The Perfect Day

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I don’t like this time of year, what with its relentless focus on endings and beginnings, its ruthless celebration of children and families, and its vicious indulgence in nostalgia. Not to mention, you’re a loser if you don’t have a date.

It isn’t all bad. There is my friend who makes care packages for homeless people–600 this year! There is the holiday concert at my niece’s school, replete with happy kids so excited about their clarinets and alto solos. There is the t-shirt I got with my dog’s name on it, perhaps the greatest article of clothing ever gifted to me. There are the holiday lights that help to blot out the inky darkness, which seems to begin around lunchtime. There is a lot of candy.

No, it isn’t all bad. Just…most of it.

I haven’t always felt this way. Most years, I decorate the house inside and out. I practice Christmas carols at the piano. I send out a funny Christmas letter to connect with old friends. I volunteer. I try.

This year, I haven’t even switched out the fall wreath for the winter one. (Yes, I am That Lady, who has artificial wreaths for every season.)

Last year, in fact, I had a perfect day, just a few days before Christmas. I am starting to think it might have been the best day of my life, and as I ruminate on it, I wonder: Will I ever have a day like that again?

It was fall graduation, and a young woman whom I had mentored through personal, legal, and financial problems was finally graduating with her Bachelor’s degree after several years of struggle. Seeing her walk across the stage when her name was called–that was perhaps my finest achievement as a teacher. Later that same afternoon, I hooded my first two doctoral students, also an incredibly satisfying moment.

That day, I never looked better. My skin was clear. I was down almost ten pounds. I was wearing a fetching black dress and heels with fancy fishnet stockings–a rare sartorial success for me. Over that, I was sporting my brand-new academic regalia, purchased in collaboration with my parents (multiple years’ worth of Christmas presents) to celebrate finally achieving tenure. My hair looked great, all straight and shiny beneath my tam, which I perched at a cheeky angle. I was beaming as I walked across campus. I took a selfie, and I actually had someone to send it to.

On the drive home, J* suggested I come to his place, and he would make me dinner. That felt wonderful–a place to go, and a handsome man to greet me warmly when I got there. He told me my body looked great in that dress, and I gently laughed it off as though I heard compliments like that all the time. We snuggled into the couch to watch a documentary, basking in the twinkling white lights of the Christmas tree. Then he had to meet some people, and I went home to walk the dog and go to bed. Not a perfect ending to most people’s perfect day, but it was good enough for me.

Perfect, actually. I felt at home in my own skin, I felt successful professionally, and I felt loved. I even had the grace to realize, as it was unfolding, how special it was, and I was so grateful.

It all started to unravel about a week later, and the unravelling has accelerated with each passing month, until here we are in December 2015, and there is almost nothing left.

I’ve gained weight. My hormones are a mess, so I get to enjoy my first serious bout of acne in middle age. I cut my hair, and it looks terrible most days. I haven’t worn the dress or stockings since that day, and the shoes are going south due to neglect and misuse. (Speaking as a former shoe-care professional, suede is a bad investment.) I didn’t attend fall graduation this year, and I’m certain I wasn’t missed. J* is long gone, and there is no one new on the horizon. I won’t even get started on the mess that is my family. It was a mess last year, too, but I had people outside my family for whom I was a priority, so that made it seem not so bad.

This year, it’s just me. Me and the dog, and the fall wreath, and a long, long night.

The Kindness of Strangers

I am a little overwhelmed. I don’t work especially hard at my job anymore, due to depression and burnout. But even so, the little details of life tend to elude me. There are leaves that need raking, plaster and drywall that need patching, an oven in need of repair, a tree in need of an arbor, there’s that light that hasn’t worked right for years, shoes that need to go back to the store, laundry and dishes and bills piling up, the dog’s tick treatment, issues with the title on the house, email to my mom’s doctor, that prescription waiting for me at the wrong pharmacy, and on and on and on.

I write this list in the passive voice deliberately, because the grammatically potent, active-voice truth often feels too lonely to bear: All of these tasks–and many others of far greater consequence–fall to me. There is no one to help. On the great sea of life, I am the only person keeping me afloat.

And yet.

Every now and then, someone does a kindness that takes off just a little weight. It happened today, the smallest thing, but when I realized it, it felt like I had been saved from drowning.

I know of what I speak, because I almost drowned. Let me tell you a story.

Senator John McCain and I have precisely one thing in common: We both have been plucked from the water by kindly Vietnamese people, though thankfully I was not subsequently incarcerated in the Hanoi Hilton for five years.

I was on a three-week tour of Vietnam with my parents, who were in their late sixties at the time. Escorting two senior citizens–even seniors as chill and capable as my parents were back then–through a developing
world country–even one as gorgeous and hospitable as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a little stressful. Ok, more than stressful. After about ten days, I was ready to either defect or kill them both.

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Fan boats in Ha Long Bay.

At just that point in the trip, we took an overnight cruise aboard the Emeraude, a replica of a 19th-century French paddleboat, in majestic Ha Long Bay. It was a luxurious experience, complete with free mini mai tais upon boarding, which both of my parents declined. Not being one to leave money on the table, and desperately needing to relieve some stress, I drank all three.

Nicely toasted, I enjoyed the balmy breezes as we set sail for our first stop, a small island that featured a swimming beach, a mountain, and a pagoda atop a winding flight of some 400 stairs. We decided to try it, my father with his bad heart, my mother with her bad knees, and me with my mai tai-impaired judgement. My father petered out part way up and sat heavily on a bench to catch his breath. (He would have four stents put in his coronary arteries about six weeks later, so my great fear that I was going to have to find a coffin in Vietnam for a 6’4″ man was not totally unfounded.) Mom and I made it to the top in good time, but then, as we climbed down, her pace slowed dramatically.

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The island.

In concern for both parents, mindful of the departing pontoon boat, and desperate to keep moving after 10 sedentary days, I kept climbing down to my dad, then back up to my mom, then down again, perhaps doubling or tripling the number of stairs in the journey. By the time we all reached the bottom, I was tired and ready to scream. I needed some me-time, and I remembered this talk-show anecdote Drew Barrymore once told about feeling pent up on a cruise, and how she dove off the boat and swam to a nearby island. I could do that in reverse, right?

It didn’t look that far.

I’ll add here that I grew up in the midwest, and we are not “boat people,” so while I was a strong swimmer who had completed advanced lifeguard training in high school, I had little experience with the sea. Apparently, people like that–like me–tend to be very bad at judging distance over open water. I learned that pearl of wisdom from a fellow passenger, a boating instructor in Sydney Harbor, after I became known on the Emeraude as “the girl who nearly drowned.”

I gave my parents my ID, room key, and sandals and told them I was going to skip the pontoon boat and swim back to the Emeraude by myself. Uncharacteristically, they didn’t really say much except “Ok! See ya later!”

Which makes me think they were sick of me too.

I walked into the water wearing nothing but some black shorts, a sports bra, a long-sleeve t-shirt, and the tipsy confidence of a would-be manic pixie dreamgirl. The water was warm and lovely! I paddled capably through the swimming area and made it to the floating ball that demarcated the edge. It was slow going! I was breathing HARD and clung to the buoy while I caught my breath. I had lost track of time and was starting to worry that the pontoon boat might beat me back to the big boat, my parents would think I was somewhere aboard, and the Emeraude would leave without me. I needed to press on.

Plus, it didn’t look that far.

While I was weighing my options, a young Vietnamese man stopped to check on me. He lived on the island and had swum out to the Emeraude to see friends who worked on the ship. There was a little swimming platform on the back of the boat where guests and off-duty crew were enjoying the water. I saw him waive goodbye to his friends, jump in the surf, and swim towards me, passing by as I was clinging to the buoy and heaving for breath.

“You…ok?’ he asked in halting English but with obvious concern.

“I’m fine! Fine!” I cheerfully waived him off. Then, as if to prove it, I set out once again. Freestyle, sidestroke, breast, other sidestroke–I kept switching it up as my muscles would start to fatigue.

Almost there! It didn’t look that far.

In my midwestern ignorance of open water, I hadn’t considered the current. Of course! The buoys marked the borders of a “safe” swimming area that was unaffected by current. Once outside it, the water’s calm surface hid a secret power, pushing pushing pushing pushing me away from my destination.

More swimming, different strokes, but my strength was failing. I knew I was in trouble, but I still had perhaps 20 yards to go. It might as well have been a mile. (And yet, it didn’t look that far!)

I was struggling, and my limbs felt like lead. Due to my lifeguard training, I knew that the most important thing was to remain calm. I did. I paused, vertical in the water and barely able to keep my head above its gentle waves. I called out to the Vietnamese men on the swimming platform.

“I need some help!” They ignored me.

I saw a white woman standing at the railing nearby. “Would you tell them I need some help?” She stared at me blankly, like a cow waiting to be fed. Then she walked away.

Shit.

Or should I say, “Merde.” I learned later that she was French, and neither she nor the Vietnamese men lounging on the deck understood English. My calm demeanor belied my desperation.

I kept going, advancing against the current in a mighty effort. I had two worries. The most pressing was that I was going to die. A close second was that I was going to be nude from the waist down when it happened. You see, my shorts were not actually board shorts. They got all stretchy in the water, and they kept slipping down below my hips, causing me to expend energy I couldn’t afford pulling them back up. Oh, did I mention I wasn’t wearing any panties? I pictured my mother’s embarrassment when they pulled my lifeless, pants-less body from the water.

And still, I forced myself to remain calm. I had a plan. I estimated that there was enough life in my limbs to swim for another 30 seconds. At that point, I was going to shift to a “dead man’s float” to conserve energy. I would let the current carry me out to sea and hope that someone would notice and come to my aid. Basically, I was going to surrender my life to chance, beyond any further control of mine, having expended the last of my reserves to save it.

I was now perhaps 30 or 40 feet from the Emeraude’s swimming deck, where the Vietnamese men were chatting happily in complete indifference to the life-or-death struggle unfolding just yards away. I called out to them once more.

“I need some help!” This time, the brittle edge to my voice caused them to stop talking. They looked at me, but no one moved.

I was exhausted, spent, perhaps ten seconds away from the dead-man plan. “Remain calm” was so ingrained in me that I failed to realize: Now is the time to go insane, to scream, to disrupt the calm of those around you, to demand, “HELP ME SAVE MY FUCKING LIFE!”

Instead, I was silent. Time to float away.

And then something miraculous happened!

The young man, the one who had asked if I was ok when I was clinging to the buoy–I didn’t know it, but he had been following me, in anticipation of the great danger I was now facing.

At just that moment, when all my strength was gone, he swam up behind me and gently took my hand, as though he were assisting a lady as she stepped across a puddle. It was nothing, just the barest gesture of assistance, and yet it was everything–literally everything. With him taking off the slightest amount of weight, I found my strength again, and my head rocketed above the water. He called out in Vietnamese to the men on the boat, and they realized in horror what was happening. Lots of scurrying, shouting–I remember thinking, “Maybe y’all shouldn’t keep the life preserver in the closet.”

They threw it to me. I am a person who has literally had a donut-shaped life-preserver thrown to her. It landed a few feet to my front, my rescuer helped me reach for it, a guy on the boat jumped in and frantically thrashed towards us, and in the commotion I found the strength to kick my way to safety. I still had to climb the ladder, however. I slipped, badly scraping my shins, but I made it up and onto the deck…where I promptly fell down, because there was nothing left in my legs. I sat there in tremendous embarrassment while kind Vietnamese people fussed over me.

“Thank you. Cám ơn. Cám ơn. Thank you.” There was nothing else to say.

Today, I was finishing some errands on a miserable late-fall day. I returned to my car in haste, trying not to linger in the cold rain. My electronic key worked instantly, I hopped in, and drove away. Later, I realized…the key was supposed to be broken.

For weeks, that key has been a source of constant irritation, as its battery slowly died. And yet, I could never remember to add it to the list of mundane, yet overwhelming tasks that need attention. Today I took my car in for service. The guy who did the intake would have noticed that the key wasn’t working. He must have changed the battery for me. I was overwhelmed by his kindness and started crying when I realized that sometimes there is help beyond what my tired body can do.

I’m sure if I called to thank him, he would say that it was nothing, just the barest gesture of assistance. And yet it was everything–literally everything. Because removing even the slightest amount of weight is sometimes all you have to do to save a stranger from drowning.

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I took this picture of the Emeraude (right) from atop the pagoda. You can’t even see the beach from whence I began my swim down below. Turns out, it was really fucking far!

 

 

What’s Good?

I have had been laid low recently, a combination of physical and emotional ills. If not for my little yellow dog, I would not have left the house, and we have spent most of the last four days nestled in bed together. I find myself disconnecting from the world–declining invitations, ignoring overtures, disappearing from social media. My mantra is “Reach out to people who reach back,” but just now I feel as if I can scarcely lift my arms, let alone reach for someone.

(If you’re one of those people who has reached out, I am so sorry for not responding. Please don’t give up on me.)

The flexibility of my work schedule–the non-financial compensation that academics so highly prize–is counterproductive for me when this happens. Because of the looming Thanksgiving holiday, I could stay in bed for a good two weeks before anyone would notice. But my relationship to my work–that is a story for another day.

Today, I am trying not to close doors as soon as they open, even though a future beyond this low horizon is impossible to imagine. I responded to a text from a new suitor I met online (not Tinder; a different site). He’s “old school,” so he called me and left a nice voicemail. I wasn’t expecting that. But just returning the call feels like an impossible task for which I need to: clean the house, or at least the bathroom, ok, maybe just the toilet; take a shower, but wait–I need to go to the gym first, but I’m too gross to go out in public, so I should take a shower, then go to the gym; then I’ll tidy the house and clean the toilet; discard the dead plants and throw out the rotting Halloween pumpkins; take the dog out; sweep the leaves off the front walk; maybe find a shred of self esteem under there? Shower again. Then call.

It’s just too much.

The woman who crafted the online profile, the woman this man wants to talk to, is a stranger to me. I look at her pictures, and I read her witty self-descriptions, without recognition. Just trying to be her, let alone a woman who can endure the endless disappointments of online dating, would be the performance of a lifetime. I imagine trying to talk to this man, and I can’t script a conversation that doesn’t end with me in tears. (This poor man. Little does he know, he has drifted into the eye of someone else’s midlife hurricane!)

In an effort to rally, and in homage to my friend who writes the most hopeful blog and Facebook posts, when I know for a fact she ain’t always feelin’ it, I am going to make a list of Martha Stewart-style Good Things to try to pierce the gloom and let some light filter in. Because it’s just a phone call, right?

Good Things (aka Fronting):

  • I am not a Syrian refugee.
  • I am not an ISIS bride.
  • I am not Bashar al-Assad’s food taster.
  • I am not Putin’s botox injector.
  • I do not have to wipe Kim Jong-un’s ass (because you just know someone does, amiright?).
  • God willing, I will never have to see Donald Trump or Ben Carson naked.
  • David Vitter LOST, and 250,000 Louisianians will have access to health care as a result.
  • My dog is super cute.
  • I live in a nice house that is mostly not falling down.
  • I drive a car that is less than five years old.
  • I have a car.
  • I have a steady income and health insurance.
  • I am not trapped in a hurtful marriage.
  • My parents are both still alive, and I get to spend time with them.
  • One of my best friends is in a happy, committed relationship for the first time since I’ve known her.
  • I just bought a pair of teal slacks.
  • None of my teeth are sore.
  • There are leaves in need of raking, which is an exercise in mindfulness if ever there was one.
  • I binge-watched all of that show “Ballers” on HBO yesterday and think the Rock could get an Oscar if he found the right role and director.
  • I have an HBO-Go password, which belongs to an ex-boyfriend’s roommate’s friend, who once got so drunk he peed the floor, which the roommate filmed and my ex-boyfriend shared with me.
  • I do not struggle with addiction.
  • When the guy I like, but who doesn’t really like me back, texted me the words “great tits” unbidden yesterday, I had the self-respect not to be I’m Cool With It Girl and didn’t text him back.
  • Sometimes making a list, giving a name to the Black Dog that haunts you, and telling other people about your struggles, can help.
  • I really do have great tits.