Lost & Found

Exciting neighborhood drama! (Thankfully, not really.)

I was helping my neighbor Cathy look for her lost cat this weekend. Buster disappeared while they were out of town. He’s an inside cat, but was once a feral kitten, so he’s always interested in getting out. Some other neighbors were feeding Buster and Skittles, Cathy’s other cat, but they weren’t really cat people and didn’t notice that Buster had slipped away. And Skittles didn’t say anything, because he was eating both meals. (And, he is a cat and can’t talk, also.) A professional pet sitter was coming to empty the litter box and eventually noticed that only one cat would come to greet her. After a lot of back and forth over email with the various pet-sitters, Cathy’s husband Bill called me in as some sort of “cat expert.” He coached me through breaking into their house, and I searched the place top to bottom.

Buster was gone.

Cathy and Bill did what they could do from out-of-state, then left their vacation 12 hours early to drive cross-country and start the hopeful, helpless process of looking for a lost pet.

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This is Buster’s brother Buddy, the night before I took him to get his balls cut off.

Late last night, I was walking my dog, and I spotted a black cat with white feet–Buster!–leaving Cathy’ porch. Despite the late hour, I phoned her, and she came out to meet me. Turns out, it wasn’t Buster–Cathy had been watching silently from inside–but rather Buster’s nearly identical brother, Buddy. I’m pretty sure Cathy let her toddler name these cats.

Buddy and Buster are from a litter of four feral kittens that I discovered under my porch a few years ago. Before I could bring them in, their mommy moved them. We eventually pieced together that two kittens got squished by cars, leaving perhaps two survivors we could save. (Usually only 1 in 4 feral kittens survives to adulthood). Cathy set out food and was eventually able to grab Buster and bring him inside as a pet. And I was able to TNR Buddy: trap, neuter, and return him to the wild. I TNR’d 8 other cats as well (and also caught 2 possums, which are so cool!), becoming our neighborhood’s go-to Crazy Cat Lady in the process. Even though I have zero cats and 1 dog.

Anyway.

I talked to Cathy for awhile. They had been driving all day, then she searched for Buster for hours. She was despondent. There had been a Big Cat Fight in the neighborhood Saturday night. Usually this means one human woman screaming at another human woman about staying away from a human man. A bottle shatters, other people yell out their windows to shut the fuck up, some gentrifying stroller-mommy calls the cops, everybody runs, and then by the time the police roll through, they find nothing but shadows and silence. A long time ago, when my neighborhood was an open-air drug market, the cops referred to it as “The Hole.” Because suspects simply melted away in the alleys, closed-in porches, and homes of neighbors they’d known all their lives.

If a human being can disappear like that, imagine how easy it would be for a cat!

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If you let your cat outside, you are deluding yourself that it is not going to encounter street cats like this one–20lbs of matted fur, festering disease, and pure, unadulterated rage.

In this case, “Big Cat Fight” meant actual cats. This one was epic. I heard it, my dog heard it, she and I discussed whether to intervene, and then we snuggled further under the covers instead. Because it sounded terrifying. Turns out, our neighbor Jessie saw the whole thing. Jessie sees everything. He doesn’t work and has a recurring substance abuse problem, plus right now he’s undergoing chemo. (Colon cancer; so far he’s doing well, thanks!) Jessie’s house doesn’t have AC, so he sits in the doorway of his enclosed porch all day, every day, and long into the night. If you want to know what’s up, ask Jessie.

Two cats went at it in Cathy’s yard, one climbed a tree to escape, the other went up after it, then they both plummeted to the ground and continued to tussle. Jessie reported that one of the cats was black like Buster. I pointed out that 7 of the 9 cats I TNR’d were black, so in the end Jessie’s ID meant nothing. Keep hope alive! Still, Cathy feared Buster was critically injured somewhere, dying, unable to respond to her call. She was really tearing herself up about it.

It felt familiar to me, that dawning realization that the world is dark, dangerous, and fucking enormous. It’s a feeling specific to losing a pet to the Great Outdoors. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a child.

Cathy was giving up hope, which kinda made me wonder about her commitment to this animal. There were so many reasons to be optimistic! I pointed out, Buster wasn’t a regular, indoor kitty. He had spent the first 3 or 4 months of life as a feral, so he knew how to be outside. And he had gotten out before. Eventually he would come around for food when Cathy would call to him. (Though it did take days.)

“Chances are,” I told her, “he’s somewhere nearby. He’s probably listening to us right now.”

In searching my memory for reference points that might comfort and inspire, I eventually pieced together the story of how my own cat got lost, and how we found her. I hadn’t thought about it in years. It’s kind of a funny story, if you know me, because I guess I haven’t changed that much.

This was back in grad school, probably 1996 or ’97, when I was dating Cheesefart but before I moved in with him. He had two cats, Hannah and Chloe, that were identical stripey tabbies with green eyes. They were gorgeous and fun and silky and wonderful, and Cheesefart and I had been together long enough that they felt like ours–not his, ours. But in reality, they were his, predating our relationship by less than a year. When Cheesefart dumped me for another woman, he refused to separate the cats, and I had no formal claim. Losing Hannah and Chloe made a devastating experience all the more so.

But the story of losing Chloe was years before the breakup. At that time, Cheesefart lived on the second floor of a subdivided rental house with no AC. The windows were crap and had no screens, so we used adjustable fold-out screens in them. The screens that fit most securely side-to-side were not very tall, but we preferred them because the cats liked to sit in the windowsills. Foreshadowing!

Cheesefart had a roommate named Crackbaby. That was really his nickname, and it was because he had some kind of facial tic and was very odd. He was probably on the autism spectrum, or maybe was just a quiet, brilliant weirdo getting a doctorate in engineering in his early 20s. The other thing I remember about Crackbaby is that all he ate were bowls of high-sugar cereal like Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks. And by “bowls,” I mean mixing bowls. And by “all he ate,” I mean, that is all he ever ate. We wondered with our friends if perhaps the facial tic was his body’s response to all the sugar.

Cheesefart went out of town and left Crackbaby alone with the cats. I wasn’t living there officially, but had keys and was over there a lot. And yet, it was uncomfortable if I dropped by when Cheesefart wasn’t there. So I played it cool. I stopped by under the pretense of picking up some baking pans, but really I was checking on the cats. I knocked, and Crackbaby answered. He peeked at me through a crack in the doorway, like he didn’t want me to come in. He offered to retrieve the pans for me, so I never made it past the door. I didn’t force the issue, because I knew what he was up to.

He had made the Great Nest.

There was another weekend, when we walked in unexpectedly and learned, to everyone’s embarrassment, what Crackbaby did when he had the apartment to himself. If he was confident we were gone for the day, he would take a sleeping bag, all of his bedding–sheets, blankets, comforter–and every pillow in the house, including the couch cushions, and make a Great Nest on the living room floor right in front of the TV. Then he would lay inside it wearing nothing but his underwear, eating nothing but chocolate-frosted sugar bombs from a mixing bowl, and watch cartoons for hours on end. Which is, in its own way, AWESOME! I love to think that Crackbaby is now a six-figure-salaried engineer living in a spartanly furnished $300,000 house somewhere. And his most luxurious weekends are spent this way.

Still, finding a grown man in his tighty-whities with his head in a giant bowl of cereal in a Great Nest is a little uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough, that I took Crackbaby at his word when he said the cats were fine. Because I asked him:

“How are the cats?”

And he answered, “The cats are fine.” So I left.

When Cheesefart got home two days later, he called me in a panic. “Chloe’s gone!” he cried.

I was shocked.  “What do you mean GONE?”

“She fell out the window, three days ago, and Crackbaby hasn’t seen her since!!!”

I was livid. That’s why Crackbaby didn’t want me in the apartment–he didn’t want me to know she was missing! That, you know, and his weird underwear nesting habit. In a childlike way that belied his actual adulthood, Crackbaby naively hoped that Chloe would magically return on her own so that he could pretend it never happened. But that was highly unlikely, for a very practical reason: Chloe had never been outside before, and her first foray into the Great Outdoors was falling out a second-story window. So how on earth would her walnut-sized brain ever piece together that the way home involved climbing an exterior staircase?

As for how she fell out a window… well, it’s one of those things where, at the time, I thought Crackbaby was a ridiculous fuckwit. But with maturity and hindsight, I can see that living in a ramshackle house with a couple, who were completely obsessed with their cats, was probably not much fun for him. Crackbaby just wanted to open the window wider, so he procured a taller adjustable screen from his bedroom and put it in the living room window, oblivious to the fact that it was wobbly and insecure. When Chloe leaned against it, right in front of him apparently, it gave way, and she fell out of the house with the screen. Crackbaby got to the window just in time to see her disappearing around the corner of the foundation, but by the time he got down the stairs, she was gone. (No idea if he was in his underwear, but… probably!)

By the time Cheesefart got home, Crackbaby had dismantled the Great Nest and taken to his bed. Cheesefart said getting the story out of Crackbaby was like pulling teeth; he was almost catatonic (LOL). We searched for Chloe a few hours, then I went back to the apartment to find a photo and start making “Lost Cat” signs. I stood in the doorway to Crackbaby’s bedroom and verbally eviscerated him as he curled tighter and tighter into a ball. The only part of the speech I remember is the great finish:

“If that cat has to spend another night outside, then so will you.”

I wasn’t kidding. We were walking the streets, knocking on doors, rallying the neighbors, doing all the pre-Internet things you do to look for a lost pet. And if those efforts didn’t bear fruit by nightfall, I was mentally calculating how long it would take me to dump all of Crackbaby’s belongings–all of his clothes, all of his cereal, and all the makings of the Great Nest–into the yard. I had no legal authority to do this, of course–he had a lease, and I didn’t even live there!–but I spoke with the terrifying moral authority of a crazy woman whose catbaby was missing. Crackbaby knew well enough to heed me, and he remained in bed, in the fetal position, the rest of the day.

As the memory of that event came flooding back last night, I conveyed all of this to my neighbor Cathy. With an eye towards indemnifying the kindly neighbors who accidentally let Buster out, I conceded that it wasn’t really Crackbaby’s fault Chloe escaped. But I was mad and wanted someone to blame. Cathy said her husband Bill was taking the worst of it from her, though he wasn’t even in the same state when Buster took off. Every story needs a villain, I guess, but sometimes there simply isn’t one. Cats just like to run away.

(Though, again, I’m sorry, but Chloe didn’t actually run away. She fell out of a second-story window right in front of a human adult, who did nothing to find her for two days, and also lied about it. That is not ok.)

We found Chloe not long after my outburst to Crackbaby, and how we found her is the whole reason this came up with Cathy. (Keep the following in mind, if you’re ever looking for a lost cat!) We were approaching Chloe’s disappearance like she was a person, invoking the geography of our neighborhood from the perspective of sidewalks and cars and property lines. The target search area was quickly enormous, as we imagined all the places she might have gone, as though she had set off on a Disney adventure.

But no. She was a cat, and she was terrified. We should have been thinking in terms of places to hide.

She fell out a second-story window, landed on her feet, because cats are fucking amazing, and then she hugged the foundation of the house as she ran for cover. We knew this, because Crackbaby saw her right before she turned left at the corner. At the next corner, I bet she stopped. Turn left again, and head through the day lilies, which provided an obstacle but no real cover? Or go right, 10 feet across open ground to the neighbors’ porch? She went right, slipped under the porch, then crawled to its furthest, darkest corner. And stayed there. (We caught a break in that it rained all weekend, so I suspect she never ventured out.) We didn’t see Chloe on our first pass. When we went back with a flashlight–always use a flashlight when searching for a cat, even in the daytime–the light caught her glowing eyes. Then it was just a matter of finding the right tone and the right treats to lure her out again.

Crackbaby got a reprieve, Hannah got her sister back, and I got a good lesson in how to track cats. I told Christine not to give up hope, that Buster was probably nearby under somebody’s porch.

“Get a flashlight,” I said. “And in the morning, start looking under every house.”

“Do you think I should get people’s permission to go on their property?” she asked me.

I was stunned. Here she was, a grown-ass woman and a human rights lawyer to bootwondering if it would be okay to look for her cat in other people’s yards. That is one way to go through this life. And then there’s me, Crazy Lady who threatened to evict a lawful tenant from an apartment I didn’t even live in!

“I wouldn’t,” I said gently. “Better to beg forgiveness, and all that.”

My last post was about the power of being reasonable. It has its time and place. And then there are situations that call for crazy and relentless. In my mind, a missing fur-baby qualifies.

Cathy stayed up another hour, walking the streets and alleys in search of Buster. She finally embraced her inner Crazy Lady and sent the call into the night: “I’m here, and I won’t give up on you!”

Buster heard her. He came home, mewing for breakfast at the back door, a few hours later. He’s fine.

 

Tips for Finding a Lost Cat (or Setting Traps for TNR):

  1. Think like a cat! They hug walls and foundations when they travel.
  2. Look under things. You cat is not traveling; it’s hiding!
  3. Keep calling out. Your cat is probably nearby!
  4. Cat-bait Pro Tip for setting traps: KFC. Srsly.
  5. Keep a good, clear photo on hand, in an obvious place, in case you need to make signs and send out emails.
  6. Get to know your neighbors! They might have valuable intel.
  7. Microchip your pets, put breakaway collars on cats, and for chrissakes, spay/neuter your animals!
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Get Up & Goat

Yeah, no one liked that last post. As in, literally, no one [active verb meaning to signal approval by clicking on “Like”] liked that post. Especially not me.

No one wants you, suicide post. Get bent!

*     *     *     *     *

I went to my friend’s memorial service yesterday. The lesson there is, Don’t Do Drugs. Or, if you do them, don’t do them alone in an empty house sitting on a mattress on the floor with a shitbag “friend” who takes the $100 in your wallet when you pass out, and leaves you without calling 911.

No, definitely don’t do that.

*     *     *     *     *

A world away, but in the same neighborhood of grief, my cousin’s wife memorialized him on Monday. She is doing ok, as is his father (my uncle), who lost my aunt to Alzheimer’s five years ago. They are both alone now (no grandkids from that union), but bonded to one another in heartbreak. My family will convene in a few weeks to bury my cousin’s ashes with his mother in a lovely New England cemetery. No one will utter the word “suicide,” because we are not the kind of people who talk about such things, let alone do them.

*     *     *     *     *

I will write more about these sad, strange events in due time, I am sure, as I am fascinated by how the storytelling has evolved in both of these tragic situations. In the meantime, I am a fully articulated human being who does not live every moment in introspection. To prove it, here I am petting a goat:

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Goats are awesome, kind of like dogs that bleat. I highly recommend petting one at your soonest convenience, because when you are petting a goat, or eating a caramel apple, or riding a ferris wheel, it is very difficult to ponder anything, besides whether the meth addict who strapped you in remembered to check the safety thingamajig, or who first discovered the genius of the apple-caramel-peanut combo (on a stick, no less!), or how badly that goat wants to eat your hoodie string or your shirtsleeve or your hair.

We’ll call it County Fair-apy. And we could all use a little of it now and then.

 

Grace

The last 24 hours have been trying, to say the least.

Yesterday, my friend and neighbor Damon passed away suddenly–accidental overdose–at age 23. Damon lived two doors down from me, just 16 feet away. He died in his friend’s house, just five doors, or eighty feet, in the other direction. I have never seen so much grief confined in such a small space.

I am friends with Damon’s whole family, though it is complicated. His mother was my friend Ana, whom I wrote about in an early post, and whose death two years ago simply gutted me. Damon, her youngest son, struggled mightily after she died, though he had struggled long before that too. Damon’s father sexually assaulted me in February of last year, and I did not set foot in their home again until yesterday. Damon’s sisters, with whom I am friends, have no idea about the attack, though I know they became aware of their father’s obsession with me. We never talk about it. Their father leaves me alone, but I sometimes catch him staring at me. The look of hate in his eyes chills me to the bone.

And then there are the girls, three of them, and the little boy–ages 14, 11, 8, and 2. They are Damon’s nieces and nephew. They help me in my garden, I take them for walks, we do crafts and sing songs. I love them. My concern for them was a large part of why I never filed a police report. (I also was under the impression the father/grandfather was moving home to Central America.)

As I said, it’s complicated. And that made a terrible day all the more trying.

Yesterday I held a shuddering, sobbing 8 year old on the sidewalk and coached her into deep breaths and a happy memory of her uncle. Yesterday I listened to an 11 year old girl tell her friend about seeing her uncle’s lifeless form, all purple and swollen, because he died alone and no one found him for hours. Yesterday I heard a 2 year old boy, a child I have never heard utter a coherent sentence before, say “Damon dead” over and over and over to no one in particular. Yesterday I watched a solemn procession of family members, dozens of them, file past my house on their way home after watching this boy’s body get carted off by the coroner, a full six hours after 911 was called. And then last night, after midnight, I walked my dog and looked up at the house where Damon died. The front window was alit, shades up, revealing the homeowner–a woman in her 70s who still works full-time as a nurse to support the ne’er-do-well, 20-something grandchildren who sponge off of her–mopping the floor where Damon’s body had lay. Her grandson stood there watching her blankly, doing nothing to help.

It was a perfect snapshot of the whole, grim situation of drugs in my neighborhood: powerless young men, overwhelmed and numb, doing nothing while devastated women clean up their mess.

Yes, yesterday was an awful day. And today is not much better.

But, like a lot of awful days, it has provided clarity in three important areas:

1] In this midst of Damon’s tragic death, I am acutely aware that I am not a sociopath, and that I am not emotionally dead inside either. I was really starting to wonder. But no. I am heartbroken. And angry. Because addiction is a vicious disease.

2] I spoke with J* last night, and it was terrible. Something broke between us this summer, and I don’t know how to mend it. I still care for him, still want him in my life, but I find myself increasingly empowered to draw lines and limits, as does he. We’ve both set so many tripwires, there is no longer any safe ground to walk.

3] My family is seriously fucked up! I get confused sometimes into thinking that I’m the asshole and that they are just nice, normal people. And mostly they are. But they have… issues. Let’s call it “emotional rigidity.” Whatever it is, it’s fucked up!

Last night I received an email from my dad, of an email from my uncle, of an email from my cousin’s wife, explaining that my cousin is suicidal, he survived a previous suicide attempt, and he has been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. Over email, my sister and father decided that the “ethics” of how they learned about this situation superseded the urgent necessity of providing emotional support to my cousin and his wife. That is, they felt my uncle never should have told them, ergo they will pretend they do not know.

But wait, there’s more! In my email reply to my sister and dad, I wrote,

“It’s been a shitty day all around. My friend Damon died of a drug overdose today. He was 23. They don’t make greeting cards for this stuff, they really don’t.”

And both my sister and my father responded to this information… by not saying anything at all. Not “I’m sorry” or “that’s really sad.” Nothing. Not one word. *crickets*

What. The. Fuck.

I ignored my sister & dad’s “decision” that our family will pretend we don’t know about my cousin’s mental illness and wrote to his wife anyway. She has already replied with a hearty thanks: vindication. If Damon’s death points anywhere, it’s toward being relentless in reaching out to one another. I will regret that I did not do more to help him for the rest of my life.

In the midst of this, I am on a deadline for a relatively lucrative writing gig with a publishing house in London. I am behind, and on the brink of being fired. I got email from my editor today demanding, “Where is this? and “Where is that?” Today I wrote to Damon’s sisters, I wrote to my cousin’s wife, I hugged sobbing women, I raised money for funeral costs, I sat with a neighbor going through chemo. A young man lay on the sidewalk, weeping inconsolably, outside my house this morning.

It feels like there is a hole in the world, and all I have is words to fill it.

So I’m sorry, mean English editor lady. I’ll write for you tomorrow.

 

The Garden of Love

Every garden tells a story. Many stories, in fact.

There is the story of conditions: too much rain, not enough rain, too much sun, not enough sun, too much clay, not enough sand, too close, too deep, too early, too late, too tempting for the squirrels. Some plants thrive, others struggle. You tweak the variables–water, nutrition, pest control, even location–but the outcome is beyond anyone’s control. In the end, every garden story is a parable about patience and humility.

There is the story of the work: The bulbs I got as a party favor at my friends’ gorgeous May wedding that I forgot to plant and then secretly discarded with tremendous guilt. That time I waited too long to treat my Dwarf Hinoki Cyprus for parasites, and now it looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. When my friend died, and for days all I could do was garden. “Too many weeds,” I thought as I pulled them. “And somehow not enough.”

And then there is the story of origin: Those hasta came from my friend Liz’s old apartment. My boyfriend and I drove 100 miles out of state to buy the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar out back. That Christmas Rose and those other hasta came from my mother’s garden. That Live Forever came from my mom’s garden, along with the Snow on the Mountain in the back, and she took them from my grandmother’s garden maybe ten years before that. Some of the plants came from my great grandmother’s garden, which ones, we’re not sure.

A garden story can go on like that forever.

In my family, touring the garden is a tradition. Whenever my mother comes over, she checks out the plants in the front yard, commenting enthusiastically about whatever is in bloom. I inevitably start pointing things out: This came from your house. That Andromeda is really struggling, can’t figure out why. Yes, that Live Forever will need to be divided soon. Before long my dad has disappeared inside to check sportz on his tablet, and my mom and I are wandering through the backyard too. It’s true, her memory problems ensure that the legacy plants always come as a revelation, but the ups and downs of weather and season ensure that there will forever be new news to report. “I really need to get out here and        ” is usually the final word.

Because the work is unceasing.  A garden is a process, not a finished product. Gardening is a journey, not a destination. A garden story never ends.

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Strong man, stronger back. I took this photo when I went to visit him in Guatemala a few years ago. More on that later!

But it does have a beginning. My garden began as a rectangle of grass with a single, tidy bed that hugged the porch. Then I met Marcos, a neighbor and professional landscaper. Gardener, actually. He was an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. He was also the most beautiful man I ever dated–black hair, mocha-colored skin, dark eyes rimmed with lustrous lashes, thick lips like a Mayan god, and a gorgeous torso sculpted by honest work. He loved plants more than he loved women, and he loved women a lot–the curve of their hips, the mysterious depth of their bellies, the way they moved and smelled. I should know–I was one of them. “Beauty,” he called me softly.

Marcos never told me he loved me. Instead, he said, “We should do your yard.” And he did. One morning I awoke to a chopping sound. I looked out my bedroom window and saw him working out front, wearing nothing but white cotton pajama bottoms that he quickly sweated through. He had borrowed a pickax from the golf course where he worked, and he swung it like John Henry digging tunnels through solid rock.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Over and over, never stopping, he dug up six pernicious Rose of Sharon that threatened to devour the whole house, Sleeping Beauty-style.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Gone went the sucker trees that proliferated behind the neighbor’s crumbling shed, preventing my plants from thriving in their shade.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Out of the ground came tap roots five inches in diameter that denied water to the tender plants I was trying to nurture.

After two hours, his brown skin was slick with sweat, and his soaked pajamas concealed pretty much nothing from the neighbor’s prying eyes. I brought him ice water and strawberries, and he kissed me sweetly. I am sure the neighbors who saw us together, then and later, told themselves a nasty little story, of a middle-aged white lady who hired a Latino gardener to redo her yard and then ended up sleeping with him. Over the next several months, we did little to dispel that rumor, in part because the myth that he was my gardener (and not my boyfriend) helped him get side jobs in the neighborhood, in part because we found the narrative titillating, and mostly because it was none of their fucking business. What actually happened was, I dated a talented man who loved me, and he gave me the most gorgeous yard in the zip code as a symbol of his affection.

When Marcos was done with the pickax that first morning, he pointed at the epic piles of debris and angry roots still protruding from the ground. “The rest is yours,” he commanded. “I’m going back to bed.”

Yes, he could be blunt and patriarchal, and he had some retrograde opinions about gender. But this aging feminist found it hilarious, endearing, and sexy as hell.

Over the next few months, Marcos terraced my front yard and built two patios and paths out of Pennsylvania field stone. He meticulously worked the soil to create flawless drainage and maximize the plants’ growing potential. We worked together to weed and sew. He called the final result “The Garden of Love.”

Every garden is a labor of love, but from the very beginning, my garden was made of it. Some of the plants Marcos chose did not do so well when the winters turned cold again. The neighbors drastically pruned their tree, and a few shade-loving plants withered from exposure. After Marcos returned home to Guatemala, I lamented about how much work (and life) he left me to do alone. But I take comfort that many of the plants we chose together are thriving, some so well that they need to be divided and shared with friends and family. And of course, the stones he laid in the ground will be here forever.

Like our love for each other, like the story itself.

 

First-Date Friday: When Your Date Likes Little Girls

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Can you imagine? Your date states openly and without shame that they like little girls?! So creepy! What must he have thought of me when I said it!

Yeah, that’s right. When said it.

My next Tinder date was with an English professor at a nearby community college. We met on a rainy Sunday afternoon at a coffeeshop that was mutually inconvenient for both of us. He was very, very late due to much of the city being cordoned off for a marathon. I was ok by myself, though, because I had papers to grade, free wireless, and a delicious breakfast sandwich. “Like a pig in shit,” I texted him. “No worries. Take your time.”

I liked him. He was decent looking and fit (a distance, open-water swimmer), he was smart, and he seemed nice. We didn’t have super sparkly chemistry, but talking to him was pleasant enough. He came alive when talking about his daughter, who was 7 or 8 years old.

“Such a fun age,” I said. “What’s she in to?”

It wasn’t the first time I noticed that my interests tend to align with those of girls ages 5 through 15. They like cake, candies, and cookies. I like cake, candy, and cookies! They like animals. I like animals! They like craft projects. I like craft projects! And so on.

I really do like little girls. I used to be one, I had lots of friends who were little girls when I was one, and my 13 year old niece is one of the lights of my life. Also, perhaps unusually for a middle-aged woman with no children, I have friends who are little girls.

My neighborhood is a collection of townhouses with tiny front yards separated by picket and chain-link fences. The neighborhood is gentrifying fast, but it retains some of the ethnic, racial, and economic diversity that I have prized since I bought my house six years ago. I’ve noticed that the white parents maintain chain-of-custody control of their children so tightly, you’d think the kids were FBI evidence in a presidential assassination. In contrast, the black and Latino working-class parents are too tired or too poor to schedule their children’s every waking minute, or perhaps they just believe in letting kids have freedom. There are a lot of unattended kids, mostly girls, playing together on the sidewalks, is what I’m saying. And for about 9 months of the year, I’m out there too, tending to my high-maintenance front yard that is entirely covered with flower beds, a charming patio of Pennsylvania field stone, and a collection of reclaimed sheet-metal lawn ornaments named for various neighbors (Moses the Turtle, Marcos the Squirrel, Hector Bunny, and Iris Byrd Bird). Ever since I moved in, my constant presence in the front yard has drawn the kids’ interest, especially the girls.

“What are you doing?” they would ask me, when I was new to the neighborhood and they were new to gardening. I would explain whatever the day’s project was, and invariably they would ask if they could help. Over the years, they’ve ranged in age from 2 to 13, with the older ones moving on to boys and cheerleading and fussing with their phones. The younger ones find me and my house and the garden fascinating. (I’m glad someone does!) Sometimes I would have five girls “helping” me in a yard that is just 15 feet wide. Watering is always the favorite project, but they have also learned to weed, mulch, fertilize, and plant. Over time, some of them became quite skilled, and the help they provided was real. I keep several pairs of garden gloves of various sizes in my storage bench, and I have extra tools, including the coveted Pink Trowel. I also keep colored chalk on my porch, because if there’s no work to do in the garden, the sidewalks could always use some fresh illustration.

Other shared activities have included long walks with the dog, visits to the playground, gardening in their yards, caroling in the neighborhood, and participation in a PTA cleanup at their school. I have also had the girls over to my house to make Christmas ornaments or work on sewing projects, and for hot chocolate and cookies after fun in the snow. I had an ice cream party once, and I hosted a dance party to celebrate the success of our summer reading club. My favorite thing is when one of the girls reads to me while I pull weeds.

Much of the above list reads like the grooming tactics of a child molester! Well, ok, a child molester who really believes in the importance of reading, sewing, and applied math and science. Why do their parents let them come with me? It blows me away that adults who don’t know my name, don’t have my phone number, and barely speak English are willing to let me walk away with their daughters. But it really is innocent! We all just like to do the same stuff–grow flowers, eat cookies, and sew animal-shaped pillows out of felt. Or, more likely, they like the extra attention, and over the years their interests have been shaped by mine. Either way, we both benefit.

After I told my date that I like little girls, I tried to explain what I meant–that I tend to have a lot in common with them, that I find them interesting as people, that I have friends who are little girls. No matter what I said, though, the hole I was in just seemed to get deeper.

I have talked about my little friends on Facebook and to my adult friends, and it never seems sketchy. But with my date, we just couldn’t escape the shadow cast by his daughter, who seemed far more interesting to me than her dad. Even my tortured explanations left open the possibility that I was using interest in her to ingratiate myself to him or, worse, that I was insinuating myself in his life to get to his daughter.

“Just stop talking,” said the voice in my head.

When we parted, he initiated a goodbye hug and said he would like to see me again. I enthusiastically agreed, mindful not to say anything about his kid. “Whew,” I thought. “A reprieve.”

He must have thought about the date differently in retrospect, though, because he went silent after a couple of texts. Maybe he decided I was a little too into little girls. Another possibility is that, as an academic who tried and failed to get a tenure-track job at a research university, he felt threatened or otherwise put off by my professional success. A third possibility is that he just wasn’t in to me.

It’s too bad. His daughter sounded really cool.