Self Portrait as My Traitor

“The work of all women writers is jeopardized when individual female authors are taken to task for the content of their writing.” –bell hooks from Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work

Two months before I filed for divorce, I published an essay titled Match.com (later published in The Funny Times in November 2013). In the essay, I consider Martha Stewart’s foray into online dating, and I suggest that her profile and her appearance on talk shows where she would actually meet with men who responded to her—men with gilded silver hair who looked like they were fresh off the golf course—was all just a publicity stunt for her new book. I noted that I was a married woman who was “not necessarily looking”, but I suggested that most likely neither was Martha. At this time, my marriage was in the process of being declared a federal disaster zone. Aerial footage would show our marital home as a pile of tiny splinters, cars turned upside down, trees pulled up to expose their enormous red clay packed roots. As a former inhabitant, all I could do was stare at the aftermath. I knew everything was gone. It was over. But I did not know where to start in an effort to move forward.

I approached the Match.com essay the way I approach most essays, with a problem. As I considered the issue through the mock profile, I came to the conclusion that what I really needed was for someone to accept me despite all my flaws. Much like Martha Stewart’s Match profile, my fake one was not about going on any real dates, it was a way for me to explore what it would take, realistically and comically (often bedmates), to fix that unhappiness.

My ex-husband “discovered” the essay during our divorce process and tried to use it against me. He wanted that essay to serve as evidence that I was cheating on him before I filed for divorce. He wanted my writing to be an exposé of my character. He also just didn’t get it, which is why he never had an interest in reading my work in the first place. I rarely shared my writing with him because he did not like that version of me. That version that is in my own words. That version where I am in control of how I am perceived. He wanted to see me in a certain way, and the honest accounts of my life and my perceptions stood in opposition to his version of how he wanted me to be.

It is also about control. Using my writing as a way to call my value systems into question is a way to revise me and to alter the meaning of my words. It is also an issue that adds bricks to the immense wall of gender bias. More recently, I have been taken to task by my employer for the essay I wrote called Some Bunny to Love. As a woman—as a mother—there are ways that I should act. Adrienne Rich describes how her poetry writing suffered after the birth of her first child because she was worried that if she appeared unhappy in her work, if there were “periods of null depression or active despairing” then she could be deemed some type of monster (I published an essay about this in September 2012). Of course, Rich had her children in the 1950s, but it seems we are still persecuting women for their honest commentary. bell hooks warns:

“Critics will exercise the power to publicly judge and morally condemn the subject of women’s writing when it transgresses the boundaries of conservative convention and mainstream decorum.”

Depending on where the female author resides, the boundaries of conservative convention can usually be stretched to blanket almost anything, especially if related to female sexuality—unless the works are capitalist blockbusters, like Fifty Shades of Grey, then that is okay because it is about the economy, stupid. Oh wait, and about a man sexually dominating a woman.

There is an Afterword that Vladimir Nabokov added to the 1956 edition of Lolita titled, “On a Book Entitled Lolita” that has always interested me. I find value in reading an author, especially one such as Nabakov, reflecting on his work in his own words—it is the Inside the Actor’s Studio of my field. Also, this afterword is where we get such moments of inspiration like his declaration that “reality” is “one of the few words that mean nothing without quotes.” But what has attracted me the most from this short essay is his discussion about what inspired him to write Lolita. He simply provides this anecdote:

“As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

I interpret this passage to mean that sometimes, if we look through another’s eyes, we may not like what we see. What we see could leave us haunted. This certainly applies to Humbert Humbert because this book—to me—is mostly about the contradictions, nuances, and shock of first person narration. This small revelation from Nabakov, tacked on at the end of one of the most morally disputed novels in the canon (because it does still make it in—resolutely inside the academic tower), can be applied to the work of female authors, especially those of us who are autobiographical. As I share my experience, it may stand in opposition to how I am expected to act. Think. Feel. When a reader peers out from my eyes, he may not like what he sees. It is like viewing a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Each artist has her own bars of the cage and when depicted honestly, it just might make people squirm.

I aim to write authentically about the myriad of experiences that constitute my life, most often my personal life (or lack thereof), my role as a remedial parent, and my career as a writer. A recurring theme for me is writing about what it is like to be a single woman with two kids in a small southern town, and how that can make it difficult for me to find love. I am also a romantic, which is a real cockblocker. I recently took an online quiz to determine which Shakespeare story best matches my love life. Of course I got Romeo and Juliet. The advice I take from this important and real diagnosis is that I have unrealistic expectations, and I should go directly to the nearest apothecary so I can be put out of my misery. That is what cages me. I have nobody to blame for the fact that I have struggled to find a suitable partner—someone intelligent and kind, and not to be greedy, but also a sense of humor. And I would like to be pretty damn close to as important to him as the sun. And it would be great if he has a yacht or a helicopter or both (ISO someone with a helipad), and he should be a sommelier.

Although I love to employ humor, both in my writing and as a defense mechanism, the truth is that being alone is a major part of my life. Most nights after I put the kids to bed, I wish I had a hand to hold on the couch. In the house we have rented for the past two years, I have only had two men spend the night. One was a man I dated this past winter, and we spent time together here on a weekend when my kids were with their father. The other was a man I dated long distance for almost a year, and then he lived with us for four months. We created a happy but somewhat artificial semblance of a family life, based on a real and deeply rooted friendship, and I will never regret that time. My children laughed with him and through that experience I was able to see how generously they are able to love—without spite or jealousy or loss of feelings for their own father. They can love exponentially and that made me immensely proud.

As a woman—an educated, independent woman—I am not supposed to be sad because I am single. I cannot be the Julia Roberts character from Knotting Hill and say that I am just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her (I have learned this the hard way). I am supposed to just be amazing and live each day as if I can actually do this on my own and hope that the right person will show up when I am not looking, or when I am having a bad hair day (never going to happen). But I have never been good at doing what I am supposed to do. I am a rebel. And I will not be silenced. According to bell hooks, “Given the power of censorship and antifeminist backlash we should all be insisting that women writers continue to resist silencing.” My resistance comes in the only form I know: to just keep writing.

My craft is humor writing, and I have carved a decent niche in a difficult genre. Humor writing cannot be riddled with clichés. It has to be fresh. It must evoke recognition of shared experience but with a twist that reveals something more—perhaps something more sinister, more extreme, or even more pathetic. It has to grab people to arouse laughter. I employ a voice in my humor writing that is dangerously honest. She puts the elephant in the center of the room and decorates it with garlands of daisies and daggers. Through the process of creative expression, I am more able to accept my flaws and love myself just the way I am, which is all I have ever asked of those around me.

My ex-husband’s attempt to use the Match.com essay against me during the divorce was not the first or the last time I have been taken to task for the content of my writing. And I have no doubt that the last time will occur only after I stop writing all together. What I have to take away from this is that my writing must actually matter. People are paying attention. And there is something I am doing that is rattling the cage.

IMG_1992

bell hooks’ work is from her book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work published by Holt and Company in 1999.

Adrienne Rich’s ideas about the intersection of writing and motherhood is from her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” published in College English in 1972.

The excerpt From “On a Work Entitled Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov is from “Lolita” on iBooks, Second Vintage International Edition published by Vintage Books. https://itun.es/us/FRlez.l

 

Advertisements

Some Bunny to Love

I recently bought some remote control panties from a line of products called Bedroom Kandi, designed by former Real Housewives of Atlanta cast member Kandi Burruss. The products are beautifully packaged, high quality, and on many levels take away the unfortunate stigma around buying personal products for the bedroom. When I purchased the panties from a sales representative at a private party, I was drunk, which much more accurately simulates the sexual experience for me. The next morning I stumbled across the receipt in my purse and had instant regrets. Who needs a man? I can do this entire process on my own.

The panties are one size fits all and, especially when stuffed with the rechargeable massager, are a little droopy in the butt and crotch area. It makes it look like I am wearing a soggy black lace diaper. That vibrates. I have considered some scenarios, like maybe wear them to a hotel bar and pass the remote to a stranger. Hey handsome, give me a buzz. It is like giving him my room key, but instead just giving him instant, electronic access to my crotch.

I also ordered a giant dildo called Bunny You’ll Love it, and a product called Helping Hand that says on the box it can be for couples or single play. It is a device that goes on a penis, something I seem to have an awful lot of trouble getting my hands on. What I might do is reciprocate to Bunny Love, just to give something back—I do not want to be a selfish lover.

When I took my new, hot pink dildo out of the box, I screamed, “It’s so big!” and then felt shy and nervous. The only other dildo I have ever owned, I drunk ordered from Amazon and then forgot about the purchase until the package arrived. “What could this be?” Oh yes, it is a reminder that I am alone. I might as well have ordered some furniture for my cat. My Amazon dildo is very tiny, although it does say on the box that it can also be used as an anal butt plug (wink! wink!), so maybe this is the one time when vibrator is actually the euphemism. Don’t worry it will just say FOR VAGINAS ONLY on the box. Completely discreet.

The sex toy extravaganza is what I am going to call phase four in the online dating process. Phase one begins with a night spent home alone drinking and realizing that I am actually not “too good” for online dating. The signing up process is much quicker than expected, it is sort of like getting the courage to ride a terrifying roller coaster and then thinking there will be time while standing in line to pull myself together, enjoy the moments I have left, and tell my family that I love them, but then I just keep winding back and forth through the maze of dividers at a steady pace until suddenly I am sitting in the front row and the harness is being lowered onto my shoulders. Wait? What is happening?

Phase two is when I thought that it might actually work. I have had a few reasonable conversations, met some people for coffee, not been murdered—all the prerequisites for life long companionship. Then phase three is when I realize that all I am really getting from these people is text messages. It is a level of hell where messages are just sent back and forth with no impetus to make actual plans or to see each other in person. In my most generous assessment, I have assumed these types of men are married, but I think they are just lazy. They would rather have their ego stroked than anything else, and messaging with me delivers, and they don’t even have to leave their house or turn off their television.

Thus, sex toys. I feel this is a relationship I can actually make last. At least until they run out of batteries. Or I lose the remote. Then like everything else they will be added to the list of things that need attention: organize desk area, call the exterminator, schedule parent-teacher conference, buy batteries for giant dildo, find the remote for vibrating panties. Phase five is the inevitable buzz kill. I have not given up online dating, though. The phases are somewhat recursive. And I am a slow learner. I just recently swiped yes to a guy holding a kitten, mainly because it seems like he knows his audience. Are you alone? Yes! Do you like cats? Yes! Swipe right and we can enter into a relationship that consists of sexting and adorable cat photos. Yes! Back to phase one.

bench shot

Cockblocker

I recently joined Tinder. At the age of 40 and after a disappointing conversation with my ex-boyfriend because that is how I start all my dating endeavors—as a late bloomer and as a form of revenge. What I like best about Tinder is that people can only message me if I have liked them, and it is based completely on looks. You just look at pictures of people and decide if you like them or not. It is similar to ordering off the menu at Denny’s.

I like to drink a few glasses of wine and then start swiping through photos. The more drinks I have, the more people I seem to like, just rapid fire swiping right. It says you are 42, but you look like Hugh Hefner’s grandfather? Swipe right! Your profile picture is just a tub of ice cream? Swipe right! Grown-ass man wearing a Boy Scout uniform? Swipe right! Wearing a McCain/Palin shirt while sitting on a horse? No. Swipe left. I have to draw the line somewhere, and that line starts anywhere in the vicinity of Sarah Palin.

I have not actually been on a date through Tinder yet, but I talk to people occasionally. Before I joined, I heard that Tinder was really just about hooking up, but maybe I am not doing it right. I have my age limit set between 35 and 50, and perhaps that demographic is too tired and broken. Also, they are all divorced, so they are afraid that women will just take all their stuff. Dating guys who are fresh out of divorce is sort of like dating someone who is clinging to a Styrofoam cooler after he has just watched his boat sink into the abyss. If we worked together, we could probably build a raft and make it to safety, but he is going to have to let go first.

In my new post-divorce dating life, the conversation goes rapidly from “What’s your name?” to “How long have you been divorced?” That question is the new “What do you do?” which was previously the new “What’s your major?” I guess my next question will be “What hurts?” and then hopefully, “How long have you been a widow?”

I am always surprised by how quickly people will ask me about divorce, and even after they do I am still cautious with returning the question, allowing for the possibility that maybe he is not divorced. He could still be married, was never married, or his wife could have died (call me!). However, they usually are actually divorced or divorcing (call me in six months!), and then we talk about how our exes are unreasonable assholes and how we, in contrast, are delightful loving people just trying to get on with our lives.

At least I have settled into a pattern. I pick from the menu, then I receive a message, and we chat about how divorce is simultaneously the worst and best thing that has happened to us, and then we decide to exchange phone numbers to talk as one guy put it “The old fashioned way.” He meant texting. Then we text for a few days about how Mondays suck or about how I would be perfectly happy to just go sit in a port-o-let and drink a gallon of wine, and then we never actually meet or speak to each other again.

I am probably not going to find a life partner or even a dinner date on Tinder, but I can’t seem to resist opening up the app and just swiping. And swiping. And swiping. It is sort of like playing a slot machine. Based on what I have already seen, odds are in my favor to keep going.

I have actually finished Tinder a few times. Eventually I get to a screen that says, “There is no one new around you.” It usually appears unexpectedly, as I am frantically swiping and thinking there must be some reasonable person who is not wearing camouflage or holding a baby (how long have you been separated?) that is on this completely free dating app that requires almost no effort—you don’t even have to know how to read. Then BOOM. I reach the edge and think life is hopeless, and I am going to be alone forever until I am humanely euthanized by my cats.

Then the next day I check Tinder and somehow there are all new men. Swipe right!

IMG_1992

Episodes

Boating with my Dad in 1975.

Boating with my dad in 1975.

My dad was on Judge Judy. And he lost. It isn’t necessarily something that I am proud of, but it does usually earn me a win in the pissing contest for who has the most fucked up family. My only loss is to a friend whose brother was on Montel Williams, and not as the guest they bring out first, but one of those guests that they bring out about halfway through the show as the audience boos and hisses and you think, “Why did he agree to be on this show?”

My dad was always working on some type of scheme. And nothing else. He spent most of his later years unemployed and broke. His Judge Judy appearance had something to do with a handshake deal he made with his roommate to buy his house, which shockingly turned into a shit storm when one of them slept with the other’s girlfriend, and then my dad accused him of trying to steal the house.  I have never seen the episode because I don’t want to remember him like that, probably wearing a tank top in a court room. He will look out of place, like he is standing in front of the wrong backdrop.

My dad didn’t jump through hoops. He wasn’t going to put on a tie or even a shirt with sleeves and sit behind a desk, spending his days making phone calls and stapling things.  He was completely incapable of conforming, and I don’t blame him for that. I can even relate. I struggle to sit at my computer, my hand gripping the mouse afraid to let go because I know that I am like him, and that I am just one “Take this job and shove it” away from standing at a podium in front of the world’s most famous judge, probably smoking a cigarette while trying to seek reparation from my ex-boyfriend for smashing my windshield with a bottle of Jack Daniels. It is a slippery slope.

When I worked at a department store in college, we were required to wear panty hose, but I never wore them, mainly because it gave me a small sense of control. My manager would ask me what happened to my hose, and I would just stare down at my bare legs and shrug as if they had mysteriously disintegrated into the misogynistic past. The less control I have in my life, the more I am impelled to rebel against the codes. My dad must have felt out of control for the duration.

When he died he was living in a weekly let motel with no car and no money. In his room we found six dollars and some change that my sister and I split as our inheritance. Neither of us spent our portion and we often talk about pooling our money to buy lottery tickets. He also left behind legal proceedings from a meth possession charge and a small gathering of friends and family wondering if they could have done something to save him. I want to say that I always thought the time would come when we would reconnect, but the biggest emotion I felt after he died was relief. When I see a homeless man on the street corner, I don’t have to worry if it is him. Not anymore.

The summer after my freshmen year in high school I stayed at his house on a small lake outside of Lake Wales, Florida. It was the last summer I ever stayed with him for longer than a short weekend. My dad worked the night shift at a factory that summer and slept all day and worked all night, so I spent a lot of time listening to the Violent Femmes on my tape deck and writing in my journals. I also spent a lot of time stealing Southern Comfort from his new wife’s party handler and mixing it with ginger ale, as a way to alleviate boredom. I stole whole packs of cigarettes—Winston Lights—from the carton they stashed in the kitchen drawer. I swam in the lake by myself, floating in the cool water, staring up at the clouds. Baptized from my sins.

My dad would let me drive to the gas station on the corner, even though I was only fifteen. I would hang around the kitchen to ask if he needed anything, hoping for the chance to get to take the car. He would let me go buy diet cokes or more cans of the ginger ale that were always mysteriously disappearing. I cranked the music, lit a cigarette, rolled the windows down, and stepped on the gas. My long wavy hair swirled around the front seat like a tornado.

I was five years old when my parents divorced. I remember lying awake at nights listening to yelling from the living room, and then one night he left and in the aftermath the house was quiet, like it was letting out a long sigh. He moved to Miami to live with my grandparents in a high rise condo in Coconut Grove that overlooked Biscayne Bay and was heavily mirrored. It was like living in a ballet studio in the clouds. There was a pool and an intercom system at the door that called directly to the condo. There were elevators. My dad started a new life and joined a small church that met at a ranch style house on Key Biscayne.  He remarried. After the wedding, I cried and screamed for him as they ran out the front steps towards the getaway car.

His new wife was in her early twenties with a son about my age, and together they created a life that was a shadow box of suburbia. There were family vacations and coordinated bedroom sets. There were also problems. Most of what I found comfort in—the traditional, suburban family—was just a bunch of cardboard cutouts glued hastily into an old shoe box. My dad had a manic temper and a dangerous habit of spending money before he even knew where he would earn it. He always had plans. As a kid, I saw him as eternally optimistic and spontaneous. Looking back, I think he suffered from mental illness. He was paranoid, defensive, and delusional. I remember being on a long car trip, hunkered down in the bed of his truck because he thought people were shooting at us. Another time he was convinced his best friend was hiding out in the darkness of the backyard like a sniper. I believed him. I didn’t believe in God, and I do not remember ever believing in Santa Claus. I always thought I was just born a skeptic, but maybe there was just so much of the unbelievable I could allow myself to believe. He took all I had.

Right after he was remarried, they left Miami and moved into a camper while working on building a new house on a piece of property out in the country. It was going to have an indoor swimming pool with a bridge—he had pictures and plans drawn on yellow legal pads. One afternoon he and his wife were having a fight, so I played outside running my toe through the dirt to write messages in the sand. My dad swung the door of the camper open and walked towards me angrily. He said that I made her mad, and I needed to go in the camper and apologize. “If you don’t tell her you’re sorry she will leave, and it will be your fault,” he said.

I just stared at him. He said it again, but with more seriousness and anger and then got in his truck and peeled out of the campground, dust clouding up around me. I stood outside the camper staring at the flimsy door. I finally climbed up the metal steps and saw her sitting on the banquette folding laundry. I just stood there, and she didn’t say anything. I felt choked by the tension in the room. I couldn’t speak. I was paralyzed. I might have been less terrified if I was trapped in a tiny camper with a bear. I was not sure exactly what made her mad; I was stubborn and sure that I was smarter than her. It could have been anything. Finally, I darted back out the door and ran across the campground to a picnic area by the front office. She left.

Looking back, I don’t think she wanted me to say anything. It must have been hard to be married to my dad. I don’t know what kind of abuse she was taking. She was young and trapped. She did what she had to do, and I was just collateral damage. My dad never hurt me physically.  I just dealt with a lot of silence and guilt, and I think she knew it would be that way, so maybe the most generous assessment is that it was a calculated risk. But I was only six.

And she came back. There were many other incidents where I was used—as leverage, as a weapon, as an example—and she became a more active agent, but it is hard for me now to think of her as a bad person. When I was younger, I felt like the bad person, that I was antagonizing her, pushing her because I was mean and heartless, mainly because that is what I was told. I believed. Then when I got older, I realized that I was a child and she was an adult, no matter how young. We were not equal adversaries. Now as a woman, I see her as someone who was stuck in a debilitating marriage. She once tried to shoot my dad but could not figure out how to work the safety on his gun. She finally left for good when I was thirteen. There was no meeting with lawyers and splitting up assets, she just disappeared. After my dad died, I thought it would be safe to contact her—that she might be willing. She never responded. I picture her sitting silently waiting for me to apologize as I stand in a little cloud of dirt at the door. I also picture myself opening my mouth and sucking in enough air to crumple the tiny camper like an aluminum can.

My relationship with my dad existed in episodes. We came together on weekends and summer weeks to merge our divergent lives. We went on a trip to Disney World when I was in middle school, just the two of us. We stood in line for Thunder Mountain, waiting at the turnstiles for the other riders to exit the train and watched a father and daughter laughing as they crawled out of their seats, then stopping to give each other a high five before they disappeared down the dark hallway. We looked away awkwardly, knowing that we did not have that kind of shiny, unfettered relationship. Our Disney trip was more like a business deal—I was being compensated.

After I graduated from high school, I saw him much less. He was out of work and his third marriage was crumbling. I remember sitting at the kitchen table listening to his wife talk about the sad selection of cold cuts at her local Kash n’ Karry. She lit a cigarette and stared out the window, “You can only get smoked turkey if you are really lucky.” She was already gone.

My sister and I would go see him occasionally and play poker with his friends. He had a good friend who worked on the road crew for the county, another who repaired broken televisions, and others who worked odd jobs or not at all. They kept cigarettes in their front pockets and drank mixed drinks in 32-ounce plastic travel mugs from the Circle K. He would lean back in his chair and howl with laughter when my sister or I laid out winning hands and then swept the wadded up bills and change from the center of the table into our own pile. He was dependably proud of us. That is one truth I never had to struggle to believe.

Once I grew up, and I was no longer his little girl, he never understood me. I worked tirelessly to keep it that way. I worried that if he could relate to my life then I was in danger of turning out just like him. He just couldn’t get on the path. He remained stubbornly in the wilderness. As I moved slowly towards civilization, the farther I drifted from him. When I got married to the most stable and unspontaneous man I could find, I had not spoken to my dad in years.

My sister called me one afternoon while I was at work to tell me that he was going to be on Judge Judy. I didn’t ask why—what the case was about—because his entire life was a Judge Judy style dispute. It made sense, but the idea made me cringe. It was not a stretch to think of him as an out-of-work, tank top wearing defendant. We were used to that, but on national television that would be all that he was. All that he ever was. She called back to tell me about him flying out to California with his buddy who lived in a doublewide trailer a few lots down from his small house with the vinyl siding. I pictured them in the airport, then walking the streets of Los Angeles. Again, I cringed.

I was at work when my sister called to tell me that he was going to die. I had an office with a wall of windows, and I stood and stared at a vacant field across from the heat-baked parking lot in the back of our building. She was at the hospital. She said he took a cab to the emergency room because he was having chest pains. She said the doctor told her he was not going to make it. We hung up. She called back less than an hour later. He was gone.

Standing in my office, the phone held between my ear and my shoulder, I felt like I was dressed up for a role, like I was a paper doll and my heels and slacks and blouse were held on by paper tabs and underneath was just a dirt-smudged Florida girl. I felt completely out of place, like I was standing in front of the wrong backdrop. If I was an image on a screen, I would look like someone who belonged on a paved road. As if that is all I was. All that I ever was.

After he died I did not have to just be a negation. I allowed myself to go barefoot. I remembered that jeans are much more comfortable as shorts. I quit my job, had a couple kids, and moved to South Georgia. I was sliding. I also allowed myself to scheme. When he was alive my ideas scared me because what if they were no different than his delusions? Wanting to be a writer seemed just as outrageous as my dad wanting to build a mansion.  I was perpetually unhappy at work—to me the office was just a prison without the excitement of communal showers—but I would convince myself that those thoughts were part of some genetic defect. Successful people sat at desks. I was so afraid of failing by being like him that I never allowed myself to revel in his rebellion. He was at least half of where I come from, and once he was gone it was as if a weight was lifted off my chest, and I was able to breathe deep into my lungs and then exhale, letting my stories swirl up around me in clouds of dust.

IMG_1992

Disturbing the Coquinas

This is an essay I wrote last year in response to a call for submissions for memoir from the journal Creative Nonfiction. It is not a humor essay, but it was important for me to write. I did not make the issue (I gave Lee Gutkind a virtual wedgie, imagined myself pushing him in the bushes and stealing his lunch money, and then moved on), so I am posting it here. I like this better. I am in charge here. My story. My voice. My way.

Disturbing the Coquinas

Sometimes when I come home from the beach house, I have so many sharks’ teeth that I find them in the bottom of my suitcases, and they fall out of my pockets and rattle around the dryer like forgotten pennies. The tiny black teeth litter the beach in front of my family’s home. They are not difficult to find; I just have to slow down and look closely at the sand. Usually they are no bigger than a fingernail. I was on the beach with my stepdad a few years ago, lingering and talking as he wrestled a PVC pipe into the sand for evening surf fishing. I leaned down and picked up a small shark tooth, dusted off the sand and held it out for him to see.

“I don’t ever see the big ones out here anymore,” he said.

I wandered around on the beach, just surveying the sand, kicking at shells with my big toe, and then I spotted a tooth the size of a silver dollar. I picked it up and placed it in the interior of my palm, hurrying back to where my stepdad stood tying on a lure, “Like this?” I asked, showing him the tooth and laughing. People find things they shouldn’t on Manasota Key.

Last summer I left my husband in Georgia and took my two kids to the key. I wanted a divorce, but I was scared. I could not see through to the other side, so leaving felt like jumping blindly into the fog. I loaded the kids and our suitcases into the van, slid into the driver’s seat, and took off my wedding ring. I dropped the ring in the coin compartment where it clinked against accumulated change and then looked over my shoulder at the kids strapped in their seats before I backed out of the driveway. Five hours later as I drove over the north bridge, I caught my first view of the Gulf beyond the bright and tidy parking lot of the public beach. I sobbed.

I remembered playing on that beach when I was just a little kid, hot feet hopping sand bags, weaving in and out of sun-tanned adults holding cocktails.  I built sandcastles. I witnessed houses burning down. New ones rising. Grandparents lived and died. I found buckets of sharks’ teeth. All of this prehistory was here before I ever considered getting married. I knew it with one glance at the sparkling turquoise water.

My grandparents on my mother’s side owned a ranch style house on the beach side of the key. The house had a deck on the roof and a modern pebble patio. They also owned a home with a pool across the street on the bay, and I never understood why they chose to live in the smaller house with no pool.  The allure of the Gulf had not yet yanked at my childish tides. They used the bay house mainly for entertaining, and my grandfather kept the garage fridge stocked with cans of soda—Seagram’s Ginger Ale and 7-Up—that he would let me drink straight out of the can. I spent a lot of time as a kid on the fringes of parties, loud laughter pouring in from outside the bedroom where I sat on shag carpet playing Legos. I remember the smell of liquor as I darted out to steal a Triscuit.

I have memories of visiting the key with both my parents as a baby, then I remember being there with just my mom and sister, and then my parents got divorced. My mother must have felt the sanctuary of the key. I played with a little tow-headed girl whose grandparents lived two houses down. We fluttered down the beach, playing house on the sandbags. As adults, we still flutter around each other, kicking up sand. I remember going to the door of her grandparent’s house, asking if she could play. I had no idea that I was knocking at my future, declaring myself a part of the family. My mother eventually married her uncle. Her grandparents became my grandparents. Her cousins became my step-sisters. We were a gaggle of girls, trying to make our own parties in tucked away rooms.

During the day we roamed the beach. We sat on our knees where the tide comes in and dug full fisted into the wet sand. We exposed a rainbow of pastel coquina shells, then watched as they squirmed diligently back under the protective blanket of sand. We moved further out into the breakers and dug down for sand fleas. We brought our hands up with heaping mounds of wet crushed shells and let it filter off slowly to reveal the little grey pearly backs, legs kicking frantically, trying to burrow into our palms. We put them in buckets and declared them families. The largest was a father, then a mother—we named them Sandy and Danny. The smaller ones were their children. We swam out to the sandbar and played like Porpoises, squeaking to each other. When our grandmother came out for her afternoon dip, she held out her arms so we could jump over, perform a trick, and then circle back around to catch a fake fish.

Manasota Key is located on the Southwest coast of Florida. The northern portion of the key—my portion—is in Sarasota County and retains a jungle-like quality, thick with mangroves and dark green vegetation opening onto a fickle beach. Some days the Gulf is calm and wide with clear water that makes the Caribbean ache with jealousy; sometimes it is raging and oppressive, pushing against banks, mocking self-righteous homes who gamble with the tides. Sometimes the waves lap gently, sometimes they crash triumphantly, but the beach always reminds me that I am not in charge. Letting my toes sink into the soft wet sand, staring at the horizon, noting the curve of the earth, I remember that I am standing small on a planet.

The southern portion of the key is in Charlotte County and opens up to concrete and a series of rectangles. Passing over the county line from the north, I squint and reach for my shades as I exit the protective thicket. I am instantly exposed, like exiting backstage into the blinding lights. When I was in fourth grade, we moved to a duplex at the Charlotte County end. My older sister, who was in high school, was forced to take the bedroom upstairs next to my mother and stepfather, and I was given a makeshift bedroom in the enclosed garage. There were sliding glass doors on one side and at night raccoons would scurry by or, worse, stop and scratch at the glass. On the other side of my room there were towers of boxes in a space used primarily for storage.

One morning I woke up and scampered up the stairs to find a deserted house. I ran up the next flight and stood in the doorway of my mother’s empty room. My ears rung from the quiet. I ran back down two flights to my storage room, just as my mom and stepdad were coming in through the door, weaving their way through the maze of boxes.

“Where were you?” I asked. My sister was in a car accident. She fell asleep at the wheel on the way home from a date with her boyfriend in Sarasota. Her car went into in a ditch, but she kicked her way out and then pounded on the door of a man’s apartment, blood streaming down her face. At the hospital, she had to get 72 stitches in her head. If she had fallen asleep seconds later, she could have gone off the North Bridge into the intercoastal. I stood at the end of the path of boxes. “You left me here all alone?”

My school bus drove over the South Bridge every morning and afternoon, and sometimes we had to wait for the drawbridge to open for a sailboat with a tall mast.  When we stopped, I climbed up on my knees, dropped my window, and hung my head partially out to stare at the water. There were usually small boats anchored in the shallows, rocking from the wake of the sailboats and yachts passing through to open waters. Sometimes there were porpoises. I knew my route was special, but those instances of recognition were fleeting. By the time I was in junior high, I stopped going out on the beach. I would ride my bike on the street and play in the elevator at the new set of condos built behind our duplex. When we moved off the key and into a smaller apartment in town, I wasn’t sad. I was happy to be out of the basement.

My mom and stepdad still did most of their socializing out on the key with family. As an adult, I see the attractive nuance of that arrangement. My mother’s parents moved away and into a condo down in Key Biscayne, so we spent most of our time at my step grandparents’ home. Our car would crunch into the gravel driveway, and I would run inside to find a hiding place to play, usually with my sisters and cousin. The adults would find cocktails and stand around laughing. That is what I was taught about family. When I interact with other families, those that sit soberly in rooms and talk quietly or not at all, I feel claustrophobic. The generations have shifted, but this is still how we connect. We have cocktails. We don’t sit down.

They started construction on a new home about a half mile down the beach. My cousin and I ran between the houses on the road, pretending we were spies. When a car approached, we hid in the bushes or scampered up the dense tropical driveways, hiding from unsuspecting drivers. We never went on the beach—certainly the most efficient way to walk between the houses—instead we walked the narrow shoulders of the curving beach road. The beach was for tanned old ladies in padded one-piece swim suits. We were girls of the jungle.

One night, my mother and stepdad loaded us into the car after a New Year’s Eve party. Before we got to the south bridge, we were hit head on by a drunk driver. I had a bloody nose, and I smeared it all over my face. I was sure I was dying, so I did my multiplication tables silently to convince myself I didn’t have brain damage. People filed out from the dive bar across the street to help. I remember a lady reaching in the car to pull us out; she lined us up on the curb, little girls caked in blood. As bad as it looked, all of us kids were fine. My mom broke her ankle, and my stepdad shattered his femur bone. He was stuck in the car. I was sitting in the back of an ambulance with my sisters as he looked out the passenger window. When they fired up the Jaws of Life to get him out, I covered my eyes with blood-stained hands. I knew even at that moment that he was glad that it was him. My family book-ended the key with accidents. Moments of survival.

After the accident, I was forever tethered to my own mortality. I learned to be afraid, and I applied it to everything: cars, planes, elevators, emotions. When I got home from the hospital, I wouldn’t look in the mirror for several days—I had no lasting injuries—my face was just bruised and puffy. I was scared to go to sleep because I was not sure I would wake up. One night, I dozed off in my mother’s bed, and when I woke up it was completely dark. I thought I had gone blind, so I just silently searched the room for something I could see, and when I found a square of light on the floor coming from underneath the door, I caught my breath.  I wandered around numbly for days—in shock. Eventually I snapped out of the funk, but I was scarred with an odd sense of hypochondria. When I am stressed, I become paralyzed by the fear that I am going to die. Not with some long-standing illness, but that I am just going to drop dead. In an instant. Hit head on.

There were stretches of years between teenage angst and twenties lethargy that I never set foot on the beach. I never touched barefoot to sand; I never dug deep into mud for colorful coquinas. I continued to visit the key to see grandparents as they aged inside the big house on the beach, which had grown quiet, like Gatsby’s after the parties came to an end. The walls sighed slowly, heavily. Outside the windows and open doors, the waves relentlessly swished, gentle at times, roaring at others—waves of seven reminding me: I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here. I will always be here.

My absence from the beach meant that it could be rediscovered. I remember staying on the key the week before I was married and taking a friend for a walk on a particularly calm morning.  She walked with wonder. I saw the sanctuary with new eyes. I stopped and looked out at the horizon, smudged gently into the sky, and remembered the magic. We never passed another person on our walk, and we stopped occasionally and waded out into the clear, tranquil water. A few days later I was married.

Once we had kids, I took them to the beach often, and I sat in a chair—the sun baking the tops of my thighs—and watched my son ride the waves, swirling in the middle of foam, momentarily disappearing beneath the surf, causing me to lean forward with my breath held until he surfaced closer to the shore. He stood up, rubbed his eyes, and then leaped back out over the breaking waves to stand with his body facing the shore, looking over one shoulder for the perfect wave. My daughter knelt in the sand at my side playing with collected seashells, calling them families and building sandcastle estates. Occasionally she fluttered to the edge of the breaking waves to rinse her hands or to collect water in colorful buckets, and sometimes she sat and let waves crash over her legs, digging her hands down into the wet sand, disturbing colonies of coquinas.

At sunset, the adults found their way onto the beach, and we all mingled in the sand, ice clinking in high ball glasses, the kids weaving in and out like they were doing a Maypole dance, kicking up sand. Then we wandered back up to the house and stood around in the kitchen, grabbing at food, refilling our drinks, loud laughter pouring into bedrooms where piles of sisters, brothers, and cousins lay on blankets across the floor, watching movies. The waves crashing outside triumphantly.

I stayed at the beach with my kids for two weeks before I went home and filed for divorce. My family came and went; we celebrated the Fourth of July. Before they arrived, everyone knew that I was trying to decide whether or not to pick up the axe, to chop down my family tree. Word had spread, not insidiously but like a whisper of “timber” that rustles the leaves, and the trees nod, knowing what they must do next. With each conversation I became more confident. My cousin and I walked within sight of my kids playing in the surf, keeping the fossil collector’s pace, our heads down, looking for shells. She told me she was sorry. I bent to pick up a seashell. “Look at this one,” I said, holding out my palm. As she examined my shell, I added, “I just don’t love him.” We looked out towards the horizon, squinting into the sun, not needing to say anything more.

Later I walked the beach with one of my sisters. We dodged a wave, our feet synchronously searching for more compact sand, and I confessed, “One day I was standing in my closet, hanging up clothes, and I thought that I might have a chance for a better life if he died.” The thought terrified me when it had happened, maybe a year before. I remember clutching an empty dress, not sure who I was anymore, saying it to another person made me shudder.  She stopped and looked at me, wiped a strand of brown hair away from her face, and hugged me. We kept walking. The Gulf ebbed and flowed at our side.

The day before I packed the car to head home to Georgia, I stood on the beach, my toes sinking in the soft wet sand. I watched my kids running towards the surf and then darting away from incoming waves, just like sandpipers. On that particular day the beach had a wide trail of crushed shells set between the soft sand and the wet sand from the lapping waves. I walked back and forth, head bent down, picking up sharks’ teeth and dropping them into my own cupped hand.  I stood up straight and looked out at the horizon towards a line of dark clouds that interrupted the otherwise seamless blue. I closed my fist tightly.

close up

To-Do List

The best part about being a divorced mom with two kids is definitely the dating! The only downside is that I no longer get to have the list of people I would have sex with if I was granted monogamy immunity. Having a list was a great way to remind myself that I can really do much better. I could have sex with Don Draper (the fictional character) if I wasn’t already bound by the confines of this marriage. Of course the reality is that if I could get within 20 feet of Don Draper’s boner then I probably would not be married (to you). After the divorce my list lost its appeal because I could no longer use marriage as an excuse. If I could not land Paul Rudd then the only things left to blame were my looks and personality. I need to create a new list of much more accessible men, like Bill Clinton, or the even more realistic, Bill Cosby.

I was not necessarily great at dating before I had kids, if I was then I probably would not have gotten married. Now I have two kids, an ex-husband, and all the things that I can list as major failures in my life since I was last in the dating pool, like marriage for instance. Also, when I was younger, my future was full of hope and promise. Maybe I was going to have one of those careers that allowed me to afford nice things, like insurance. Maybe I was going to give birth to some of those kids who would eat kale. Maybe I was going to be one of those wives who would give blow jobs. Who knew? Now my future is much less hopeful and much more in present tense. My daughter had gummy worms for breakfast this morning. Also my abs look like the “before” pictures from tummy tuck surgery.

When I first got divorced I tried to date in the natural way, as in meeting people and forming some kind of connection in real time and then going on a date in two weeks when I have a free weekend without the kids. Then I decided to try online dating because I just don’t have that kind of time. Dating with kids on the every other weekend schedule is sort of like dating in dog years. One day for me is like 14 days to a regular person. I will be in a nursing home before we get to the travelling together for the holidays stage. My boyfriend will have to visit me for our Thanksgiving luncheon at 10:25 a.m. in the Azalea dining hall. This is why I think divorced people should get a pass on the no sex on the first date policy because who knows when our schedules will align again—when there will not be a sick kid in retrograde or a work conflict in my seventh house or a perfect ex-husband shit storm?

With online dating I am able to fast track the process through a rigorous process of texting that involves asking deep questions like, “What do you do for fun on the weekends” and “How long have you been divorced?” and “Why do you have trust issues?” Then I analyze the responses and try to determine how much I like this person and how likely it is that he might murder me. Then I consider how much I really care if I get murdered. Then I send a good friend his contact information (just in case), straighten my hair, and I am on my way. The only awkward part of the date is usually the first entire date. It is sort of like a job interview with alcohol (note to self: get drunk before next job interview).

Most dates end in the parking lot with an awkward hug or even more awkward: no hug. I only had one date that did not end there. We went to another bar and then back to my place. I will let you know how that ends. If you never hear from me again then just assume I have been murdered.

close up