Dinner is Over

This is a piece about several endings.

Whenever I went out for lunch or dinner with a lady named Bonnie*, I always knew when the meal was over.  Her purse would snap open and she would draw out her lipstick like a magic wand or a light-saber bent on conquering the world. She would apply it with an air of self-confidence I always envied to a mouth out of which words came that I did not always envy.  Bonnie could make me laugh until I wet myself or cut me ‘til I bled all over my soul without a second thought.  And she never seemed to realize that she was funny or that she was sometimes hurtful.  She was just being herself. She was being honest.

She had a bird, a cockatiel that had his own room in her house.  I found all birds amazing and I thought he was stunning.  Even when he was dive bombing my head or biting my toes, I thought he was beautiful.  And she loved that I was the only person who cared about him.  She called me on the phone weeping the night he died.  I drove over in the darkness on a freezing cold November night.  I took with me a special decorative box I had emptied some special keepsakes from. I knew we would need an appropriate coffin.  Under the light of a full moon, I helped dig a grave in frozen ground in her back garden.  I stood with her while she said a few words about him.  Then in true Lucy and Ethel fashion we wrangled a large boulder to cover the grave so that wild animals would not dig it up.

Years later when her husband died, the love of her life, she announced it to me by text.  I would have to say that is one of the biggest pieces of news I’ve ever received by text.  I had to read it several times before I believed it.  I know from personal experience that sort of news can be difficult to say out loud. For her it was also a challenge to face the questions and the condolences.  She was angry with him for dying.  I went immediately.  I was “family” in her eyes and so in my mind I had an obligation to go to her.  This time I didn’t need to bring a box or shovel, thank goodness.

For the four months after his death, I was there for her two to three times a week, baking her sweets because she wasn’t eating, taking her out to lunch, going to the movies or watching television with her – pretty much doing anything that might help her not be alone with her grief.   These bad things had happened to her at a time when my life was turning around.  I was figuring things out about myself. I was changing.  My changes didn’t always fit well with her grief.  I was no longer willing to accept things she said to me that were hurtful.  Her negativity had deepened and my positivity was growing.  It was an unstable combination.

Over the years I had just taken a lot of her verbal hits shrugging them off, telling myself “Oh that’s Bonnie, she doesn’t really know how she sounds.” Or “She doesn’t mean it the way it sounds.”

“Your bag looks like a piece of shit,” she once told me sneering at my much loved hobo bag from a consignment shop. She gave me a used but designer purse as a birthday present.  It looked ugly to me and too dated even for someone my grandmother’s age. The only thing about it I found useful was it had an old Xanax rolling around in the bottom.  I accepted it as graciously as I could and buried it in my closet.

“You’ll never know what real love is. You don’t have children,” She said to me once in the car.  That one was hard to keep my bare lips silently pursed for, but I did.   “After all Bonnie doesn’t know how she sounds.”  Thank goodness we were at a red light when she said it.

Over the years she criticized my clothes, my makeup, my hair, my car and pretty much anything else that came up. As I began to change I realized, as I had with my father, that I did not want this negativity in my life.  But I was her friend and she was my friend.  You don’t throw away friendship, right?  She’d suffered a great loss, the love of her life.  I needed to be there for her.  I wanted to be there for her.

Five months after the funeral, she decided that she would go on a trip to help her feel better and that she would let me watch her dogs.  I did not want to be there for that.  But she hadn’t asked me to watch the dogs, two extremely overweight elderly retrievers that were both in ill health, she ordered me to watch the dogs in front of other people and somehow made it sound as though she was doing me a favor.  I suggested that I could cancel my client meetings for the planned week, cancel those billable hours at a time when I needed the money.  I pointed out quietly that I would have to drive home each day (an hour each way) to take care of my own pets.  I could manage this for seven days, I said to myself, because she needed me.  I had talked myself into it.

In the weeks before her trip, she called regularly talking about the plans as they became closer and more concrete.  At some point it came to my attention that the week long trip had stretched into nearly two weeks.  I held up a virtual hand for attention and pointed out that it was not a week long trip anymore.

“Well, I wasn’t counting travel time,” she said in response.    I was, I thought.

One day she called with what she thought was great news!  She’d found someone to watch the dogs on the weekends so that I could go home and do my own thing those days.  I made the mistake of opening my mouth to point out that I didn’t work on weekends and I generally stayed in, so it was the better time for me to be at her home.

“It would really help me out if they could do Tuesday and Wednesday?” I said. Look at that I was speaking up for myself. I was asking for something for me.

“Of course they can’t do that,” she shrilled at me over the phone line, “they have real jobs.”  Oh right. And I didn’t in her eyes. I froze. My head felt bigger than it was and it was completely empty. I couldn’t seem to open my mouth.  I hung up.

I failed to say good bye or I had to go or you inconsiderate cow….I just hung up.

The next day I got an email.  There was no subject, but she never wasted time with subjects.  The email itself was short and sweet.

“I can’t take anymore of your petty bullshit,”  it read, “I’ve found someone else to watch the dogs.”

That was that.  I should have been elated and somewhere in my mind I was, but I was stuck on that one phrase, like a splinter the size of a redwood tree had just been rammed underneath a fingernail and absolutely nothing else could take attention from it and the throbbing it was causing. “your petty bullshit.”

I did what any other completely insanely pained person would do, I picked up the phone to have this conversation full of emotion in person.  She didn’t answer, of course.  Damn her, taking all the power again. I was left with the voice mail and I managed to get out a rather lengthy message.  I believe I covered the high points of all the petty bullshit I’d experienced for nearly eight years.  I don’t even recall what I’d said fully. I was shaken and angry and finally speaking up for myself.  It was like moving muscle you hadn’t used in such a long time.  It ached and moved awkwardly but felt good to stretch it out.  I had to take responsibility for allowing her to treat me the way she had all those years. It was my own fault.  But she was going to hear what petty bullshit really was.  It was quite a bit of stretching.

When I hung up and I knew that a weight had been lifted and I was free from a friendship that never really was one. I’d never felt anything quite like it. It was an amazing feeling.  It was at that point that if I wore lipstick, I would have opened my purse and pulled it out and applied it with confidence knowing that this dinner was over.   It was a dinner I would never have to eat again.

 

*name changed for privacy

Frozen Fingers

A  big yellow school bus belching hideous exhaust picked us up in front of our house every day for school for 12 years, elementary, middle and high school.  It would drop us off there again every afternoon until high school, when it was decided by someone that we were of an age we could walk from what we called “the corner” – the intersection of our road and the next cross road to the North.  It was about a 3/8 of a mile, no big deal.  Our stretch of the road started on a rise at the corner and sloped gently downward as you headed south towards our house and the town line another quarter mile past.  Before reaching us, it rose upward to a point where the Dimm family lived. That isn’t a description of their personality, it was, unfortunately, their actual surname. From there the road sloped steeply downward to the creek in front of the Jones Family home before rising up again to our house.

As a small child you would envy the independence and freedom given the high school age kids to walk home on their own even if just from the corner.  It was all residential so there wasn’t a lot you could do between point a and point b.  But it was a few minutes of quiet freedom when you weren’t under the control of the adults at school and on the bus and the adults at home.  That was freedom.  When I was in high school and one of the neighbors had a nippy little dog that would bark and growl at me for a part of the walk, I lost all that envy.

It was a tough road in the winter for something as large as a school bus.  In the winter, one of the most important morning duties after brushing your teeth and getting dressed was to listen to WAKR radio for a report on the weather and whether or not there was any resulting potential for a delay or a full snow day.  We took turns at this post near the radio. We were in a somewhat rural area and getting a school bus unstuck from a ditch was not an event anyone other than the children still on the bus would have felt excited about, so officials were fairly cautious and generally accurate.

I remember one day in particular that we were expecting snow and yet there was no snow day announced and no delay.  The roads were clear so we went off to school as usual.  Almost immediately after arriving at school, the heavy snow started to fall.  Later in the morning it was decided that the storm that had come in with a vengeance warranted sending every one home early.  That was the only time in my entire life that I can recall that happening.  It was exciting beyond measure to pile onto the school bus not only with those from my elementary school but to find it already crowded with middle schoolers also.  I was in first grade and felt very small amongst all these now loud and revved up kids.  My three older brothers were also somewhere on the bus as well as neighbors and classmates.

It is approximately forty-five minutes on the bus as it winds through other neighborhoods stopping constantly to dispense children to their homes.  They would erupt from the open doors like tic-tacs shaken from the tiny clear plastic candy container and roll around with as much direction and joy as candy pieces before running off into their yards to play.   When the bus arrived at the corner where it would normally make a right turn and proceed towards our house, it just stopped.  The bus driver looked up into that long mirror he used to keep an eye on us and said,

“I won’t be able to take the bus down this street.  It’s not clear enough.  Too dangerous.  Those of you on these stops will have to get off and walk home from here.”  He opened the door and we gathered our things to exit.

That seemed kind of exciting.  To walk like the big kids did.  To walk with the big kids.  But the big kids, my brothers included, had longer legs and were already planning the snow fort they were going to build in the front yard, so they were off and running.  I tried to keep up but they were pretty quick.  I called and yelled to them,

“Hey, wait for me!  Wait for me!”

They would slow for a few steps only and then their gait would quicken again.

“Hurry up! We wouldn’t need to wait if you would hurry.”  They complained at me.  Their logic was unquestionable.

At the Jones’ house next door, they decided to short cut up the drive way and across the field between our two houses.  The drive was cleared but the path that we had worn over years of running back and forth between the houses was full of drifting snow, twice as deep as what we had been slogging through.  I was exhausted as I started up the embankment to the now invisible path.

I attempted to walk in their steps but they were big steps and longer than my legs could manage.  And I kept falling.  I fell so many times I loss count.  The first few times it made me angry with them.

“Why aren’t you waiting for me,” I whimpered to no one listening. “Meanies!”

After that they were gone and I was just scared.  I panicked and it made me slip and slide and fall again and again.  What was worse than falling was I hadn’t taken any gloves to school with me that day.  Every time I fell, my hands were deep in the snow.  It was cold and wet.  My sleeves were full.  Every time I fell, it was worse, colder than I could imagine feeling.  At some point I started crying.  That meant my nose was also running.  What a mess!

My mother was waiting for me on the porch, coaxing me onward.  What seemed like miles to me, wasn’t really all that far. She had a sweater wrapped around herself and took me inside and helped me get all my snowy clothing off, now melting and sticky wet.  I couldn’t stop crying.  It wasn’t about being left behind at this point. I couldn’t feel my hands and in my naturally dramatic manner, was upset that this meant impending amputation.  They were completely numb, surely they would have to be cut off.  What would I do?  I wouldn’t be able to draw anymore!  All my crayons would have to lay still in their box forever.

My mother took me into her bedroom and we sat on her bed.  She wrapped me up in a blanket, but I was inconsolable about living a future life with no hands.  She took both my frozen hands in hers and placed them up against her stomach, covering them with her own.  She talked to me, but I have no idea what she said but I am sure it was cooing and soothing.  It wasn’t long before the warmth of her stomach began to thaw out my tiny fingers and the feeling began to return.  What a relief!!  I would color again!

Hot chocolate at the kitchen table helped continue the warm up.  My hands were saved, my future artistic endeavors saved.  I was warm as I never thought I would be again.  My mother had given her warmth to me!  We did not have a lot of close moments before or after that as she was always so busy, so those moments of closeness were a rare and cherished memory.

To this day when it gets very cold out, my hands cry out with pain inside as if they remember and it reminds me of that day.  To this day I keep extra gloves everywhere.