Sunday, May 29, 2011

Turning Points and Coaster Wisdom

This is a piece that I have been working on for a few weeks.  A tad grittier than usual. Enjoy! ~C.

Rachael frowned at the coffee-stained coaster “Happiness is Wanting What You Have” it proclaimed in letters stamped and baked into its surface.  Well that certainly explained a lot.  Were these glib statements that adorn everything from coasters to bumper stickers supposed to make her feel better?  What was wrong with a plain old coaster?   Rachael sat her mug over the offending message and stared hard at the wood grain of her friend’s table trying to ignore the sick feeling in her stomach and the sharp prick of tears stinging her eyes.

There was nowhere to go this time. It was bad enough that Steve had found out about her affair. It didn’t seem just to call it an affair when they had been living separate lives for the last half-decade.  Falling into Marcus’ arms seemed more a natural progression; like a seed pushing its way out of the dark earth into the warmth of sunshine.  So she was newly sprouted seeking the warm rays of love and happiness to shine upon her only to be mowed down by the violence of Steve’s reaction to her confession.

“You’re nothing but a tramp and a whore, Rach.” He had breathed into her ear with his hands wrapped around her neck. Rachael had a fleeting thought of a quail just before its neck gets wrung.  Then he had twisted his fingers in her hair and held her fast while he kissed her hard, drawing blood and bruising her mouth. He tasted like onions.  He shoved her away and sneered at her “That’s one to remember me by, you bitch.”

He had flung the door back to bang harshly against the wall and walked out.  She could still feel his hands on her neck and taste the copper of her own blood as she stood there in the rectangle of sunlight that poured in through the door.  The marked-up, crumpled copy of her cell phone record he had brandished at her, his proof and vindication fell silently to the floor.

A tramp and a whore.  The words still rang in her head. Rachael pressed the ice pack to her still-swollen lip and bit back the bile that rose in her throat. She didn’t think she was either and yet the accusation seemed to have found some shred of guilt to gain traction. She could feel the words banging around inside her, punching holes, bleeding her dry from the inside out.   She lifted the steaming cup of tea with a shaky hand and winced as she took a sip. She turned her eyes to the coaster again, “Happiness is Wanting What You Have”.  She hadn’t wanted what she had in a long time.

“What a fucking mess.” she thought as the tears finally pooled and fell over her lashes. She squeezed her eyes shut to hold them back but it was no use, a wracking sob escaped her chest. She gave herself over to it in, convulsing with waves of self-loathing and pity, heartbreak and fear.  Someone took the cup from her hands and then there were arms around her shoulders.

“It’s gonna be okay, doll. You’re gonna be all right.” Of course it was Lisa, her best friend, who also happened to have the most annoying coasters on the planet. Lisa pressed a tissue into her hand and told her “Now, blow.”  Rachael did and then she wiped her eyes and took a few shaky breaths.

“Now, tell me what happened after he left.”

“I just sat on the floor for a long time. The sun went down and the tile got cold.” Rachael pushed the words past the lump in her throat. “I could still feel his hands on my neck and I remember how strange it was that I could smell his cologne on my skin. He hadn’t touched me in months and I had forgotten how much I loved that smell. It made me angry, Lis. I was so pissed that the fucking smell of him could make me, make me – feel something!  After five years of us just cohabitating the same house, waiting to make a change until Jason left for college. Five years I was ignored or amicably tolerated. We just kept drifting apart and agreeing we would end it one day, this is what I get; his self-righteous anger and my stupid reaction to the way he smells. Christ! Lisa I never thought of myself as such a victim.”

There was a glimmer of disbelief in Lisa’s eyes. “Sweetie, you’ve been putting up with this situation longer than anyone should have.  But you know Steve, he’s go too much pride to take this laying down, even if he was single handedly driving you into Marcus’ arms.”

At the mention of Marcus’ name, Rachael felt a fresh wave of remorse and resentment. Marcus, her lover for the last two years, was absent. In the moment she needed him most, he couldn’t bloody be bothered.  She had met him at a political rally where he charmed her with his good looks and engaging conversation. The exchange of email addresses to help organize events quickly turned into text messages and emails to organize their budding relationship.  Rachael still trembled when she remembered the first time they made love. All the moments leading up to that consummation could have been forgotten, denied as innocent flirtation until that culminating moment when she had let him in. Until then she could have turned back, but after that she was no longer Steve’s faithful wife, she had become Marcus’ lover.  There was no changing that fact and so she clung to him as a bright spot in her otherwise lonely life.

Marcus made her feel good. His hands were strong and warm and seemed to cherish her with every caress. It was salve on the open wounds of her heart and she clamored for it.  She needed him, wanted him and resented it when he had to leave to go back to his wife. They had made pillow-talk plans for the time when they could be together and how great it would be when they were free to love openly. He said he talked to his divorce lawyer. They were supposed to serve the papers two months ago.  He promised to be there for her, to be her safety net. He said she wouldn’t ever have to worry.

Well, here she was free-falling and he wouldn’t even return her calls.  “I called Marcus, later and told him what happened. He said he couldn’t talk right then and that he would call me later. That was eight hours ago. I called him again and he didn’t pick up.  That Blackberry is never out of his hand, so I know he just ignored it. I think he’s hanging me out to dry, Lisa. I really do.”

“Maybe not. Maybe he’s really tied up and is waiting until he has time to talk.  He knows that you expect him to make a move. That’s got to rattle him a little.” She tightened her arm around Rachael’s shoulder. “But we don’t need to worry about him just yet, sweetie. Right now, we need to get you patched up. How’s your lip?” Lisa peered critically at her lip and touched it gently where the bruises were beginning darken.

“Still swollen, but it doesn’t hurt so much anymore, mainly because I hurt everywhere else.  What a fucking mess this is.”

“It’s not all that bad. I mean you and Steve were heading this way already, it just came down a little faster and harder than you thought it would.”

“He hates me. He called me a tramp and a whore. God! I really didn’t want him to hate me, Lisa. I wanted to be able to part well, for Jason’s sake.”

“He’ll come around, Rach. His pride is smarting right now and he has to roar about it.  He probably has a girlfriend on the side, too and it’s his own guilt making him nuts over what you did.”

“You think he has someone?”

“I don’t know. I’m just saying, there is more to it than we are thinking about right now. Everything has to settle down and then we can see what’s what.”

“Thanks, Lisa. Really.” Rachael could feel a fresh wave of tears and she wiped them away impatiently and sought to change the subject a bit. “What’s with the coaster philosophy? I mean I want to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Who doesn’t? But Steve didn’t want me and I didn’t want him and we couldn’t get divorced. I think I love Marcus, but I doubt that will ever have him. What do I have that I want, Lisa? Help me see that. I could use a little happiness right about now.”

Lisa paused for a moment and then slid another coaster out of the stack and placed it in front of Rachael.  “Gratitude Attitude” it said.  Rachael laughed weakly and mentally noted that Lisa was really good at talking people down – or up, depending on the situation. Rachael was up a tree, freaked out and clinging like a drowning person to anything she could touch.  “You have yourself, girl. And you have me. And Jason will always love you, because you’re his Mamma. You’re healthy and strong and gorgeous! What’s not to be thankful for?” Lisa took a sip of her own tea and settled back on the couch next to Racheal, took her hand and pulled her close. Lisa always smelled like lavender and vanilla.

Rachael laid her head on Lisa’s shoulder and let out a shuddering breath. “Do you think he’ll call?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter.  You have to take care of you, and I’ll help. Marcus can’t help take care of you because he’s going to have to deal with his own decisions soon.”

Rachael let that sink in for a moment. The sounds of Lisa’s house filled the silence.  Budgerigars chirped merrily in the sunroom, the air conditioner droned like a Tibetan monk.  Rachael closed her eyes and listened to the clock chimes mete out another hour. Where had all the time gone?  She and Steve had been greedy; looking for something more, different and better than what they had. Would it have made a difference to Steve if she had stayed content, even if he wasn’t?   

“It would have been a lot easier if Steve and I just stayed in love. It’s so tragic and sad. All those years wasted that we could have been happy, if, according to your coaster philosophy, we simply wanted what was in front of us.”

“It’s never too late to learn, Rach. You can be happy.  Don’t beat yourself up, this is rich stuff. Don’t think there’s nothing to it just because it showed up on a coaster. Some of the best pieces of advice I have ever read came straight off the bathroom wall!” Lisa laughed and stroked Rachael’s hair.  “Listen, some people never have a clue that what they’ve written off as disposable was really a great gift. At least you are starting to see that.”

“So you think we blew it, too?”  Rachael braced herself for what would surely be the truth delivered straight between the eyes.

“I’m sorry for you to have missed out when you could have been enjoying life. But I, of all people, know what these last five years have been like for you. So, I can’t say it was a mistake, maybe just a missed opportunity.  Okay, a lot of missed opportunities!  But, I’m not going to judge you, doll. You seem to be doing a pretty good job of that yourself.”

Rachael startled when her cell-phone rang.  She reached to answer it only to have Lisa’s hand stop her. She turned to her friend with a querying look.

“Whatever he says, remember that You are Fine, Whole and Happy – just the way you are!” Lisa pointed to a third coaster proclaiming this latest affirmation. Rachael rolled her eyes and gave her friend a genuine smile.
She looked at the number on the phone and blew out a breath before flipping the phone open. Whatever Marcus said in this moment, she would try to embrace it, want it and be grateful. Even if it meant admitting that she had been lied to and had lied to herself.

She could tell immediately by the tone of his voice that he was setting her adrift. The spineless way he made excuses about it not being a good time financially and that his wife was feeling bad right now. “I just can’t kick her when she’s down” he said.  But, it seemed, he could kick her when she was down. The truth of that clicked into place and Rachael was forced into being honest with herself.  Admitting she had known all along he was never leaving his wife was strangely relieving.  He would not be there for her, he was not hers to have. He had used her while it worked for him to do so. And she had used him, too, to distract herself from the prison she was living in.

The truth had come and blown away the lies that had become her life.  Now those prison walls were gone and Rachael was in a free-fall.  Spinning and disoriented, she was too exhausted to really care if she fell hard to the ground. 

Through some miracle grace had interceded, granting a place to land and a parachute to sail through the turbulence.   Thanks to Lisa and a couple of kitschy coasters, she might just be okay. She felt unnervingly naked and exposed, but in spite of this she felt better than she had in years.

Happiness is Wanting What You Have.  She reread the message again and closed her eyes as she told Marcus goodbye and closed her phone.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Week Nineteen Poem: Holy Work

A friend said it is "holy work," to capture my grandmother’s stories
And put them on the page.
I am daunted, but determined to take it on.

My grandmother’s voice becomes a time machine
Revealing the secrets of her youth
She answers my questions with delight and
Her eyes take on the mischievous glint
Of a youngster in love with life
Ready to eat the world.
Next week she’ll be ninety.
Next interview she’ll be nine.

The digital recorder is a time capsule that we are filling up together
Picking out stories, mining her memory for the gems
Long held and not spoken of in a long time – or maybe never.
Preserving life and time gone by
In patchwork fashion, to be sorted later.
I am transported by my grandmother’s voice
Into her girlhood
Where I meet my great-grandparents and aunts and uncles, too
Who’s blood is in my veins and character influences me -
All these years apart and still so intimate.
Turns out my great-grandmother was a bit of a rebel,
I can relate to that and wonder if that’s where I got that particular trait.
I walk through my grandmother’s childhood home and touch the furniture
And smell the wood- smoke and beans simmering. 
I can sit alongside her
While she plays with paper-dolls cut from the Sears catalog
And dresses kittens in doll clothes to star in the backyard play.

It’s like Christmas.  I listen closely, each story unwraps a shiny new piece
Of the story that is her life and my heritage.
I am eager pose questions
To flesh out the facts with details that
Give them dimension.
Mimi laughs and digs deeper
And smiles as she finds these stories intact deep inside
It’s her youthful voice that brings them into the light
Where they dazzle like stained-glass butterflies
Sparkling in the sun.