Four Years

On my fourth year of sober, my buddy gave to me a tail pulling monnnkey.


I’m sorry if I got a Christmas song stuck in your head. Welcome to my world! I love the monkey in this clip. I relate to the dog. I want to borrow a monkey like this, but only for about a week so I can remember (and maybe buy it shoes and ice cream cones). I had a mischievous monkey for a long time and it never occurred to me that I could give it back, though it had long ago ceased being fun.

It has been 1,464 days since my last drink. I still remember June 2011 like it was yesterday or a decade ago. I still remember sitting in a hard folding chair and listening to a put-together woman talk about how sober life was better than anything she could have imagined. It wasn’t just her clothes or makeup that convinced, but maybe more the steady calm she radiated. I knew she couldn’t have it all figured out, but this didn’t seem to bother her.

This is my secret to happiness: learning to love what I already have. And I don’t just mean the warm and fuzzy, hallmark moments where I cross the finish line in personal best but also the high hilly part where a startled skunk waddles across the road. If I’d told myself that four years ago, my monkey and me might have picked up a folding chair and started swinging. The thought of it makes me smile.

Thank you to everyone who still reads and for your kind words over the years. I am eternally grateful for sobriety and the beautiful community that helped me and so many others get there. And if you’re starting out and struggling? Hang in there. The view is totally worth it.

Old things

The winter before my oldest daughter turned 4, I spent roughly a dozen evenings in our cold, unfinished basement assembling a dollhouse. The kit was expensive and of good quality. I poured over the directions and ran beads of wood glue and fit the pieces together. I assembled the staircase and stained the tiny hardwood floors. I even hung wallpaper. It was almost as satisfying as giving birth.

Within a week after my daughter’s birthday, her and a playmate ripped the front door right off the frame. The other mother was mortified and apologetic, as if she had done it herself. The break was clean but not repairable. Who needs a front door anyway?

Otherwise, the house held up great over the years, though mostly from not being played with. The height was wrong (too short) or the wallpaper all wrong (too loud) or maybe neither of my daughters were me. I used to sit at a child sized table in my room and play with my dollhouse for hours. My mother’s father assembled it from scratch and drove it out from Indiana one summer. I knew it was coming and awaited its arrival like Christmas. It didn’t even have hardwood floors or wallpaper.

That’s probably where my love of miniatures comes from – the act of love involved in someone creating a dollhouse of my very own – but it took root fast and never left. I only ever built the one kit, though considered many times taking on a more ambitious house. Something taller, for sure, and with gingerbread trim and a sturdier door. Maybe a door would have kept out the poor little mouse that climbed in and died in the abandoned dollhouse in our basement sometime this winter. Is the house haunted now?

This is my other fixation: abandoned houses. Recently it’s taken hold and hard because I work near a park with abandoned structures throughout. An empty mansion, rusted out farm equipment, high arch stone bridge and crumbling spring house. You can pick up a color map at the main office and hunt them like treasures.

The paths are well marked but still a challenge for the map impaired. One day I found myself underneath a bridge I was supposed to be on if I wanted to find an abandoned cottage. The next day I went the right way but found a large grassy mound in its place. I was probably about a year too late, though google maps still maddeningly showed its rotting outline. The red GPS ball hovered over where the old porch used to be. A small white butterfly touched down and any sting of disappointment flitted away with it.

I went on in search of an old incinerator and thought I saw something through the trees but it turned out to be the remains of a stone foundation. I swear it looked like an entire house from the path. Ghost house.

I always see other people when I walk. Most of the solo women have dogs with them. I want a dog but settle for mace and a hatchet (kidding). Do you know a convicted killer once escaped from the nearby psychiatric hospital and they found him enjoying a picnic lunch in the very same park? These days he gets day passes, and probably haunts the local mall instead.

This new adventure may be risky but keeps me from spending money during lunch break. Stores don’t offer treasure like this. The perfect pair of shoes are everywhere, as it turns out, but when is the last time you found a rusted out granary dryer with birds roosting inside?

I can’t explain why old things are so appealing, but of course I’ll try. I suspect it’s because I’m feeling more and more like an old thing myself. The gray hair is coming in nicely, if by nicely you mean gray. I feel much less enthusiastic about it compared to 3 months ago, but I’m committed to seeing it through. This will likely take another year, seriously.

So I’m slowly growing old over here, watching gray creep in like ivy stretching up the side of my favorite find so far. Time is patient and the earth will always reclaim its space. While I could find this disturbing, instead it feels exciting. Everyone gets old. Even you! (sorry) The process can be observed from a safe distance through abandoned structures.

See how ivy stretches up the side, swallowing whole bricks. Note the paint flaked but still fine scrolling trim along the porch with a locust tree sprouting through rotted boards. Take it all in because soon it won’t be there. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t once loved and appreciated. Once it’s gone, it may even be spied through a thicket of trees when the breeze hits just so.



George wears high-waisted tan polyester trousers with a brown belt and keeps a plastic liter of vodka on the kitchen table, which my grandmother carefully wipes around with a yellow sponge before setting out a glass dish with fresh cherries and another with salted cashews.

My brother and I drink cokes with maraschino cherries trapped at the bottom and sneak glances at our new exotic windfall – a drunken grandfather we never knew we had until that day.

We wear street clothes in the middle of a perfectly good beach day, which makes us feel formal and restless, like anything could happen.  George wears his short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned at first and then he is shirtless. He puffs out his chest and pumps both arms to show off his muscles. His body odor seeps into the kitchen and won’t leave.

The strangeness of it all forces me to reassess our other two grandfathers, who had seemed perfectly adequate up to that point.

One grandfather takes me for donuts and coffee at a place with spinning barstools and sugar encrusted coffee rings against gold-flecked formica.  We stare at the donuts behind the counter instead of each other, and this is better than fine.

The other grandfather lets me lie along the back console of his plush Buick – the flat area against the window where he normally keeps hats or a box of travel tissues . We listen to talk radio and wind along the beltway on some fool’s errand to please my grandmother.

Grandfathers in my family are benevolent background, busy cogs that keep family dinners moving. The grandmothers think they run the show but who do they think mashes the potatoes or ducks out to buy them in the first place?

My grandmother tells me George used to pinch my mother when she was a baby so he wouldn’t have to hold her. She couldn’t understand why my mother always screamed and cried until she noticed red welts on the backs of both plump baby thighs.

* * *

George puts his hand on my grandmother’s arm when she finally sits down and laughs when she swats it away. She won’t look any of us in the eye. George tells my brother and I to do good in school and listen to our parents without seeming to have any idea who they are.

We never see him again.

A few years later, I find a black and white 8×10 photograph of a man wearing a Viking hat slipped between the pages of a dictionary my grandmother gives me. She says the dictionary used to belong to George. There weren’t many personal effects. He died penniless and his body was not found for several days, even though he was rumored to have a longstanding lady friend. (I picture Faye Dunaway’s character from Barfly.)

The photograph is a close up of the Viking’s face, though I can tell he is at least shirtless and standing in a meadow. He is smiling, victorious, and has a wide gap between his front teeth and wild, long hair.

I will always wonder what the hell happened to that photograph. Losing it will haunt me forever, I imagine.

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Grandmother and George

The bed.

I haven’t slept in the bed since her mother died in it. She knew I knew, but when other people came to visit, she made it up with fresh sheets and I reminisced how gentle and at the same time firm the mattress was and also how at the moment her mother died, tears poured from both eyes. The bed promoted a deep, restful release.

For years, we slept on it at the beach and swept phantom grains of sand from the sheets with our toes, which later throbbed from smacking the baseboard in pitch black. The headboard was soft grey with rounded carvings like the bad luck tiki Bobby found at a construction site in Hawaii. It had sliding doors and secret compartments perfect for imprisoning action figures and Danielle Steele paperbacks. It weighed more than a tiki and only slightly less than an elephant. One night the bed was carefully disassembled, driven 90 blocks, lugged up a flight of stairs and left in a sharp stucco hallway in a silent argument over who should have it. This is how my family fights.

George did all the heavy lifting, grunting with greasy sweat across his barrel chest and pregnant-swollen belly and still in those terrible tan trousers and brown belt, his attempt to dress up even though it was too hot for a shirt. When we got off the elevator after it was all over, he hung back and dropped into a lunge, stretched out both arms and declared I AM STRONG AS AN OX. The elevator doors started to close and bounced back in the way they always do in that perpetually surprised oh are you still here? My brother and I turned our heads to snicker.

One day I will have to disassemble the bed and ask someone (shirtless or not) to help me lug it to the curb for Purple Hearts. I’ll probably sleep on it one last time and wonder if I’ll dream or find relief from these ghosts.

Murky Waters

I’m planning a scale back from regular posting, all for something good and exciting (not writing related), but I mention so that no one wonders. And if I still wind up posting regularly, you get to wonder what is she still doing here?

Before the good change presented itself, I decided this would be the next story I told on a Friday. Then yesterday morning I was sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, trying to meditate and quiet the monkey chatter while coffee brewed. But the monkeys wanted coffee and I think the only way they knew to get some was to say Ooh, let’s write about Art. Remember, you promised us last week? The monkeys won. Long live monkeys.

The summer I met my husband, I also met Art. One day I saw him hanging by the pool at the downtown hotel where I lifeguarded and then I kept seeing him. He was a softspoken black man in his early twenties with warm eyes and a kind smile. Everything about him seemed gentle. My roommate, Jackie, and I shared lifeguard shifts, and Art showed up on her days too. In her open, friendly way, she accepted him instantly and I decided I could trust him too, even though neither of us were sure how he got a key to the pool.

I’d taken a lifeguard class only months before. Even though I’d dog-paddled in oceans and pools since I was five, I never took to formal strokes like freestyle, where you have to periodically plunge your face into water. It’s so disorienting. I still feel that way. I failed my first formal swimming class the summer I was six. I wouldn’t hang my arms into a point and let my body fall into a dive. I’d chicken out and pull my torso up every time. I recall a paper with the words FAIL on it. My mom says she remembers the class but not me failing.

The lifeguard class I took before the summer I met my husband and Art was held at an indoor pool at some fancy boys’ school. I remember holding a brick over my head while treading water as part of the final test. I could tread water for days. I learned that if I fill my lungs with air and take shallow breaths, I turn into a giant raft. Body fat helps, and this trick works even better in the ocean. Lifeguard tests are a bit more rigorous. They don’t care if you can float. They want to know you can drag a panicked, thrashing 200-pound man from the deep end of a pool. They want to know you can save other people’s lives.

I passed the lifeguard test, though still feel like they looked the other way and let me in out of pity or perhaps a shortage of lifeguards. Jackie and I waited too long to apply for an assignment, so we didn’t get our first choice of a big community pool where we could both work at the same time. The small hotel pool in the city was one of the only ones left where we could both work, though on opposite shifts.

I often think about what would have happened if we’d been more organized and applied earlier. We would have lifeguarded somewhere else and I never would have met my husband. Maybe he would have met a different lifeguard and maybe they would have gotten married, though it’s just as possible they wouldn’t have spoken. Life is one big choose-your-own-adventure book, isn’t it?

Before each morning shift at the pool, I had to take the elevator down to the bowels of the hotel and get the key from the security manager, Mr. Salotta. If I wasn’t five minutes early, I was late and met with snide, disproving comments. He was the one who later basically called Jackie and I idiots for buying Art’s story that he somehow shared a phone number with a stranger due to some quirk with the phone company. It doesn’t work like that, he said. You girls should know better.

I was a young, soft nineteen. I once posed for a photograph in my lifeguard bathing suit because a male guest asked me to. There was nothing lascivious about the pose or request, but my cheeks burned red when Jackie’s mom chose that moment to stop by the pool, her eyebrows raised in concern.

The security guards that worked for Mr. Salotta were always coming by the pool to chat. They were older and married and seemed nice enough. One offered a tour of the penthouse suite while it was under renovation. You have to see it, he said. The view is amazing. It felt too impolite to keep saying no.

The suite was massive and dark and silent except for plastic sheets flapping violently through the open hole where the balcony door would go. I held tense until the guard decided we should head back and thought what am I doing here?

Oh man, I had so many dreams that summer about the pool. I feel like I had one every night. The dreams were roughly the same. I was lifeguarding and the water was too murky to see the bodies I was supposed to pull out. Yes, bodies.

I blame whoever dumped several quarts of General Tso’s chicken from their hotel room window over Memorial Day weekend. After that, the hotel installed locks so the windows only tilted out far enough to drop a pencil or maybe a nibble of eggroll. By then it was too late to do anything about the stew of grease and sauce and breaded chicken bits in a pool with an already failing filtration system. It took days for the water to clear up and then it never did in my dreams.

Wouldn’t it be really weird if this image I found online was taken that same summer? Are the odds about the same or greater that someone dumped in several quarts of General Tso’s again?

Same Pool Makeover plus what the kids used to call MySpace Magic.

Joe, my husband, picked me up with this line: So, you save any lives yet? It was a chilly afternoon for summer and he was standing in water up to his belly button with his torso and shoulders stiff like people do in cold water. There was maybe a flight attendant sunning herself on a chaise lounge, but otherwise we had the place to ourselves, so we started talking about pools and drowning and then he invited me to a ball game the next night.

I didn’t know then that he probably asked me that because he never learned to swim. I had no way of knowing we would one day get married and he would spontaneously break into frantic but perfectly executed freestyle strokes across the length of another rooftop pool during our honeymoon. I couldn’t have known he would later find a twenty dollar bill at the bottom of that same pool. It was all pure luck.

My lucky husband the same day I stepped off a curb and sprained my ankle, aka the Planters Punch Incident and one of many reasons I don’t drink anymore.

Before he headed back home from our first meeting, Joe gave me a souvenir wine glass he got at some event and told me to drink from it each time I saved someone’s life. I wrapped it in a towel and took it home with me and drank from it that summer, not once but twice. I still have it somewhere, though I don’t drink anymore. I still have the commemorative baseball from the game he took me to, and it’s not like I play with that either.

I saved a couple little boys that summer. No big deal. They were too short and wandered into water too deep while their mothers turned away for the split second it takes for a little kid to go from not drowning to drowning. I jumped from my chair and into the water and yanked them out. No CPR, no parade, just doing my job ma’am.

You’d think the murky-water-drowned-bodies-dreams would have stopped then, but they got worse. Art kept coming by too, though maybe not as much. By then, Jackie and I knew he wasn’t a hotel guest and we knew where he lived, or roughly anyway. We all went out for ice cream one night. Art didn’t have a car so Jackie and I picked him up on a street corner in a part of town that wasn’t bad but wasn’t far from it. He sat in the front seat and I sat in back and the three of us acted like it was the most natural thing in the world for two white girls to be going on an ice cream double date with a slightly older black man we barely knew and couldn’t reach by phone because of some story about crossed lines.

The thing I remember best about Art was that he loved Prince. This would have been around the time Prince changed his name to that symbol. Art came by the pool with artistically lettered lyrics to The Most Beautiful Girl in the World on white-lined paper. I don’t remember talking about anything personal with him. We mostly sat. I watched the pool for drowning boys and Art slipped away after awhile. Once, when it was raining, he tried to show me a self-defense move in the fitness room. He pressed my back to his body and held a meaty, brown arm at my neck, but not in any way that screamed rapist.

At the end of summer, Jackie and I both took off Labor Day weekend and a substitute lifeguard filled in at the pool. She had big blond curly hair and an air of indifference. When she claimed Art trapped her in the stairs of the hotel and chased her until she managed to escape, Jackie and I couldn’t believe it. It’s not that we thought she was making it up. It’s just that we took this guy out for ice cream. He’d drawn sweet lyrics and sat quietly by our side for months.

This would have been when Mr. Salotta practically smacked our heads together for buying Art’s story that he shared a phone line with someone else. No, we don’t know his actual phone number or where he lives either. Not really. If you go to this street corner, you might see him waiting to get picked up for ice cream, but probably not. No, we don’t know his last name either. We never thought to ask. Sorry.

It wasn’t much to go on, so the police never found Art if they looked for him at all. Summer ended and Jackie and I slipped back into classes and faded tans. When police sketches appeared around campus of a man wanted in connection with the rape of a local lawyer, Jackie said hey, that looks a little bit like Art, don’t you think? Later, we watched Art being led somewhere in handcuffs on the news, his head hung down. His name was really Arthur and he really turned out to be a rapist.

Too many things happened that summer for me to make sense of then. The things I remember most now are, oddly, food related. I remember getting Burger King a lot before my lifeguard shift because there was one right by the hotel. I remember the Chinese place around the corner, which is probably where the infamous General Tso’s Pool Chicken came from. I remember packing too-tangy store bought chicken salad in a cooler the time I filled in at a deserted rooftop pool in a shady part of town.

At one point I looked at a building across the way and saw a dodgy looking group of boys staring from the rooftop. One flashed what might have been a gun or could have just as easily been a chicken salad sandwich. The thing is I continued to sit there like some dumb mute while every part of me said Go.

What if I’d decided not to just sit there? What if I’d called someone? We didn’t have cell phones then, but there should have been a poolside phone for emergencies. The hotel pool had one. There wasn’t one in the darkened penthouse under renovation or in the stairwell where Art led the poor substitute lifeguard.

What if I’d spoken up about Art to Mr. Salotta? What if I’d said, look, there’s this guy who comes by the pool all the time, and your guys probably know about him and he seems nice enough, but what’s his deal? But we didn’t want to get Art in trouble. Art seemed like one of us, and Mr. Salotta seemed like an asshole. This is how it is sometimes when you’re more afraid of speaking up than the thing you have every reason to be afraid of.

I want to share this story with my daughters. I want to tell them about that little voice we all have that feels wrong because it feels like fear and we’re taught not to be afraid or show fear. It says things like let’s get out of here and no thank you in such a way that leaves no room for wiggle.

I want to tell my daughters that the nice men look like the bad men and honestly you can’t tell them apart that way. Don’t count on luck to save you every time. You might get lucky but the next person might not. You have to listen to the little voice and sometimes you have to speak up, which feels harder but it’s often the right thing to do.


Source: Wikipedia Commons

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Around the time I discovered horror movies, I used to look up to check for axes dangling from trees. It was only something I did in the woods, and not anything I recall seeing in a horror movie, so I’m not sure where it came from. I also still checked nightly for monsters under the bed. I’d kneel down on the side of the bed farthest from the door and bravely pull up the dust ruffle. I’m not sure now if I meant to flush the monster out – you know, give him an escape route – or if it just hadn’t occurred that I would have no way out.

This seems as good a time as any to confess I used to believe a race of tiny vampires called the Dynamites lived under my bed. They all looked like Count from Sesame Street, although probably only the leader wore a monocle. Aside from the time I watched them parade up the side of my bedroom wall and disappear through a crack in the closet (chickenpox fever), I never actually saw them. When I checked under the bed in later years, I was expecting only one monster and much larger and more menacing. If I’d seen the Dynamites, I might have scooped them up like kittens while they counted and nibbled at my neck.

There are literally hundreds of scientific-sounding names assigned to all the things we’re afraid of. Cometophobia is the fear of comets. If, for whatever reason, you’re afraid of chopsticks, I’m afraid you have consecotalephobia and probably a difficult road ahead. According to one definition, sanguivoriphobia is the “irrational fear of vampires” which sounds like something a vampire would write. Arithmophobia covers the fear of counting. Teratophobia is a fear of monsters or having a deformed child, both of which I can understand, though lumping them together feels a little lazy. No one should mind if I slip in arboraxephobia.

The woods I checked most often for swinging axes was an undeveloped bluff at the end of our development. Everyone ignored the No Trespassing sign on the metal gate where the gravel road started, although I usually had the place to myself. This quarter-mile strip was prime waterfront real estate and would later become an early series of McMansions on dime-sized plots. But oh, that view. It’s no wonder someone made their summer home long ago on that desolate, lovely stretch.

The cottage had been a modest wooden clapboard with no porch and only a few rooms. It was long abandoned by the time my parents and I pulled open the rotted screen door and eased inside one Sunday afternoon. I remember pots and pans still in the cabinets and dishes thick with dust scattered across a kitchen table. Surprise Indian attack seemed the only logical explanation for anyone leaving dishes behind. I never went back inside.

Some years later, two known troublemakers skulked up the road from that direction just before the first black plumes of smoke began to rise. A dozen firetrucks couldn’t save the cottage. It went up like seasoned timber. A nearby barn with rusted out farm equipment were the only things left for us to climb over and keep us up to date in tetanus shots. And then we noticed the basement.

The cottage had burnt to the ground, leaving a smoldering hole with pitted concrete steps like teeth that grew mossy and slick with rotted leaves. We had lost a lonely old friend and gained a nightmare.

Sometimes I went to the top of the stairs by myself but usually with a friend, and never down into the belly of the basement. If I got down to about step eight, I could lean over far enough to see into part of the basement room to the left, but it was too black. The smell got me. Charred wood and burnt plastic, with an overlying bouquet of ammonia and mildew and maybe boiled blood. It was death, somehow, and I kept coming back to peer in without actually getting close enough to see anything

On the bus one day, a friend and I told a cute boy about the No Trespassing gate and the stairs and the very next day he and a friend tore up the hill from an angle we weren’t expecting like a couple of pirates. We thought for sure they would brave their way all the way down the stairs and tell us what they saw. In the end, they hovered on step four, maybe five, and then one remembered an orthodontist appointment, the other, homework.

One time I made it all the way to the bottom step with no one else around. The basement was still black but I made out some kind of shelf along the far wall. I never thought to bring a flashlight with me. The smell was worse at the bottom. The sounds weren’t right either. Maybe that steady click was dripping water. Maybe it sounded more like scratching.

One of my regrets in life – and I have a few by now – is that I never went all the way in. Around the time I started high school, the stairs and basement were filled and a stately home with cathedral ceilings and gleaming wooden stairs planted on top. While that house was under construction, I snuck in during a rain storm and saw someone had written HELP ME in what looked like blood on a second floor window. That house smelled like sawdust and drywall and nothing at all.

A wealthy family moved in and I filled in for their nanny a few times before graduating and moving away. The nanny kept a log for the family and used it to rat me out. Kristen did not clean up Robbie’s trains and the playroom is a MESS. In the second floor hall closet, the family hoarded massive stockpiles of hotel shampoos from Disney properties. I had no idea I would one day do the same, so it all felt very sinister.

Eventually I stopped checking trees for swinging axes. My old brain heard a creak from above and started assuming old branch in the wind. It occurs to me now that an axe looks similar to the kind of tomahawk an Indian might have used to catch a family by surprise one night during supper. The family would have jumped up quickly, shoving chairs to the side and heading to the only place they could think of to hide. The basement.

The Class Ring

In the spirit of free-write Fridays (aka baby, you don’t need to wash your hair today because you already smell real nice), I’m sharing a post I wrote for Chris at KLĒN + SŌBR.

Chris is in his 18th year of abstinent recovery from alcohol and other drugs and is the founder of the KLĒN + SŌBR Project, including the Since Right Now Pod, which is breathing new life into my daily commute.

At first I was going to write about reconnecting with spirituality in recovery, but that story’s barely started. Besides, it was fun to go back to the time before I discovered high school parties and my new god, beer.


To read the story, say abracadabra and click the above image to find yourself magically transported to a much spiffier site.

Or here’s the link if you too are distrustful of magics:

The fine print:

All the names in my story were changed, mainly to protect the innocent, but also because who would believe the ladykiller I called Glenn was really named Dirk?

Truth > Fiction.

Here’s the poem Class Ring, which I heard in the mid 80s. In the early 90s, it was co-opted and changed to deliver an anti-drunk driving message, which the original author seems cool with. As with middle school poems and many things I read on the internet, this warms the cockles of my heart.