One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

Month: March, 2015

Doubly Bound

Here’s the third of four promised posts to raise money for 826 Boston. Please donate, and help young writers find their way.

My mom had insisted we take pictures on the Pont Neuf Bridge, assuring us that it was a famous spot, especially renowned for Vogue Magazine fashion shoots. In the pictures, we’re hamming it up for the camera, sucking in our cheeks and bending our heads back at angles so unnatural they must be glamorous.

I was very careful about what to bring along in terms of clothes, only choosing those objects which might distance me from my inescapably pedestrian American-ness. In the pictures, I’m spinning in a new dress, bought just for this trip. It was rayon, with a black and white floral print—simple, but not quite geometric, and a full inch above my knee at least. I could pair it with any color I wanted, but that day I kept things really simple, with black opaque tights and flats, cat’s-eye glasses and a slash of burgundy lipstick.

My mother was thrilled to bring me shopping just before we left. “You’ve worked so hard,” she gushed, “it’s nice to be able to show off a little.” Looking at myself in the window of the Métro as we zoomed around Paris, I stood out in monochrome contrast to all the men wearing Easter-Egg-colored suits all around us. The way they looked at me made me feel like I’d been singled out by a director in every frame—the opposite of that music-video trick where only one thing is in color, but with the same effect of my being marked, special, set apart.

xxx

At Jenny Craig, they measured us every Thursday during our Personal Counseling sessions. After weigh-in, my counselor, Ms. Carlson, brisk in her off-brand Talbots jacket, wound a tape measure around my waist, between my shoulder blades, around my hips, unspooling a yellow ribbon for the total inches lost since I had started. By the time we left for Europe, the record of my steady dwindling was as long as my arm.

At the end of this meeting, I got the print-out of my weekly meal plan to review before we stocked up on all the microwave-ready boxes to bring home, then we talked over how I would cover the extra dairy and fat exchanges I got since I was under sixteen.

“Be mindful of these extra exchanges,” Ms. Carlson warned me, “these choices are where you build up your muscles for later, when you’ve reached your Goal and can transition to your Maintenance Plan.” Every day after school I would have a bowl of rolled oats and skim milk and raisins—I could already taste the copper zing of the raisins two block before the bus reached my stop.

Since almost all Jenny Craig food came in boil-in-the-bag pouches, like the MREs you get at sporting-goods stores for camping, I had to go to the teachers’ lounge to cook it almost every day. My English teacher was my sentry, standing next to me as I used the microwave, a visual reminder that I wasn’t out of bounds, not really.

xxx

On the Métro, there was a guy in a yellow suit sitting across from us. He should have looked silly, I suppose, like Dick Tracy or Jim Carrey in The Mask, but Europe lent everything a touch of glamour, even candy-colored menswear. His black hair was slicked back, and he was openly staring at me. At first I felt embarrassed, but then I realized I could just stare back, so I did, challenging him to look away. But he never did, not for two straight stops. I felt giddy, like when I leaned up against the window at my grandmother’s high-rise apartment building and willed myself to gaze down at the concrete twenty-five stories down. And when our stop arrived, leaving was even better. I was heady with the knowledge that I could just get off the train whenever I want, take myself away from him and garner more jewel-toned admirers across this weird city, with its arty subway stops and tiny winding streets.

We alit at a park, with the cathedral we were planning to visit laying just on the other side. I made sure to speed ahead so there were about ten yards between me and my family—I could hear them if I ended up going in the wrong direction or if they wanted to stop for ice cream (my mother assured us that we were on a break from our Plan while on vacation), but maybe the people around us would just think I was an average French lady, in my stylish minidress and ballet flats. Maybe they’d think I was a dancer.

There was a group of men playing some kind of lawn bowling off to the side. I took longer steps, as if I were on my way to an important meeting or other engagement. I could feel my purse sway as I walked. I pretended not to notice them looking at me, except for a quick, weary smile, as if I got this all the time.

But moments later I heard them hooting after me like sirens. I couldn’t understand the content, but the form was familiar enough. My cheeks burned as my pace wavered, and I could hear my dad storming up behind me before feeling the weight of his L. L. Bean barn coat on my shoulders and his hand gripping my upper arm, hard.

“What the fuck were you thinking, dressing like that?” His voice was a low hiss, but anyone looking on could tell what was happening, and the burst of laughter from my boules-playing audience only confirmed my transition from heroine to punch line.

“That skirt is ridiculous—I’m not surprised that this is what people think of you.”

He sped up, leaving me to hang back so my mother and sister could catch up with me. When we got to the church, my dad was taking pictures of flying buttresses. This is the first cathedral where they could build tall stained-glass windows, my mom informed Kate and me as we entered the cool, dark foyer. Before this architectural innovation, churches could barely let in any light at all. The walls had to hold up all the weight of the structure, so the buildings had low ceilings and tiny windows like the kinds in a basement—close to the ceiling and barely big enough for someone to squeeze through if there were a fire or something.

We walked into the chapel while my dad surveyed the outside of the building. A tall window before me reminded me of one in our church at home—it must have been St. Francis, because he was surrounded by animals. The sheep sidled up to his hand, shy and deferential as he scattered grain around them.

In Praise of Smoking

So here’s my second of four promised entries as part of 826 Boston’s Write-a-thon. Please, give what you can to this fantastic organization, and help young writers find their voices.

They say smoking kills, but my family must be the exception that proves the rule, because my father and I can both claim that smoking saved our lives. For my dad, there’s the added drama of history: no shit, he was working at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and was on his way to the very wing that got hit to check out the recent renovations when he stepped outside for a cigarette. While he was outside, my brother called from New York to let him know that he was safe. As they were trading shell-shocked analyses of the situation, my dad felt the ground shake under his feet and the call suddenly dropped. He wandered through Rosslyn for over an hour before he could make the outgoing calls that brought him out of limbo and back into the world.

His own father had died at 64 of emphysema, and the constant game of codependent chicken between him and my mother was the background noise of my childhood, as she tried to hold out new punishments or rewards that might convince him to quit: “I’m going to sign up for this class to learn Spanish, because I know it’s important that I keep up my interests after you die and I’m alone”; “If you quit smoking, I swear I’ll stop bothering you about how much money you spend restoring your motorcycle.” That year at Thanksgiving, though, there was a minor coup during our annual gratitude parlor game in which we write down what we’re grateful for and then everyone has to match the person with the statement. My mother’s lips got thinner as she unfolded piece after piece of creased paper declaring how glad we were that he still smoked. “You shouldn’t encourage him,” my mom huffed, “he already thinks he’s bulletproof, and this certainly isn’t helping.”

For me, it was less dramatic. Following the pattern of idiot teenagers since the beginning of time, I started smoking in high school. My dad bought Marlboro Lights by the case and kept them in a drawer next to the phone in the kitchen. There were never fewer than five packs in the drawer at a time, so it was easy for me to take one. I’d been pretending to smoke pen caps in class since grade school, but the mechanics of actual smoking didn’t come so naturally.

The first time, I snuck out to a stump in the backyard and tried to train myself the rhythm of it. The whole operation was a secret, so I had no mentor to coach me in the art of the drag, how you pull the smoke into your mouth and then inhale. I thought you were supposed to breathe off it like a scuba mask, taking the smoke directly into your lungs–after the first few tries, I found myself doubled over and dizzy.

I never liked the “buzz” from smoking, but I loved every other thing about it–how I suddenly got extra breaks from my jobs at the bagel shop and the movie theater; how it slowed me down and forced me to focus on my breathing; how I made instant friends with my fellow smokers as we huddled together against the cold; how it finally gave me something to do with my hands. I especially loved lighting cigarettes for other people, and trained myself to maintain eye contact with them as I did so rather than fumbling with the flame.

But the greatest benefit was only apparent in retrospect. It turns out that nicotine can put ulcerative colitis into remission—since colitis is an autoimmune disease, the way that smoking shuts down your immune system is actually a boon for people with IBD. When I left home for college and started smoking in earnest, a pack a day, the terrifying physical symptoms that had been picking up speed the entire time I was in high school mysteriously vanished, and I didn’t have to think about them again until I quit eight years later and they almost immediately returned.

***

I don’t actually know when the blood in the toilet started, but by my senior year in high school, it was happening a lot. As with everything my body did, from my first period at age ten to my sixth-grade C-cup, this change seemed to have come out of nowhere to work its dark magic through me. It was four weeks before I left for college when I found myself back in my pediatrician’s office. I’d already gotten all my shots and done my last off-to-the-real-world visit, but I had inexplicably fainted in the shower two days before. I stood up from shaving my legs, like I did every morning, and suddenly found myself flat on my back, blinking water away, the stern eye of the shower head staring down at me. I’d also missed my period the month before, and couldn’t figure it out. Most days I subsided on handfuls of movie theater popcorn and Diet Dr. Pepper, but I seriously binged whenever I was high (which was a lot), so I was still a size 10—hardly thin enough to stop my period.

My mom stood next to me as the nurse practitioner wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my upper arm. “Has anything like this ever happened before?” she asked. She was looking at me, not my mom, so I answered no, feeling the cuff tighten. “She has tons of energy normally,” my mom reassured the nurse, “and she’s never fainted–right, honey?” I nodded.

“Why don’t you wait out in the hall for a moment so we can chat,” the nurse practitioner said to my mom, and after she was gone, the nurse asked me—not unkindly—“Is there any chance you might be pregnant?”

I burst out laughing. “Maybe it’s the second Immaculate Conception! I hear we’re due for one.” And it was true—I was very careful that none of my basement makeout sessions had come even close to anything that would lead to a baby. My mother reminded Kate and me daily, it seemed, that although she had been thrilled by the news that she was pregnant with each of us, that she had been on birth control for every pregnancy—the Sponge for Kate and Sean, the Pill for me. “I just couldn’t remember to take it every day! But thank goodness, because if I had a better memory then I wouldn’t have you.”

So I knew I wasn’t pregnant—that would be impossible.

But, in retrospect, I do know what it must be like for women who don’t know they’re pregnant. Such a thing seems impossible, that your body could undergo such radical changes without your knowing it, but the truth, it turns out, is more complicated than that. Sitting on that cushioned table, talking to this kind lady in a white coat, it just never occurred to me to mention that I’d been shitting blood for over a year. It wasn’t that I was purposely keeping it from her, it just never crossed my mind as worth mentioning.

Every now and then, when it was happening, I’d have a brief moment of bone-deep terror—like when you’re halfway up the ascent of a roller coaster that’s way scarier than you thought it would be, or in a nightmare when you suddenly remember you’ve committed a terrible crime. But I would just flush and wash my hands and immediately forget, a clean slate.

Sweets

So, you might be wondering to yourself: Where has Anne gone? What is she up to? My life is so empty without this intermittently updated blog, what will I doooooo?

Have no fear. Motivated by the incredible work of 826 Boston, I’m starting on another posting pledge! So, for the next month, I’m posting here at least once a week with excerpts from what I’m currently working on (some kind of long-form autobiographicalish thing–the unholy child of a memoir and a novel?). In honor of the teenagers who provide the creative energy to 826 Boston, I’m focusing most of what I’ll be posting (at least four short entries, maybe more) on my own teenaged exploits. So get ready for flat, cold landscapes, because it’s about to be the 90s in Minnesota, baby. This is the period in my life when I first started to understand myself as a writer, and when I first understood that writing might save me. So please, give to 826 Boston, and help awesome teenagers find a way to write themselves through all that angst. Here goes.

“Are you sure they’re asleep?”

“I’m sure. It’s after midnight–they’ve been out for hours.”

Kate and I steal down the stairs, careful not to make too much noise. The carpet in the upstairs hall is good for muffling sound, but the stairs are unreliable, and I don’t know what excuse we could possibly come up with for being in sweatshirts and jeans, carrying our backpacks at 12:30 on a summer night.

The trickiest part is disarming the house alarm before we leave. There’s a telltale beep that sounds on every console, including the one in my parents’ room. We’ve done this loads of times before, so I’m confident we won’t get busted—but not that confident, I guess, since I can feel my heart starting to beat faster already. My mom is always bemoaning her light sleep, the problem must happen closer to dawn than sundown, because this time–between 11:30 and 1AM—is the sweet spot for sneaking out. I’m not worried about my dad waking up on his own–once he quit drinking he stopped snoring like he used to, but he’s still a little deaf, from artillery training, he says. If my mom woke up, though, she’d wake him, and then things would get serious.

We pause for a moment after I enter the code, breath in our throats for an extended beat while we make sure we’re in the clear. How is it that this is both the best and the worst part? I can feel my heart beating in my ears as I wait for thunder of his footsteps down the stairs. What would I do if he found us? Run? Lie? None of these options seem possible, but that just moves the act itself into the realm of the impossible–like we’re superheroes or dragons or something, untouched by human law.

I open the door and am struck by a wave of cool air. It’s May, and my brother will be home from college in a week or so, but the Minnesota winter seems determined to remind us all for as long as possible who’s really in charge here. The first year we lived here, my mother was dumbstruck when it snowed in October, and when it was 19 below on Christmas Day, she became irate. “Why did settlers even stop here? Why would you live somewhere where going outside would kill you?” In the fancy neighborhood in Dallas where she grew up and where her brother was slowly amassing his real estate empire from a house just blocks from her parents, there are horse-drawn carriages that bring people around to look at the Christmas lights. If they tried something like that here, she grimly reminded us the day that school was cancelled because it was “dangerously cold,” the horses would freeze to death before they got to the end of the block.

Kate and I step out into the chill and I quietly shut the door behind us and race up the street. To get to Cub Foods, we walk to the end of our street, head up the brutal hill on Sparrow Road that I still can’t conquer on my bike, and along the frontage road. If it weren’t so swampy behind our house, we could just cut through, but our whole development seems to have been built on a landfill; during the three weeks in April when everything suddenly comes alive again every year, cracks invariably snake through our basement and water seeps up through the floor.

I run down to the end of our block, but I’m out of breath before I get too far, and I stop and wait for Kate to catch up. Since we can be certain we have the streets to ourselves, her stride seems self-assured and easy. Daytime is a whole different story–she’s almost furtive when we’re walking to the bus, wary that Meagan Ward or Stephanie Olson from down the road might come out from behind a tree and ask her where she was able to find jeans that would fit such a fat ass. Or something like that. I’d like to say that I defend her–and maybe I do, some, just by being there as a witness, but I never explicitly step in, except to walk faster and tell her to come on or we’ll be late.

Once we get to the steep, brightly lit incline on Sparrow, there are fewer houses facing us and even a few cars speed by every now and then. We teach each other songs from our language-immersion summer camps (I go to Japanese camp, she to French), and by the time we get to the frontage road, we’ve moved on to the rousing Carly Simon song from Working Girl that is our favorite. I find Melanie Griffith’s transformation in that movie a bit baffling, since the bridge-and-tunnel hairstyle she ditches in her transition to power is the one that the richest, evilest girls at school wear with pride. But I find the idea of an instant and complete change of status intoxicating, as does Kate, judging from the intensity and feeling with which we echo Carly Simon’s call for “all the dreamers to wake the nations.”

After the desolation of the strip-mall parking lot, the blast of air that meets us when we walk through the door makes everything feel shiny and just-for-us. The fluorescent light gleams off the piles of cereal boxes and tuna fish, but Kate and I immediately make a beeline for the candy section. Grocery store candy is weird. You don’t have much selection for individual bars, but your only other choices are bags of a bunch of tiny candy bars–clearly meant for placement in a communal dish for a whole office, not to be hidden in the dusty, airless space behind your headboard. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and there’s no way we’d even be allowed in the section if Mom were here. She’s always steering us toward the Canfield’s diet chocolate cherry cola and nonfat yogurt. “I just want you girls to be happy,” she keeps telling me, “and I know that being so heavy is making your life harder.”

Kate and I are all business as we sort through our options. We can’t get more than we can realistically store, but it has to be enough to last until our next trip. I settle on a bag of mini Butterfingers, and Kate buys fun sized bags of Skittles. I already know how it will go–I’ll burn through my stash in a day or so, but Kate will successfully hoard hers for weeks, and I’ll have to find progressively more creative ways to get it from her–the most reliable one is to make her pay me in candy to play with her—which, miraculously, she always will.

We concoct elaborate role-playing games together: we’re roommates at boarding school, or wizards from the knockoff Tolkien series we’re both obsessed with. It’s a long negotiation to get started—I’m holding all the cards, and I know it, since our standard older/younger sibling dynamic is scaffolded by Kate’s unmentionable loneliness. Once the games begin, though, I lose track of time almost immediately, entirely bound up in this pocket universe we’ve created together—whether we’re bookish preppies or tormented mages, the evil little shitheads who chant “Chic-moose” at us on the bus every morning are gloriously absent.

We leave the sanctified nighttime brightness of the grocery store, and I dash across the parking lot toward home. “Wait up,” Kate yells. I slow down, but I don’t actually stop—she’ll catch up soon enough.