This blog presents a series of short stories, listed below in reverse chronological order.

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I am an Oklahoma academic with an interest in creative writing.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

61. Ray the Loser

Settling into my comfy chair in the Study, NPR on in the background, the air outside with a wisp of fall, I was in heaven. Having been back in the heartland for two weeks, I was thrilled to be home, doing nothing that involved travel. It was a Sunday morning, the day that I was most ecstatic to be a couple on, as we just stayed in and did our own thing, no stress, experiencing each others company, silently. And under my blanket, snuggled in with the big fat Sunday paper, life just felt right.
The home phone rang from a far room. 
“Phone!” Thad called from the Kitchen.  
Ignoring him, I instead focused on the op-ed section of the paper: people were more and more frequently talking about the power of Jesus in reference to city politics, which just baffled me.  
“Phone!” Thad called again with a dangerous clang of a pot.
I frowned as I read a Tea Partier’s lecture on the necessity of ‘In God We Trust’ being displayed in City Hall. Norman was turning red as I sat there, and I did not like it one whit.
The phone rang again.  
“Good God!” I hear Thad huff, and then the sounds of him stomping to get the phone and then stampeding toward me.
I tried to look very busy as he burst into the room.
“Did you hear me?” he snapped.
“No,” I lied, but not one of those bad couple lies, more like a good lie; a lie that saves face, saves pain, saves a relationship.
“It’s Becky.” He thrust the phone at me.    
“Thanks,” I smiled up at him, and then into the receiver, “Hey. What’s up?”
He frowned like a cartoon crab and stomped off. 
“What’s wrong with him?” Becky said.
“Wait,” I whispered as I listened for him to regain the Kitchen. Then I whispered, “He’s in a mood.”
“How surprising,” she said. “What is it this time?”
“He had a bad visit with Ma’am,” I whispered. “But he won’t tell me.”
“How’s she doing?
“Not well.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah. So, what’s up?” I asked in my normal voice.
She was silent, then, “Ray’s a dick.”
“What?” I tried not to giggle.
“Ray’s a dick.” She repeated.
“Well, yes, but what brought this on?” I knew that Becky had met Ray up at Mickey Mantle’s Steak House in the City two months ago, and she had not taken Pablo, but she had never said much about it. And as Becky was not someone who succumbed to my badgering, and Mother knew no more, I had been hanging on about who she was going to choose: the Loser Ray or Pablo. 
“I went out with him again last night.” She said. “The first time in Bricktown in July was just weird. I mean, I hadn’t seen him in almost a year. I hardly recognized him. He’s gotten really fat and looked awful. But he was real sweet and, I don’t know, we didn’t have a bad time, but we didn’t really have a good time either. I mean, it was like a work thing, where we were both just real stiff, like we were being interviewed.”
“Yeah, that’s too bad.”
“So we started texting after that, kinda here and there, and he started calling every once in a while, but then he always got mad whenever I had to stop and take care of Pablo, like he was jealous. And I know Ray; he was jealous. But I thought he would, at least let it go since he knows I really love Pablo.”
“Have you told Ray that?”
“Yes, and he just laughed at me, and told me I shouldn’t get attached as the State could just take him away any minute, and then where would I be?”
“That’s a bit much.” I said, wanting to add, ‘The Loser has a point,’ but decided to leave it.
“But I knew he was busy with work,” she continued, “And figured he would take to Pablo once he was around him some, he’s just such a cute little guy and all. And anyway, then Ray asked me out again, for last night, and this time he was coming to Norman.”
“Yeah. And he wanted to meet at the Mont. And I didn’t mention anything about Pablo, and he didn’t either, so I just decided to bring him anyway, and not even ask Ray if it was okay. I mean, I do have a child now if he likes it or not.”
“Yes,” I kept my mouth shut again.
“So Pablo and I got there early and got a table out on the patio and Ray showed-up, and he was just pissed off immediately that I had Pablo with me. He was, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were gonna bring him,’ and ‘You should have told me, I would have brought my dog.’ And he wasn’t awful…”
“That sounds pretty awful. I mean, comparing Pablo to his dog...”
“Okay, yeah,” she stopped. “But he could have been worse.”
“Yeah, but still…”
“I know. And he wasn’t mean or awful directly to Pablo, but he didn’t really talk to him at all. And Pablo was so well behaved, he just sat there and ate his chicken strips, and was really quiet. But I was hoping for…more from Ray.”
“Don’t we always?” Things had been odd with Thad since I got back from Puerto Rico. I didn’t know what was going through his head, but my interest was piqued. But this was Becky’s time, so I kept my story to myself.
“So, what did you do?”
“Well, after dinner Ray tried to kiss me out by the car, and I just pulled away. He smelled like beer and cheap cigarettes and, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to. I just wanted to go home because Pablo was tired and I had to get him to bed. That’s all I cared about. Not Ray, and certainly not being kissed by him.”
“And what did Ray do?”
“He kinda laughed and tried again and I just told him, ‘I got to go…’ and ‘maybe I’ll talk to you later.’ But I could tell by the look on his face he knew what was going on.” She fell silent.
 She took a deep breath. “That it wasn’t working, that we need to go ahead and just get a divorce.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry,” I said. “But I am so proud of you for standing up for yourself. It’s good because Pablo needs you now.”
“I know." She said with tears in her voice. 
“And I know how hard this is one you, and what a big decision it is, I mean it’s one you have wrestled with for over a year, but at least it sounds like you’ve finally come to a decision.”        
“I know it’s the right thing to do, ” she cried quietly. “Ray just needs to fade away. I know that, but it hurts….”

We talked for the better part of an hour, she sad but hopeful, and finally with clear eyes about the merit, or lack thereof, of the Loser Ray.

62. It Sucks to Date an Alcoholic

“Hey, it’s me” I said quickly.  
“Michael?” Becky asked. “What’s wrong?”
It was three days after we had the big talk about her and  Ray. I rearranged myself on the bed and tried to think of a lie to tell her. One did not come to me: I hated lying to my sister. “Nothing.”
          “You’re lying,” she said, “Spill it. Is it Mom? What’d she do?”
          “No, no, it’s not Mom.” I said, tight-lipped. I did not want to have to tell her what I was about to tell her. My faced burned with shame, but I had to talk to someone about this, and I knew she wouldn’t be cruel.    
          “Is she on an eating binge again?” Becky asked. “You know every time she comes back from the Dietician and he tells her she can’t eat nuts because of her diverticulitis, she just gorges herself on peanuts and pecans and then can’t stop going to the bathroom for the next three days…”
          “No, it’s not Mom…” and my voice caught.
          “Oh Lord,” she said. “What’d Thad do now?”  
          “Is it that easy to tell?” I laughed softly.
“Yes, after all these years.”
Rolling back over, I took a deep breath. It was early in the evening, but lying on my bed just seemed like the best place to be, as it took the least effort. In the last two days everything Thad and I had - everything - had gone to hell in a hand basket.
“Look, I just need to talk to you,” I said. “But you can’t…”
“I won’t tell Mom.”
“Or anyone else,” I cautioned.
“Or anyone else,” She repeated. “Witches’ honor.”
I started, then stopped, then started again, “He’s had a drinking incident again.”
“Oh, no!” She gasped, and I heard her stand. “I’m so sorry. How long has it been?”
“Fifteen months.”
“That’s terrible. How did you find out?”
Fighting away the nausea I said, “Look, I’ll tell you but you can’t hold it against me, because if you told me something like this, I would hold it against you…”
“Yeah, yeah, well, that’s you…”
“Because you know Thad and I will probably stay together,” I continued. “And that just reflects so poorly on me. And I can’t have you treating me differently or looking at him weird at Thanksgiving.”
“No, don’t worry,” she grunted. “How did you find out?”
“He called from jail.”
“Good God no!” I heard her knock something over “Dammit! There went my Pepsi! I have to get a towel…hold on…”    
As she banged around, grunting and huffing, I looked up at the ceiling and just hated Thad for putting me through this. Hated him. Hated him for what he did and hated him more for embarrassing me now in front of my sister. Surely Becky wouldn’t tell Mom; Becky was trustworthy. But I had to talk to someone, to start the release of the poison inside me.
“Okay, sorry.” Becky said coming back to the phone. “So he called you from jail? And what happened? When was this?”
“Three days ago, Sunday night, the last time we talked. Later that afternoon he went home and he said he had just decided to go get some beer that night…”
“After fifteen months of straight sobriety?”
“Well, fifteen months of straight sobriety that I know of. I’ve been suspicious of him this whole time. He called me once in Puerto Rico and I swear he was drunk, and that’s happened on and off over the last year, but nothing I could prove. So maybe I was paranoid, or maybe not. But this is what I have been afraid of, that he would just fall back off the wagon.”
“Is it off the wagon or on the wagon?”
“Not sure, not important. But he said he went to get some beer and then he drank it and then drove up to the gay bars in Oklahoma City.”
“No! He drank and drove?”
“Does he go up there often?”
“Then why did he go?” she asked quietly.
This is the part that hurt the most; the rawness of the reality was still red.
“I don’t know. He said to dance, drink, whatever…” I trailed off, knowing what the gay bars were good for when you were drunk and alone.  “And you know he’s done this before, to bad result….”
“When you broke up last time?”
“Yup.” I grimaced, dredging it all up again. “Back when we were dating and living together last time, in 95-96, he did the same thing-got drunk, drove up to the gay bars but he cheated on me then, so we broke up for the next decade and then some, rat bastard. And I’ve hardly trusted him since. And you know that’s been our biggest obstacle since we got back together four years ago: I just don’t trust him and it all goes back to when he cheated on me. And to make it worse, of course he didn’t tell me outright. I had to pry it out of him after a few weeks, and then he didn’t even tell me the whole truth until he got really loaded again and when he finally told me, then I just broke up with him. I mean I had suspected all along, but the reality of it - the cheating - was horrible.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Me too.” I stood to pace. “And he says nothing like that happened this time.  I mean, he said he just went up to the bars to dance and talk to some people but I just don’t know if I can believe him. He lies. He’s a liar. But no matter what, when he was driving back he was pulled over by the Oklahoma City Cops and arrested for DUI.”
“Oh no.”
“I know. It’s his third or fourth. I‘ll be surprised if he still has a license after this.”
“And he called you that night?” she asked.
“No, the next morning. He spent the night in the drunk tank.” I chuckled. “Serves him right. And I wouldn’t go get him.”
“You’re kidding?” she gasped.  “You wouldn’t?”
“No. Hell with him. It was Monday morning and I had a departmental meeting and he was all the way in the City. So I called his Mom and made her go do it.” The thought of that punishment offered me some solace besides the pain I had been wallowing in.  
“And she went and got him out?”
“Yup. Like she always does…”
We were silent for a moment. I stopped to sit, crushed, knowing she though less of me now; that I was unworthy as I loved someone as base as Thad, and that here - at this moment -she was realizing what a failure I was as an older brother.  
“You know,” she began, “I had been thinking about how paranoid you’ve been about him, about his drinking. I mean, how you’ve still been talking about it and worrying about it. And I really thought it was all just a lot of wasted effort, that it was in your head, and that he was better and all. But I guess he isn’t.”
“It sucks dating an alcoholic.”  I had never uttered a more painful phrase.
“How’s he doing?”
“The rat bastard?” I chortled.
“He’s fine, I guess. I don’t care. We’ve fought every day since. I just hate him right now. I am ashamed and mortified and don’t even know what to feel. He betrayed my trust by drinking, put himself and others in danger drinking and driving, and then - did he cheat on me again? How am I to know because all I can do is trust him, and of course I don’t trust him! Oh, and he went to jail. Classy, that is.”
“I’m sorry.”
“I know.”
“Has he drunk again since?” she asked.
“I don’t think so, I mean he said he hasn’t, but who really knows since he lies. He’s a lying drunk.” I laughed to myself. “ The last few months have been great. I mean, I was paranoid and kind of a mess through them-especially when he moved out- but that was nothing compared to what I’m dealing with now-I mean real troubles. But I had even started to trust him some. I mean, I was so sad to leave him when I went to Puerto Rico. And now he’s a lying drunk again, with all those fifteen months, gone. Pouf! We’re back at the beginning.”
“That’s too bad. But at least he’s okay.”
“Yeah, I guess. Have you heard the old joke, ‘How can you tell if an alcoholic is lying?’” 
“No. How?”
“’His lips are moving,’”
She snickered, but in a sad way. “Why do you think he did it, I mean drink after such a long time?”
I lay back down. “I thought about that, and all I could think was that he has been real sad over Ma’am.”
“Did he ever tell you what happened during his last visit?”
“Yesterday he said something about it. Apparent she didn’t recognize him at all and then made fun of his hair in a really mean way, and he had cried all the way back from the City. He said he knew it was just the Alzheimer’s making her crazy, but he wasn’t expecting her to be mean. He seemed so hurt by it.”
 “And you think that did it? That set him off?”
“I guess. I don’t know. He wouldn’t really talk about it, but he never wants to talk about anything serious. He just clams up and sulks.”
“But you two are talking?” she asked, “I mean, have you talked about it?”
“Oh yeah. Twice. The first time Monday night after his Mom sprang him, for me to get the facts of the story straight and the second time, yesterday, to cover my points of disappointment in him. I had a list.”
“Of course you did.”
“Of course I did! And he made fun of me too for having one too, saying, ‘Can’t you even speak from the heart?’ and I just hissed, “I think you’re a fucking whore. That’s what’s in my heart. Do you want to hear anymore that’s in there?’ and he didn’t say anything else about the list after that.”
“Oh my.”
“Yeah. So we’re talking, but hardly. And I haven’t even talked to him all day today. And I don’t know what to do. I’m just really sad, and I just wish things were back to the way they were, back to normal. But that can’t be. And I am just so disappointed in him, and I keep feeling like I’m falling. Like falling and falling and I have nothing to stop me, and everything is hollow around me and I can’t even hardly breathe.” I stopped. “I hate that so much of me is him, especially when he is so terrible.”
“I’m sorry, honey.”
“I know. Thank you,” and for the first time I teared-up. “That’s why I wanted to call you. I was just so sad and didn’t know what to do-if I should call him or not-and I just wanted to just to hear your voice, and I knew you would make me feel better.”
“It’ll be okay.”
“But I don’t know that it will,” I sobbed into the phone.

We talked for two more hours, quietly, this time she calming me.  

63. Luxor

 “Where do you want to go eat?” Thad asked in a forced upbeat voice.
“I don’t know. Where do you want to go eat?”
He screwed up his face and shrugged. “Well, it’s date night Saturday, so someplace nice?”
“Yeah,” I said noncommittally “That sounds good,” and walked into my Study.

It was four days later and I could still hardly look at him. After a monumental fight with him the night that I talked to Becky, I broke up with Thad in a grand and histrionic way that will surely be reproduced by Noh Theatre troops for years to come.  And we stayed broken-up for 55 hours- 55 horrible hours of no sleep and paranoia and rage and ennui. That is until I caved in last night, afraid I was overreacting, and called him back in a complete panic to make-up and to get back together.
So things had supposedly gotten better, as we were still a couple but then there was the problem that we were still a couple and that he was still an alcoholic who had  drunk and drove to the gay bars and got thrown in jail for it. And to top it off, after we got back together last night, he didn’t want to see me, instead he said he already had plans with Bettina, which left me glad we had made-up, but then livid and paranoid and jealous since I couldn’t see him immediately and that he had -again - chosen her over me.   
I had picked him up this morning, it now Saturday, and we had garage sailed some, but neither of us were into it. We just came back to the house and went to our separate corners, he to watch TV in the Den and me to brood over my computer in the Study. A home OU football raged outside, cars and people and crimson and creme everywhere.  

I had no idea what to do. I loved him and wanted to stay together, but this was big. He was an alcoholic. A big, nasty dumbass alcoholic and I was going to have to realize that there was nothing that could change that. He had been better, but I guess I was going to have to accept these falls, these terrible, terrible, crushing falls, as part of our life.   
But the drinking wasn’t even the worse of it. The worst of it was that he had gotten drunk and went to the gay bars. And I wanted to trust him, that nothing had happened, but I didn’t trust him because of all of our past, so that was that. And my paranoia was having a heyday imagining the Karma Sutra of sin he revealed in up there, all before his magnanimous fall to arrest.
Shame. Hatred. Scorn. Terror. Wrath. Vengeance.  

I heard him coming and tried to calm down.
“Hey!” he said sticking his head in the door. “Guess what?”
I wanted to say, ‘You are a completely horrible human being who doesn’t deserve me, and the only reason you’ve never committed suicide is because you are incapable of finishing anything.’ But I did not. Instead I said, “What?”
“Guess who Bettina is going on a date with next week?”      
“Who?” I said, trying to sound human.
“Really?” I said, actually caught off guard. And then to snap back, “That’s really stupid, he’s gay.”
“Yeah, I told her that, but she just wants a nice free meal, so she demanded Legend’s.”
“Well, I wish them the best.” I looked back to my computer.
“I’ll water the porch plants.” He said to no one in particular.
“Great, thanks,” I did not look back up.
He was trying; I just hated him for it. This was to be our day to get back into our groove, to get back to being us, but I just wasn’t feeling it. When we were breaking up the other day he had screamed at me, ‘I can’t live in your bubble. That’s your life-your expectations. Not mine!’ I had thought about this, but didn’t really know what he meant. I mean, my bubble was a good bubble, a good life. Why wouldn’t he want that? He just didn’t know he wanted it yet. He was at fault.
He exited the room silently.

Fifteen minutes later he walked back in to hand me the mail.
“Thanks,” I said not looking up. I wanted him to be punished for a long time, punished in a remarkably abstract kind of way that was illegal in seventeen states; that could feature in a Saw movie; that would even disturb the Marquis de Sade’s dreams. I wanted him punished like no other. Punished till he knew how bad I hurt inside.
He walked out and I fished through the mail to find junk and bills and a pink and gold post card. The picture on the front was of the Las Vegas Luxor hotel. My breath caught. I flipped it over and immediately recognized the slanted cursive handwriting of my father.  

Hello. Got your letter. Glad to hear that you and Rebecca are well. Would like to talk to you both. I am sorry it’s been so long.
My phone number is: 702-798-5595. 
                                                          Love, Charles
I just sat there, stunned. What a day to get this! I could hardly focus but I made myself, rereading it. It was like my father was talking to me, just to me, there for the first time in 33 years. I could still hear his voice, or at least the voice I always remembered as his. The tears came quickly. My father wanted to be part of my life again, and I could not be happier. Tear for him and tears for how terrible Thad was came all at the same time.  
Thad stuck his head back in. I looked down, rubbing my eyes.  
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I just…” and then I remembered that I had not told him about the letter, about writing to Dad, and felt ashamed. Now who was the liar? But then I thought about it: he did not deserve it then and certainly not now. He did not need to be part of this now, not with what he had just done to me. “Nothing.” I slid the postcard away.
“Okay. You sure?” he said seriously.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“Are you going to forgive me?”  Thad asked sternly, coming into the room. “Or are you just never going to let me in again?”
“What?” I feigned. “You know we’ve only been back together for a day. What you did was terrible.”
“I know and I apologized.”
We stared at each other with pure unadulterated hate.
“I read the postcard,” he said. “I’m sorry for what I did- I am so sorry. I never meant to hurt you. But we are still a couple and I didn’t even know you had written your father, and now he’s writing you back and you’re not even going to tell me about it? You’re just going to push it away and not tell me?” It was Thad’s turn to tear-up, which never, ever happened, and sobered me right the Hell up.
“No, it’s just…” I started, looking down at the postcard half hidden under my keyboard, and then I just lost it. “I’m just so sad.”
“I know.” He said, coming over to put his hand on my shoulder. “I am sorry. I fucked up. It was a fluke. It really was.”
“And other than this you’ve been sober for this whole time?” I said, trying to regain my composure.
“Yes, I swear.”
“And nothing happened up in the City? There was no cheating?”
“No, God, no. I just went up there to dance. I was drunk, I wasn’t even thinking…”
“You know I can’t believe you, I can’t trust you at all because you’ve done exactly this before-and cheated on me…”
“I know,” He said wiping at his eyes, “I know. And I know that I’ve apologized for that before, but you have to believe me this time. I am telling the truth. I got drunk and drove up there and got arrested on the way back, but nothing else. I am so sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”
He cried harder than I had seen him cry in years, and it god-damn melted my heart.
“You weren’t even going to tell me…” he sobbed, pointing at the postcard.
Rising, I hugged him.
“I’m sorry…” he sputtered.
“I know, I know, baby.”
“Mom is taking my car away.”
“You’re kidding!” I said, genuinely surprised. It had been impounded, and he had not gotten it back yet, but I just assumed it was on its way.
“Nope. She told me Wednesday. No more car. They can’t keep me on their insurance. Plus I might lose my license, anyway, what with the DUI.”
‘Serves you right, you know.”
“I know,” he wiped his eyes. “So I’m not going to have to be catching a ride with you for a while.”
“That’s fine. We can work it out.”
“It’ll suck.” He paused, and looked up at me. “I hate to cry. You know I’m sorry.”
“I know.”
Wiping his eyes, he looked over at my desk. “Now, are you going to tell me about the postcard?”

So I did. I pulled it out and handed it to him and told him about writing to Dad. Thad and I talked about how exciting it was that I could call him now, and maybe see him sometime. And how happy that would make Becky, and also told him about Becky’s decision to kick Ray the Loser to the curb and keep Pablo, and Thad was happy for her for that.  
And as we sat and talked, we held hands and it felt good, now not great, but right, and I really, really wanted to believe him this time.  

64. The Garden Rapist and the Fullness of Time

          Later that afternoon, with the kink over Thad starting to be replaced by the sudden bubble of joy over my father’s postcard, I realized there was something I needed to do; a score that needed to be settled. The universe had just shown me a mitzvah in the midst of my emotional desert, so now I needed to repay that. I now need to do some good to prove that I still could. And maybe, just maybe, this blackness of life would turn around for me.     
          I told Thad that I was just going to run up to the bank to get cash for tonight, but instead drove straight to the Farmer’s Market.

          Inside, the country folk hawked their wares in a Nashville cum Currier and Ives kind of way. Shame still in my heart from the last time I dared dim these doors with my presence, I kept my eyes down and power walked though. As I passed, men held up NASCAR shirts and ladies waggled purses made from tin cans and yarn at me. I kept my eyes down and did not stop until I saw her: the Garden Rapist.
          She sat at her birdhouse booth with her husband, they cracking and eating pecans out of a tin pail. I took a breath and walked straight up to her.
          “Hi, you probably remember me…” I began, my voice shaking.
          “Well, Michael. Yes, I do.” The Garden Rapist said as her husband stood. She turned and held out her French manicured hand up to him, “Let it be.”
          The husband looked like he might kill me in a quiet hippy way.
          “First off,” I rushed. “I am so sorry about last time. I just had a very sentimental terra cotta chicken planter full of ivy stolen off my porch…”
          “The one you were screaming at me about? The one you said I stole?” she said, one painted on eyebrow arched highly as her tremendous ponytails stood straight out from her head.
          “Yes. I was wrong to accuse you of that. It’s just that it was stolen the last time you were over and I told you I didn’t want to do a flower exchange, and I just assumed it was you because you were mad. But I found out it was some drunk college kids from down the street. So, I had no right to scream at you like that. I over-reacted. I just wanted to come and tell you that. I am sorry.”        
          With eyes wide, the Garden Rapist made a slight grunt and then stood up to join her husband. She looked to him and then back to me.
          I prepared myself for a full psycho explosion.
          “Oh, that’s just fine,” she said, waving at me like the country folk do. “Water under the bridge and all. I figured it was just a misunderstanding. I mean, didn’t I say that, sugar?” She looked back to her husband and he nodded, sitting back down.
          “Oh, good! Good!” I gushed. “I have felt terrible ever since. I’m glad you didn’t take it personally.  I mean, I was just being crazy.”
          “No, no, hon. I figured it was a mistake.” She reached over and slapped her husband on the hand.  “Didn’t I say that? I said, ‘that boy’s gone and got things all messed-up.’ Didn’t I say that?”
          The husband nodded and ate another pecan.
“Well, good,” I said. “I just didn’t want there to be any hard feelings or anything….”
“No, no, naw. Not at all.” 
“Good, good.” I smiled, relieved she hadn’t climbed over her folding table and stabbed me with her big silver gardening fork, which I’m assuming she always kept around for just such emergency killings.
“But you know what you could do to make up for it?” She had a twinkle of the old crazy in her eye.
“What?” I asked, knowing what was coming. 
“We could still do that flower exchange you talked about. It’s about time to plant the spring bloomers.”
“Sure,” I smiled honesty, having already emotionally prepared myself for this inevitable outcome. “It’ll be my pleasure. You can drop by any time you want, even if I’m not there…”

For the next half-hour we continued to talk gardening and about the recent drought, about irises and daffodils, about how to prune roses, rain vs. hose watering, and the supreme and amazing recuperative power of manure.

_ _

This ends the first cycle of the Frankie Goes to Home Depot stories.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

57. The Travails of Travel

Ahead of me, a haggard frump bounced up and down in her seat laughing uproariously and waggling her plump hands in the air. Her friend, or sister, or old school chum or whatever that sat across the aisle from me on the plane chortled and giggled and jiggled back. They both were apparently completely unaware that they were in a confined metal tube full of angry strangers. The ladies laughed and talked and slapped hands and-I kid you not here-even had a tickle fight at 32,000 feet, likes they were gunning for the Senior Citizens discount into the lesbionic Mile High Club.  
Crammed into my tiny horrid airplane seat, unnerved by the altitude and the whole craptastic experience that was modern flying, I cursed the 9/11 terrorists for making previously uncomfortable air travel so much more blatantly unbearable. The harridan ahead laughed loudly and reached back to slap her friend of the leg; her friend responded with a hoot. I hated them both; hated them with a burning passion akin only to what the public currently felt for that Floridian baby-killing woman who OJ-ed it and got away scot free.  
Looking around the plane, I realized that I was not in the worst possible seating configuration, but it was bad. At least I wasn’t directly between them, which would have been worst besides being sat anywhere near a baby or a precocious child, or even worse a bored, talkative businessman.  And, yes, I could have switched seats with one of the woman so that they could be next to each other to talk and whisper and tickle, but I chose not to, as the present scenario gave me something to do on the 4 ½ flight from Dallas to San Juan: hate them incessantly instead of worrying about the plane bursting into flame and breaking apart midair and me falling, falling, falling to my doom-while on fire-trapped, as I am unable to get my seatbelt unfastened.
 Ah, travel.

I had left home this afternoon after a weird crying jag to Thad. It wasn’t that I was that afraid to go on the trip, I mean, Puerto Rico was in the United States-how scary could it really be? I was just sad to leave him. I had asked him to go, and he had refused. His fear of travel was something I had decided we would work on now that we had hopefully chucked the problems with the bottle and were entering our 4th year of near-matrimony. But I had no idea if I could ever pry him out of Norman.
Actually in all of our 20+ years of dating, we had never even left the state together; the farthest he had ever let me take him was Tulsa, with the Gaga debacle being one of those trips. And maybe I didn’t ask him pleadingly enough to go with me to this conference, as spouses were invited. But maybe that was because he was such a pain nationally, I had no idea what havoc he could wreck on me internationally, and this was a business trip anyway.  
Whatever the case, this morning I was the one to lose it. I had grown very comfortable lately, settled into our conflictless life of the last year or so quite happily, aside from his moving in with Bettina and the possible threat of Spandex Hair Mane, that is. This was the first time that I would be leaving him while being actually happy. Previously I had always traveled to get away from my life, to run, to try and find myself; but now, for the first time, I knew who I was, and that was next to Thad. So I had blubbered some version of this to him this morning and he had just looked at me like I had sprouted a fern from my head and said, “You’ll be fine. We’ll talk every day. Bye.” But I could tell he was moved; he just hid his emotions.   
Driving myself to the airport, I had cried until I was about halfway there. I had forced myself to calm and readopt my 42 year old university faculty mean that was necessary for civilized travel: I was an adult, I could do this.

Having already changed flights in Dallas, I was now on a direct flight to San Juan. Besides the talkative bouncing matrons to my front and left, the girls sitting next to me were more like slight muses. They were about fifteen or sixteen, just coming into their womanhood with make-up and daring lace tops and ipods. They were clearly Puerto Rican nationals, as they rattled back and forth to eat other in machine-gun Spanish, but then would address me in broken English such as, “Yes, hell-O. Do you have the time?” They were charming and pretty and non-bouncy which made them nice seat mates. But they sang.
At first I thought it was music being pumped into the cabin, as it was soft, lilting, and melodic. But then in my periphery I noticed the lips of the girl closest to me were moving. It was not an unpleasant sound being barely pianissimo, or whatever that is in Spanish. But as the voyage drew on, and I continued to entertain myself frowning up a storm at the bouncing aged women, the girl’s voice grew slightly louder, now not loud, but louder. And it still was not unpleasant, more like church music, or the song from an adjoining garden, or the theme of a sad movie you liked. And as we neared their home island, the other girl joined her in all I can assume was some sort of Puerto Rican song of assumption, and their soft fragile voices guided our plane in to a safe and sound landing.
As the tires bounced once, twice, and then a third time, to then stay down, everyone on the plane burst into applause, and I felt like I was the surprise winner of a 1950’s game show.

Once into the San Juan terminal, I grabbed my luggage and taxied in to my hotel, finding it adequate. It was a redone 1960’s Best Westerny styled place, my room up on the 5th floor with an ocean view, which was always startling for someone from a landlocked state. The room had a mini-fridge and WIFI, my only two real requirements in a modern hotel room. The bedspread had a mysterious Rorschach stain that I chose to ignore, yet I kept staring at it as it seemed to move.
I called Thad immediately, who was staying at the house while I was gone. He answered upbeat, but I could tell taken aback by my disappearance.
“I miss you!’ he said. “I really do.”
“I miss you too, honey.”
  Since we had gotten back together, the only other time we had been separated for more than a day was when I went to this same conference in Milan two years ago, and he had not handled that well at all. Suffice to say, the bottle had been his comfort during my absence. During that trip I had to fend off a number of drunken, “I miss you…I can’t believe you left me, you bastard!” phone calls. Yeah, charming. I just hoped this went better. It really was his Sword of Damocles moment; if he could stay sober through this-40 and all-I think he could make it through most anything.
“I’ll call you tomorrow…” I said, just wanting to settle in and go to bed.
“Oh, just one more thing…” and then he told me a silly story about Charlotte Bronte and her adventures with a toy mouse she had found in my Study. It was nice just to hear his voice, to hear him laugh.  
“Okay then…” I said, not wanting to cut him off, but really weary from the stupid flight.  
“Bye!” he said abruptly and the conversation was over.
He sounded okay, I think. I hope. Was he drunk? Did he sound drunk? I don’t think so. Maybe. Probably not.
I don’t handle situations well where I have no control –situations such as this. And in those situations Paranoia very quickly becomes my friend. And then Mania comes and sits down beside me, with Panic on the other side holding my hand. I looked over and was sure the Rorschach stain moved again.
I’m almost sure he was sober.

58. A Tour of the Historic Bathrooms of Old San Juan

               The next morning as I sat on my hotels’ rooftop terrace and ate breakfast, I realized my sadness at leaving Thad was passing. Looking out at the blue-white-blue curling ocean, I realized the amazing recuperative powers of waffles and sausage amid an open air tropical terrace view, while being waited on by handsome mocha skinned fellows who all kinda looked like Prince, cat-eyes and all.    
              After another wistful glance out to sea, but not down, as my vertigo kept me far away from the terrace’s edge, I reviewed my itinerary: touring today, then six days of conference, interspersed with more touring and conference events, then one more day of touring and then back home. It was a simple 10 day/9 night trip, that’s it. It would be easy…but I was nervous, as it was just the beginning of my adventures.  I knew all I had to do was suck it up and head out this morning to get the feel of the neighborhood and that would start to calm me, but I had to fight the fear that just wanted me to go back and hide in my safe hotel room.
But, alas, I could not allow the fear to win. In preparation for this trip, and accompanying paranoia,  I had devised a number of mental rules: (1) use a little Spanish before demanding they speak English to you; (2) Try not to be too grotesquely American; (3) Try not to piss off the natives; (4) Don’t get robbed; (5) Don’t get in the wrong cab and get kidnapped; (6) Don’t get your kidneys stolen, as you need them, or at least one, I think; (7) Be wary of parrots-they may look friendly but they carry disease (Mother said); (8), Don’t eat the local food as it might poison your sensitive stomach (also from Mother); and (9)Don’t drink the water (again from Mother, except I questioned this one, as it was America, so maybe the water was okay), and (10) Beware of hurricanes, as it was hurricane season and the weather was predicted to be stormy over the next few days.
Oh, and (11) Be cautious of Tsunamis. Thad had first warned me of this one: “If a Tsunami is coming run - one killed Oprah’s gay Nate’s boyfriend, and he was so sad, but then got a TV show out of it, but make sure to run first.”  Sage advice as always there from my Dear Thaddeus.
Yet as I went through this list, staying in hiding in my hotel room sounded better and better.   

              By 9 AM I had forced myself out to go wonder around Condado, the neighborhood where my hotel and the Conference Center were located. As I passed decorative stores and high-rise hotels, I realized the neighborhood wasn’t scary at all; there were no machete wielding banditos or parrots slavering at the mouth. In fact I was in a totally fabulous touurista part of town. And as I passed Gucci and Cartier, my undies unbunched and I began to saunter.
The weather was warm, as expected since it was summer on the equator and all, but not unbearable. Actually Oklahoma was hotter and had no pleasant ocean breeze or the cool recourse that came with rain. The foliage was weird, like a movie set of a tropical island-tall palms and small spiny palms, and huge trees covered in vines with lizards zipping up and down the stalks. The whole affair was very Gilligan’s Island. 
I wondered a few blocks over, mentally mapping my escape route back to the hotel in case there was a riot or cannibals with clubs, and came across even fancier hotels and restaurants and casinos and gift shops and then the ocean!  It was just right there, all big and flat and frothy as it is. So apparently my hotel was only 3 blocks from the ocean, with a Walgreen’s dropped right in the middle it: now that’s America! I could have a dip in the ocean and pick up a 12-pack of pampers all in one trip! And looking around and seeing a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Wendy’s, and a cab stand, I realized I really would be fine.  

              After lunch from a charming local establishment called Subway Sandwiches, I cabbed to Old San Juan, to start my day of real touring. This area of town was where all of the cool historic stuff was, so I had my camera (to preserve), a bottle of water (to preserve me, as the growing humidity was beginning to make me feel like I was wrapped in a fat man’s wet blanket), a snack (in case I got lost), tons of cash (to pay off the kidnappers), an umbrella (as it had already rained once this morning), a brief language book (to be able to speak to the kidnappers), and stomach pills (as I was sure to become violently ill at any second, even from looking too closely at the local, ethnic, cuisine). So like Christopher Columbus before me, I screwed down my courage and set off on a life-changing adventure.

              An hour later, as I sat in a Ben and Jerry’s and tried to cool off from an imminent heat stroke; I realized maybe I wasn’t a true adventurer after all, as all I had really sought among the interesting and beautiful ethnic sights was a clean bathroom. My journey had taken me to a cool 1500’s fort, through two crazy old churches, a scenic square or two, and many curiosity shops, but all I could really focus on the whole time was trying to find a clean, private bathroom.
See, to be a bit scatological: public bathrooms terrified me. I mean, horrified me in a crippling kind of way. I would say they scared the pee out of me, but actually the experience was exactly the opposite. And there’s no reason to go into the psychology behind it, yes, whatever you are thinking Dr. Freud is fine, but I hated public bathrooms. Enough said.
At home this wasn’t a problem, as I was comfortable with my local loos, but out and about, with new and adventurous toilets to experience, all I could do was shutter and run the other direction. I mean can you imagine a church from 1530 really having a good restroom? Well they don’t, and that is just a travesty for all Christians.  
              And having gotten older and my prostate apparently older and weaker along with it, I had to pee all the damn time now. But the OCD was at odds with my urinary track, as my body wanted to just pee, pee, pee, all over, all over everything now, but my mind would only allow it under very special circumstances. And being in a four-hundred year old fort with 9 other men at a trough urinal really just doesn’t cut it. So I ran. I just ran. I mean, what else could a civilized person do?              
              And this bathroom search pretty much colored most of the trip. I know. And I knew it was a product of my OCD more than anything, some sort of reaction to being out of pocket and scared of parrots and nervous about being kidnapped and not knowing the words for “Please, don’t cut off my finger and mail it to my Mother!”-but what was I do to? Crazy is as crazy does. At least I could travel, and wasn’t stuck at home next to Thad, curled into a ball rocking back and forth obsessively fighting over who got to pet Charlotte Bronte next.
So I just ran from one historical site’s incredibly terrifying bathroom to the next historical site’s even more terrifying bathroom.  We almost had a winner in the second oldest Church in the Western Hemisphere, but lost when there were no doors on the stalls, which faced out. So no dice. I mean, Jesus, people, get with the program. And so I left, my bladder beating against me, my heart racing from the fear, and the heat just about to kill me dead.
Trekking up an angry hill, wondering what on earth I was going to do, I saw my beacon, the star that led my way: a glowing sign for a Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Parlor. And I ran, ran to it, arms out, to find salvation in its cool air conditioning and a gloriously private, citron smelling bathroom with real paper towels and a lock on the door. And all is cost me was a $3 can of coke. And they called Ponce de Leon an adventurer!
After that, my OCD calmed and I was able to somewhat enjoy myself.

Old San Juan is cool, like New Orleans’ French Quarter, or old Boston, or anywhere in Europe: old buildings with fabulous iron work and interesting doors, tiny streets, and crumbling cobblestones. But the buildings here were painted bright Caribbean colors, and the foliage grew like the beanstalks from fairytales. So I wondered hither and yon, through interesting shops, charming parks, and stellar sights, all with a magnificent view of the blue rolling ocean off in the distance.  
Oh, and tidal waves. I needed to remember to be worried about tidal waves too.  (12) Tidal waves.     
              Much later that evening as I walked down the dank dark hall of my hotel toward my room, I felt good. I had spent the afternoon touring and conquering little fear after little fear. I was proud of myself for not crying and staying in my room all day. It might seem simple to some, but it was enough to make me feel proud.
As I neared my door I saw something I did not understand. Standing at the door past my room, backlit by a big window was a figure, hunched over, trying to get its door open. But the oddness was the way that the figure was hunched that confused me: I could not tell if it was man or woman, and its one outstretched arm appeared huge, almost malformed.
              I neared, warily, pulling out my own key card quietly. And as I came closer I realized it was an armless Middle Eastern man using his foot to manipulate the keycard into the door slot apparatus. He was hunched over to get his leg high enough and arched enough to lower the keycard down, held firmly in place by his toes. And I stopped and then immediately looked away, not wanting to get caught staring, and embarrass him.
              Fumbling with my own keycard, I hustled into my room, eyes down. Door open, me in, door shut.

For the remainder of the night I thought about how brave the armless man must be to travel, and how I just wished I had half of his courage.     

59. The Polite Canadian

“And that is why,” the Eastern Indian keynote speaker said adjusting her brilliant pink and turquoise sari, “a new reading of Troilus and Cressida is needed in the light of the recent gender and queer studies movements in Britain, as well as the United States.”
She cleared her throat and tapped her laptop, trying to get the PowerPoint presentation to move forward. Someone in the back sneezed. It sounded German. And someone else laughed, probably a Swede, as they were rather giggly.   
 Sitting in the big hall of the Conference Center, I busied myself doodling a picture of Charlotte Bronte dancing a jig. Troilus and Cressida was one of my least favorites, and this woman’s monosyllabic drone was not helping me stay awake. It was early and I had slept poorly and now was all dressed up, with it hot-hot-hot outside already.
“Just one second please,” the speaker said, whispering something to her technical assistant, as now both fussed with her laptop.
Shakespearians and computers were incongruent, if that was not obvious.  
I yawned and looked around the room. The International Shakespeare Conferences were a hoot. This was my sixth to attend in the last decade. It was nice that this was close to home, as most of the time I had to hoof it to Europe, or worse. I usually skipped the ones in the Far East, as Europe really was my preference, as was Will’s.
There were about a thousand people present, from all over the world. There were serious looking men in suits, hippy Berkeley ladies in flowery dresses, Brit in corduroy and vests, Scots in tartan, African men in colorful pajama-looking clothes, African ladies in dashikis, Muslim ladies in head scarves, and even two Buddhist monks in orange robes. It was all very dramatic and a neat homage for one lone writer who died 400 years ago, and we weren’t even sure he was the one wrote the stuff (I personally think it was Christopher Marlowe). But more than anything, it was impressive.     
I smiled at the two young guys sitting in the row down from me, both apparently in that awkward beginning stage of growing a scholarly beard. You could tell they were European by their shoes. The Europeans had the weirdest shoes. I would guess they were German by their pointed features and apparent drollness. I bent in to listen.
          Sono affamato. Che cosa circa voi?”
Italians! I was wrong!
One of the guys noticed me looking and waved and said, “El-o.”
I smiled and pretended to busy myself with my notes. A second later I snuck another glance at their shoes again: I should have guessed they were Italians as not only were the shoes weird, but also very expensive looking.
“Okay, I think we got it.” The Indian woman said from the stage. “Here we go…” and she launched into her paper, beginning to read it word for word.
I yawned cartoonishly and wondered how I was going to manage this for six more days.   

               That night at a dinner reception as I spoke to group of Japanese about my book, I really wished I still drank as they all held festive cocktails and I just had 7-Up and lime.
              “Oh, yes. Shakespeare’s use of, if I may say, whores, as we say…”
              They all laughed, the men loudly, but the women quietly, looking down shyly.  
              “…was quite prevalent through many of the plays and especially the sonnets, as I’m sure you’re quite aware……” and I continued the lecture, promoting my book.
One of the men spoke to me at length, his English not great, but better than my Japanese. As I listened and tried to decipher his points, I kept thinking of the joke that I had been told over and over at these international conferences: “A person who speaks three languages is trilingual, a person who speaks two languages is bilingual, and a person who speaks one language is…American!” This was inevitably followed by much twittering on the part of the foreigner, as I always just smiled and thought, ‘Yes, but Shakespeare wrote in English, so suck on that.’    
              I answered the man’s questions as best as I could and he bowed and walked off. As they were leaving, one of the women told me she had read my book, “It very good. Funny, but good.”
              “Great! Thank you!” I smiled.
               Left alone, I beamed over the compliment, bestriding the reception like a mighty academician.
Striding back to the bar to get more 7-Up, I looked around the room. I needed to find some publishers and see if anyone would be interested in Whores in Musicals. It would be a stretch here, but they had to realize man could not live on Shakespeare alone, not even here.      
              That evening on a shuttle bus back to my hotel, I sat next to a talkative Canadian man with a cane.  He was rotund and elderly with a moon face and twinkling eyes, like a Disney uncle. I sat next to the window, he on the aisle. I was doing a slight sitting pee dance, as the bathrooms at the reception hall scared me.     
              “Have you been to the Caribbean before?” the Canadian asked.
              “Just once with my parents, to the Bahamas in the early 1990’s. It was okay. It just seemed like south Texas. But this really seems like a topical island.”
“Well, that’s because it is a tropical island, son,” the man chuckled.
“I guess you’re right,” I smiled. The Caribbean family vacation had been a God-awful  disaster of a trip: Smith had made Becky and I both cry before we were even out of Oklahoma, and that was just day one of a sixteen day trip.    
“This conference seldom comes to the tropics,” the old man continued. “It’s nice to get out into the sun. So many scholars just stay so cooped-up in the dark. And thank goodness we’re not stuck in some dank hole in Norway or Switzerland, where they take research so, so deadly seriously. I could do without the rain here, though.”
“It does rain about everyday doesn’t it?”
“Like clockwork.” He smiled, checking his watch. “That dinner was nice, but I had no idea what the Frenchman speaker was talking about: Hamlet as metaphor for war? Phah!”
At this point the bus took a sudden left turn and the kindly old Canadian gentleman slid out of his seat and into the floor of the bus. It all happened in a split second, and I tried to grab him but was also concerned with holding myself in.   
As soon as the bus righted its path, I rose to help the old man up, trying not to think about the status of my full bladder, “Here, let me…”
“No, no, I am fine,” the old man said, rolling about the floor of the bus trying to right himself. “It’s just something that happens.”
“But, I can…” I said, trying to decide if I should pull him up or just let him flounder there like a really smart turtle. Two other men behind me had also stood and also had similar disturbed expressions on their faces.      
“No, no, I am fine. Don’t trouble yourself…” the man said, flailing about.
So I sat back down, feeling terrible, as the man got his cane out from underneath him and eventually after a time or two finally pushed himself up. I looked out the window and wondered how the Canadians managed to be such a polite people.
The old man heaved himself back up and plopped down next to me to take a deep breath, wipe the grime off his hands and say, “As I was saying, I don’t think that Frenchman had the right take on Hamlet at all…”
And I looked back over at him and said, “Uh huh…” like nothing had happened at all, but, boy, I had to pee. 

In my room later that night, I talked to Thad. He was out in the yard watering, telling me some story about being at Homeland today.
“Yeah, so I was like, ‘Heydew knowf, you know’” he said, “and then she was, like, “No, I don’t thark po’ …so there, that’s it. Don’t you thank?” 
“Really?” I said, not understanding half of what he said, but holding my tongue as I was sure he was drunk. Drunk! Now due to the fact that he normally  slurred his words like a Slavic sorority girl with a mouthful of marbles, let alone huffing and puffing as he was out in the yard working-totally out of shape, or as he called it ‘loved’- I swear he sounded drunk.
“Well, don’t ya think?” Thad repeated.  
“Are you drinking?” I snapped, the crazy taking over.
“What?” he said, suddenly very clear. “No.”
“Well, I can’t understand a thing you are saying.” Mania was snuggling into me.  
“CAN YOU UNDERSTAND THIS?” he said in perfectly loud English.
“Yes,” I said, scared.
“No, wait,” I said, the panic OCD alarms going off in my head. “Don’t hang up.” I had told him not to pitch a petite prince fit while I was gone, and had even bought him a carton of cigarettes to get a promise of good behavior out of him-like we were doing prison bartering or something. The last thing I wanted was to get in some transatlantic fight with him, where I had no power and then he refused to answer my calls for a few days: I could handle Princess stateside, but not while I was out of my comfort zone, not like this.      
“I should go,” he said, not sounding drunk at all, now just pissed.
“Look,” I snapped, suddenly livid, “We talked about this. I bought you all those cigarettes, and you said you wouldn’t throw a fit.  You said you wouldn’t.” As I said it, I realize that this was a bad tact to take with him, as purchased guilt never worked on Thad or any of the wealthy.    
“I should go,” he said sternly.
We were both silent for a second, even though I was raging, dangling from his every slurry whim, which I hate-hate-hated!
“Okay.” I said sweetly. “I love you and miss you.”
“Uh huh. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Bye,” he snapped and hung up the phone.  

After I hung up I realized he wasn’t drunk; I was just paranoid.

I slept fitfully that night, but did decide not to talk to him anymore near bedtime just in case he was drinking, rat bastard.