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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Be Reasonable

Summer came and went in a blur. Here it is Labor Day already, and I realize I never did write about the undergraduate course I took in summer school: Introduction to Nutrition.

I was probably more excited for this class than for any of the 7 nursing prerequisites I am acquiring in anticipation of possibly, maybe, blowing up my professor life to go back to school. I know a lot about nutrition, but I nonetheless eat like crap. In fact, this afternoon, I am considering having microwave popcorn for lunch.

And dinner.

[Ed. Note: I did indeed eat microwave popcorn for lunch.]

My hope was that by immersing myself in the study of nutrition, I would develop a mindfulness that would in turn help me develop better eating habits. Unfortunately, I ended up taking a 6-week course that was Tuesday-Thursday, 9 AM to 12:45 PM, with two big projects and an exam every fourth class. It was like shotgunning nutrition facts without pausing to digest, or even chew, them. I learned a lot, but absorbed little. Almost nothing has changed in how I take care of myself.

I took the class at my local community college, and my fellow students were fairly typical of the up-by-your-bootstraps ethos of that school. There were a few “returning adults” in their late 20s or 30s, including the guy I sat next to, who wasn’t interested in nutrition so much as he needed an “easy” science class. He thought nothing of purchasing a Coke and a pack of Welch’s Fake Fruit Gummi Garbage Chews to eat during the second half of class from the front row. This would be like taking a class in oncology and having a big snack of cancer right in front of your professor. Or taking an environmental ethics class and wrapping your textbook with the pelt of a baby seal. But our instructor never said a word.

There were also several students for whom English was a second language, including two North African Muslim women who never did quite learn how to understand a nutrition label. “No,” they asserted firmly about the package for some kind of imported salty-carby bits. “Salt is for all package.” No, hon, I looked myself. Those things contain enough salt in a single serving to give a rhino a heart attack. But, no, our instructor never corrected them, so convinced they were of their native cuisine’s inherent healthfulness.

There were also a couple of effortlessly beautiful young women who were on the nursing or physical therapy track. One of them rode a motorcycle and perpetually looked like she had just walked on a beach, in an influencer-pushing-green-tea-on-Instagram kind of way, not the got-bit-by-sandflies-and-my-hair-looks-like-a-kelp-nest way that I have when I return from the beach. This girl wore breezy, off-the-shoulder jumpers, see-through peasant blouses that made you want to thank her for the view, and badass, black lace-up ankle boots. Her skin was luminous, and her vintage-inspired motorcycle helmet said, “Fashion first, safety second.” Or maybe “’70s-Era Bond Girl.” I wanted to be her so, so bad. These young women constantly asserted the merits of juicing, acai berries, and coconut oil–pretty much any fad that Dr. Oz has jumped on in the last five years. And always, our instructor answered in even tones about the fiber benefits of whole fruits, the peer-reviewed science behind healthy oils, and “everything in moderation.”

Behind Motorcycle Girl sat an obese woman who cracked wise and answered questions with tremendous confidence, though she (clearly) didn’t know much about nutrition. Over time, her worldview became clear: “One’s weight is unrelated to one’s food consumption, and besides I’m not that fat anyway.” One of the case studies we worked through as a class involved a middle-aged woman who was 5’2″, 165 pounds, and struggling to find healthy options given her jam-packed schedule. The obese student disputed that there was any urgency in helping this imaginary client, because “165 pounds isn’t that big.” Ouch. Everyone in the class silently did the mental math, and the instructor stammered out a reply, taking pains not to say what we were all thinking: “You only think that because you weigh twice as much.”

As I look back on the class, I remain fascinated by the professor, whom I’ll call Mrs. Bland. I never did quite pinpoint her age, because while she seemed physically well preserved, her mien was of an old woman for whom every decision–every word uttered, every sartorial choice, every unfathomable sexual act (yeah, I’m the kind of rude, daydreaming student who tries–and fails–to picture her professors having sex) was governed by intense adherence to practicality and reasonableness.

Mrs. Bland was trim, not thin, in a way that suggested well-planned, healthy meals and sensible exercise like water aerobics, walking, and perhaps occasionally some 3-pound hand weights. She was always dressed tidily in either beige or black slacks with a modest cotton blouse whose neckline and princess seams were generously proportioned to conceal any hint of bosoms or décolletage. With the black pants she wore a black slip-on walking shoe, and with the beige pants she wore the same shoe in brown. Two colors for the shoes and slacks, five colors for the blouses, mix, match, repeat. She wore a bit of blush, applied no doubt by the tiny brush that comes with the compact, and the same lipstick every day–a burgundy too dark for skin so pale and creamy, I’m guessing she never left the house without sunscreen. Her hair was short, dark, and monochromatic, suggesting a dye job, but not an expensive one. Maybe Nice ‘N Easy?

“Nice and easy.” It’s a way to color the gray, but it also suggests a practical way to go through life–a little luxury, but not too much.

I appreciated Mrs. Bland’s thoughtful approach to student questions, even when they were mind-bogglingly stupid. Her answers were always seated in a place of reasonableness: “Here is what I can tell you the peer-reviewed research says.” She affirmed every conceivable dietary choice, from vegetarianism to veganism to low-carb diets designed to trigger ketosis, but always with emphasis on seeking out the healthiest option. She never raised her voice, never got flustered, never made an off-color joke, and never denigrated a student’s facts, not even the 500th time someone started a moronic assertion by saying, “I heard that…”

Coconut water boosts metabolism. Garlic cures cancer. Honey boosts the immune system.

No, no, and no.

As a fellow professor, I was in awe of Mrs.Bland’s even keel. As a student, I appreciated her sensitivity, even if we didn’t always deserve it. But as a person, I wondered, “Is this lady going to lose it some day?”

Mrs. Bland reminded me of the Barbara Hershey character in the 1990 TV movie “A Killing in a Small Town,” about a repressed housewife named Candy who brutally murders her friend Betty, striking her 41 times with an axe–28 blows to the head alone. Based on a book that’s based on a true story, the film (now streaming on Amazon Prime under the book’s title, “Evidence of Love“) follows Candy through the crime and trial, at which she pled self-defense. [SPOILER ALERT!] Turns out, Betty had come at Candy with the axe in anger over an affair with her husband, but Candy wrestled it away and then snapped, turning her friend’s head to mush while her baby cried in the next room. Based on a psychologist’s testimony about Candy’s mental state, the jury acquitted her of the murder.

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Barbara Hershey won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her terrifying portrayal of blandness and internalized rage.

The last lines of the film still haunt me, because they raise questions about the secrets that live inside all of us, even people who seem entirely composed, dull, and reasonable. What are they hiding? What are they capable of?

The film ends after the acquittal, with Candy speaking to her therapist (voiced by Hal Holbrook) in a room filled with shadows. The therapist encourages her to forgive herself while the camera focuses intently on Candy’s plain, pained face.

“I’m not innocent,” Candy says wearily. “I killed her. I’m a monster.”

“No,” the therapist counters earnestly. “You’re just like the rest of us.”

“Is that supposed to comfort me?”

Smashcut to black! Yeah, no, that is fucking terrifying. It’s been 26 years since I saw that movie, and I still don’t trust bland women.

At the same time, I admire them. Mrs. Bland was ever in control, never flustered, as even and relentless as a gently ticking clock. She caused no offense, she created no drama, and she inspired no strong responses. If she were a meal, she would be 4 ounces of grilled chicken (no skin), steamed broccoli, and half of a baked potato with a spritz of that low-cholesterol liquid butter spray. Well balanced, nutritionally satisfying, and remarkable–but only for how easily it’s forgotten.

Yes, I learned a lot from Introduction to Nutrition: common vitamin deficiencies in the elderly, coconut oil is bullshit, there is no vegan source of B12 because it’s synthesized by critters. I did a research paper on the consumption of nuts and glycemic control. My dietary analysis revealed that I eat too much protein.

And also: There is power in being reasonable.

People listen to you. They take you seriously. The ideas you offer them come unfettered by visceral reactions to your person. If you can keep it up for a lifetime, more power to you!

But I’ll never be that way. I’m too volatile, too many jaggedy edges, too many strong opinions I can’t quite contain. Sometimes I hate myself for it, because I know it holds me back.

Then again, I’ll probably never axe-murder anyone, either.

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.

 

Suicide Haiku

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Fewer words are best. Soldiers know this, when they try to write about combat. Decorating horror with adjectives is like putting glitter on shit. What’s the point? It’s still shit.

On Tuesday my favorite cousin was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for depression and suicidal thoughts.

On Thursday, they released him because he was no longer a danger to himself.

On Friday, he killed himself.

That’s it.

 

Suicide is preventable. It should always be taken seriously. If you need help, or know someone who does, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) anytime, 24/7. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

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.

 

There Is No Pain, You Are Receding

I had a little revelation today, while sitting in traffic at an epically tangled intersection, where construction and driver nit-wittery turned a 7-mile toot into an hour-long odyssey. I realized as I sat, inching forward, what my problem is: I am terribly lonely.

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The world’s longest traffic jam took place in China and lasted 12 days!

It is not for lack of friends or human contact, though I could do better on both counts. It’s that there is no one in this world who knows my whole life, or at least as much of a person’s life as can be known. The solitary nature of my work, my social awkwardness, strained relations within my family, having wonderful friendships with individuals but not being part of a friend-group, even the difficulty of navigating the city I live in–for all of these reasons and probably others, most of my life is lived silently…unobserved and unasked after. And, well, when a tree falls in a forest…

Sometimes I wonder if I even exist.

Social media adds another layer of complexity to this vanilla slice of dysfunction cake. Like all of us, I have many online personas. Each of them is simultaneously true and also a thundering lie–but only a lie of omission.

On Instagram, I am relentlessly optimistic, taking pleasure in my dog and the small beauties I encounter on our walks together. That is where I “practice”gratitude and mindfulness, and boy, does it sometimes feel like work!

On Snapchat, which I only do with my teenage niece, I am goofy as fuck. I had no idea I would love looking at myself with dog ears so much, or that sending 4-second movies as a maniacal squirrel could be so fun!

Facebook offers perhaps the greatest insight into my life, but only if you consider the silences. Most of my Facebook “friends” are acquaintances who cannot see anything beyond the basics. I try to remain hidden from the public (especially my students), and I routinely ignore or delete friend requests without a second thought. My own sister unfriended me almost two years ago, and we pretend not to belong to the same family on Facebook. Yet we coordinate via email who will accompany my parents to the next parental doctor appointment or share information about our mother’s newest cognitive deficit. It’s weird (but her choice). Due to my family’s predilection for gossip and judgement, just last month I had to wall off my parents, brother-in-law, and some family friends from seeing anything except photos of my dog. As a grown-ass woman, I just couldn’t take another stern lecture from my father about “how I use Facebook.” They probably haven’t even noticed. As for my “close friends,” they read acerbic observations about teaching or politics or my own foibles–nothing of import, nothing worth remembering. I used to whitewash my Facebook wall–delete literally everything in my newsfeed–but I stopped after a friend died a year ago. I realized that I might someday want to read those silly exchanges again, after my friends stop being my friends, after I stop being me.

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R.E.M. used the collective loneliness of the traffic jam to great effect in the video for “Everybody Hurts.”

This blog offers yet another perspective on my life. Here, I think, we see process more than results. These essays are the literal act of remembering, but they are also effort and strain, grasping and sputtering. Through writing, I search for meaning, understanding, and hope–not from you, but within me. With each shared reflection, I grope the darkness for a way forward, or at least a switch to turn on the light. If I could just get some clarity, I could finally find the exit!

I have friends IRL too. My longest friendship dates to 7th grade. Thanks to Facebook–truly, thank you, Facebook!–I have reconnected with a few friends from high school that I see every now and then. For some reason, I am not connected with anyone from college, which I approached with an “I’m not here to make friends” work ethic–and I didn’t. Well done! But since I endured a sea change during graduate school, I have invested mightily in friendships, and I have five close friends who date from 1999-2000. There are other friendships, forged through work connections, that also mean the world to me. And there is J*, to whom Tinder owes its redemption. All of these people–wonderful people–are my friends, and I love them, and I would wrestle alligators for them. But I wonder sometimes whether the feeling is mutual, and also whether they really know me. Even J*, who has seen me naked in every respect, has never witnessed me laughing with people who love me. And the people who love me and make me laugh, well, there are dark corners J* has wandered into that I will never show them.

We are probably all unknowable to some degree, so these musings and frustrations aren’t particular to me or even to singletons. But I look at my friend L*, who is planning her wedding and future with a man she loves, who loves her back. And I think, “That must be nice, to be someone’s priority. To have someone who wants to know as much of you as can be known. To have everyone who loves you meet one afternoon under the same tent to share their collective hope for you. Because they all know you, the one and only you, the person that you are.” I don’t begrudge her a second of this happiness, because she well and truly deserves it. But it makes me wistful just the same.

Of course, I thought of all of this today, while I was stuck for 20 minutes at a single intersection, inching forward but going nowhere, besieged by panhandlers and post-brunch ennui, with Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” on autorepeat the whole time. That could fuck with anyone’s head. So, you know… take it with a grain of salt.

 

 

 

Foreshadowing

I am thinking about jumping into the Wayback Machine. No, not the Internet Archive, more like the WABAC Machine from Rocky & Bullwinkle. “Jumping into the Wayback Machine” is what I call “using the Internet to reconnect with people from your past.” In any case, I’ve been thinking about an ex boyfriend. He is much younger than me, and I have no (nor ever had any) illusions about a future for us. So I am not looking to rekindle anything. But I am curious how he’s doing, and I don’t like how we left things.

Also, I’m bored.

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Gee, Mr. Peabody, what will happen if I message my ex? Should I wait until I’m drunk & alone on Christmas eve, or just get it out of the way now?

The Wayback Machine is a funny thing. Jumping in usually leads to disaster and humiliation, like when I travelled to visit a high school crush a few years ago and got so drunk from drinking in a hot tub for six hours that I was hungover for two days. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to drink in a hot tub! How did every single person in the world get this memo except for me? The hangover wasn’t even the worst of it. The tears! The drunken tears!! It is mortifying in retrospect. I unfriended him on Facebook a year later, after we got into an email pissing contest over whether Sarah Palin was qualified to be president. During our Wayback Rendezvous, I accidentally peed his bed, then lied about it, and I’m kind of glad, because honestly. There’s more, but I think I’ve made my case:

The Wayback  Machine is a threat to basic human dignity.

On the other hand, I have a friend who met her husband that way. She got in touch, out of the blue, with her old college boyfriend twenty years on. They flirted, he traveled to meet her, he booked a hotel room that he never used. They dated long distance, he moved here, he moved his children here, and they made a family. They’ve been married a year, and by all accounts seem blissfully happy. In fact, they write each other a love poem every day. It’s kind of nauseating. And amazing!

I haven’t yet reached out, but through the miracle of Facebook, I was able to glean a little of my ex’s life, namely that he still likes hockey and that he’s lost all his hair. Clicking on “Message” brought up our last correspondence, which ended abruptly in August 2010. He was back in town for the summer, and I tried to get together, but he blew me off a couple of times, then returned to law school without ever seeing me. I called him out on it, it didn’t go well, and then I cheerfully and abruptly unfriended him.

I regret it. He was fun and funny and a good person. There was no reason not to keep him on as a friend. But my feelings were hurt that he didn’t want to see me, and I was disappointed that when I nearly died (truly), all he could muster was a two-word text: “Be well.” I wish I had handled the whole thing better, but I suppose I did my best. I could do better now.

I haven’t decided whether to write to him, but scrolling back through our last few exchanges in the Facebook Message app, something curious caught my eye.

It was a year before I was up for tenure, and I was working furiously on my book, which was moving through the publication process at a glacial pace. I was worried I wouldn’t make it–that the book wouldn’t be far enough along, that I was creating an argument for my colleagues to vote against me. No tenure means you’re fired, I had just assumed a mortgage, I was nearly broke, and I had never had a grownup job outside of academia. I was scared.

Meanwhile, my ex was struggling to find his first job after law school and had suggested, only half-joking, that he might become a bike messenger. In commiseration with his frustration at an uncertain future, I wrote:

Sorry to hear about the lousy job market. If law school doesn’t pan out, I suggest nursing. That’s my Plan B.

I have no recollection of thinking about nursing at the time, though much of that year is a blur due to some major health problems that landed me in the hospital a few months later. I don’t know, in retrospect, if I was kidding about nursing, or serious, or both. I had long joked that my Plan B was to join the Army, and I paid attention to the maximum age for enlistment, making note a few years ago when I aged past it. Nursing has for years been in the news because of the anticipated shortage, so I’m sure I was aware–and envious–of the choices nurses have for employment. I have also thought about second careers in social work (not enough money) or police work (not enough patience). If I were a social worker, I would likely lose my house. And if I were a cop, I would definitely lose my temper–and then probably get shot with my own gun.

Nursing.

Even if I was kidding about it, I was thinking about it. Because there it is in a message I typed at 11:21 PM on October 10, 2009.

It wasn’t meeting J* in 2014, who also turned to nursing late in life, or reconnecting with my friend from high school, who graduated with her BSN last year before returning to her previous profession. (Unfortunately, that’s not an option in academia. Leaving the professoriate is a one-way trip–what a friend likened to leaving a parking lot by driving over the tire spikes. You can get out, but you are FUCKED.) No, those friends didn’t give me the idea of becoming a nurse as a second career. They just demonstrated that it was possible.

To an extent I didn’t realize, until I saw that old message in my personal Wayback Machine, I have been thinking about this for a long, long time.