To whom it concerns

This is the letter I wrote to interested parties involved with my dear friend’s murder trial. He was the victim, but somehow, his character has been called into question. As if he were a woman wearing a short skirt “asking for it”. It’s pretty much that ridiculous. The letter itself is no great shakes. Whenever I tried to approach this task as a “writer” I was stalled out. And also kind of hating myself for worrying about artfulness at a time like this. Also worried what Doug’s critique of it would be. He once said of an article I asked him to proof that it was “dry as dust”. On the other hand, he also said of another piece, “reads like a dream, wouldn’t change a thing.” So he was level-handed in his assessments I think. 

Mostly, I am frustrated because no matter how many examples I could give to support his decency, his talent, his kindness, and his humanity – it isn’t likely to change much in the long run. If I want justice, I shan’t hold my breath. If I crave closure, I think I’ll have to look elsewhere. But this is the best I can do, under the circumstances. I hope it helps.  

To whom it concerns: 

I believe in the idea of sacred contracts. An idea that there are some people in your life you meet because they help you to grow, or facilitate change, or assist you on your life’s journey. I believe that I had a contract of this nature with Doug. Chance flung us together at a favorite watering hole Labor Day of 2008, where we met and formed a fast bond. This bond deepened and took on many forms throughout the course of our friendship, but we were nearly inseparable for three years, during which time we saw each other through difficult transitions through our mutual love of art, literature, music, and each other. As we once laughingly agreed, “no one loves us as much as we love us.”

It is strange for me to write publicly about Doug, and our relationship in particular, because he was a private person. Stranger yet to write in his defense, as I can’t think he did much other than to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But since this is the last thing I can do for him, tangibly, I’ll do my best. He did not abide sentimentality for its own sake, so I’ll do my best to stick to the facts – though it will be hard, because Doug’s imprint on my soul is what I want most to share with anyone who will listen.

IMG_1465During the time I knew Doug he went from being an Executive Chef at a fine restaurant, to working as a cook in a university cafeteria, to being unemployed and visiting the food shelf. He experienced this gradual decline with uncommon grace. Even in the darkest times – broken furnace, little food, no car – he was optimitstic. He was humbled, but never downtrodden. And even though he was unemployed he worked, constantly, both at finding a job and at making music. I knew his daily routine well, I lived with him for a short time. Up early with coffee, an hour or so at the computer either writing stories or articles for his mother’s bulletin, looking for jobs, or posting as a moderator on Huff Post. The Huffington Post was a great outlet for Doug, who was quite a hermit really, to exchange ideas and barbs over politics. He was always defending a broadly liberal point of view, but most likely the racial or sexual minority. And he did it with humor. He was so excited to be asked to be a moderator, because he was valued as someone able to diffuse contentious arguments with a sense of humor. Anyway, after that he headed to the living room to write music for the next few hours. Then a lunch break and a dog walk. Maybe a visitor in the afternoon. he retired at sundown with Otto, and later Gertie, by his side and watched movies and TV series he checked out from the library. It was an unglamorous life, but he was really contented. And he never complained much. When he did, he was apologetic.

At the same time, I was going through a divorce and learning to support myself and my two children. Doug worried and fretted over my welfare on all fronts; emotionally, physically, financially. He was sweet to my children, and he was supportive of me. More than anything, he gave me back my voice. In becoming a mother and wife, I had been living my life as if half-asleep. Doug woke me up. He believed that I was was smart and witty and funny and talented. He encouraged my writing, he pushed me artistically. He put a microphone in front of my face and told me I could sing. He modeled a work ethic that showed me how artists create: passionately, without concern for being discovered, or published, or accepted. He called me Queenie. Not because he revered me, but because it was how he wanted me to see myself.

We played. We had fun. We went for dog walks. We cooked and drank wine. We recorded albums, and radio plays. Doug’s living room was a universe where the walls fell away and anything was possible. It was a land of make-believe – our own record label, our own radio station, our own catering company, our own country of which we were the rulers. Multiple possible futures that all coincided. He was magical in that way, an allure that attracted many people to him.

Doug gave me a bed so that my kids had one to sleep on. Doug did my laundry while I was at work. He made me lunches and dinners too many to name. He taught me to cook mussels. He wrote songs for me. He made mix-tapes to accompany every road trip I took. He listened to hours of my crying, doled out reams of advice and never let me hit bottom. A bachelor to the core, he kept maxi-pads stocked in the bathroom for me. Later, when I moved to Saint Paul and would visit overnight to record music, he arranged a room in his house for me and kept it free of dog and cat hair so I could sleep allergy free. When I was on vacation in Santa Fe, he watched the weather and texted me to warn me there was a storm in the area. He was “there for me” in the most loyal and steadfast of ways.

Douglas was a complex person with a colorful life. He took the responsibility of being an artist seriously, which meant life wasn’t always easy. He kept up with his mortgage  as best he could, even when he couldn’t afford food. He never let his dog Otto want for food or walkies. I was with him when they put Otto down. I so admired his strength that day. When the vet came in with x-rays of Otto’s lungs, ridden with cancer, we were devastated. He was too far gone for treatment, and Doug didn’t want him to suffer another minute. We sat together as Otto’s ragged breathing ceased. Together we carried him clumsily from the car to the back-yard. Then I left Doug to bury him in the shady area he loved to sit in, which he did, bravely alone.

He was unfailingly, even annoyingly, moralistic. I’m a bit of a moral relativist, but Doug believed in right and wrong, good and evil, and he took great care in his life to be on the right side of that divide. Apparently his Christian upbringing, though lapsed, was not a complete failure. If we argued, it was about my ethical leniency. He was the champion of the underdog, and the defender of the meek. He wrote songs about misfits: Dorca, a song about an orca who doesn’t fit in amongst the dolphins. He wrote for the abused, and the neglected, and the persecuted. He himself was a misfit, and his sympathy was always with those who society looked down on and cast aside.

Our last night together we finished up some recording and listened to all the things we had recorded together. We drank some Rolling Rock and took a cab downtown. We tried to visit the bar we had met at, but it was crowded and unfriendly feeling, so we wound up at Saint Cloud’s only, recently opened, gay bar. He was pleased to find Saint Cloud catching up with the rest of the world. Doug had gay friends, mostly lesbians that I knew of, which is why when the three assailants claimed he yelled homophobic slurs, it rang so untrue. If Doug acted in anger, it would have been in defense of a woman or gay person, not in attack of them.

When Doug moved, we grew apart, but we were happy for each other to have moved on with our lives. It was as if we had traveled through a dark valley together and then parted ways to climb separate hills. Able to look at each other from a distance, on separate peaks, we were both happy, breathing the cool clean air of what other people would call a “normal life.” We were smugly pleased with ourselves and proud of each other, I think, to have come so far. It made his death all the more a bitter pill. He had finally gotten back to his career, found a place he felt he belonged, found love and was more content than he had been in years.

I began to get messages from our mutual friend Chris late on the night of the 26th. he sent me an article with the headline, “Man Stabbed to Death In Downtown Arcata Night Before Last”. The man, unidentified, was from Minnesota originally and “in his 50s”. Surely this wasn’t Doug. Surely it could be anyone. I called Doug and got his voicemail. Not wanting to sound alarmist, I left a message for him to call me. We had texted earlier that day, about holiday food preparations of course. I was starting to worry. I texted him. Then I called Chris and he told me, “He’s gone. Doug has passed on.” “Are you sure?” I asked. He was. I was hysterical, immediately. Incredulous.“what do we DO?” I yelled into the phone. Chris said something about planning a memorial and I cut him off, “No. I mean what do we DO?” I meant, “How do we undo it?” I experienced, for this first time in my life, cognitive dissonance. The idea of Doug being dead, being stabbed, was not one I could accept. I am still occasionally shocked by it, even now.

I have experienced sudden and tragic death before, I lost my sister when I was 17, but I didn’t know what to expect from a murder and all its consequent legal implications and proceedings.  An article online warned me to remember that “we have a legal system, not a justice system.” Even that could not have prepared me for what has happened since that day.

I wonder often what he would think of the events that have followed. He hated injustice, but he was also a very private person. He would be horrified to have his character smeared by strangers, but mostly because he loved his family and wouldn’t want to cause them undue pain. I wonder if he would find irony that in death he’s found a sort of twisted, post-humous notoriety, when in life, he was always a relative unknown.

I expect you’ll get many letters similar to mine. My friendship with Doug was special to me, but not unique to him. He was a remarkable man. He was like a blazing comet, but he was also heavily embodied and burdened by life. He was a vessel of light, which he shared with those he loved. When that light shone on you, it was a powerful, memorable experience. He loved easily, and almost carelessly. I adored him.

My hope in writing this is to inform the court of Douglas’ character. My hope for the case is that somehow the truth will out. I’m not convinced by the defendants’ version of events, and my most sincere desire is that I might find closure through understanding of what transpired that night. I have contacted a local friend, a defense attorney, and he is baffled by Ms. Firpo’ s recommendation to accept the plea. I don’t know or understand the circumstances which brought Doug, Nick, Sophie and Juan to this tragic conclusion. And while I may never know, I don’t believe that any sort of justice is served by the way this case has been handled.

Thank you for your consideration,

Jennifer Kohnhorst

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Midnight Mass

This is a piece I wrote to read at the Unitarian Fellowship on Christmas Eve in 2009. It was the first Christmas I spent without my children following my divorce. As I got to the end of it, I couldn’t read on. I asked my friend Liz to finish reading it for me, and sat crying silently as she read the last few paragraphs. It was another painful Christmas, mourning a particular loss. 
The next morning I woke up and drove through a fresh 6 inches of snow to my friend Douglas’ house, and spent a long Christmas day with him and his 100 pound German Shepherd, Otto. We ate a southern Christmas feast, and listened to a lot of vinyl. I was sad, but as it often was in those difficult months following my divorce, the comfort of Doug’s familiar living room, his easy company – our universe of two was a balm to me.This year of course, I’m thinking of Doug and his family, and what a hard year it will be for them, with his tragic end so fresh and new. I hope healing comes in some form for them. I pray for grace. I imagine it will come in the form of music. I think it is good to cry.

———–

The year after my sister Julie died, my mother gently informed me she didn’t have the heart to “do” Christmas. This did not disappoint. I was seventeen, long past believing in Santa Claus. As a particularly self-involved teen, I found my family at turns both  irritating and embarrassing. And as the baby of the family whose siblings were all married with children, I often felt awkwardly displaced somewhere between the kids table and the grown ups. I was, possibly, too cool for Christmas.

Anyway, I had to work. I was a an “on-air personality” at the local polka radio station. Every DJ was obligated to work a three hour shift on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and I always volunteered for Christmas Eve.

Now, I hated Polka. Christmas Eve was the one night of the year I didn’t have to play it. Instead, I munched on Christmas cookies that Helen our long-suffering receptionist baked, smoked cigarettes in the newsroom, and gorged myself on Bing Crosby, Elvis and Barbara Streisand. Our station overlooked our tiny picaresque downtown Main Street, and I’d stand at the window feeling older than my teenage years, nostalgic for a past I never knew when crooners crooned and families didn’t get divorced, sisters didn’t die in head on collisions, and people still went to church on Christmas Eve, at least. I’d turn the lights off in the studio, and strike a sort of noir pose while the streetlights blinked red and green on the deserted street.

This year I was assuming a very hard-boiled outlook. My sister’s death had left me both emotionally raw and prematurely adult in ways I couldn’t begin to understand. My response was a poor attempt at cool detachment. When I got off work at nine, I had plans to drive out to Holy Hill, a stunning church on a hilltop in the nearby countryside, for midnight mass.

IMG_3282Holy Hill is a Carmelite Monestary and minor Catholic Basilica. The Neo-Romanesque shrine itself sits on about 40 acres, surrounded by an additional 400 acres of rolling woodlands. It features a 192 foot tower from which, on a clear day, you can see Milwaukee thirty miles away. The interior of the church is an amazement considering the rural setting; 20 foot rose windows, 8 foot marble statues, gold leaf frescoes and glass mosaics. When my sister Julie married into a large Catholic family, she converted – partially to appease the family, and I think, so that she could be married at Holy Hill.

The church entrance is on Highway 167, a designated scenic “rustic road” that winds and bends through the kettle moraine landscape. In the fall, tourists flock to drive the beneath canopies of riotous color on sun-dappled pavement. In the spring, pilgrims descend on the church to walk the stations of the cross. In the winter, the roads are icy, poorly lit and treacherous. My sister died on this same road in June, on a warm and rainy morning, making her way to work.

A few miles from the church, one of my closest friends Angie lived with her family in a remodeled barn. I was a frequent guest at their home, and actually, I think I might have earned resident status one summer. The Balistreris embodied an idea of family that was completely foreign to me, romantic and captivating. The parents Frank and Mary were hot blooded Italian Americans, artists and hippies who had moved from the city as part of the “back to the earth” movement. Angie was the eldest of five. In contrast to my single-mother upbringing, the Balistreri house was in near constant upheaval. They were always low on cash, the kids fought bitterly, the parents and children recriminated each other on a daily basis. There was shouting and tears and a sense of overwhelming love and togetherness.

I stopped in before the service, because the choir didn’t start until 11pm. The family was in the middle of exchanging gifts. Recently, Christmas at my house had become an escalating affair, with the pile under the tree spreading further into the room every year. I was humbled and heartened to see what the Balistrieri’s exchanged. Shampoo, one book, a wooden hairbrush. Every gift was accepted with gratitude and embraces were given in exchange. The highlight of the evening was the gift for young Peter, just over a year old. Frank had made a perfectly plain and beautiful red wooden wagon. As he wheeled it into the living room the whole family exploded in applause and laughter.

I had been quietly drinking tea on the couch, but was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I slipped out the door and heaved sobs into the crisp night air. I cried because I felt so blessed to be a part of this family. I cried because I was not really a part of this family, but my own. My own family broken first by divorce and now, death. I cried because I missed my sister, and I missed my mother, who was irrevocably changed. I cried for myself, because it was such a burden to feel so deeply, to feel so old when I was so young.

Angie’s mother Mary found me, and held me silently. There was no need to tell her what the matter was. I cried until I was shivering, thanked her for having me, and said I would head up to the church now.

In retrospect I might have skipped the service, being as I was nearly out of control with emotion. A sane person would have. But grief is not the territory of the rational. I was now an open wound, numb with the night air and blind to reason. The stars and midnight sky were bright against the steeple spires as I made my way up to the church.

There was no room to sit, so I found a place near the back wall, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, our puffy winter coats whispering against each other. The choir filed in holding candles and singing O Come O Come Emmanuel. It was achingly beautiful. I held it together for about five minutes, until they started in with O Holy Night. Then, I crumpled.

I slid down the cold wall of the church and buried my face in my hands, weeping openly, audibly. I lost control of my voice – the word caterwaul comes to mind. People stared: I am ruining their Christmas spirit. But I couldn’t stand. Someone helped me up and I with my head down I ran for the door. Tears froze on my cheeks. When I got to my car I sat with my forehead against the cold steering wheel and beat it with my hands, until I was finally calm enough to drive. On the way home I tuned in to my old Polka station and drove careful, careful along the frozen roads listening to Elvis singing Blue Christmas. When I finally made it home – warm, and quiet and dim – I was grateful.

The truth is, I’ve never felt more connected to my sister than I did that night. And that is the reason I return whenever I can to Holy Hill Midnight Mass. I’m really not one for visiting graves. When I go to my sister’s grave, I just feel awkward and inauthentic. Only her bones are there. But amongst the incense and the hymns in the cold upper church of a Carmelite monastery, I feel happily at peace with her. Though my family now celebrates together at Christmas, this pilgrimage I always make alone. To reunite with old friends and reconnect to a sacred place. And when I can’t get there, at least I have music. I listen to the carols I love, and happily, I cry.

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Dear Big Discount Liquor Store, I Love You

Dear Big Discount Liquor Store
I love you
I love your strange inventory, your friendly flirty clerks
Your black girls with smooth round shoulders just the perfect color and size
For strapless dresses on the fourth of July
And your always at least one sort of crazy guy in the store

Frogtown, I love you too
Your lazy pedestrians
Your threatening thugs, who are just teenagers
With low self esteem, it turns out.
Your parks with basketball boys
Your bus stops with ancient Hmong
holding umbrellas to block the sun
And Your Big Discount Liquor Store,
I love you

This soft ghetto is still a nice place to live
In the shade of my brick warehouse studio
In the courtyard surrounded by the artists
And assholes, and holy healers
Looking out from their windows
Down at the children, who trail after one another
Oldest to youngest, bound in the unbreakable way
Of children, seemingly oblivious, though probably not
Of the differences that mark them because they are
Children of Frogtown, and
I love you too.

From my window I can see a woman in a sequin hijab
Floating like (of course) a mirage
Past the sinkhole on Como Avenue
Through my window I can hear the kids at the playground
I can smell the fireworks, the fireworks! for days I’ve heard
their sizzle boom crack. I smell the fire of 100 barbecues,
BBQ, chicken legs, charcoal, sweat.
I’m drinking the cold can of beer,
From the Big Discount Liquor
On the fourth of July.
I’m looking at you America,
You stupid, big, galumphing giant,
If only you could see yourself like I do,
You might love yourself
a little more.

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Dear Diary

Dear Diary,

It’s been a while so I thought I would write. I haven’t written much lately, at all. I used to be pretty good about writing for my blog. I keep starting things and then, they seem so contrived. Not like you Diary. You not only seem contrived, you are! I appreciate authenticity.

Also I have a new job,  so that takes up a lot of my time. It’s really different to have to get dressed EVERY SINGLE DAY. I’m working at an ad agency in downtown Minneapolis. I do the same thing there that I did at home, plus more copywriting. It’s different in very many ways to collaborate with people again, but honestly, the biggest difference is proximity to other people. For instance, I work in the middle of a very large warehouse space. In the very center. My desk is a raft afloat on a sea of hardwood. I get up from my desk a lot Diary. A lot more than other people, I noticed. I also have to leave my desk and go to the bathroom if I need to pick my nose. And everyone knows when I need to have a cigarette. And people can hear when I get personal calls. So it is very different from working at home. And there is also the commute every day, which I don’t mind at all in the morning, but I do mind in the evening when I am anxious to be home. But in the morning, whichever way I take, be it I94, or the River Road, or down Larpenteur to Hennepin through Northeast over the bring to the warehouse district, I always see the Minneapolis skyline. Sometimes it is silvery, and sometimes it is blue, reflecting the sky, or slate grey when it is overcast, but it is always shiny, and I love it’s pretty wavering reflections and angularity.

Yesterday coming to work I had to stop at the bank, so I was over near Fairview and Grand. I needed a coffee, so I stopped at this place on Marshall, just before you cross the Lake Street Bridge. The Barista pushed a menu at me over the counter, I said,
“I’ll take a small dark roast.”  And he said, “We don’t have a dark roast, but I’m sure I have a coffee that will please you.” So I said, “Hmm, I don’t think you understand. I want a drip coffee that is roasted dark. A dark roast.” He said, through a clenched jaw,
“We only have light and medium roasts here, because we like to highlight the flavors of the beans” and here he gestured with a wave of his hand to a sign on the counter, “from Brazil, or Costa Rica.” One of my eyebrows flew up. Oh really? Your coffee beans come from such far away lands? Well, I don’t like the flavors of coffee beans even if they are from Shangri La, I like the flavor of the roast. Is this some kind of new trend? How tiresome. Well, you can’t out snob a snob. I was pulling espresso shots when you were in Montesorri, Dork.
“I’ll take an Americano then, and a brioche.” A brioche. Diary, I have no shame.

So, another new thing with me is that I quit smoking 5 days ago. I didn’t use a patch the first day, but I had 3 pieces of gum that a new paramour had given me when I left his house that morning. (more on him later Diary) He was supposed to quit too. He texted me at 10:30 am: “I caved.” Well fuck all, Diary. I am still doing it, I thought. So I parceled out those 3 little pieces of gum into 6, and made sparing use of an e-cigarette. The kids came that night, and it was about 55 degrees in the house, as the boiler was turned down or something. At the time, I was sure the heater was broken. Diary, it was a bad night. The kids watched TV and I hid under a blanket, drifting in and out of sleep. Then Veronica woke me and I flew into a rage and called the building maintenance. A woman with a southern accent answered the phone and took my request. “Where are you?” I asked her. “In Texas.” Diary, that made me mad. When the maintenance man showed up smelling like cigarettes, that made me more mad. When he didn’t believe me that I had the heat valve turned up, and claimed that it only “goes down to 5″ when I know for a fact it goes down to 1, it made me even more mad, and also I cried. Right in front of him. I yelled at the kids some more. We all climbed in our beds at nine o-clock after I apologized a lot. The next morning I dug out some expired patches, which seem to help a lot.

One thing about quitting smoking I have been thinking about is that while it seems certain I will die, the probable cause of death is more up for grabs. I suppose I could still get the lung cancer, but if I have learned anything, it’s that the universe loves irony. OK, it would be kind of ironic if I died of lung cancer even though I quit smoking, but not very edgy. More just sad. It would be more ironic if I died of, say, jogging. Or juicing. Or celibacy. “She died for lack of sex. We never saw it coming.” I don’t think that happens though. You might think it’s morbid to think about it Diary. But for a long time now, many days when I woke up I would feel a weariness in my lungs and think, “Oh, the cancer. It’s coming.” and I would experience a panicked sense of dread over how and when I would ever be able to knock this stupid habit that is killing me. So now I think, well, the future is wide open! I can die any number of ways! This is not so much comforting as it is oddly thrilling.

Also Diary, I am dating a new man, who I think is slightly crazy, a trait I do not find troubling so much as predictable.  Three out of the last four men I have dated have been medicated for anxiety. Diary, is this representative of the sample, or society at large? Does it say something about me, or dating within my demographic? Or is it just that as we get older, we tire of the old tropes and behaviors we used to use to regulate our moods? It just takes too much energy to drink or smoke away our pendulum swings, or it takes too much of a toll on those around us. I don’t know, I don’t ask too many questions. Except to you, Diary. Because you don’t talk back.

I turned 39 last week. The day before my birthday I felt really blue, which surprised me. I don’t mind so much the getting older, as the “evaluation of life so far”. Milestone counting. But I’m not one to mope, so after work I went and bought a couple of wigs at Variety Beauty Supply on Lake Street. I found a red one I liked so much I put it on in the car on the way home. I also wore it to surprise my neighbor when I went down to put a load of laundry in. I was also doing the dishes, so wearing an apron and barefoot. A few girlfriends were gathered on the patio when I dropped by, and after much adoration of the wig by all parties, my friend Val said, “So… you’re doing the housework in a hostess apron and wig. And you’re barefoot. I need my life to be more fabulous like yours.” I hadn’t realized that I was being fabulous. I wore the wig on my date later, where it was much appreciated. And I wore it to the Monte Carlo, where we drank fancy whiskey and huddled in a booth, just me and my wig and my man. And I think everyone could tell we were fabulous people and good kissers. And I turned 39 there in that bar, across the street from my downtown office, with this good looking man, and this very good feeling about my life that lasted all through the next day.

That’s about it for now Diary. It was good to talk to you. Next time we’ll catch up on the kids, and some travel, and other stuff. But for now, I think things are going just fine.

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Keeping Up Appearances

Have you ever received news that literally makes your jaw drop? I have. I was standing in the entryway a few weeks ago, my ex-husband was dropping off the kids, and he asked me to stay behind, he had to tell me something.

“I wanted to tell you before I tell the kids, I wanted you to hear it from me. My girlfriend is moving in,” pause, “…and we’re having a baby.” That was when my mouth fell open. Then it broke into an unwitting smile. And then I just said, “Wow!” I was, I am, truly happy for him. Then the past few weeks fell into perspective; how much nicer he had been to me recently, improved coordination of schedules, a general warmth I hadn’t felt in a long time. Of-course, it was the sympathetic-pregnancy glow. That’s fine. Whatever the reason, if he’s happy, I’m happy. But, what about our kids?

I couldn’t say anything until he told them, obviously. When they came back after their next stay with him, I asked them each if they had anything to tell me. “Something interesting maybe?” Blink, blink. “Something about your dad?” Veronica guesses, “I might need new glasses?” I can’t tell if they think I’m not supposed to know, or if they honestly aren’t thinking about it. Out with it then. “Like maybe that your dad and his girlfriend are having a baby, and you’re going to have a little brother or sister?”

“OH YEAH.” they say, and all but shrug with enthusiasm.

We talk about it later, and the response is one of overall enthusiasm, with hints of trepidation. Which seems about right. It’s new to everyone involved, this whole blended family thing. I worry that they won’t want to come over and leave the bosom of a more nuclear family over there, and I worry that they’ll feel displaced when they return to his house. I worry because while I expected my ex to move forward, I sure didn’t know what that would look like. And I worry, oddly, about my perpetual singlehood. I wonder if there is something wrong with me that I haven’t moved on to the same degree. That while I’ve dated on and off, it has never been serious, and I’ve never involved my children.

As far as my kids know, I have been chaste as a nun since moving out. Which isn’t exactly true (ahem, no comments please), but it’s an image I’ve seen no need to contradict. However, recently I’ve started dating a man that I could imagine introducing them to. Not yet, it’s still casual. But one thing I realize is that once they are involved, it won’t be casual. So, I test the waters with hypotheticals. It comes up as we discuss my plans for an upcoming evening,

Me: “Maybe I have a date.” I do.

Ivan, quickly: “No, you can’t date.”

Me: “You’re dad is moving in with someone else and having a baby, and I can’t even have a date? That hardly seems fair.”

Veronica: “Ok, you can go on a date as friends. But just as friends.”

Ivan: “Yeah, no kissing. That’s for teenagers.”

I glean two things from this interchange.

1. I’m so old and mom-like the idea of me kissing someone is totally disgusting.

2. The time to introduce another big change into their life – the idea that your mom isn’t a nun but a sexually liberated and modern uber-woman – is not now.

I ask them regularly how they are doing, keep the lines of communication open, both generally and specifically, about the new situation. They seem to be fine. But sometimes, all you have to do is pay attention. They don’t want to keep me from dating, or kissing people with my old, disgusting mouth. They just want this one thing to remain the same a while longer. Ok, I’ll keep up the nun routine for now.  Kissing is for teenagers and also divorcés whose kids are at their dad’s house.

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Sleepover

The sleepover was planned by my daughter Veronica and her friend Tess without much parental consultation. I had flippantly agreed to it last week, now it was an inservice Friday, and I was committed, like it or not. At ten A.M. Veronica was standing in front of me windmilling her arms and telling me she told Tess to be ready at 8:30.

“Eight-thirty A.M.?”

“Yes!” she yells, impatient. I sigh in my well-practiced, beleaguered-mother way and call Tess’s mom. I talk to what might be up to three different children before I hear an adult voice. I have to yell into the phone because she can hardly hear me for the screaming of kids in the back ground,

“THE GIRLS HAVE PLANNED A SLEEPOVER I GUESS?!”

“QUIET DOWN!! What, sleepover? Yes, I don’t care.” I don’t care? OK, looks like it’s on. After lunch. I follow up with a call to a friend of Ivan’s, whose father is happy to bring him over, as he’s working from home for the day. I should be doing the same. Instead, I spearhead a shock-and-awe cleaning attack on the kids rooms. By the time the guests arrive I’m only capable of dazed web surfing interrupted by the fetching of water and snacks, and hourly refusals to turn on the TV. Mid-afternoon, our neighbor girl Fallyn shows up, and the count is up to five. I divide and conquer, keeping the boys and girls separated. As I sit at the computer, for a full half-hour Ivan and his friend battle invisible fire-monsters as ninjas, an on-going narrative that consists mostly of mouth noises. “CHHH!” is an exploding fireball,  “DSHHHH” is the sound of any ninja movement and “KAPUGH” is, I think, a complex mix of the two.

“Let’s say I have lightening power. PAGAH!”

“Me too, except mine is also thunder strength! BAHHH-PAH! More fire-monsters! If they get on the couch, we’ll lose our powers, but if we can keep them off the carpet, they’ll turn to ice. CHHHH!”

And on it goes. Meanwhile, the three girls are upstairs. They saunter to the stairs and stand lined up like Von Trapp children. In perfect unison they drone, “We’re bored.”

“Go play dolls.”

“We only have two.”

“Make some art.”

“We already did that.”

Veronica offers, “We could read books?” Crickets.

“Why don’t you play office?”

“OFFICE!” They spring up the stairs deciding who will be boss. I played office when I was a kid, using the triplicate shipping forms my mom brought home from the warehouse at work. I don’t know what these kids think happens in an office, but it involves the wielding of clipboards, signing of papers and much knocking on doors. In the meantime, Ivan and his bud settle in to some Power Rangers and yogurt until the boy’s dad comes to fetch him. The girls come down, exhausted from a long day at the office.

“Mom, we want to dance, can you put on some music?” I start flipping through my records. I pull Cyndi Lauper from the sleeve. Tess is at my shoulder and she runs a finger along the edge of the vinyl,

“What is that?” Wow. Welcome to Veronica’s Mom’s House of Obsolete Items and Curiosities.

“This is a record, it’s how we used to listen to music.” I put on Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Veronica flings herself into a dance. Tess bobs uncertainly. “What is this music?”

“This was my favorite song when I was about your age.” Ivan and Fallyn join in. Soon they are doing ring-around-the-rosie with Ivan in the center. He is smiling hugely and playing air guitar. I think it might be a Peak Experience for him. We follow it up with the Go-Gos while I make pizzas. Fallyn decides to spend the night. I’m chopping vegetables to put on my pizza, and out pull out some mushrooms.

“What are those?” asks Tess. Really? “Mushrooms” I say.

“Yeah but what ARE they?”

“Um, they’re food. They grow in the ground, they’re fungus.”

“Ringworm is fungus!” Veronica says. I don’t want to touch that. Literally.

“These are for me.” I assure a worried Tess, “You don’t have to eat them.”

While the pizza cooks I set up the kids to watch the Justin Bieber movie Never Say Never. I am excited because I know nothing of Justin Beiber except that he is some kind of phenomenon. Fallyn loves him. She LOVES him. Veronica likes him, but not that way. While I scroll through Netflix titles they discuss the boys in their class they would like if they had to. One of them, Kyle, has Bieber hair. He is unanimously their favorite. Ivan pipes up, “If Kyle were a girl I would marry him.” Aw. I ruffle his hair.

The movie follows the Bieb’s career from his start banging on buckets at age two to his sold-out Madison Square Garden show and ruling of the world. I think I might be getting Beiber fever because I grow increasingly annoyed with their chatter because I CAN’T HEAR WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT THE BIEB. The kids all have the habit of immediately repeating any line that’s remotely clever or funny or… anything. “He’s like, ‘I don’t think so.’” “He’s like, ‘where are my shoes?’” Tess turns to me constantly asking questions about Justin Bieber to which I have no answers. There is a heated absurdist argument about whether the girl on stage is Miley Cyrus or Hannah Montana which boils down, I guess, to whether or not she’s wearing a wig. By the time he sings the title song at MSG they are whipped into a frenzy, dancing and singing along, and I predictably am wiping tears away for the boy-wonder. Time for bed.

I sequester the girls to Veronica’s room and lie down with Ivan. I read him a stupefying book about dinosaurs, fighting sleep at every page. Eventually, I drift off with him, and wake up sweating a half hour later. The girls are all in Veronica’s bed giggling. It’s tennish.

“Time for bed.” I say. Teeth are brushed while I smooth out sleeping bags on the floor. Fallyn puts her hands on her hips. “I don’t want to sleep here.”

“Here on the floor, or here at our house?”

“Here. I want to go home.” I sigh. “Let’s get your stuff.” We gather up all six blankets and two stuffed animals and drag them downstairs, and then down the hall to her apartment. As her mother opens the door, she says, “I thought this might happen.” “Sorry!” I say as she closes the door behind her. I shuffle back to our place. I hear Veronica and Tess talking, not in hushed tones, as soon as I enter. I assume my a stern posture and dictate instructions,

“Get in bed, whisper if you must talk, and then close your eyes and go to sleep.” I repeat variations on this theme for the next hour. Finally, at 11:30, I’ve had it. Stern turns to impatient. Tess starts fake sniffling and telling me she can’t get to sleep. I tell her what I tell my children,

“You can’t sleep because you are standing on two feet, walking around and talking. No one can fall asleep like that. Lay down and I’ll rub your back.” She does, and I do, and the fake sniffling increases in frequency. After ten minutes she says, “i never sleep over at friend’s houses. My mom always has to come and get me. One time it was one 0-clock.” Helpful information. “Let’s get your stuff.” Her mom is laughing as she picks up the phone, and says she’ll be right there. I tell Tess about the time I went to a sleepover in the country, and the silence and strangeness of it scared me so badly I pretended to have an allergy attack in the middle of the night, and my mom had to drive fifteen miles to come and get me.

“What’s this?” She says, pointing to a marionette. “It’s a marionette.” I say. “Yeah, but what IS it?’ It’s a puppet, for playing with.” I look around our apartment: antique radios, butterflies under glass, carpeted mushroom foot stool and wool shag rug. (“Is that an animal?”) I wonder what her house is like, but I don’t have to wonder long to know it isn’t like this.

“I’m sorry you have to go Tess, but I hope you come back. Maybe just for a day-over.”

She shrugs and says okay. Then she points to the retro lamp hanging over our kitchen table, “What is that?” Sigh.

Finally, I crawl into bed a bit after midnight. I realize I haven’t slept there in days, as I’ve been vagabonding in St Cloud for the past two nights. I hadn’t missed it until I slipped in under the covers. Everyone in their own beds at last. Lights out, goodnight.

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Listen

The distant murmur and hum of traffic is as soothing as the surf to me. I grew up in a small town, just shy of 7,000 people, in southeastern Wisconsin. Hartford sits at the crossroads of two state highways, and growing up, I lived on each of them.

The first was a large, white two-story corner-house on Highway 83 and Branch Street, just about three blocks from downtown. It had big maples and a screen porch, and at the front roof eave, a bit of red and some humble scrollwork. My bedroom as a child was on the highway side. I used to lie in bed, terrified of the dark, but more terrified of the plaque on my wall from my god-parents with the following poem: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.” MY SOUL TO TAKE. I prayed and prayed not to die in my sleep. The lord swooping in and snatching up my soul was the coldest of comforts. In this I am sure I am not alone.

When my parents split up, my father moved into the lower level of a duplex on Highway 60. It was a light-blue two-story, square-faced with three windows evenly spaced on the two floors. It looked vaguely haunted. It had hardwood floors, which my father adored, and I thought were strange. It also featured carpeting in the kitchen and the bathroom, which I perceived as absurd. I had a spacious bedroom in the front of the house there. Highway 60 was a busy road, and we were situated just two blocks from downtown, so the sound of traffic was fairly constant. I had two twin beds, but I rarely slept in either. I preferred the fold-out couch in the living room, where I camped out weekend nights with snacks and cokes and MTV while my father was out. But I could still hear the traffic, especially the trucks.

I used to sleep at friend’s houses in the country as a child and lie awake for the first hour, aching for white noise. Eventually their forced air heat would kick in and I would breathe a sigh of relief, drift off to sleep. I remember, even as an adult, sleeping at a friend’s farmhouse. They lived seven miles from the nearest intersection in all directions. I mean, it was the middle of NOWHERE. Even after drinking beer all night, I’d lie in that still, dark farmhouse, under a quilt on the couch with my eyes wide open as a dead deer. Scared of the sound of my own heart beating.

Of-course, now I must have a fan. My mother has bought me white-noise alarm clocks, and they’re okay, but really, I prefer the true mechanical whir. It drove my ex-husband nuts, but he allowed for it, because whenever I had to go without, I was inconsolable. I am a woman of few demands in life, but sleep is sleep.

In my twenties, falling asleep alone represented the height of loneliness. Even with my fan, and clock radios, and ashtrays and black and white TVs, it was the bedtime ritual that triggered the most satisfying jags of self-pity. I had occasional, short lived boyfriends, and I loved sleeping with them. Maybe it’s the elastic body of youth that makes it so sublime. Spooning. It’s so lovely. And falling asleep tucked in to the shoulder of your man until he loses circulation in his arm and (gently) rolls you off.  Those heady days.

Throughout my pregnancy with Veronica, Dave and I slept in a double bed, which is close quarters for a very pregnant lady. We slept miserably, but happily, because we were quite in love then I guess. It was during this time that Dave would also read me to sleep, the original Grimm Brothers fairy tales, his voice a plodding monotone lullaby. Later in marriage, we had a king sized bed but even that wasn’t big enough. I wonder if marriages could be saved by separate beds? Bed was the first place I fled. I moved (with my fan) away, first to the family room, then to a friend’s house, and finally to my own apartment.

My first apartment was an upstairs duplex on a corner in downtown St Cloud, right across from city hall. It faced a dead end street, but on the south side ran Highway 23, the last bit just before it crosses the Mississippi River. My bedroom had slanted ceilings, and a sink in it, and a window at the back of the house. I moved in September, it was was warm, and the first night I slept there, I plugged in my fan, spread my arms out wide and, too tired to be afraid, sank into sleep.

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