During my latest annual kidney cancer screening, I anxiously sit in the waiting room until the x-ray technician throws open the door and shouts, “Cindy Valleley, come on down!”
I jump up and down as I run toward him, my old-lady boobs alternately slapping my knees and face as Paul and I try to hug each other. The three of us race down the hall to the examination room and high-five people carrying blood samples, sometimes smashing the vials against their palms because we’re all just really glad to be on TV, win or lose.
When we enter the x-ray room, I get to play a game involving golf, math, and beating a clock. I’m not good at any of these things, but I try. When I lose, it doesn’t mean I have cancer for sure, so I still get to have the x-ray. I’m having a great time as I wave to Paul in the audience.
Then the tech pins my x-ray to a huge wheel. There are two giant sticky notes above and below the picture of my lungs. One says, “Cancer,” and the other one says, “Suck it, Cancer!”
I give the wheel a mighty spin and cross my fingers as I hear Paul shouting “No cancer, Sweetie!” As the wheel slows, I start to sweat, and just when I think I’m going to pass out from the excitement, it lands on “Suck it, Cancer!”
I can hardly believe my insurance pays for this. I’m grateful they do, and I’ll never tell them how enjoyable the experience is just in case they believe suffering is the only thing they should subsidize.
I’m already looking forward to next year’s CT scan. It’s so much fun to lie in the tube and rapid-fire punch the panic button when I get bored. The techs love it when I do that.
I felt so perturbed by this that I told Paul in order to offload the creep factor, but he seemed more bothered than I was.
In my defense, I said, “But it was when Henry was younger. You know, in his salad days. When he was bombing Cambodia.” This did not have the calming effect that I hoped it would.
Plus I started thinking, “What’s the origin of the phrase ‘salad days’ anyway?” Apparently it comes from this quote:
“CLEOPATRA: My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then! But, come, away;
Get me ink and paper:
He shall have every day a several greeting,
Or I’ll unpeople Egypt.”
I think Cleo’s saying, “If I don’t get to be pen pals with Caesar, I’m going to slaughter every one of my subjects.” I wish I could love like that. Sometimes literally.
I suppose the “green in judgment: cold in blood” part applies to Henry’s ambition to murder lots of Cambodians who were provocatively going to school or the dry cleaners, or maybe out to eat, so that works.
But then I remembered that there was literally salad in my dream. I was sitting at a counter in a diner, and a lady brought a salad to me while I sat there spinning lettuce in a spinner (which is much more efficient than throwing it at an oscillating fan).
I can’t decide if this dream is telling me I need psychotherapy or more roughage. Maybe I’ll just take a therapist out to lunch and spare myself money, time, and insight.
I’m in charge of our household budget. To me, this statement is as frightening as “Nuclear missiles are headed to Seattle.”
Mostly I do okay, but last December I accidentally paid the mortgage twice. Then I did great for three whole months, and just this morning I accidentally paid an extra half-mortgage payment.
I know what you’re thinking: “How does someone accidentally pay extra on their mortgage?”
Why the hell are you asking me? Haven’t you figured out I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing?
After I confessed my newest interesting financial move, Paul and I figured out the necessary adjustments to our accounts, and we’re fine. But I’m freaking out. I keep thinking, “What is my next mistake, and how big will it be?”
(I do understand that there are far worse financial errors I could make besides accidentally paying extra on our mortgage principal. I’m not stupid, entirely. But still.)
After the latest mini-crisis, Paul and I had this conversation:
Me: So do you still trust me with the finances?
(Translation: Please take this shit off my hands.)
Paul: Sure, I do! You’re doing great!
(Translation: You scare the crap out of me, but I sure as hell don’t want the job.)
Me: Well, okay. But at least you’re checking the budget spreadsheet updates I send to you, right?
(Translation: I’m totally alone in this, aren’t I?)
Paul: You bet! Well, I skim them at least. Mostly. From time to time.
Or at least sincerely offered support for the endeavor.
One of the fun things about mining my life for memoir material is that I thought it would be about dishing up dirt on those who’ve wronged me or I was sure intended to wrong me or at the very least would wrong me if they thought of doing it and had the chance.
But I’ve gotten some advice about including more than just revenge-based tales: “Allow yourself to be vulnerable. This lets the reader empathize and feel connected with you.”
I took this to mean that there will be sections in my memoir where the reader will become misty-eyed in wonder at my courage through such trying times.
This was going to be fantastic. As emotionally walled off as I can be in person—despite how much I blab about myself—this memoir stuff would let people see the softer side of Cindy. I’m a bit uncomfortable about it, but I’ll try.
At least I felt like being a sport until I realized, just this last weekend, that an honest memoir lets people see the shitty side of Cindy too. It’s as though someone’s thrown a bucket of cold water on my burning cross.
Despite this shock, I’m going to try the honesty thing about an incident I’ve been telling myself “really isn’t relevant or potentially interesting to readers, but I don’t feel this way because I’m ashamed. I respect people’s time, and why bore them with”—you understand the kind of horseshit I’ve been shoveling.
When I left my second husband, the air force officer, in 1988 and moved back to Seattle, I naturally moved in with an ex-con. It made sense to me because Brad the Felon had done his time, so that would make him honest. He was charming, skilled at reading people, and manipulative. I was so desperate for someone to love and care about me, I’d do anything. It was a great match.
Shortly after he moved in with me, Brad got into an argument with my landlord. I was a loyal girlfriend and stood up for him. So everything worked out great for the landlord when he evicted us and I went bankrupt from attorney’s fees that Brad didn’t help pay—because he was busy relaxing at the end of a workday while I took a second job as a stripper—and my credit rating went from triple-A to in-the-crapper.
If you’re at all under the impression that I’ve just confessed the shameful part of this story…
Even after this episode, plus his late-night gambling-and-whoring escapades while coming home and calling me his “plain Jane” in a tone that nearly approximated affection, I was still so craven in my need to be loved, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to impress him.
One day Brad told me he and a buddy from prison were working on the details for robbing a casino. I raised my hand like Hermione in class and begged to be included in the caper. And there’s my shame.
It made me nauseous to even imagine committing a crime, let alone having to pee in front of someone in prison. But in those moments, I had an overwhelming fantasy of sitting in separate prisons but mutually in love at last because he’d finally realized what I would do for him. Sort of Bonnie and Clyde with hopefully way less murder.
I don’t know if Brad ever hit the casino, and he’s dead now, so I can’t ask him. I don’t really care either way anymore about either of those things.
I do know that he saved me from myself. He declined my offer of assistance—which hurt like hell at the time, but seriously reduced the nausea—because I’m a world-class oversharer. Great for blogging. Bad for crime.
The first joint my mother ever rolled, she gave to me when I was fifteen. She enjoyed spoiling me, and even though I was an only child, I appreciated it. Like when she’d go to the store and remember to pick up my favorite brand of cigarettes.
But it wasn’t all about coddling. She was a consistent disciplinarian too. She used to say, “I don’t mind buying you the cigarettes, but I don’t want to see you smoking until you’re eighteen.” She knew the right things to say to make me feel loved.
Every time I got ready to leave town for the weekend with my boyfriend, Rockey, she said, “Leave me a note telling me what city you’re going to. That way I know where to tell the cops to start looking if you disappear.”
Mom taught me a lot about enjoying life too. One night Rockey and I bumped into her at a New Year’s Eve party hosted by a local ambulance company. She was a sheriff’s dispatcher at the time, so she had lots of buds in the emergency-related business. But I’m not sure how Rockey and I ended up there, and Mom was surprised to see us.
I thought I was in big trouble, but Mom was as cool as ever. She laughed, patted me on the back, and bought us a round of drinks. Then she waved a cheerful goodbye to us as we jumped into Rockey’s car to chase one of the ambulances and visit the latest car wreck scene.
But Mom wasn’t just focused on fun. She felt it was important to teach me valuable life skills. One of the best lessons was how to cope with problems by running from them, even if you have to flee the country, which she eventually did years later at age sixty-seven. She knew how to walk the talk.
I’m a fairly quick learner, and I devoted myself to honing this skill for decades. I found that running from my problems can lead to many thrilling moments in lots of different states with tons of interesting strangers. I can’t count the number of times I had the opportunity to learn different job skills, live in different apartments, and even fear for my life. What an adventure.
Mom also taught me to appreciate youth. Shortly after she came out that summer, she started dating the slightly older sisters of girls in my high school class, and she taught me the value of community when she brought them home to meet me.
But probably the best lesson she taught me during this time came in 1976. Right after I turned sixteen, Mom and I noticed that there was always a giant, bright-blue Cadillac parked across the street from our house. The driver looked like a garden gnome in a pale blue polyester suit, and he would just sit there, staring straight ahead.
Turns out the guy was a detective that Dad hired to follow us around because he got the crazy idea that Mom wasn’t taking good care of me. He was concerned about the situation because he wanted to stop paying the seventy-five dollars a month in child support.
It’s understandable that Dad was so upset. When I was twelve, he had invited me to meet him at a local Kmart coffee shop to renegotiate my child support with me. It had to be frustrating to him that even though I brought zero negotiating skills to the table, I couldn’t be talked down to nothing because I couldn’t think of anything to say.
But Mom always came through in a difficult situation, and she had a plan to deal with Dad and his detective. She sat Rockey and me down and said, “If you two were married, Cindy would be emancipated as an adult. Then her dad can’t legally bother her anymore. Plus he can stop paying child support, so that should make him happy.” You can’t buy wisdom like that.
The next day, Mom, Rockey, and I piled into his 1972 primer-grey Ford Pinto and drove the nine hours from Santa Maria, California to Las Vegas. At the courthouse, Mom fudged a little on the documents and told the court that she had sole custody of me and she approved the marriage. I was learning so much.
Then at seven-thirty in the morning, the three of us went to a little chapel on the Las Vegas Strip, woke up a bleary-eyed, hung-over preacher, and Rockey and I got married.
After we drove back to Santa Maria, Mom wasted no time further embracing life. With me finally married and independent, she was at last able to hit the open road as an interstate truck driver.
We all lived happily ever after, so I suppose it’s just the typical childhood story you’ve heard a million times. I just wanted to honor Mom and Dad for how much they cared about me.
I’ve developed a new psychiatric disorder: Dysfunction Envy.
The other day I started reading The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. In her introduction, Karr relates an anecdote about bullet holes in her mother’s kitchen walls. This is on the first page, and she hasn’t even started the memoir portion yet. What a hook.
Although I’m enjoying the book, I’ve fallen into a funklet (not bad enough to be depression, but I’m not giddy either). I’ve recently written a few things I’m not happy with, which is okay. I don’t mind trashing or savagely editing stuff. But for some reason, Karr’s book has me worried.
Have I run out of dysfunctional material to mine for my memoir? Is my nine-month class this fall going to consist of me sitting there, doing nothing, while my classmates turn their trauma into gold? Where’s the gunplay in my story?
Then I remembered that time when I was twelve, and I found the .22 pistol that Mom kept under her pillow, loaded, with the safety off. For my protection.
As you know, I’m not able to offer much defense for my parents’ exciting decisions, but there was an incident that caused her to believe that a loaded firearm in our house was the best choice for her daughter. I’ll talk about that situation another time.
So I’m standing in the living room with the pistol aimed at my piano. My finger’s on the trigger. The whole room’s in soft focus except for the piano, and everything gets quiet like our house is made out of a giant pillow fort.
When I decide to pull the trigger, it occurs to me that if I shoot the piano, I might not be able to practice my lessons, and my teacher will be disappointed in me.
As the rest of the room becomes visible again and the sounds of the world return, I switch the safety on the pistol so that at least it won’t blow Mom’s head off while she’s sleeping, and I tuck it under her pillow.
I never told her how close I came to shooting the piano, mostly because she was busy with Glen, the womanizing truck driver she pretended to marry in Tahoe, who later left her for a gum-smackin’ poodle groomer with a platinum up-do, frosted nails and lipstick, and leopard print miniskirts. Her reason for the sham marriage is part of yet another story.
I also believe Glen was Mom’s last-ditch effort to be heterosexual, and that leads to another story for another time.
The tales I’m telling now are reminding me of so many I’ve forgotten, and there’s no evidence that this twisted river will run dry in the near future. What a relief. It seems I’ve got what it takes to compete in Dysfunctiondome.
I’m starting to wonder if my brain has a vendetta against me. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to fears it can invent.
Paul knows that when he leaves the house in the morning and I say, “Be safe,” what I’m really telling him is:
Please don’t get into a massive fireball of a car wreck. Generally speaking, come home alive, preferably not maimed.
He’s pretty cool about it because he’s a freak who sees the positive in life. He always gets the great parking space, so why wouldn’t he see sunshine everywhere? It’s irritating.
I might be pushing my luck, though. The other day I finally confessed a new paranoiac low that may include a trace of the psychotic. He headed out the door to go rowing, and of course I said, “Be safe.”
Then I told him what I really mean:
Please don’t be murdered by a sniper hiding in bushes along the canal.
I know, right? But this fear seems reasonable to me. All they’d have to do is lead him a little.
My mind keeps telling me this is a legitimate concern despite the fact that I’ve never read a news report involving snipers and rowers. So whatever I did to piss it off, it’s not done punishing me. Bastard.
I just lost another round of Compare Yourself to Someone Else: You’re sure to win this time!
Yesterday one of our condo board members was distributing new building keys, so I went to his unit. I like this guy, but I hate his place. Everything is impossibly aligned with everything else. Knickknacks are set askew with perfection, and I think he organizes his shoes in the entryway with a T-square.
And everything’s so clean. It’s blinding. Even the floors. He could employ a five-day rule in the kitchen.
Then I come back to our place, with the empty plastic litter bins lined up in the front hall, judgmentally waiting for someone to recycle them.
There’s the occasional piece of kibble that bores into my heel when I step on it, sixteen feet away from the food dish because Molly enjoys her dinner to go.
I accept that I’ll never be like Martha Stewart, even if I had a rap sheet, but I’m afraid of dying in this mess and somehow still managing to be embarrassed when people discover my body nestled between a mountain of dirty laundry and a pile of clean, unfolded clothes.
The other day Paul met a cheese he didn’t like. I never expected this. I’ve seen him savor cheese platters that smell like an autopsy being performed in a college locker room during a natural gas leak. My world suddenly made much less sense.
Just as I was recovering from the shocking cheese aversion, he made the bed. For the first time in twenty-two years. I panicked and asked, “Why would you do that?” in the same voice I’d ask a home invader, “Why here?”
Paul said, “Because the people across the street can see our bedroom.”
I blurted, “But they’ve been able to see our unmade bed for five years. Why is this important to you now?”
He shrugged and ambled away, leaving me reeling in confusion and anxiety, somewhat like when my surgeon told me I had cancer. The fact that I’m reacting at all similarly to a bed-making crisis and life-threatening health news may surprise you, but not me. I have a long track record of overreacting.
Like that time in Buffalo, New York as it was approaching Christmas during our first year there. I heard a fire engine siren a couple doors away, so I chucked Muriel the cat into her crate, jammed my arms into a coat, and shouted at Paul, “Fire! We have to evacuate! Now!”
Paul complied, taking what felt like an ice age to get his coat and shoes on.
I burst into the foyer of our duplex, wide-eyed and sweaty, Muriel’s cage dangling from my hand. Her eyes bulged with terror as Paul slouched behind me with his hands in his pockets.
The couple next door were standing just inside the main front door with their three young children, all relaxed and smiling. None of them were dressed to evacuate during an Upstate New York winter. I understood nothing at this point.
They turned from gazing at the fire truck, and I shouted, “Where’s the fire?!”
The littlest kid pointed toward the truck as the vehicle slowly made its way toward us. He said with glee, “It’s Fire Truck Santa!”
I looked again, and sure enough, that sadistic holiday bastard was waving his Christmas cheer at all the happy kids in the neighborhood.
The three of us slunk back into our unit (as much as a cat trapped in a crate can slink) to the sounds of laughter. I mumbled, “Merry Christmas” as my face turned a bright Rudolph-nose color.
I suppose that wasn’t as bad as the escalator incident at Sea-Tac Airport. A tank-sized drunk guy passed out at the top and hurtled backwards, landing on a tot and his mother (they were fine).
Paul and I were standing nearby, and as I was unaware of the embarrassingly obvious red emergency stop buttons on escalators, I did the next best thing. I spread my arms out at an angle, and in my most commanding voice yelled, “Stand back! My husband is an occupational therapist!”
At six-foot-five, Paul did his best to be invisible as he slowly sidled away from me. Sadly for him, at this point there was no hiding. He came forward to help—which he would’ve done anyway—but his facial expression said, “Good God, I hope no one thinks I’m the guy she’s talking about.”
I probably should work on the overreaction thing, but I worry that Paul might be staying with me just for the entertainment value.
"I've always found paranoia to be a perfectly defensible position." – Susan Lowenstein, The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy