Handle with Care

I was simply being a supportive friend, I told myself, holding the glass dildo up in the air. 

“Don’t be fooled.  This dildo isn’t at all fragile,” said Diane to the women gathered in Cherry Manning’s living room.  “Meagan, would you please pass it around?”

“Of course,” I said graciously, like I was passing a cheeseball instead of a sex toy.  I watched the dildo travel around the room being admired by a bunch of moms, mostly in their early forties.  It was Diane’s first “SexToyz R Us” party and she’d talked me into coming to assist.  This was actually a ruse, since my real purpose was to be a shoulder to cry on should she not sell anything or simply look foolish.  Frankly, I thought that the foolish threshold went down at a sex toys party so I wasn’t worried.  Besides, up until now, she had come across as charming and knowledgeable. 

“Why is it made out of glass?” asked a pointy woman with a tight up-do.

“It’s non-porous so it’s easy to clean.  And it adapts quickly to your temperature,” said Diane with a smile.

Ah, Jesus, I thought. Is it really worth it?  I mean, all I think of when I look at a glass dildo is “vaginal tear”.  I’ve never been much of a sex toys girl. Mostly, they make me giggle and I worry that something’s going to get stuck and I’ll pass out – only to wake up in an emergency room wearing nothing but a papery gown and a butt-plug.  Besides, sex toys would be irrelevant for Kurt and me.  We’d been on a total of three dates and had gotten as far as a make-out session in his car.  This was unlike my dating life pre-Wes.  I used to the kind of girl who ignored the rules and did it the first time out.  But years of little to dry sex with my distant husband, had made me feel like a novice again. 

“I’ll take one of these,” Cherry giggled.

Cherry was a childhood friend of Diane’s who I had met only a couple of times previously.  I gathered that they had a falling out for years but reconnected after Cherry also got divorced.  I had come into Diane’s life relatively recently.  Our sons went to the same elementary school for a while.  In fact, I wasn’t too nuts about Diane when we first met.  She was very put-together, very skinny — a rah-rah mom, heading up committees and planting trees on campus on the weekends.  Not that there’s anything wrong with over-achieving moms like this.  It’s just that they intimidate the hell out of me.  I only softened toward her when she began to let it all go to hell while her husband was having an affair.  Our friendship was sealed after she convinced me to ditch a PTA meeting and join her for a pitcher of margaritas instead.

Diane rummaged in her sex toy kit and brought out a small skin colored plastic mound, “And this, ladies, is a plastic vagina!”

She passed it to me and I gingerly presented it to one side of the group and the other.  Then I dropped it into the hands of the woman next to me.

“What do we want with a vagina?” asked Cherry, with another attendant giggle that I was beginning to realize was habitual.

“Some men prefer it for backdoor action,” said Diane.  “Also, you can leave it with your man when you’re out of town.”

I’ll stop with the details right here and I’m not answering questions on any of the above.  If this is at all upsetting to read, imagine how upsetting it was to watch a group of moms cluck over a hairless, plastic vagina.  Enough said.  Skip to — after Diane’s presentation:  she was sitting at a table selling toys as a line wound into the hallway.  I sat next to her, handing out the sold items.

“I’ll take two of the glass dildos, in case one breaks,” said Marianne, another friend of Diane’s. As I reached down for two boxes, I wondered, are we acknowledging here, that one might break?  But, at this point, I was reserving all reactions for the debriefing Diane and I would surely have in the car.

As another woman stepped up to make a purchase, Marianne squatted next to Diane, “Bad timing, I know.  But I didn’t want you to hear this from anyone else. William’s leaving Serena. He just hasn’t told the children yet.”

William was Diane’s ex-husband (who she only referred to as “the lying asshole fucking weak ass shit for brains perv”) and Serena was the early twenties hand model (who Diane referred to as “hand job”) that he had left her for. 

Diane’s eyes got round but I couldn’t read the expression. It was clear that she was having a strong reaction though; because she dropped a box of anal beads and bonked her head twice on the table — once bending down to retrieve it, and a second time coming up. After that, she managed to answer questions and deal with purchases, but I could tell she wasn’t her usual x-rated, extrovert self. 

 An hour or so later, after loading the remaining boxes in the car and pulling away from the curb, Diane let it rip, “That lying asshole fucking weak ass shit for brains perv left Hand Job already!  For that he leaves the kids and me?  For a two year shack-up?”

I didn’t know what to say since I was confused.  I would have thought that, given how angry she was at William, she might be thrilled that his relationship didn’t work out.  I looked out my window and let her rail for a few minutes, until it started to affect her driving.  Eventually, she drove up on a curb, rounding a corner to fast.

“Sweetie,” I said.  “You’ve got to slow down.  You don’t want this to kill you literally. Or me.”

Diane decelerated a tad, “Don’t you see?  If their relationship is over, than what the fuck did he leave me for?” 

I wanted to say that William left for tons of reasons, probably, not just Serena.  I’m not excusing The Perv.  I never much liked him.  But a man doesn’t walk out on his marriage, three kids, and social life (with half his former income), for a piece of ass with nice hands. There’s got to be more of a story there.  I couldn’t say this to Diane, of course, because I didn’t want to hurt her even more.  Plus, she was driving.

“Aw, honey, I’m so sorry,” I said. “Obviously, William…sorry, the perv doesn’t know what he wants.  And I know that it doesn’t feel like it now, but you’re better off.  You should only be with a man who’s totally crazy about you.”

“But the perv was crazy about me.  At first.”

Diane looked over at me, her face soft with grief. 

“I know it’s hard, “ I said.  “But stop looking backwards at what you’ve lost.  Look Forward.  Look ahead of you.”

Suddenly my heart clutched as I realized Diane was still looking at me instead of the road, “Look ahead of you. RIGHT NOW!  BECAUSE YOU’RE DRIVING!”

Diane immediately snapped out of it and turned quickly to the road again. 

We drove in silence for a few seconds, my heart pounding; Diane’s eyes glued to the windshield. 

Eventually, my pulse slowed and I looked over at Diane. 

“Look forward,” she mumbled.  “Yeah, right.  I’m headed into the future with a trunk full of glass dildos and plastic vaginas.” 


The Other Woman

The meeting with Richard’s wife, Rachel, felt clandestine even though it was not.  This was largely due to the fact that Rachel had concluded our brief talk over the phone with, “I’ll meet you on the bench near the stegosaurus slide at the north end of the park.”  It was like I was meeting a stranger in a public-but-remote area to hand over fifty thousand dollars in a brown paper bag for a microchip buried in a princess cupcake. 

When I hit the north end, I saw her before she saw me.  She was noticeably tall and had a pixie hair cut.  Next to her was a stroller and her gaze was fixed on the playground, indicating another child not far off.  Were we really going to do this in a dino park for toddlers?  My microchip scenario seemed easier than having to reassure a wife that I wasn’t interested in stealing her husband while her toddler and baby vied for her attention.  I squared my shoulders and walked over to her with a purposeful, let’s-get-this-over-with stride. 

“Hello.  I’m Meagan,” I said.  “Are you Rachel?”

She looked up at me, shielding her eyes, “Yes.  Right.  Meagan?  Thank you for coming.  I know it’s awkward.”

“That’s OK,” I said, begrudgingly.  I was only doing this to avoid another desperate visit from Richard.

“Sit,” she said, scooting over a hair.

I sat.  She looked back out at the dino park and yelled, “Marlee.  Marlee.  Mommy’s talking for a minute. So don’t go on the monkey bars yet.”  A little girl squinted affirmation but instead of turning to me, Rachel kept her gaze there and said under her breath to me, “You know, Richard and I have been married since we were nineteen.”

“That’s a long time,” I said with what I hoped was an appreciative voice.  Then I realized that this could sound like a dig, especially coming from someone who is considered the other woman.  “What I mean is that your relationship is solid.  That’s so very, very clear.   Being married since you were nineteen.  That’s a real test…I mean test…timony to your enduring love that can never be threatened.  Right?”

Rachel continued looking straight ahead.  Was that OK, I wondered?  Could I go now?

“Don’t tell Richard this,” she said, “But I always knew it would be hard to keep him.” 

My chest dropped.  Obviously this wasn’t going to be a cut and run little chat.  Wait a minute.  She knew it was going to be “hard to keep him?”  Really?  Were we talking about the same Richard? Maybe I’d gotten some other floozy’s Rachel and mine was held up in traffic.

“Then he got involved with the church and I was relieved because I knew it would give him the strength to stay committed to us.  Our family.”

Same Richard, I thought.  Damn.

“Rachel,” I said. “I bet Richard is committed. I was probably giving off the wrong signals.”

“What kind of signals?” Rachel asked, turning to look at me squarely for the first time.

“You mean, what kind of wrong signals was I giving off?  Oh, I don’t know…” I trailed off.  Jesus, how did I get myself into this?  It was all Richard.  If I gave him any signal at all it was an “I know you’re gay, girlfriend” signal. 

Rachel looked at me, waiting for an answer.

“Um. Maybe I gave off a ‘just divorced’ signal.  I guess some guys think that means I’m desperate for, you know…company.”

“Yes,” she said, seeming to consider this. “Richard would be moved by that. He’s deeply compassionate.”

“Yes,” I said, jumping on this and wanting to rush to a conclusion.  “So Richard misunderstood and was just helping me out.  Like, ‘You need a hug?’ That’s all, and I thought it was something else and…”

I stopped yammering for a second because I wasn’t sure at all what I was saying. I think I had just cast myself in a femme fatale type role, with Richard as some kind of naïve hero.  If I had thought about this harder at the time, I would have been furious at myself for skewing the story this way.  Richard wasn’t “deeply compassionate.”  He was a sexually confused, probably spiritually confused, pervy weasel. 

  Chances are I didn’t have time to make this assessment because Rachel was looking at me with such vulnerability that my only instinct was to reassure her.  Maybe, I reasoned, this reassurance would buy her time until she was strong enough to see Richard for who he was.  God only knows how long it takes us to face unpleasant truths.  My marriage was completely different, but I can’t say that I was in any less denial.

“But the most important thing,” I said, “the thing you need to know is that I don’t want Richard.  I won’t send him any signals any more.  In fact, if I feel a signal bubbling up, I’ll stuff it down or leave the room. Or I’ll replace it with a bad signal – one that says ‘I’m very sick so stay away.’”

“Are you sure you can do that?” she asked, sweetly.  “I know that Richard is hard to resist.”

“It’s true that he’s…got attractiveness.  But I’m pretty sure I can resist him.  No – make that – I WILL resist him.  Because…because…because…he loves you.  And I don’t want to be second fiddle to anyone.  No offence.  You’re great.  But I’ve just gotten divorced and I’m not going to settle for a man who’s obviously nutso-crazy in love with his wife.”

I landed this with more force than was probably necessary.  But Rachel looked grateful and I felt relieved..  I had only started this venture with the hope of getting Richard off my back (or off my lips), but now I found myself colluding in another woman’s denial.  I suspected that this would haunt me later.  But in that moment, it felt like the most compassionate choice.

“Thank you, Meagan,” she said.  “I hope you find someone as wonderful as Richard some day.”

“Oh.  Sure.  Maybe. But, hey…” I stopped myself from saying “Does he have a brother?” – I was that far into the fiction at this point.

“MOMMY!” a kid yelled above the others on the playground.  Rachel and I looked out to find her daughter swinging from the monkey bars.

“Marlee, I told you not…”

THUMP.  Marlee dropped to the ground in a heap. Rachel stood up with a gasp and started to run toward her.  I followed.  “Marlee, Marlee,” she yelled until she reached her.  Rachel squatted and rolled Marlee over to find her conscious, but with a mid-sized gash that was bleeding heavily.

“Oh my God,” she said as a group of kids and parents started to gather around.  Rachel pulled her shirtsleeve over her hand and pressed it against the wound.

“I’ll drive,” I said, kicking into practical mode. 

“The baby,” Rachel said, nodding toward the stroller while holding Marlee, screaming, in her arms.

“Right.”  I ran to the stroller, turned, and wheeled it in front of me as we attempted to make quick progress, with buggy and wounded child, to the car.

On the drive to the emergency room Marlee and the baby cried while Rachel did her best to calm them down.  The cut ended up needing a couple of stitches. So I called Wes to pick Ringo up from school and stayed four hours, mostly to help with the baby. Richard would not be able to get home until later as he was at a conference in Springfield. 

It was dusk by the time I drove them home. I helped them settle; then made my excuses.  As I pulled out of the driveway Rachel appeared on the front porch waving at me, her sleeve still stained with blood.  I waved back and turned onto the road. 

On the drive home I thought of Richard at his conference and realized that I had absolutely zippo confidence that he was actually at one.  Obviously, this wouldn’t occure to Rachel, who didn’t seem to have a clue about Richard’s real character.  As cars sped by me on the highway, I thought about how long I had refused to accept the realities of my marriage. Yes, the issues had been different.  But we all want to manifest the dream of our marriage, whatever that is.  And we cling to it .  I’m not much of a believer.  But that night, I sent up a kind of prayer — silent thanks for having awakened from that dream.


New Waters

It was already eight o’clock when I got home from taking minutes at the ‘Hope Floats, Social Outreach Committee’ meeting.  I opened the apartment door to find Ringo playing Oceanopoly with my mother and an older Aftrican American woman with dreads.  Oceanopoly is just one of seemingly thousands of versions of Monolopoly on the market these days.  Apparently one can find a monopoly to suit any preoccupation.  No doubt there’s a Veganopoly and a LouisVuitonopoly — and even a Brangelinopoly with six counters in the shapes of their children. 

“Hi, Mom,” Ringo said, looking up from his stash of fake money.

“Hello, everyone,” I said, dropping my keys onto my desk.

“Honey,” my mother said, “Don’t you look natural?  I like your hair frizzy like that.”

“Um.  Thanks Mom.  This wasn’t intentional.  But thanks.”

“More people should let their hair frizz,” my mother said to the woman with dreads.  “Too much straightening going on.”  I kicked off my shoes and walked over to the table, waiting for my mother to introduce me.  “And it’s not just the straightening.  It’s the waxing too.  Everyone’s waxing their hair off. I don’t understand it.  Hair used to be a good thing.  Even pubic hair.  I wish I had more hair everywhere.” 

“Mom.  I don’t think Ringo needs to hear all this,” I said gently, smiling at the friend.

“Ringo knows all about pubic hair,” she said, patting his hand.  His face was unreadable, but he was definitely taking all this in.

Realizing that mom wasn’t going to introduce me (and diverting her from more talk about waxing) I turned to the friend, “Hi. I’m May’s daughter, Meagan.”

“Yes,” said the woman.  “I’m Vi, May’s new roommate. I’m sure your mother mentioned me.”

It took a moment for me to absorb this.  “Actually, she didn’t tell me,” I said.  “But, good.  Nice to meet you.  A roommate is good.  That’s great.”

I imagined that Vi was a perfectly lovely woman.  But given mom’s forgetfulness, I wondered if she had checked Vi out in any substantial way.  I’ve started to worry that my mother’s generous heart and fuzzy brain make her an easy target for all those con schemes aimed at people just like her.

“I’ve known your mother for years,” Vi said.  “We lived on the People’s Farm together in ’63.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said, with a sigh of relief.

“We both worked on the Women’s Impact Committee,” she continued.  “In fact we co-chaired the sub-committee that drafted a list of 63 women’s rights to be adopted by the Farm Counsel. Including the right to sing during meal prep ”

“Wow,” I said, relaxing even more.  I’d heard rhetoric like this from my mother all my life.  It was obvious they were well suited.

“Vi’s a lesbian,” mom interjected, cheerily.

I quickly glanced at Ringo who flipped casually through his money.

 “Really?” I said, wondering if a response was expected.  “That’s nice.”

 Mom and Vi chatted amicably for another half hour, abandoning Oceanopoly, which they said Ringo was winning by a wide margin.  Eventually, they left with protestations that they didn’t need a ride; they would take the bus home together.  Mom is big on being green.  Three to four times a week, she wears a T-shirt that says, “Got wind?”

“How about that?” I said to Ringo, after closing the door behind them. “Grandma has a roommate.”

“I like her hair,” Ringo said.  “It looks like Medusa.”

Ringo’s been reading about Greek myths lately. 

“I know what you mean,’ I said. “But since Medusa wasn’t exactly nice, you might not want to say that directly to Vi.”

I sat down at the table with him and started to pack up the game.  My impulse was to ignore the preceding conversation about pubic hair and lesbianism.  But I knew that I should make sure that Ringo didn’t come away under-informed or confused.  To be honest, this would be the kind of job I would normally hand off to Wes.

“Ringo.  Do you have any questions about the conversation you just heard?”

“I don’t think so,” he said, shrugging.  “No wait. Why did they have to write down a rule that they could sing in the kitchen?”

“Hmm.  Good question.  Maybe someone didn’t like the singing and they had to decide whether people could keep doing it.  I really don’t know.”

Ringo put the top on the Oceanopoly box, got up from the table, and flopped onto the couch. Since he didn’t seem to have any more questions, I could have ended it there and moved onto popcorn and Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.  But I persisted.  I didn’t want to do a half-assed job of informing my son about sex — even though I wasn’t planning to get to actual mechanics yet. 

“So do you know what Grandma meant when she said that Vi was a lesbian?”

“Not exactly,” Ringo answered.

“Well, it means that she’s gay.  Do you know what that means?”

“Sure.  It means when you’re a couple, and you’re the same sex.”

“Bingo,” I said loudly, like he’d just gotten a question right in Trivial Pursuit.  What a relief, I thought.  My work here is done.  He knows what it means.  OK.  Great.  Good for me. Lesson over.  Let’s turn on Shark Week. I sat down at the end of the couch and pulled his feet onto my lap. 

Then a thought occurred to me. “Do you think you’d like to be part of a couple some day?” I asked. I’ve hoped that Wes’ and my divorce would not sour him on the thought of happy unions.

“I don’t know,” Ringo mused.  “Yeah.  I guess so.  Sure.”

“You know, I don’t think you have to be part of a couple to be happy. But I, personally, think that it’s nice to be with someone you can share everything with.”  I stopped myself with this admission.  Did I really think this?  Even in the wake of my busted marriage?  Mulling this, I got up to retrieve the remote back on the table.  At which point, another thought occurred to me.

“Ringo.  If you did want to be in a couple, do you think you’d choose a man or a woman?”  Odd question maybe.  But I wanted him to know that whatever he chose, would be fine with me.

Ringo pulled his knees up and thought for a few seconds.  Then he said, “I don’t think I’ve decided yet.”

Wow.  I didn’t expect such self-awareness.  I had thought I was simply covering all bases in case SOME DAY not TODAY he realized he was gay. 

“That’s fine,” I said. “You take all the time you need to figure it out.”

I pointed the remote at the screen, popped it on, settled back into the couch, and pulled Ringo’s feet back onto my lap.  Great whites glided through the half-light of the ocean.  My mind drifted. I’m not a person who prays.  Not in the “hands folded, eyes closed, to an old man in the sky” type way, anyway.  But if a wish is a prayer then I prayed the standard mom prayer about Ringo being happy and living a long, healthy life. But with this came a dawning realization that happiness isn’t something you simply get or don’t get.  It’s sought, cultivated, and maintained.

Kind of like the perfect haircut, I thought – blowing all that deep thought into the ocean with the sharks. 


Back in the Saddle

The power panties were Diane’s idea.  She said they would make me feel so confined I’d probably want to punch someone.  But the upside would be that my stomach would stay in its generally assigned area rather than spilling into my lap when I sat down.  This was my first date in thirteen years so I went for confinement and the attendant rage over stomach spillage.  The power panties that I bought had legs that started at mid-thigh and a waistband that was supposed to nestle right under my boobs.  So once I got them over my ass — which required wrestling, jumping, and tugging the black fabric into place, followed by a breather on the bed — I had to repeat the process to get the spandex over my stomach and up to my chest. 

“You look like a black eel,” said Ringo, as I stood in front of the mirror.

“Not exactly the look I’m going for, but it’ll be better when I get my dress on.  Hey, Ringo.  Can you stick those high heels in front of me so I can step into them? Apparently, I can’t bend at the waist.”

He got the shoes and also helped me with the dress, which did look a lot better over the power panties.  Hanging onto Ringo, I discovered that it was actually possible to sit down and stand up if you worked in increments. As I grabbed my purse, I prayed that the chairs at the restaurant would have armrests that I could grab onto to make my descent into my chair smoother.  In our parking spot, Ringo helped me get into the driver’s seat; then I drove him over to Wes’.

As he got out of the car I said, “Probably not a good idea to talk too much to Daddy about my date and the power panties.  It might make him sad.”

“Right,” he said with a concerned look.  Ringo and I had often colluded to keep Wes in the dark about potentially depressing news.  Even before the divorce.  So the request wasn’t so unusual.  Ringo gave me a thumbs-up and turned toward the house. 

I was disappointed to see Kurt already seated at our table; I had hoped to be able to inch my way into a chair before he got there.  He stood as I made what felt like a very slow descent onto the seat cushion.  If he noticed anything he didn’t show it.  Maybe he thought I had rheumatoid arthritis.

When I finally settled, Kurt sat back down. As we barreled through the opening conversation (jobs, kids, where we lived), I tried to shift as little as possible while finding a position that would allow me to breathe.  I ordered Chicken Marcella.  But I couldn’t imagine how I was going to eat.  If my waist expanded a nanometer I was afraid I’d explode or vomit. That mass had to go somewhere and I was pretty sure there was no more give in the panties.

“Now that people aren’t buying homes, I’ve taken a real hit,” Kurt said about his house painting business. 

“That’s too bad,” I panted.  I really wanted to listen to Kurt. I wanted to get to know him.  But right now, all I could think about was running to the bathroom and ripping off my panties.  “I’m sure things will get better,” I continued vaguely, grabbing the edge of the table with one hand. 

“Oh, I’ll just branch out. I was thinking of specializing in textured walls. Businesses love those.”

“I like walls that look like they have a hole in them and you can see through to the outside,” I said, trying to rally, as I saw our waiter approach with our food.

“Exactly,” he said.  “I’ve already done walls that look like sky.”

The waiter placed the chicken in front of me and I looked down to see fuzzy spots jumping all over my meal. Jesus.  My eyes were going to shoot out of my head.  There wasn’t room for them!  Kurt was speaking but I couldn’t hear him.  I placed both palms on the table and pushed myself up to a standing position.

Blackout. 

When I opened my eyes, I saw Kurt’s face floating like it wasn’t connected to a body.  My back was pressed hard against the floor.  Then I remembered, “My panties,” I said, weakly.  “Get them off.”

Kurt smiled, “I wasn’t expecting to make this kind of rapid progress on our first date.”

“You don’t understand.  They’re killing me.”

“Your panties?”

“Power panties.”

The face of a waitress floated behind Kurt’s.  “Oh those are killers,” she said.  “I heard a woman in California actually claimed power panties as a defense for stabbing her husband.”

I’m sure I would have felt deeply humiliated by this whole scene, had I been able to think beyond my shapewear.  But I couldn’t.  I felt myself being hoisted to my feet by Kurt and the waitress, then half-dragged/half-walked to the bathroom. 

Kurt stood outside the door while I gripped the edge of the sink.  The waitress slowly peeled the panties down.  Relief was instantaneous once she got past my stomach.  I took a deep breath of air and was filled with the grateful realization that I was going to live.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, helping the waitress pull the rest of the panties down and off.

“This is nothing,” she said.  “Last week a woman didn’t know she was allergic to shellfish, ate a clam and blew up to twice her regular size.  Right before my eyes.  It was like watching a balloon inflate.  The paramedics came in and had to stab her with this hypodermic. I’m telling you, the entire place was put off dinner. We had to comp everyone.”

“Well, I hope I didn’t create too much of a scene.”

“You don’t want an answer to that, right?”

“Right.”

I took a couple of minutes to repair my make-up and smooth down the dress as best I could.  The waitress chatted through the whole process.  What I really wanted was to stay in the bathroom, talking to her forever.  What on earth was I going to say to Kurt?  But eventually it became clear that I was going to have to exit. 

“How do I look?” I asked the waitress.

“A heck of a lot better.”

I stifled the urge to ask if I looked lumpy in the dress.  There was no turning back now.  I threw the panties in the trashcan and opened the door.

Kurt was sitting back at our table, which I appreciated. At least he hadn’t been hovering around the bathroom door the whole time.  Several customers watched me walk across the floor.  As I approached Kurt, he started to stand.

“No need,” I said.  “Really.  Let’s not draw attention.”

He sat back down with a smile as I scooted into my seat, “I think it’s too late for that.”

“I feel really stupid,” I said. Which was the truth.  Trying to change myself into someone I’m not, doesn’t usually work for me. I should have remembered that.  “This is my first date in fourteen years and I don’t look like I looked fourteen years ago.  So, I panicked.”

“Well, Meagan.  You look great to me.  Anyway, I already saw you in your natural state at Medieval Times recital.”

“Right.  I know, “ I said. “I think I was trying to morph into a woman who looks like she dates all the time; someone who looks like she knows what she’s doing.  Which clearly I don’t.  Don’t.  Know. What I’m…what I’m doing, I mean. On the dating front.  Other things I’m better at.  I make a good grilled cheese sandwich.  And I’m a decent dancer.  But dating — not my area of expertise.”  I looked down at my cold, sad chicken, “I’m babbling. I can’t stop.”

I couldn’t lift my eyes from my plate.  After what seemed like a fairly long silence, Kurt reached over and touched my elbow. 

“Do you want them to reheat your chicken?” He asked in a soft voice.  Really, what else could the man say?

I looked up and glanced around furtively.  No one seemed to be looking at us, but I still felt completely exposed.

“Oh. Jeez,” I said.  “I was hoping to make a quick getaway.”  He looked crestfallen. “Sorry. I’m just so embarrassed.  I feel like I’m going to be the big jokey story everyone tells their coworkers tomorrow.”

“I get it,” he said.  “Why don’t we box the chicken and take it to my place?”

My pulse raced.  What was that?  Was he thinking we’d sleep together?  Now?  On the first date?  After the panties debacle?

“Whoops.  Sorry.  That sounded like a play,” he said. “I was just being practical.  Um.  Why don’t we eat on a park bench somewhere?”

“Better,” I said, full of gratitude.

This is how I came to be sitting on a park bench, eating chicken out of a box, on the first date of my divorced life. 

There might be more to this story.  I simply won’t know until he calls.


Acts of Courage

It wasn’t hard to spot Wes in the multi-purpose room crammed full of parents watching the second grade’s presentation of ‘The Knights of the Roundtable’.  His two casts stuck out from his body, as he sat on a bench, like pointy parentheses.  I waved at him and worked my way through the parental throng to slip into the space beside him.  

“So what’s Ringo’s job in all this?” I asked.  Ringo had spent the week with his father, keeping him company and helping him manage with the casts on both arms. I’d talked to Ringo on the phone and even spent a couple of hours with him on Thursday, but hadn’t gotten the lowdown on this roundtable thing. 

“The kids wrote the script about how the roundtable worked.  Ringo named himself ‘Sir Stallion’,” Wes said.

“Sounds a little porno,” I said.  “Did you try to talk him out of it?”

“I thought the same thing.  But he was so pleased with the name, I just let it pass.”

“Jeez.  Was I supposed to make a costume or something?”

“Nah. I would’ve told you. They made their costumes out of paper bags, at school.”

As I looked out at the chaos on the foot-high stage (children running back and forth in their paper bags, a piano being wheeled off-stage, and some kind of backdrop being stapled to the back curtain), I noticed that the principal was actually talking to us from center stage but no one was listening to her.  I’d seen this happen before at the only two school events I’d attended so far.  This principal had the softest, almost inaudible, voice I’d ever heard from someone who worked with large groups of noisy children.  As a matter of fact, when Wes and I went to the Open House, every time she uttered the term GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) in her diminutive voice, it sounded like she was saying “gay”:  “Parents of gay children face unique challenges.”  Wes and I spent the entire Open House poking each other in the ribs and giggling like Jr. High kids, every time she said it. 

“Look, the principal’s talking,” I said to Wes out of the side of my mouth.

Wes looked over at her.  With great concentration, we could make out her small voice saying into a non-working microphone, “People. People.  If you don’t get quiet, we can’t start.”  She paused as if that would quell the resounding cacophony, which simply got louder.  “OK.  You’re not going to hear anything, people, if you don’t stop talking.  The kids are ready to start.” The noise increased.  “You’re going to miss a lot of good stuff if you keep talking.”

At this point, a man wearing a green shirt that showed a slight paunch, jumped on the stage grabbed the microphone from the principal and turned it on with a telltale pop.  “Would everyone shut the hell up so the kids can start?” His amplified voice bellowed.

The shock of his voice inspired near silence as everyone turned toward him.  The principal shuffled next to him, looking at the stage floor. 

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “Sorry for my language.  But, Jesus Christ, can’t we get this thing going?”

More shocked silence.  I looked around, feeling bad for the guy.  Everyone looked ahead, seeming not to know how to proceed.  I couldn’t think of a thing to do except clap.  So I started a slow clap, which was joined after a couple of seconds by a few others.  Then more people joined the clapping until it became a quick ovation.  The man looked at me and smiled with gratitude.  I smiled back. 

“Thank you. Thank you,” he said.  “I’m Daryl’s – um Sir Sebastian Sneed’s – father.”

“Sebastian Sneed?” whispered Wes, cocking an eyebrow.

“’Sir Stallion’ is sounding better all the time,” I answered.

The man in the green shirt scooted the principal off the stage as the lights dimmed.  What followed was your usual second grade fare:  kids stiffly delivering lines while their paper bag costumes crinkled.  Near the end of what was supposed to be a heated political debate around the roundtable, two kids brandished wooden swords at each other.  “I thinkest nothing of thine honor, Sir Muskrat,” said one.  The other – a stronger actor — spat back, “Prepare to die, Sir Rockstar.”  Then Ringo stood and interjected, “It is I, ‘Sir Stallion’, who speaketh truth.”  I thought “speaketh  truth” was a bit of a mouthful, but Ringo pulled it off and continued the speech that broke up the fight. 

 Tears stung my eyes.  Whenever Ringo performs in these things, I get weepy.  He looks so young and vulnerable in front of an audience.  When he makes it through, with all eyes on him, it seems like an incredible act of courage.  I looked over at Wes, whose eyes also shone with tears.  The little play ended with a group bow and the parents erupting into thunderous applause. 

“I’ll get Ringo and meet you outside,” I said to Wes.  “We can give you a ride home.”

I helped him stand and watched him turn toward the door, pulling the two casts as close to his body as he could.  Then I scoped the mob of kids and spotted Ringo jumping up and down and waving at me.  As I moved through the crowd, the guy in the green shirt stopped me, “Thanks for saving my ass.”

“Oh.  No problem,” I said.  

“Which one’s yours?”

I pointed to Ringo, “Sir Stallion.”

“He’s standing next to mine,” he said, nodding in the direction of Sir Sebastian Sneed next to Ringo.  “Let’s get our knights.”

We started to make slow progress through the throng. 

“If you don’t mind my asking,” he said, “how did your husband manage to break both of his arms?”

“Ex-husband,” I corrected automatically.  “He broke them jumping into a group of men who failed to catch him.”

“Oh,” he said, looking sympathetic.

“Oh no.  He wasn’t drunk or anything.  It was a trust exercise.”

“That sounds hard to bounce back from on every level.”

“No kidding,” I said.  “He didn’t have a tremendous amount of trust or faith to begin with.  Now, instead of living in an indifferent world that neither helps nor harms him, he finds himself living in one that’s out to break bones.”

We finally got to the kids who were talking to each other excitedly.  As I turned to say goodbye to the man in the green shirt, I found him looking at me appreciatively. I felt immediately self-conscious. 

“My name’s Kurt,” he said.

“Um.  Meagan,” I said, awkwardly.

“I’d love to talk to you again sometime,” he said.

I felt my face flush and my pulse speed up, “Um, OK.”

“Can I call you?”

Oh my God, I thought.  Oh my God.  This is the first time someone’s asked me out in twelve years.  What do I say? What do I do? I don’t have the underwear.  I haven’t shaved.  What do I say?  How do I look?  Am I ready? What does he look like?  I haven’t even noticed.  Oh my God.  I’m a person that gets asked out now.  I’m a person who goes on dates.  Right. I can do this.  Can’t I?

I did my best to look him in the eye and regulate my voice so it didn’t sound like I was jumping off a cliff.  “Sure,” I said, “my number’s in the directory.  Ringo’s mom. Oh.  Wait. Call me at my office number, not at home. I don’t answer at home.”

“Yeah, those marketers. No problem, I’ll call your office,” he said, like he did this sort of thing all the time.  Like it was easy. He bent down to his son and started talking to him.  Meanwhile, I touched Ringo’s arm to get his attention.  He looked up at me and I had to squelch the first words that came to mind, which were, “I just got asked out on a goddamned date!”

 

You Can Count on Me

“Hold on,” said the nurse. “While I hold the phone up to his ear.”

I heard some general shuffling and then Wes’ voice, “Honey.  Is this a good time?”

“Are you all right?” I asked, my heart already pounding; thoughts racing to every worst-case scenario. Wes had been mugged.  Or he’d been mowed down by a hit-and-run driver.  No, he’d been mistaken for being an escaped convict and shot by police. Worse.  He’d been walking in a field, had fallen into a deep hole, had gotten a concussion, and was suffering from amnesia.  No.  Not amnesia, he was calling me, after all.  Oh my God.  He’d been hit by lightening.

“I’m OK,” he said in a strained voice. 

I expelled a huge sigh, “Good. Good. Oh thank God.”

“It’s just that I broke both of my arms and it would be great if you could drive me home.”

“You broke both of your arms?”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. I’d tell you the story but I’m sure the nurse would like to stop holding the phone for me.”

“Um.  I guess I can leave work for a bit,” I said, not thinking very clearly. As it turned out, Paul was fine with me taking the whole afternoon off.  He was meeting with Daphna to inform her that he would be choosing someone else to head up the canned food drive this year (She had been snotty to folks who brought in cans of the same vegetable, week after week).   Daphna was unlikely to take this news well, so he said he was happy to spare me the resulting shit storm (my words, not his).

On the drive over, I thought about Wes.  If anyone could break both arms, it would be him.  He’s the sweetest guy on the planet, but a more hapless fellow you’re not likely to meet.  Last year, a wealthy collector was actually going to buy up all of Wes’ sperm sculptures for a botanical garden.  Four days before he was to pick up the pieces and turn over the check, Mr. Richy-rich-but-allergic-to-bees, got stung by one and died.  Three years ago, Wes actually helped a burglar steal a bunch of electronic equipment from a home because the man looked like he needed a hand loading the stuff into a delivery truck.  Wes spent the night in jail, a couple thousand dollars on a lawyer, and two days proving that he didn’t even know the guy.  He’s gotten the boot twice for piles of unpaid parking tickets, pulled jury duty five times, been audited by the IRS, and he’s the only person I know who volunteered to be sawed in half by a magician, who actually incurred a stigmata like gash in his side before the magician realized something was amiss.  I’m telling you, you don’t want to stand next to Wes for too long. I know, because I did.  Bad luck will find him like a heat seeking missile. 

Wes was sitting in the waiting room when I got there, already discharged, both casts up past his elbows.  To his credit, he gave a self-deprecating laugh when he saw me.

“How am I going to wipe my ass?” he said, shaking his head.

“Honey, that’s where I draw the line,” I said, helping him up. 

As we walked out through the doors, he drew a number of sympathetic looks. And when we got to the garage, it took ten minutes to maneuver him into the car and get his seat belt buckled.  Eventually, I got him home, unlocked the door,  and switched on lights, that sort of thing.  As we negotiated all this, I heard the story.  Apparently, Wes has been going to some kind of divorce support group as well.  I found this surprising since attending groups of any kind requires a kind of industry Wes isn’t known for.  Anyway, he’d been attending this all-male group and that afternoon they’d been working on building trust.  The leader, a Burning Man/Iron John type who literally brings several drums to the meetings, decided to take them through a few 70s-type trust exercises.  These are confidence-building tasks like allowing oneself to be lead around the room blind-folded or falling from a height into the waiting arms of the group. When it was Wes’ turn to do the latter exercise, he found himself standing on top of a filing cabinet as the men below chanted, “Trust. Trust.  Trust.”

“I took a deep breath,” Wes said, sitting at the kitchen table as I made him a sandwich, “ and I looked up at the ceiling and fell face-first into group, just like everyone else had.”

“Only something went wrong?” I said.

“Ted’s phone was on ‘vibrate’ and he reached for it in his back pocket.”

“And that’s how you broke both arms?”

“Instinct.  I stuck them out to break my fall.”

“Jesus,” I said.  “And did any of these trustworthy souls think to stay with you at the hospital and drive you home?”

“Oh yeah.  Ted felt like shit.  He stayed with me until he had to leave to pick his son up from soccer.  Paidrick — he’s the head honcho — stayed too.  But he had to leave to lead another divorce group in the city.”

I handed Wes the sandwich which he had to sort of lean into, to eat.  As he munched, I kissed the top of his head, “Sorry kiddo.”  I wanted to say that he could have trusted me. I would never have reached for my cell phone.  But I was sure that was pretty much how he viewed my part in the marriage.  He’d fallen into it with all the trust in the world and I’d pulled back to deal with my own crap.  And now he was sitting there with two broken arms — concrete evidence that the world will always let you down. 

“Is there anyone who can help you out around here?” I said, carefully not offering myself.  As much as I care about Wes, I didn’t want to fall back into the caretaker role. 

“The support group said they’d pitch in and Sam will help out,” he said. Sam’s his brother.  “But it’s going to be boring.  I can’t work on the pods.” 

He smiled crookedly and my heart sank.  Reluctantly, I asked, “You want Ringo to stay with you for a few days?”

“Hey, that would be perfect,” he said.  “We can watch TV together.  And he can be here when Paidrick and the guys come over to make me a ‘Lion’.”

“A lion?  What’s that?”

“It’s some macho level of toughness that Paidrick says I’ve achieved by ‘facing adversity and roaring in its face,’” he said with a reassuring sense of irony.

“Want to roar in my face?” I asked, before I could stop myself.

“Nah,” he said, “I’d settle for you scratching behind this lion’s left ear and taking off his shoes.”

Both of which I did while missing Ringo already.  Of course, it was only fair to offer his company up to Wes. I had him most of the time.

“Why don’t I make us both a cup of coffee?” I offered.  “I’ll help you drink it.”

Wes nodded gratefully and I got up to turn on the coffee maker, guilt buzzing in a corner of my mind.  It was clear by his expression, that Wes thought I was being kind by staying.  But the truth was that I dreaded going home to pack Ringo’s bags. 

 

 

The Adult World

For two weeks after previously gay-seeming Richard sucked my nose in the church parking lot, he managed to avoid me.  This was largely a good thing since I hadn’t a clue how our next meeting would go.  Would he simply ignore the whole thing, want to talk it out, or make another attempt? I’m terrible with confrontation so I was hoping that we’d both pretend it didn’t happen and move on like most uptight Midwesterners.  Avoidance and flat-out denial are the borders of my comfort zone.  I once strolled down the aisle of a video store looking for something to rent while the clerk masturbated behind the counter. I couldn’t turn around and leave because I didn’t want to embarrass him.  

Yesterday evening, all hope that we would simply erase the incident from our minds evaporated when Richard knocked on my front door.  I guess I was now vulnerable to unwelcome surprises like this.  I’d stopped answering my phone for a whole week following Meryl’sl threat that she would call me.  So far, she hadn’t left a message.  And, fortunately, her son walked himself to the bus stop in the mornings, so I’d managed to evade her.

“Wow, Richard,” I said when I saw him.  “Wow.  Hello.  Hello.  As you can see I’m here with my son doing homework.”  I opened the door wider to reveal Ringo prone on the couch, looking up from the newspaper he’d been perusing. 

“We’re working on what makes a good headline,” I lied.  “That’s a good one, Ringo.  Cut that one out.”  Ringo looked at me, confused.

“Meagan,” said Richard, intently, “we have to talk.”

What I wanted to say was, “Do we?  Because I was really liking the not-talking approach.”  Instead, I said, “Right. OK.  Um.  Not a good time, though.  I’ve got headlines and Ringo and not much time.  As you can see.  So maybe…Sure.  Forget it.  I’ll just close the door here and we can talk for a minute before I get back to things. Right?”

I made a come-out-and-get-me-if-I-don’t-come-back-in-five-minutes face to Ringo.  I’m not sure if he got it though.  He might have thought it was my leave-mommy-alone-and-turn-on-the-TV-if-you-get-bored face.  To remove any doubt, I said pointedly, “I’ll be back in five minutes” and closed the door.

Richard and I stared at each other in the hallway for a second.

“Thanks, Meagan,” he mumbled.  “I just had to see you in person to say that I’m so sorry that I’ve broken your trust.”

“That’s OK,” I said, since I didn’t know what else to say.  He hadn’t really broken any trust I had in him.  I hadn’t trusted or not-trusted him.  I hadn’t given him any thought at all, until he tried to consume my face.

“I’ve disappointed you and I want you to know that I hate myself,” he went on.

“Oh, don’t hate yourself, Richard,” I said.  “That’s… not good.  We’ll go on like it never happened. That works for me. It works for you.  We’re all cool.”

“I hope that you’ll eventually be able to forgive me.”

“Oh.  I forgive you.  See? Simple.  Now let’s get to the part where we pretend it never happened.”

“But it did happen, Meagan,” he said, insistently.

“Right,” I said.  We stood staring at each other.  I couldn’t imagine why he kept shoving the incident in my face when I was perfectly happy to let it go. 

“I want you to know that I told my wife, Rachel.”

“You told your wife?”

“And she’s prepared to forgive me.  But she wants to talk to you.”

“What? Oh, Jesus Christ.  Sorry. I mean, that’s so not a good idea.”

“Rachel and I don’t want to have any more secrets from each other,” he said.

“I think that’s great.  I just don’t know what she’d want me to say.”

“Well, I think she wants to make sure that you’re not still hot for me — that you’re not going to make another play for me.”

“Another play?  I never played,” I said with uncharacteristic candor.  I think I was simply shocked by the notion that I had done anything that would have provoked Richard to kiss me.

Richard grabbed my hand.  Oh no, I thought, it’s going to happen again.  Jesus, the man is a lunatic.

“You’ve got to help me, Meagan,” he said, intensely.  “I don’t want her to leave me.  Please meet with her and just tell her you’re not attracted to me anymore.  Then we can get back to normal.”

“Um. I guess,” I said.  “I just don’t understand why you told her in the first place – only to turn around and lie about the details.  I thought you said you didn’t want secrets.”

Richard let go of my hand, “Meagan. I told her I kissed you and she made up the rest.  She just went off imagining how you were at the car, acting helpless and I was being nice and the whole thing just escalated into a kiss.  By the time she finished talking, she had rewritten the whole scene and it looked like she was going to forgive me.  So I didn’t know how to change it.”

This was the point where I had to stifle the question, “Aren’t you gay anyway?” since apparently he’s not. The imploring look on his face broke my heart.  So the man screwed up.  What would it hurt for me to assure his wife that I wasn’t after her husband?  It was certainly true.

“Yes, Richard,” I said.  “Tell Rachel to give me a call.  Not my cell.  I don’t answer unidentified calls.  Tell her to call me at the office.”

His face relaxed, seemingly unfazed by my refusal to answer my home phone, “Oh thank you.  Thank you, Meagan.” He leaned in to hug me and I instinctively pulled back.  “Right. Right,” he said.  “No worries there.  No hugging.  Right.  Thank you.  Thank you, Meagan.”

He kept mumbling thanks as he backed down the hall.  I waved as he backed down the stairs, then turned to open my door.

Ringo looked up at me, “What was that all about?”

“Oh, adult stuff,” I said.

“It’s always adult stuff when you don’t want to tell me.”

“Sorry, kiddo.  It’s just hard to explain.”

No shit, I thought.  How does one begin to explain to an eight year old that you’ve just made a date to tell the wife of a man you find to be completely unattractive, that her husband is, indeed, completely unattractive to you? 

I plopped onto the couch and grabbed the remote. “By the way,” I said, “Did you understand the look I gave you before I stepped out in the hall?”

“What look?”

“My come-out-and-get-me-if-I’m-not-back-in-five-minutes look.”

“Nah.  I didn’t see it. What does it look like?”

I gave him the look, tight lips and wild eyes.

“That looks like you hurt yourself but you can’t tell me,” said Ringo.

“No.  That’s this look.” I crinkled my forehead.

“Oh.  OK, now I know.  I guess.”

“Excellent,” I said, popping on the TV.  “This week, we’ll go through all my looks and then we’ll have a quiz.”

“Cool,” Ringo said.  “Then I’ll show you all my looks and I can quiz you.”

I handed Ringo the remote, shooting him my I-can’t-live-without-you look, which he completely got.

 

What Parents Do

Normally I would welcome any interruption of my painstaking transcriptions of Paul’s sermons.  It’s not that they’re as boring as sermons from my youth.  Most of those were excruciatingly dull except when referring to harlots or leprosy.  Harlots are always interesting.  Even the name sounds fun.  I thought they were redheaded women who danced naked and screamed a lot (not far off).  And what child wouldn’t be fascinated by leprosy – a disease that can result in your nose falling off? 

No. Paul’s sermons have a much more modern take and are often peppered with sports references since he’s a pathologically obsessed Cubs fan.  So sports aside, I don’t crave interruption because his sermons are particularly dull, but because it takes a lot of concentration for me to transcribe from his digital voice-recorder thingy to Microsoft

Word. When I first started transcribing from recordings, I misheard Paul’s recorded voice say “The greatest story ever told” and typed instead, “The greatest story ever sold.”  Which puts a whole different spin on the New Testament.  Fortunately Paul believed the slip-up was due to incompetence and not subversion.  But still, I take a lot of time now.  This isn’t a field where you can afford to lose much in the translation. 

Yesterday, I was transcribing a sermon in this painstaking fashion, head down, very intent, when I was interrupted.

“Are you Meagan McPhee?” asked a woman in a voice that cracked in the middle of my name.

I looked up.  The woman looked mousy except for her unblinking, piercing stare, which told me that this wouldn’t be a welcome interruption. 

“Yes. I’m Meagan,” I said.

“Just what the hell were you doing to my child?” she said with suppressed rage.

I glanced into Paul’s office.  He didn’t turn from his computer, but he had to be catching this. 

“I’m sorry?” I said, noncommittally, even though I was pretty sure she was the mother of the kid I threatened the other day.  Who else could she be?

“I’m Brian’s mother,” she said.

“Ah.  Yes.  I’m sorry about that.”

“What?”

“Not about you’re being his mother,” I scrambled.  “I’m sure you like it. Brian is…probably…sometimes…often…probably a great, great kid. And who’d be sorry about that?  Not you, of course.”

“What are you talking about?” she said, still unblinking.

“Brian.  I’m sorry about…” What was I sorry about?  I wasn’t sure.  I just know that saying “I’m sorry” tends to take the steam out of any hostile situation.

“Damn right, you’re sorry” she said.

I stood up from my chair with the thought of closing Paul’s door.  She responded by backing up a step.  I thought, “Is she going to rush me — jump across the desk, grab onto my hair and smash my face into my computer?”  I know that this sounds a bit far fetched, but I’ve been watching a lot of Law and Order lately and apparently there are a lot of normal seeming wackos out there who will stab you just because you’re wearing white after Labor Day.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered again.

“You work in a church, and that’s how you solve your problems?  Grabbing kids at the bus stop?”

“I didn’t grab.”

She barreled through my objection, “He’s in fifth grade.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again.  Then I thought, what the hell?  Why am I apologizing all over the place? 

I heard Paul’s chair scrape in his office.

“I didn’t grab…” I said with forced calm, my heart starting to pound.  “I told Brian to stop bullying my son.”

“Brian does not bully,” she said, raising her quivering voice.

HE ABSOFUCKINGLUTELY DOES, was my first thought — which I managed not to voice.  My face got hot. My neck tensed.  The pounding in my ears intensified. Pound, pound, pound.  I felt an animalistic impulse to leap across my desk and head butt her.  But common sense or good breeding or something kept me fixed to the spot with my heart racing.  We faced off like this for what seemed like ten minutes, but was probably more like two seconds. 

I thought, what the fuck is Paul doing in his office? Why doesn’t he come out here and break this up in some kind of folksy minister-y type way?  Is it possible he’s not hearing any of this?  I wanted to turn and see what he was doing, but I worried that breaking the mommy stare-down would weaken my position. 

I heard Paul’s chair scrape again and finally I saw Meryl shift, slightly.  Was this capitulation?  Hard to tell.  I held my ground for a moment; then took a big breath.  In a voice that was weaker than I would have liked, I said, “I’m going to get back to work now. I don’t think either one of our positions is going to change.  But if you really need to continue this, call me at home.”

Wow, I thought.  I sounded pretty damned mature.  I also made a mental note to remember not to answer the phone for a while.

I heard Paul rustle and saw Meryl glance past my shoulder into his office. She looked back at me and squared her shoulders, “I will be calling you.”

“Right,” I said, wondering how easy it would be to change my number. 

Paul appeared at my side, nodding at Meryl, “I’m Reverend Mathews. Can I help you?”

“No,” she replied.  “I’ll finish this up later.” With that, she turned with militaristic precision and marched out.

As soon as the coast was clear, I collapsed in my chair. Paul walked over to the coffee maker to pour himself a cup. 

“Thanks,” I said, aware now that it was Paul’s presence that had broken the stalemate. 

“Uh.  No problem,” he said.  “Are you ready for her phone call?’

“I was thinking of not answering the phone for a year.”

“Good luck with that,” he said.  “She sounded determined. It’s not hard to see where her son gets his bullying chops.”

My pulse started to calm down.

“So you believe my side?” I asked.

“You seem to be a pretty straight-forward woman, Meagan.”

My face flushed.  It was the first time I think he’d made any kind of personal observation about me. 

“Do me a favor though,” he said. “Consider cooling down the vigilantism.  Don’t you watch television?  There are folks out there who will throw you under a moving train for singing along with ABBA on your ipod — let alone for confronting their kid.”

“All I could think about was protecting Ringo.”

“Yeah,” he said, tossing his coffee stirrer into the trashcan.  “But I bet the school deals with stuff like this all the time.  You could call their office.”

“I know that makes sense standing here.  But you don’t have kids.”

Paul broke into a smile, “Actually, I do.”

I was stunned.  “You do?” I asked, mentally reshuffling everything I knew about him.  Which wasn’t much.

Paul nodded and walked past me, back into his office.  I stared hard at my computer screen.  Wow.  No one had mentioned Paul having a kid at the divorce group. Paul had only been here a few months, so his background was still pretty sketchy to everyone.  This could very well be breaking news.  I couldn’t wait to tell everyone at the next divorce meeting.  With luck, I’d be the first to get the rock stick. 


Tribal Rituals (The Divorce Support Group)

 “Forget it,” Diane said, when I asked her to come with me to the Divorce Support group at the church.  “A bunch of bitter women railing about their ex-husbands and droning on about all those lost years.”

“You’re bitter,” I said, lightly.  “You’ll fit right in.”

“Yes, but my bitterness gives me energy.  It is my emotional fuel.  Something tells me this group will be a room full of total downers. A bunch of Eyores.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Nothing good happens in churches.  I got married in a church.”

I thought it was interesting that Diane considers bitterness her fuel because I think it keeps her stuck.  Diane does a decent job of raising her kids, but other than that, she doesn’t have any ambition to make something of her life.   I want something more than what I have now, which is why I decided to go to the divorce support group.  You never know what you’ll find.

“Say your name and how long you were married and how long you’ve been divorced,” said the leader, Daphna.  I recognized her as the busty woman from the Bowling for Dollars meeting.  In fact, I had started to realize that she was either on, or chaired, virtually every Church committee including ‘Karaoke for Kids’ which was her brainchild and at which, she sang “Delta Dawn” every year with a couple of senior citizens backing her up. 

The group of six women gave various answers, the most interesting one being Anna’s.  It turns out that she was married for two years and has been divorced for seventeen. I couldn’t imagine what kind of support she’d need at this point. You’d think she’d have divorce down pat by now.  

‘All right,” said Daphna.  ‘We’ll pass the talking stick and then we’ll talk about how to make great meals for one.”

She pulled a big quartz stone out of her giant purse and handed it to a woman on her left. 

“I’ve had a terrible week…” the woman with the stone started to say.

“Excuse me,” Daphna interrupted.  The woman’s face got red.  “Let me explain to Meagan.  Passing the stick is a tribal custom that focuses our attention on the listener and assures us that everyone gets to be heard.  You can only speak when you are holding the stick.  We use a rock instead of the stick, because the stick gave Larissa a splinter and ripped Marie’s dress.  But we still call the rock ‘the stick’ because we want to be as authentic to the custom as possible.  Make sense?”

Not really, I thought.  Frankly, it seemed a whole lot simpler to call it a rock or, better yet, just hold up our hands when we want to talk. Daphna then turned back to the woman she had interrupted, “Sarah, you were saying it was a terrible week.”

“Yes. A terrible week.”  Sarah looked around at us, “I found out my ex is having a baby with his new wife.”

“Oh, no,” said Anna.

“Anna,’ said Daphna.  “Remember to stay quiet until you have the stick.”

“Sorry,” said Anna. “I mean, right.  Do I need the rock…stick to apologize for talking?”

“No need, Anna.  Let’s all focus on Sarah.”

We all looked back at Sarah.  “That’s it,” she said.  “It’s one of those things where you think you’re getting over it.  You’re fine and then, whammo.  You get another piece of information and you’re so not fine.”

Sarah paused and looked around.  She was still grabbing onto the rock so I guess no one else could say anything.  Finally, Anna reached over and gently took the rock out of Sarah’s hands, “Sarah. I want you to know that what you’re feeling is completely normal.  I’ve been divorced seventeen years and I still get a nauseous, kind of gassy feeling when I hear a Led Zepplin song. David was a huge Led Zepplin fan.  At our wedding, he sang Stairway to Heaven at me in place of our vows.”

A woman I recognized from church committees, named Marie, reached over and grabbed the rock from Anna, “I’d like to say that Reverend Paul is teaching a spiritual healing class that’s just great for this kind of thing.  Last week we did a workshop on letting go of the past.  Sarah, I really think you should go.”

Marie just offered the rock back to Sarah, so she could speak, “I’ve thought of taking that workshop with Reverend Paul. But he’s so attractive.  I get self-conscious around him and start to wonder if my make-up is on right.”

Daphna grabbed the rock and said, “Don’t hog the stick.  Let’s try to move it in a circle, so everyone gets a chance to speak.” 

She handed the rock over to the woman next to me, who looked down at it in her lap, took a deep breath and said, “Reverend Mathews is the sexiest minister I’ve ever had.”  Then she handed the rock to me.

Wow. What do I say after that? I wondered.  “Sexiest minister she ever had?” Had? Had?  Was she saying that she had “had” Paul?  And if so, it sounded like Paul wasn’t her first one.  Wait a minute, I thought. There’s no way that could be what she actually meant.  I wished that Diane had come with me.  She would have thought this whole thing was hilarious.  I looked around at the women nodding in agreement with Sarah while I held the rock in my lap.

Then I thought, jeez, I have the rock, stick, whatever.  I should say something.  I breathed in and looked at the floor in the middle of the circle.  “I’m wondering why this meeting has focused on men so far,” I said. “I know it’s my first time and I knew you’re going to talk about meals-for-one later, but I came because I want to learn how to make myself the center of my life instead of a man.  I guess that’s all.  Except that Paul…Reverend Paul…is just a guy.  He’s handsome I guess.  But he’s just a guy.”

I kept staring at the floor, waiting for someone else to say something but there was dead silence.  Had I said something wrong?  Should I take it back and say I was just kidding about the man thing?   Why wasn’t anyone fucking talking?  I felt full of shame and defiance.  Goddamn it!  That was a perfectly reasonable thing to say.  Wasn’t one person in this goddamned group going to stand up for me?  I looked up to discover everyone starting at me.  I still had the damn rock in my hands and Dahpna was wildly gesturing at me to give it to her — which I did.

“Thanks,” said Daphna. “Thank you, Meagan, for your very intelligent comments.  But let’s get back to what a foxy-McFox that man is.  Does he have a girlfriend or what?”

The group erupted into laughter.  I wanted to join in, but I was annoyed that no one had acknowledged my salient point.  Why were we so focused on men?

The room got louder as the women continued laughing, poking each other, and rolling their eyes.  Anna even fell off her chair.  At one point, Marie’s voice rose above the others, “Does anyone else’s thoughts turn to sin when he hands you the cup at communion?”

 It got louder and wilder until it became clear to me that we were never going to get to my point. We weren’t even going to get back to the rock, which lay, forgotten, near Daphna’s foot.  

So eventually I gave into it all.  And I’ve got to say; it was certainly more fun to join in than stand apart.  The rest of the meeting was devoted to Paul and a recent widower who’s been coming to services.  I wouldn’t know the widower, since I don’t attend church.  We never got around to the one-person meal-making section of the evening.  But Sarah showed us how she tucks in her thigh fat when she crosses her legs and Daphna brought out a new lip plumper that stings like hell when you apply it, but does seem to make your lips bulge. 

Who says you don’t learn a thing or two at the Hope Lutheran Divorce Support Group?


Give Peace a Chance

As I walked up the hill from where I parked the car, I saw a group of women clumped around something or… someone.  I assumed it was Mom.  When they became aware of my approach the group broke apart a bit, revealing her sitting on the ground, pendulous bare breasts dangling over a scarf someone had put over her lap. 

When she saw me, she looked up and said with a smile, “Hello, darling,” in the same tone she would use if I were coming over to tea. 

“Hi Mom,” I said.  “I’ve got some clothes here.”

The ladies around her murmured and I nodded at them.  I recognized a couple of Mom’s friends and Anna Schumaker from First Lutheran. My mother is a hippie from way back, having lived in a yurt in Pennsylvania during her mescaline years (roughly ’63-’67).  But she never lost her ties to the Lutheran church. As a matter of fact she recommended me for the secretarial job when they couldn’t find anyone under eighty to fill it.  Not that the church is ageist, Mom assured me, it’s just that Paul didn’t want someone who might die right after mastering Word Perfect.  I told her that it was Microsoft Word now and she gave me a look that said, “Ya see?”

“We looked in all the cars for her clothes and can’t find them anywhere,” Anna said as I handed my mother a sweatshirt.

“They were in my paper bag,” Mom said vaguely.

“I’m sure they’ll turn up,” I said, squatting down to help her pull the sweatshirt over her head.  “Why didn’t you grab someone else’s sweater or something?”

“Oh.  I knew you were coming, dear,” she said, her head popping through the neck hole. “And it’s nice to feel the breeze on your breasts.”

My first impulse was to snap about having to leave work for this, but I didn’t want to get into it so I simply handed her the socks I brought.  Mom and I have had a couple of conversations about seeing a doctor concerning these lapses of hers.  Of course, she doesn’t see them as lapses, since she’s always been flaky, forgetful, and a bit eccentric.  But I still think we should check it out.

“May, lean on me so you can get the pants on,” a frizzy-haired, middle-aged woman said to Mom.  Mom let the woman pull her up so I could slip the sweatpants over her feet.  “I’m Penny,” she said to me as I worked.  I smiled up.

“Right on girls.  We got the photo. Didn’t we Penny?” Mom said, giggling.

“Yeah.  I’m pretty sure we did,” said Penny.

Mom and this Social Action Committee called, “Womyn Act Out for Peace and Herstory” had come up to this hill to spell out the word PEACE with their naked bodies.  They hoped that the picture of their naked call to…well, peace, would make it into the papers. 

“Only we didn’t have enough bodies to spell PEACE,” said Anna. I looked around at the six women.  “We got as far as PEA and realized it was hopeless.”

“Not hopeless,” my mother said, “It was my idea to spell OM.”

“Same thing really,” said Penny.

“You think the papers are going to print a picture of naked women spelling OM?” I asked and immediately regretted it.  I didn’t want to sound negative.  These were very well-meaning souls. 

“Why not?” asked Penny (I could think of a number of reasons why not).  “We’re going to send it with a letter to make sure that they don’t hold the picture upside down and think it spells WO, which is just confusing.”

“Good idea,” I said, my heart softening.  I turned to Mom, “Why don’t you put the socks on in the car?”  I looked at her standing in my gray sweats, long gray hair fluttering across her face. She looked majestic.  Loony-majestic, but still. 

“Sisters,” Mom said to the group, “I’ll see you Thursday to make the blood.”

“What?” I said.

“We’re making blood out of chocolate syrup and food coloring,” Mom said.  “We need buckets of it to splash into the gutters around the courthouse on the fifteenth.  Then we’re going to take off our clothes, dip our hands in it, and make bloody handprints on the sidewalk. Get it?  We have blood on our hands.”

“I get it,” I said. “I’m just not sure you need to be naked for that particular action.” 

“It gets more attention,” said Penny.

“Well, I know that. But we’re not talking a hillside here.  It’s in the middle of town.  You could get arrested.”

“That would be great,” said Mom.  “You’ll spring me, won’t you?”

“Spring you? What? Let’s get you home and talk about this later.”

Then the women said goodbye to each other, Anna’s voice rising above the rest, “May, we’ll call you when we find your clothes.”

“Right on, right on,” my mother said, grabbing my arm for support. 

Mom fell asleep as soon as the car started moving.  I considered turning on some music, then decided not to wake her.  The countryside was flat with square fields of gold and green.  I knew that I would have to insist on going to the doctor soon.  Not because of her nudie-protest action, but because she couldn’t remember where she’d put her clothes an hour before.  I worried that her forgetfulness would soon make it impossible for her to continue living alone.

I looked over at her and was surprised to see her awake.

“Let’s get a plate of cheesy fries,” she said sleepily, before closing her eyes again.

“Sure,” I said, worry still making my throat tight.  Then I looked up ahead for a place to stop for cheesy fries. Because this worry wasn’t one I would be able to put to rest anytime soon.  That said — there aren’t many worries that can’t be mitigated by cheese.