Damage

I keep thinking about damage, the damage that we do each other, the commenter who insists on using the writer’s real name when the writer still needs the anonymity of her pseudonym, the friend who expresses displeasure that the writer didn’t take up her suggested subject as if the writer’s own ideas weren’t sufficient, the relative who, upon discovering that the writer writes, insists on being given every piece of work, handwritten, and signed for increased value, the other relative who insists that she too could write, that everyone loves her letters. They are good letters, but why the competition? Why did the relative insist that the writer sign the ugly bird house she’d built and given as a gift? Why did the best friend step down from ‘best’ by yelling at the writer about the way she raises her son based on a story the writer wrote, a story filled with that twist that storytelling always gives what begins by looking like fact? Why did the professor begin to pick, pick, pick at the way the writer lives, again based simply on the fiction of her words?

I’m sure the doctor gets to diagnose pains at dinner parties.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the accountant complaining that her friends want their taxes done for free.

The artist is asked, “What does it mean?” and “Would you do the sets for the grade school play for free?”

The musician is told by her mother, “How are you going to earn any money as a musician?”

Does the teacher get told how to teach?

The engineer told what to design?

The architect told how the silhouette should appear against the mountainsides?

Why do people work so hard to tear down what isn’t even finished being built?

Thank you for listening, jules

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Why I Need to Tell You

Hon, it’s hard to explain to you why I need to tell these stories. It could be that you’ll want to know some day. I like to think that you’d already know all of these stories by the time you read this, but tonight, when you were trying to think of a proper noun for your homework and needed the name of another company, I asked you the name of the company where your dad and I met, where we worked together. You didn’t know and it made me sad, but I couldn’t tell you just then because I don’t give you answers to homework and now I realize that I never did tell you. So as far as I know, you still don’t know.

Honey, we met at Lockheed, in New Jersey. It doesn’t even exist there any more. That makes me sad, like losing the woods behind my childhood home when the local Boy Scout Council sold the property to Walmart. Yeah, that was a good choice. Losing the Lockheed subsidiary there in New Jersey made more sense, but your dad and I did some good work there together. The most important work we did there was to learn to depend on each other in the wilderness, well, and to fall in love in the process.

So, it feels as if you need to be able to see it all together, in one place, all the stories, all the rivers and lakes. You need to know how I fell in love with your dad and why I think it’s all still there inside us. Doesn’t every kid need to know about how their parents fell in love? I have your great grandpa’s love letters to your great grandma. I read them once, but it was a lot of allusions to sex and ‘I love you’s and not many pictures formed with the words. I really wanted those letters to steam my glasses with the passion of ‘the night we first met’ or ‘the night I first knew I loved you.’ See, that’s the problem with letters. I’ve written your dad tons of letters, nice letters. He’s written me a lot of letters, a poem too, but none of them show you a picture of where we were then. If I’d been one of those scrapbooking moms, you’d have an album with all the photos put in order. You’d be able to see it on our faces.

Honey, we didn’t have a chance to take a lot of photos when we were running a class II rapid. It’s not like I could stop, turn around in the bow of the canoe, and tell him to mug for the camera. Yeah, that camera was wrapped up tight in two ziplock bags inside of my leaky dry bag. Besides, by then, I already had whiplash and it was hard for me to twist around in my seat to get a shot of him paddling behind me. No, our story in the canoe was more that I could hear him breathing behind me and the sound of his paddle dripped as he took it silently out of the water to feather it through the air. It was more that I could feel the boat turning and the way his stroke made our tippy canoe more stable in the water. It was the way he paddled in synch with me and how sometimes I went the other way around a rock than he expected.

Your dad is still better at reading a river than I am. I hope by now that you are as good at reading a river as he is. There are things that feel like your legacy if you choose to take them up. Being able to read a river feels like a good legacy, a sweet metaphor, and a way, as we are always asking, for you to get out and get some good exercise.

That’s why I need to tell you these stories about when we paddled the canoe.

Thank you for listening, jules

Tweaked

Ever since I was asked to chase down a known meth dealer, I’ve had a yearning to go to the gun range to practice shooting my husband’s gun. This is another one of those things I never thought I’d ever hear coming out of my mouth in my lifetime.

In answer to your question, I have to say that yes, indeed, all of this is true to the best of my telling.

Just in case you don’t know me very well yet, I’m an ordinary mom. Seriously. I’m two sizes too big, overly concerned with homework and too many video games, and I make lunch for my boy in the morning and put it into an LL Bean lunch bag rather than have him eat the school lunch. Just in case he forgets his lunch, I keep a balance on his lunch room account. I’m a member of the PTSA, though I try to keep off those email lists when they’re recruiting for a new president or treasurer. Right now, I’m supposed to be cleaning my kitchen and my boy and his best friend are blowing zombies away on their latest video game.

Last Monday, I’d stopped by the library to pay my fines and pick up my holds before taking my dog to the park to run. I always talk too much and got caught up in a conversation just outside the library with another mom about how our kids are doing in the school, or rather how the school is doing with our kids. So when the librarian and another mom came running out the door and asked us if we’d seen a little girl leave with ‘the tweaker,’ I had to stop the high frequency of the conversation and ask, “What’s a tweaker?”

“A drug dealer!” the librarian said, lowering her voice just a little bit. “I can’t leave the property. This guy deals meth. He’s been banned from the library. He left with that little girl. Can you see them? They’re down there. See his bike? Can you go see if the little girl is okay, if she’s supposed to be going anywhere with him? She shouldn’t be going anywhere with him. God forbid she’s supposed to be with a man like that. Can you go down there?”

The other mom and I looked at each other for a moment and started walking in the direction of the bike that was parked at the market. The librarian still hung out the library door, urging us to hurry.

“What are we going to say to this guy?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll think of something,” the other mom answered. She was walking faster than I was. I wished I hadn’t lingered so long to talk. I wished I was in my car on the way to the dog park. I didn’t want to confront a meth dealer about what he was doing with a little girl. We found the bike parked at the market, a little grocery store that sells a wide variety of items ranging from gluten-free foods to beer. The other mom and I stood by the door where a Girl Scout sat at a table full of boxes of cookies.

“Do you want to buy some cookies,” she asked innocently? Didn’t she know I was busy trying to figure out what I was going to say when I confronted the meth dealer? Usually, I chat with these girls and leave four dollars poorer. I just wanted her to pick up her money-box and go inside with the cashier who was also a volunteer fireman. She’d be safer with the fireman than with me and this other mom as we planned our attack.

“Do you think that’s him,” I asked. There was a man at the register with a pile of candy and junk food. He looked as if he smelled like a homeless man. I could imagine the smell of him through the glass door. He wore a baseball hat backward on his head. His cheekbones protruded. Skeletal was a good description.

A few years ago, another one of the Facebook moms posted before and after pictures of meth addicts. I showed my boy and his best friend. I showed them to scare them, to gross them out, to warn them. I never thought I’d use those shots to identify the characteristics of a guy standing in front of me, separated only by a thin pane of glass. The people in the after pictures were thin to the point of being skeletal. Their hair hung in limp strands around their shoulders. Their eyes seemed to have shrunk into their heads. They had lesions on their faces. And they looked soulless.

The hair rose along my spine and on the backs of my arms. I shouldn’t be staring through a single pane of glass at someone who looked like this. I should be walking away quickly and deliberately.

But there she stood, the little girl who left the library with a meth dealer. She was chubby and cute. I watched, stunned into silence and immobility, as he paid for the junk food then walked with the little girl out of the store. They passed us and I could almost feel the oxygen being sucked out of the air around this man’s emaciated body. This was not good.

The little girl hung the bag of junk food on the bike. The other mom nodded her head at me and moved toward them. I shuffled along behind her. My muscles tried to tell me not to walk in this direction. I’m always telling my boy to walk away from trouble. That’s what I wanted to do. We walked abreast of them. They were still fiddling with the bag of junk food and the bike when the other mom stopped and turned toward the little girl.

“Hey, aren’t you in school with my daughter?” the other mom said cheerfully. “Are you in third grade? My daughter’s in third grade.” Brilliant. This other mom was brilliant and I had become a deaf-mute.

“I’m in fourth grade,” the little girl said. The other mom actually got the girl to tell us her name. Brilliant.

“Hey, is this your dad?”

“No, it’s my, my … my uncle’s best friend.” This man could be no one’s best friend. The man looked up and stared at me for a moment. If I weren’t frozen before, I thought I might turn into a pillar of salt under his gaze. My mouth was hanging open. I carefully closed it. The other mom ran out of questions and I was in no condition to hear how she ended the conversation, gracefully or not.

The little girl jumped onto the back of the bike and the meth dealer pedaled away with her. The other mom and I walked back toward the library. When we got there, the librarian was talking to the little girl who was squirming, holding the bag of goodies behind her back. She looked like she was in trouble. The meth dealer was outside on his bike, pedaling past the glass windows on the front side of the library. He was headed toward the elementary school. When the librarian let her go, the little girl walked toward the far room where other kids sat at tables. The other mom, the librarian, and I stood in a tight circle and talked. I watched as the little girl dumped the goodies the meth dealer had bought onto one table and sat down with two other girls her age. They reached out and touched the goodies before I turned away. I should have run over and swept those things into a garbage can. Had the meth dealer managed to put some extra ‘goodies’ into the bag or had we spooked him?

I felt as though someone had stuffed cotton where my brain was supposed to be. I wanted to go home. I wanted to hug my boy. I burst into tears when the mom and the librarian decided that I should write an article about what happened. I didn’t want to write an article. I didn’t want to be brave.

That was four days ago, and all I can think now is that the next time I face a real life zombie, I want to be wearing armor like what my boy configures on his video games. I want to be carrying an AK-47, a pistol, and a boot knife. I want to have society’s permission to blow the guy’s head off his shoulders before he looks up and watch as his body melts away into oblivion and his blood soaks into the cracks of the sidewalk.

Or maybe next time a librarian tries to send me to confront a known meth dealer, I’ll have the presence of mind to tell her to call 911 so that an armed police officer can take care of this meth dealer instead of me.

Thank you for listening, jules