Friday, October 23, 2009

My Eyes Hurt

When I walked out of work tonight, I could see my car. For the last week or so my car has been invisible. For starters, the jeep is black. There are no security lights in the parking lot of my workplace, and I've been leaving work well after sunset every night.

I've also been getting to work before the sun has fully risen as well. When I left work this afternoon I squinted, eventhough it wasn't a particularly sunny day. The daylight burned my vampirish retinas as I groped my way in the blinding light to the car.

I sat in the drivers seat for a few minutes, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light before daring to drive. I hadn't been outside in the daylight since Sunday. Today is Friday. Almost a full week without daylight. And it's not even the end of daylight savings time yet.

This is what I've succumbed to as a result of the busy season at work. 12 hour days. 13 hour days. Five o'clock passes and I think "Oh good, I'll be able to get some real work done now." What the hell is wrong with me??

Then it occured to me that the only times I'd been outdoors at all in the past week were the walk from the car into work, and then the walk from work and into the car. In the mornings I get into the car, in the garage, without stepping outdoors. Then I drive to work and get out of the car. Once home, I pull the car into the garage, and walk from the garage, through the basement, and into the house.

Over the weekend I plan to do the reverse and be indoors for a few minutes, and spend the rest of the time outside.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

On This the Day of our Engagement

Scene: last night, in the hot tub at our house in Podunk, Rhode Island.

Beej: Hey, what’s the date today?

Todd: I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to that stuff on the weekends.

Beej: It’s October 17th. Nine years ago today you asked me to marry you.

Todd: (splashing around in the water) And what did you say?

Beej: (stretching out in the hot water and sighing) I said no. Then you asked me what you needed to do so I would say yes, and I said that you needed to get me a hot tub and I might consider it.

Todd: I think you might be remembering that incorrectly. Just a little.

On the night he asked me, October 17, 2000, I was working in Boston, and he was working in Providence. We lived between Boston and Providence at the time, and I used to take the train into Boston for work every day, then I went to grad school at night and caught the late train home. Todd drove the 45-60 minutes south to Providence for work, and came home at a million o’clock every night.

He called me at work on a random Tuesday in October and said “Hey, how about if I come into Boston tonight and we’ll have dinner together in the city.” We hadn’t seen much of each other at the time, and I couldn’t wait until I saw him that night.

I was late meeting him at Government Center. I had to take the green line to my professor’s office on Beacon Street to drop off a paper. He never ended up reading the paper and just gave me a B because it had gotten lost in his office. I thought I deserved an A because he was the one who lost the paper. The green line was slower than weight loss, and I frantically checked my watch every other second until the train finally crept into Government Center. I ran up the stairs and out the street exit. Todd was there with flowers that he’d bought from the vendor on the sidewalk.

“There she is!” he exclaimed. Finally I’d shown up, and it didn’t look like he’d been stood up. We walked to Quincy Market, and checked out the benches under the trees. White Christmas lights were strung in the trees, and the branches were lined with thousands of squawking birds. The benches were covered in poop so we sat at the base of the Samuel Adams statue.

It was chilly that night, and I felt the chill of the stone base of the statue as I sat. Todd put his hands in his pockets. I wondered if his hands were cold. But Todd’s hands are never cold. He’s exothermic. I swear the water boils around him when we dive. I watched his hands; I wasn’t listening to what he was saying.

He held out a ring and asked, “So, will you marry me?” I burst into tears and said yes.

Here it is 9 years later, and I still have no idea what he said before he asked. I wish I’d listened more.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bingo Wheel of Justice

I parked my car in the convention center parking lot and practically sprinted the few blocks. I was late. I tossed my bag on the belt of the x-ray machine and stepped through the metal detector. It beeped. I was asked to lift my pant legs to expose my unshaven legs and the fact that there wasn’t a pistol strapped to either ankle. My fleece jacket was too big on me; I could have had an Uzi under it. The guard told me to relax, I wasn’t too late. It was 8:10. I was supposed to be there at 8. I am chronically 10 minutes late for everything.

I followed the signs, showed my ID and checked in. On the day that license picture was taken I wore a tube top so that I would appear naked in the picture. My bare shoulders were exposed, the woman behind the counter didn’t notice.

The coffee station held no appeal, as I’ve never acquired the taste. I stood at the back of the room for a few moments checking out the people. We were all randomly chosen to be there that day. Fifty something of us. Like a nerd I sat in the very front, on the aisle, and glued my eyes to the handbook that the woman at the counter gave me that would explain what my job will be for the next six months, if they pick me.

We watched the instructional video. The man answered our questions. The very same man I argued with the day before because I am too busy at work right now to not be there in every single waking moment. Then we climbed the stairs to the courtroom. My mouth hung open as I took in the gleaming woodwork (original from when the courthouse was built 101 years ago, apparently) and the gigantic stained glass skylight in the center of the ceiling. I leaned forward in my seat and hung on the judge’s every word.

The man behind the desk, near the bench, spun the wheel. The names on the tiny slips of paper in the chamber tossed as he cranked the handle. I sat on the edge of my pew, straining to hear my name called. He called five names, none of which were mine. I sat back and waited as the five people stood in line. They each took their turn at the microphone stating their name and their occupation. Then they had to tell the judge whether anyone they knew was currently involved in a criminal trial, and whether there was anything that might prevent them from serving on a jury.

Bingo wheel man pulled another five slips of paper and called the names again. None of them were mine, again. I was starting to panic. They called 10 names. They needed 23 people. They were already almost half way through and my name hadn’t been called. One of this group knew someone involved in a criminal trial and had to approach the bench. The judge flipped a switch near her microphone and the speakers were filled with static. The prospective jurors, out of morbid curiosity, leaned in and strained to hear what was said. None of us could hear and we simultaneously flopped back in our seats. The woman who approached the bench was dismissed. Bingo wheel man drew six names. Again, none were mine. Two of those people had to approach, one was dismissed.

My name was called in the next group. I fidgeted in line, excited. I stepped up to the mike and stated my name, my job, and said that I hadn’t known anyone involved in a criminal trial and had no issues with serving on a jury. I had been upgraded to the cushy seats closer to the bench.

We were directed into the deliberation room, where I and 22 other people would meet every other Wednesday for the next six months to serve on a federal grand jury. Every other week I will hear witness testimony and consider whether there is enough evidence for people accused of a crime to stand trial.

And I am beyond thrilled.


Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Difference One Little "R" Makes

I followed the sound of hysterical laughter at work the other day. I walked into a co-worker's office, where several of my colleagues were doubled over laughting and wiping tears off their cheeks from laughing so hard.

When they managed to catch their breath, I learned one of them had been emailed by a prospective customer. The email contained an inquiry about a bone density screening.

But the prospect didn't proof read the email.

And the letter "r" changed the entire meaning of that email.


Sunday, October 04, 2009

Want to Hear Something Creepy?

My mom arrived in North America in October 1961. (Well, that’s not the creepy part, just stick with me.) She went, alone, on a boat from Gdansk, Poland to Montreal, Canada. She was just 24 years old, and all she knew how to say in English were “Bristol Pennsylvania” and “Ham sandwich.” The boat she traveled on was called the Stefan Batory, and she found a way to game the exchange rate en route and made a bit of a profit before landing in Canada.

She had no idea how long the train ride from Montreal to Bristol would be. She stayed awake the entire time, terrified that if she fell asleep she would miss her stop and be lost without being about to communicate. She kept herself awake for 48 hours until her cousin met her on the platform in Bristol. She eventually made her way to Chicopee, Massachusetts where she met Dad. Then all of her siblings and parents ended up in America, and Mom wasn’t alone anymore.

On the day she died, October 4, 2001, we were going through old photos of her so we could put them up in the funeral home. There was a picture of Mom riding a motorcycle when she and Dad visited Poland in 1973 that just had to go into the collage. It was their first time back since they’d left more than a decade earlier, and I was born 9 months after the trip. There were pictures of all of us, and Mom and Dad’s wedding pictures. Dad scoured the house and couldn’t find the picture of Mom parasailing when they went on vacation to Marco Island. We tore the house apart and looked in every cabinet, every drawer and through every photo album. No dice.

Dad opened Mom’s memento box that she had kept on the floor on her side in their closet. The box had always been there. We’ve all seen it a million times when in there, but none of us ever thought to ever open it. It was just one of those things that we didn’t even notice anymore because it was always there.

I don’t think Dad ever thought to open it until that day when he was looking for that picture. Inside the box was a print of the Stefan Batory that Mom had saved from her boat trip. The picture was on the front of the dinner menu on the boat, and Mom’s legendary sticky fingers had swiped the menu and taken it from the boat as a souvenir. On the back of the print was the menu. That night’s dinner selections were written in Polish, and the date was at the top.

It was dated October 4, 1961—exactly 40 years to the day before she died. She was 24 on the night she swiped that menu. She was on her way to a brand new life in a new country. If someone had told her that night “Forty years from today you will die” she would have laughed at them. She was young, brave and invincible. There was a certain brilliance and vibrancy about Mom right up to the end, and I would have loved to see her in action at age 24. (Hell, I’d love to see her in action at age 72, which is what she would have been this year.)

Dad stared at the menu, speechless. I don’t remember who asked him what was wrong, but he showed us the picture and the menu and we all fell silent. The air in the kitchen felt heavy and none of us knew what to say. It was a feeling we all felt all day long. We fumbled around the house while picking out what she’ll wear. We all shrunk into ourselves, exhausted and drained from the day. My sisters made grilled cheese sandwiches that filled the house with a smell that nauseated me as I couldn’t stand the thought of eating anything.

We debated on whether or not we should put shoes on her feet. My cousin Theresa once told us a story about how Mom went to help pick out a suit for Theresa’s father, who was Mom’s older brother, when Theresa was making her father’s arrangements. Theresa had asked Mom if she should bring shoes for him as well. Mom said, “Of course he needs shoes. How will he walk into heaven without shoes on?” My sisters recounted the story and laughed at how it was “so Mom.” All I could do was cry because it was just “so Mom.” I can just see her saying it with that spunk that she had. It was the same spunk she used when she would yell at the ref at one of my high school basketball games. I can still hear her, with her accent and rolled r’s, “Ref! She travel! Blow the veestle!” And then she’d holler to me “Bih Jay! Dreeble! Dreeble the ball! Shoot!!”

The thing about the date on that menu haunts me still. I wonder if my 40 year out mark has passed or not. When Mom was my age, her 40 year mark had already passed; in fact, she only had 29 years left. I wonder when Dad’s was, as he’s 71 now. I look at my brothers and sisters and wonder if theirs passed or not too. Has Todd’s? Has anyone’s? My friends? Strangers I see when I am out and about? Unfortunately, not everyone will have a 40 year mark, and that bothers me too.

So, I pose this question to you, Internet. If you had the chance to know when your 40 years left mark would be, or when it was, would you find out? Would you live your life differently if you knew?

I wonder if Mom would have done anything differently.

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Exposed Nerve

On Sunday it’ll be 8 years since Mom’s been gone. The last six weeks of Mom’s life did not at all represent who she was. Her cancer spread, and the tumors compressed her spinal cord and she lost all feeling and ability to move from the waist down. My sisters and I dropped out of our lives for those weeks and took turns taking care of her. I blew off work for most of that time, and only went 1-2 days per week.

I never really let myself fully absorb what was happening at that time. I slipped into denial robot mode and shielded myself from the possibility of losing Mom. Everything I did during those six weeks was done with the sole purpose of making her live. My mind assigned extreme importance to every little mundane task I accomplished every day. My first thought in the morning was how making her favorite breakfast would make her live. The laundry, done just so, would make her live. I concocted protein shakes with fresh fruits blended into them to make her live. I was careful not to get shampoo in her eyes, because one sudsy splash would tip the scales in the wrong direction. Any little thing could make her live, and denial robot had to perfectly execute every chore so not to risk causing her demise.

The denial robot mode fully took over. Nobody could talk about any other fate than Mom surviving around me. There was no other option for the denial robot. Mom dying simply did not compute. Period. It was exhausting. But when you’re a denial robot you never get tired. You push and push because nothing else matters. (My sister and I watched the 9-11 attack on TV, then simply turned the TV off and bathed and dressed Mom so we could get her ready for radiation treatment in Hartford.)

I vividly remember her wake, when my cousin Anna had said to me “It gets easier.” Anna’s dad had died when we were seniors in college. Later on that night my cousin Theresa said, “You just have to live through the pain.” Her dad died when she was in her early 20s and I was only 7 or 8.

And it’s true. They were both absolutely right. I’ve said the same things to other people I know who have lost their parents. “The first 6 months will completely suck. Just get through them and you’ll be OK” I told them. Later on they told me I was right.

But my first six months were riddled with spontaneous sobbing at inopportune times and vivid nightmares. The denial robot’s battery ran down and left me to deal with what actually happened in those six weeks. Mom’s health gradually degraded until we were all with her when she took her last breath. And none of those things I did, that would surely make her live, worked. In those six months I waited for the answer to be revealed to me, but of course it never was. There wasn’t a chore I missed that didn’t make her live. It was the cancer that didn’t make her live.

Now here it is 8 years later. And while the pain of losing her has subsided, there are times when it bubbles to the surface. It's usually something entirely random that triggers it. Today a client at work called me from Bristol, Pennsylvania—where Mom lived when she first came to the United States. I’ve only visited Bristol when I was a kid. It wasn’t a part of my childhood—but I knew the story of Mom taking the train from Montreal, Canada to Bristol when she first arrived on this side of the pond. I spent the rest of the day walking around feeling like I had a stone in my stomach and I randomly burst into tears in the car on the way to dinner at a friends’ house tonight.

And that’s what nobody prepared me for when they were trying to comfort me at her wake. That it never fully goes away.

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Thursday, October 01, 2009


What is it about a song on the radio that brings back the memory of something I hadn’t thought of in years?

I was driving to work the other day when the song “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails came on the radio. I sat there with my elbow propped against the door and tapping on the wheel with my thumbs as I listened.

The first time I heard the song was on a mix tape that my first post-college-just-moved-out-of-home-to-a-new-city boyfriend made for me. I met Marcus at one of my favorite bars, and we clicked right away. Marcus was in a “transitional” phase. He didn’t have a job and was living off the savings account he’d had since he was born. We talked on the phone a lot; we spent a lot of time together. Then he randomly ended it after a few weeks. He claimed to be depressed and wanted to be just friends.

I agreed to be just friends, because having him as a friend was way better than not having him at all. He made me the mix tape in a “Let’s be friends” gesture, and he recorded “Hurt” onto it as the ultimate depiction of his depressed and tortured soul. He told me some bullshit story about how he didn’t want to wreck the person that I am by getting me mixed up in his messed up life. He came to see me play at the open mic, where I played “Untouchable Face” by Ani DiFranco, and bravely stared at him through the whole thing.

At the time I ate the whole “I’m so depressed” thing up. I was convinced that he wasn’t depressed when he was with me, and I was helping him somehow. Until I learned about what was really torturing this guy’s soul. He came over to my apartment one night, and I made stuffed shells for dinner. He was telling me about a woman he’d just started seeing after he dumped me.

“The thing is,” he swallowed his mouthful of ricotta, “I don’t really like her that much.”

“Then why are you hanging out with her, then?” In my mind I asked him, “Yeah, here you are having a conversation about life with me, but you won’t call me your girlfriend? But you call that tramp your girlfriend? What the hell is the matter with you?”

“Because she knows how to please,” he replied in his deadpan honesty that I’d gotten so used to.

I rolled my eyes and said “Oh please, that’s not the only reason you’re hanging out with her.”

And I was right. He was a horrible boyfriend and a lousy friend. He was hanging out with that particular sex goddess because she didn’t challenge him to be a better person like I did. This is what caused Marcus’s “depression” and his acceptance of the song “Hurt” as his anthem—he just didn’t feel like working for something worthwhile.

A few weeks later I broke off our friendship. I couldn’t take his confiding in me about other women. I was liberated as I left his apartment. I barged in and said “I can’t be friends with you. I want to be more than friends and you don’t. This isn’t working for me. Goodbye.” Then I stormed out of his apartment just as fast as I’d barged in. He chased me down the stairs and asked me to talk to me. I silently continued down the narrow stairs, my knees were shaking.

Our paths crossed a few more times here and there in the months and years after that. We’d swap emails now and then, but it was always the same old thing with him and I quickly grew tired of hearing from him.

One night, after Todd and I moved in together I met him out for a beer. We had a very nice conversation that lasted very late into the night. At the end of the night he asked me if he could kiss me and I said, “Well, I live with my boyfriend. I’ve got a good thing going here. No thanks.” He shrugged and said “Fair enough.”

He tried to stay friends, and I made excuses. He’d invite me to parties at his apartment, and I’d write back with a simple “No thanks, we have plans.” It was after Todd and I had gotten engaged that he wrote to me to ask me how I was doing.

“Hi Marcus,” I wrote. “Life is really good. I am engaged, getting my Masters, and restoring a 41’ sailboat. Take care, Beej.”

After that I never heard from him again. I came across a picture of him when I googled him out of curiosity about a year ago. But other than that, I haven’t thought about that soap opera for more than a decade now. The mix tape has long been lost or thrown away.

But it all came flooding back, just from hearing that song. I wonder if he thinks of me when he hears that song by Ani DiFranco.

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