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.

The Drop Ceiling Letters

Never buy a house with drop ceilings. Drop ceilings hide a multitude of sins, the effeminate, affable house painter warned, shaking his head like you would at a child old enough to know better. He gave us a quote to remove the ceiling tiles and framework and patch and paint, and then he gave us an affordable one to leave it all up and just paint the fake wood paneling below.

Were we high when we bought that house? I remember we’d sold our old house in a day and took the train back and forth on weekends from northern Virginia to north Jersey. It was a seller’s market there too. When we first visited the drop ceiling house, the owners brewed hazelnut coffee and set out fresh pastry. It had just stopped raining and everything was green and bright outside. They had a smiling golden retriever in the backyard. We fell in love with the dining room, where I once took a picture of our favorite cat sitting at the table in a chair, the Game of Life spread before him. He looks like he’s waiting his turn. He doesn’t necessarily look like he’s winning, but it’s so hard to tell when you’re still in the game.

It was a great dining room. The walls were painted brick the softest shade of sage. I believe when we opened the can later to do touch-up, its odd aroma prompted us to rename this shade ass paint. I guess I do kind of miss that house, just not the drop ceilings or the unexpected pond in the basement or the tiny downstairs bathroom some moron had tacked on. Later, other morons would find it very aggravating.

The effeminate, affable painter found a stack of letters tucked above a ceiling tile in our soon-to-be baby’s room and handed them over eagerly, if hesitantly. He probably found stuff like that all the time, never sure how old it was or how explosive it might be. These letters were decades old, left behind by a teenager for someone else to deal with. Please take care of my horrible secret. Signed, The Terrible Boyfriend

I was more mother than teenager then. I was bloated and round, not just in the belly but in the face, the ass and thighs. Even my fingers plumped in pregnancy like obscene sausages. I was brimming with life and wonderful, terrifying hormones.

I felt a mother’s protective instinct when the painter handed over the letters. I almost didn’t read them because even an almost-mother can smell someone else’s pain. This stack of letters reeked.

I read them, but only to make sure they didn’t reveal a murder or the location of buried treasure in the backyard. In our first house, we thought we’d struck gold while moving an azalea, but it turned out to be a partially decomposed bag of poodle. Never bury your dead pets in plastic garbage bags. There’s another tip for homeowners. You’re welcome.

Back to the letters. I don’t know who I felt worse for: the poor girl who wrote them or the poor guy who hid them in the drop ceiling. Neither seemed particularly likable, but you can still feel pity for unlikable people.

The girl was in college. She slipped a picture in one letter. Dark, shortish permed hair. Indeterminate height. University of Delaware sweatshirt with a white turtleneck underneath. Wary but confident smile. Cute, I guess, but prissy is the word that comes to mind.

Our boy was out of high school but still living at home, either skilled labor or burger slinger at the White Castle, maybe bagboy at the Stop ‘n Shop. I never got the sense of what attracted the one to the other, but it might have simply been the mysterious blend of different worlds and hormones. I gathered they met at a party and that lover boy already had a girlfriend he didn’t want anymore. Miss Delaware bought that one. She was raw need, but not the physical kind. She was more like when are you coming to see me again? I thought you were coming this weekend? Everyone loves to play hero, but not when it involves a lot of driving and nagging.

Her letters became progressively desperate. The first two aimed for cool detachment and missed the mark. By the third letter, it was clear our hero wasn’t writing back. She said she missed him, but in a tone that suggested she really missed the opportunity to shackle him to her dorm bunkbed. She said she tried to call but wasn’t sure his brothers were giving him the messages. By the final letter in the stack, she said she wasn’t used to feeling discarded. She said she hoped his girlfriend never found out what he was really like. I pictured him reading and re-reading this last part before shoving the stack up into the ceiling for good. I bet when he laid in his darkened room that night, he kept reading that part again and again in his head.

When do you think he realized he’d left the letters up there? Do you suppose he’ll wake at 3 a.m. a year and four months from now and think Oh dear god, the letters! Do you think he married the oblivious girlfriend? Is it possible he married Miss Delaware? (no way, right?) Do you think he died in a car accident, and that’s why he never came back for the letters? Or maybe he never wrote her back because of the accident, and it was a thoughtful brother who stashed the letters to save the oblivious, mourning girlfriend further despair.

I threw those stupid letters away right after reading them. We had a terrible trash compactor in that house that would stop working in a few months, and I distinctly remember dropping the letters and slamming it shut. I felt like I’d wrapped myself in a smallpox blanket. The deceit felt catching. Months later when I discovered Found Magazine, I kicked myself for throwing the letters away, but I probably did the right thing. Maybe I shouldn’t have written about them here. Your secrets aren’t safe anywhere, so don’t think you can hide them in drop ceilings. Never buy a house with drop ceilings. You know all of this already.

The only thing we still have in this picture is the Game of Life. Just played it Sunday with my kids (and won).
The only thing we still have in this picture is the Game of Life, which I played on Sunday with the kids (and totally, unexpectedly won).


I decided to make Friday a day I post more creative writing pieces. If you have to wash your hair on Fridays, I’ll understand. I probably won’t post every Friday, though you should still wash your hair. 

3 months gray

It’s been about 3 months since I last covered my gray. I look in the mirror and feel excited by the white shining at the top and temples. It’s my brightness. I kick myself a little for ever covering it up.

I search terms like how long does it take to grow out gray hair and pour over posts by pioneers in the gray revolution, especially those with pictures. I check books out of the library on going gray. There are only three, so this doesn’t take long.

3 months gray. Selfies already embarrass me, and this is what I used to go to great lengths to cover and hide. But I’m showing this to document the process. This selfie is for science.


I feel like it’s going to take forever. I get a little worried about what’s ahead. I see the still relatively small strip of new growth versus old color that looks brassy and fake or blonde and fun, depending on my mood. I don’t miss my old color, probably because it wasn’t really mine. But sometimes I miss the way it allowed me to blend in.

This excitement and anticipation feels awfully familiar. So does the impatience and fear and feeling like I’m driving on the wrong side of the road.

It turns out that getting sober was a great primer on how to go gray.

I jumped into both headfirst, not realizing how gradual and slow the process would be. Fortunately, the early signs of progress were/are rewarding and motivating. I already learned that nothing ever goes as expected. I’m still learning patience. Going gray should help a lot.

It is normal to question why I’m doing this. Swimming upstream isn’t easy, especially when you’re only 1/8 of the way there. How will gray hair look at the beach in August? has become my new How will I have fun at the beach without beer?

I worry (unnecessarily) what other people think about my decision. Some probably are staring at my roots and wondering what the hell, but most aren’t thinking about me at all. Same with drinking or not drinking.

Some people do have an opinion and won’t understand why I’m doing this. I’ve met women who wouldn’t dream of skipping hair color but never wear makeup, which I feel naked without. Now, choosing not to drink can literally be a life and death issue, so I’m not comparing it with a cosmetic decision. I do know from experience that I can’t always explain my decisions or beliefs in a way that makes sense to others. The good news is I don’t have to.

I’m hyper-aware of what others around me are doing, but this will pass. In the early days of not drinking, I could tell you who drank what, though not necessarily how much unless it was a lot. I sensed a kindred soul in those, though now feel the same affection towards abstainers. I also notice every silver head in a crowd. They are shining beacons of hope.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. When I read a blog the other day recommending pretty headbands and temporary hair paints and powders to camouflage new gray, I thought why on earth would I want to hide anymore? Some people go cold turkey, and more power to them too. Maybe one of those approaches will appeal in a few months. Options are probably the best thing to have.

I’ll save soooo much money. I’m probably going to put it towards an island made of chocolate. It’ll have to be somewhere cold and I don’t really like the cold, so there are kinks to work out. With all the money I’ve saved on beer and now salon visits, I’d better hurry up.






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