Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Everything Is Illuminated (and Also Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) When You're Eating Animals


When I decided to write a blog (which was a much more painful decision-making process than it should have been), I started making a list of things I wanted to talk about.  I get two kinds of phone calls on a semi-regular basis:
1) Me: Hello?  Person: Hey, I’ve got a question about grammar.../How do you spell..
2) Me: Hello?  Person: Hey, I need a good book to read.  Got any suggestions?
Now, I could talk about grammar all day long (and probably will at some point post some things about the appropriate way to use ellipses and apostrophes), but OBVIOUSLY I want to talk about books first.
About eight years ago, I was working at a restaurant as a hostess at night while I finished my student teaching practicum.  A very cute boy I worked with walked up to the hostess stand and handed me a book, earmarked at several pages.  Practically engaged to Scott, I had barely talked to this guy before (despite and because of his ridiculous Abercrombie and Fitch exterior).  He winked and said, “I think you’ll like this.”
I mean, I guess it was known that I was studying to be an English teacher, so it wasn’t so strange, but oh my GAWD...I started reading, and every page was full of sex and love and poetry.  And poetic sex.  And sexy love.  And lovely poetry.  And in between the  sexy poetry and poetic love, there was some funny, funny stuff.  I spent the rest of the night sneaking peeks at the book, and each time it was time to seat Hotboy’s section, I’d get twitchy and make someone else do it (this was my prerogative, of course, as Head Hostess).  At one point in the evening, he came back to the hostess stand to tell me he was cut for the night and asked if I wanted to go next door with him and some of the other servers for a drink.  Maybe talk about the book?  Holy shit...who was this guy with the beautiful eyes and the washboard abs (my hand may have brushed against his stomach by complete accident) and the smarty smarts?  The talking about books and la la la la la...
My best friend, who was also a server, was going next door for drinks, too, so what could it hurt, right?  (Disclaimer: I would obviously not be telling this story if Scott didn’t already know how it ended.  Besides, there is some kind of statute of limitations for feeling guilty about cheating on your boyfriend when you’re 22.)
So, there were drinks and there was talking, and there was lots of feeling awkward and conflicted about the googly feelings going on, and then it was time to go home.  Hotboy needed a ride to his car, and clearly there was no one else who could drive him.  I was simultaneously turned on by his presence and turned off by the idea of him.  The next two minutes included driving to the employee parking lot, not leaning away when he kissed me, and watching him get in his car.  Next, I dialed Scott’s number, cried like a baby for fifteen minutes over what I’d just done, and hung up wondering if I had just ruined the best thing that ever happened to me.  I know, totally ridic.
Obviously, we worked it out, and Hotboy moved on with his life, romancing MANY more young women, I’m sure, with his literary pick-up lines.  I haven’t seen him in years, but this memory comes back to me every time someone asks me for books to read.  Because even though he left no significant impact on me otherwise, he introduced me to one of the best books I’ve ever read and in turn has caused dozens of other people to experience the magic that is Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.
I bought the book a couple of days after our dicey encounter and read it cover to cover in one sitting.  The next morning I was grieved to find out this was Foer’s ONLY book.  How could this be?  How could this masterpiece be a FIRST novel?  I’ll tell you how--when the author is only three years older than me (which made him 25 at the time of publication).  Say what?  Astounding.  So, Foer had me waiting with bated breath for three entire years before he released his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  Expecting a typical sophomoric effort, I had low expectations, and JSF (I think this will catch on one day like JFK and LBJ) made me laugh and cry within the first five pages.  Seriously.
His last book, Eating Animals, is a non-fiction look at the American food industry that makes “Food, Inc.” look like a Disney movie.  However, JSF’s storytelling abilities make even some the most unappetizing material I’ve ever read (which is saying something because I’ve read all of Chuck Palahniuk’s books) more than palatable.  It is nothing less than a masterpiece.
So, you might be wondering why I felt the need to go into such great detail about JSF and his books.  Well, my friends, first I want you to read them.  But more importantly, through a very strange series of events that all occurred this afternoon, I AM GOING TO MEET JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER tomorrow night.   And I will tell you that story next time.

Nightlights and Lullabies (Part 3)

A couple of nights before I left for NYC, I was taking out the trash.  Standing in the dark in my backyard, I felt inspired and started singing.  “On my own, pretending he's beside me, All alone, I walk with him 'til morning...” inspired by a previous trip to NYC, I suppose, when I saw Les Mis on Broadway.  So I was in the moment, you know, until I heard clapping and hollering from a few houses over.  I gave a curtsy and went inside, hoping my neighbors would think it was someone else.  I don’t mind performing, especially such a guilty pleasure, dramatic song.  I would just prefer to do it when I know I have an audience.  
So, I’m on my own, and my first stop is for a bagel and cream cheese with fresh squeezed OJ at Murray’s.  Then, it’s up to Times Square for some ultimate people watching.  Exiting the subway at 42nd Street, I walk up Broadway, taking in the sights.  During previous trips, I’ve always encountered the Naked Cowboy, who has made quite the name for himself strumming his six-string in his tighty-whities.  But today, we have a real treat.  It’s the Naked Cowgirl.  Oddly enough, my first thought is, “I wonder if the Naked Cowboy could sue her?”  As I walk closer, I realize there’s a good chance that this is the Naked Cowboy’s mother.  She’s got to be sixty at the very least, and she’s in an American flag bikini. She has her guitar slung around her back, posing for pictures with passing tourists.  Her wig is dirty blonde, with tight curls, and her face looks like Rupaul and Ronald McDonald collaborated.  And it didn’t go well.  Her face is etched with smile lines, frown lines, and smoker’s lines.  Her breasts look like flat bananas.  But there she is, in all her glory, hanging out (literally) in front of TKTS, collecting tips.
I stop on the steps outside of TKTS and have a seat behind the imposing statue of Father Duffy.  After my first trip to NY, I was struck by the nature of this sculpture of a man’s man standing in front of a 17-foot Celtic cross, so I looked him up.  An Army chaplain, a teacher, and a priest, Father Duffy served in the theatre district in the 1920s.  Like everything else in Times Square, his placement is odd, but somehow normal.

I stay for about half an hour, watching Japanese tourists take pictures and school groups in matching neon shirts walk up and down the street.  Pigeons peck at dropped food around me, and the traffic sounds make it impossible to hear myself think.  An unusually long honk makes me think of Will.  The summer before he turned three (while I was pregnant with Ben), we brought him to NYC.  He was, as any toddler would be, overwhelmed yet fascinated with Times Square.  When we got home, Nick Jr. was playing this Moose and Zee commercial with Isaiah Washington reading Sarah Feldman’s “City Symphony.”  Part of the poem reads, “There’s salsa music blasting from the window of that car/ While that man on the corner strum, strum, strums a guitar/ Babies scream, trucks selling ice cream: they go doot-diddley-doot/ And when traffic jams you’re sure to hear an awfully loud toot, toot, toot...”  Lounging on the couch with a bowl of goldfish, Will said, “Hey, mom, it’s New York City!”
So, I know every mother thinks her child is a genius.  I know that.  But, in that moment, I stopped washing dishes, sat down beside him, and pulled him into my lap because I loved him more than ever.  To try to put into words the adoration I feel for this little man-child is impossible.  My heart swells with pride but also hurts every time he shares these tiny observations with me because I know that someday he’s going to observe something not so wonderful as the city symphony of NYC, something that will make him sad, something that will make his heart hurt.  And as much as I know that I can’t guard him from all the ugliness that’s out there, I still want to lock him up in a box that’s labelled “For My Heart Only.”
As an only child, the decision to have a second child was a difficult one for me.  I felt I had satisfied my need to be a mother through Will and didn’t see the point of another one.  Scott, like most people, I think, referred to his experience as one of two and really wanted another one.  His desire to have one more was greater than my desire to just have one, so we tried again.  And, like the other Fertile Myrtles in my family, I was pregnant basically the first time it was possible.  
The night I took the test, we were visiting OK and going out for drinks with friends.  I was only a day late, so I wasn’t completely convinced I was pregnant.  Scott and I decided it would be best to settle the issue--and here’s the best part--so we would know who had to be the sober driver.  We stopped by a Homeland on the way to Louie’s on Lake Hefner, and I excused myself to the restroom when we walked in.  I sat in the stall by myself, while our friends ordered beers, waiting for that little pink line.  And there it was.  We didn’t necessarily want to make the announcement immediately, so we’d created a code word system for when I got to the table.  As I approached, I saw the glimmer in Scott’s eye that no one else noticed and told him, “Sorry it took me so long.  My mom called.”
He put his arm around me, squeezed my side, and said, “I’m going to go grab a beer.  You want anything?” <Insert amused smirk.>
“I’ll just have a water, thanks.”
I’ve heard other moms say that they worried they wouldn’t love another child the way they do the firstborn, and I think that’s complete nonsense.  Would I have enough one-on-one time with #2?  How would I deal with sibling rivalry?  Yes, these things, I did worry about.  But, would I have enough love?  Is there such a thing as enough love?
I decide it’s time to find something for the boys, some kind of keepsake from NYC, something to buy their love to make up for leaving them for four days.  I head up Broadway, home to many things kid-friendly.
At eighteen months, Ben has not yet fully discovered the world of candy (although, he’s had a lot more than Will had at that age), but one thing he does enjoy on occasion is M&Ms.  M&M World is the closest thing to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory on earth (especially paired with the Hershey’s store next door).  They have t-shirts and key chains and picture frames and collectible dispensers and pens and coffee mugs and walls of every color of M&M imaginable.  At exorbitant prices, but who cares?  I decide to get them water bottles, red for Will and blue for Ben, along with a special mix of candies for both of them.
Will has a Spiderman figure that says “I look good in red and blue--you black and blue!” when you push a button on his chest, so naturally I mix red, blue, and black.  Ben doesn’t really have his “thing” that he’s obsessed with (although I’m noticing some tendencies toward Elmo and Thomas), so I mix blue, white, and gray in honor of the greatest baseball team of all time.  Whether he knows it or likes it, he’s a Yankees fan, and what better way to brainwash him than by offering him chocolate?
Armed with my purchases, I head back outside.  It’s still early afternoon and between the full-on sun and acres of concrete, it’s gotten hot.  Suddenly, encouraged by the giant flashing lights, I realize (why hadn’t I thought of this before?) that I could catch a matinee.  I head to the AMC in Times Square to check the movie times.  The only movie showing any time soon is “The Joneses” with David Duchovny and Demi Moore.  Even going in, I don’t have high expectations, but I don’t really care.  There are no cartoon characters or talking animals, and I’m pretty sure a parent figure is not going to die.  (Why do all cartoons involve one or more dead parents?)
I make a pit stop in the bathroom to wash my hands and wipe down my face.  A toilet flushes and out walks the worst drag queen I’ve ever been this close to.  I mean, he’s not even trying.  His wig is all wonky, and you can see his pubic hair bursting out of his low-rise jeans.  He has a 5-o’clock shadow at freaking 2:00.  He smiles, washes his hands and daintily dries them before turning to leave the bathroom ahead of me.  As he walks ahead, I shit you not, he adjusts his package, made very evident by his ass-tight bedazzled black capri jeans, lifting his right leg and shaking a little bit.
Inside, the theatre is cold, and I’m literally the only person.  I’m early, so I stand at the rail, counting the rows first and then finding the center seat in the center row.  Soft music is playing while still shots advertising Coca-Cola and real estate agencies flash across the screen.  I start to doze off when my cell phone dings.  The rule follower inside of me thinks “Oops!” before the snarky side thinks, “Dork!  No one else is here!”  It’s my friend, Patricia, texting to see if we can meet up tonight.  
Patricia went to high school with Scott, and I worked with her at a restaurant in college.  She’s about the size of a postage stamp but much cuter and less sticky.  She lives in Brooklyn and has been sick this week wants to come in to the city to party it up with Katie and me later.  As I finish up our textersation, the lights dim and the previews begin.  Movie after movie that I probably won’t see until they’re out on DVD flash across the screen.
The movie is not awful, decent acting with some dark satire.  Someone does die, but not  the parents, so overall not a complete waste of time.  More importantly, I sat through the whole thing without having to take someone to the bathroom.  Walking out, I miss Scott.  The best part of seeing a movie is the conversation we have afterward.  What was your favorite part?  What did you think of the soundtrack?  What about that ending?  Since having children, our priorities have obviously shifted.  You suddenly become extremely choosy about which movies you are going to see in the theatre when you have to not only pay $20 for the tickets but an extra $40 for a babysitter.  If the movie sucks, you’ve just wasted a decent pair of shoes.  I miss theatre movies--sneaking in candy and drinks, lifting the armrest and resting my legs across Scott’s lap, Scott’s teasing me for bringing a blanket.  He’ll be home in a few days from his deployment, and I promise myself that we will go out for an expensive movie soon.
I check my phone as I go down the escalator, and I’ve got a text from Kaydee, one of Scott’s high school friends.  We had communicated through Facebook earlier, and she tells me to meet her at 5:00 at a bar near where she works.
OH!  Happy Hour!  I’d almost completely forgotten about you, Happy Hour!  I move uptown at a quick pace, looking forward to a nice wheat beer, and if Kaydee has time maybe two.  She arrives a few minutes after me, dressed impeccably, as someone who works for a bank would be.  Kaydee attended Georgetown before getting her MBA at the University of Chicago and now works for JPMorgan Chase.  Scott (affectionately) describes her as one of the biggest strivers he knows.  After the first time I met her, Scott told me that her name was actually Katie, but she changed the spelling in kindergarten because the preferred spelling made more sense to her.  I can completely appreciate a woman who knows what she wants.
Kaydee is all hugs and smiles as she joins me at the bar and orders a beer.  (I decided on vodka tonics instead of beer because why not?)  She fills me in on her new position with the company, her relationship status (long-term boyfriend whom I met last time I saw her is still around), and her weekend plans to have people over for a dinner party at their apartment.  I fill her in on...Ready-to-Read books and shit diapers?  She is gracious and even laughs, seemingly entertained by my stories about Will and Ben.  I tell her that I’ve been tossing around the idea of going to seminary, but between the Presbyterian Church “process” and the Air Force, the probability is shrinking by the minute.  She asks how Scott is, how long he’s been gone, and although I don’t want to talk about this (again!), I answer.  
It’s not that I mind talking about Scott.  It’s just that this conversation always ends in the same place. People get this look of pity--oh, I’m so sorry for you that your husband is deployed.  They don’t mean anything bad by it, but I hate being an object of pity.  Don’t get me wrong--the Air Force life has some serious perks.  There’s potential for traveling and living in interesting places (which makes for meeting some pretty stellar people).  The tax-free months don’t hurt.  However, our life in the Air Force SUCKS a lot of the time, but I can’t really say that to people when they ask (sometimes with cartoonish frowns and furrowed brows), “HOW DO YOU DO IT?”
Frankly, I don’t do it very well sometimes.  It helps to know that I’m surrounded by other spouses who are going through the exact same thing.  And it helps to know that he’s in a career field with very little danger (relatively speaking).  It also helps that I’m a classic introvert who needs a lot of alone time to recharge.  All of those things help.  
But there are days, sometimes weeks, that I want to completely lose it.  There are days of binge-eating chocolate, followed by complete loss of appetite.  Other days, I’m motivated to take on projects--cleaning out a closet or organizing bookshelves--to pass the time.  Occasionally, I don’t answer my cell phone because I don’t want to answer the question, “What are you doing?” because my most impressive answer would be “Lying on the floor.”  I cry at night because I can’t sleep, and I curse myself all day long because I’m so exhausted.  I curse the Air Force.  I curse Scott.  I spend all day in pajamas and let the dishes pile up in the sink.  And then I take a shower, fix breakfast for the kids, and start the next day.  Because when one parent is gone completely, the other one MUST be present.  It’s a lot of fucking pressure.
But there are other days, especially Sunday mornings when I see the names scroll across the screen listing men and women who have died in combat, that I put aside my self-pity and suck it up.  Because it could be worse.  It could be a lot worse.
I glance at my watch and see it’s after 6:00, and I have to meet Katie (the one who didn’t change the spelling of her name) back at the apartment, so we can get ready for dinner.  Kaydee and I exchange a last hug before realizing we’ll be walking the same direction.  As I get up from my seat, I’m slightly tipsy from my two drinks and am grateful for the walk to the train stop.
Katie and I arrive back at her apartment at the same time and sit on the couch and chat for awhile before we get dressed to go out.  She’s beat from a long week at work, and I’ve never felt so rested.  I’m looking forward to some Korean food followed by some drinks at a hipster bar.  We’ve never had time like this, just the two of us.  Most of our interaction these days involves holidays at our house or back in Oklahoma surrounded by friends and family, so this is a new era for our relationship.  
We’re sisters-in-law, but this is the first time I’ve considered her a friend as she fills me in on the boyfriend scoop.  Our conversation sends me back to the time in my life when I was dating guys--really dating.  Scott and I have always had an unconventional relationship in that it started through emails and phone calls from Colorado to Oklahoma.  One of the first times we spent a considerable amount of time together was on a mission trip to build houses in Honduras.  We didn’t date, traditionally at least, because of the distance, and eight months in to our three-year courtship, we had the in-it-to-win-it conversation, which changed everything.
The last guy I dated in the true sense of the word (restaurants, movies, meeting the parents, etc.) was a guy named Tim from Arkansas.  We met through friends, went out a few times, and I cut it off abruptly when I realized my dad liked him more than I did.  He was cute, but listening to conversations between them about the Audubon Society was pretty dreadful. I was also 20, a sophomore in college, while he was already moving his way up in the business world at 26.  Looking back, I realize he probably thought I was incredibly immature.
Listening to Katie talk about the boyfriend, sharing her feelings and asking for advice, is refreshing to say the least.  She has that infatuated lilt to her voice, which I think makes her slightly uncomfortable as someone who lives most of her life without letting emotion rule.  She reminds me of me ten years ago--in a good way.

I’ve packed a pair of jeans, heels, and a pink, strappy shirt for our night out.  At the last minute, I grab my tiny black cardigan--my go to wardrobe piece when I’m feeling insecure about my outfit.  I am physically in limbo--that post-baby in between size that doesn’t exist, and as silly as I know it is, covering up my milk-filled breasts and thick biceps makes me feel better.  I know, silly.
We catch the train to K-town and find a restaurant suggested by Katie’s boss who emigrated with her parents as a child from South Korea.  I am a fan of nearly all Asian food but have had very little experience with Korean.  I leave the ordering to Katie, as I would have no idea where to start.  As we wait for our meat, sizzling on a tiny skillet at our table, I sample bits from all the tiny dishes.  The flavors are magnificent.  I am as red-blooded an American girl as the next, and I’ll take a steak or hamburger any day, but American cuisine relies so heavily on salt and pepper.  I taste ginger and vinegar and lots of green onion, all things that probably aren’t on my list of favorite flavors, but it all comes together so beautifully.  
Two Korean couples sit at the table next to us, and one of the girls leans over and asks the strangest question.  “How did you learn to use chopsticks?”  I’d never really thought about it before.  Katie says, “sushi” as I say “Chinese food.”  I’m humored by their finding amusement over two white girls successfully using chopsticks.  I stuff my face with extra lettuce wraps even though my jeans are screaming “STOP!”   And we still can’t finish the food before us. 
We split the check and head out the door into the cool night air.  The city seems quiet for a Friday night.  We’re meeting Patricia (my postage stamp friend) at a bar in the West Village.  I’m already regretting the heels--why do I do this to myself?  When we meet up, I quickly survey the bar and am easily the oldest person here.  Frat boys in wrinkled collared shirts hover over teeny girls in teeny dresses.  The three of us move toward a table in the back of the bar and scream over the noise to hear each other.  Several TVs hang from the walls, showing the progress or results of spring baseball.  I glance up occasionally to see that the Yankees are winning, wishing they’d been in town while I was here.  
Our conversation is easy, the talk of old friends and memories, in spite of our near inability to hear, but within half an hour the Korean food is sending me into a coma.  Katie’s eyes are sleepy from lack of sleep, and Patricia is almost nodding off in her beer.  We.  Are.  Old.  And although I like the IDEA of doing this, I am really, really okay with the fact that my normal life no longer intersects with the bar scene on a regular basis.  Bring on the backyard cookouts, drinking beer by the fire pit wrapped in blankets while the kids sleep upstairs.  I can hear what people are saying, don’t have to worry about getting groped by strangers, and love the commute to my upstairs bedroom.
Katie and I swap shoes on the way home, proof that she is the best friend I’ve ever had.  We walk the few blocks to her apartment and snuggle into our pajamas on the couch.  We are both anxious to stay up girl-talking, but our bodies are starting to shut down.  I say good night and head to the bedroom while she beds down on the couch.  We still have all day tomorrow to be besties.
I run to get a Jamba and a few things at the drugstore while Katie showers.  We have a relaxing day planned, a trip to Central Park and a show if we can find one at TKTS that starts at the right time.  We’ll be stopping at Carnegie Deli to share a sandwich and some cheesecake if the timing is right.
Central Park is the most surreal part of NYC.  Smack dab in the bustle of Manhattan sits this massive expanse of trees and hills and trails.  As we weave, we are passed by bikers and runners, and we pass a few horse-drawn carriages.  We stop to sit on a bench next to some little league ball fields.  The boys playing are probably 9-12 years old, a few years ahead of Will.  The parents line the stands with team-specific t-shirts and visors.  The boys don’t quite fill out their white pants, and they range in size from fifty pounds soaking wet to taller than me.  I notice one even has the start of a mustache.  This is frightening to me as a mother of two boys.
When I was growing up, I always said I wanted three boys, no girls.  When I was pregnant with Will, I changed my mind.  I talked myself into a girl and by the time we had our 20-week ultrasound, I was convinced (and excited) that he was a girl.  With Ben, I just KNEW he was a girl.  Knew it.  But they both came out with extra parts, and I was slightly relieved.  No mother-daughter fights about wardrobe.  No extra estrogen.  No weddings to pay for.  And as a wise man quipped, “With a boy, you only have one penis to worry about.  With a girl, you have to worry about all of them.”  (Disclaimer: I am secretly disappointed that I will never get to braid someone’s hair.)
Around 11:00, we head to TKTS to buy tickets for DRUM ROLL PLEASE...Phantom of the Opera!  What a perfect way to end my time in NYC.  We grab our half-price tickets and still have time for lunch.  The line for Carnegie Deli wraps around the block, so we head across the street to a less famous but nonetheless indulgent deli.  The club sandwich is enough for five people, and I still order a piece of Snickers cheesecake.  Tucking the leftovers into my bag for waiting-at-the-airport consumption, we hurry to the Majestic Theatre on 44th between 7th and 8th Avenues for a 4:00 show.  (When I return home tonight, I will turn on the news to hear that police found a bomb smoking in the back of a Nissan Pathfinder at 45th between 7th and 8th Avenues, right around the time we were exiting the show.)
The theatre is full, and Katie and I find our seats a few minutes before it starts.  I have seen movie adaptations and local plays of Phantom of the Opera, but there is nothing like seeing it live on Broadway--the sets, the costumes, the voices of the actors unaided by studio magic.  Pure, raw talent from people who are being rewarded for years of persistence.  In an alternate world, I would have been one of those people--a performer, someone who takes chances based on my talent instead of staying grounded in the kind of reality that pays the bills.  The closest I can come to envy is when I meet people who actually live out cliches like “Follow your dreams!” or "Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."  I sometimes wish my impulsive side had a little more confidence.
Katie and I are brought to tears near the end of the show--even though the phantom is quite possibly the creepiest character of all space and time.  Really?  How is locking a girl up in a secret lair romantic?  The crowd reacts with a standing ovation, and I have found another reason to be infatuated with NYC.
To get home, I have to catch a train from Penn Station by NJ Transit to the Newark Airport.  (I find out later that a military ID lets you ride for free on the Metro AND on NJ Transit.  Sweetness.)  Katie and I part at the stop by her apartment.  I’m headed back to Charleston, and she’s headed home to get ready for a date with the boyfriend.  We hug, and I pass her my Metrocard over the turnstile, so she can use the remaining three days worth of rides.
I ride the full train to Newark, chatting with the two ladies in my row.  For the first time all weekend (really!), I miss home.  The missing home suddenly weighs so heavily on my chest that I catch my breath to stop from crying.  I hadn’t had to try that hard the whole trip to focus on the fun I was having, but now it’s like my brain is screaming, “I just want to walk through the doors and see tiny flip-flops on the shoe rack!”
My traveling is again uneventful, and as I pull into my driveway, I do start to cry a little bit, just seeing the living room lights through the front window.  My mom will be waiting inside asleep on the couch, no different than when I would come home from a party in high school.  Except this time, I’m the mom, too, and I can’t wait to wrestle with my two beautiful boys when they wake up in the morning.  The day after that?  My husband and his entire squadron will be home from their deployment.  And all will be right, and all will be good.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Nightlights and Lullabies (Part 2)

I’m lying in bed listening to Katie get ready for work in the other room, ice clinking in her glass as she sets it down on the coffee table.  Light filters through the window onto the bed, and I hear a horn honk in the street below.  It’s 8:08, and I’m not moving.  Don’t have to.  I’d go back to sleep just for the sake of going back to sleep, but I actually feel rested.  It’s the first morning in almost five years that I slept all night long and didn’t have to get up and worry about children.
At home, I know my boys are probably sitting at the eat-in table, drinking orange juice and eating eggs and bacon with Mimi.  They have on striped pajamas, both suffering from extreme bedhead.  Will is talking about Spiderman.  Ben is eating only the fatty parts of the bacon and leaving the crunchy parts in his bowl.  Beyond breakfast, I have no clue what their plan is for the day.  I left no instructions because I think they need a breather from me just as much as I need a breather from them.
When I’m home, we always have a schedule.  I learned early in Will’s life that he can usually roll with just about anything as long as you let him know it’s coming.  So we have charts and calendars and morning talks and night-time talks--all to make sure everyone is on the same page.  The reality is that I would love to have more spontaneity in our life as a family, but with a husband who is gone all the time (and could always leave any minute when he IS home), the only way I stay sane is to have a routine.  
Today, there is nothing on the schedule for me either.  Blank slate.  No obligations.  No appointments. Just me and the city.  So as I listen to Katie leave for work, it’s an exercise in being uncomfortable, this letting go of the need to plan.  Right now, my priority is a long shower followed by a short walk up 8th Ave for a Jamba Juice.  My next priority will be to find the closest clothing store to buy a jacket.
Last night, Katie filled me in about tonight’s events--the “reason” I came to NY in the first place.  She works for a non-profit that provides tutoring and mentoring for low-income preschool children.  We’ll be setting up for an event in the early evening, and I’ll find out then what my job (as a volunteer) will be.  Five authors will be signing books and speaking throughout the course of the night as part of a massive push for their capital campaign.  One of the authors is Amy Sedaris--like Strangers with Candy Amy Sedaris.  I own her cookbook and envy her clothes.  I’m more star-struck by her than I would be if I saw Brangelina walking down the street with Will and Jada.  I mean, her brother is THE David Sedaris, and she’s best friends with Stephen Colbert.  I hope that lots of fundraising occurs at this event, but good God, my goal is just to get her to sign my cookbook.
So, after I shower and pack my day bag, I head toward 8th Ave for an Orange Berry Blitz.  We don’t have Jamba Juice in Charleston, which is probably a good thing for our bank account.  I’m not a coffee drinker, but I could lay some mad money down on smoothies.  I actually contact their corporate headquarters via email approximately once a month, asking them to open a store in SC, preferably somewhere near my neighborhood.  No luck so far.
As soon as I step out onto 16th and round the corner onto 8th, I am reminded why NYC is one of my favorite places on earth.  And by “reminded,” I mean slapped upside the head by NYC at its best.  A petite man, not much bigger than me, is walking toward me.  If I don’t move out of the way, he’ll run into me because he is entranced by whatever is playing on his ipod.  So much so, that he’s having a personal mosh-pit-for-one in the middle of the sidewalk.  The tiny dog he’s carrying does not enjoy his dancing.  Either that, or he’s offended by the man’s outfit--cut-off jean shorts, bleached and full of holes, a tight purple shirt that reads “I’m with Jane,” and a brown and black fur vest.  His sunglasses are also purple.  With sparkles.  Oh, and his shoes?  Naturally, neon yellow Nikes with white swooshes.
As Jane’s friend dances by, I notice there are drugstores on every corner, several little restaurants and luckily a Gap, not far from the Jamba.  Drugstore, drugstore, breakfast specials, Gap, sex shop.  Wait, what?  Right.  The windows are covered with plain paper, but the door has several flyers advertising “auditions” for an all-male revue.  I peek inside the open door.  Yep, definitely a sex shop.  And not the kind you go to looking for penis pasta and edible undies to give to your bestie for her bachelorette party.  I’m talking stuff-your-college-boyfriend’s-roommates-haven’t-even-heard-about sex shop.  Right here next to CVS and the Gap.  
After grabbing a jacket at the Gap, I walk a little further up 8th, passing sex shop after porn store after quickie depot, mixed in with all kinds of mundane storefronts.  I rethink my plan to just wander and decide to make some phone calls.  After spending some time googling, I track down my college thesis director, Susan.  She lives outside of the city, but her (ex-?)partner has a place in Chelsea, so I’m hoping to catch her while I’m here.  
Susan and I could not possibly come from different places in life.  I am 29, from Missouri and Oklahoma, raised in a “Christian home,” and straight.  She is older (with beautiful gray hair), definitely a New York girl, raised Jewish but a practicing Zen Buddhist, and gay.  There are very few people in this world that I love more than Susan.  Ours is a friendship based on mutual respect and complete honesty.  As my professor and mentor, she was one of the first people to ever read any of my personal writing and guided me through the year-long project that ended up being my 234-page thesis.  I love her because she criticizes honestly and lovingly and carefully, whether the criticism is of my writing or me.  She asks questions, and she listens to my answers without judgment.  
One of the last times we hung out was right before I finished grad school.  She made me hot cocoa at her apartment, boiling the soy milk on the stove while her dog, Anakin, lay at my feet.  She put on some music, something old and comfortable, and paid me the highest compliment anyone has ever paid me.  “Leia, I have never thought of you as a sad person, but you understand sorrow, and that is just one of the reasons you are a great writer.”
Susan was the first person that made me believe I could actually do something with my writing, that it wasn’t just “for me.”  After grad school, I moved to SC, and she moved back to NY.  We email enough to keep up with each other, and every email I receive from her is another push, another reminder that time is passing, and I still haven’t done anything with my writing.  My heart sinks into my stomach, but I also feel encouraged.  She always asks how the boys are doing, what they’re into, and she never ends an email without asking, “So are you writing any these days?”
When I finally track down a good number and hear her voice, I almost cry.  We talk for a few minutes before establishing that we will miss each other.  She has a flight to catch early in the morning and isn’t yet in the city, and I have the event tonight.  It isn’t going to happen this time, but I promise that I’ll give her better notice next time.
Next, I call Rachel, my best friend from high school.  Our junior and senior years, Rachel practically lived with me.  After high school, I went to TX for college, and Rachel disappeared somewhere in the middle of Georgia.  We saw each other serendipitously once in college, and then I lost her again.  I tried all the numbers I had for her multiple times, hoping at the very least to track her down when I got married.  When I did find her, it was of course, through Facebook.  A couple nights after we friended each other, I gave her my phone number and she called.  We talked for hours, and if it hadn’t been for the heat on my ear from my cell phone, I would have sworn she was lying in bed beside me just like when we were in high school.  Instead of gabbing about the boys we loved and the girls we hated, we were talking about my kids and her job.  
She doesn’t answer when I call but calls back almost immediately.  She’s late for work at the furniture store because she picked up an extra job, organizing flowers for a wedding.  She talks quickly, and we agree that I’ll head over to the West Village, so we can chat while she’s at work.  Hanging up, I pull out my tiny subway map and head up to catch the closest train.

It took me about five minutes the first time I came to NYC to fall in love with the subway.  I know this sounds crazy to a lot of people, but growing up in Oklahoma, we drove everywhere because there was no public transportation.  I love everything about the subway.  Swiping my Metrocard and pushing through the turnstiles, the grating noises of the train brakes bouncing off the tile mosaics, the posters for Broadway shows and new TV shows, the rats that race across the tracks, the millions of tiny black dots all over the concrete where people have spit out their gum, the stink.  I love the dirty people, the people in pressed suits and high heels, the people with their heads buried in their books, the people falling asleep with their headphones in, the mariachi bands moving from car to car, the street musicians playing Aerosmith on their violins.
My favorite thing is sitting in the orange bucket seats and watching the lights move on the display, counting down the stops until I reach where I’m going, watching as the car empties and then fills up again.  I love watching tourists (yes, I know I am one, but I’ve never been this kind) open up their giant maps, almost falling over when the train lurches and then realizing they needed to get off at the last stop.  And I love that no matter where I’m going, I can play the NY version of Where’s Waldo? and I ALWAYS find someone wearing a Yankees cap.
I ride around on the Subway, getting on and off in random places just to get back on going a different direction.  At one stop, I barely miss the E train, so I sit on a wooden bench beside a man and his daughter.  I ask him how old she is, and she’s two, just had a birthday last week.  He cradles her in his arms as she drifts off to sleep, that kind of sleep that only children have, where the flickering fluorescent bulbs and the sound of distant trains become a nightlight and a lullaby.  
We talk while we wait.  He has lived in New York City his whole life.  In Queens.  Came into Manhattan to pick up his daughter from his ex-wife.  He wants to know why I’m here, and I tell him I’m visiting my sister-in-law.  He says it’s nice to get a break, and I probably deserve it.  People always talk about how rude New Yorkers are, but I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t willing to help when I needed it or smile when I smiled first.
I get off the train and walk the few blocks to Rachel’s furniture store.  She warned me on the phone that it’s an odd configuration and kind of difficult to figure out where the door is.  Just as I’m about to call her, she pops her head out of the indistinguishable door and motions me in.  
Rachel is beautiful. She’s tall with dark, curly hair and green eyes like a cat.  She’s exactly how I remember her, except grown up in a belted dress and leggings with a pair of flats.  Her job at this upscale (and when I say upscale I’m talking hundreds of thousands of dollars for a one-of-a-kind Dutch couch) is to guide high-profile clients (i.e. Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw) to pieces that they just can’t live without.  Rachel fits the part completely and elegantly.  Even with my memories of us making t-shirts to wear to Friday night football games and road-tripping to the Ozarks to go canoeing with my cousin and his cute friends, this other life of hers totally makes sense.  She’s dating a musician.  She was working for an organic florist but fell into this job because a friend of a friend of a friend...it all makes perfect sense.
We chat for a couple of hours because she doesn’t have any appointments (which makes me feel very important because I got in here without one) and when I stand to leave, I have this overwhelming urge to scream.  Like a high-pitched girl scream, accompanied by lots of jumping up and down and hugging.  I have lived away from the life that was connected to Rachel for so long, and being with her for just a few hours is like putting on my high school soccer sweatpants, the ones I was supposed to turn back in when the season was over but didn’t because they’re so damn comfortable.
Rachel has a busy weekend ahead of her, and we probably won’t get to meet up again, so it’s quick kisses and a lingering hug.  We promise it won’t be so long between visits, and I believe us.

Back on the street, I head to Chinatown.  Even though I had Chinese for dinner last night, I want more, and I want to order it from someone who doesn’t speak English.  From a restaurant with mismatched chairs and creepy fish tanks.  I want the sidewalk outside to be lined with stinky fish and fresh fruits and vegetables.  And I want a fortune cookie.
I get off the train in Little Italy just so I can take an extra-long walk.  At the first sight of dead fish, I stop an older Chinese woman pushing a baby in a stroller and ask her where I should eat.  She stares at me like--well, like I’m speaking English--and I clarify with motions.  “Eat?” (Hand to mouth.) “Restaurant?”  (Not sure why, but making motions like I’m standing in a house.) “You eat?  Where?” (Pointing at her and her surroundings, probably rudely, in hindsight.)  
I think I see a glimmer in her eye, but it’s immediately gone as she makes wild motions, swinging her arms in circles.  I translate this as “Look around, stupid white lady.  There are fourteen restaurants that I can see from here.”  So much for trying to get a local’s take.  I find a younger guy, selling fruit at one of the stands.  He speaks English and tells me he always grabs lunch at a place one block over.  Graciously I thank him and move in the right direction.
It’s 12:30, and the place is bustling with the lunch crowd.  The hostess finds me a falling-apart two-seater in the back of the restaurant.  I can hear sizzling from behind the swinging doors to the kitchen, along with the clanging of silverware and dishes.  Several tables are seated with parties of ten or more people, dressed in suits, out for an office lunch.  Other tables are seated with couples or groups of what look to be college students, chatting loudly, laughing constantly.  I am alone, and it is wonderful.
I drink my hot tea and eat my beef with broccoli slowly, deliberately, while I read Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala.  It’s a fictional account of a few months in the life of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country.  Having spent time in Sierra Leone and other West African nations (in my previous pre-husband, pre-children life), the story is strikingly similar to those I heard from my West African friends.  I am so entrenched in the story of Agu that I don’t notice when the waiter drops off my ticket with a fortune cookie and a few delicately sliced orange wedges.  At a particularly heart-wrenching point in the story, I close the book and look up to see that the place has started clearing out, and my waiter is watching me from across the restaurant.  I smile at him, placing my book in my bag, and removing my wallet.  He crosses quickly and nods, asking, “Is good book?”
I smile, not realizing he’s asking a question and then recover.  “Oh, yes.  Yes, it’s a very good book.”  I glance at this name tag which reads “Peter.”  While Peter is gone with my credit card, I open my fortune cookie, and it reads, “A cynic is only a frustrated optimist.”  This is perhaps the most poignant thing a cookie has ever said to me, but I still add the proverbial “in bed” to give myself a little chuckle.  Peter returns my card and bows slightly saying, “Have nice day, ma’am.”  I look at my watch and realize I need to head uptown to make sure I get to the event space on time.  
I’ve timed my commute perfectly and when I walk into the lobby, a group of people is gathered for a short meeting.  Katie motions me over and introduces me.  We move through the building as Katie’s boss points out the bathrooms, the room where we can change, and the space where the authors will set up their book tables.  Already, someone has placed easels with poster-sized versions of their book covers next to each table.  I make a mental note that I must finagle my way into this area sometime during the night for a glimpse of Miss Amy in all her glory.
The rest of the late afternoon is spent setting up displays, organizing papers, and placing centerpieces and informational pamphlets at the tables.  The monotony is invigorating.  And I’m not being sarcastic.  I am Henry Ford’s dream.  
When I was in kindergarten, my teacher would find projects for me while the other kids were learning letters and colors and shapes.  While the rest of the class anxiously held their hands in the air to say “purple,” I sat on the side of the room alphabetizing files.  Envelopes to stuff and lick?  I’m your girl.  Shelving food at a food bank?  It’s like heroin to me.  There’s just something about the mixture of doing something productive while being able to shut off my brain that equals pure bliss.
About half an hour before the guests arrive, we all change into our evening attire.  I’ve brought the typical little black dress and black heels.  I so rarely wear anything but t-shirts and jeans that I feel a little awkward.  I check my hair and make-up in the mirror, and I pause to stare.  I’ll be the first to admit to vanity.  I spent many hours in high school and college gawking at myself in the mirror, turning my face left and right, subtle smiles followed by giant grins.  I would turn in circles slowly, inspecting every inch of my body, standing up straight, slumping, flexing my muscles and looking for signs of cellulite on the backs of my thighs. My current self would like to punch that self in the face.  
Recently, my mom digitally converted 8,000 pictures from my childhood and gave them to me on CD, giving me ample time to look over my many “looks” over the years.  Chubby legs and cheeks of babydom.  The HAIR in elementary school.  I mean, seriously, my bangs could have stopped a bullet.  And middle school.  Oh, middle school.  You’ve got the XL baggy shirts (during my “I developed faster than everyone else and want to hide my boobs” phase).  Next, you have the baggy jeans and tabasco red one-stars (during my “I’m going to mourn the loss of Kurt Cobain as if he was a close personal friend” phase), which coincided with my “I think I’m starting to like this whole boob thing” phase where you can see my father’s face getting angrier and angrier in direct proportion to the tightness of my shirts.
In high school and college, I thought I was fat.  The whole time.  I never dieted because I really like food, but I thought about it all the time.  I would see a pair of jeans on someone and think “I could never pull that off with these ham hock thighs!”  (This might be a result of the fact that a boy told me I had porkchop legs when I was in eighth grade.  When I weighed 103 pounds.)
At 23, I got married and weighed 118 pounds.  I gained eight pounds the first year we were married, ten pounds with the first baby, and well, with the second baby, gawd...it’s like I’m back in high school.  I so want to not be obsessed with weight, but it’s almost like an innate need to not accept me as me.  The more I talk to other women--whether it’s the teenagers in our church youth group, moms at playdates, or my mom’s friends--it’s like we’re hard-wired to be unhappy with ourselves.  No matter how much I tell myself to stop and how well I intellectually understand the insanity of obsessing over weight, I still don’t stop.  Since I had children, it’s reached a different level of insanity because not only do I obsess, but I get angry.  I go on mental tirades.  “I WANT MY BODY BACK!  WHAT THE HELL IS THIS FLAP?  HOW COULD I POSSIBLY GET MORE STRETCH MARKS?”  It’s so damn tiring.
My current self sometimes wants to punch my current self in the face.  So, my legs are shaved, and I’m in a black dress, and I feel like I look decent enough to meet Amy Sedaris.  When I come out of the dressing room, the whole place looks fabulous.  All of our monotonous work has paid off.  The lighting is low.  Soft music plays over the speakers.  The bartenders are in place, and people are starting to filter in slowly at the front door.  Right before we changed clothes, we were given instructions about our specific duties.  Get this--my job for the night is to restock Amy’s table with cookbooks and make sure she never has an empty glass.  I’m not shitting you.  How ridiculously fantastic is that?  Then, I see her.

She’s in low-cut but very 1950's housewife kelly green dress embroidered with two cherries at the bottom edge, and...is she wearing a petticoat?  I can’t tell, but I’m not going to lean down to check under her skirt.  All of a sudden, I feel a heat flash, and my pits go sweaty.  My throat is dry, and my mind is completely blank.  As I move to introduce myself (after the more official people have already done so), I can’t think of one clever thing to say.  I pride myself on being able to make a good first impression.  At least in my mind, I think most people have to think, “She seems nice enough, perhaps even interesting enough to approach later for further conversation.”  I’m pretty sure Amy took one look at my sweaty pits and cottonmouth and thought, “What a freaking loser.  Maybe she’ll get me a drink.”
The night started off slowly, as people were arriving fashionably late, so I was left to sit next to Amy to try to make small talk.  Despite my inability to act like a human being, Amy was unbelievably gracious, asking me about my personal life.  When I told her I was a mom and Air Force wife, her jaw dropped.  “NO!  You’re a mom!  I would have never guessed you were over twenty-one, twenty-three tops.  Two boys?  I bet they keep you busy!  And you’re husband is a pilot?  Thank him for his service please.  I bet that’s tough...”
This is the same conversation I had with the man sitting beside me on the plane from Charleston to NYC, except he was a carpet salesman, and this is Amy Sedaris.  She’s freakishly normal.  To throw more normal in my face, she starts talking about TV shows she likes.  “Have you seen that Friday Night Lights?  I don’t miss an episode!”  I think I’m falling in love.
As the night progresses, Amy’s table stays the busiest of the five tables.  I meet the other authors, all very nice people.  However, none of them posed in high heels with their dresses tucked into their pantyhose for the covers of their books, so I’m not that impressed.  I refill the book table as Amy signs book after book after book for women who are conspicuously drunk for so early in the night and for men who start with “this is for my sister” almost every time.  I only get her a wine refill once after she quips, “Don’t get me liquored up, or I’ll REALLY offend people.  We need their money!”
Before she is whisked away to speak, she signs a cookbook for me and one for my mom, as I tell her it’s the perfect gift for someone who is willing to watch my children for four days while I wander around NYC meeting famous people.
The night finishes well with $700,000 raised.  I spend the last part of the night leaning against a wall, hiding my shoeless feet behind a speaker.  I haven’t worn heels for longer than an hour in years, let alone for five hours while bending down repeatedly to pick up boxes of books.  My feet hate me.  When the crowd clears out, we all quickly change back into our jeans and running shoes and feast on the leftovers from the night.  It’s nearly 11:00, and although I’m a night owl who rarely goes to bed before 1:00, I’m almost never outside my house past 9:00.  
Katie and one of her friends ask if I want to go grab a drink before heading home, and I’m probably a little too anxious.  Why yes, an overpriced vodka tonic with lime is exactly what I need before I go to bed and sleep as long as I want to.  Thanks for asking.
Katie has to work in the morning, so as we ride home, I’m overwhelmed by the thought that I have another whole day ahead of me of doing whatever I want, whenever I want.  It’s an embarrassment of riches.