Road Trip 2020, Day Five

if only these pics were perfect

as perfectly peaceful as they appear

and no one lost a phone (and all the love attached) to a lake

and no one said they hated each other

and no one lied to their mother

and no one cried.

but life isn’t this lake

this quiet Kentucky fishing lake that we ruined with six screaming kids and one barking dog

this peaceful lake for paddling or praying or both

this swimmable, all-ours, wake-free lake.

Life is this lake, isn’t it?

Perfect and not so perfect.

Coronatine, Day Sixty-one

I went to the grocery store today, and I don’t want to write about the nightmare I had last night where no one was wearing a mask.

Could you imagine, three months ago, having a nightmare about people not wearing masks in Target?

Actually, King Soopers was well-stocked today. Everyone I saw had a mask on. People at 8:30am obeyed the one-way aisle rules, and best of all? I stayed within my budget.

I made a budget for my post-work husband, starting at the beginning of May. $200 a week. It may sound extraordinarily excessive, but we’ve got six mouths to feed, and these are American prices, after all.

But I bought extras today. This bugleweed. A roll of packaging tape. And sushi because fuck Wednesday cooking.

And, my nightmares should end soon.

Because my post-work husband got a job, a non-union, non-seniority-screws-you job, doing exactly what he’s great at and wants to do forever, in the midst of a pandemic.

And.

And you can call it what you want. White privilege. True. Luck. Absolutely. Divine intervention. Maybe.

Or just… fate. The fate that led him through the Air Force to me, that led the boy to our doorstep, that led three beautiful daughters into our home, that led his previous experience to him becoming the best candidate out of all the others being laid off.

Coronatine, day sixty-one. It’s a beautiful image filled with pets, hope, and love.

And I want to hold on to this non-nightmare feeling for as long as I can.

And.

This cat was born to be a model. Good night.

Marriage. That Is What We Do.

He doesn’t tell me over the phone when I call him on Valentine’s night to ask for the wifi password for the cabin we’re staying at. Not after twenty minutes of Google-Siri-searching for how to share a password so our son can call his real parents at the appointed 8-o’clock time, something impossible to do without WhatsApp or wifi in this middle-of-nowhere mountain town.

He doesn’t make me a card or buy me flowers.

The next day, when three of us return from a bluebird ski day, he tells me he has started the taxes, but that he was tired, his back hurt, and he got discouraged and bored.

I make a list in my head of what he hasn’t done: thought of what to fix for dinner, gone to the store to buy the cheesecake ingredients for our daughter’s birthday, done the laundry, told the remaining-at-home-children to do some semblance of chores that would peel them away from their screens.

I take our son, alone, to the Honduran restaurant for our Valentine redo.

No one else wants to go.

On Sunday, I do all the things while Bruce visits his friend for hours. Walk the dog. Fight the weekend grocery store crowds to buy not only the cheesecake ingredients, but everything else on the list that’s accrued in the three days since we’ve visited, because with six people living under this roof, why the hell not? Start, fold, and finish three loads of laundry. Throw together the soon-to-be-cracked cheesecake and read, appallingly, that it is an eight-hour, not four-hour, cool time. Put raspberry compote on the stove to overflow for forty-five minutes. Scrub the shit out of the glass cooktop for another fifteen.

He won’t take the time to come with me to see Bernie because it took me thirteen years just to convince him to vote and another nine to push him farther left, but he still doesn’t have any faith in the future, let alone a singular politician who has spent his entire adult life fighting for people unlike himself.

He won’t come with me to waste all of our money on indoor skydiving, Izzy’s birthday gift, even though it would have been nice to have a second parent, like all the other families there, to take still shots while I took the video.

Instead he grumbles about how he wished we’d just bought the cheesecake from the New York deli instead of me making it because “You pay so that it’s perfect.”

Because mine is not.

Before he drops me at the light rail, he argues with me before reluctantly agreeing to apologize for the remark.

We go to bed with few words and wake throughout the night to the giggling screams of Izzy’s sleepover, each of us texting and yelling at her to stop.

We wake at the sound of his alarm set two hours too early.

I begin it all again. Walk the dog. Fix the breakfast. Put away the dishes.

Ten minutes before he needs to leave for work, I whimper as I say, “We only have one year left of her childhood,” and wipe tears to walk into the dining room. He follows me and pours out the brutal truth of his three-day grump.

“My boss told me on Friday that they’re going to cut four positions. No more voluntary cuts. Involuntary. Two of the positions include my job title.”

His voice cracks as he continues the long explanation of every possibility, and I see now that he has been carrying this load all weekend, fuck Valentine’s Day, fuck our daughter’s birthday, fuck all that is right with the world.

I think about what Bernie said last night, what I didn’t catch on video: “We all have families. And every family has problems. We are in this together. We are in this to think about and support everyone’s families, not just our own.”

And I know what Bruce carries is more than the likely possibility of him losing his job. It is the weight of this presidency, this evil presidency that plagues our society and keeps us from moving ahead just when we think we can move ahead.

I immediately think of two years ago when this loomed over our heads, and all the bitterness and anxiety entailed in those two months of stress and anticipation.

I think of the four years of ski passes. The six weeks in Spain. The three-four-week family vacations we have taken. The ski weekends. The going out to eat. The boy living in our basement.

And I know that all of those things combined might add up to a year of his salary if only we had saved the money.

Yet, for that one year of safety net, we had five years of living like kings after ten years of living paycheck to paycheck, and I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world.

I am so angry at him for not having hope. For trying to carry this weight for an entire weekend when I would have unloaded everything the moment I heard.

I am so in love with him for trying (quite pathetically) to protect me for two extra days because he knew that all I would do is spend most of the day up inside the bedroom trying to hide my tears from the girls.

Our good health insurance will be gone, and we can’t even begin to pay our mortgage on my salary, let alone everything else.

But it’s out there now. He’ll come home tonight to our magical Costco Caesar salad, wish our daughter happy birthday, and act like nothing is wrong.

And we will find a way to make this work. Because twenty-two years in, that is what we do.

Spain-exploring, childbearing, child-adopting, paycheck-to-paycheck, ski-trip, road-trip, voting-and-hoping, working-not-working, accruing-and-paying-debts…

That is what we do.

Tears or not. Silence or not. Apology or not.

That is what we do.

One year ago on Valentine's Day. We'll get there again.

One Box of Paper

That’s right. You are witness to this. That is one box of paper. It costs $28 on Amazon, according to the research of ninety-two teachers who’d Googled it by the end of the afternoon.

One box of paper to last each one of us the semester. One box of paper that the new facilities manager surprisingly found out he had to deliver to every classroom and teacher office in addition to his regular duties of CLEANING AND REFILLING SUPPLIES FOR THE ENTIRE SCHOOL.

One box of paper that will probably, without a curriculum or a single textbook, last me a month.

One box of paper that won’t even make enough copies for one of the two SAT practice tests our school thinks we must administer to students who have yet to write a singular cohesive sentence in English.

One box of paper to “save on resources” so that we can “better serve our students.”

This is what it has come to.

“It’s going to be like cigarettes in prison.”

“I’m sorry…” nicest person in the building says to a teacher in the copy room, “I just can’t let you have any of my paper.”

Every office, every classroom, every kid knows and is talking about this paper.

This. One. Box. Of. Paper.

It’s almost as if the dictatorial mantra of Trump has trickled down into my classroom. Should I bomb Iran and destroy hundreds of lives to distract them from my impeachment? Should I allow states, especially border states, to choose whether or not to accept refugees? Should I take away one of the few resources that teachers have left?

Why the FUCK NOT?

“Use your Chromebooks. We’re a one-to-one school.”

The Chromebooks that have books on them that the kids won’t read because three tabs later there are twenty games and a soccer tournament?

The Chromebooks that my Newcomers can’t small-motor-skills manipulate because some of them have never even learned how to hold a pencil?

The Chromebooks that enhance every screen addiction that has taken this generation away from face-to-face conversation?

One. Box. Of. Paper.

What else is there to say? I better stop typing now, because if you were interested in printing this post, I don’t think it would fit on one page, and every page is worth a lesson.

And I only have one box of paper.

 

Minutes

“Did you see that three blocks down, they’ve torn down a house and are building a mansion just like this one?” I complain on the drive up Florida Ave., noticing another mansion in place of a 1940s war home. “It’s happening. Right in our neighborhood.” Our neighborhood of 1960s NON-war, perfectly-good homes.

“Mama, all you do is complain. Do you realize that? You complain about everything.

I think for a moment. We’ve been in the car for five minutes, and this is my first complaint. Give me SOME credit.

***Three hours later.***

My youngest has her exhibition night. She presents a video with her BFF about the endlessly inevitable impacts of Westward Expansion on Native peoples. She has drawn a calming coloring page with polygons for her math class. She has developed a filter to determine how best to eliminate toxins from drinking water.

And now she is participating in a Socratic seminar, sitting in a circle with her classmates, discussing “technology,” the parents hovering on the outskirts.

In the blink of an eye, the topic moves from the dangers of texting while driving to the dangers of guns. A very well-spoken and adamant eighth grader sitting two seats down retorts, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. My father is in the military, and soldiers have learned how to handle guns respectfully. With control.”

It is 19:22 on a Thursday night. I have sat through two 90-minute classes and two meetings and one long-short drive, fixed a put-together-leftover-dinner, walked the dog, walked to this “perfect” school, and begged my husband to join me for this one last event, only to realize the intense permeation of these ideas.

***Three hours earlier***

“Do you see it, girls? Right there. The original house is gone. Only the scaffolding for a mansion in its place.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” my oldest, money-hungry oldest, demands.

“The best part of living in this neighborhood is how real the people are. How middle class they are. NOT rich. Not taking everything out from under the rest of us.”

But all the people taking everything out from under the rest of us actually surround us. They are in my youngest’s classroom. They are five miles away, intentionally driving an RV into a hijabi woman, mother and aunt to the most precious students one could ever imagine the joy of having in a classroom. They are this thirteen-year-old’s mother, who intervenes in the Socratic seminar when some students suggest that in other countries, there are no school shootings. That in America, maybe we should focus on mental health rather than providing guns to all citizens.

A bulldog, she shadows her daughter, raises her voice, raises her hefty body in a darkened stance, and indirectly threatens the eighth graders. “We as human beings… We are ALL human beings, right? You as a human being have the responsibility to get help if you have mental issues. You have the responsibility. No one else. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

I have to turn away. Suck in my breath. Stare at the wall. Clench my fists. Her teacher visibly notices my discomfort, walking towards me but not saying a word.

When I arrive home, all the news of the day is a heavy weight. My two girls who graduated nineteen months ago, who walked across Eritrea for fear of persecution, leaving their parents and home behind in search of a better life, who came to our country because their aunt lived here, who couldn’t tell me till the end of the year that the words of The Good Braider were so true for them, the protagonist counting her minutes on her cell phone, working extra hours to buy more minutes, were so true to them because they had to do the same to call home to their mother… And now?

And now some bastard who saw a hijabi Black woman walking home in the middle of a Wednesday from an ENGLISH CLASS rushed across two lanes to murder her?

But guns don’t kill people. People kill people, right?

“You’re not friends with that girl, are you?” I ask my baby daughter.

“God, no, Mama, she’s just awful.”

“OK, I’m just making sure because …” And I begin my rant about guns, the same rant they’ve heard their whole lives, the same rant that causes my middle child to hold up her hand and shout, “Enough with your opinions, Mama, it doesn’t really matter,” and then I hold up my ever-evil, ever-heartbreaking social media page where my close high school friend has to report that her Muslim son was threatened by a classmate to be shot that very afternoon, and I shout back, “It ABSOLUTELY matters, and this is why.”

It’s true. I complain about everything. I complain about injustice, and I will complain about it every minute of every day until the day I die. Injustice in the distribution of wealth. In immigration atrocities. In gun violence. In violent death from the gun of a soldier in the Middle East to the tires surrounding me in ever-so-fucking-golden-Denver.

I wish I could buy more minutes, too, just like Viola in The Good Braider. Just like Jumea and Salihah, who crossed mountains and oceans and discrimination to be given a chance that has been taken from them.

I wish I could buy more minutes of their smiles. Of how hard every immigrant I know works to build those mansions. To make this American Dream a reality. To put this darkness into perspective.

These are my minutes for today. My notes. They may sound like complaints, but they are tinged with the hope that someone will listen. Someone will donate. And someone will see that people don’t have to kill people.

 

Scarred for Life

I was eight when the plastic surgeons took their scalpels and shaved a thin layer of rectangular skin from my upper right thigh to carefully morph it onto my shoulder and, twenty stitches and forty-seven staples later, make me a new scar over my burn scar.

For the remaining years of my youth, every time I wore a swimsuit, a tank top, an open-necked dress, I had to answer questions. “What happened?” “How old were you?” “What were you doing?” “How much did it hurt?”

Even though I know my mother worried that the questions would always lead to blaming  her, no one ever asked me, “Where were your parents?”

Obviously, they had done the best that they could. After a few moments of shock when the six cups of water came tumbling down onto my ballerina-shoe sweatshirt, they ripped off the thick cotton and lifted me towards the sink, flushing me with cold water. They called the neighbor who was an EMT. They placed me in an ice-cold bath to try to soothe the bubbling blisters. They drove me to the hospital, to doctor appointment after doctor appointment for six months. They scheduled the surgery. My mother took off work for two weeks to care for me in and out of the hospital–her only vacation time of the year spent fretting over the major surgery her eight-year-old child had to undergo. The extra three days in the hospital because I just wouldn’t heal. The forty-five minutes I screamed after the surgery because the hospital was undergoing a major renovation and no one could find me a nurse to administer pain meds.

But no matter the sacrifice, no matter the recovery, no matter the gymnastics lessons I took that fall to stretch the skin, no matter the special silicone-filled vest I had to wear for months to press the new skin onto the old, that scar would always be there.

Primarily on my shoulder, but truly spilling beyond their surgical tools till all the way below my belly button, I was scarred for life.

Its bitter reminder stung me on my wedding day when I knew I could only pick a dress that would fully cover my shoulder.

On each of my children’s birthdays, when their anxious, hungry lips opened up a new wound in my left nipple that wouldn’t heal for six weeks of excruciating, needle-through-the-veins pain each time they nursed.

On every cock-eyed look I’d received throughout my life when people noticed the scar more than they noticed me.

I was eight years old when I had the best birthday of my life. My parents spoiled me that year because the surgery would prevent me from swimming in any of the five Finger Lakes for an entire summer, a punishment equal to hell for an upstate-New York kid. They let me have not one (the usual), but three friends spend the night. I got a Smurf watch and two Slinkys and a bouncy Gummi Bears toy that we played with for hours. My mom made a strawberry cake with strawberry frosting because I was obsessed with pink. They borrowed the neighbor’s VCR and let us stay up late watching movies. They made my night magical.

Despite everything–the ugliness of the scar, the ugliness of the pain–the scar became a part of me. So what if every time I went to the beach I’d get a look or too? At least I had a story to tell. At least it wasn’t worse. At least it was the worst thing that had happened to me as a child.

When my fiancé proposed to me more than ten years later, there was only one date I had in mind for my wedding day: 8.8.98. The number reflected everything–twenty years old, infinity, the life-changing events of my eighth year of life.

And though my mother always fretted over my scar, and though I feared making the choice I made yesterday for my entire adult life because of my fear of never healing and that cursed scar, I have no regrets.

It is dark. It is light. It felt like a cat scratching me a thousand times. But it did not feel like pouring six cups of boiling water onto myself. It did not feel like giving natural birth to three 9-pound babies. It did not feel like surgeons pulling forty-seven staples out of my skin graft.

It felt like infinity. Like the perfect figure 8.

Scarred for life. Just like I always have been and always will be.

 

Refocused

with a broken fridge,
 limitations on dry ice,
 and carpool circles
 
 to pick up daughter
 from uncalled-for punishment,
 my Monday sucked ass.
 
 driving home in rain,
 she told me the whole story
 and other teen truths.
 
 then shared her essay:
 perfectly satirical
 (writer at fourteen)
 
 the rain flooded us
 and we laughed until we cried
 knowing that truth hurts.