Monday, September 8

Love Letters

A few years ago, I got into an argument with my grandmother.

"What're you doing, Grandma?"  I asked, as I heard whirring in the background.

"Shredding paperwork." Whir.

"Oh, that's good. What kind of paperwork?" This is the woman who blacks out her address on catalogs with a sharpie before she sends it over for our family to look at so no one can steal her information. (She also removes the order forms so we can't make purchases from the catalogs, since she's decided we're poor and we can look but not touch.)

"Just letters and stuff." Whir.

And though I assume it's junk mail, I feel compelled to ask her what kind of letters, exactly, she's destroying.

"Oh, family letters, and stuff. Like letters your Grandpa sent when he was in the war." Whir.

"GRANDMA, YOU STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!"

If it were possible for me to Wonka-Vision shrink myself and travel through the phone I would have.

"Please, please, please don't shred those!" I beg her.

"Why?" she responds. With the whirring of the shredder still buzzing in the background.

"Because that's history! That's legacy! Those are family heirlooms!"

"No, they're private." she insists. "No one wants to read them."

"I DO!" I tell her, the sentimental wordsmyth that I am. "I want to read them, Grandma."

"No, you don't." She says.

"Yes, I do!" I insist.

"No, you don't." She insists.

"Grandma! I do!"

"Arly..." my grandmother sounds like she's conspiring with me, "...your grandfather was..." - And I'm convinced she's going to tell me he was a spy or a double agent or an assassin - "...a very horny man." she concludes, giggling.

And that shuts me up. Because my grandmother won't even watch a show if it says, "damn" in it so for her to be so frank about the contents of the letter, makes me blush slightly.

"Ok, well, that is a thing you just told me." Trying to collect myself as I hear the whirring start up again. "But save some of the less scandalous ones, ok?"

"Why?" My grandmother asks.

I scramble to be eloquent and come up with good reasons, but all I can do is think of the photo of my grandparents on their wedding day, so young, so beautiful, so in love. Years afterwards, when my grandmother was concerned I wouldn't ever meet a man and would die alone and lonely, she encouraged me to go to square dancing events. That was where she and my grandfather met, and she figured - if it worked for them...

And then I'm struck with the image of my grandfather, struggling to communicate as ALS ravaged his system, robbed him of his words, the things he loved so much. He was witty and quick to turn a phrase. And he was so, so in love with my grandmother. They were married for over 50 years and none of that love ever faded.

Of course I wanted to read his courtship letters to her!  Of course I wanted to read his letters of love! Even if they talked about her in a way that was more blue than she wanted to me to know about.

"Grandma, because...I think that's beautiful that you still have them. Now a days, no one writes love letters. At least not in a way that we'd keep. It's all e-mails and text messages and phone calls."

I can hear her soften in her resolve. She knows I'm a sentimental sap. On my 18th birthday she and my grandfather gave me a beautiful appetizer display set, two tiers of etched glass, with a note attached: "Because we know how much you love to entertain." It was from their wedding set. And I was humbled that they would trust me with it. She knew I loved to entertain, she knows I love to write. I tried to spin that to my advantage.

"Besides," I went on, "I'm a writer and...I'd just like to read something Grandpa wrote to you."

I think this is the part of the conversation where she remembers my tattoo - an Underwood typewriter I had etched into my shoulder on my 25th birthday. The same typewriter my grandfather used, and then my mother, and then me. My grandmother likes this tattoo.

(I thought it was very edgy of her think that tattoos were cool - until she saw the seashell on my wrist. I got that one two years later. Her response to it?

Taken back before selfies were as ubiquitous as they are now.
Ignore the giant camera/flash. You get the idea.
"It won't wash off?"

"Um, no, Grandma. It's permanent."

She pursed her lips and said, "Oh."

Turns out, it's not all tattoos she likes. But the typewriter. The typewriter she does.)

"Oh, I don't know." Her position on the letter shredding is shifting, and there's no more grinding of paper to be heard in the background. "I'll think about it."

That was the last we talked about it, but I've since learned that Grandma has, in fact, set aside some letters for me. But I'm not going to get them until after she dies. Not sure if that's to spare us the embarrassment of my grandfather's longings, but she's the mother of five kids. Not much to hide there, grandma.

And I couldn't be happier. About the letters. Not the horniness. (That's still a thing she told me that I'm wrapping my brain around.)

Maybe Ursula had it right and body language's the way to go, but the way I seduce and am seduced has always been through words.

We click and clack, we titter and tatter, each word sent through cyberspace, texting and testing the tensile strength of this relationship in the making.

Can their words make me laugh? Are they able to pick up on my jokes? Take a line I've laid and run with it? Are the words automatic, or do we have to think about it? Does my breath catch when I read them? Do I blush, or flush with anticipation? 

Turn my hands and fret and worry and hope that the virtual postman comes quickly and that my phone chirps the arrival of a new micro-telegram, telling me whether or not this verbal seduction is working, or welcome, or wise.

Once, I asked a lover to write me a letter on my birthday. I wanted an actual letter, in his own hand, describing the things he loved about me. I wanted something to pull out on rainy days to read. Something that he'd written, for me, for my eyes only.

He said he would, but never delivered. I don't blame him. It makes me a little sad, still, because I didn't ask him for a lot - it was the only gift I ever requested - but I know that words aren't everyone's favorite way of showing love. He was steady in his feelings, but not demonstrative in the way I was. Because, months earlier, I'd done it for him.

For the first birthday we spent together as a couple, I bought a little book and wrote down, on each page one thing I loved about him. There were 64 pages in all - so it worked out to be 2 things for every of the 32 years he'd been alive. After we'd separated, he cleaned out his possessions, but kept that book. His then girlfriend found it, and read it.

Months after the fact, when my ex and I began talking again and remembered why it was we loved each other - though it was abundantly clear we were not going to date again - he told me about the book. I felt a bit betrayed. Those were my words, to him, and I felt sad that someone else had seen my personal, private thoughts. (Also, I take after my grandfather, so there were some, um, NSFW thoughts in there, too.)

As calmly as I could, I asked him what her reaction was.

"She said it showed her how you loved." And I understood, then, her curiosity. And I understood, then, my own.

I have love letters from the time I spent in California. Written on paper. In my then lover's own hand. They're tucked in a box, hidden away. I have virtual pages of g-chats, and Facebook messages, and texts still saved on my phone. It's hard to read those, though. Hard to see the ways we woo'ed when the wooing is still so fresh in my memory.

And so easily rekindled. The people I've loved best are the ones I never run out of words with. Early on in my last relationship my therapist asked what we talked about and I was dumbfounded to come up with a clear answer. She was dumbfounded to find we could sustain hours long conversations, virtually, and still have things to talk about face to face.

When I think about the words I wrote to my loves, I think about my grandmother, smitten with a boy she met at a square dance, hoping he'll come home from war safe and sound, to make good on all the things he's written her. The life and the wife and the...other details. (Even if my grandma would be mad at me for saying it. Again, five kids. Fooling no one.)

September 5th, they would have celebrated 60 years of marriage. Their wedding day was my grandmother's 20th birthday. All those years later, she still has those letters celebrating the time before they were lovers, before they were husband and wife,  mother and father, grandparents, home makers, before either had any idea that their relationship would come to an end in the same month it began, when my grandfather's body finally let go, much sooner than his mind wanted to.

I was with them during my grandfather's last hours, in September 2007. And in that time, I was struck by how much love still existed. He died at home, in a hospital bed, near the twin bed my grandmother slept in. For years they'd shared a double bed, and as a kid, I'd climb up on it. Careful not to wrinkle the tucked in bedspread, and put my head on first his pillow, then hers. It brought me comfort to know they slept so closely. In those last months, it brought me comfort to know they could still share the same room, breathe the same air.

Their wedding pictures covered the walls of the new home my aunt and uncle had built, so my grandparents could be close to the care he needed. Close to the hospital, close to family. Close to the love that was built beyond letters, beyond envelopes sent from Korea to Connecticut saying,

"Wait. I love you. Build a life with me. My darling, my dream, my dear. Wait for me. We'll spend a lifetime together."

When I'm nearing 80, I won't need a shredder to eat those words. They're in a cloud, a virtual container. Concepts my grandparents might not understand. Concepts I don't. But letters, of love, that I get. Whether on paper, or screen, the purpose behind those letters can still be seen. The measure's not in the medium, but in what the words mean.

Tuesday, September 2

Decade of Doubt

"So, I'm going to guess your age, ok?" my client says while I'm massaging his hand.

"Ok..." I say, warily. I have clients who enjoy talking during massage - it puts them at ease - but sometimes the conversations can sway too far into the personal details of my life. And sometimes, the small talk can feel distinctly flirtatious, so I have to navigate the conversation in a way that lets us both feel safe and at ease.

"You're 25." he guesses.

"Nope," I respond, not making eye contact, focusing at the work at (his) hand.

"Older or younger?" He inquires, and suddenly I'm in a game that I really don't want to play.

"You're 27." he guesses again.

"I'm 29," I say, figuring if I tell him how old I am, the conversation will stop. 

Nope, too easy.

"Oh," he smiles knowingly. "I know LOTS of women who are 29," teasing, insinuating that I'm actually older, just unwilling to admit I've reached my 30s since that's a taboo age, apparently.

"I'll be thirty in November," I tell him, "and I could not be more thrilled about it."

I put his hand down next to him and move on to massage his neck, hoping that if he can't make eye he'll stop the conversation and let me do my work.

"Do you wanna guess my age?" He asks, trying to angle his eyes in such a way that they roll out of their sockets so he can see me.

"No, thank you."

"Oh, come on!"

"If that's information you want to volunteer, I'll listen, but guessing ages is something I usually leave for the professionals at the county fair."

He tells me his age, and I use the opportunity to segue into how county fair carnival workers reminds me of a bit Steve Martin did in The Jerk. Luckily, he's seen the movie, so we discuss the 80s comedy greats for the remainder of the massage, which is fantastic because, save "What other actors do you like?" the conversation isn't about me anymore.

I am ten weeks away from my birthday, and I am very excited to leave my 20s behind. I had a favorite teacher once tell me not to wish my life away when I said I wished I was older, and so, since then, I avoid making that statement. But truth be told, I'm super jealous of the old couples I see walking hand in hand down the street. The air moves around them smoothly, nodding acknowledgement to the collective age and wisdom they've amounted. Or, at least that's what I tell myself.

I know full well that stepping into a new decade does not a clean slate make. I'll still be in relatively the same space. But good golly were my 20s a jumble of emotions.

Rereading blog entries - I started this blog when I was 25, so it's a pretty interesting snapshot - I'm aware how scared I've been. How anxious and apprehensive. I spent the majority of my twenties hovering at the edge of decisions, not willing or able to do things that feel big to me, but perhaps not that huge to others.

Things like submitting my work to be published somewhere other than this blog. Being a writer people know. Finding work that is enriching, or just rich, even.

(Right now I'd settle for benefits, even it the work doesn't benefit the world in the way we're coached it should when we're younger. "Go change the world!" "Ok, but, I have just change in my bank account. So..." "Well, don't look at me for a hand out! Work harder! Care more!")

Practical things like finding an apartment or moving to a new place or getting my driver's license paralyze me. In a 21st century world where you can actually date from the comfort of your home - or, if you've a smart one, from your phone - the idea of marketing myself as a viable Cupid's choice is laughable to me.

"Guys, I met this really great chick!"

"Really, what does she do?"

"She's a massage therapist!"

"Cool! I hear there's good money in that!"

"Uh, not really. She's pretty poor, actually. Barely makes a grand a month..."

"Bummer. So lots of dates in then? Movies on her couch? That kinda thing?"

"Lives at home with her parents, so, I don't really know what her place is like."

"Ahhh, well, that's cool. You guys can make out in her car!"

"...she doesn't drive."

"...swipe left, dude. Swipe left."

Knowing my track record, I doubt that the next ten weeks will bring monumental change. Maybe not the next 10 years, either. That's not my style. I'm more a slow and steady girl. Building momentum takes months of methodical prep and pep talks. But it's possible - I'm beginning to tell myself, beginning to wonder - that perhaps my twenties were all just one giant neurotic decade where I worked out all my self-doubt. (Most of it, maybe. Some of it, at least.)

Where I let the guys at the county fair guess my age, because I knew they'd be wrong, and stared at the roller coaster, terrified to ride, thinking perhaps I wasn't tall enough or brave enough or beautiful enough to get inside the car.

It's possible that every time I told myself "Not yet." - Is it time to be a writer people know? Is it time to market my skills in a way that will be lucrative? Is it time to be more self-confident? To take a chance on myself and start seeing myself the way others do? And, if I'm being true, the way I do, too? - it's possible that each "Not yet." was just me biding my time for the charming decade. If the third time's a charm, I'm excited to see what this next decade will bring.

Only time will tell.

And oh, what a story, I hope to tell.

Thursday, August 28

Making Space for Sadness

On Monday, I started crying in yoga class and immediately thought two things:

1. I'm really glad I'm not that pretty alien from "The Fifth Element" who hides the stones in her belly and cries the same color as she bleeds. Because if we bled blue and cried blue this would be a lot harder to hide.
Although my mat is blue so I guess… I guess if I had to be that alien that would be preferable than bleeding and crying the same color as a human because we bleed red so, if I'm going to use the same logic that was in that film, then we'd cry red, too. Unless, on account of our tears being clear, we'd bleed clear...

And

2. Thank God.

Yeah, thank God I'm crying.

It's been an emotional few weeks, over which no tears were shed. This is unlike me. I'm the girl who has to wear waterproof mascara 24/7 because I'm a water sign. Which, I've taken to heart, er, tear duct, and I cry a lot. When I laugh, I cry. When I yawn, I cry. When I sneeze or eat spicy food, I cry.

"Why are you crying?" is a question I'm often asked. At which point I have to say, "Oh, no, it's ok! I just yawned! It's fiiiine."  and reassure the asker that I'm not overly emotional - or emotional even! - just overly active in my tear ducts.

I didn't want to be asked why I was crying in yoga class because while the emotional release was a welcome one it was complicated. I wasn't even entirely sure why I was crying myself.

The easy answer was frustration with my physical limitations. There was a time when I was confident and graceful in yoga class. My body didn't apply the brakes, but my mind did.

"Ok, class, now let's move into crow pose."

"Oh hellll no," my mind said.

"What?!" my arms would shout. "We've got this!"

"Nope," said my brain. "That shit is scary!"

My core chimes in,  "Hey! We've got this! We're super-strong! Get on board, friend!"

But my head keeps my feet on the floor, no balanced inversion today.

That time was a year ago, at least, maybe more. After time away from the mat, my old but always present back injury is making her presence known. Inversions, twists, balances, whatever the pose is, there SHE is, all glorious in her herniating disc, nerve damaging, scar tissue accumulating self. Pulling, twitching, clenching her teeth, causing my spine to stop movements suddenly, abruptly, with a good deal of pain.

If my instructor were to notice my tears that is what I'd blame them on:  my back.

She's talking to me. She's leading this practice. And she says,  "No way. Not today."

There's a deeper understanding to my tears though: Sadness. It's just an overdue meltdown. A softening of self.  A letting go and sinking in.

Surrender.

How very apt, then, that my long-overdue emotional release was to occur during yoga. A practice that has centered and strengthened me. A practice that has allowed for change. And one that often challenges, and creates space for me to notice pain - both physical and emotional.

It's not uncommon for me to find myself crying after physical expression. I've cried in dance studios and on runs. I've noticed others cry in the same studios I have. People often shed silent tears on my massage table, and are surprised after the fact that the session allowed them to feel safe enough to let go that completely. I'm acutely aware of the emotional release that comes after moving muscles and uncovering things we thought we'd already dealt with, hidden away in our body's memory. (Which can often be deeper and longer than the mind's.)

Keeping sadness at bay, smiling, or stoically reacting to things, I avoided tears. Not intentionally, perhaps, but subconsciously that was the statement I was making to myself. "You're fine, you're fine, you're fine."

On Monday, in yoga class, something shifted, and I started telling myself a different mantra.

"It's time, it's time, it's time."

And so, the tears came, and pretenses were shed with them.

It is not new to me but it still surprises. And, once the wave of  embarrassment passes - because in my heart I will forever be the kid avoiding the proverbial middle school Dodgeball of Shame -  I have to admit that that those cathartic tears came as a welcome release.

I didn't fight them, then, these human tears, however alien they may feel at first. I didn't roll up my mat and leave class. Didn't try to stop their flow.

Instead, I just do my best to just try to be okay with the stubborn protest my back makes. With the way I wasn't able to get into certain poses on that day, but that's ok, because someday they'll come back to me, and I'll enter them with ease and grace and free of pain.

Lying in savanasa, corpse pose, clear tears slipping down my face, past my ears, onto the mat, I tried to quiet the subtle twitches and spasms my back was still making. Breathe through her protests. Soften, as best I could, as much as I was able.

To try and lean into the sadness, knowing it, too, would pass, but while it was here, I could do my best to make space for it, knowing that when it passed - and it would pass - I would be safe and strong and full of grace.

Tuesday, July 15

Bad Girlfriend

Ed asked for one thing. One thing.

He asked for me to be his girlfriend. And I couldn't give that to him.

We were fast friends, and fantastic travel companions. We were co-adventurers, and poets, and we went toe-to-toe in a match of wits that has been unparalleled. We alternated chef and sous-chef, we shared soul-secrets and slowly walls came down. His and mine. He pulled, I pushed, we learned to lean in. Love grew, and he holds space in my life that no one else does. We were best friends, and lovers, and fantastic playmates.

But he never felt like my boyfriend. Because I never wanted to be his girlfriend. And you can't have one without the other.

A few weeks ago, Ed came into town and stayed with me at my parents' place. He jumped on a bus to spent the weekend with friends in NYC and left his car for the weekend. When he got back, we went on a walk. And I got called out on my subterfuge by the one who it affected most. 

"You're a terrific partner. You're a shitty girlfriend." Ed told me, and I agreed. 

"Oh my god, yes! Yes." 

Somehow I took pride in this. Like I wanted the world to know I'm a shitty girlfriend. So it won't lead to fiancé, to wife, to life.

I don't want those things. I've told myself my entire life that I don't want those things. Ask my friends and they'll tell you: As long as they've known me my mantra has been, "I don't want kids, I'm never getting married."

I'm not entirely sure where this came from. I lovingly swaddled my dollies. My Barbie dolls had wedding gowns. I was a flower girl in my mom's best friend's wedding and I didn't do anything to sabotage it. But I never grew up fantasizing about my own wedding. And it's still a story I tell myself. I don't want kids. I don't want to get married.

"You do," Ed insisted, stopping and dropping my hand. Poked me in the shoulder, "I know you do because you've told me you do."

"Yes, but that was when I was drunk and especially vulnerable."

"Will you stop?" he said, "Stop that. Let yourself be vulnerable with me, ok?"

"I do! I have. I mean…I don't anymore," I said, tentatively taking his hand again, an action that we'd continue on this walk, me letting go, him picking back up, actions that mimicked our relationship. I'd build walls, he'd try and break them down, until the acts left us both frustrated, exhausted, confused.

"I try not to anymore," I said, "Not to be vulnerable, because I don't know how fair it is, to break up with you and then still be…together."

Because we are still in a relationship. Changing labels doesn't change feelings. Distance doesn't erase history. As cars passed and saw us walking hand in hand, that's what they thought, "Oh, look at that couple out on a stroll." That's how we were presenting, a couple, because that's what we were. Are.

I dislike writing or calling him "ex" because that's not an accurate explanation of what he is. I made the same statement about the man in my life previous to Ed. A statement I'll probably make again. Ex sounds too close to ax, to a sharp and heavy object used to cleave one thing from another. To take a whole object and chop it up into bits. We may not be together, but we're not apart. Not like that.

"You're going to have other relationships," I said, "and I will too. Of various degrees of attraction and connection and intensity. But none of those will ever cancel this out. All of that," I said, thinking of the love lines that unfolded on our palms ahead of us, palms that were firmly pressed against the other at the moment, "all of that doesn't cancel any of this," squeezing his hand tighter.

"What do you need?" I asked him. "Distance? Space? Time? What do you need?"

We talked about futures, with each other, without. What those looked like. Felt like. Spoke in hypotheticals. Wondered aloud if the future might allow the life we had discussed.

Because I do want that, that life, the herb garden in the kitchen, the lazy Sunday mornings. When we discussed a future, I wasn't lying to him nor myself. But wanting that wasn't enough to stay, when I saw that the way we were moving was going to lead to a disaster of a break up that would make it much harder to preserve a relationship with this man who I loved so much. Trying to protect him from one pain, I subjected us both to another.

Pragmatic, reserved, I took on my affectless observer lens, and listened to him.

"What do you need?" He asked me. "You keep asking me what I need, what do you need?"

"I told you what I needed when I broke up with you. I didn't want to be in a couple anymore. I wanted to be single. I'm a shitty girlfriend, and you…you never felt like my boyfriend."

"I never felt like I was your boyfriend," he said.

"You're a great partner, and a great boyfriend," I told him.

"Yes, but what's the difference?" he asked.

I tried to explain. Tried to put into words how "partner" feels even, level, and more encompassing, but "girlfriend" feels childish and shallow. Feels frivolous.

"For someone who doesn't like labels, you sure have a lot of them."

"I've never had to describe it before," I said, struggling to find a way to outwardly explain the way they both feel inwardly.

"They can be both," he said.

"That hasn't been my experience, yet," I told him, smiling gently, "but I hope you're right. I hope for both of our sakes, you're right." Thinking of our love lines, and where they'd deviate, and if and when they'd cross again, in what capacity.

We sat on a bench, and without warning, tears came.

"What?" he asked, "What's wrong?"

"It's just…I've walked by this bench hundreds of times in my life, and I never predicted this. I never saw this. "

Right before we agreed to go on the road trip, I had a dream where I was swinging on a swing that was suspended in his family's barn. And I was pregnant. And we were happy. I don't want babies, but I woke up knowing that I needed to explore this relationship. That there was something guiding us back together, and I'd be foolish not to fully commit to him.

And now, in the aftermath, I wondered if I ever truly did.

I sat there on the bench, angry that no cards were tipped to show me this, angry that I didn't have the words to assure either of us what the future held. Where was the guiding hand, I wondered, feeling his in mine, at a loss at this loss that continued to unfold.

We tried to make it better. We tried joking. He made a joke about Zach, my imaginary boyfriend - long story - and the tears came harder.

"I'm sorry for that," I said, voice breaking. "I'm really sorry for creating all those micro fissures when we were together," thinking of the "jokes" I made. They weren't jokes. They were intentional seeds of doubt, that I felt the need to plant outwardly, to reflect what I was feeling inwardly.

Every time I'd tell him about the herb garden we'd grow, I counterbalanced it with a line about how it's probably die, because I didn't have any green thumb. And if I couldn't nurture a garden, how could I nurture a relationship?
                                                                                                                    
It was exceptionally cruel. Instead of being fully present, I left a trail of  breadcrumbs that poisoned what we made, so that when the inevitable came, and I broke us, rejected what it was we thought we'd made, I could point to them and say, "Surely you're not surprised! I told you. I told you this would happen."

I warned you. I told you I'm a bad girlfriend.

We sat under the setting sun, until he wiped my tears away and we walked back to my parents' home, where his laundry was waiting to be dried, and held each other as our brains turned to mush, and our hearts tried to knit themselves back together, in the presence of the person we loved, but who I insisted I couldn't be with.

We take care of each other, as best we can, as long as we can. And that care doesn't go away just because the relationship changes. As the person who made the decision to end it, it feels strange to look back lovingly - if all of that is true, why can't we make it work? - and especially cruel to look forward lovingly - if all of that is true, what else can be?

Monday, July 14

Love Bug

"What is that?"

"I don't know, what is what?" lazily, came my reply.

Ed picked at my skin, gently probing the spot in question. Looking at the spot where my thigh and hip met, the soft line of distinction, the place where a pair of panties' elastic would sit and settle if I was wearing them. But I wasn't. I was naked in a bed at a fancy hotel in New Orleans, the pinnacle of our road trip, a trip that was planned and executed with care.

"It's a tick." he said.

"What?" I bolted up right, and saw it.  A tiny spot, a little tag clinging on.

"Oh! No! Oh no! Ohno! Get it." I stiffened.  "Get it out. Kill it. Burn it with fire. I think you're supposed to pour salt on it and burn it with fire."

"No, honey, leeches, you pour salt on leeches. Calm down. Where are your tweezers?"

Usually a beauty tool saved to remove hairs that didn’t fall into the aesthetic that day, I found him my purple Tweezermans and handed them over.

"I'm going to get Lyme."

"Shhh, baby, you're fine." Ed gently, sweetly, but firmly and with an artist's eye, removed the body of the parasite in question.

At this point, I was in full on freak out mode. Several close friends have Lyme disease and it's not exactly a diagnosis I was feeling optimistic about. Tears came and my windpipe started to close up a little as a panic attack the size of a tick started to close in.

"I didn't get the head out, it's still attached."

This tidbit, lodged in my skin, not willing to come out even when I poked it with a pin, made me change my diagnosis.

"I have Lyme." crying and losing my breath a little. "I have it. I'm going to die."

"You're not going to die," Ed said.

"Eventually, I will! We all will!"

"Yes, honey, eventually we all will die. You aren't going to die of Lyme disease, though. It's ok."

"I am," I whispered, closing my eyes, lying back into the bed, letting the cold hand of death take me. I hoped I looked glamorous. Maybe I should turn my head to the side, I feel like that's how people die, with their head tilted. Yeah, that way it'll look like my curls are a pillow that I'm resting my  head on. My dead head. Because of the tick's head still stuck, sucking away like some zombie version of a reincarnated Marie Anticknette,  in my leg.

I settled in a bit more, positioning my arms in such a fashion that I looked tragic. At least I'm in a fancy hotel and not in the back woods of Mississippi, where the stupid tick probably came from. So much for feeling free and peeing outside! So much for the wind on my nether regions!

Ed shook me. "Stop it."

"What?" I whispered, unwilling to break my silver screen starlet pose.

"You aren't going to die, look."  and he showed me a screen of his own.

While I was artistically arranging my body to be received by the coroners, cause of death: Insanely Rapid Lyme Disease Caused by Early Onset Paranoia, Ed had visited the CDC to calm my worries.

He showed me that the tick hadn't eaten, which meant it hadn't been on me long enough to transmit Lyme. That the head would be absorbed by the body - ew - or pushed out by it - ew, too, but this one please. He showed me that the area we were in wasn't even affected by Lyme, and that this type of tick was the wrong carrier.

"See? You're fine." he told me, kissing my forehead and wiping my tears away.

Ah, Mississippi. Thanks for the memories.
"I don't have Lyme?"

"No, probs not."

"What about dengue fever?"

"What?"

"Or malaria?"

"Stop it."

"West Nile?"

"Those are all transmitted by mosquitoes!"

"I HAVE A MOSQUITO BITE! Probably. Somewhere." I began searching my body for a red raised bump that could vindicate my strange and new found parasite paranoia.

And he bopped me over the head, laughing, which made me laugh, which made me forget about all the diseases in the world, and remember that here, with him, I was safe.

This is why I love him. Because he sees me and handles me better than most.

When friends, then, say, "Good for you." or "You made the right decision!" I can't help but find myself back in that hotel bed, held by a man who saw all my neurosis and still stayed, who picked a parasite of my skin and talked me down from self-induced, self-diagnosed medical meltdown. 

Breakups are never easy to talk about, especially since only one voice gets heard. But we weren't one voice, we were two. Two distinct voices that complimented each other exceedingly well.

I'm not good at this dance, I don't know who is. In one breath, we're asked to justify our current decision, and in the next, we find ourselves defending our previous ones.

"We broke up, and I know that was the right decision, but he's so great, and I still love him." A veritable see-saw of emotions, and it seems like the only time I'm standing at the fulcrum is when I'm quiet, unable to put into words why it is it worked this way. How it is we found ourselves apart. What brought us to this. When the moment came that made me decide single was better than couple. And where we'd be when the see-saw settled and things came back into balance.

Because I'm not a good girlfriend. I am, in fact, a horrible one. I'm a fantastic partner, lover, friend, but girlfriend? Like the parasite that was plucked from my leg, I suck most major in that category.

My therapist called me out on it once.

"Wait, wait. You keep saying you aren't good at "traditional relationships". What does that phrase mean to you?"

"Ummm…I guess, like, uh." No one had asked me this question before. It was a term I threw around a lot, priding myself in embracing grey. Words like, "organic" and "authentic" and "ever-changing" often came into play. Words like, "girlfriend" and "dating" and "relationship" made me cringe.

I liked wiggle room, I liked grey, but even I had black and white. In my definition, in my avoidance of relationship statuses, I was monochrome.

"Corsages." I said.

"What?"

"Yeah, like, when I think about being someone's girlfriend, I think about waiting at  home for someone to show up with a corsage and take me out to dinner."

This picture of me in a 1950s prom dress was so clear. Sitting on a porch, waiting for someone to come get me, hoping they'd like my hair and my dress and that their cummerbund would match my tulle and we'd get elected prom king and queen.

You know how you can love and loathe something at the time? I don’t want that, and yet I do. It was a theme my therapist talked about a lot.

"You ARE a relationship person," she would insist. And I would shake my head, insisting I wasn't.

"You are," she said, "just on your own terms," and she'd hold  her hand out, palm up, showing me the imaginary snow globe that was code for, "You want to have your own world. Controlled environment. Your own rules."


Ah, yes. Control. In an urge to feel safe and autonomous, I buck the word "girlfriend". Because "girlfriend" leads to "fiancé" leads to "wife" leads to "life" that somehow, somewhere in my brain got jumbled into losing myself. Into stuck being reduced to band around a body part. A corsage slipped on wrist, a crown placed on head, a ring on a finger, where the heart line runs.

You stand over there, and I'll stand over here and we won't be joined all the time, alright? You'll do your thing, and I'll do my thing, and we'll love each other, and share things, and be together, but we won't really be together, ok?

Instead of thinking "girlfriend" equaled partnership, I looked at the title as a tick, a tiny parasite that would leach my life force off of me. I don't know why. Not sure which wires crossed incorrectly to put such pressure on the label, instead of letting myself fall into love with the same amount of ease I felt being around Ed. 

I don't know that it's that simple, but I do know that when we removed the label, it didn't get automatically easier. Like the tiny bug that caused a giant meltdown, relationship removal's not so simple. Things get left behind. Feelings carry over. Labels change, but love remains, and we're left sorting out the pieces. Absorb them, or reject them, but sit with them, and heal with them all the same.

Thursday, May 29

Take a Compliment

(I was going to write a lovely post about bunnies, and biking, and changing gears which will come,  but this post is first. Because given this and this and this, this post feels more pressing. Sadly.)

While looking for glue today to fix my broken sunglasses - Vintage! Why can't the cheapy new ones break! - I found my senior photo, which was resting on top of a series of illustrations I did for a compilation of re-interpreted Celtic myths that was my capstone project in high school.

"Oh, hey look," I said, pulling out the lot of it. "I look," studied the decade plus portrait "…exactly the same." and handed it to my mom.

"Oh, you're beautiful!" my mom said, and something in me snapped.

"Yeah, well, I'm just not feeling that right now, ok?" My mom looked surprised at my reaction.

Slowly exhaling, I tried to explain. "It's just…it sucks to go out on a run and get cat called and wolf whistled," I said, remember the three mile jog I completed that morning, stone faced, trying to ignore the attention directed my way.

"And then there was…never mind," I said. "I don't want to tell you, you'll just say something about it."

"No, I won't," my mom said. "Tell me."

"You will, you'll say something." I insisted.

"I won't. Tell me." she said. "Tell me."

And because she looked hopeful, and because she looked sincere, I told her.

This morning, I heard my dad talking to a guy about powerwashing our back deck. My parents' friend runs a painting service and had offered to help them out. From my room, the conversation I overheard let me know that the crew that'd been sent over was a couple, a younger woman and an older man.

My dad showed them the spigot, and let them know they could help themselves to water or the bathroom, whatever they needed. They jumped into work as I got ready to go for said run. When I got back, the girlfriend, a young woman around my age, possibly younger, came into the house via the back door.

"Hi," I called to her.

"Oh, hi, sorry I didn't mean to bother you!" she responded.

"Not a bother! I just didn't want you to have a heart attack when you realized someone was in the house and you weren't expecting them to be."

"Yeah, better to hear a hi then see a stranger!" she joked, and then asked if I could point her to the bathroom. I did. She changed her clothes and left for, given the uniform she was wearing, a second job.

I went into the kitchen to load the dishwasher and heard the door open again. "Hello," I said, again trying to avoid inducing any heart attacks.

"Hi," he said, an older tattooed man in a white short sleeve shirt and khaki shorts.
"Don't mean to bug ya, but can I get some water?" He asked, holding up what I'm assuming was the solution tank to the pressure unit.

"Of course!" moving away from the sink, giving him access. "How's it going?"

As the tank filled, he told me it was going to take him longer than he thought, and we got to talking about the condition of the deck, which was rough, as years of moisture had caused mildew to settle in.

Taking a page from my father, I asked if he wanted a glass of water. "Yeah, that'd be great," he said. So I grabbed a one, filled it with ice and water and handed it to him.

"Do you go to school or…?" making conversation as he took the time to drink.

"Oh, no," I said, waving it off. "I'm baby faced, I'm 29," I went on, "I graduated in.."

"You're beautiful," he said. Which startled me a little.

"Thank you," I said, understanding that my baby face comment opened the door for the statement, but still found myself confused at it. I continued my sentence naming my alma mater and graduation year, but stating that I didn't use my degree professionally. I was a certified massage therapist.

We chit chatted some more, even shook hands and introduced ourselves, properly. As he was heading out the back door, I let him know that I'd most likely be around, but that if I left I'd let him know.

"I'm actually going to jump in the shower, because I just got back from a run so," I said, wanting to make sure that he didn't attempt to come find me while I was exposed, or try and use the bathroom while I was in there.

"Good for you!" he said, "I lift." He looked at his body. "I try to lift."

"…good, good for you." I said, aware the conversation was shifting.

"How much do you charge for your massages?" he asked.

Here's where you have to walk the line. Because there was a tension of flirtatiousness in the air. (He'd already called me beautiful. Even though I met his girlfriend, it didn't seem to bother him. And, though my delivery was matter of fact, I did just tell him I was going to go get naked.)

I confided I was in talks to go back to the spa where I'd worked at before, and gave the prices they charged. Then I launched into a bit about how different massages were for different things. Relaxation vs. therapeutic, etc. When all else fails, educate.

"You don't ever do it pro bono?" He asked.

What he meant was, "Why don't you do it on your own?" So, more education, about
the difference between contracted work and being a business owner. Comments on overhead. Words about carrying your own insurance...

"Just get people to sign a waiver," he said. "It's just massage. It's not like you could hurt anyone."

"Well, you can," I said, educating, "and I do barter sometimes with friends," admitting that allowance.

"Can I be your friend?" he interrupted me, extending his hand.

I'm a massage therapist by trade and a writer by passion. Both these skills allow me to touch people, to hold them, and meet them where they're at. But I didn't want to shake his hand. In that moment, I didn't want to touch him.

I jumped back to the previous subject, "Going into some peoples homes can be scary, because they have a different understanding of the services I'm offering." I explained.

"It's not a sexual massage," I said, "and sometimes people are confused about that." I could feel myself shifting my weight to ground myself more fully, facing him head on.

"Well, you can't blame us." He said, suddenly lumping himself in with all men. "You're a beautiful woman. You can't blame us for the reaction."

I took a deep breath and told him that I understand that sex and sensuality are incredibly complicated subjects. In a society where much of the touch we receive is either sexual or violent -and sometimes both- it's easy to see how healing, therapeutic touch can be confused for something more.

I continued that professionally, it's important to be compassionate with my work. To understand that some people are looking for sexual gratification, and that's their right to seek it. But it's not something I offer, and it's my duty to be clear about that.

What I didn't say was that personally, I'm a sexual person. I own that, and love that about myself. I wouldn't change it. I don't blame anyone for the physical or emotional reactions they may have about how I show up in the world.  I do blame them for thinking that because I  "caused" it I then have to do something about it.

"You gave me this hard on. Deal with it."

I said some of this to him. Not all of it, but enough to hopefully illustrate the point that massage is sensual and I try very hard to meet my clients where they're at. Never belittling or making them feel badly about any arousing reactions that may occur, while also maintaining a firm professional line.

The conversation wound to a close, and I went upstairs, to shower, feeling slightly uncomfortable about the idea. I sent a message to my ex, filling him in on the situation - because somewhere in the back of my brain, I wanted someone else to know that I was naked in my own home with a stranger who had been sending sexual energy my way, energy that was not reciprocated and that on some level made me feel unsafe.

I told him that I hated telling people I was a massage therapist because it somehow gets taken as code for, "Yes, I will fuck you. Thanks for inquiring!"

He responded wondering if the guy was Zapp Brannigan from Futurama, trying to make me smile. (Would that we live in a world where cartoon misogyny is the only example we can come up with.)

He then said, "It's that *erotic* aura." referencing a statement a man in California made to me, about the way he felt I presented in the world.

And then I ranted.

Seriously! I don't think I've ever said to a man, "You're beautiful." within five minutes of meeting him. It wouldn't occur to me to comment on someone's looks to their face. And yet, when it happens to me I feel compelled to say "thank you" like it's a compliment because I'm uneasy to show any other reaction to a man who feels entitled to tell me repeatedly how pretty I am during the course of a casual conversation about how the powerwashing of my parents' deck is going.

He helped calm me down, and I was fine. Until my mother called me beautiful and I got triggered again.

"That doesn't sound fun," my mom said after I told her the story. "Who does that? Who just calls a stranger beautiful within five minutes of meeting them?"

"Mom, it happens all the time," I said, laughing slightly at the ridiculousness of it.

"All the time." I reiterated, thinking back to the numerous times over the course of my life that five minutes into a conversation, something about my appearance is complimented. My eyes, my hair, my smile, my body. It's usually men. And it's usually delivered as that: A compliment. (The same guy who told me I had an "erotic aura" told me my eyes were beautiful moments after shaking my hand.)

"Oh, that must be nice. I never felt beautiful. No one ever called me beautiful," my mom said.

Again, I was hit by the complexity of this issue.

It IS nice to be told you're beautiful. It IS nice to have someone "say nice things about me" as my friend's six year old niece once demanded. As someone who struggles with image and self-esteem, sure, it feels nice to be validated. But somehow, these compliments don't feel like that. It feels as though there as strings attached.

This guy just thought he was having a pleasant conversation with me. He didn't think he did anything wrong. And he didn't, per say. There wasn't anything particularly threatening about his language, or his presence. But here's the thing:

Just as we're conditioned to say "thank you" when someone compliments us, even on our appearance, I've been conditioned to always be slightly wary of men, and to understand that it's a fine line to walk.

I'm a self admitted flirt. I'm gregarious. I like people.

I don't like having to text my friends that I've gotten home safe. It's 30 minute bike ride on a route that is entirely familiar to me, but every time I leave their house, a feeling of unease sets in, that isn't dissipated until the "Olly, olly oxen free" is texted. (And for me, that fear has more to do with biking past a group of men then it does to being hit by a car.)

I wear blinkers and a safety vest and I do everything I can to draw attention to myself as a biker, so cars won't hit me. But what can I do to avoid drawing attention to myself so men won't hit on me?

Last night, on said bike ride, a group of three young men called out to me as I approached them. They were blocking the sidewalk, and spilling out into the bike lane, each demanding space that matched their physical heft.  I swerved into the traffic lane, first checking that there wasn't a car behind me, and didn't acknowledge them, a fact they made known they didn't like, cat calling after me, and vocally marking their disappointment at my apparent snub.

Had there been a car behind me, I would have been forced to stop my bike, briefly, to let the vehicle pass, since the bike lane wasn't an option, being that it was blocked by bodies. And then?

Well, anything. It could have been a non-issue. We could have said hi, and I could have kept going. But what I felt when checking my rear-view mirror to make sure I could get past them was relief.

And there's something wrong with that.

There's something wrong with not wanting to tell a stranger what I do for work because I'm worried that it will give them the wrong idea. ("The oldest profession" the powerwasher jokingly called it, a allusion to prostitution, a reputation that I've had to frequently fight.)

Choose one, you're a Madonna or a massage therapist, but not both. You can flirt, but you'd better be willing to fuck afterwards. Run in short shorts, but know that when you do, wolf whistles will follow.

And be thankful when someone calls you beautiful, no matter the circumstances.

Wednesday, May 21

Lipsticked Lady

About a year ago, I found myself in a strange and previously unknown land. People wore all black, their faces heavily painted. The walls were covered in a curious metallic like substance that caused shadows to dance to life. Faces reflected everywhere. Vials and tubes and pots of color lined every surface. I must have looked like a deer in the headlights, because, even though I was flanked by trusted advisers, it was clear I was out of my element.

"Can I help you?" one of them asked. Giving me the up down, assessing the invader.

Lipstick, Viva Glam style
"Yes." (God, yes.) I stood my ground and remembered my mission.

"I want to buy some lipstick." Once the words were out the room didn't seem so terrifying.

"Some red lipstick," following her to the place where the lipsticks lined up like soldiers, prepared for beauty battle.

"Not just some tint or gloss or hint of color product. I want it to be obvious that I'm wearing lipstick. Red. Red lipstick."

"Got it," the friendly MAC girl said, and walked over to the display, pulling a deep red stick from the overwhelming amount of tubes on display. She smudged the tip on the pad of skin between her thumb and pointer finger, revealing its color.

"Kinda like this?" she asked.

Smeared on her hand was a streak of red that said berry and brick. It said, "Let me be the new foundation for something." It was bold and beautiful and there was nothing broken about it.

"Yeah," I said. "Exactly like that."

"Would you like to try it on?" she asked, reaching for a container of alcohol to sterilize the tip of the tube with.

"Yes, please." came my nervous response. It felt strange being in the land of cosmetics. Not that I didn't wear make up, I did, but it was usually regulated to my eyes. And my approach was all very DIY. As with any situation where I'm not in control, I'd convinced myself that this experience would be a disaster and very nearly didn't go at all.

I'd brought my I'd brought two girlfriends as back ups, cheer leaders, body guards. My own personal beaut squad, they were ready to take down any mean make-up clerk who tried to attack my red cheeks with cover up, or tell me that my eyeliner color did nothing for me, or scoff at my lack of lipstick knowledge.

The closest thing I've ever owned to red lipstick is Cherry Chapstick. And, although I shared early on my distaste for chapped lips, other than keeping them well moisturized, I never did much to draw attention to them. Because they framed a crooked mouth, I left my lips unadorned. But once my braces came off, I had no more excuses. Got brave, and headed into what I'd convinced myself was certain death.

Just because the MAC clerk had more knowledge than me, didn't mean she was mean to me. She was patient and understanding. Listened to me when I told her my worries - "I have a really ruddy complexion. Can I even wear red lipstick?" - and sympathized with my bashfulness over first time lipstick wearing. "Don't worry about it! Lots of women come in here asking for help. It's what we do!" She smiled. Kindly. And I began to feel badly for having previously prepared myself for the worst.

She coached me on how to properly apply lipstick as she was swiping the stick across my lips. (This is no trick for mere mortals, you have to know what you're doing with a tube that pigment rich.) Letting my lips fall apart, relaxed and full, she slowly and deftly drew the chubby stick over my bottom lip, and then my top, making sure to outline the "cupid's bow" the mountain made where the valley of the vertical impression under nose comes to settle.

Handing me a tissue, she instructed me to blot, telling me that the deep blue undertones of this particular color would enhance my pale skin, dark hair and bright eyes, without drawing any attention to the constant blush that danced over my face.

"Plus, true reds always make your teeth look whiter," she said, holding up a mirror for me to check out my reflection in. And now that they were straighter, whiter sounded pretty good to me.

When my braces came off, that was one of my first goals: to get red lipstick. To say, "Hey world! Look at this!" It's like booby tassels for face. (Maybe false lashes are booby tassels for the face. I haven't decided...)

It took courage to do it. A simple thing, surely. A purchase made daily, without a thought. I thought a lot about it. Because it took all my insecurities and rolled it into one pretty present: Red lips beg, "Look at me." And I had to wonder if I was ready to be looked at.

So, I turned to my beaut squad,

"Does it look ok?" I asked, revealing my new face.

"You look like Snow White!" Sara told me, while Maggie nodded her approval.

The tube - and corresponding liner - was purchased and came with me to California, where the Snow White moniker stuck. Not able to call birds and wild things, perhaps, but a sweeter smile than I'd shown in years, because I was showing it.

Last summer, I wore lipstick a lot. It helped that I spent my days dirty and grubby working on a farm, going days without showering. What was the point when the task list told you you were going to be shoveling horse shit the next day?

When Friday rolled around and we welcomed in Shabbat - the Jewish day of rest and reflection - we'd shower, and wear clothes that made us feel presentable, and I'd swipe on red lipstick to remind myself to smile and be thankful for all the reasons I could.

Like lipstick buying.

Not at first, at least. But by the end of the summer, I was a member of the beaut squad. Accompanying my friend, Vika, to Sephora to help her pick out her very own tube of lipstick. (She'd fallen for mine over the summer, and now that I was leaving, decided it was time to get her own.) So we jumped on bikes and rode to the quintessential California mall, and Vika left with her own perfect shade, to compliment her own perfect smile.

And that's the thing it took me far too long to learn - every smile's perfect. Lipsticked or not, so long as you use it.