Spilled Beans… the FIRST first short story (apparently!)

My dad called the other day to tell me my grandmother found a story I’d written when I was nine.  He said they were both “choked up” as they read, but the jury is still out about this emotion–because I followed my dream to become a writer and therefore I’m eating lots of Ramen? Or because I’m still stubbornly clinging to singlehood???

“Spilled Beans”

For a long time Betty was looking in all the stores for beans and she was looking for a boyfriend.  Finally she found the beans in a store.  How happy she was when she saw them.  “Now,” she said, “if I could just find a boyfriend it would complete it.”  Just then she dropped the beans! And then a man came up and he helped her pick up the beans. And he was young.  As soon as the beans were all picked up she said, “How ever can I thank you?”  For a minute it was silent.  Then the man said, “You will thank me with yourself.  The minute I saw you I fell in love with you.”  Then all of the sudden she was picked up and put in the man’s car and he told her his name was Bob and they had a good wedding.

The End

First Published Short Story

An ex-student of mine asked me to post the first short story I had published, so here it is… a true lesson in humility!

“The Coat”

Mary lay on the train tracks waiting for the six-fifteen to pass by and crush her to death.  Life as she had known it was over.

“Oh, the coat, the COAT!” she cried, willing the train to be early.

*

She did a lot of things growing up in Amarillo,  Texas.  She played with bugs the size of her dog, covered herself in oil from head to toe just for fun, rode horses through the local convenience stores.  But there was one thing she could never do:  she could never wear a coat.  Time after time she would sit in the sweltering Texan heat, watching beautiful women parade across her TV screen in the most exquisite coats she had ever seen.  One day she decided she had to have one.   She went to her parents with the request.

“Well, little darlin’,” her father drawled, “can’t see why you’d wanna wear a coat when it’s hotter than a firefly sizzlin’ on a light-bulb.”

Her mother was afraid that the heat had finally got to her darling sweet child.

“Do you have a fever, my sweet little baby dumpling?”

Late that night, as she lay shivering in the tub with fifty bags of ice lumped all around her, she vowed to never give up the dream.

*

When Mary was old enough she went to college in New York, where it was cold and blustery.  On her very first day she went to Macy’s and bought herself a new coat.  On the way home she was mugged, thrown out of a moving taxi, pushed onto the subway tracks by a homeless transvestite, and beaten bloody by a man in a cape who wanted her shoes.  As Mary stumbled out of the emergency room, limping, shoeless, and with dried blood caked in her hair, she was overcome with emotion.  The tears ran down her face and she hugged her new coat tighter to her body.

“I can’t believe this,” she said to strangers who walked by her in wide half-circles.  “Look, I finally have a coat!”

*

She wore the coat all through Indian summer.  People would stare at her, and she knew why.

“I know it’s because of you,” she said to the coat in the mirror one night.   “Something just isn’t right.”

The next day Mary went to twenty different stores, looking for a better coat ­– a snugglier, fluffier, cozier, more beautiful coat – but she couldn’t find one that was just right.

“I will not give up the search!” she declared, drooling and flushed, to a small boy on the escalator.

As the boy’s mother rushed him away she clenched her fists in frustration.

“If I have to use my last dying breath, I will find one!” she cried to the retreating figures.

*

And then one day she saw it.  The coat of her dreams.

“It’s fleece,” the man standing next to the hot-dog stand sniffed at her.

“Huh?” Mary replied, dizzy from staring.

“I said it’s fleece, my coat is fleece.  I saw you admiring it.”

The little man smiled knowingly at her, then turned to throw eight long knives at a woman standing inside the plastic walls of a bus stop.  They plunked around the woman’s head, her limbs, and the crowd clapped in delight.

“It’s just so fluffy and so, so … sooooo white,” Mary said, resisting the urge to snuggle up to it.

But the man simply ignored her and took a bow.

*

At night she would dream about the man’s coat.  The downy folds pressing into her sides, the collar billowing into her neck, the soft fluffy cuffs tingling her wrists.  Some nights the coat floated above her like a cloud, others she rode the coat-cloud to faraway lands.  One night she dreamt that the little man had sold her the coat, and it was hers forever.  She woke up in a cold sweat, tears glistening in her eyes.  It was then that she made this promise to herself: I will have it one day, as God is my witness!

*

A few weeks later Mary saw him in Central Park.  He was in the center of a crowd, swallowing sticks of fire.  She couldn’t believe her luck.

“How much for the coat?” she screamed.

He swallowed another stick as the people clapped and whistled.

“Anything, I’ll do anything!” she cried, pushing her way through bodies.

When she got to the center he looked at her, fire-stick poised, and raised an eyebrow.

“Anything?” he said.

She nodded so hard she developed a migraine.

“I must see if you are worthy,” he said, swallowing more fire.

*

They met a small Italian restaurant a few days later.  He wore the coat all through dinner, but she didn’t mind.  She couldn’t take her eyes off it.

“Watch it,” he said to the waiter with the plate of spaghetti.

During dinner he told her the history of the coat.  He had stolen the lamb from an elderly couple in Brandenburg, East Germany, during a routine spy mission.  He smuggled it home on a Red Cross freight plane, and later had it skinned by an underground couple in Connecticut who were wanted for various treasonous crimes.  After that, a bearded Italian man named Mario – who was rumored to actually be a bearded Italian woman named Maria – took the fleece and delivered the coat to him exactly three days later.  He/she had only the following warning:  “If you stain it, it will be bad.”

“Anything, ANYTHING!” Mary cried.

The little man held up his hand, then leaned closer.

“I will watch, and I will learn,” he said, his eyes flaring with intensity.  “Now go!”

“I AM WORTHY, YOU’LL SEE!” she said as three large tattooed men with dark glasses picked her up and hustled her out the door.

*

After that he was always around.  At intersections while she waited to cross, in the waiting room while she had her pap smear, at the market while she thumped melons.  Every time she turned around, he was there, all snuggled into the beautiful fleece coat.   He never tried to speak with her, never even tried to make eye contact.  But she knew he was watching her, deciding her worthiness.

“He gives me the creeps,” her best friend said as they sipped hot chocolate at the lodge in Vermont.    “I mean, he just shows up skiing on the black diamond right next to you?  Four hundred miles from home?”

Her eyes narrowed at Mary. “I think he’s stalking you.”

Mary shivered at the memory of him barreling down the mountain next to her, his head bent with purpose.  At times he skied perilously close to her, but always he kept his eyes forward like he didn’t see her.  At one point he jumped a mogul and almost landed directly on top of her, but even then he didn’t bother to look her way.  How dare he! she bristled.  What if he had fallen into me? The coat could have been ripped to pieces!

They both looked across the room at him, sitting at the bar.  He sat on a stool, sipping brandy and making Pterodactyls out of little square bar napkins.  A group of people sat transfixed as his hands moved like lightning to form the prehistoric birds.  Her best friend looked on for a while, then let her eyes rest on his coat.

“Great coat, though,” she grudgingly admitted.  “The fleece is white as snow.”

Mary sighed and smiled.

*

After two months he suddenly stopped showing up.  He wasn’t at the gas station when Mary had her oil changed, or at the spa when she had her legs waxed.  He wasn’t even waiting for her after she had her head sheared at Great Cuts.  Her studies began to suffer, she began chain-smoking, she began daydreaming in class.

“Why, oh why!” she screamed in biology class, suddenly standing and knocking her lab chair backward.  Her arms were raised to heaven as the tears spilled from her eyes.  “Why am I unworthy?

Everyone stared at her over their dissected rabbit brains, but no one had any answers.

*

She became frantic after two months turned into three.  She developed a facial twitch and forgot to shower.  She painted her small apartment with coat-clouds. She kept a journal of all the words she could make with the words coat, lamb, and fleece.  She even bought a pet sheep.  It defecated all over her apartment while she walked the streets in search of the coat, but she didn’t seem to notice.  Her best friend soon grew weary.

“Look, he’s gone, so get over it!  What’s done is done.”

Mary grabbed her friend with both hands and shook her.  “What’s wrong with you? she shrieked, little streams of spit flying out of her mouth. “You saw it for yourself!”

Seconds later she fell to the floor in a crazed stupor.

*

The doctor brought her a fleece coat soon after she was admitted.  It was a poor imitation.  He put it on her lap, took a step back, his pen poised expectantly over his medical pad.  Mary became alert for the first time in days.  She jumped up, stuffed the coat in her mouth, ripped it to pieces with her teeth, spitting each mouthful at the doctor.

“Idiot!” she said.  “Did you think you could fool me?”

Her parents flew all the way from Amarillo, Texas to take her home.

“C’mon, sweet darlin’, I think ya got a hankerin’ fer home,” her father drawled from underneath his ten-gallon hat.

Her mother screamed into her ear, just to make sure her precious sweet baby daughter could hear her.  “SWEET PUMPKIN PIE?!  IT’S YOUR MOTHER, HONEY-LAMB, YOUR MOTHER!  WE’RE TAKING YOU BACK HOME, MY LITTLE SUGAR LUMPKINS!!”

But Mary refused to go.  She couldn’t bear to be that far away from it.

*

“Your daughter is suffering from schizophrenic compulsive idiotic fetish syndrome,” the doctor said.  “I think we can help her with drugs.”

“Now don’t ya go messin’ with no lobotomy, little cowpoke,” her father said to the doctor with a wink and a smile, and took his wife by the hand.

“TAKE CARE MY SWEET PRECIOUS BABY APPLESEED!”  her mother said before they left to catch their cab back to the airport.

*

One day, while Mary was looking out of her barred, inflammable, plastic, shatterproof window, something caught her eye.

She could barely believe it, but it was true.  It was him.  And, yes, he had it on!

He walked right under her window carrying a large bench from the hospital grounds.  He balanced it on his chin, then began to file his fingernails.  He made sure the dust didn’t fall onto the coat.  At first she could only cock her head to the side and let a long string of drool fall from the corner of her mouth, but after a few seconds she suddenly felt strong.

“Doctor,” she said gathering herself up, “I’m ready to go home.”

“Congratulations, Mary,” the doctor said and shook her hand.

“No hard feelings about the coat?” Mary asked.

“None whatsoever.”

*

When she moved back home she found her pet sheep dead in a pile of sheep shit and piss.  It didn’t matter much, though, because soon he began to appear again.  The coat – if it was possible – was even whiter and fluffier than before.  Her twitch went away, she went back to school, she decided showering was a good thing.

*

A few weeks later her best friend pulled her aside while they were ice skating.

“Isn’t that him?” she asked, pointing to a man in the center of a circle of people.

There he was, spinning furiously on one skate.  The coat winged out at the ends, making it look like he had on a skirt made out of clouds.

Ohhhhhhhhhh,” said the crowd.

He skated backwards for a while, then suddenly leapt into the air.  The coat flew open, revealing the fluffy white folds of fleece inside.

Ahhhhhhhh,” came another collective sigh.

*

Things went back to normal for awhile.  He stood outside Sbarros while she paid for her lunch.  He lingered near the dressing rooms at the boutique while she tried on outfits for her Aunt Estelle’s funeral.  He was even hovering near a tombstone during Aunt Estelle’s funeral in Texas, chiseling a montage of angels onto the slate.  Two couples stood by transfixed as the rock particles flew in every direction.  Mary’s mother and father noticed him right away.

“Mighty damn fine coat that man over there’s wearin’,” declared her father during the service. “Little strange, though, since it’s hotter than the devil’s whorehouse on the fourth of July.”

“DO YOU KNOW HIM, MAMA’S SWEET LITTLE POOKIE-WOOKIE PUDDING PEA-PIE?”

*

One day, as Mary watched him sculpt the Virgin Mary out of a block of ice in Rockefeller Center, she started to lose hope.  She sought the advice of her best friend.

“You have to help me,” she pleaded, wringing her hands together and tearing the skin off her knuckles.

“The coat?”  her best friend asked quietly.

Mary nodded quickly.  “I don’t know what I have to do to prove myself!”

“What have you done so far?”

“Nothing,” Mary said.

“And it hasn’t worked?”

Mary shook her head helplessly.

“Then let’s get down to business,” her friend said.  She threw back a shot of whiskey, lit a cigarette.

*

They sat over the large sheets of scribbled plans.   Her best friend was lost in a cloud of smoke as she talked.

“The plan is simple.  You walk aimlessly about for a few days until he returns.  Secretly hidden in your own cotton/polyester blend coat will be a miniature camera.  You’ll control the movement of the camera by rapid eye movements.  Three quick blinks and the camera moves left. Two, it moves right.   In your ear will be a small receiver so that I can communicate with you. I’ll alert you to his presence, and then you act casual until he comes within focus of the camera.  When he does, I’ll signal you with a small beep in the receiver.  This means to blink five times: this makes the camera  take a picture.  I’ll also have a high-powered pair of binoculars.  When I see you blink five times, I’ll jump out to the left so he’ll turn and you can get profile.  Then I’ll jump to the right so you can get the left profile.   Once the pictures are secure, we split up and meet at the abandoned warehouse. We’ll develop the pictures using a makeshift darkroom that I’ve designed on page four.  From there we cool our heels until dark, then infiltrate the federal building, using climbing gear, chewing gum, and a small transistor radio.  When we get in we’ll have four minutes to break the password and access the mainframe.  Then we’ll match his pictures with the ones in the confidential files and find out where he lives.  We’ll scale his building, and once inside, you’ll apply a small compress of ether to his nose, while I grab the coat.  After that, it should be gravy.”

Her best friend took a long drag of her cigarette and poured herself another whiskey.

“Or we could just knock him out and grab it,” Mary suggested.

Her best friend slung back the shot of whiskey, her eyes narrowing.

“Even better.”

*

They stood in the Laundromat, folding huge pairs of underwear.  Outside the building they had placed three chain saws.  They knew he would show up.  It was too tempting.

“Hey,” said a fat woman waddling up to them, “what are you doing with my clothes?”

Her best friend grabbed the fat woman by the neck and wrestled her into a dryer.  She popped in two quarters.

“Can’t allow for screw-ups now,” she said from behind her dark glasses.

They went back to folding underwear.

In a few minutes he came into view.  He approached the chain saws, pulled the cords, juggled them.

“Quick,” her best friend said, “before the crowd gathers.”

They rushed outside and threw a large sheet of plastic on the ground.  They pushed him onto it and then jumped on top of him.  The chain saws crashed to the ground with him.  He writhed and screamed at their frantic grabbing.

“Be careful!” he screamed, as they wrestled with the coat.  In their haste they kicked one of the chains saws toward him.  The edge of the blade made contact with the sleeve of the coat, splitting it.  Blood oozed from his arm and stained the coat with a thick layer of red.

“Noooooooooooo!” Mary screamed and passed out cold.

* * *

Mary checked her watch: six-ten.  Only five more minutes until death, she thought.   From somewhere in the distance she could hear people clapping.  She rose and followed the tracks to a small crowd that had formed right at the edge of them.

“What’s going on?” she asked a man at the back of the crowd, making sure she didn’t step off the tracks.

The man turned to look at her.

“The guy is incredible!” the man said enthusiastically.

Mary craned her neck forward, but she couldn’t see anything over the heads of the people.

“What guy?”

“The guy with the great coat,” the man said, pointing to the center of the crowd.

“Coat?” said Mary, stepping off the tracks, just as the six-fifteen whizzed by.

She pushed her way into the crowd.  In the center stood a tall man with a brush in his mouth, painting a mural of the “Last Supper.”  On his back was the most beautiful black coat she had ever seen.

“Izzie oh luck ma cut,” the man said to her.

“What?”

The man took the brush out of his mouth.

“I said, I see that you like my coat.  It’s fox.”

“It’s so soft and so, so … soooo black,” Mary said, resisting the urge to touch it.  She sighed and felt the smile slowly spreading across her face.

My Friend Andy

It happened in Oxford, OH, about a year after I graduated, and two years after Andy graduated, from Miami University.  We were both delaying “real” jobs and writing our asses off, and also spending endless hours in my small apartment talking straight through the day and into the night about everything from love (we were both mystified about this topic) to what it would be like to have our first books published one day.

After one of these incredibly long nights we got up the next morning and decided to take a hike in the only park in our small town.  I remember how excited Andy was to show me this particularly beautiful spot he had discovered off of one of trails, so we headed out that morning doing what we both did best when we were together, which was almost always: talking and interrupting each other, and teasing back and forth with lots of smack talk.

It was a gorgeous spring morning: trees in full bloom, flowers everywhere, the smell of pine and sweetness in the air.  We were walking side by side on one of the trails when Andy suddenly became animated, and, giggling like a little kid, took off through the trees.  When I finally caught up to him minutes later he was standing a few feet from a clearing, beckoning me to hurry.

“Walk up there and look,” he said, pointing. “But be careful, there’s a drop.”

After I said something like “quit bossing me around,” I walked past him and approached the clearing.  He was right–this spot he had discovered before the trees and flowers began to bud and bloom was probably even more amazing than he remembered.  The drop was about 200 feet down, and there was a rocky, rambling river cushioned between trees, and, at the very end before the river was swallowed by a thick grove of pines, a small waterfall.  I remember holding my breath as I looked down, as Andy stood behind me, uncharacteristically silent so I could enjoy the view.

And then I saw it.

I may have gasped.

Because on the opposite shore below me were the following words, spelled out in huge rocks:  MARRY ME!

Suddenly I was very dizzy, and while it probably only took a few seconds for the questions to scream through my head, it felt like much longer.  They went something like this:  Andy wants to marry me?  He’s in love with me?  But we’re buds, we’re best friends, he sleeps over all the time, but he always ends up in the bed and me on the couch (at 6’ 6” Andy just didn’t fit on my couch) and what the heck did I miss, how can this be, what signs did he give and I ignored, etc. etc.

I finally took in a deep breath and started to turn to him, my mind still racing.  What if his face was full of tenderness?  Of sick, puppy dog love?  What if my best and most trusted buddy was on one knee?

Apparently, I didn’t need to worry.

He looked annoyed as hell, and not in the annoyed-rejected-lover way, just annoyed annoyed.

“What?  You don’t like it?” he demanded.

Apparently, Andy’s “undiscovered” paradise had been discovered by others, and I finally let the trapped air out of my lungs.

I flashed him a smile, said with breathless exaggeration, “Yes!”

“Yes?  Yes what?”

“Look,” I said, pointing.

He pushed passed me, still irritated, and went to the ledge.

And then the moment I will never forget for the rest of my life: Andy’s barking laugh, and then him wheeling around on me, his face flushed a deep pink.  Within seconds he was bent over in half, his arms wrapped around his stomach, and then I lost it too.  We both laughed until the tears came and we were slapping each other and then holding each other up and then slapping each other again.

“I–I– don’t.  Want. To. Marry. You,” he choked out at one point, and I think I managed something like, “You’d. Be. So. Lucky.  Ass-munch.”

And then, after we had gained a little control and were wiping our eyes, something strange happened.  We were still giggling but suddenly Andy had that mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

“C’mon!” he yelled and tore off through the trees.  I chased after him, still giggling, and then we were on the trail again, side by side, running like crazy.  We hooped and yelled and jumped up to swipe branches, and to this day I still can’t explain what came over us.  I’m not sure what all that running and joy was about exactly, but I know how we both felt.  It was one of those moments in life–rare and precious–when we were both so full of happiness that our bodies just had to move and make a little noise.  It was perfect.

A little over six months later, just weeks after Andy and I had discussed his possible move to Wilmington, NC and our renting a house together, he passed away in his sleep.  It was in the early hours of Thanksgiving day, a heart defect from birth, undetected.  He was twenty-seven years old.

That spring morning with Andy is only one of a hundred wonderful memories I have with him.  Every year when this time roles around, and my head is full of him, and I wonder how a heart so big and so kind could just stop, and how he could just stop being in my world so suddenly, I feel overwhelmed by my longing to talk to him just one more time.  But when this happens–when I’m feeling heartbroken to the core that he’s gone, he’s really and truly gone, dammit–I think of that day when we raced through the park together like little kids, like our feet were barely touching the ground and there was no purpose to what we were doing except that we were doing it together and it was right.  And I remember the months that followed, before I moved to North Carolina, when we’d be in the grocery store or sharing a beer at our local bar, or sitting in my apartment talking and talking and talking about every single thing in the world, and Andy would suddenly get serious and say, “Mel, will you marry me?”  And then, of course, burst into laughter.

Even when I was annoyed with him–like on moving day later that spring, when he wasn’t really packed and I just knew it would be up to me to not only pack but later clean his bachelor pad after I drove him down to Cincinnati and came back alone and I was getting pissed at him because he was just sort of shuffling around and at one point was handing me an old pan still full of burnt mashed potatoes and I was complaining that he was slob and he was saying you can keep the pan, go ahead and take it and I was saying I don’t want your stupid pan (yes, I still have it) and he was saying relax and I was saying no you relax–all it took to break the tension was Andy’s impossibly silly grin and these words: “Does this mean you won’t marry me?”

That day in the park happened during Andy’s last spring on this earth, a fact that makes me so unbearably sad at times, but also so incredibly thankful that I was able to share almost every day of it with him.  I miss him more than any stories or simple words can convey, but I am grateful, too, that I have this memory and so many others that keep him present in my life.   I will never ever forget running with him by my side–yelling, laughing, so alive, so joyful … the very best buddy a girl could ever hope for.

Forever Child

I’m going to be a mother for the first time.

No one can forecast when this will happen, but all signs point to anytime between next week and a decade.  Fifteen years, max.

When the time comes, I will essentially have the care and responsibility of a ten year old male who is–and is not–a child.  When he becomes my son, I will love and guide and clothe and feed and protect him from the dark with the knowledge that I will do these things, every day, until one of us leaves this earth.  He will never grow up, he will not experience the pain and awkwardness of adolescence, and he will not marry or strike out on his own, ever.  He will be ten when I become his mother, and he will remain ten forever.

His name is Joe.  He’s my big brother.  He is fifty years old but has the mental capacity of a ten year-old.  But he isn’t a child.  (And he is.)

My family doesn’t discuss the particulars about my impending motherhood–we don’t make plans, or try to predict how long my father will be alive, or discuss how my older sister Robin and her husband John have already taken over much of my brother’s care, and that eventually it will be my turn.  To do this, I will have to move back to Rhode Island after spending almost half my life away because Joe is part of a wonderful work and recreation program and it would be cruel to remove him from the only life he’s known.  It is understood that when the time comes, I will extricate myself from my current job and personal relationships and living situation, and return home to be my brother’s mother.

*

My future destiny as a mother began in July 1960.  My mother was nineteen years old and a week overdue with her first child.  She was slow dancing with my father at a wedding when my grandmother–my father’s mother–stepped up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder.  “Come with me, little girl,” my grandmother said, “your water just broke.”  A few hours later the doctor released my mother from the hospital with instructions to return when she started having contractions.  But she never did.  A week passed, and then another.  My parents didn’t know enough to be worried, but my grandmother, who had been a midwife for over forty years and had firsthand experience with the complications of a “dry birth,” had never heard of a baby surviving weeks after the protective sac of amniotic fluid had burst.  She called the doctor often, but his stony response remained the same: He was the doctor.  By the end of week three, my grandmother’s fears had mutated into rage.  “My daughter-in-law is ten months pregnant,” she shouted into the phone.  “She needs a cesarean, and she needs it now.”  This did not impress the doctor.  He started explaining who had the medical degree, but my grandmother interrupted him again: “If something is wrong this child, it’s on your head!”  Although rampant medical malpractice lawsuits were still a thing of the future, apparently these were exactly the words he needed to hear.  “Send her in then,” he conceded gruffly before hanging up.

My grandparents took my mother back to the hospital.  As the hours passed and the nurses pumped more drugs into her system, she started slipping in and out of consciousness.  It was only weeks after my brother was born that my mother, relieved to finally have her son safely at home, confided in my father: all she could recall from her many hours in the labor room was the doctor’s frightened face above hers, and then, sometime later, his panicked voice as he urged the nurses to hurry and prep her for a cesarean.  “We have to get this kid out now!” she remembers him yelling before the room faded to blackness.

Six months later my parents sat in another doctor’s office and received the devastating news: Joe’s inability to hold his head up, or shake a rattle, or maintain eye contact was due to severe mental retardation and cerebral palsy, most likely the result of a lack of oxygen to the brain due to the late delivery.  Their son, this new doctor informed my parents, would never walk.  He would never talk or be capable of even the most basic communication, and he would be a “vegetable” for the rest of his life.  The best option, the easiest option, he said, was to put their baby in an institution.

But my brother wasn’t a “vegetable” at six months, and my mother wasn’t going to let him turn into one.  She began the excruciatingly long process of teaching Joe how to walk by positioning a towel between his legs to hold him up, and then gently kicking his feet forward.  She did this day after day, month after month, year after year, until he took his first wobbly steps at five.  By the time he was five and a half, Joe could totter around the house easily, though he still couldn’t communicate even his simplest needs.  His only attempts came from pointing–at himself, or a cupboard or an object in the room–but most times this only resulted in tears and frustration.  He cried often, and threw himself on the floor in fits of rage, and the exhaustion and stress of raising him and my sister, who was three by the time Joe learned to walk, pushed my mother to her limits.  She consulted with more doctors, but the answer was always the same: Joe’s “condition” would be best served by institutional care.  My tired yet undefeated mother only shook her head and left these visits newly determined to prove them all wrong.

And then, a couple of months after Joe turned six, my mother’s responsibilities tripled.  She had another baby to care for–me–but this was good news, and not just because she wanted Joe to have many siblings: with my arrival my big brother finally started to show an interest in talking.  The first noises came from deep inside his throat as he hovered around my crib, and while my parents couldn’t make out any words in these noises, they were hopeful.  When I started speaking early (“Very early, and you haven’t stopped yet,” my mother would tease dryly), Joe and I began “talking” to each other–in grunts and whines that quickly developed into our secret language.  Before I was out of diapers, I became his interpreter and constant companion.  I would translate these noises–he’s hungry; his stomach hurts; he’s afraid to go to bed–and then supply him with answers in the same grunts and whines that only we understood.  When I was three, and Joe was nine and needed his tonsils out, the doctors arranged for me to have mine out as well; I didn’t need the surgery, but I was the only one who could tell the doctors and nurses about Joe’s progress, and it was the only way I’d be allowed to stay by his side.

One of my earliest memories comes from soon after our time in the hospital: I’m standing in the back of my mother’s station wagon, my arms around the headrest, when my mother turns to me and says, “It’s time for you and Joe to talk to each other like everyone else talks.”

I don’t remember my part in teaching Joe to speak clearly, but eventually–with my mother’s continued faith and dogged resolve, and lots of help from friends and relatives–Joe was eventually able to attend a special school.  Slowly, with the patience of many people and my mother at the helm, my brother slowly transformed into the very loving, intelligent, and charismatic person he is today.

When my mother passed away during the night in July 2000, Joe was a month shy of his fortieth birthday.  He had been living in a private group home for six months because my mother thought it would help him become more independent.  And though she never cited it as a reason, we all knew that she also wanted to spare him the daily confusion and pain of her progressing cancer.  I don’t think, however, that any of us actually considered the moment when she would be gone and we’d have to tell her son.  Of course Joe knew that she was sick and that one day she would be going to heaven, but we weren’t prepared for the next morning when he walked in the door, eyed the crowd of his silent relatives calmly, and announced that he would be right back; he had to “check on his sweetheart.”

“Hold on a sec,” I said, because everyone was looking at me, waiting.  I delivered the news as gently as I could: Mom died last night, and she was in heaven now.

“Nuh uh,” Joe said, eyes wide behind his glasses.

“She did, buddy.  She isn’t in the bedroom.  She went to heaven last night and she isn’t sick anymore.”

“Nuh uh, Miscell.”

“It’s true.”

“I want to see,” he said, so we walked up the hallway together.

We stood close in my parents’ bedroom doorway, staring at the bed.  How empty it looked without her there.  As I waited for my brother to absorb her absence, my mind started racing: How would we ever care for him with the same devotion?  How would he ever recover from this loss? How would we all recover and make our way without her?

My brother finally turned to me.  “She go to heaven?”

“Yeah.”

“Sure?  Sure, Miscell?”

“I’m sure.”

He didn’t cry until the funeral a few days later, but throughout the entire service you could hear him talking loudly, incoherently, between his sobbing.  At times the  priest had to compete with Joe, but he didn’t falter once as he praised my mother and her many accomplishments.  And when he said that he was positive she was looking down on us now, that God had surely invited her instantly to His side because of the sacrifices she had made in her life, every head turned my brother’s way.  I knew what they were thinking, because I was thinking the same thing: what happens to him now?

For months afterward, Joe and I would have the same conversation over and over again on the phone–me in Ohio, finishing up a graduate degree, him in the group home he would leave soon after to move back home because living away felt like a double loss in the end.  “I miss her,” he would say simply.  “I thinking about her all day sometimes.” All I could say back was, “Me too.”  Some nights this would be enough, and some nights there was a long silence that followed, where all the words we learned together would fail us completely.

*

But here is the hardest part of my story with Joe, the embarrassing truth that has taken me years to admit: despite my special bond and love for my big brother, despite the fact that I would willingly and gladly fight to the death to protect him, the prospect of caring for a person who learns simple tasks slowly and then forgets them quickly, and who will never, ever stop needing me, makes my heart pound with terror.  Writing about this, and the deep shame that accompanies my fears, is almost impossible.  After hours of trying and failing one night, I finally e-mailed a friend for suggestions, and she e-mailed me back with this advice: Write a letter to your mother.  Time it, and try not to edit.  Write it like no one will ever read it. So I did, and here’s what I came up with:

Mom: I’m scared to live the life you lived.  I’m afraid to do and say the same things, day after day, because I know Joe needs this but I’m afraid what it will do to me over time.  I don’t have your courage, and I don’t want to remind Joe to swallow ten times a day because he’s drooling again.  I don’t want to lose my temper with him because his clothes are everywhere in the house except where they belong, in his drawers or in the hamper.  I don’t want to remind him to wash his face, brush his teeth, take his meds, leave the cat alone, pay attention, put his pad and pencils away, find his glasses, go to the bathroom, make sure you wash your hair in the shower, stop messing with the cat, focus and sit closer to the table, because you’re spilling pasta/cereal/ice cream/soup on yourself and on the floor, go back and wash your face because half of it is still dirty, remember to shave, take your meds, did you take your meds, and sure I’ll stay home with you again tonight, of course I’ll play another game of Fish, another game of War, and of course we can go to back to Chuck E. Cheese, but wash your face, it’s still dirty, and make your bed, and pay attention, and be careful, you’re stepping on my foot, and please please leave that cat alone, and I already told you three times to take your meds so will you just stop fooling around and do as I say?  I don’t want to lose my temper because I’ve reminded him to do the same things he’s done every day for almost fifty years but still forgets, starting with almost the second he gets up in the morning.  I don’t want to yell but I know that some days, maybe more than once a day, I will reach my limit like you did at times, like Robin does now at times, and even then, after I yell and feel horrible and apologize profusely, I know he’ll still forget and we will begin all over again.  I’m afraid what this will do to me physically and mentally.  And I’m afraid that no man will ever want to be a part of this life, or be able to love both me and Joe, and I’m afraid that he won’t want to be Joe’s brother-in-law and step-father all in one, and I’m scared to death that he won’t appreciate the man and the child that coexist inside of Joe, and that one day he will get tired, and he will pack, and he will walk out the door.  I’m afraid that I will want to go with him.  And mostly, mostly I’m just terrified, right down to the core, that the brother I adore so much will be a burden instead of one of the greatest joys of my life, like he is now.  I’m not you, Mom, not even close, and I’m terrified to do your job for the next forty years.  I’m ashamed to admit this, but it’s the truth.  I need you here to guide me.

*

Last summer my family–Joe, my Dad, Robin, and John–came for their annual visit to North Carolina.  Each day we went to the beach, and each day my brother spent most of his time digging an enormous hole in the sand–his favorite thing to do.  And as always we teased back and forth with him, and held hands with him in the ocean, and helped him clean up after half his lunch ended up on his face, arms, legs, and bathing suit.  And as always, too, on this visit I lost my patience with him at least once (white couch + Joe + chocolate ice cream = disaster) while also marveling not only in his enviably happy nature and his sharp sense of humor, but his childlike and not-so-childlike reactions to his world.  One day drawing a distorted face on his ever-present pad (“this your face,” he giggled, adding pimples and a too-big nose and waiting gleefully for my threats of payback), the next revealing the inner life I often forget exists.  Like he did one day at the grocery store a few days after they arrived.

“Because I retarded?” he whispered, and I turned and saw the two adult men staring at him.

I glared at the men briefly.  “No, Joe, because you’re special,” I said.

“Different,” he insisted. “Wrong somehow.”

Special,” I insisted back.  “Everyone can see.”

His doubtful look said he’d let it go, but he knew better.

As always on these visits, my brother had the unique ability to exasperate me, make me laugh until the tears starting falling, and break my heart … all in the same day.

On the last night of vacation we went out for Italian and at one point I leaned towards my father and said, “Dad, I don’t know why I always forget, but when did mom die again? Was it the 24th or the 27th?”

“I think it was the 23rd,” my father said, and then my sister Robin interjected: “No, Dad, you’re thinking of her birthday, March 23rd.  I think she died on July 27th.”

“Robin’s right, it was the 27th,” John confirmed, and we went back to our meals.

Although the question and answers were casual, we didn’t feel casual: she was missing in this family, still, and we always found a reason to talk about her.  Tonight it was about the date of her death, but it could have just as easily been a comparison of her Bolognese to the one I was eating beside my big brother.

A few minutes later, my father’s serious voice interrupted my conversation with Robin.  “Joe has some questions for you, Michelle.”  His eyebrows shot up an inch.  “About death.”

Joe’s eyes were troubled when he turned to me.  “I want to know, I don’t know,” he began, “but when you die, you just go up to heaven and walk around? Or–or does God give a new body for down here and then you a different person walking around?  You think and eat the same things from before? Or what the new body wants?”

Two nights before, in a different restaurant, Joe sat in the booth ignoring his burger and fries, his full attention captured by the blue balloon he insisted I tie to his wrist despite John’s teasing.  Wide-eyed and completely transfixed by the way it floated back and forth under the air-conditioning vent, he moved his arm over the table, guiding the balloon as his lips mumbled silently, delightedly.  He didn’t notice the sentimental, teary looks we exchanged and have for years, the words as clear as if we had spoken them aloud: forever a child.

But on this night, like so many others, I was reminded again: my forty-nine year old brother was not a child­–or, at least not always.  Sometimes he was a grown man who was preoccupied, like most adults, with life’s mysteries.

I tried my best to answer Joe’s questions about death.  I told him that some people believed that our souls were passed onto different bodies, and that this was called reincarnation; I told him that others thought that when our bodies died the energy inside us could pass into other living things, like trees; I told him that still others believed our bodies were shells, and when we died we went to heaven, where life was perfect and we didn’t have to worry about our bodies getting sick or hurting anymore.  That this is what our mother believed, too.

“Just souls floating around up there?” he asked.

“Kind of, I think.”

He screwed up his eyes at me.  “No tree.  I take a new body.”

“You don’t want to go to heaven?  It’s supposed to be really cool up there.”

“Cool?” His eyes grew big behind his glasses.  “How?”

“Well, like you’re always happy, and you can eat whatever you want.”

He looked across the restaurant for a moment, then back at me.  “Chocolate?”

“Tons of chocolate.  Rivers of it that you can swim in and drink.”

“Oh.”  He nodded, satisfied.  “Okay, I pick heaven now,” he said with a grin.

*

Almost daily now, I think about my mother’s refusal to accept the future the doctors forecasted for Joe.  I think about her determination to keep her son close and help him thrive, and I wonder how long it took for her to truly understand and accept that she would have a “forever child.”  I wonder how she felt knowing that Joe would never leave her sturdy nest, that he would never discover his own path in life so that one day she could enjoy a well-earned, peaceful retirement with my father.  And I wonder, since it will be my job one day, how she managed a lifetime of guiding Joe through the seemingly mind-numbing repetition of their days and nights together.  Sometimes I try to imagine how I would have reacted when that doctor, so long ago, said that the best option, the easiest option, would be to send Joe to an institution.  Would I have considered this easier path, even for a few seconds?  I don’t think so, I hope I wouldn’t have, but I do know that this sort of speculation was foreign to my mother.  She was a strong woman, and she wasn’t concerned (not at nineteen, not ever) with the easy road in life.  And although she rarely discussed her difficulties raising Joe, she told me once that she left that meeting knowing her son would walk and talk and have not only a meaningful life, but a wonderful one, full of family and friends and love–and she was right.  I may have helped Joe’s transition into speech in a very small way, but it was my mother who taught him everything else.  She helped him become a confident, intelligent man while also nurturing the boy who still loves to draw pictures and blow bubbles in the backyard and write letters to Santa every Christmas.  My mother’s amazing strength and love turned my brother from a would-be “vegetable” into a strong, happy man and a strong, happy child.  Because of her, Joe is my little and big brother, and he is exactly right, exactly as he is.

Growing Up Teamster

My mother and I stood at the picture window, watching the chaos unfold: two competing news stations were setting up camp on our front lawn, their crews charging back and forth from the vans and barking out orders about lights and wires and towering cameras that rolled onto the grass and left deep, burrowing tracks in their wake.  A pony-tailed girl patted makeup on a female newscaster dressed in a garish, neon-blue suit, and a male newscaster directed two men to set up reflector panels and lamps close to my father’s black Cadillac, where a section of yellow police tape remained, flapping in the breeze.  My father stood calmly in the middle of it all, waiting to be interviewed, surrounded by fat cables that tamped down the grass in snaking rivers.  Off to the side, our overweight black cat, Magoo, stalked these cables–I watched him jump into the air, land on one, curl himself around it.  His back feet rabbit-kicked, but no one noticed.

The night before, someone had driven by and pumped six shots into the back of my father’s car.  They were trying to hit the gas tank because they wanted to blow it up: an apparent warning for my father to end his strike with the eighty-seven construction companies he represented in Rhode Island.  My sister, fifteen and two years older than me, took the news with adolescent coolness before heading off to a friend’s house, and my handicapped brother asked if he could play with the bullet casings.  I tried to act cool, too, but I wondered: how could Dad end anything if he, along with our entire family, blew up, too?

Out on the lawn one of the cameras was pointed at the six bullet holes, the red light on top blazing, and two men were trying to push our gawking neighbors out of the frame.  The high-heeled newscaster in blue flashed a toothy smile at my dad and raised her microphone, and Magoo, still overlooked, continued the hunt. His fat butt rose into the air, wiggling.

“This isn’t good,” my mother said quietly at my side, and I pulled my eyes from scene outside.  Normally as composed as my father when there was an “incident,” this time she actually looked scared.  Her eyes panned the lawn.  “Be right back,” she said, pushing past me and out the door.

I watched her stride across the lawn, waited for her to order everyone away, to tell my father that it was finally enough.  Would she actually demand that my father quit his job in front of all these people?  Move us all to that huge farm where our last two dogs now lived?

But she didn’t issue any ultimatums; she leaned down and reached between the cables, stood back up with Magoo in her arms.

Back inside, she smiled in relief.   “That was close,” she said, scratching the cat behind one ear.  “They could have trampled him.”

Later, after the camera crews had packed up and left, and our lawn was squashed flat and ravaged by high-heel divots, my father came inside.  He gave us a weary smile, turned back to the door.  My mother moved to his side and placed her hand on his back.

“It’ll be fine,” she insisted.  My father nodded doubtfully and sighed.

Panic rushed into my body: I was young, not quite thirteen, and my powerful dad was a giant in our house.  He always refused to be intimidated by lurking strangers in the night, but if he suddenly couldn’t deal, then what happened next?

They finally stirred, remembering me, and I saw my mother’s brave smile.

“It’s okay,” she said to me in a firm voice.  “But you know how much your father loves his lawn.”

I stared, incredulous.

My father regarded me with sorrowful eyes.  “I fertilized every day, honey,” he said.  “The grass was so green and lush.”

My mother nodded sadly, rubbing his back.

At times it was impossible for my parents to shelter us from the dangers that came with my father’s job.  I heard about the three men in ski masks trying to hack down our back door with an axe from our well-meaning, elderly next-door neighbor.  He assured me that he had a phone right beside the bed, so I shouldn’t worry if anyone “tried to get us again.”  There were men who congregated in our kitchen long after bedtime, talking loudly about the cement company owner who pushed a shotgun into my father’s chest when he refused to back down, and we all saw the naked Barbie doll on the front stairs, a knife plunged into her chest, when we came home from school.  And I was aware that none of my friends ever ate dinner with beefy bodyguards, nor did they require shooting lessons with their fathers on remote farms.  It was impossible for our parents to shield us completely, or to protect us from the threatening phone calls that started to sound the same after time: We’re coming to get you; You’re next; We’re going to kill you tonight (tomorrow, in a hour, in a minute); We’re coming and you’re next, etc. Before long, it became a matter of habit to simply write the time, date, and gist on the pad beside the phone.  As the years passed my parents would sometimes discuss these written entries during dinner.

“Apparently Michelle is next this time,” my mother said once, turning to me. “When are they coming again?”

“Tonight.”

“Tough break, honey,” my dad said.  “Do you want an extra dessert before they get here?”

“They’re coming for me, too,” my hopeful sister interrupted.  “In an hour.”

My father glanced at the pad.  “Sorry, you didn’t write it down.  Doesn’t count.”

Even when we were younger we weren’t fooled for a second by this glib, silly talk at the table, but it helped get us through; we all knew that a detective would come and wire the phone again, that my father’s bodyguards were probably parked outside at that very moment.

And as kids we learned there were more important things in life than fearing faceless bullies–like protecting a beloved, obese cat from harm, or coaxing a ruined lawn back to life by fertilizing again, and then kneeling down to whisper apologies to the grass.  We knew my dad was supposed to be a “tough guy,” knew he would always watch over us, but he was also the same dad who quacked loudly as he threw bread into the pond behind our house for the ducks, who scooped up spiders and pretended to thoughtfully chew on them: “Tastes like bacon,” he’d say, and swallow.  And that humor would ease the tension and remind us that we were all safe.

That protection allowed me to learn much more from my father than the inevitable truth that the world is full of dangerous people.  Because when the men with guns and axes and threats faded into the background, my father showed me why he plowed forward in the face of such dangers–and this is when my real education took place.

He kept “the list” in a spiral notebook, and on evenings before he had to leave town to fight an arbitration case or attend a conference, we would review it together.  The pages were filled with the names and numbers of the men he represented in Local 251 as a Business Agent, and then later as President.

“Call Eddie at the hall right at 5:30am, and then write down all the available jobs from men who called off,” my father said the first time.  His finger trailed down the page.  “Then you call the guys in this order.”

These available jobs would be filled by men on the list who would work even if they were bedridden with the flu, because they didn’t have the luxury of full-time employment or calling in at the last minute for vacation or sick days.  Sometimes the order on the list changed, sometimes the list was rewritten, but what stays with me the most is my father’s quiet instructions.  How he’d tap a name and begin.

“Call Pete first.  His son needs surgery, and insurance won’t cover it all.  I’m working on that, but he’s scared.  He gets the first job.”

I’d watch his finger tap the next name.  “Then Stevie.  His wife is pregnant and she’s having some trouble.  It’s their first kid and he might want to talk about it, so listen, okay?  Let him talk.”

“Okay.”

“Next is Ray.  He’s been out of work for a while and he needs to make his pension.  But call him back five minutes later.”

“Why?”

“To make sure he’s out of bed.  He’s getting older, and he falls back to sleep.

“And then Jimmy Z.,” my father would say, tapping.  “You know him, the one we ran into at the hardware store?  His arthritis is getting bad, but his wife just lost her job and their daughter is getting married next month.”

The list went on, and on those nights the dangers receded completely, and the lives of the men who called to talk to my dad at all hours, or showed up at our front door unannounced, including holidays, started to take shape.  Not just a gruff, awkward man at the door holding a bottle of scotch and interrupting us while we opened Christmas presents, but a son who had to pay for his mother’s funeral.  Not just a faceless man on the phone who interrupted dinner three nights in a row, but a father with five children who was terrified he couldn’t make his next mortgage payment.

Dad wanted me to see why his job was so important, why he would never back down when faced with threats–he wanted all of us to know the real men and stories that urged him out of bed before the sun rose, that made him come home at times long after it set, and why he could never walk away.  What I learned from my father was compassion.

Of course I’m not naïve enough to think my father was a saint or that there weren’t men who feared him, or even that he did everything by the book.  Sometimes we overhead conversations between our parents about “lessons for scabs,” and we all knew that sometimes the difference between the good guys and the bad guys was a little murky.  But what I saw growing up was a man who struggled to make things right–I saw a father who spent countless hours at our kitchen table working on unfair termination cases or detailed contracts because he wanted to make sure these men had better benefits, better working conditions, better lives.  So it didn’t matter when his detractors openly speculated about how Teamsters really got the job done, because these people didn’t see the anguish on my dad’s face when a strike went on too long, and then the determination when he turned our kitchen into a makeshift diner despite his colleagues’ criticisms: his tired men deserved a warm meal, and they would get one.

To this day, my long-retired father still gets his hand pumped at the grocery store or a restaurant or even in a movie theater.  People still stride across rooms to thank him for saving their jobs or putting food on the table.  The men are older and retired now, too, and more times than not it’s actually the sons or daughters of these men who say hello, who clasp his hand and explain who they are and when their fathers passed away.  And in these moments, as my dad relates a funny or moving story about their fathers and I watch their grateful faces, I realize that I’m learning from my dad still: helping others doesn’t have an expiration date, and it can trickle down in the most unexpected ways.  And it’s always, always worth the risk.

As an adult, I can see that my father isn’t the perfect man I once believed he was, and that he is, like everyone else, full of flaws and imperfections.  But in these moments, when I see the happy tears in a son or daughter’s eyes as he talks about the parent who is gone but not forgotten, I am certain of one thing: my dad is still a giant.

Laid Back, Shmaid Back: Online Dating and the Language Barrier

The first guy was thirty-eight and outgoing and didn’t take life too seriously; he was open-minded and fun-loving and had a real passion for life.  The second one, a single, non-smoking dad, lived life to the fullest and was adventurous and curious, but also sensitive, compassionate, and faithful.  The third one was a recently divorced, laid back kind of guy who was easy going and liberal, yet hardworking and always up for new challenges.  All three men, along with 763 others, hoped that I loved to laugh and that I was positive, loyal, not into drama, and just as beautiful on the inside as I was on the outside.  And if I liked to get out and experience new things, but also enjoyed the simple pleasures in life, like a quiet night at home with pizza and a movie? Well, then, I was perfect.

The guy I finally chose said he was definitely not up for anything in life, and by the way, he hated holding hands and walking on the beach at sunset.  Laid-back, shmaid-back, his profile read, and screw all the totally trusting, open-minded, honest, compassionate, supportive, and down to earth women in the world; he just wanted someone to eat meals with.

My dinner with “Bob” (not his real name) was unexpectedly romantic.  He brought flowers and was funny and charming, and he even sort of kind of looked like the hot guy in his photo.  At one point during this candlelit meal Bob confided that more than anything he just wanted to gel with a nice woman and share some important moments with her.  He had a busy and fulfilling career as a financial analyst, and he wanted to date a woman who was secure and whose entire world didn’t revolve around a relationship.  When I told Bob that I needed long stretches of time and space to write and socialize with friends, the relief on his face was almost comical.  “Finally,” he said, reaching across the table for my hand. “I didn’t think you were out there.”

After our date Bob stood by my car and planted a chaste kiss on my cheek.  He said he was excited for our second date, but he would leave the day and time up to me.  “No pressure,” he said, squeezing my arm.  I drove home thinking my experiment was going to break records–on the very first try I had met a successful, normal guy who wouldn’t suffocate me, and who wouldn’t just buzz me for late-night booty calls.

But Bob and I never had that second date.  We talked once on the phone and then he sent me a message on Facebook.  “I’m sorry,” he wrote, “but there’s been some kind of misunderstanding between us.  I thought I made it very clear that I was looking for a purely sexual relationship.”  Apparently, “gelling” for Bob meant a great sexual chemistry, “important moments” were the kind that involved hot oils and slipknots and a lack of oxygen during orgasm, and a “secure” woman was the kind who looked forward to 2am phone requests to leave the back door unlocked.  Apparently, the records were still intact.

Since this experiment I’ve spoken with many, many women­ who said that my story is all too familiar, and that it is all par for the course now for amazing new relationships to go quickly and bewilderingly awry.  The ones who used online sites regularly, and even the ones who claimed that they’re still holding out for meeting a guy “the old fashioned way,” all agreed on one thing: dating today has been infiltrated by sites like Match.com and Yahoo! Personals, and it ain’t pretty.  Most of the women had similar stories about “the fast-tracker” (lightning-quick delivery of too many boring and intimate details on the first date), or about the three inches shorter, twenty pounds heavier, at least five to seven years older chain-smoking guy they arranged to meet offline.  But I think if we’ve all learned anything from our experiences it’s that there is an even bigger issue with online dating, and it has everything to do with language.  And it affects both women and men equally.

What these online sites have trained us to do is short-cut our language and use cliché’s and slogans and single words to describe ourselves and express our needs and desires in a partner, when men and women haven’t ever quite met on the same playing field when it comes to language and communication in the first place.  What online dating does is provide us with a lot of recognizable words and catchphrases that are meant to instantly and completely translate into the same meaning and understanding for both sexes, but they don’t; they supply a lexicon of stunted and inadequate terms that are supposed to be filled with the same implications and connotations for both men and women–but they aren’t.  Ask any woman and man to describe what “fulfilled” or “successful” or “open-minded” means to them, and chances are you’ll find more differences than similarities.  And yet these words, along with a host of others, have become the shared language we all use to express who we are and what we’re looking for in a relationship, or even in a lifelong partner.  It’s no wonder that my definition of “secure” (a confident, trusting woman who isn’t possessive in love) differed so much from Bob’s (a horny, non-committal woman who loves to be tied up).

I’ve experimented with issues of language and comprehension in my own English composition classes.  I’ve asked groups of females and groups of males to brainstorm and attach a list of single words to help elucidate meaning in other words like “happiness” and “healthy.”  I normally use this exercise midway in the semester, after our readings have provoked varied interpretations of author intent with a familiar, reoccurring pattern of disagreement between males and females.  The outcome is always startling: within minutes of writing their lists on opposite sides of the board, both sexes are not only groaning and rolling their eyes at each other, they’re also scribbling long sentences beside words in their lists to explain why their choices are more reasonable and “right.”  By the time all the groups have had their turns, the chalkboard is filled with angry slash marks and crisscrossing lines and even additional lists of words to explain the ones they originally came up with together.  The end result is a bit of shellshock for all of us.  I can’t remember a single class that didn’t erupt in enthusiastic and heated debate, and then conclude with unsettled feelings and hooded glances between the groups.  I believe one of my male students said it best a few years ago: “If we can’t even agree on the definition of a word, then it becomes meaningless.”  Bingo.

And online dating has only complicated this by making us believe we are speaking the same language, that we are expressing what we believe in and want in “fixed” and agreed-upon terms that we all comprehend exactly the same way.   We might laugh when one word drives an entire sitcom episode (“helpful” around the house is doing laundry or making the kids dinner for the weary wife, but for the bumbling husband it means sexing her up after she finally falls into bed) but now we’re relying on those same words for both simple and complex self-expression and communication about love.  Never mind if that profile photo was taken two decades ago, or his stated occupation as “media research consultant” actually translates as an unemployed, Watches-TV-All-Day kind of guy.  The real complications come when he says that he “values total honesty” in a woman, and then later bristles in bed when she tells him to slow down here and spend less time there.

What confuses this even further are the dozens of articles devoted to helping men and women find the hidden warning signs and signals in this collective but deficient language.  We have a real problem when we take the advice that his claim of being “open and adventurous” doesn’t actually mean he might like to hike or kayak or try new foods, but really translates as “I have expensive and complicated sex equipment set up in the basement and I hope you and your hot sister like to be tortured.”  When we’re trained to trust stock language to communicate meaningful thoughts and attitudes and interests–when we’re told that the real meaning behind phrases like “I’m very sociable” is he’s actually a relentless flirt and possibly an alcoholic, or her claim of being “nurturing” means she wants five kids pronto–then we have bigger issues to deal with than our dates trimming off years or pounds from their profiles.  I recently read some advice by a well-intentioned, seasoned online dater: If he says he’s ‘laid back,’ ladies, she wrote, then get out your running shoes.  He’s either unemployed or lazy or both. But what if the man is actually and truthfully trying to communicate that he can role with the punches when troubles arise?  And what if the woman who is ready for a serious relationship and states that she wants a stable, mature man isn’t (as another seasoned dater implied) “really looking for a sugar daddy”?

If we think we’ve become adept at translating simple sentences, if we can equate a dozen meanings and behaviors and histories by a single “hidden” word or slogan and we’re reading between the lines and deciphering every moment, then men and women are moving even further away from understanding each other (and exhausting themselves in the process).  The simplicity of language and intention, thanks to texting and twittering and e-mails and especially short-cutting in profiles, has paved the way for more confusion, and instead of moving forward in our quest to know each other, we’re actually taking a gigantic step back.

Last summer I met a guy the old-fashioned way who also claimed to have tried online dating once and rejected it.  During our date this man began many of his sentences with the phrase “I’m the kind of guy who”: I’m the kind of guy who believes, thinks, feels, tries, sees, treats women like, etc.   As soon as he spouted off his first “I’m the kind of guy” declaration, I readied myself for the fast-tracker, and when he didn’t appear, I quickly went into translation mode.  His third or fourth one (“I’m the kind of guy who likes independent women”) felt familiar, and within seconds I had scanned my treasure trove of advice and experiences from a dozen different sources.  This is what I came up with: spends most of his time with his buddies; afraid of commitment and intimacy; wants to have a purely sexual relationship (thanks, Bob); tight-fisted with money and will probably wait for me to reach for the check.  This was only one example of my hunting and sifting through his words, and while I didn’t even know if I liked the guy yet, by the time the check hit the table I was drained (he paid after I offered to go “halfsies,” by the way).  He could have been completely sincere and honest about what kind of guy he was, but the problem was simply my need to know what his words really meant.  And while this has always existed in some form, and not all these words are “new” or have new meaning because of online dating, I think it’s fair to say that they’re becoming a shared and universal dating language that perpetuates more misunderstandings and adds extra obstacles in getting to know the real person sitting across the table from you.

Online dating has trained men to express themselves more and women to express themselves less, and all in a familiar language we think we understand.  And if men actually are talking more, and women are getting to the point more quickly, then we have both gone into high gear with our secret decoder rings and believe all it takes is a few meetings to understand every complicated and simple thing we need to know about our dates.  And sometimes we do not.  As a matter of fact, most of the men I talked to about this said that one of the benefits of online dating was that they were more open and revelatory than ever before, but for some reason women seemed to “get them less.”   And, not surprisingly, women had similar complaints about men “still not really understanding what they want.”

Maybe what we need to remember is that it takes more than slogans or clichés to define ourselves and what we want in a potential mate, and maybe we all need less advice about what we’re really revealing when we go out on these dates.  Maybe, when a man says he’s “curious” (a friend’s code for kinky and uneducated), he really is interested in exploring the world, and when a woman admits that she can “get a little jealous,” it’s just a natural emotional response and men need to stop panicking and picturing her in full camouflage and night goggles and hanging from a tree outside their bedroom window.

Writing About the Handicapped

When I first started writing Lies of the Heart, I knew the central mystery of the book would focus on why Jerry LaPlante, a mentally handicapped man with the I.Q. of a ten- year-old child, would murder his speech pathologist.  What I never expected was the sheer amount of curiosity people would have about my own brother, who was diagnosed with mental retardation at six months old.  Most of them wanted to know if Jerry’s character was based on my brother, Joe, but even more simply wanted to know about Joe and how he views and operates within his world.

The early questions were easily answered: No, my brother isn’t a violent man, he isn’t terrified of God, and he isn’t secretly plotting anyone’s imminent demise  (this, disturbingly enough, disappointed more than one person!).  As for the similarities, I did base some of Jerry’s language tics on Joe’s, and like Jerry, my brother loves cartoons and is never without his pad and pencils because he loves to draw–but the comparisons mostly end there.  And yet the questions were still piling up the closer we came to the release date (again, about my brother, not the actual book, a true lesson in humility) so I decided to go straight to the source for answers.

I called Joe four days after Easter, and after he recited every item left in his Easter basket–a daily update that was confusing, given that there was always more rather than less in the basket–I asked if I could interview him.

“How come?” he asked.

“People are curious about you because I wrote about a mentally handicapped man.”

“I not kill anyone,” he reminded me gravely.

After I assured him once again that he gave me permission to write about Jerry years ago, and that everyone knew that he absolutely did not kill anyone, nor have any plans to do so, he cheerfully complied and we began.

M:  Why do you think some people are more interested in hearing about you rather than my book?

J:  I not know.  (a small giggle) Maybe cuz I better looking than you?

M: Joe.

J: Sorry, Mel.  Hmmmmm.  (more giggles) Maybe I take more showers? Not smell so bad as you?

M: Nice.  Okay, next question. How would you describe yourself to someone?

J:  I tall.

M: That’s it?

J: Very tall?
M: More please.

J: You bossy today.  Okay.  I love to work.  I work very hard and I love to work

hard and help anyone who needs me.  I retarded, but that not the main thing.

M: What does that mean to you, “retarded.”

J:  I not know.  Different, but it not bug me most times.  I am adult first.  Smart first.  Happy first.

M:  That makes me really happy. Okay, so what is the happiest thing in your life?

J:  My whole life. I happy I on earth.  I happy about mom … her is up in heaven now.  That a good place to be.  With God.

M:  What do you think about God?  Who is God to you?

J:  He strong.  He a good person and help everyone.  He come down on earth sometime and help you.  He good-looking, like me, but he have power for everyone else.  He keep everyone in heaven and every night he have dinner at his table with them.  He come down sometime, but we not see him.

M: Why don’t we see him?

J:  He want it that way. It better.  He still come, we know it.  We feel him, right?

M: You are so smart.

J: I know that.

M: But if God is so powerful, why do you think there are things like war?

J: War sad.  God no like it. He can’t stop it all the time.  Make me sad.

M: Why?

J:  Cuz people shouldn’t kill each other.  It not fair.  They confused and won’t give up.  They should give up. Not everyone take everything.  People should be fair… Ask something good now, okay?  Better?

M: What’s wrong with my questions?

J: Depressing!

M: Okay.  Well, then, what about Santa Claus?

J (laughing): Oh, that guy!

M: What’s the deal with that guy?

J:  You know!  He come down at Christmas … from the North Pole.  He have powers, like God, but he not God.  Not that much power.  Smaller kind.

M: When are you the most scared?

J: Uh-oh. Back to bad questions.

M: Please?

J (dramatic sigh): Okay. Ask again please.

M: When are you the most scared?

J: Stupid noises at night. (long pause, then giggling again). And sometime your face.  It scare everyone it so ugly.

M: Nice.  What makes you angry?

J: Um…. your face?

M: No, really.

J: Ummmm, okay.  Sometime at work I get mad.  And rude people in cars.

M: And what do you do to calm down when you’re angry?

J:  Sometime take a deep, deep breath.  Tell myself to calm down.  I not kill anyone.

M: I think we’ve established that already.

J: Just in case.
M:  Do you ever get angry when you’re talking to people and they can’t understand you?

J:  No, not really.  I slow down when I talk.  I start over. Talk slower.  It a pain sometime, though.  Better questions now.  Please.

M: Fine.  If there was one thing you could snap your fingers and do, what would it be?

J:  Hit the jackpot.

M: Money?

J: No, jackpot of pads, pencils, rulers, erasers, cheeseburgers, chocolate ice cream. Like that.

M: That would be a messy jackpot.

J (dreamy): Perfect jackpot.

M: Okay, just a couple more.  What do you think about this book I’ve written? Do you want to say anything about it?

J: Not really.

M: Do you remember that I read some parts to you?

J: Yeah, sort of.

M: And?

J: Um.  Pretty boring.

M: Sheesh!

J: Sorry.

M: That’s all right.  Okay, last question.  Who is your most favorite person in the whole world? And I better like the answer to this one.

J:  You, course!

M: Good answer.

J: I get one right?
M: You got them all right, buddy.

J: I smart like that, right?

M: Definitely.

It wasn’t until long after the interview ended that I realized why Joe was preoccupied with being mistaken for a character who could commit a murder: he didn’t want words like “retarded” or “handicapped” to define him, and he didn’t want to be lumped into an homogenous group with a title.

It’s not the main thing, he said, and he was right.  He’s still one of the smartest guys I know…

Book Bitch blog

The day I received my first copy of Lies of the Heart I took it with me to meet a friend for lunch.  While I was waiting for her in the lobby, an elderly woman plopped down beside me on the bench, and after a few pleasantries she motioned to the book on my lap with her chin.

“Any good?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  Yes, I’m very proud that I’ve finally published a book, but I’m still trying to negotiate the line between being proud and being braggy.  I could have said, “It’s really great–I wrote it!” but instead settled on, “It’s okay, I guess.”

“What’s it about?”

I gave her the one sentence tagline–“A mentally handicapped man murders his speech pathologist”–long memorized by this point because this is inevitably the first thing people want to know when they hear you’ve written a book.  Normally I start with something I think is funny (in this case, it would have been about how an elderly woman sits down beside a writer, waiting to be seated for lunch, and then a bloody massacre ensues) but somehow this just didn’t seem appropriate–and not just because she didn’t know I was the writer.  She had a very sturdy-looking metal cane by her side.

“Hmmmmm,” was her only response to my description.

She asked to see it and she flipped it to the back, her mouth moving as she read the blurbs.

“Well, these people seem to like it,” she said almost defensively, as if I’d lied to her.  She flipped to the front jacket cover (more mumbling lips) and then the back; her eyes peered over the spine at me and then back to my picture on the jacket a few times, and then she thumped the book back onto my lap.

“You should be proud, young lady,” she said, scowling a little.

“I am, really,” I said.  “It’s just that it’s my first one, and I don’t want to be boastful or anything.”

This finally made her smile.  “You go on and boast a little, honey.  It’s not everyone who writes a book.”

We talked a little about writing in general and then she said, “Tell me something, where do you writers get the ideas? How do you start?”

This is another inevitable question, but for once I had a good answer.  This is what I told my new friend:

The day before I moved from Ohio to North Carolina, I was packing like crazy when the manager from my local U-Haul company called to say that he’d mistakenly leased my truck to someone else.  My only option, he told me, was to drive to another town about an hour away to arrange for a new one.  My stress level was pretty high as I hopped in the car, but soon enough I started daydreaming about my brother, Joe, who is mentally handicapped.  My family was to arrive the next morning to help with the move, and Joe and I had already decided that he would spend most of the car ride to North Carolina with me.  So I was thinking about our recent conversations on the phone and imagining where our new ones might lead us the next day, because Joe has this ability to shift from “innocent” to complex thinking in an instant, and it’s always such a surprise to me (his beliefs about the real Santa Claus living at the North Pole versus the helpers at the mall once dovetailed into a very complicated discussion about deception and greed).  I was excited to see what my brother would come up with in our twelve hours together, certain that there would be plenty of reminders that he isn’t a child, even if he has the IQ of ten year-old and loves playing with toys.

While I was thinking about this I was also half-listening to the radio and at one point there was a news update about a man who was indicted for a murder (or maybe a violent crime, I can’t remember exactly) and I found myself almost idly wondering what would happen if it were Joe facing this prison sentence.  After a few minutes a very disturbing picture started to take form: my sweet brother sitting alone in a dark jail cell, trying to be brave as he drew pictures on the pad he takes with him everywhere.  The image was so scary and just so wrong that I started plotting how I would bribe judges and prosecutors, and by the time I was deep into elaborate prison breaks I realized the stress of the move was actually getting to me!  But the very cool thing that happened next was a flood of “what if” questions, and that’s when I knew a book was starting to take shape: What would happen if a mentally retarded man with the IQ of a little boy murdered someone?  What would make him do this, and how would he try to explain his feelings and actions?  How would his very simple and then complex reasoning intersect or get tangled up together?  And what if this man actually knew and loved the person he killed?  After a few minutes, I found myself plugging in answers to my growing questions, and by the time I returned home I had a very rough outline of the plot and the main characters.

The only issue, then, was talking to my brother about it the next day.  How could I write a book about a handicapped person if Joe wasn’t behind it?  So after we were on the road for a couple of hours and had canvassed Joe’s job, and why I had been single for so long, and how many pennies I had collected in the past year, and why God takes people to heaven before they’re ready, I asked my brother how he would feel if I wrote a book about a handicapped man who killed someone.  He thought about it for a little while as he watched the landscape zip by, then finally turned to me with troubled eyes.

“Why he do it?”

“I’m not really sure yet.”

“He bad?”

“No, not at all.  He’s just troubled.”

My brother’s eyes grew wide behind his glasses.  “Pretty troubled,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“You make him look stupid?”

“Of course not, he’s really smart.  I just want to try to understand why he’d do it.”

“Oh.”

He did a bit more thinking.  “Maybe the guy he kill is bad? Mean?

“Maybe.”

“Oh.”

“Would it bother you?  If I wrote about someone like you doing something like that?”

“Um, no, no, I not think so.  His name be Joe?”

“No, I don’t have the name yet.  But I don’t want to give him your name, if that’s all right.”

“Can his name start with ‘J’ maybe?”

“Sure.”

“Okay, I not mind.”

We spent the next twenty minutes coming up with “J” names, and when Joe said, “I like Jerry best,” I said, “Jerry it is!” and we moved on to more interesting topics (did my dog Tucker like him the best of all the uncles?  Would I bury him in the sand when we went to the beach?  How could we pull a prank on our brother-in-law, John, while he was sleeping that night?).

By the time I finished this story, the friend meeting me for lunch was waiting patiently beside me on the bench.

“That’s a good story, honey,” the woman said, patting my leg again.  “You go on now and get something to eat.  You could use a few pounds.”  (She was my favorite person in the whole world right then).

Later, as my friend and I were finishing up our salads, the woman hobbled up to the table with her own lunch companion.

“Tell her what your book’s about,” she demanded, gesturing with her cane to her friend.  “This girl’s written a book, Margie.”

I paused for a moment, and what I said next I blame on the one and half glasses of wine I consumed.

“Two women interrupt this writer at lunch, and she whips out a machine gun and mows them down.”

“Oh my God,” my friend muttered.

But my new friend didn’t miss a beat.  “Now that would be a bestseller,” she said, grinning like a girl before she hobbled away.