”

She pawed her hand in the air suggesting the conversation was over.

Well, you’re welcome to sit in the seat on the other side of me, I said. It’s empty. 

She considered this for two seconds before picking herself up, sliding around my knees, leaving her son alone to fare for himself.

Reflecting on this chance encounter, I thought the old me would have made room for both the mother and son to sit together. But a lot has happened since then. Now I considered the fact we had all paid the same price for our tickets, and sometimes, who sat in front of you was plain luck, or not. Maybe had she been friendlier from the beginning, before we had exchanged any words, I might have made the offer so she could sit next to her son. My mother did raise me to consider others before considering myself. If this is how I turned out, I wonder what will become of Helen of Troy.

Sewing Buttons

I love buying clothes on Ebay. Not that I do it often, but when I need something specific, this is where I head. There are many reasons why. I never have to step foot in a brick and mortar, avoiding the time suck of travelling to a place I don’t want to be. It’s cost effective. The savings buying something used, versus brand-new, are noteworthy.  Lastly, I appreciate recycling what is already in circulation, instead of being a spoke in the wheel of an industry ripe for disruption. A good purchase sparks a moment of happiness much the same way an unexpected cup of coffee from A Baked Joint does. It’s  always a treat.

There are some tricks to spending well on Ebay and avoiding unnecessary frustration. Knowing the exact item you want, including the brand, is crucial. Otherwise it’s a gamble as to what you might find in the package that appears on your doorstep. The opportunity for disappointment is high. Besides, perusing a never-ending scroll of items is more torture than just hopping in the car to retrieve the one thing I need. When ordering, I err on the side of too large if unsure of the size, and alter as necessary. I’ve learned having a skilled tailor is key. They are as paramount to your personal household as a good hair dresser, although much more difficult to discover. 

Mine lives in Texas. My mom said, “I have a great tailor,” after I recounted an experience with one around the block from me before COVID happened. She had shortened a pair of jeans. When I put them on afterward, one leg was over an inch shorter than the other one. I took them back and laid them on the counter folded in half along the seam. She looked at them, and without a word, tugged the end of the pant leg, stretching it to meet its mate. She looked me in the eye expectantly. “See? They match.” I picked them by the waist band and opened them up, holding them in front of me. They looked like clown pants. I said, “I don’t think this is going to work.” 

True story. 

(The lies we can tell [sell to] ourselves).

If necessary, I stockpile things until I head back to Texas a few months later. Tammy is THAT good. Even with tailoring, the total cost is only 25-30% of that item purchased brand-new. Every time I pick-up from Tammy’s, I do a little happy dance, thinking I’m so damn smart. 

One time I bought two blouses that ended up being a bit small. I decided to fix this by buying a third one to cut up, using the strips of fabric to insert side panels in the first two. It did and Tammy stitched them perfectly. Even my teenage niece approved of the alterations. (Whoa, PROPS!). But I forgot one of blouses was missing a couple of buttons until I put the shirt on. When I got back to DC I pulled out my (aka Russ’) sewing kit and got to work. It took me longer to thread the needle twice, than to actually sew the buttons onto the shirt. I stabbed my fingertips repeatedly pushing the needle through the holes in the button, but when I finished, those buttons were as tight on that shirt as the millions of buttons I threaded in many a horse’s mane in my career. 

I hung the shirt on a hanger, planning to button it up to soften any wrinkles before stashing it in my closet. I tried over and over, my fingers aching, but the buttons were too big for those button holes. I realised the buttons I had pinched from the corner in a dresser at my parent’s house were slightly bigger than the buttons that came with the shirt. 

 Often wrong, but never in doubt.

I love Tammy even more.

Walking in Another Man’s Shoes

We’re going to the eye doctor today, right?

Yep!

Know why I’m going?

Why?

Because I have a shitty outlook on life and she thinks she can fix it!

Dad doesn’t slap his knee anymore, delivering the punchline with a crack, but waits patiently instead, lips pursed like the house cat caught before swallowing the pet canary, giving his audience a moment to “get it.” He is 86 today. The soft landing of his jokes these days is the result of massive experience developed over time. 

This eye appointment was the second time I’ve accompanied my parents to visit Dr. Wang. I reminded her I had been to her office once before and wrote about the experience afterwards. They had pried Dad’s eyelid apart with a miniature speculum and pierced the milky egg-white of his sclera using a long shiny needle. I found myself trapped in an episode of Frankenstein meets Sandra Oh in Grey’s Anatomy. I told Dr. Wang the experience was irrefutable proof the sighting of a speculum means just one thing and it was not good. The doctor howled, nodding. She was powering Dad’s chair backwards when she suggested I turn away if I were prone to fainting.

“It’s happened before,” she warned.

“Oh…I bet!” I quipped.

No one wants to see that! I silently rebuked the doctor. The chair now all the way back, Dad melted into the hunter green leather, staring at the ceiling, resembling an astronaut preparing for takeoff. He had dressed for this occasion, sporting a starched button down paired with pleated trousers, even threading his long-forgotten, stiff black belt through the loops. He was wearing Bob’s shoes. Dr. Wang picked the needle up and I turned away.

What was it like to walk in a dead man’s shoes? 

My eyes were constantly drawn to the black bluchers, a hint of shine still glossing them, their molds and wrinkles shaped by another man’s feet. I couldn’t help but think how weird they looked casing my own father’s, like a child riding in an adult saddle, trying to pass it off as their own. 

Dad didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he was rather pleased to be wearing Bob’s shoes. Maybe I was bothered because Bob had not been dead yet one year. Or maybe it was because my own father was on the cusp of 86 and I cannot recall the last time he wore footwear other than his moccasins lined with sheepskin. 

For years he has lamented, “Getting old isn’t for sissies!” This is in reference to the spreading decay of the human body, of his body, with each passing season. I have no doubt pain and suffering usher the entryway through the threshold towards geriatrics, but bearing witness to this evolution isn’t for sissies either. 

Last week in class, another writer surmised my essay was “embedded in the throes of existential angst” to which I replied, “It’s like you’ve known me my whole life!” As I tail those before me closer to the precipice, this heavy contemplation of mine has gained momentum at an identical inverse rate to our shrinking velocity. I once considered my professed midlife crisis an interlude, but that would imply it has a beginning and an end. Now I have no choice but to admit this is a personality defect, my underlying predilection breaching the surface, like watering a weed underneath the parched soil, giving it roots to hold its ground and bloom with ferocity. 

It’s going to take some getting used to, seeing Bob’s shoes on Dad’s feet, but I always picture Bob’s smiling face for a moment, his cheeks rosy like two cherries, and that makes me smile. I told someone the other day I was contemplating my third Act. I wonder what’s next, and what it might look like. I feel lucky in that regard. How often does a person get to live more than one life in a single lifetime, let alone three or four? A wise friend once told me, “To live a thousand lives, you must die a thousand deaths.” But maybe walking in another man’s shoes is the gift one man can give to another, the sharing of a life well lived, to another man still living well.

Two Forties

So Dad, I asked. Are you gonna trade Mom in for two forties? 

I was already slapping my knee, cracking myself up. Dad smiled, his face open like a daisy.

What did you say, he asked?

I said, Are you going to trade Mom in for two forties, now that she’s eighty?

He chuckled with the hint of a smirk. 

Nawww… I can’t afford what I’ve got!

HA! Remember when you told Granddaddy you were going to trade Mom in for two twenties on her fortieth birthday! 

Hee-hee!

Tell Russ that story. What did Granddaddy say?

Awww, Dad tittered. He said, Dick… I don’t think you are wired for two twenties!

I imagined my father sitting across the kitchen table from his father-in-law, slapping his knee before the punchline dried, my grandfather deadpanned behind his black-rimmed glasses, lobbing that wisecrack right back with the barrel of a Louisville Slugger. 

Last week, mom turned eighty. Russ and I left the house that morning at 4:30 am to catch our flight to Houston. We waited seventeen minutes for an Uber that cost three times the price than even two years ago. We made it to the airport with enough time to queue at Starbucks for another twenty minutes, following the twenty minute procession through the security check-point. Travel is an exercise in patience if nothing else. 

We flew United and our seats were not together (#cheapseats). My seat next to the aisle was in the second to last row. For three hours the sweet rank of biocides permeated my face mask like a bottle of Boone’s Farm missing its screw-top and stashed in the broken refrigerator long forgotten. 

As boarding was finishing, the plane close to capacity, a man tapped me on the shoulder to take his seat in the middle of the row. He immediately started coughing. For the next three hours he coughed more than he didn’t, at one point lowering his mask to wipe his nose on his sleeves. I peered sideways to see what the other passenger thought of our shared neighbour. The boy leaned into the hole of the window, his hoodie sweatshirt drop-clothed over his head and shoulders, concealing him. If it were possible to crawl into that hole like a baby rabbit hiding from a fox, I’m sure the boy would have.

The coughing tourist is the new nemesis of air travel, replacing the screaming child as the worst traveller to be wedged against in the age of COVID. That morning I drew the short straw in the Hunger Games of United Air. As soon as our wheels touched pavement, I powered on my phone and texted my doctor. What the fuck do I do now? I asked him. I didn’t use those exact words, but the sentiment was clear. My existential angst revelled in the dichotomy of the airline’s caste system (surely a microcosmic representation of human culture) and my privileged relationship with my concierge physician on speed dial. What a wonderfully wicked world in which we live.

Russ and I arrived with plenty of time to run errands and cook a nice dinner for my parents. I had writing class that evening, but right away requested to read my piece first so I could duck out. When I told them it was my mother’s eightieth birthday, the teacher asked, “Oh wow! That’s amazing! How is your mom doing? Does she still get around pretty well?”

I said, “Well…She still does yoga… and she still tutors English at the local community college…so yeah…I guess you could say she’s a little bit of a turbo actually!”

There was a collective “Wow!” from the group. They were super impressed. They hoped their own lives would be as full and productive at eighty as my mother’s is today. I couldn’t agree more. 

The following evening, we celebrated Mom’s birthday with family and friends at a restaurant my parents had not visited in a long time, but patronised regularly many years ago: Chez Nous. It was a special evening to honour Mom’s past, and usher in the beginning of her ninth decade.

Russ returned home over the weekend, but I’m spending the week with my parents. COVID paved the silver lining of a flexible work schedule, allowing me to work from anywhere, some of the time. Dad turns eighty-six in a couple of days. I’m so grateful we can celebrate these milestones with each other in the flesh. The aughts are mighty, but so is each successive year, when you are mired in the winter season of your life. There is no place I’d rather be.

Last night was the final class of a short writing workshop I participated in with Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. Our reading assignment was Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu. I was not familiar with this story before taking this class, or with the author either, but I am so grateful to be introduced to these beautiful words, especially while visiting my parents in their home. The story was a great reminder of the pain and harshness humans sometimes inflict on one another, when our own struggles consume any empathy and grace dormant within us. We think we can fix it later or worry about it another day, but sometimes tomorrow is just too late. Today is all any of us have, merely moment by moment.

Make it count with the people you love.

Lake Silverfish

She leaned down and grabbed the railing. The plank was thin and cool under her hand, parched like driftwood carved by the seasons. She looked out across the water. The surface rippled, silver and shiny, waving like a bedsheet pulled from the dryer and snapped wide over the bed frame, hovering silently before resting on the mattress. 

Agnes noticed. Everything was moving left. The current’s canvas like chocolate diamonds; the leaves on the oak trees, shaped like children’s knitted gloves, the palms open and flat; the four swans gliding in the distance, beak to tail-peak, like bloated pearls threaded on a piece of string. Ahh, towards the emerging light, she acknowledged looking up, the hint of a smile cresting her face. Daybreak amazed Agnes. The world starting over, yesterday scrubbed away with the night, leaving only today, which has never happened before, and will never happen again. 

She took a deep breath and stepped off the dock, trusting a stair was hidden below the water’s surface to catch her foot. The chill of Lake Silverfish raced up her legs in bumps like minuscule mites swarming. They clambered across the expanse of her belly, up her arms to her face, causing Agnes to shiver like a plastic, inflatable character tethered to the roof of a tire shop, yellow and tall like Sesame Street’s Ernie, its toothy grin ridiculous across the frozen face. The shock stung like a bee. Her body registered the familiar assault and flirted with passing out. This sometimes happened to Agnes after a welt sprouted, the intruder long buzzed away, satisfied. 

She clamped her mouth shut to stop the chattering and winced at the silky feathers blooming under her feet. The step was covered in a cashmere of tendrils and blades, spores and florets, slippery and soft. Mushy like sautéed mushrooms, she winced. Before she could change her mind, Agnes pushed away, choosing the bath of icy blades in favor of the slop covering the rest of the stairwell. Cold squeezed her like Death shaking hands, impatient and determined, bony fingers threatening to never let go. Agnes’ limbs looped with a flurry, cutting butterfly wings through the batter with every stroke, propelling her past the crown of weeds swaying against her legs into clearer waters. 

Swimming came as naturally to Agnes as walking. She wasn’t sure which she had learned first as a child. You’re such a little fish, Agnes!, her mother used to coo, turning the page of Good Housekeeping from the lounge-chair on the side of the pool, a concrete hole dug on the side of a two-lane highway, behind a chainlink fence, somewhere along the south side of Jersey. For hours Agnes would throw the penny she had asked her mother for that morning as far as she could, diving to pick it up off the floor like a retriever fetching a tennis ball, before popping up breathless, adjusting her goggles, and pitching the coin to discover it all over again. 

Agnes headed for the little square of floating dock in the middle of the lake. She wanted to inspect the steely keg bobbing next to it, tethered by rope, and the plastic owl nailed in the corner meant to scare the birds away. Not warmed-up yet, Agnes flipped over anyway. The cold smacked the back of her head, filling her ears with the wet words from the world below. She swished the water past her gently, just fast enough to stay afloat, staring at the wisp of clouds like Q-tips above. Moving left, she noticed. Like everything else. But me. The lake hummed drowning the thought. Ironic, she noted, smiling. Slowly, Agnes flipped back over, the cold flash-frying her wet hull once more, prodding her arms and legs to cycle quicker in their native tongue. The water streaked with cobalt blue, like paint squirted onto a palette from an aluminium tube, disorienting Agnes. She looked around as she stroked, not believing the story her eyes were convinced. She tipped her head back, looking up once again, and noticed the dark patches of blue moving in and filling the sky between the clouds, reflecting back onto the lake. She was struck by how much richer the image was then its original.

Agnes swam into a warm patch, her muscles instinctively relaxing from their rigor.  Where do these pockets came from, she wondered. In a pool, everyone knew, or at the very least, assumed, the cause for a sudden change in temperature. Slick weeds tickled her feet, surprising her. Ahh, maybe they warm the water around them, Agnes considered. She pushed the weeds back with each kick, but the tendrils clung to her ankles like fingers. Agnes kicked harder, punching into their guts. She pulled her leg back, but the blades braided together like rattan weaving into a basket. Agnes kicked with her other foot, the twin fighting for its mate, sending her body planking upright, feet swirling, tangling in a tsunami. An unfamiliar feeling washed over Agnes.

Panic. 

Agnes lurched, slapping the water. Liquid crowded her, seeping into every crevice, clouding her eyes and deafening her ears, a large bubble lodging in the crux of her throat. Agnes fought back against the forest below, kicking and punching, thrashing it like a house intruder who woke her in the night, one hand placed over her mouth and the other gripping a serrated blade pressed against the heat coursing through her jugular. The water danced with Agnes, retreating when she advanced and advancing when she retreated, her partner in an erratic waltz. 

You belong to the forest. Was that a threat? A promise? Or the truth? Agnes didn’t know. The air turned thick like mud, and the trees grew out of the sky licking the dirt. Brine burned Agnes lungs, as the weeds coaxed her closer to their queen. Agnes started to cry, afraid, angry, her tears shedding into the brack like an offering, the weeds wrapping her in a warm embrace. Her movements became looser… weaker… unpredictable.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this! Her old friend revealed as a villain, the sanctuary now her catacomb. Agnes took a deep breath, filling her lungs as far as they stretched. Opening her eyes wide, she threw back the quilt and set her feet on the cold wooden floor all at once, as if they were stitched together like a fishtail. She stared at the lake shimmering below her from the bedroom window at the top of the stairs. Standing up, Agnes walked to the bathroom, grabbing her suit from the hook on the back of the door.

Eighty Percent of Nothing is Nothing

I mailed a box of shoes, boots mostly, to Linda’s Stuff. My sister recommended the service platform for rehoming any neglected articles in my closet for a return. Linda’s business is to sort it, market it, and sell it, sending the owner up to eighty-percent of the proceeds. They make it easy from the very beginning, providing a free shipping label to mail your box.

I am somewhat consistent culling my wardrobe, but my shoes fall outside of that purview. Rarely do I ever part with them. My reluctance was further fortified recently by the search for my Birks. Did I really part with those well-worn failsafes from college, after carting them around for the last twenty-five years untouched? It appears so. One hot second of miscalculation has left me jonesing for those gasping keepsakes once embedded in the corner of my closet, like crusts of toasted wheat pared from tea sandwiches, grown stale with decades in the dark. 

Despite the blunder, I press on. I have a lot of boots. Too many boots. It’s like looking at a handful of ponies in an otherwise useful string, that never grace the field, every time I walk past them. They had to go. I groomed them, polished their edges, and packed them carefully, bidding farewell. Seven pairs in all. 

Ten days later, I received an email listing my inventory with a sale price attached to each item. The numbers were almost eighty-percent lower than what I had configured in my head, which was already fifty-percent lower than the cost to purchase them new. (High inflation is apparently limited to used cars…not shoes). The coup de grace was the two pairs listed “Unsellable-Low Resale.

Note to self: Eighty-percent of nothing is nothing.

The reminder was a colossal swallow of feathery sediment, floating in the murk of cider vinegar.

Five years earlier, when I moved to DC, I stumbled upon a resale shop not too far away.  The sight of it sparked a pruning spree, which resulted in a heap far too heavy to deliver on foot. I ordered an Uber. After rolling out of the car and into the store, arms bent like a towel rack, the layers overflowing, I waited as the clerk sifted through the pile. She removed each item from under its plastic sheath, peeling it slowly from the hanger, before holding it up like a young woman gazing uncertainly at someone else’s toddler, placing each one on the counter wordlessly, one after the other. When she finished, she mewed like a kitten, her voice soft and smooth. 

She said, “Thank you, but we can’t use any of this.”

For am moment I didn’t respond. I wasn’t sure I had heard her correctly.

“I’m sorry…What?”

Well,” she said, “This all looks like work attire…Things you’d wear in an office.”

I did a quick mental inventory. Yes, there was some Brooks Brothers, and Ann Taylor, but there was also Joe’s jeans and cashmere sweaters. 

What I wanted to say was, “And??

What I did say was, “Really? … This is all work attire?” 

The surprise on my face quickly deflated into a flat crease. I surmised she must be twelve masquerading as twenty-five, a cheap salve for my smoldering ego. 

She shrugged her shoulders. 

Yeah, I’m afraid it doesn’t really go … Thanks anyway.”

The clerk moved from behind the counter, taking her exit, leaving me in the middle of the mangled wreckage spilled across the counter, strewn at my feet, and hanging from clothes racks like nooses patiently waiting for necks, amidst the gaggle of shoppers wandering at my back. Adding injury to insult was the unaccounted-for Uber back home, still laden like a modern urban sherpa.

I called my sister.

“Can you believe this shit?,” I screamed into the phone. “They wouldn’t accept anything! None of my stuff is C-O-O-L enough! It’s for the ‘office,’ like that’s a bad word! What the fuck do these people do? I live in Washington DC for fuck’s sake!” 

She laughed, though I doubt she was surprised. My sister has always been cool. I have not. 

The next day, I loaded the pile once more, straight into the car. Off to Goodwill I went. Here I am now, a handful of years later, and my “style” still isn’t cool, hold much value, sometimes even crossing into the realm of unacceptable. This truth is like ripping the scab off an old wound I didn’t even know I possessed. I thought I was average in most ways, but these experiences have illuminated the fact my fashion sense lies closer to my teenage niece’s most utilized buzzword, “irrelevant.”

I am already pooling items into another pile. Thinning the herd living in the big field once again. This time, I will load it straightaway into the car when there is enough to make the trip worthwhile. My ego is breathing a sigh of relief.

Denial is a useful strategy.

A Thimbleful

It all started with a fire drill. Not a real drill, for an actual fire, but a practice run. This happened once or twice a year in my office building—I can’t remember how often exactly—not since COVID and WFH (which I joked at the time was the acronym for What Fucking Happened?” but it is still applicable today). Everyone in the building knew how the day would go. First the piercing siren on every floor, then the blinding flicker of the LED bulb, like the hands of jumper cables clamped to a car battery at one end and frantically clapping with the other. It was a cattle call down the stairwell after that, the click-clack of heels, shoulder to shoulder, the slow exodus not unlike squeezing a hardened tube of dried toothpaste onto your brush. We slowly circled the drain.

There was plenty of time to imagine how this scene might go if it were truly an emergency. I envisioned a corporate mosh pit not unlike a Smashing Pumpkins concert; suits pushing past dresses; purses slapping passersby like welterweight gloves; the older, more feeble trampled or wedged into corners like the forgotten rinds of Swiss still lurking in the cheese drawer. Darwinism would surely rise to the surface in this situation, emerging victorious, just like turds in a toilet bowl full of water.

After fifteen minutes, we finally reached the lobby and exited the building. (See above: Practice). There was already a crowd gathered across the street in the park, standing like a waddle of penguins, hands in their pockets or folded across their chests (depending if they had pockets or not), shifting from one foot to the other, making small talk and nodding at each other conspiratorially.

Seeing them, my coworker said, “Hey, there’s this great coffee shop a couple blocks away. Want to walk down there and grab a latte? They make the best one with oat milk. It’s so creamy, I love it!”

This sounded a lot better than standing around with nothing to do but small talk with strangers.  I was all in. Normally I only purchase a cup of coffee at a shop, but she sold this Oat Milk Latte pretty good, so I splurged. We sipped and walked our steaming cups back to the corner across from the park. And it was a delicious latte. 

Eventually the crowd started to wander back towards the glass doors, queuing up in front like a  blanket of bees spread across a honeycomb. My coworker and I stood there a bit longer watching. We rationalised we could wait in the lobby to grab an empty elevator back up, or we could wait in the sun on a perfect spring day. When we finally reached our suite my coworker said, “Well if you liked this, you might like the oat milk creamer I found at Whole Foods. It’s really good!” This enticed me. It sounded like a nice treat, an inexpensive one, and one I would allow since I rarely purchased coffee from a shop, choosing to brew my java at home instead.  

That weekend, I tucked an insulated bag inside my backpack, and walked the mile to Whole Foods. I had visited this location in the past, back when I did yoga at the studio next door, before the classes became so packed it began to feel like a giant petri dish, my face dodging the sweaty feet waving in front of me, as I wobbled on one leg in Warrior Three. So I knew this Whole Foods well enough to know exactly where the dairy—and the tiramisu—sections were located. They were both strategically placed. The dairy was stacked against the back wall, and the tiramisu sat in formation on cold shelves, next to the checkout line at the front of the store. It was impossible to exit without sauntering past all those ladyfingers soaking in their glorious bath of coffee, cocoa and mascarpone. (You should be having serious FOMO right now if you’ve never tasted WF’s tiramisu).

This visit, I headed straight to the back, and found the oat creamer tucked among the sea of other non-dairy creamers lining the refrigerated racks. It was the size of a small milk carton, and it cost five dollars. Hmm, I thought. I can buy a gallon of milk for less than that. Now I was the penguin, shifting from one foot to the other, holding the small container in my hand, deciding what I should do. Should I buy it? It’ll only last a week. Back and forth I went in my mind.

It’s only five dollars. 

Yeah…it’s five dollars!

I walked out without it (and the tiramisu!). I couldn’t pay that much for what was basically a condiment, and one that would only last a week. I headed to South Block next door. Instead of heading home with oat creamer stuffed in my backpack, I picked up a bottle of watermelon juice, what SB calls Hydrate, for nine dollars, and drank it on my walk back home. (I know, my spending rules are complicated, my math somewhat convoluted, thanks to middle age, which is an apt euphemism for what happens in the middle of the middle).

That next Monday, I stopped by my coworker’s desk. I said, “I found the creamer, but it was five dollars for this little container,” demonstrating how small it was my hands for dramatic effect. Grimacing, sucking air though my teeth, I admitted,“I just couldn’t do it…”

She looked into my eyes for a second before responding. I wondered what she was thinking. Was she was thinking about me? The kind of person I was? The kind that won’t spend five dollars at the grocery store for a carton of creamer?

She said, “Well, if you just use a little thimbleful, it should last you a while.”

Hearing this, my face screwed into a question mark. Now I was the one considering what kind of person she was. How does she even know what a thimble is? She was only in her early twenties.The last time, and only time, I thought of a thimble was playing monopoly as a kid, long before she was born. It was one of a few of the game-pieces I avoided at all costs. It was…totally…not…cool. I always dove into the box headed straight for the dog or the race car. Besides, who uses a “thimbleful” of creamer in their coffee? Who uses a  thimble to measure… anything? Is that even a thing? Have you ever heard someone say, “I’d like a thimble of cream, please?” Or, “Can I get a thimble of Woodford Reserve, please? Neat.” 

As if there was any question to how it would or could be served. 

What was the point? Might as well go without. I mulled her words over before replying. 

Well,” I said, “I’m more of a shot-sized girl…even in my coffee.” 

She shrugged her shoulders, before looking back down at the papers on her desk, the conversation now over.

I walked away with fresh eyes for my coworker.

I thought to myself, “Only a psychopath would think a thimble of creamer will do.”

Get to the Hot Tub!

The Plastic Banana

There is a person a couple floors down in the building next door squatting. Not sure they have any clothes on.

I could hardly see them in the dark space. It was only when they shifted I realised I was seeing skin sitting cross-legged behind the jumble of clear plastic covering pieces of furniture and random stuff. The apartment resembled a set on an episode of Crime Scene Investigation

Are you looking out your window?

Sitting at the desk. Writing on laptop. Oh wait. There are two of them. They have clothes on. 

It was a Sunday morning in New York City. I was texting with my sister in the hotel room next door. We were both waiting for the coffee to finish brewing. 

There is a person above them. 

I see her too, Susie text back. 

Ha! We were both looking out our window at the same thing. The lights had popped on in the apartment above the crime scene. Was the woman in a white nightgown getting ready to walk her dog? Nope! There wasn’t a little dog attached to the end of a leash pulling her to the door; That’s a mop! The leash was a handle instead, and she pushed it back and forth in front of her while walking backwards, from the front door all the way to the kitchen. Then the tv blinked bright on a wall. She plopped down on the couch out of view to watch the news. Who mops first thing on a Sunday morning?, I wondered. 

Coffee is ready, I texted to my sister.

I sipped mine from the clear plastic of a Solo cup. This is what they brought to our room after I stopped at the front desk the previous night to ask for coffee cups. 

There’s no coffee in your room? he asked.

There’s coffee, just no cups. 

He looked at me quizzically, but said, Sure thing. We’ll send some right up.

It was clear whoever had last checked out of the room had swiped the paper cups, sans lids, before vacating the room. A few minutes later, knuckles rapped our door. A young guy stood there with a short stack of Solo cups in his hands.

Uhh, sorry. This is all we have, he said handing them to me. 

Seriously? What hotel doesn’t have a single coffee cup to its name?

I wanted to say this, but didn’t. I wasn’t going to sweat ‘the small stuff’ on vacation, but realized even then this could be a problem come morning. Solo cups do not sweat it either; they melt. 

A couple of days before departing for New York, I called the hotel to inquire about the coffee in the rooms. 

Oh yes, there is coffee in the rooms!

Ok, that’s great. What kind?

What do you mean?

Is it k-cups?

Silence.

Is the coffee in pods?

Oh yes, you just call and we will bring more to your room!

Ok, thank you!

I crossed ‘coffee maker’ off my list as I loaded it into the car. There was nothing worse than starting any day, especially on vacation, with shitty coffee. Now I was sipping good coffee I had brought with me, in a disposable cup shaped like a banana, one side shrunk like a thick torso leaning over, the rolls of fat stacked against one other. The mangled cup was a cheap metaphor for a televised pitch of erectile dysfunction. All while watching two shadows languish in a crime-scene lair covered in a sheet of plastic, as the girl above mops her apartment and watches tv, wondering who these people are and what they do here in New York City.

(Am I writing at the desk, or just watching out the window?

Get to the Hot Tub

Just get to the hot tub … 

Right from the start. 

A student blurted this edict as a beacon for writers to strive towards when tumbling through the cosmos of story. Minutiae is the invasive weed Kudzu entangling writers’ minds for centuries everywhere. Later, cackling, we revised it to “Get to the hot tub, and take off your pants!” We were discussing another writer’s piece. She wrote a colourful backdrop about a recent trip to Wyoming to visit friends, before getting to the nuts and bolts of her story.

The truck broke down nine miles from the house one night when they were checking cows. They hoofed it back in the dark, encountering a creek several feet deep along the way. It was either remove their pants, or continue with wet bluejeans clinging to their skin, like plastic wrappers glued to a melted bar of chocolate. They stripped down. My mother’s words rang in my head: Always wear fresh drawers, because you just never know, she had said repeatedly growing up. This was in reference to the possibility of an unforeseen ambulance ride on any given day, made more likely by my chosen sport and subsequent career. Anyway, we suggested scrapping the soliloquy at the beginning, and to go straight to the action. 

I am so grateful for my writing class. This was the second session of the summer. Same class, same teacher, same students as the previous session. I know each person well enough now, when I read their stories the night before class, the words sound off in their own voices. It’s absolutely phenomenal. So far, there is only one drawback to class: all the book recommendations. My petty cash is negatively correlating to my expanding book stash. The slide downward is further greased by the fact Amazon sells used books from third-party vendors. That’s more book for the buck. (My struggle between paying artists what they are due and subscribing to sustainability [by recycling books] is real. It’s a two-headed snake.)

I can’t blame class alone. I started listening to a new podcast: the Ezra Klein Show, after Kara Swisher hosted an episode of his on her own podcast Sway, while she was on break. He ends each interview by asking the guest for three book recommendations. My latest purchases are: Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick; Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang; Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith; and Middlemarch by George Eliot. Right now, I’m reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; The Penguin Book of the Modern Short Story; and E.B. White’s On Dogs

Last night was my last writing class for this session. It was bittersweet. Will everyone sign up for another class with the same teacher this fall? Will we be able to replicate this same experience and keep it running for a while? I sure hope so. The teacher is supposed to keep in touch, check in with us to see where everyone is at the beginning of September. She can count me in, even though I’ve already registered for other classes this fall. I’ll make it happen, because finding a group that meshes organically is difficult and rare, all of us trying to get to that hot tub, hopefully wearing clean drawers…at least some of the time.

Frankie Valli was a Poodle

How did the subject of dogs even come up? I can’t remember. One minute we were talking about pancreatic cancer (she was diagnosed with it before being cleared after multiple tests), and the next minute she was swiping the screen of her phone looking for a photo.

There he is! That’s my baby!

Aww, he’s darling! What’s his name?

Cookie!

I laughed. The image of my own hard little biscuit sprinkled with sugar crystals popped into my head. 

Cracker. 

Robin handed me her phone. Cookie was on the couch, almost upright, his front paws resting on the armrest, looking back at the camera. He was a Toy Poodle, cotton ball white, a little powder puff of a dog. He looked annoyed, the way I used to as kid, whenever Dad pulled the Kodak out of his coat pocket at the dinner table in the middle of a restaurant. Smile! He would chirp before we all heard the click of the shutter. Inevitably, the fork in every hand would be mid-arc headed north, laden with a mound of sticky carbohydrates in varying hues of gold. There are stacks of family albums in a closet, somewhere in Texas, chock full of decades-worth of awkward photos revolving around cutlery.

How old is Cookie? I asked.

He’s ten.

Five years younger than Cracker was, I thought to myself. In his absence, Cracker had become the measuring stick all other dogs were observed by; a paragon in perpetuity. Like dog owners everywhere, Robin had a lot of photos of Cookie on her iPhone, flipping through them incessantly.

Let me show you a better photo, she said taking her phone from my hands. When he got haircut. 

Robin is Korean. She speaks English with proficiency, but our conversations sometimes resemble run-on clauses of clipped phrases with no end, until we understand each other. She stopped scrolling, thrusting the phone back in my face.

Look here. Isn’t he cute?? He look like teddy bear! 

She took the phone back as if the distance from my hands to hers was just too great. Robin stared at the image of Cookie with a smile on her face, her finger petting the glass like she could feel his soft coat beneath it. 

Have you had Cookie the whole time?

She looked at me quizzically.

For ten years? I asked.

No, no, no. I rescue him. 2019. Before the pandemic.

You did? Why?

My friend. She said he have no home. He go to shelter, and no more. He sleep forever. 

She snapped her head back and forth, flustered.

No, no, no! I could not let that happen! Cookie come home with me.

I laughed. 

Have you always had dogs?

Nooo! Neverrrr! First dog!

This surprised me. I presumed Robin was around my age. It seemed unusual to dive into pet ownership at this stage of the game.

Really? First dog?

Oh yesss! First dog.

Look here, she said, handing me her phone again. Just got haircut. Looks like teddy bear. Sooo cute!

Cookie was perfectly white, covered in a smooth, short afro. He looked like a puffy cloud in the sky with no edges.

He is so darling! How do you like having a dog?

Ohh, he’s my baby! I take him everywhere!

What a lucky dog!

Ohh yesss. I bought him backpack, she said, trying to describe it with her hands, but I already knew what it looked like. One made specifically for dogs with mesh panels to keep them cool. Cracker had to make do with my generic pack the color of limes from LL Bean.  

He fit inside and go everywhere!

I laughed again. I recognised that smitten smile and the sparkle in her eyes.

But not at beginning, Robin said. 

What do you mean? What happened?

Cookie pee everywhere. Shaking her head she said, I told him, ‘No cuddling!’

Oh yeah? How long did that last?

Two days! she said snickering. 

I laughed. Another dog breaking the rules, and an owner who loves him despite it all, I thought secretly.

I try to give him haircut when he came, but terrible!

This made me laugh, since Robin was cutting my hair, a consummate professional who had made a good career out of it.

What do you mean? Why was it terrible?

I cut over here, then I look. Uneven. So I cut a little more. Back and forth, back and forth. I cut, I cut. Then Cookie have no hair! Terrible! I say, ‘Next time, groomer.’

I laughed picturing Robin on the ground with scissors, hacking away at Cookie’s fluff. I had done the same thing to ‘Pierre the Pandemic Poodle’ last year. He arrived with the quintessential poodle-do, but the cuffs left poofy around his ankles inevitably twisted into tightly-knit dreadlocks here and there, a lodged shred of leaf or a thistle of burr quickly spinning a cocoon around itself. Stupid cuffs!, I had thought at the time. Who ever thought this was a good idea?, I grumbled as I hacked away at them with scissors.

I wait for hair to grow. Then I take to groomer and he say, ‘What kind of haircut you want?’ I say I don’t know. He ask, ‘Do you want poodle cut?’ I say, Okay. Poodle cut. 

I didn’t know there was poodle cut!, Robin said to me, gasping.

Oh yesss. There definitely is!

She’s flipped through her phone again.

I pick him up—Robin shrieks at this point—Aaaa!, I say, Cookie look terrible! I say, No! No! No! What happen?!

She hands me her phone. There is Cookie looking back at me, perfectly coiffed with his poodle-do, a tiny red bow on his head.

He looks like a poodle! I said looking up at Robin from the swivel chair. That’s how a poodle should look!  

Robin’s eyes got big before her head started to swivel back and forth slowly.

No, no, no, she said. This is terrible! He look like 1960 rock star! 

I howled with laughter. Robin was shaping an imaginary peak above her head with her thumb and forefinger.

Like Frankie Valli!! she shrieked.

I doubled over, tears threatening to spill over. Once she said it, I couldn’t un-see it. Frankie Valli was a poodle.

It was the pompadour!

Robin was still shaking her head vehemently. 

No, no, no! I like teddy bear! No rock star!

I laughed. I remember having the same conversation with Pierre. I didn’t use the words ‘teddy bear’ or ‘Frankie Valli,’ but I said, If you were my poodle, Pierre, you wouldn’t have this silly haircut, where everything stuck to your cuffs like a fly glue stick!

Pierre stood patiently in the kitchen that day while I snipped away the tangles. He was used to all of this incessant grooming, being a poodle, even if he was now the recipient of a hack-job, wielded by a hand uneducated. When I finished, I walked to my closet and dug out the old green backpack, crumpled and stiff, from the back of the corner. Pierre folded into its belly without protest, just like Cracker used to in his day.

What more could any dog want, than to be carried by their owner, as they head out the door?