Leaving for Tacos

When do you leave for Tacos?

The message appeared after I tapped the taco emoticon in my Noom app.  How does she know I’m feeling ‘Tacos’ this morning? Every day, Noom asks me to log my weight first thing in the morning and report back how I feel about the number on the scale by choosing an emoticon to represent it. There are two dozen characters, or caricatures, to choose from. In my first three weeks of my Nooming, I’ve clicked through the smiley face, the crying face, the half-frown face, and now I’m onto the avocados and tacos, the fried chicken leg, and a man squat-lifting barbells in a fiery red singlet. Otherwise, what’s left to click every morning is the pile of shit with its toothy grin, which I would choose daily, except it reeks of monotony and defeat. Reading the text, I thought to myself, ‘I can leave any time. But where are we going to find tacos at 7 am?

Ahh, 7-11. 

Russ and I now live in Little Mexico, the biggest transformation to take place in our neighbourhood in the last two years. We lost Ace Hardware (that was heart-breaking), and a golf-simulation franchise (not heartbreaking), whose name escapes me, despite how ridiculous I found it, walking past the storefront everyday. Instead,  a ‘European’ wax bar moved in, as well as another dry cleaner. That makes three. Little Mexico sprouted like a cluster of mushrooms, one after another, along a single block, sandwiched between China Town above it, and New York Ave below it. Six establishments selling similar faire, albeit in vastly different atmospheres, buttress one another. Listed in the order of their appearance in the neighborhood, the restaurants are Chipotle, *PPC; Sol Mexican Grille,*PC;  Chiai, *PC; 7-11’s The Taco Bar, *DC; d’Luna, *DC; and now Bar Taco, *PC. (* representing pre-post corona; pre-corona; during corona; and, post corona, respectively). Russ and I have each patronised a different one and that’s it.

Reading the text message, I realized autocorrect had failed in its calculus of comprehension. The question was supposed to be, “When are you leaving for Taos?” Right now, Russ and I are scheduled to depart Sunday, but looking at the weather, waylaid or delayed until Monday looks more likely. We celebrate our third anniversary next week and The West keeps calling to us. I haven’t been to Santa Fe since competing at the Diamond L Horse Trials in the eighties, and I’ve never been to Taos. Russ and I aren’t snowboarding this trip due to my knee issue. The doctor diagnosed it before Christmas as patellar tendonitis with the recital of my symptoms. He wrote a prescription for PT as a result. I asked him, ‘Wouldn’t it make more sense to do an MRI to be sure what’s in there, before scheduling PT?‘ The doctor didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘Your insurance won’t cover an MRI until after you’ve completed eight weeks of physical therapy.’ I shook my head at the irony. My horses had been treated with top class medical and surgical care their entire lives, yet human beings still have to push through massive amounts of red tape in order to secure the care they need, and not the care they decide to give you. ‘They’ being insurance companies, federal regulations (regulators) or lack thereof, or whoever else is manning this shipwreck of healthcare. In this country, you are better off born a sport horse, instead of a human being. I learned a valuable lesson, sucking up this pain for the last two years. Next time, I will go to the doctor straightaway, starting the process earlier, in order to facilitate a resolution in a timely manner. I’m not looking forward to wasting hours of my time, for the next two months, only to go through what really needs to be done after that. 

I said it at the end of last year. 2022 is already written. We celebrated Russ’ 50th, and the next day, he received a flyer advising him to get his Shingles vaccine. We spend a week in Taos starting Sunday, touring the surrounding landscape, and I start my new writing class that lasts ten weeks. I have 10,000 words prepared already, which isn’t a lot, but it is for me. It feels like uncharted waters, a step further away, ‘leaning over the toes of my skis’ on a mountain I’ve never traversed. In February, I head to Texas, while one of my parents recovers from minor surgery. Maybe I can start the PT, and stick with it, after that. I’ll finish in time to either have surgery before my birthday, or more likely after, but regardless,  I can look forward to my own flyer shortly, inviting me for a Shingles shot, and another one, reminding me I’m due for my first colonoscopy sooner rather than later. In the meantime, work is humming along, and will for the rest of the year. We’ve had our best few years of business to date, and log our 95th year in business this May. How many private, ‘blue-chip’ companies can espouse that?? 

This year is about family and friends, health, and reading and writing. That’s it. I’ve deleted more than half of my podcasts and unsubscribed from all but two newsletters (#morningbrew and #nomercynomalice). And while I’ve eliminated noise veiled under the guise of information, is there such a thing as too much information? I think so, when information erodes, or depletes, experiences. I struggle a lot with my writing. I’m constantly questioning if there is a purpose to it, if it matters, if it’s not just additional noise lending to the thick haze of the pollution surrounding us. Does the world really need the broadcast of one more voice, however minutely it spreads or languishes? I honestly don’t have the answer, but wrestle with it constantly. Yet I keep writing, perpetuating the torture, because one thing I am confident about, not writing is more tortuous. Sometimes the lesser of two evils wins, though arguably, that rule is not set in stone. Sometimes the opposite prevails and it should. Today, I choose writing. Then I’m leaving for Tacos. 

The Oakley’s

The plan wasn’t to leapfrog the ogre of failure. My pronouncement leaked into existence, like a tiny runt popping out long after the litter has suckled for hours. The timing was off, but that seems to be my specialty.

I ditched alcohol the day after Christmas. Sitting in a wingback chair at my parent’s house the morning after Christmas I thought, ‘Why not start now?’  For a month. Russ and I shlepped to the airport that day headed home. Once we boarded, my eyes hinged shut like coffin lids slapping closed, before the wheels wormed away from the jet bridge. Later, I heard an echo, an advertisement on a television set in another room, a mechanical voice informing us we would be landing in twenty minutes. My head vibrating against the side of the plane, my eyes cracked open, burning and puffy. My vision was blurry, but I made out the two mini bottles of wine tucked into seat-back netting of the seat next to me. 

After we deplaned I asked Russ, ‘How much did that guy drink?’

‘He had a few. I don’t think he was a fan of flying.’

I missed the whole thing. The guy sitting between us, slurping his fear away, or any of the other melodramas that unfold on a flight. In all my years of flying from Virginia to Texas, I have never slept an entire three and a half hour flight. The five days of Christmas wore me out. 

We drove from DCA to Union Market to pick up ‘linner,’ since our cupboards were empty. I always patronise South Block and Russ likes A. Litteri when we head over there. We unpacked, started laundry, pulling on our jammies, sitting down to relax to eat. I dug into my Warrior Acai Bowl.

‘I think I’ve decided to stay on the wagon until my birthday.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know. Why not?’

Licking my spoon, I said, ‘Well, the thing is, there is always an occasion, or there will always be an occasion to have a drink. January is a wash-out; then there is Valentine’s, or someone’s birthday, or dinner with friends, or another holiday. Basically, any event can be considered an occasion worthy of celebrating. I need to rethink other ways to celebrate and honour special occasions besides having a glass of wine or a cocktail. Anyway, that’s what I’m kicking around in my head.’

‘You’ll have to drop the wine membership then.’ 

‘No, I won’t! Why would I?’

‘So, you’re going to pay for a membership you’re not going to use?’

‘I’ll use it!’

‘How are you going to use it if you’re not drinking wine?’

‘We’ll give the wine away to our friends.’

‘So you’re going to pay for a membership for your friends use?

You realise we will have virtually no social life if you quit drinking.’

See? This is what I’m talking about. Our social life shouldn’t only revolve around alcohol.’

I’m undeterred. 

What is probably more revolutionary (for me), than a booze-freeze, is drinking my coffee black. There was no milk for the first few days we were home and it left me unfazed. Now that I didn’t ever see happening. Finally, I have fallen in step with the other Simmons’ women.

It only took fifty years. 

That statement is slightly premature, but not by much.  I’m five months younger than Russ, who celebrated his 50th on January 5th. Ahh, a Capricorn. A calm and cool saint. Maybe he wasn’t born this way (cue commercial jingle), but it’s an apt description these days. 

I handed him a card with Tyrannosaurus rex on the front, arms outstretched. 

It read, ‘I love you this much.‘  

Russ peered at the stunted limbs, as short as dessert forks, and looked at me over the edge of his glasses.

He said, ‘Mmm..That doesn’t look like…very much… at all.

Inside I wrote, ‘You’re my favorite dinosaur and I love you thismuch.‘ 

‘I’m a dinosaur?‘ he asked.

I bought Russ a pair of Oakley sunglasses for his birthday. Since I’ve known him, he has worn the same exact pair of cheap glasses. They remind me of the protective eyepiece the dermatologist balances on the bridge of my nose, before lasering the layer of leather from my face.  Except Russ’ are black, with temples like hockey sticks, cresting the top of his ears and holding them in place.  I don’t know where he purchased them, and the location does’t matter, but I picture them among a rainbow of others, spinning on a rack at an upscale truck-stop (oxymoron?) like Love’s or Buccee’s, next to the stacks of trucker hats. I asked him about them, gingerly, ages ago. 

‘I’m not going to spend money on something that’s easily scratched, lost, or ruined. It’s a waste of money. These are fine.

Okay, fair enough. But soon after we started dating, he told me my Maui Jim’s were almost a dealbreaker. 

“Whaaat?!”

The shock of my face was met with his own. 

“Are you kidding me? Seriously. I almost got in my car and drove home the first time I saw you wearing them.”

I purchased those glasses at the Kentucky Three Day Event. The Maui Jim pop-up shop was conveniently located across from the VIP tent. I stood facing the mirror on the countertop, switching pairs on and off my face, when William Fox Pitt walked up. I looked from his Dubarries up, up, and further up, like trying to find Jack hiding in the beanstalk, before locating his face.

That man is very tall. 

Russ’ admission was rich, considering his own choice of sunglasses he wore voluntarily. They barely qualified as what they were promoted as being. They were nothing other than cheap plastic sprayed with a thin layer of tint. What was most ironic about Russ’ logic was in six years I’ve known him,  he hasn’t lost or scratched this pair yet. I kept ‘willing’ them to be forgotten on the roof of the car as we  pull away from the gas station (can’t outrun your roots after all), but its never happened. Russ takes impeccable care of every. single. thing. Order and cleanliness are his mantra, his essence, the thread that weaves him into the person he is. As Russ likes to say, when I’m scrambling in our tiny apartment searching for my reading glasses, my keys, or even my New Balance sneakers, usually as I’m headed out the door, borderline late, “Everything has its place, Jenn, and if you put things away, where they belong, you wouldn’t spend half your life looking for it.”  

While we were at my parent’s house for Christmas, Russ asked me for a battery to replace the dead one in the fire alarm upstairs. Without looking up, I said, “Dad keeps them  in the second drawer of his dresser in their bathroom.”

Russ disappeared into their room and reappeared shortly, battery in hand. Heading up the stairwell, he mumbled, “You married your father.”

I howled with laughter. I had said this all along, and said it for the first time when I uncovered Russ’ own drawer of batteries, in a small cabinet, under the sink, in his bathroom. Russ had always scoffed the proffered cliche, the old wives’ tale dispensed freely in regards to himself and his father-in-law, but it would be difficult, impossible really, for anyone to concoct an argument steely enough to counter the evidence of two drawers filled with a collection of batteries, stored in a bathroom, on purpose, twelve hundred miles apart. 

What are the chances?

Everything has its place and sometimes it’s the same exact place as your father-in -law’s. In addition to his ‘golden rule, Russ is also extremely tidy. Chalk it up to a career in the military, but the Army only reinforced what was already there, like adding water and fertiliser to a seedling. I realised the extent of this when we camped together in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico before we were married. Russ packed the car as neat and tidy as a brand-new Craftsman Tool Box. When we arrived, we spent hours setting up our camping spot for the night. We unpacked the tent, sleeping bags, a seating area, and all the equipment and provisions needed to cook a meal and eat it. We were in need of not one single item. We had it all at our fingertips. 

We spent the night wearing several layers, a ski hat on our heads, our down sleeping bags pulled up to our chins, and Cracker squeezed tight against my legs in my contoured “mummy” bag, neither of us complaining about the lack of space. It might have been the first weekend of the summer solstice, but the evening hours went below the freezing mark in the middle of that forest. Typical of Russ, we were up very early (he had to pry me out of my bag, where Cracker continued to hunker down like a smart old dog), drinking watery coffee, and packing it all up to head to our next stop where we would be staying in a hotel. We washed every cup and pot, wiped down every piece of equipment, as well as the equipment used to house or cover said equipment, before packing it all into the car in the same exact configuration Russ had the first time. 

(Everything in its place, Jenn.) 

When we returned home, after our sightseeing trip was complete, Russ unpacked the car, opening every piece of equipment, and rewashing it again, this time “properly.” That is code for using hot water. When it was all said and done, I guesstimated we (he) had spent more time preparing to camp, cleaning up after we camped, then we did actually camping. Compare this to the person he married: Unloading the dishwasher, I drop a spoon on the floor. I pick it up, wiping it on my shirt, before placing the spoon in the cutlery tray with the rest in the kitchen drawer. Russ turns apoplectic. Not trusting that the tainted spoon is the one on top, he grabs all the spoons out of the drawer and rewashes them.

Somehow, we view each other’s idiosyncrasies as endearing. Most of the time. Nowadays, I place dropped cutlery back in the dishwasher, and Russ digs my keys out from under the stack of papers on the counter where I last left them. This is our version of marital compromise. It works. The Oakley’s best demonstrate our progress in this arena. Russ traded his cheap frames for sturdy ones without a fuss. I was surprised. (I kept the receipt, just in case.) This pair has polarised lenses. I told him it’s like sunscreen for your eyeballs. He shook his head at my metaphor, but I’m relieved. His eyes will now be offered some protection. I may not have toasted Russ’ big birthday with a glass of champagne in my hand, but I purchased a gift I knew Russ would never buy for himself, and it warms my heart to invest in his wellbeing. The unimaginable has happened. Russ wears a couple hundred dollars on his face, undeterred. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.  

Open Season

 Three years ago, our bikes were stolen out of the bike locker, the one with a security camera overhead, located in the locked parking garage of our building, using what could only have been a circular saw to sever the Kryptonite U-lock, never mind the additional cable lock, all of which supposedly secured our bikes to the rack. Yet, no one heard or saw a thing, including whenever Santa’s little helper rolled on out of the garage with a tangle of bikes stuffed in a van, leaving only remnants of the handiwork behind, butchered locks strewn about the bike cage, like bones sucked dry and tossed by a pride of lions in the Serengeti.

 The camera was inoperable, or too time-consuming to review, I never knew which, but with the same end result. It proved useless. After the police took our statement, they shrugged empathetically, suggesting we register future bikes with the aptly named BikeRegister.com, and the case disintegrated into the ether of nowhere after that. This outcome didn’t surprise me. The metropolitan police department had (have) bigger problems than a slew of bike thefts before the Christmas holidays. But this theft left a salty sting after the crushing blow of Cracker dying only days prior. I lost my best dog and my bike.

 Since “The Great Bicycle Swindle of 2018,” I’ve learned the day after Thanksgiving is not only Black Friday across the country, but the day also signals “Open Season” here in DC. It lasts until after the new year. One must nail their shit down, batten the hatches, and hope for the best. Any item left visible in a car is a rookie mistake. Only once will an individual walk past a row of cars, parked nose to tail on the side of the road with their windows punched out, shards of glass sprayed everywhere, to understand thieves snatch first and ask questions later. An empty backpack propped in the backseat is the cost of a broken window replaced.  Facing the fact our bikes were gone, I placated myself with “They must have really needed them more than we did,” even though I was still a reeking lowball of anguish, mixed with two fingers of anger. I fed myself this soupy platitude, uttered through clenched teeth, but I half believed the words, understanding these were difficult times. Nowadays I question if life is any more difficult now, compared to some other chapters in the past. My sneaking suspicion is our difficulties today may not be any worse, but affect more people at once than ever before, hence the roll tide of collective angst and dissension across the country.

But having your shit stolen pales to bullets flying through your neighborhood. There have been two shootings close to home in the last three weeks alone. One occurred in front of our building, and the other incident took place one street over, in front of my favorite bakery/hangout. What happened? Was it a personal vendetta? A random drive-by? The details aren’t always made clear to the public, but it’s a tragedy for everyone, a brutal symptom of a much larger problem.

 On Wednesday, walking past the Building Museum, G St. was taped off between 4th and 5th Ave. Police cars blocked both ends of the intersection, while a mechanical voice sounded, repeating instructions “for employees to relocate,” like she was advertising perfumed shampoo, above the ring of the alarm inside the building. Immediately I thought “bomb threat” and quickened my pace. I shook my head as I passed The Government Office of Accountability, almost sneering at the grotesque irony of this particular office being evacuated. Under my breath I huffed, “George Orwell himself couldn’t make this up!” (Yes, an entire building exists in DC dedicated to this department of the government.)

 I was working from home that day, so I turned on the television when I stepped through the door. Surely the networks would announce a bomb threat, but nothing was mentioned, not even on Twitter, where I often find the most relevant information. (This is the absolute truth). I called my husband who suggested it was probably a drill.

“With all those police cars? Really?”

“Yep,” he said. “They would do the whole emergency procedure with police and road blocks, etc.”

The police sirens and choppers made haste for hours afterwards. For what I do not know. My heartrate was almost stabilized when a score of fire trucks rolled down our street at quitting time, honking and flashing, dropping hose as they went. Russ and I glued our noses to the window, propped up on our knees with our elbows pressed into the back of the couch, like children watching a neighborhood squabble unfold in the square. The hose snaked down the middle of the road and the ladder lifted half way up to the building before the firemen called it. False alarm. Like any other mess, it took three times as long for the firemen to put the equipment away, as it did to pull it out in the first place. Disaster was averted, but it was an expensive drill nonetheless.

 Russ and I did eventually replace our bikes, but it took over a year. Now we stable (euphemism) our string (another one) in the solarium (purely hyperbolic); the space behind the couch and between the plants, next to the floor to ceiling window.  It’s like having two extra roommates, who never speak or steal our food out of the fridge at night, but don’t pay rent for all the space they inhabit either. I told Russ there is no bike riding in the city until after the New Year. It’s a slippery slope from a car jack to a bike jack and I already have enough trouble staying upright on two wheels without wanton intervention from passersby. In the eyes of a thief, I’m as good as a goat staked in the lion enclosure at the zoo. Easy pickings, as they say.

 Last summer, my sister came for a visit from Houston. The weather was sweltering, even by Texas standards. In light of this, I took her places somewhat outside the purview of a tourist’s attention, and more importantly, covered in shade. We visited Roosevelt Island, The FDR Memorial, and skirting the Tidal Basin, we found the only strip of shade lining the granite enclave of the MLK Memorial. Drenched, walking back to the car in West Potomac Park, my sister looked up at the helicopter parting the thick air above our heads.

She said, “You know, sometimes I think we are down here, just doing our own thing, oblivious, while this whole other world is going on that we know nothing about.”

I was almost used to DC’s helicopter traffic, but the truth was, the frequency had intensified since COVID, and like my sister suggested, I sometimes felt I was living under a state of surveillance in the nation’s capital. Not only do helicopters here transport those in power, but they also converge where tragedy strikes. They are the city’s version of buzzards attracted to roadkill. One has only to see them circling to know where the latest calamity is shaping up.

So Merry Fucking Christmas, Everyone!

Just kidding.

These days, when I work from the office, I pass McPherson Square on my walk home. A van parks there regularly handing out meals in the evenings. The line of people waiting their turn usually twists around a corner in the park. Maybe some of you reading this story picture those on the down-and-out; vagabonds, vagrants; the homeless. But many of the people standing there have just finished work. They are dressed for the job they just departed; a clean jacket zipped up and a hat pulled down over their heads to keep them warm; a decent pair of shoes on their feet; with a briefcase in hand, or a backpack slung over a shoulder. Not much separates me, or anyone else, from those waiting in that line, except for maybe a few lucky breaks along the way, and dodging a catastrophic scrape with misfortune, from which one cannot recover. Privilege, after all, is always landing on your feet.

A bike is replaceable, but so much of life is not.

Co-opting Scott Galloway: “Life is so rich.”

Liquid Blush

I hate to shop, but we had time to kill before dinner, and they loved it, and were good at it. What I mean is, my two friends arrived everywhere, whatever the occasion,  dressed like they had orchestrated their entire ensemble long before cracking apart their eyelids, while languishing supine in their beds, their limbs germinated, beginning to stretch one after the other, freeing themselves from the covers and reaching towards the start of each new day. Their outfits would be perfect, both faces coloured with skill and precision, and hair fixed yet tussled, like all they did was casually run their hands through it to get ready. And the shoes! The shoes were the centerpiece; the coda; the denouement; the finale; the coup de grace, so to speak, telltaling their sophistication.

Standing next to them, in my mixture of clothing procured from tiny photos on Ebay’s website, I was the hairball the cat coughed onto the carpet.  But we were in New York City, so I wore my Blundstones, classing it up a bit. My steady and reliable New Balances stayed home. (Sidenote: I discovered my entire wardrobe is showcased in the short series MAID, the story of a young single mother living in a shelter. She picked her clothing up at the shelter’s “free closet.” She wore New Balance sneakers; clunky sweaters; bland, mismatched tops and bottoms; and even Blundstones. It was like watching myself on screen, minus the long legs, thirty pounds and thirty years, and the kid on the hip.)

But it had always been this way. I was used to it. Growing up, I was Pig-Pen, a permanent dust cloud of barn debris dropping a trail of evidence behind me, or I was wet and reeking of chlorine from all the laps in the pool, my hair green and stiff like stalks of straw. This was my legacy. I was the unkept oddball of the family from the very beginning. 

Wandering down the sidewalk, carefully I asked my friends, “Hey, if we happen to see a make-up shop, can we pop in?” I knew the answer already,  but I was hoping my query would land furtively, not shaking loose the dormant grenades under our feet, the imminent threat of further explorations of the consuming variety very real. I spotted a Blue Mercury storefront and we crossed the street.

I hadn’t purchased make-up in five years. That was right before I started my new gig in Corporate America. Prior to that, my make-up kit was a gift as part of the bridesmaid’s dowry for my sister’s wedding. If I remember correctly, that took place in 1992. There has been a few random product misfires in-between then and now, so I’ve kept with slathering my face with what must be by now a carcinogenic, the wedding concealer, but only in spots to cover….my spots. (Bazinga!) Every time I take aim, at the bullseye on my face, I think “Take that!,” daring the hot-tub cesspool of bacterial floaters to resist the dab of my cotton swab, dipped in the tube filled with paste the color of roasted sunflower seeds, and wielded like a fire extinguisher painting over flames with shooting sprigs of white powder, momentarily hiding the eruption beneath. 

I never realised it before, but now I do. This was my strategy when it came to make-up and wardrobe: Hiding imperfections brandished precedence to highlighting any perceived features. This still holds true. The happenchance of finding myself appearing “pretty” renders me obsessively self-conscious and uncomfortable, like there must be toilet paper stuck to the heel of my shoe and florets of broccoli trapped in the corners of my teeth, but despite my critical monitoring I cannot find it, even though it is in plain sight for everyone else to see.

We stepped into Blue Mercury and I asked for lip stain. My two friends had said this was a must, but that was two years ago, and the last time we were in New York City together. I had stewed and procrastinated long enough for my only tube of reliable makeup to turn pasty, then harden into a kiln-fired brick, and finally, crumble to dust. The girl at Blue Mercury raised her eyebrows and said, “Hmm…I don’t think we have that.” Before I could respond dismayed, a short man skirted past us dressed in black, his index finger curled into a candy cane. “Follow me,” he said.

His name was Augustine. He pointed out a few options for lip color, but patting the chair next to the display case, he said, “Here…let me help you.” Before I knew what was happening, Augustine pulled out a palette of paint and brushes and got to work. When he was finished, I looked in the mirror he handed to me and nodded, smiling. There it was, written on my face. I had plenty of room for improvement, and more importantly, it was actually possible. My two sidekicks, professionals in their own right as I stated previously, clambered for the chair. “Do me next!,” they chorused.  Not only did all three of us receive an expert express makeover from Augustine, but when he was finished, we clucked, “More! More! Again! Again!,” until each of us sat in the chair a second time, our faces shining like fresh canvases, and our features elevated into prominence.

During the course of events, Augustine answered the ring of his phone, pressing it between his ear and shoulder blade while he worked. It was his wife. We promptly chattered that Augustine was busy, doing a fabulous job, and how much we loved him, but he might be a while longer arriving home. (I’m sure they both loved that phone call ripe with interruption!) We left Blue Mercury with our pockets lighter and our blue square bags visibly heavier swinging from our fingers. I, myself, spent ten times more than I had intended when I first walked through the door. Leaving, I looked Augustine in the eye and said, “I have never had that done before. Thank you so much! You did an amazing job, and you are really good at your job!” All that I said was true, and because we had a great time, thanks to Augustine, I was happy to spend more, and patronise his location.

Later that evening, unprovoked, other friends complimented my skin, unaware of  my stop earlier at Blue Mercury. She leaned in, assessing, and cooed, “It’s so smooth! Perfect, really!” If I could have blushed, I would have, but I was already wearing blush. Liquid blush. Obviously, I didn’t even know that was a thing, and I viewed it skeptically when Augustine pulled it out of the drawer, the same way I dismissed liquid soap when it first hit shelves in grocery stores. “What a rip-off!,” I remember spitting in the direction of the bottles, lined up like soldiers wearing matching labels. But I bought the liquid blush anyway. Every day I smear it on my cheeks, watching the liquid deplete a little more in its bottle, and I think about the thirty-six hours I spent in New York City with my friends. I smile at my reflection in the mirror, despite myself. Some ripoffs are simply priceless. 

Unsubscribed

It’s a little early to pronounce, or worse, proselytise, any resolutions for the incoming year. Not that I’ve succeeded at this before, but especially not after “My Year of Austerity” ended prematurely in a burnt pyre of ashes. That first month, of no coffee, proceeded swimmingly compared to its follow-up: abstaining from the Industrial Food Complex’s approved grade of child-friendly cocaine. From the get-go I confused the brake with the gas pedal, like a new driver riding the clutch the entire road trip, even though I was far from new to the activity of driving. Sugar is one sticky bitch to kick from habit.

So I was already bumping on and off the rails when 2020 leapt the side of the bridge entirely, like a runaway bus in a Keanu Reeve’s film, COVID jerking the wheel less than three months in. The last two years have revealed time as both mercurial and mystic, its reliability questionable, like the moment when Toto tugged the curtain back, revealing the truth and the absurdity of the situation. Contemplating this, I decided I should focus on things I’d like to change now. In my notebook, I wrote:

  1. Unsubscribe.

That’s it. That’s as far as I got. But chewing on it further, I decided unsubscribing was plenty. Every morning when I open my inbox, it flashes white like stacks of gym socks, freshly bleached, covered in cockleburs proliferating before my eyes, like the wind is at their back, squeezing into each preview, assembled first as letters, then words and sentences, the anticipation of paragraphs looming. No matter how often I cleanse (delete) these stacks of cockleburs, the pile in my inbox grows bigger still, most of the messages useless and unwelcome, like in-laws springing onto your doorstep unannounced. Swiping an unopened email left merely pushes them to the back of the line, undeterred, like a potential date/stalker on Tinder. So now I’m carving out a few extra moments to open emails, scroll to the bottom, and click the link to unsubscribe. “No” really does mean “no,”Tindergate, not just “maybe later.” Honestly, the sheer volume of emails is somewhat startling and overwhelming, a total time suck, seconds of my life, rolled into minutes and hours, stolen and never to be returned. 

Unnecessary emails are the first to go, but I’m also canceling subscriptions to newsletters as well as some podcasts. Like anyone else, I can consume only so much content in a single day. The only thing worse than “missing out” on more information, or an unforeseen opportunity, is participating with half-assed attention and enthusiasm. I’m unsubscribing in order to more fully engage.

Gary Chapman wrote a wonderful book called “The Five Love Languages.”  He describes the five ways human beings can express love to one another. We all tend to be strong in some areas and weak in others. The problem arises when a person speaks a different love language than their partner. Gary outlines our options like this: 

1. Words of Affirmation

2. Quality Time

3. Receiving Gifts

4.  Acts of Service

5. Physical Touch

You’ll have to read the book to understand more—about yourself, your partner, and human connection in general. But I like Gary’s list, and while in the throes of decluttering my inbox, it’s a valuable compass to navigate past the muck. Next year, I pledge my words will come first; this is my affirmation that my writing has ascended to the position of first chair. Quality time, with friends and family, still continues to be at the forefront of my mind and will continue to take precedence. And, after eighteen months (and more) of COVID, I hope to revitalise the normalcy of physical touch within my little circle, with a hug or a kiss, because physical connection is so important, even if it is brief and seems innocuous. Touch really does matter. These thoughts guide me as I usher this year away, unsubscribing from one, to more fully engage in another.

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

 —Ludwig Wittgenstein

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.