Category Archives: Stories

Oh, California

Oh, California. Caaaaaaaalifornia I’m coming home. Will you take me as I am, strung out on another man? California I’m coming home. 

-Joni Mitchell 

Woke in a San Francisco airport hotel, after an evening of travel that verged on Kafkaesque. Managed to make my way back to the airport, commandeer a rental car, and head north towards Point Reyes. I made a brief stop in San Rafael for an organic single-pour coffee, and browsed both a bookstore and record store while the caffeine . In short, a perfect day had before noon.

From San Rafael, made my way to the coast through Samuel Taylor State Park. The drive was so beautiful I laughed out loud. Who am I to be so lucky to drive this road, free of all traffic, through enchanted forests winding through the hills, and the forests that give way to the rolling gold California hills that lead, finally, to the coast. I’m laughing all the way, and sometimes crying, because everything is too beautiful, and I wish my eyes were cameras because I can’t trust my feeble mind to record and store the passing scenery with any accuracy. I’m a midwestern girl, all the way, I know this by the way my stomach drops hugging the turns up, and then down to the coast at Point Reyes. I’m a flatlander but dammit if California doesn’t lay claim to a little piece of my heart every time I go there.

The last time I stopped on the coast was a night I slept along the PCH after a Jerry Garcia band show at Shoreline. Jerry Garcia was alive then – so it’s been a long time. Does everything increase exponentially in beauty and gravitas as you age? Was I so consumed with romantic politics or rolling joints that I didn’t even notice the stupendous, ridiculous stupid beauty of this place? But I did love it. I remember the crouching oak trees and the hills like ripples on some great wavering tablecloth hovering over the mantle of the earth. But we never lingered in Marin, or on the coast for that matter. We were headed for Humboldt, or bust. This time I’m headed only to Limantour Beach, and then on to Napa for the night.

The beach was, as promised by the Australian ranger at the visitor’s center, “a bit blowy” but perfectly, wildly, awesomely beautiful. I walked some length of it, and waded in far enough to feel that terrifying pull of the Pacific around my ankles (again, I’m from Wisconsin). On the drive from the beach, out of the canyon and towards Napa, I listened to Lucinda Williams and sang all the way. At around four I made it to Sonoma and thought it might be time for some wine, as I’d begin to dip into valleys crisscrossed with vineyards, and let’s face it, that makes you thirsty.

I passed the first sign for the Robledo’s Family Winery without slowing, but at the second sign, turned in and followed the winding road back past the rows of vines to a dusty parking lot next to a small outbuilding and a larger, barn-like tasting room. Children chased around the parking lot, and American and Mexican flags flapped in the wind. As I opened the door to the tasting room, laughter and the smell of wine enveloped me. I made my way to the bar and cozied up for a tasting.

The Robledo’s Winery is the ‘first tasting room in the United States established by a former Mexican migrant vineyard worker and his family.” I befriended a couple, the male half of which kept going on about his half-Mexican heritage. By way of proving this he dotted his speech ‘my madre’ this and ‘mi abuela’ that. The man pouring our wine was the founder’s son. He kept the wine coming, the couple were regulars, had wine memberships. They assured me the wine was consistently delicious and I can confirm that in my experience, it is. I had a full tasting of five wines, and a white port, because come on, white port?  When it came time to settle up, they offered to give me their club discount, and the server suggested I be their complimentary guest for the month. They were drunk, so sure! So everything is coming up Jennifer, free Sonoma wine! Off I go, making the remaining 15 miles to Napa in no time, and a room at the (wait for it) Chardonnay Lodge.

It was nearly dark by the time I checked in, and I called Adam flush with wine, with the country-side and with the freedom afforded one with a rental car, a hotel room and very few plans. I spent a quiet evening in Napa, at a place called City Winery, because it seemed like a good place to drink Pinot, eat a burger and listen to a duo play guitar and violin. They did an inspired versions of Little Wing, so I ordered a second glass. After dinner I walked the length of the small downtown, contemplating a drink, but the solitude of my hotel room beckoned. I couldn’t think of another thing that might better my day, so I called it. It was a very good one.

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Zion

Zion National Park. It was named Zion by an early Mormon settler who regarded that one could worship as well in this cathedral in any on earth. The name that had previously been attributed was Mukuntuweap, a Paiute word which is roughly  translated as “straight valley.” I’m partial to the Mormon name, surprisingly. It suits the place.

The Zion Canyon floor is a shocking, fertile green basin at the base of a jumble of mountains that huddle around it like a protective fortress. It’s the meeting point of three major geographical areas: the Great Basin to the West, the Mojave to the Southwest, and the Colorado Plateau to the East. Subsequently, it is a wild looking place. Wild in the sense of being untamed, untamable – and wild in the sense that it’s singularity causes one to stand gobsmacked on the canyon floor with their mouth hanging open.

As a National Park, Zion is an impressive operation. Most of the trails are accessible via a system of park shuttles, so as to keep the nearly 3 million annual visitors from clogging the canyon with their rented RVs. Adam noted that the amount of love and dedication it would take to make a place like this accessible is truly astounding, and I agree. There is a vast wilderness and back-country in Zion that I’ll never know, but truly, I’m just grateful for the chance to enter the temple, as it were.

The east side of the park is accessible only via a one-mile, unlit, two-lane  tunnel with no shoulder. One arrives at this tunnel by a series of switchbacks that snake impressively up a canyon wall gaining about 600 feet in 5 minutes. I was surprised to find that I had a white-knuckle fear of such roads. Adam was driving, but he was also so completely awed by the scenery he would lean forward in his seat and peer upward out the windshield, instead of IN FRONT OF THE CAR on the spectacularly curvy road. In a move that might be familiar to many road-tripping couples there was an abrupt turn-off along the road followed by the invective, “YOU DRIVE”, and a huffy me adjusting seat and mirrors and taking us through the horrifying tunnel and across to the east side of the park for a hike.

The Canyon Overlook trailhead is just past the tunnel, and as we laced up I watched the sky gathering clouds and frowned. We started on the trail, which is almost completely uphill, with Adam in the lead, the kids in the middle, and me following behind. If I try to remember the hike all I remember is my own accelerated breathing, and the image of Ivan’s heels on sand covered rock (extremely slippery!!), on a ledge approximately a billion feet from the ground. With each step my need to vomit increased. All around families passed me, toddlers (TODDLERS!) passed me, happily confident that they wouldn’t plummet to their death. After ten minutes I shouted to Adam,  “I can’t do it! It’s not fun! I hate it!” Everyone assured me it was ok, and Ivan came back to the car with me since he was feeling tired anyway, leaving Adam and Veronica to sally forth.

Ivan waited in the car and played on my phone while I paced and watched the sky with mounting anxiety. When I heard thunder, I actually simpered. I was so disappointed with myself. Where was the carefree adventurer of my youth? I can only surmise she disappeared when I had children. I think if it had just been me, I could have grimaced through it, but my nervousness with the kids would only have made it a misery for everyone. Finally Adam and V. came bounding off the trail, Adam ecstatic, Veronica flush with the cool air and sense of achievement. She was beaming and mugging with Adam about their daring little expedition, the happiest I had seen her in days.

We headed back down canyon and spent the rest of the drizzly afternoon in Springdale picking out the perfect rocks to lug home in our suitcases. We had been told to go to Oscar’s, a tasty little restaurant that carried the infamous Palygamy Porter. I ordered the IPA. When Adam tasted it and grimaced, Veronica wanted to know why. We let her try a sip of each, another audacious act for the day. And as she ordered “The Murder Burger” and proceeded to devour it, I realized the daring girl I had once been was sitting across the table from me, having the time of her life.

Ponderous

Grief is like ripples in a pond. In the beginning, the waves are intense and close together. The first week, your eyes are  permanently swollen from crying.  As soon as you stop, something happens that starts it all over again. You’re nauseous from the rocking of the boat, it’s so ceaseless and steady.

Then, as time passes, the waves grow more faint, and less intense.  It tends to surprise you, when you least expect it. Maybe you’re driving along in your car and hear a song, or a phrase, and there you are with fresh tears on your face. You might have to sit in the parking garage and cry a bit, but it feels almost good to grieve anew. To let the wave wash over you and recede, and find yourself still standing.

Finally, as the months roll by, you might go whole days without thinking about the person. That’s when they come to you in dreams, like a ripple so faint, their image a blur. You reach out to touch them and your hand meets air, and you wake up sad and longing, with a dry face.

I dreamt about Doug the other night. When I woke, I went to listen to one of his songs and hear his voice, and I found this, which I’d not heard before. His voice is so clear and gentle, and the words are so spare and lovely. It was a balm. So I made this video, which is silly, but it allowed me to spend some time with him.

Ponderous from Jennifer Kohnhorst on Vimeo.

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

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.

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.

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.

Boys, Men, and Mothers

I went to a dinner party last night, at the house of a neighbor and friend. I went alone, as is my custom these days, and everyone was already seated and tucking in to one of four kinds of chili when I arrived. Introductions went around and the conversational thread picked up where it had been, apparently, when I came in. A kid in a ponytail and bandana was talking about the Middle East, and suggested the US might do well to align itself with Turkey. I, having been in the house for exactly five minutes and knowing nothing about the subject, expressed my skepticism. I really can be a bore. The conversation then turned to other more lively topics, and it was dropped.

After slowly and steadily defeating four bowls of chili and two glasses of wine I retreated to the cool night air of the back patio for a smoke. The ponytail guy was there too. I spoke first,

“Hey, I’m sorry for that Turkey comment, for being dismissive. What I said, I really don’t know anything about it. I was just there once and it struck me as patently corrupt. But what government isn’t, right?”  He raised his eyebrows, he smiled easily,

“Oh, no. Don’t worry about it. They are corrupt, but not as bad as maybe China or Russia…” and from there the conversation weaved from politics, to travel, work. I learned that he was 25, fairly well traveled, and wants to be a therapist. He was interesting, and I like interesting people, so I asked questions, made charming and appropriate replies.  The conversation turned towards our mutual friends and how we knew them, and the guests at the party. He said,

“It is nice to meet adults too. I mean, people who aren’t just out of college.” I realized he was talking about me and laughed.

“Yes, I suppose I fall firmly into the ‘adult’ camp at this point. Though sometimes I don’t feel like it. I mean, I’m still trying new things. Like I just sang with a band for the first time this weekend. I didn’t feel very grown up.”

“Yeah, like my friend’s mom, she’s so cool. She’s like my second mom…” At this point he kept talking about this woman, but I couldn’t hear him, because my head was filled with a loud voice saying “HOLY SHIT. YOU WERE JUST COMPARED TO THE MOTHER OF AN ADULT MAN. A 25 YEAR OLD MAN THINKS OF YOU LIKE A MOTHER.” Then he came around to his point, after describing our mutual coolness – me and this other mother – and said,

“She’s just a totally amazing and beautiful woman.” Well, that’s better. I smiled at him, happy in my assumption that I was amazing and beautiful too. Thanks kid. Someone else came out to the porch and he made to leave. We shook hands.

The spring after I left my husband, I dated a few young men – quite young. To say we “dated” would be misleading. It was spring. They were fleeting diversions, but I don’t think they saw me as, um… maternal. Unless they had some very complicated relationships with their mothers. Like, oedipal ones. At the time though, my behavior was not very adult. I was as unmoored as my twenty-five year old self, heady with the freedom and independence of being single, hanging out with people ten years younger than me. In fact, these younger men were often shocked to find out my age, to learn that I was a professional, and most surprised that I was a mother. It was fun, but I started to feel like the creep at the keg party. When I left St Cloud, without thinking about it, I left it behind. A year later, I’m a grown-up again. Ta-da.

During that period, that spring, I met a more age appropriate man, a friend-of-a-friend, named Rick. Rick was a sweet, sweet guy. We did that awkward, apathetic dating thing where we could never trouble ourselves to really get together, but not for lack of trying. Eventually I had to concede it was a spring fling, and nothing more. Last week he died. He was 35.

The news came to me as part of my facebook newsfeed, a post of our shared friend. Shocked, I went to his “wall” to try to find out the details. It became clear by the nature of the comments that he had killed himself. Of-course I was shocked. I scrolled down, reading everyone’s thoughts, the rawness of them, all messages he would never hear. Too late. His mother wrote simply: “I love ya and will miss you and why???????????”  I started sobbing. The mom in me sobbed. I didn’t know Rick well, and I never met his mom, but I could picture her grief with clarity.

That night I laid down with Ivan as part of our bedtime ritual. I watched him twitch and drift off to sleep. I thought of Rick, and how he was this small once. I thought of his mother putting him to bed at night. I thought about Ivan becoming a man. Will he grow up to be sad? So sad that all the lifetime of love I pour into him will not save him? I could not bear it.

I got up and walked back downstairs to my laptop. I went back to Rick’s page and read more of the posts, looked at pictures of him. I saw his last status update, about 3 weeks old:

“Somehow I just had a vision of what the difference is to be old, and to be young. I want my 20’s back because I’ve gotten too good at being old.” Hmm, a little cryptic. A woman typed a reply about agelessness of spirit, etc, and his reply to her read, “…yes- there is something timeless about anyone’s spirit. I was thinking more about a certain joie de vivre. Not physical health- but the spontaneity that comes with youth and lack of experience.”

He is right of-course. You can’t ever re-capture innocence, youth. But it turns out you can still sing in a rock band when you are middle-aged. You can become an adult and still go to dinner parties with ponytail wearing boys. You can practice the act of transformation over and over again, and grow up a little more each time. I am so, so sorry he never saw the joy and gravitas that comes from experience, with age. Something obscured his view. It is amazing and beautiful.

Dog Days in Frogtown

My ex-husband and I are not a pair known for our superior communication skills. Hence, the responsibility of finding someone to watch the kids for the month of August got lost. We We both non-comittally agreed to do something about it, and we both sort-of tried, but when the first of the month rolled around, we were still pretty much screwed. We hired a babysitter, but it became quickly apparent she wasn’t cut out for the job.

I called Dave and had a very stupid conversation in which nothing was resolved that left me angrily huffing on a cig and bitching to a neighbor. Robyn, a mother from down the hall, tells me about a program at the rec center across the street that offers free afternoon programs. Summer Dog Days Shangri La. OK, the next day is Friday I am taking the kids.

We show up and walk into the cool of the Scheffer Rec Center. It is your typical cinder-block box,   coated in institutional paint, a mural along the back side of kids playing sports. Inside, younger kids huddle around a foosball table and older ones linger in clumps, messing around. I find a woman in a baseball hat who looks like she knows what’s up.

“Hi, my neighbor told me you have afternoon programs? For kids?” I am embarrassed by how little I know about what is going on right across the street form my home.

“Yeah, that would be Summer Splash.” She says to me and then, “ANDRE! Put that chair DOWN!!” Andre freezes with chair held aloft, wide eyed, then slowly puts the chair down. I like this woman. She continues, “But that’s Monday through Thursday. Today is Friday and we’re taking the Circulator bus to a water park.” Ivan, standing next to me whispers, “YES!” and pumps his arm.

“Oh, well, can they go? When do you leave? I can get suits and towels, I just live across the street.” She nods and starts grabbing registration forms, permission slips, and hands me a pen, “We leave in about a half hour.” I take the forms into the next room and start filling them out on a ping-pong table. Veronica crowds in and says quietly,

“I don’t want to go mom.” I look up from writing, surprised. It is a water park after all, “Why hon? What’s up” She hesitates for just a moment, looking around the bustling room,

“Um. We’re the only white people here.” She is not lying. We are absolutely the only white people there. I crouch down to meet her eyes,

“You know, this is true. But that’s no reason to miss out on something fun.” Just then a tall, brown girl comes over to the table, points at Ivan and asks me if he has a life jacket.

“No, but he’s a good swimmer, he doesn’t need one.” She has giant, kind, almond-shaped eyes. I ask what her name is.

“Shaughnessy.”

“Well Shaughnessy, this is Veronica, and this is Ivan. Veronica is feeling a little shy about going along today. Do you think she should go?”

She smiles widely, “YEAH! It’s awesome!” Oh thank you nice girl! I look at Veronica pointedly. See?

I finish filling out the forms and we hurry home to pack towels and swimsuits. Veronica continues to voice her concern, “I feel happy and excited and upset at the same time,” she says as we hurry to our door.

“That’s called anxiety.” I tell her, “It’s normal when you try something new and you don’t know anyone.” As we’re cramming towels into backpacks I say, “You know, the town I grew up in almost everyone was white, but the few black kids didn’t let it stop them from doing cool stuff.” This is a half-truth, I realize as I say it. I have absolutely no idea how the one black boy at my grade school felt, but he kept mostly to himself and his few friends. But this is the truth I want for her, so I leave it at that. Ivan jumps on the bandwagon too. Gesturing with his hands like a lawyer he says,

“You have to try new things Veronica. Otherwise you’ll never know if you’re going to like them.” He is lobbying hard for the waterpark.

“But mom,” Veronica pleads as we head back to the center, “What if they forget us, and the bus leaves without us?” I can’t help but smile. “Oh honey. They won’t forget you.”

I shuffle them into the room where everyone is waiting. As I look around, I know, it is more than skin color that divides my kids from the rest of the crowd. Most of the kids are older, middle-school aged. The rest of the kids have been coming to this rec center all summer, they know each other’s names and are friends. And I am self-aware enough to know we are whiter than even most white people. Well screw it. We live here, this is our neighborhood, and my kids are just kids. I seek out the guy in charge, wearing a powder blue staff t-shirt and holding a clipboard. I make sure he knows their names. Veronica hangs back against the wall at the back of the line and Ivan bounces on toes. They look impossibly small, and pale, but I know they are going to be fine.

Our little slice of Frogtown, Census tract 327, has the following make-up: Black: 40%, Asian: 34% White: 19%, Hispanic: 4%, Other: 4%. By comparison, the neighborhood we moved from in St Cloud was about 86% White, and the area I grew up in, Hartford, Wisconsin, is about 95% White. Needless to say, it is, by far, the most diverse place I have ever lived. And I do, without reservation, love that.

I love watching the tiny elderly Hmong couples with sun umbrellas walking to work in the marketplace. I love that the Hmong Marketplace is so far out, I can’t even figure out what to buy there. I love watching the shirtless men of varying shades play pick-up basketball at the playground across the street, and not in an entirely innocent way. I love the chaos of the local Holiday station and the crush of humanity that flows in a constant, CONSTANT, stream through it. I love that as I bike through my neighborhood, people turn their heads to see me biking through, because well, I suppose: “there goes that fat white lady on the bike again!” I also like that living in Frogtown challenges my assumptions –about my self, about other people. Like many progressive white folks, I don’t think I am racist. I try hard not to be. But that is easy to say when you live around a bunch of other people that look exactly like yourself. Now when I catch myself factoring people’s race in as I see them, meet them, it’s like getting my clothes snagged on a nail. I have to stop and unravel my thoughts, reconsider. Maybe I am old to be learning this, but I am at least learning.

And though I am free to embrace the diversity, deconstruct it and measure it against my own experience, I have wondered what my kids make of it. I’ll never know what it is like to be on a bus, playground, or a field trip where I am the only white kid. Which is why I was so glad Veronica had the insight to name her feeling, that she felt comfortable enough with me to say it plainly and openly.

When I went to pick them up four hours later, Ivan was playing foosball with some boys, and Veronica was bossing around some younger kids by the vending machine. When they saw me they ran up and hugged me. “How was it?” I asked.

“It was awesome! Can we go back every day next week?” And we did.

Food Shelf Caviar

The first time I went to the food shelf  it was a Friday, and I wouldn’t be paid until Monday. The cupboards were bare but for odds and ends that would make one sodium laden, frightful meal.  The kids would be there at three, gunning for snacks. Time to suck it up and go.

The Catholic Charities in St Cloud run a nice operation. It’s spacious as an airplane hanger, with quilts forming a colorful false ceiling. A thin man with sandy gray hair greets you and tells you what to do. Take this number, it’s this color, go when they call your name. He says it with a smile, gracious but not condescending. The women who work the counter are like any midwestern, middle-aged women who run small beurocratic hives of civic authority. Nattering amongst themselves, sighing heavily as they push paperwork at you and fill out a card with your name on it. They do not check income. If you are there, they assume you need to be, which is a small mercy.

They walk you around with your cart and you can take an allotted number of items from each area, depending on your household size. An elderly man checked off items from a clipboard as we walked. I got a lot of food. A lot of strange food. Huge bags of frozen fruit from some restaurant, a wide variety of beans, a bag of frozen french fries probably from Perkins, a jar of grape leaves that sit in my cupboard still. Pastries from the Cold Spring bakery, including a pie. A Pie! And zucchini. They gave away boxes of it at the end, after your cart was weighed. A cardboard sign said “Take all you want”. It would go bad soon, but I have many, many uses for zucchini. I grabbed two boxes.

I lugged my booty up the back stairs of the duplex and into the narrow kitchen and stashed it. My kitchen was brimming, I was wearing a sundress and I felt good. I had food for my family. I wondered if I should feel badly about taking charity, about needing it. I didn’t. I looked at the zucchini. Too much. I grabbed a box and headed over to Tracy and Kramer’s place. They lived in an apartment building next door. I cut through the laundry room of their building, and came out on the other side, at the base of their back steps, and walked up to their back porch on the third floor.

I found Kramer in her lawn chair, doing soduko and listening to the radio. If I had not found Kramer doing this very thing I would have fallen over the balcony with surprise. She glanced up non-chalant and addressed me,  “Crazy Neighbor Lady. Whatcha got there?” “Zucchini.” Tracy came out wiping her hands on a towel. I gestured at the box of zucchini. “You can make fritters.” I suggested. Her eyes brightened. “Look what I just got!”. She opened the screen door and I saw a fry-daddy still in the box. Later that night, I met Kramer at the bottom of my stairs and she handed me a tin foil packet of zucchini fritters, with a small bowl of home made ranch dressing. I ate them warm, at my windows, looking out at the stoplights lined up on Hwy 23, thinking about the past year.

People told me it would be hard. I was flip, “I’ve been po’ befo’e!” I said. But when the meager savings ran dry, and I was living on 85% of a junior copywriter’s salary, paying my own rent for the first time in five years, I felt the pinch. More like a squeeze. Playing the cup game where you pay one bill and run late on the next, pick up that one the next month, pay a different one. Keep the creditors at bay. Make your rent, buy generic, budget. It was true, I had been poor before, but never with two children in my care.

They asked for things constantly. From the gum ball at the grocery store to the Florida vacation, the answer was always no. I would be driving, and from the back seat they would ask, “When can we go to [fill in the blank]? When can we get a [insert item here]”. I would burst into tears. I begged them to stop asking for things. I dragged them to pawn shops and I thinned my book collection monthly. Money came in from family, from friends. Once, a paper bag with a cookie decorating kit, mardi gras beads and a grocery store gift card appeared at the bottom of the stairs. A generous gift from a girlfriend who had once walked in my shoes. I cried then too.

I worked an extra job, and I looked for a new job. I tried to get food stamps, but I made too much money. I tried to get legal aid to help with my divorce, but I made too much money. All around me friends lost jobs, and I felt lucky to have mine, though I grew increasingly unhappy there. But a woman who decides to divorce her husband in the middle of a recession doesn’t get too many choices, doesn’t have the luxury of job dissatisfaction. Finally, I suppose I did what every Republican Politician wants you to do. I pulled up the proverbial bootstraps. I got good and pissed off about it. I was too smart to be this poor. This is bullshit. And then I had the benefit of luck, and synchronicity, and incredible opportunity. I seized it. I was offered a new job, which would pay enough to allow me to move to the cities again, to take care of myself, to divorce my husband. I hung up the phone and I wept. Then I screamed. My relief was profound.

I called my friend Doug and told him about the job, and then said, “I know I don’t say this often, but you were right.”

He laughed, “Yeah, about what?”

“It’s hard. It was hard. Harder than I ever thought it would be. Being poor, leaving Dave. You were right. I didn’t know.” He sighed on the other end; my dramatic revelations are tiresome. I know this.

“Well, good for you.” he said. “You’re gonna make it after all, just like Mary Tyler Moore. Though I always thought of you as more of a Rhoda.”  I hung up happy.

That was months ago. Now it was summer, and while I still needed a bump from Catholic Charities, I could see a way out. I could exhale without it becoming a sob. I had friends, neighbors, fritters, hope.

The last time I went to the food shelf, it was July. I took Doug, who was a chef, and so the indignity of it was something we could only laugh about. On the way out he snuck me a sly smile. We loaded the groceries into the trunk, sweating.

“Come over to my house tonight? I’ve got the AC running. We’ll get some beer. Bring Otto.” Doug couldn’t refuse, it was too hot – and Otto, a 110 pound German Shepherd, couldn’t be denied. I picked him up and he loaded a bag of groceries and Otto into the car. We stopped at the store and he picked up water crackers, I bought a Belgian beer, which I really couldn’t afford, and a six pack of PBR tall boys, which I could.

We cracked the beer and sat in front of the fan, which blew air from of the window unit. “I got caviar.” Doug said. I clapped my hands like a toddler in delight. “And veal. I snuck them in the cart at the food shelf when you weren’t looking. We can eat the caviar now, while it’s hot, and I’ll cook the veal later, when it cools down.” I had goat cheese in the refrigerator, and we spread that one the water crackers, then finished with a glop of salty brown fish eggs. I had never had caviar before. It reminded me of the ocean, the salt of it. It made me feel lucky, like I had a delicious secret.

When we met, I was married and solidly middle class. Doug was the Executive Chef at the best restaurant in town. He made me lunches that nearly caused me to lose consciousness. Curry shrimp with mango rice, salmon with saffron risotto, bison osso bucco, the best fried chicken. Then, the restaurant folded, my marriage fell apart. It was more or less complicated than that, but bottom line, it was hard times, and we had spent our fare share of it in co-misery. We staved off the darkness; made music, cooked dinners, drank cheap wine, fought and made up. In a few months I would be moving to St Paul, which was scary but exciting. I didn’t know where I would live, how I would find an apartment, if I would be able to afford it. But here we were now, like a couple of swells. I licked some caviar from my thumb and smiled. There are times when you have too much zucchini, or too much sadness. An ocean of need or just a small jar of caviar. The secret is: it is all best shared.