One August Saturday in 1975, I mistook a drunken clown for my neighbor. Her name was Mrs. Nederlander—the neighbor, not the clown—and I often woke up on Saturday mornings to find her sitting at our Formica kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes with my mom. That morning, I bellied up to the table in my nightgown and sat in a chair on my knees so I was tall enough to see the action.
“Well, I guess I should get going,” Mrs. Nederlander said, looking at her watch. “If I have to walk to work, I need to get moving. It takes a good 35 minutes to get there.”
She glanced sideways at Daddy, who was standing at the counter putting sugar in his fourth cup of coffee. Mom reached over from where she was sitting and smacked Daddy on his ribcage.
“Burt, why don’t you give Nadine a ride to work? You’re not doing anything.”
“Huh? Yeah. All right.”
“Oh, thank you, Burt. I hope it’s not too much trouble,” Mrs. Nederlander said. She reached into her purse, pulled out a small pair of knitting scissors and snipped the end off her partially smoked cigarette to save it for later. “Give me about half an hour. I’ve got to go put on my face.”
After she left, Daddy shuffled out of the kitchen and mumbled, “Don’t know why she bothers. She always comes back looking worse.”
“Oh, Burt. Be nice,” Mom said, trying not to smile.
I had never noticed before, but Daddy was right. My four-year-old eyes were opened that day when Mrs. Nederlander returned for her ride to work. Her face powder was three shades too light, and she had painted baby blue eye shadow all the way up to her drawn-on brows, which were in the middle of her forehead. Two uneven smears of liquid rouge dotted her cheeks, and she topped the whole thing off with an orangey-red lipstick that bled into the smoker’s wrinkles around her mouth. The whole mess was already starting to run in the Texas heat, and I imagined her face would resemble spin art by the end of the day.
Daddy dropped her off for her shift at Vernon’s Department Store downtown, and I spent the rest of the day playing in the neighborhood with friends. Close to dinnertime, I saw Mrs. Nederlander pull up in front of her house in a VW bug emblazoned with flowers, which was odd since I didn’t know she could even drive.
I sat on the sidewalk across the street and watched while she stumbled up the walkway to her house. It looked like she had changed clothes since that morning, but I figured she bought herself a new striped jumpsuit at work. Her hair was also yellower than before. Maybe she had gone to the beauty shop.
She banged on her own front door.
“Let me in!” she yelled. Her voice was deeper than usual. “You ugly bitch! Let me in my house!”
I wondered who she would be yelling at since she lived alone. She jiggled the doorknob and kicked the door a few times. Then she walked around to the side of the house and tried a couple of windows.
“Hey!” She hollered across the street and pointed at me. “You know where the spare key is?”
“Well? Cat got your tongue, you little shit?”
“It’s on a hook, inside the screen door.” My voice barely registered.
“What?” She cupped her hand around her large, rubbery right ear.
“Inside the screen door,” I said. I ran into the house, crying. Mom was on the couch reading a book, and I jumped in her lap and buried my head in her armpit.
“What’s the matter?”
“Mrs. Nederlander. She turned mean.”
Mom pushed me off her lap and onto the couch.
“Stay right here.”
She peeked out the venetian blinds. “Son of a bitch. Burt!” Her voice had an urgency I had never heard from her. Dad came running and she dragged him outside.
I stayed put like Mom told me, but when Daddy’s voice got loud after a few minutes, I had to go check it out. I had never heard him yell in my life. I stuck my head out the front door to find Daddy throwing punches at Mrs. Nederlander in her front yard while her wood-frame house shot up in flames. All the neighbors had flocked to their front porches to view the spectacle, and Mom hollered at one of them to call the law.
I stuck my head out the front door.
“Stop it, Daddy! Stop hurting Mrs. Nederlander!”
Mom later told me that Daddy was really hitting Mr. Nederlander, who used to beat his wife before he left ten years ago to join the circus. She said he was a very bad man who drank too much Schlitz Malt Liquor.
“But I thought it was her. They look so much alike,” I said.
“That’s just a coincidence. She has poor vision from all the beatings, so she can’t see very well to put on her makeup.”
Mrs. Nederlander lived with us until her house was rebuilt, and every day she was with us, I helped her put on her face before work because my vision was much better than hers.
“I feel so pampered,” she said one day as I drew her eyebrows in the right places and applied eye shadow and lipstick colors that made her distinguishable from her mean husband. “When I move back home, can I still come over every morning and get your help?”
“Yep,” I said. “Now smile so I can get your blush in the right place.”
She raised the corners of her mouth, but the rest of her face remained immobile. That wouldn’t do, so I pushed up the tip of my nose and made my best monkey face. Her eyes crinkled and her cheeks plumped out, and I hurried to sweep on the color before her rare, real smile faded.
I’ve got less than a month left of this summer vacation thing, which all work-at-home parents know is no vacation at all. But I’m not complaining. That’s not because I don’t have any complaints but because I’m trying to practice what I preach. Fun fact: I could actually preach if I wanted to. I’m an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church. I paid them money, and they gave me a handy card for my wallet to show people in case I want to perform an impromptu graveside service or handfasting ritual. I can legally sign marriage certificates and everything. Another fun fact: I was ordained after I became a Reiki Master because in the state of Texas, it is illegal to touch another person during a Reiki session unless you are a licensed massage therapist or an ordained minister. It’s a bullshit sort of loophole if you ask me, but Texas is known for all sorts of stupid things, Gov. Rick Perry being at the top of that list.
What I meant by practicing what I preach is that one of my freelance clients is a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center, and I write motivational articles for their patients. I start off with an inspirational quotation, and then I use my extensive experience with new age and self-help lingo to craft the most uplifting 300-word blurbs you’ve ever seen.
I tell those in recovery to focus on the solution, not the problem. Thinking long and hard about what’s wrong keeps you stuck in the past, but solution-oriented thinking helps you move forward and become the person you were meant to be.
I tell them to be mindful in all things. When you find yourself getting caught up in negative thought loops, simply redirect your energies to the present and work on the task at hand. Mindfulness keeps you in a state of awareness so that you are less likely to react to stressful situations with anger and more likely to stop and respond in healthy ways.
I urge them to stop comparing themselves to others. We’re each on an individualized path, and we’re all at different points in our evolution. Other people’s successes and failures have nothing to do with you. Focus on your own personal growth and stop worrying about what everyone else is doing.
I tell them that love is the answer to every problem. Learning to love yourself where you are, without judgment, is essential for recovery—and for a happy life in general. Only when you accept yourself, flaws and all, can you begin to work on your shortcomings. This compassion should extend to others as well. When we stop judging our fellow human beings, we free up an abundance of energy, which we can use to better ourselves and be of service to others.
The client loves my work, and I imagine he thinks I’m actually a wise and disciplined person who meditates twice a day and subsists on green smoothies while churning out good advice to recovering addicts. I’m sure my writing makes me appear patient and kind. I feel like such a phony. You’d never know I was inspirational to anyone if you saw me at any point during the past couple of months. This whole summer has been a big blur, and I can’t even account for most of my time. I’m keeping strange hours and not getting nearly enough sleep, which makes me lethargic and ineffective when I’m supposed to be alert and productive. I have berated myself for not sticking to a schedule and getting more work done. I have been anything but mindful, and my negative thought loops contain their own negative thought loops. I ruminate over things that don’t matter, and I loathe myself for being unable to just turn that shit off and zen the fuck out.
It’s like I’m going out of my way to not take my own advice.
My work in progress, a modern fairy tale, is due today. I’ve done revision after revision, and I’m still not happy with it, but my gut tells me to submit it anyway because there’s a good chance that all my mind chatter is lying to me about how much my story sucks. It’s been known to happen. Perhaps I should work more on my monkeymind than this short story, and maybe my next work in progress needs to be me.
And that is why I’ve decided to be inspired by what the idealized version of me writes for other people. I’ll start by accepting myself for who I am at this moment: a cranky, sleep-deprived, neurotic writer who expects perfection from herself and feels like a failure when she falls short, which is most of the time. Now I need to work on gently guiding that unhinged woman back into a balanced state.
Dear Tooth Fairy,
Three months ago, I woke up with my five-year-old daughter Eva crying at my bedside. I was nearly comatose after downing a bottle of cab and four beers the night before, so it took me a while to distinguish her sobs from the demons in my fevered dreams.
“Mama, look,” she said. I opened my eyes a crack and saw her holding out her lower central incisor, her quivering chin serving as the backdrop. “The tooth fairy forgot to come.”
I bolted out of bed and grabbed the wall to keep from falling over. “I’m sure she came. Let’s look around your bed.”
“If she came, she would have taken the tooth!” Eva said.
I told her that you already had too many teeth in your collection and just left money now. I don’t know how I came up with that little gem on the spot while simultaneously suppressing dry heaves, but I wondered, did I stick the $5 bill under her pillow the night before? I was almost positive I did, but then again, I slept in my work clothes and had a false eyelash stuck to my cheek, so God only knows what I actually remembered to do.
We went to her room and searched inside the pillowcase, on the nightstand, and under the bed and came up empty.
I told her to stay put and went back into my bedroom to grab my wallet. The $5 bill wasn’t there, and to this day I don’t know what happened to it. All I had was a twenty, which was going to set the bar higher than I wanted, but considering my many transgressions while on the bottle, I probably deserve to fork over $20 a tooth from now on. The lost $5 was probably an additional fee imposed by the universe for my general unworthiness to have such a great kid in the first place. I’m willing to accept that.
“Look what I found under my pillow.” I handed her the $20 and her tears stopped on the spot. “Silly tooth fairy put it in the wrong place.”
“That’s weird,” Eva said.
“Yeah, I hear the tooth fairy drinks too much and makes bad choices sometimes.”
I nodded and gave her a hug.
Of course, I was talking about myself, not you, but Eva took my words to heart, and I’m afraid you’ve gained a lousy reputation among her circle of friends. I intend to set the record straight as soon as possible. At the next birthday party Eva attends, I’m really going to talk you up.
Anyway, I’m sorry I sullied your wholesome image by calling you a drunk. The next time I get to play the role of tooth fairy, I promise to represent you well. I’ve got two months of sobriety under my belt and enough $20 bills at the ready to take us all the way through the second molars.
P.S. Tell Santa and the Easter Bunny to expect a letter from me soon.
I’ve been working my fiction-writing muscles for the last year now. Prior to beginning this exercise, I went through a three-year drought, writing next to nothing and certainly not daring to submit anything for publication. I can’t remember exactly what made me stop trying. I suspect it was a combination of things: trying to establish myself in a new career, taking care of my children, financial issues, moving a couple of times, the death of my mother. I lost my momentum and didn’t have the energy to try and get it back until recently. I haven’t exactly been writing non-stop the past year, but I reached a critical mass of sorts about a month ago. Now I can’t get enough of it. It’s pretty much all I think about as I’m driving the kids to school, cleaning out the cat box, or composing copywriting drivel for money. I make time for it every day, and I know I’m back for good this time.
A few weeks ago, I submitted my first story for publication in three years, and I recently received the good news from Kazka Press that it was selected. It’s a fantasy publication, and the theme for the month of April was The Writing Life. My story is entitled Something for Something, and you can read it here.
On the day of my final comprehensive exam, I missed my exit and kept on driving. I knew that if I didn’t turn around immediately, I would be late. I would not be allowed to sit for my exam. I would be locked out of the classroom. My head knew these things, but my hands and my feet and my heart led me further and further away from campus. Four hours later, I was deep into swamp country, with nothing but misery and ramshackle houses lining the freeway.
I tried to think of a single person I could turn to. My mother, who rarely had anything positive to say, would stop speaking to me all together when she found out. My only friends were my classmates, who were ambitious and couldn’t wait to get out of grad school and do the sorts of things that made my soul want to retreat to a dark corner. Like my mother, they’d lose all respect for me when they discovered I dropped out so close to the end.
A hug would have been nice. Or a kind word. I’d heard about such things but never experienced them, at least not often enough that I grew to expect them.
I stopped to fill up my tank in a map dot of a town. I opened the rusted screen door of the convenience store and was met with the smell of stale cigarette smoke. The cashier, a bald man with the ruddy face of hypertension, scratched away at lottery tickets with a quarter pinched between his stubby sausage fingers. A boy of about 16 hunched over a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game.
“Hot damn,” the clerk said. “Fifty bucks.” He set the winning card aside and went back to scratching. Rush Limbaugh’s voice crackled on the AM radio in the background.
The magazine rack was empty save for a lone copy of Juggs with curled up edges. The shelves were sparse, with products strewn about in no particular order, a box of maxi pads next to a packet of Oreos next to a box of BC Headache Powder. The only things not covered in dust were the Dr. Peppers in the cooler and the tins of snuff.
As I picked out a soda, I envisioned the teenager hitting me over the head with a baseball bat and dragging me out to his pickup truck, the clerk not looking up from his scratch cards. The boy would show my dead body to his friends, and they’d help him bury me near the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, under an ancient live oak tree with its swooping, low branches watching over me for eternity. I smiled my first smile of day—probably my first of the past year—at the thought of being in the ground.
I waited at the soda cooler a good five minutes, but the boy stayed loyal to Ms. Pac-Man.
“Dang it. Fuckin’ Blinky,” he cursed.
I took my Dr. Pepper to the counter, and the clerk, whose name tag read “Chigger,” gave me my change without looking up at me.
Back on the road, I followed the signs pointing to the nearest state park.
“You stayin’ the night?” the warden asked at the front gate.
I hadn’t thought about it, but I said yes. I paid my $20 for a campsite and drove to the spot marked on the map the warden gave me.
It was 4 p.m., and I figured I had at least an hour before sunset. I left my car and set out for a nearby walking trail. The first live oak I saw had all her arms open wide, some of them dragging the ground and gesturing toward me. I sat on the sandy soil beneath her and leaned against her trunk to plot my next move.
My options were few. I could move back in with my mother and let her looks of disapproval chip away at my spirit until I figured things out. I could get some shitty job in a diner and sleep in the back of my Kia until I met some ugly motherfucker who’d let me stay in his double-wide trailer. I could go back to Dallas and turn tricks on Harry Hines Boulevard. Or I could join a commune and weave hammocks to earn my keep alongside a bunch of hippies with BO.
I could do any of those things and still be better off than a Syrian refugee or a favela dweller in Brazil. I knew I was feeling sorry for myself, and I knew I’d probably go back home and make another go of grad school after convincing my shrink to increase my medication, but I felt so right under that tree that I wanted to stay a while. The tree was solid, steadfast. She felt more nurturing to me than any person ever had. She had a purpose.
I knew that if I had a purpose, it wasn’t to be an account executive at some soulless corporation.
“I wish I had it easy like you,” I said, looking up.
You can. Did I hear those words with my ears or inside my head? I wasn’t sure, but they were real, and I felt them in my chest. I scrambled to get off the ground but only got as far as my hands and knees.
First came the pulsating heartbeat, thump-thumping from the ground and through my body. Then dozens of roots emerged from the soil and surrounded me like so many loving arms, pulling me into the earth. I thought I might be dying, but I felt too good. As the soil fell over me, I breathed it in through my nose and mouth and skin and exhaled pure white light. If this was death, I welcomed it, and I drifted into the first truly deep and dreamless sleep of my existence as the tree’s many hands swept away all evidence of me.
I awoke with a push and a shove and the sun kissing my face.
The cold winds blew me back and forth, threatening to break my spine, except I no longer had a spine; I had a spindly trunk and a smattering of leaves and was a mere twig in the shadow of my maker, the ancient live oak.
Her lowest branch brushed against me, and I hugged her back, smiling for the second time in 24 hours.
Note: Feeling uninspired to write lately, I consulted my trusty Tarot cards for a story idea. I pulled the 9 of Wands, the 8 of Cups and the Empress and wrote a story based on my interpretations of the cards.
“Our neighborhood is full of old ladies with broken hips and oxygen tanks. They couldn’t make it to the door if they wanted to,” my mom said. “If they did, they’d probably put a laxative suppository in your treat bag before keeling over on the front porch.”
“They’re not all old. We have lots of young neighbors who hand out candy.”
“Oh, like Mr. Keenan at the cul-de-sac? Which reminds me. I need to look him up. I just know he’s on the sex offender registry.”
“Then take me to another neighborhood.”
“And let complete strangers give you fun-size chocolate bars with razor blades in them? Or Jolly Ranchers laced with psychedelic drugs?”
“Yes, mom, that’s exactly what I want.” I rolled my eyes.
I told my best friend Jenny about the situation.
“Maybe we can go to one of those church things where they hand out candy from their cars,” she offered.
“How is that different from going to a strange neighborhood?”
“They’re Christians. That means they’re good, right?”
I shrugged. My mom never took me to church. She was usually hung over on Sunday mornings.
“Absolutely not,” my mom said when I told her about the new plan.
“I don’t trust those people.”
“They’re Baptists. Jenny says that makes them good people. They won’t poison the candy.”
“It’s not the candy I’m worried about.” She topped off her glass of pinot noir. “Look, those people are scary. Take my word for it.”
“No. I’m 9 years old and I want to go beg for candy like a regular kid. Jenny’s mom is taking us. We’ll be fine.”
Mom stared me down for a good two minutes before nodding.
“All right. But if there’s a haunted house, promise me you won’t go in.”
It started off great, with people complimenting me on my Cleopatra costume and giving me the good kind of candy rather than cheap Smarties and Pixy Stix. I made quite a haul of Snickers, Twix and Kit Kats, each piece bearing a tag with a Bible verse. I was told, “God bless you” and “Jesus loves you” several times. Although a little creepy, it was a small price to pay for free chocolate.
About a dozen cars were arranged in a circle in the large church parking lot, their trunks facing inward. When Jenny and I got to the last car, a man dressed as an angel in a white robe handed us each a million dollar bill. It looked like real money, and some bearded guy was on the front of the bill. I assumed it was God but later found out it was Rutherford B. Hayes.
The angel, who had a 5 foot wingspan, asked us to turn over our fake money.
“Let’s see what this says, girls,” he said, bending over to our level. “Have you ever lied or disobeyed your parents?”
“Yes,” Jenny said. “Everyone has.”
“Well, then you’re going to hell. At least that’s what this here million dollar bill says.”
Karen’s chin quivered.
“What? Where does it say that?” I asked.
“Right here.” He pointed at a bunch of small print that I couldn’t see in the dark. “If you have sinned, God will send you to the lake of fire for eternity.”
My face grew hot. I had no idea if what he said was true, but I knew I wanted to get away from this man.
“But there is a way to avoid burning in sulfuric fires forever. I’ll tell you all about it after you see for yourself what hell is really like. Follow me.”
I grabbed Jenny’s hand and held her back. My mother may have been crazy, but one of the few things she and I agreed upon was that it was a bad fucking idea to go anywhere with a stranger, especially a grown man in angel wings trying to drag me to hell.
“No, we need to go now.”
“Come on, Karen, he’s an angel. He’s trying to teach us something.”
“Yes, Karen. I want you to learn how much God loves you.”
“Jenny, I think we should ask your mother first.”
I scanned the crowd and saw that Jenny’s mom had walked to the curb, just barely off church property, so she could smoke a Benson & Hedges without disrespecting the Lord.
“Come on, girls. It’s like going to the theater. You won’t get hurt.”
With heavy feet, I let the man guide us away from the circle of cars and into the church entrance, and here’s what I found out about hell: It’s a never-ending abortion that looks more like disembowelment, in which all of your innards are sucked out and splattered on innocent bystanders. It’s an insufferable rave that ends with a gang rape and choking to death on your own vomit, after which your corpse is gang raped all over again for eternity. It’s dying a slow, torturous death from AIDS, over and over with no hope of relief, because that’s what you get for being gay.
“What the hell is that?” Jenny’s mom said, pointing at my costume, after we emerged from hell.
My white costume was splattered with fake abortion blood, chunks of ecstasy vomit and some mysterious goo that the demon who danced around the AIDS patient shot at the crowd from a super soaker water gun while cackling, “Now all you sinners are infected!” Jenny had hidden behind me throughout the spectacle and didn’t appear to be as violated as I was, although a chunk of phony placenta had landed in her princess crown.
“Wait, girls,” the angel said, running to catch up to us in the parking lot. “I haven’t told you about salvation.”
Jenny’s mom leapt in between us and the bad man.
“Go to the car, girls. Run!” We took off and have no idea what she said to the angel, but we heard that he resigned as the church’s youth pastor and left town the following week. A few years later, my mom came across his name during one of her compulsive searches of the sexual offenders list.
Later that night, my mother gave me a bath, tucked me into bed and told me a story about when she was 9 and her parents sent her to a private Christian school. They could barely afford the tuition, but it was the only way to get her away from all the black people at her local public school.
“But why did it matter if there were black people?”
“It only mattered to my parents, who were from a different time. Anyway, they sent me to this school, where most of the kids had grown up going to church. They all seemed to know so much about sin and forgiveness and how you could be saved from eternal damnation. All this new information was a real shocker, and I quickly got saved so I’d go to heaven.”
“Does that really work?”
“Well, apparently I didn’t think so, because I was afraid it didn’t take. I asked Jesus to come into my heart several times a day, along with asking for forgiveness for my sins, constantly, on a running loop inside my head. Then my teacher told us about the one unforgiveable sin.”
“What was that?”
“Denying the holy spirit.”
“What does that mean?”
“Hell if I know. All the other kids seemed to have it figured out, and I didn’t want to look like an idiot so I didn’t ask. Did it mean saying that the holy spirit doesn’t exist? Did it mean ignoring the holy spirit if it rang the doorbell or called you on the phone? Who knows, but it drove me crazy. I didn’t want to accidentally do it and then go to hell, so I added yet another worry to my growing list of anxieties, telling God over and over that I absolutely did not deny the holy spirit, whatever that means.”
“Wow, mom. That’s crazy.”
“And that’s how my OCD began. I know I’m still a bit of a mess, and I’m overprotective, but I’m working on it.” She cupped my cheek in her hand. “It took years of therapy to let go of the fear of going to hell. I don’t even believe in it anymore.”
“I don’t think I do, either.”
“Why is that?”
“Would you ever send me to hell if I was bad?”
“Do you think any parents would send their kids to hell for being bad?”
“If there is a God, I don’t think he’d do that to any of his children, either.”
Chester winced upon seeing his photo on the celebrity gossip website. Shot while he stood on the pier talking to the paramedics, the picture featured his dimpled belly spilling over the waistband of his swim trunks. He had lost his toupee when he dove in the water, revealing a pasty dome that contrasted starkly with his spray-tanned face. The photo also revealed where most of those extra 10 vacation pounds had ended up: on his chest, which could very well fill an A cup.
But being bald and slightly overweight was nothing compared to what was going on below the waist as the wind had blown up the legs of his swim trunks. The offensive sight was covered with a black circle, and readers were encouraged to click here for the uncensored shot.
Chester clicked and saw his wrinkled old-man left nut hanging out.
“Oh, this is not good,” his manager Jerry said over his shoulder.
Tears filled Chester’s eyes.
“Why are they focusing on what I look like?” His voice cracked. “There’s only one sentence about my good deed.”
“Stop crying. You knew what this business was like when you got into it 40 years ago. You’re one of the biggest movie stars in the world. You can’t afford to be seen fat, naked, or ugly.”
“But I saved a busload of special needs kids when their driver had a heart attack and drove off the pier! They would have drowned if I hadn’t been there.”
Jerry shook his head. “You shouldn’t have been anywhere in public without a shirt and two pairs of Spanx on. Who do you think you are? A woman?”
“It’s not fair, Jerry. I’m almost 60. I have to work my ass off to look good, while a woman can get away with a beer belly, crow’s feet, and gray streaks in her hair. Why am I not allowed to enjoy life and look my age? It’s bullshit.”
“That’s how it’s always been. You can’t fight it.” Jerry opened a prescription bottle and placed two Xanax on the desk next to Chester’s laptop.
Chester scrolled down to the comments section.
“Everyone’s so mean. Who do they think they are, scrutinizing me like this? Muffin top? Moobs? Look here—this one says I need a ball-lift. Is that a real procedure, Jerry? Do I really need to have my sack tightened?” Tears flowed over his cheek implants. “I don’t ever want to leave my house again.”
Jerry rubbed his shoulder. “Well, that’s the plan, Chester. At least for a couple of months. We’re going to issue a statement saying that you were nowhere in the vicinity of the pier that day, and the hero was your pudgy, average-looking cousin Chauncey. Then we’re putting you on the lemonade cleanse and whipping you into shape with fitness boot camp.”
“Do you really think I’m pudgy and average looking?”
“Nah, man, you’re beautiful just the way you are. You just need a little tweaking to convince the rest of the world of that.” He shoved the pills closer to Chester. “Now take your medicine and don’t worry your pretty little head about those mean people. They’ll start being nice again when you’re in top form, and then you’ll be happy.”
“Happy? Do you really think so?”
Chester swallowed his Xanax like a good boy and smiled as much as his face would allow, the corners of his mouth going up while his forehead remained waxen and unlined.
When people speak of happy childhoods, I look at them the same way I look at doctors who use the word “pressure” in place of “pain.” I remember fleeting moments of what you might call happiness—my mother pretending to be a waitress taking my order when she served me dinner, reading Little House on the Prairie books with a flashlight way past my bedtime, my dad casually walking though the house with pantyhose over his head like a burglar, just to see if anyone would notice. The latter usually ended with a yelp from my mother or one of her friends when they looked up from their coffee and cigarettes at the kitchen table to see my dad’s smushed-in face. I’ve got plenty of fun anecdotes from my childhood, but true, lasting happiness eluded me, and I felt defective because of it until I found a few kindred spirits.
On my first day of elementary school, we were forced to play duck, duck, goose in PE. It was my first exposure to this asinine game, and I willed the little girl tapping heads around the circle to not pick me. My luck only held out so long.
“Goose!” She slapped me on the head and ran around the circle. The other kids cheered her on.
I stayed planted in my spot. The coach, whom I had already decided was the devil after knowing her for 15 minutes, blew her whistle and stomped over to me.
“You’re supposed to get up and chase her!” she barked.
I was stunned silent. I wanted to go back home to my mommy and eat toast on the couch while watching Captain Kangaroo, not be forced to run in circles and chase some kid who smiled too much for my liking. I wanted to cry but was determined to not let that mean old cow see she was getting to me. My parents, who had already brought up six children when I came along, let me get away with being surly when I felt like it, mainly because they were in their late 40s and were just too tired to put in the effort. (For the record, aside from being withdrawn and pessimistic on occasion, I turned out okay without strict rules and punishments to shape my character. I have never done hard drugs or been arrested, and I even give money to homeless people.) My new coach, however, had no tolerance for a little girl who gave her dirty looks. I didn’t mean to be petulant, but I had no point of reference for this authoritarian approach at turning me into an Olympic duck, duck, gooser. Nobody ever yelled at me to do something–and do the shit out of it–at home.
“Well, what do you have to say?” She leaned in close to my face.
“Go sit on the bench!”
Finally, I thought. I strode over to the wooden bench on the perimeter of the gym and watched the spectacle from afar. The next person to be “goosed” was a girl with a Dorothy Hamill haircut. Upon being chosen, she ran the wrong way. She, too, ended up on the bench.
“I guess we’ll get used of it soon,” she said to me.
Used to, I thought. I was too polite to shame another person for bad grammar, but it made me wonder what kind of place this was, where adults expected you to shit when they said “squat,” a girl couldn’t pick a preposition to save her life, and children were delighted as all get out to play games of someone else’s choosing, on command, in a gym with no air conditioning.
I told my parents all about my horrible first day of school when I got home, and they laughed.
“Yep, that sounds like school. You’ll get used to it,” my mother said. At least she used the correct preposition.
“Just do what they tell you and learn to play their game, and you’ll get through it just fine,” my dad chimed in.
“But I don’t want to play their game!”
I expected so much more from these people who were supposed to be my fiercest protectors. They gave me a womb-like existence for my first five years and then delivered me to the jackals without so much as a warning that this might be a little different than what I’d grown accustomed to. I had received shabby treatment from a mean lady for no good reason, and I was surrounded by simpletons who squealed with glee at playing games. Games, I tell you—running in circles, freezing at the tweet of a whistle, and pelting the weakest children with red rubber balls. It was cruel and unusual, and I wanted to learn about my other options for living out my youth.
It turned out there were no other options. I quickly learned that there are two kinds of people in this world—those who enjoy playing games, and those who get hit by dodge balls on purpose so that they can go sit on the sidelines and do what I consider far more interesting things. Motivational posters will tell you that those who get into the game full throttle will eat, breathe, and shit excellence, but I preferred to sit on the edge of the gym throughout my childhood and adolescence with the weirdos who gave me Cure mix tapes and instructed me on how to dye my hair with Kool-Aid. If that makes me less than excellent, I’m willing to accept that, but I still don’t accept that anyone had a truly happy childhood—not even the duck, duck, goose champion of Eugene Field Elementary.
I’m kind of a dick. I’ll admit that straightaway. I meet women online for the sole purpose of getting laid. Yes, we’ll go on a date first. After that, it’s purely sexual, and our wild romps usually take place at her house because I don’t want her to know where I live. She might end up stalking me after I end it. I may be a dick, but I’m good in bed and they always want more even after I’ve moved on to the next woman.
Waiting by the entrance of JinBeh Hibachi and Sushi, I smelled Missy before I saw her. A wall of fruity perfume with vanilla undertones hit me with such force that a wave of nausea came over me. I looked down the street and saw a cute blonde in a bridal veil heading my way, surrounded by her ugly drunk friends. Maybe there had been a mishap with a broken perfume bottle in their Hummer limo. The bachelorette party passed me by and stumbled into the karaoke bar next door, but the smell not only lingered after they were out of sight but got worse.
I turned to find Missy standing to my right, looking ten times more stunning than her profile photo and stinking like a French whorehouse. Forcing a smile, I tried to say her name but her scent caught in my throat and sent me into a spasmodic coughing fit.
“You okay?” she asked, placing her hand on my back while I hacked. I wiped my watery eyes with the back of my hand and nodded.
“Sorry, must have swallowed a bug or something.” We stared at each other for a few seconds, her checking me out and me trying to form a sentence. The smell—and the resulting brain fog–reminded me of the time I ignored my dad’s warnings and went into the house after he set off a flea bomb. That act of rebellion landed me in the hospital with lung damage, and I still have to use an inhaler on level orange pollution days.
“Ready to eat?” Not my best line ever, but it was the best I could do while high on toxic fumes.
She smiled and nodded. I opened the door for her and held my breath. The maître d’s eyes widened, and he took a step back. He told us there would be a half hour wait, so we took a seat at the restaurant bar. Holding my breath was getting harder, and I noticed people scrunching up their faces and moving away from us. Did she not see that people scattered when she entered a room?
“What’ll you have?”
“A glass of cabernet. I’ll be right back.” She went to the ladies’ room, and I took a slow, deep breath.
“Excuse me.” A guy leaned in next to me at the bar and set his martini down.
“This is probably not my place, but I’m going to say it anyway.”
“She’s not my girlfriend. First date. And last. Probably.”
“The woman you’re with,” he conceded, “is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The heavy perfume is a sign of shame. She’s trying to cover up how bad she believes she is.”
“And you would know this how?”
“It’s what I do. I see it all the time. Classic sign of someone who feels dirty, guilty, and ashamed.” He handed me his business card: Richard J. Finkelstein, Ph.D.–Specializing in Psychotherapy for Trauma, Sexual Abuse & Sexual Addiction. “You’d be wise not to get involved.”
“Hey there,” Missy said as she returned, freshly spritzed with another layer of Vanilla Fruit Bomb No. 5. I turned my back to my new therapist friend and faced her. Unable to talk and hold my breath at the same time, I gave her a tight-lipped smile. Missy took a sip of wine and gave my thigh a squeeze.
“Why don’t we just skip dinner and go back to my house? I’m only hungry for one thing, and it’s not sushi,” she said. She leaned in, and I dry heaved in her face. Then the wheezing began. I flashed her the “wait” gesture with my left hand and reached for my inhaler in my jacket pocket, grateful that I could buy myself some time, even if it meant taking a hit of corticosteroids in the middle of a crowded restaurant bar. Assaulted with fragrance chemicals and deprived of oxygen from so much breath-holding, my head spun and my bronchial tubes collapsed. As I wrapped my lips around the inhaler and sucked in sweet relief, I wondered if I could force myself to tolerate that ungodly smell just this one night so I wouldn’t have to go home alone.
“Well, that was embarrassing,” she hissed. “This is not going to happen. You’re a mess.”
She grabbed her purse and left, the bar patrons giving her a wide berth. I slouched at the bar and drank my beer, which I could actually taste now that the air was clear.
“You were going to have sex with her anyway.” Dr. Finkelstein had reappeared next to me.
“Maybe. I’m kind of a dick like that.” I didn’t look up from my pint glass.
“I have an opening in my schedule Monday at 3:00.”
“See you then.”
This story is my third installment in the SENSELESS Writing Challenge, in which participants write a story about each of the five senses every Friday in May. This week: Smell.
The voice has been with me since I was 13. It’s not that little voice that most people call a conscience. It’s not a series of nagging thoughts inside my head. It’s a real, audible voice I hear in my left ear.
“Congratulations. You are the Antichrist,” it said to me on the morning of my Bar Mitzvah. My older brother David’s voice had gone down a few octaves over the summer, so I thought it was him messing with me.
“Shut up!” I turned to smack him on the head but no one was in the room with me.
“Your people will think you are the Messiah, and you will play the part very well. You will have earthly successes and charm the masses.”
“Who are you?”
“You can call me whatever you want.”
“Well, I know you’re not God, because I don’t believe in God. I’m just doing this ceremony because my Bubby guilted me into it. And she’s paying my World of Warcraft subscription for the next year.”
“I know exactly what you believe. Do you think I’d choose a nice, observant Jew to carry out this monumental task?”
“Well, I’m not that bad.”
“Not yet, but you have so much potential. We have lots of work to do.”
“Look, I’m kind of busy. I’ll pass.”
“Eli, who are you talking to in there?” Mom yelled from the kitchen.
“Nobody, Mom. Just practicing my speech.”
I turned to my left and pointed to whoever was there. “Look, you need to go. I’m not interested. I’ve got six weeks left of summer vacation and I’m this close to getting to second base with Lily Harper. And I’m building a Minecraft Creeper head to wear at Larry’s costume party. My life is full.”
But it didn’t go. The voice talked to me several times a day, coaching me on how to sweet talk the girls and make my teachers like me. It gave me the answers during algebra tests and dictated poems to me for my creative writing class. It gave me the right words to say for every occasion, from comforting cancer patients as a hospice volunteer, which looked fantastic on my college applications, to decimating my opponent in the class presidential debate, which won me a standing ovation and the election. Over the next few years, it turned me into a charming, successful young man, and I felt like a lying, cheating piece of shit the whole time.
On prom night, it told me to take advantage of my date, who was passed out on rum and Coke in the guest room of my friend’s house.
“She won’t even know,” it said. “And even if she did, she’d be grateful for the experience.”
I don’t remember what happened after that. None of the eyewitnesses want to talk about it, and my mother cries when I ask. I know I defied the voice that night. And I must have told someone about the entity that speaks into my left ear or else I wouldn’t be in a psychiatric hospital.
The voice was angry with me for a while but eventually said it forgave me. I’ve been pretending everything is cool between us for the last 11 years, answering its questions loud enough that everyone on the ward can hear. The crazier I look, the less likely Dr. John is to unleash me onto the world.
Sometimes, when I’m not saying anything restraint-worthy, they let me join the others for TV time. So far I’ve seen no news reports of antics perpetrated by a seven-headed beast with ten horns, four horsemen, or a Babylonian whore. Those clowns can only carry out this end-of-the-world scenario if all of their key players take the stage, and the voice I hear in the other ear won’t let me do that.
This story is my second installment in the SENSELESS Writing Challenge, in which participants write a story about each of the five senses every Friday in May. This week: Sound.