Monday, June 10, 2013

Other People's Trash #1

 I set out on my daily jogs collecting other people's trash to create stories around. Here's #1. 

Santa Claus delivered presents even though our Christmas tree was a two-foot, pre-lit pink treat borrowed from a co-worker. The eve before, the five-year old, Feisty said a prayer to Santa asking that he please visit us even though our tree was fake and small. Feisty wasn’t expecting much, so the large amount of presents around the tree in the morning was a shock to him and also to his seven-year old brother, Spaceboy.

Christmas eve and morning was my time with the boys this year while my ex-husband, Skinny had them at night for Christmas dinner with his family. Since his girlfriend, Whiney was out of town somewhere with her relatives, Skinny wanted to come by and see the kids in the morning for present opening. I didn’t protest. I had no plans for the rest of the day, only an invitation to my sister’s place and another to my mom’s, but I didn’t want to leave the city.

I let the boys open their stockings just before their dad arrived but waited on mine so I could open with Skinny so it looked to the kids like Santa left their dad something. Everything inside was really for me and of course, purchased by me, but I would share the bottle of champagne that fit in the stocking so snugly.  I had never uncorked a bottle of champagne on my own anyway so I could use the assistance. Conversation was typically easy between the two of us if kept off the topic of our relationship and relationships with other members of the opposite sex, but would certainly be much lighter on a holiday with a drink.

Once Skinny was in my place and we had glasses of champagne in hand, we finished opening all of the presents with the last ones being from the boys’ grandfather, Pop, on the east coast. The boys opened identical remote control trucks purchased by Pop from the QVC shopping channel. Oh, how Pop loved QVC. The trucks required batteries that I searched around for in kitchen drawers, but didn’t have available. I did find my nifty Harbor Freight Tools twenty-two-piece screwdriver set for 14.99 (on sale from 19.99) to crank open the battery compartment on each truck. When Pop visited he bought me the set from a hardware store in Pasadena. There was something about the case he liked plus he was sure it was the exact set he had admired on QVC and sure, he loved almost anything on sale. I accepted the gift at the time because I felt put on the spot, unable to rattle off what tools I had at home in my old mix and match red toolbox that I somehow acquired from Skinny in the divorce. I let the boys figure out which size screwdriver to use from the set and promised a walk down to 7-11 to buy some batteries next.

“Uh-oh. A tool’s missing,” said Feisty.

“Really?” I asked like I didn’t notice, “Well, I’ll look around for it later. See if you can make another one work on the truck.”

We headed out on foot as a “ holiday family” to get the batteries. At this time normally, the boulevard was packed with traffic, but today it was mellow for the holiday. A decent amount of cars passed, but no maniacal weekday driving. The Christmas Eve drizzle had left the streets damp, but the sun was out, a decent alternative to a White Christmas. We followed a young man in grey hoodie walking his corgi and I found myself hoping he had plans with family or friends for the holiday. I didn’t want anyone to be alone if they didn’t want to be. Hoodie was headed into the bakery that I was surprised to see open, a few customers scattered at patio tables. 

The kids and I would wait at the bakery while Skinny crossed the street to get the batteries at 7-11. I followed the boys and the unknown Hoodie into the bakery and then spotted another guy, known and un-hooded. Boots. There were two forty-something non-committal types who were afraid of my kids that I had been dating. They didn’t like to come around unless I was solo. I almost always had every other weekend free and a couple nights during the week as well, but recently took great pleasure in telling them that the kids were always with me instead of answering honestly. It gave me some control. I knew both guys weren’t the right fit but sometimes it felt nice to just get a phone call and make phony plans to see them soon.

If I had to pick a favorite of the two, it was Boots who lived on my street and there he was sitting with sunglasses on at the bakery. Alone. We had met and were seeing each other occasionally long before I moved into a vacant apartment near him. Since we had no commitment from the beginning, living that close, I had the pleasure of seeing him out on the street entertaining other ladies on occasion. In turn he got to see me walking my kids to the park and every now and then walking with my ex, like on Christmas. Boots was the one who had borrowed the missing tool. Somewhere in his apartment was my screwdriver. I had always thought that returning it would be a good excuse for him to stop by and see me, but he didn’t use that reason. Within the last three months he had been sending drunken text messages around 4 a.m. I thought it best not to respond.

There were a few tables open inside of the bakery near Boots but I was definitely headed outside. I had the boys decide what they wanted to eat, take their trucks and go grab a table outdoors. I ordered without saying hello to him, took the coffees and treats and went to join the boys. As I sat down outside, Skinny was walking back across the street toward us. I was happy to have him as a buffer. From a distance Skinny looked like the guy I used to love, but as he got closer, a flash of all the nasty stuff that happened between us hit me and I remembered why we were only spending a few hours together on a holiday.

Before Skinny took a seat with the batteries he was greeted by a woman with a big fro, her back to me in a nearby chair. Fro was accompanied by two men and a teenage girl. Once she stood up and turned to me, I recognized Fro, we had gone to art school with her. She was in the same program with Skinny. Skinny introduced me as his ex-wife. She said she remembered me from art school too. In turn Fro introduced her company as her husband and daughter plus another guy who we had happened to be in a band in school. He didn’t remember us. We remembered him because back in the day he carried his cat around on his shoulder. Cat Carrier.

“This is so weird. We just spent a weekend together at the Body of Power convention. Funny,” snickered Skinny like a fifteen year old.

Fro added in her thick German accent, “Ya, it was good. I’m going again next month. Have you been?”

Super defensive and surprised by her question I retorted,  “Oh, no. I’m all for self-help but Body of Power doesn’t sound like my thing.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m skeptical of anything that costs a lot and pushes you to recruit people.”

“It’s not far from seeing a pricey therapist that you would recommend to friends. You should try it. Marriage is a lot of work. Maybe it would help you two get on the same page, you know.”

I wondered what Skinny had told her at the convention.

“We’re not married anymore.”

And then Skinny chimed in, “Well, we could be.” I rolled my eyes then used the kids as a diversion, reminded them to use their napkins.

Fro reached out to touch Skinny’s arm, “Don’t worry about it. I can’t get my husband to go either. He thinks I’m crazy for spending the money. Focus on yourself.”

Before Fro headed away she invited us all up to her apartment for Christmas cocktails. We said thanks and maybe after some truck racing, but in reality, Skinny would forget about the invitation and there was no way I was going to engage in any conversation with Fro or Skinny again about the possibility of re-marrying.

We watched them go and then Skinny offered, “I’ll pay for you to go with me to the next convention.”
Disappointed, I pleaded, “Pay for your girlfriend to go instead. Here’s your coffee. You might need to add more cream.”

Skinny took a sip of his coffee and started to put the batteries into the trucks. I watched until the bakery door opened and out sauntered Boots, sunglasses still on, his own coffee in hand.

“Isn’t that your old boyfriend?” Skinny was smirking.

I had a bad habit of sharing too much information with him in the past, assuming that signing divorce papers meant we could be friends.

“Shut up, please. Not a boyfriend.” I whispered.

Boots gained on us with a smile,  “Merry Christmas.”

Skinny smiled at him and I tried too, “Merry Christmas,” we said in unison, like a real couple would.

“New toys?” he asked the boys.

The boys nodded.

“Lucky little guys. “ he added before leaving. Instead of heading up the street toward his apartment he looked both ways and started across toward 7-11. Maybe he needed batteries for a Christmas present too.

 “Who was that?” asked Spaceboy.

I surprised him, “That’s the guy who has the missing screwdriver.”

Spaceboy panicked, “He stole it?”

“No, he’s our neighbor. I let him borrow it. He just forgot to give it back.”

Spaceboy, “Ask for it back.”

And then Feisty said, “I’ll ask for it back.”

“No, don’t ask. I’ll get it eventually.”

And then Skinny became a pain in the ass, “Why can’t he ask for it?”

I shook my head, “Don’t meddle. It’s my screwdriver. I’ll ask for it.”

The boys finished their cupcakes and Skinny got the trucks going. Soon the remote control cars were headed up and down the sidewalk from the bakery to my place and back. I sat and watched the boy joy, every now and then a truck crashing into a tree or heading beneath car wheels in someone’s driveway.

Soon enough Boots was on his way back across the street from 7-11 minus his cup of coffee and instead a brown bag in hand, clearly outlining a bottle of liquor. I judged him momentarily and then realized he deserved a break. Santa probably didn’t put any champagne in his Christmas stocking. I thought of the only picture I had ever seen of him as a kid on the fridge in his kitchen. I knew very little about him except that he had once been a little boy with a big grin.

As Boots approached he smiled at me kindly again, no avoiding. He looked to the boys and Skinny nearby. I wondered if perhaps he finally understood my situation with the kids and the ex. He had introduced me to a couple of girls I had seen him with at the bakery on occasional weekend mornings. Admittedly, I had been repulsed, but like he was doing with us, I also tried to show some maturity. 

Boots stopped at the table next to me, “Must be nice to have kids to share the holiday.”

“Yeah, it definitely is.”

And then Feisty appeared with his inquiry, “Can you please give my mom’s screwdriver back?”

Boots turned to look at me, brows raised as he recalled, “Oh, I completely forgot. ” And then he turned back to Feisty, “Definitely, little guy. I’m on it. Thanks for reminding me.”

Satisfied, Feisty went back to playing.

“Someone’s looking out for you.”

“He just wanted the missing one to open the back of his toy this morning, “ I said embarrassed.
“Well, I’ll definitely get it to you.”

“No big deal, ” I said.

“Have a good rest of your day. Merry Christmas,”    Boots started home.

Eventually we started home too. I packed the boys up to go with Skinny to Christmas dinner and stay overnight with their grandma. I was looking forward to a tiny break.  I would see them early the next morning anyway. As the day turned dark and the city’s holiday lights went on, including the pink tree in my living room corner, I settled on television and any remnant of Christmas movies still playing. I resigned to the single lady Christmas evening for ease and to have the story.  I hadn’t had very many single holidays. yet I hadn’t had many single glasses of wine either. I uncorked a bottle given to me as a gift from the head of production somewhat successfully, only picking out bits of cork in my glass. I looked at the boys two trucks carefully placed by the sliding glass window, thought of them so excited to be coming back in the morning to drive the trucks up and down the street some more. I became slightly melancholy.

At about nine-thirty there was a knock at my door. I stood up, sat back down, almost turned the sound of the TV off, debated asking, “Who is it?” but instead I just sat there. Again, someone knocked. I grabbed my cell phone for safety, walked to the door and then carefully tiptoed to a nearby window to get a view without poking one of my big eyes out the peephole. It was Boots standing with a bottle of what appeared to be gin. Gin and a poinsettia, how sweet. I got lower in the window and took pleasure in watching. The thought crossed my mind, he could be good, he might not be on drugs when he texted at 4 a.m., maybe he was just an insomniac. He was coming over unannounced, which meant he had to be prepared to actually hang out with my boys, but still I hesitated. I watched as he leaned down and placed something on my doorstep, but when he stood back up the poinsettia and the gin were still in hand. Then he turned away and stepped off of my porch. I guessed the gin and poinsettia would be for the next available taker.

I sat back on the couch and watched Judy Garland sing, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis and almost started to cry but then my phone rang. I was certain it was Boots but it was Pop, said so on my screen. I answered it readily and with relief.  As he wished me a happy holiday, I went and opened the door finally to check and see what, if anything, Boots had left. It was the smallest screwdriver. I picked it up, cut Pop off midsentence to thank him for the boys trucks and also thank him for the screwdriver set that helped open them. He went on a tangent about kids’ toys these days and plastic but I didn’t mind, I just drank my wine and listened. I could hear him sipping something on his end while he rambled and cooked a midnight bird in his oven. He lived for late night cooking.

There was a time when I was very young after my own parents divorced, spending Christmas with Mother that I felt bad for Pop and didn’t understand how he could be sleeping alone. But now I was in the same boat. I got it. Some days, even holidays, were just days and it was okay to park yourself in them solo.  No need for a person next to you to fill every void in every hour. Pop once told me while I was having heartache in college, unsure which relationship to gravitate toward that I would meet so many appealing people in life and it would be hard to know where they all fit. . I was only now starting to realize that some wouldn’t fit at all and had to be let go. It was okay to pass them in a coffee shop and only nod.  They didn’t even need to give screwdrivers back.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shelter Island # 5

The first thing the boys wanted to do was stop at the Shelter Island Pharmacy for shakes, malts, or floats even though it must have been near thirty degrees. The boys had conjured up some happy times spent with their dad on the island as kids, and the pharmacy was one of them. We sat at the old counter and listened to the young girl waiting on us as she smiled, scooped the ice cream, and confirmed my thoughts that we were all crazy for wanting something freezing. The boys had lots of questions for me about Oscar and I had to explain that we were only recent friends, that he was my sponsor in OA, and all of that garbage. It was humbling and rare when I had to explain that I had food issues and even thought it wasn’t the case, I was always concerned that everyone must have pictured me as a really fat kid. The boys told me that their mother never offered much about Oscar, she only spoke of how he couldn’t appreciate her cooking any longer and that she didn’t believe in a twelve step program. We talked about Oscar’s business, a little about my business, about the boys theater group they’d started in Sicily and then about Oscar’s hobbies and of course, his airplanes. They wanted to know if I ever flew with him, because they hadn’t, and they wanted to know if I thought the plane crashing was an accident or if it was pre-conceived. At first I thought they were asking if I thought someone else might have rigged the plane to go down, but they were in fact wondering if Oscar might have fixed his own death. That was the first time the idea of Oscar killing himself every occurred to me. I took a sip of my vanilla shake, shivered, and completely disagreed.
At first the memorial was going to be held at Union Chapel, then there was some talk about the runway, but once we decided to do a cakewalk, Azeda put the invitation out with the location being Oscar’s house. Azeda knew a lot of folk on the island and in the city. While she spread the word delicately about the memorial many more than those who were contacted directly showed.
By that Sunday there was still no clear resolution as to what had happened to the plane to cause it to go down, but most accepted that Oscar had at least died doing something he loved. There was no need to make the event somber or sober. I liked our final decision to do something festive and upbeat, albeit a little unusual. Irish Catholics with alcoholic fathers might drink to celebrate their passing and we were doing something similar by celebrating the former fat man with sweets.
Bundt cakes, apple streudel, boxed cakes with cheap icing, cheesecake, apple tartine, banana bread, carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, flavorful fruit cakes, chocolate blackout cake, devil’s food, lemon pound cake, a seven layer cake, red velvet cupcakes, and panettone; the scent of fresh baked goods and young Italian men was wafting through the island and overpowering any sensationalism of Oscar’s death. The women of the island baked away and came in droves. Even my postal worker cousin came wearing lipstick and bearing a banana loaf. It wasn’t just Oscar’s life or the cakewalk itself that was alluring. It was also Antonio, Andrew, and Alvise. Ever since their arrival, they were like male sirens, drawing in the people of the island with their European mystique.
That morning, Azeda offered that we tidy up the house, let the boys relax and watch a movie to relieve any pre-event anxiety. The boys were taken aback at the gesture and then proceeded to watch Apocalypse Now on Oscar’s big TV. Not exactly what Azeda had in mind, but she kept cleaning and didn’t make a peep. I can’t say we weren’t all relieved though, when they decided to turn it off mid way through and make themselves sandwiches to eat. On the afternoon of the memorial, the boys posed out front of the house as a threesome. Alvise was leaning against the door with arms crossed, Antonio was staged at the end of the driveway smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, and Andrew had his headphones on as usual, still proofing the afternoon’s play list. We tried to keep it to songs that we knew Oscar enjoyed most but had left Andrew to pick some other melodies. The song that Andrew called out as Oscar’s tune was Bowie’s “Major Tom.” We had to listen to it in the play list the night before and the boys even got up and imitated what it might be look like to walk in a cake-getting circle to that specific beat. That was the most animated I would ever see them until my dream.
None of us wanted to give a public speech about Oscar for fear that we’d choke, so Azeda brought in Dr. Malick the shiny-headed therapist. If anyone knew Oscar well and could say something eloquent, it was his therapist. Malick arrived a little early as planned, but so too did a group of excited women from karaoke nights at the Greenport bar, even the bartender and her mother. The whole crew kicked up the road together armed with treats, but Malick’s effort was one-handed. With his left hand he was balancing a pie dish on top of some big book, and with his right hand he held his ear tightly. Trailing just behind the ladies, he definitely appeared in discomfort. I walked briskly to greet him.
“Here,” I reached out for the pie that was about to drop “You okay?”
“No. Either I have a tick in my ear or an ear infection. My ear is killing me.” His throat was hoarse and his face was flushed.
“You look super sick.”
“I know, but I had to come,” he grimaced as he swallowed. “I took some pain pills. I’ll be okay.”
I led him up to the house. I knew he should go lie down. Azeda was now at the door and came to Malick’s rescue immediately, getting him a drink and a seat alone in one of the guest rooms.
The first women, like many of those to come later, took their time looking over the boys individually. There were no remains to worship, save for Oscar’s sons so the ladies took no shame in their longing. I overheard one of the women say to her sister, “You figure they’re a bit poetic since they have the greeting card history in their genes.” After a few days, I was still in awe of the boys too. Unlike me, they appeared to have utter confidence in their youth. While they were aware that all eyes were indulging, they kept right on with their focus being their father’s life and the cake they had made together in his honor. The boys had made one of their mother’s recipes that Oscar loved to hate, a Chocolate Ricotta Torte. “Please believe me, it isn’t out of spite.” Antonio said with intense eyes and his heavy accent, always the ambassador.
The boys were kind and guided men and women alike indoors as they arrived. They listened graciously to their condolences and took the cakes to Naomi in the kitchen. Naomi was dressed nice in a royal blue dress, not black. She wasn’t the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, but I liked her style. We realized that most of the people attending the memorial had never been inside of Oscar’s home. While he knew the people of the Island and their world well, it became clear that he rarely invited them into his own. With five bedrooms and plenty of space for entertaining, even his own children could count on one hand the amount of times they had visited him.
Upon entering, the lovely seven-foot Christmas tree we had purchased was the focal point as well as the photos of Oscar in his earlier days. His old picture books were spread out for viewing. Drinks were passed around easily and Azeda made everyone comfortable as she always did, briefing them on the order of events. There were no unnecessary pamphlets or prayer cards to hand out, only drinks. After tucking Malick into bed, Azeda came to me with the memory book Malick had brought to put out for the guests. She encouraged me to prompt everyone for their fondest memories of Oscar. I did wonder what people would write. I only had an inkling of an idea what many of the meeting members might have said about him. As grave and withdrawn as he occasionally was, I also knew he made them laugh often. Many of the members lingered outside in a group around the pool smiling at the chalk circles we had drawn for the cakewalk, even appreciating the memorial when I thought there could be a chance they would politely decline the fat-filled event.
Azeda grabbed my arm, and said, “Malick is in no shape to speak. I need you to say something about Oscar to these people.”
I swallowed hard at the idea of an audience. “I’m not prepared.” It was now my job to sum up a persons life once and for all.
Azeda, “It doesn’t matter, just say some good things about him. I know you have things you could say. I will just weep if I try and talk about him.” I could see she already had a little too much to drink. I really didn’t want to speak but it was becoming a reality. If Malick had already written something, I could combine his words with my own. “It’s not about you, you know. I just pretend I’m someone else when I get nervous or I have a presentation. Pretend your Malick today.” I stood frozen trying to think of what Malick would say and then I refilled my drink.
As more and more people gathered, the place started to carry the buzz of an afternoon house party. It was chilly and grey for Christmas time, and while many guests were dressed in dark attire, the variety of colors in the pastries and the pastels of the chalk had it feeling a little less bleak. The music played throughout the house and out around the pool. Azeda had asked us to keep the more upbeat music for the walking and pick mellow for mingling, but some of the classical pieces the boys picked out from Oscar’s collection became grating when mixed with the chatter of the crowd. I thought perhaps it was just my sensitive ears mixed with the anxiety I was having about speaking, but Azeda was feeling it too. I watched the tips of her French manicure as she turned the dial down on the stereo. I started to sweat, but then a wave of confidence came over me as I pictured myself as I was in Ms. Hunter’s fourth grade class giving an oral report on how to make a chocolate cake and acing the presentation like I had back in the day with supreme self-confidence. Just like that moment, I was also familiar with my subject today. It was possible that being a good listener over the last few weeks was all I was supposed to be. Azeda guided me to a place in the middle of the stairs to start the speech. I thought that speaking spot was doable because it seemed just like a scene from a movie.
I spoke to the captive audience about Oscar’s desire to be a good friend and father, his dream to be a fighter pilot and how he had taken upon himself in his later years to get the courage to move away from greeting cards and pursue his real ambitions. I talked about Oscar’s struggle to be comfortable enough in his own skin in order to share himself with others, especially his sons. I told everyone what I had already told the boys, which was that Oscar wanted to support his sons’ dream of starting their own theater company. And then I said a little more that I’m not sure I can remember completely and something that involved his love for spicy sausage and another thing out of my mouth was even comedic because I remember people laughing in the right way, including the boys, and it put me at great ease. Finally, I concluded by telling everyone that in honor of Oscar I’d like us to all go forth and share ourselves with one another. And share our cake. Fortunately, this transitioned well into the very simple rules of the cakewalk.
As the rules went, the music played and everyone walked around the pool passing up all of the chalked in and circled numbers until the music stopped. Once the music stopped, each of the guests jumped on the nearest circle. Naomi and I had put the circles a decent distance away from the pool’s edge but did joke about making them a little closer to the water just to up the stakes. If the random number that Naomi picked out of Oscar’s hat happened to be the one they were standing on, that person won the cake of their choice. Of course, guests were welcome to take the cakes they won home as was typical for a carnival cakewalk, but since I had encouraged sharing everyone took their cakes into the kitchen and Azeda sliced them up.
We still had a good hour left before the light went down on us. The music that was saved for the walk was playing, some of it I liked, some of it I didn’t, but he wasn’t my father and the time I spent alongside him was filled with a short, yet lovely list of melodies, like “While my Guitar Gently Weeps.” That would have really brought down the party since everyone had loosened up to the whole idea of cakes and a good time. A few of the men and women were slightly buzzed. I was glad to be a little tipsy too. The boys all joined in on a round of the walk, they even smiled when Alvise won. Antonio and Andrew treated it as if they had won as well and left the game altogether to enjoy the cake as a cozy threesome. Alvise chose the cake that Naomi had made from a box mix and decorated simply with colored sprinkles. Azeda took over the managing of the walk and we were able to join the boys in the kitchen for dessert. Alvise cut his own big piece of cake to start and the rest of us dug in on Naomi’s cake as well.
A few men recognizable from the pharmacy were standing around the desserts, drinks in hand, and offering condolences to the boys. The men made it known their experiences in Italy and other parts of Europe. Early on during the conversation I heard Andrew try to ask specifically how they had know their father, but the topic was glossed over and I felt bad for him. He was not making small talk with strangers. His desire to know about his father was genuine. All of us that could told the boys as many stories as we knew the last few days leading in, but Oscar was still a man of much mystery. Little time spent had put a distance between father and sons. I thought of my parents and briefly reconsidered their invitation back in L.A. for the holidays.
Like me, Naomi was listening in keenly to the gents’ conversation while pretending to be engulfed in food and drink. She pulled my arm at one moment and took me away casually stating, “It’s pathetic that they need to boast to boys two times younger about all of the places they’ve been abroad.” She guided me into the living room and I took a seat on the couch with her by the Christmas tree. “I’ve never really liked this Island or its’ people. Only the ferry.”
I was relieved to hear her comments. There were aspects of the island I loved, and not just the fantasy life it offered for the well-to-do. I loved being so close to the water. I loved the boats, the farms, the historic homes, changes in seasons that I never had in L.A. and for a while I enjoyed the solitude, but I was finding that too much alone time wasn’t very good for me. I had dropped two pant sizes since arriving. My knees were getting knobby, not that I needed someone to look out for me but…
Naomi touched me for the second time, hand out to mine, the same as Oscar had done. I looked at her but she was gazing at the tree. “For me, that tree was the hardest part of putting this whole thing together. There’s something really sad about decorating someone else’s Christmas tree.” I looked at Naomi’s manicure, the same as her mothers. Her manicure suggested pretentiousness, but she was common, like me. And like me, Naomi had never been out of the states. Oscar’s postcards hanging on the wall were all still on the wall near us as they had been the night that he had me over and made me tea. I thought of all of the places I wanted to go and contemplated Europe again, all the while her hand still on my knee. I put my hand on hers and finally told Naomi, the only person that I had ever told outside of my parents, not even Oscar, about my map as a kid. I told her how it had been a goal to live in one state per year before any place overseas. She calculated as I already had that at that rate I’d be an old man when I finally ventured out of the U.S.A. She told me I could abandon my old childhood rules. I could play it by ear and make my home in several states over the span of some years, instead of trying to hit every state. I mulled over the possibility of spending less than a year in one state and still hitting all fifty. The key would be to hold a job that supported that lifestyle. I thought my current job as an accountant might work, but she said I’d have to come up with some other skills, especially to support myself internationally. She suggested that after my speech today I become an ordained minister and do weddings and funerals for extra money.
“What do you think will happen to the house?” The entire estate had been left in the boys’ names, of course.
“I think the boys will want it sold. This place isn’t their home.” And then she asked, “Where do you consider home?”
“I don’t know.” I answered honestly. Home wasn’t Los Angeles anymore and that was the only other place I’d ever lived aside from Shelter Island.
People were crossing in front of us still, entering their memories of Oscar in the book, eating cake, but the sun would set soon and all of those outside would come in and then it’d be back to prepping for the holidays for everybody. Christmas was still coming and the goose was getting fat. I knew no one was paying perfect attention to Naomi’s hand on mine, but I was still nervous about the open display of public affection. Of course, just as I said that, my antisocial cousin Katrina walked by. I had wondered if she first took a job with the postal service to feel connected to the world. My aunt had apparently been overly social but as a kid, but Katrina just did a ton of pottery and hiding. When I first met her on the island, she made it clear that she most likely wouldn’t think about contacting me for any reason, lunch, brunch or a drink. I told myself it must just look like Naomi was consoling me and didn’t want to think about whether or not this could mean something more. Someday it would be nice to have someone by my side in that way, a partner in crime, but I didn’t feel ready. It was a close call with Oscar but alas, we never got that far.
Oscar’s photos were surrounding us and while I’d seen them all already when prepping with the boys, I looked at them again. Pictures of him with his parents long since deceased, and his brother who had also passed, pictures of him with his wife and the boys in the early days in Italy, some that Azeda had from past holidays and dinner parties. There were only a couple pictures that featured him heavyset and one taken with his wife and another of him alone grinning cheek to cheek. I figured those were the only ones of that pudgy time in his life worth keeping. I assumed this because similarly, I had only saved a couple pictures of myself when I was sickly skinny. When I left the island, I thought it’d be nice to take some picture of him with me, no matter if he looked chubby or lean.
Everyone was starting to take cake home. Azeda, Naomi and I had started wrapping up pieces as leftovers. The boys were tired in the kitchen saying their good-byes sometimes standing up to shake hands, every now and then walking people to the door, but most of the time they appeared so exhausted both physically and mentally that we stepped in and helped them out. By the last remaining guests, all three boys had retreated quietly into Oscar’s bedroom. I found them lying on his bed, Antonio and Alvise staring straight up at the ceiling but Andrew whimpering sadly.
“Everyone’s gone.” I said awkwardly, once they caught me in the doorway. Andrew wiped his eyes. Not sure what else to offer, I asked, “You want to go finish the movie?”
We spread out in the living room, the boys and me, Azeda and Naomi, and even Malick who was now feeling better. The boys started Apocalypse Now and I drifted off to semi-sleep, first dreaming of real moments with Oscar. I thought about walks through the island made alone in summer and compared them to the few I’d made with Oscar in the past weeks. On one of those walks two deer had crossed our path and one of them stopped and stared at us. Oscar had said about the buck, “He’s glaring.” From those thoughts I went into deeper dreams, alone this time, and walking in summer. I was on the beach and ahead of me close to the shore the boys were running and looking up at the sky, following the sound of an airplane overhead. It was only when they stopped that I realized that they had guns in hand, all different, but I wasn’t sure of the types. They aimed high above water at Oscar’s zero, ready to take down his plane.
I awoke to the sound of a whistling teakettle and was still thinking of him. Azeda must have started roasting a chicken or making some sort of soup and the comforting smell took me out of my nightmare. I heard Azeda and Malick talking lightly in the kitchen and raised my head to see who was left next to me. The boys and Naomi were still there and had also fallen asleep. The TV had been shut off, but the Christmas tree was still glowing. I could definitely make it through the rest of the winter here, but I could already picture spring blooming somewhere else. After the spring rain there would be green foxtails perking up and jasmine growing all over the foothills surrounding L.A., but that wasn’t where I thought I’d be. I had to start thinking about the next best place on the map for me.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Shelter Island - #4

While investigations continued as to why Oscars’s Zero took a nosedive, his three sons en route from Sicily landed safely at Newark International Airport in a Boeing 747. Having only been to the states once in their lifetime about five years prior with their mother, the boys were excited at the opportunity to go alone, sorry of course that it had to be for their father’s memorial, but happy all the same that they had been granted the opportunity to attend solo. At age seventeen, twenty-one, and twenty-three, the boys had been born, raised, and protected by her in Sicily.

Oscar had been a bi-yearly visitor at best, something the boys’ mother had subscribed to very near to their first rendezvous. Both parties seemed to get on well with the arrangement until the day their mother decided to settle down with another Italian. Oscar accepted the news like an adult at first, even flew the boys out with their mother and her new beau so he could congratulate the clan, but it was only a matter of days before Oscar broke down openly at the site of their newfound family.

With the sudden realization that he no longer had an open invitation to sleep with their mother, Oscar tried to convince her to leave the Italian (all of this while the Italian was showering) and unite as a biologically solid family. When she politely declined, Oscar negotiated down her monthly support and with the help of his attorney, Azeda Caldwell, instantly changed his will so that upon death, the estate would only go to his sons. Their mother didn’t understand Oscar’s sudden change in heart as he had always been free to carry on with his impulses thousands of miles away, and had never before expressed the desire for a traditional family, but she very kindly agreed to the new terms of his will and the reduced child support and took the boys back to Italy.

The week before Oscar died, I had escorted him to Thanksgiving in the city hosted by Azeda and her daughter Naomi. In spite of the deep sorrow it brought me, I have to admit, I was flattered to be the second person Azeda called with the news of his passing, and even more astounded when she asked me to accompany the boys to the memorial and spend some time as a kind of docent to Oscar’s psyche. Their mother had instructed the boys to make this second trip to the states with their goal being to get a better understanding of who Oscar really was, something she herself had a hard time communicating. I told Azeda I could definitely give them a tour of the island, but filling in the blanks on Oscar would be challenging since we had only become friends over the past few weeks.

The first time I saw images of the boys and their mother also happened to be on Thanksgiving after Azeda’s meal and was the first time I ever entered Oscar’s home. Prior to that we always met out some place. Oscar had marched into his abode armed with a new bag of weed from Naomi and tipsy from too much drink. He stumbled over to his record collection and put on The Cars before heading into the kitchen to prep both the kettle and vaporizer. I was left in the great room to snoop around as I pleased.

His house wasn’t another traditional colonial, it was a midcentury modern home and while for a single man it felt lived in and cozy, I milled about under the cathedral ceilings feeling very out of place in my surroundings. I searched for a connection in the images on the walls while “Let The Good Times Roll” played and slowly started to feel at ease. I found multiple pictures of Oscar in his younger years before he had silvery-white hair. I became fond of a series of postcards framed in a row, all from different spots in Italy and wondered if one of his sons had sent them. I retraced the faces in each photo I found of his family in order to make sense of who was who. Single pictures of the boys that I’d seen at first had me confused since at least two of the kids looked very much alike and all seemed close in age. Then I spotted a picture of the trio together and could see the slight difference and that the youngest was the most fair.

I started into the kitchen and asked, ”Is the youngest one Alvise?” just as Oscar was finishing his hit.

“Middle is Alvise, “ he turned to me and offered out the vaporizer, “I want you to try it, please.”

I think it was the “please” that got me to agree. I inhaled from the bag easily. Considering the fact that I could count the number of times that I had smoked on one hand, at first I thought I was pretty smooth, but soon an overwhelming high set in. In the short amount of time I had to retreat from the kitchen and sit back down on the couch a great warmth had spread all over my body, hitting me hardest in the arms and the chest. Completely overtaken by the feeling, I almost puked at the sudden noise of the teakettle whistling. I had to close my eyes and melt into the couch briefly. I imagined the boys’ life in Sicily without him but it was hard to imagine since I had never been out of the country.

I opened my eyes to Oscar handing me tea and my hand was unsteady. He could see it. Embarrassing, but I had to say it, “I don’t like this. I feel funny.”

He took the tea back from me, set it down, and became fatherly. He sat next to me, not too close, but the perfect distance. He reached his warm hand out, took mine and we held them together over the crack in the couch cushion.

“I promise you it’s okay.”

In spite of the handholding and reassurance, I was feeling the furthest from fine.

The next Cars song came on, all clappy and happy-like, messing with my ears. For some reason “Just What I Needed” set forth a series of images of my dad working in the garage, pretending that all in life was grand.

“Can we please change the music?” I pleaded. Otherwise I might have a panic attack.

“What would you like to hear?”

“Anything but this.”

He started to get up, but then looked back at me quickly.

“If you want me to come back and hold your hand again after I change the music I will”

I didn’t realize that I was still holding tight to his hand. I let it go. Oscar smiled and went to set the music straight for me. I liked when he smiled. It didn’t happen often.

“Did your hair really go white when your wife split?”

He didn’t answer right away so I decided he didn’t hear me. I watched him pull the needle from The Cars, then listened to that clear and special sound of records being pushed and pulled out of their sleeves and slid back onto shelves. The sound was all amplified by a thousand because of the weed. Oscar set The Beatles up to play next and then sat back down and answered me. He took my hand and explained her visit with the boys and the Italian Stallion and his mental breakdown that followed. As he spoke, I reclined on the arm of the couch. I was feeling incredibly heavy with the weight of his words. I was listening but couldn’t give him the same caffeinated attention as in some of our past meetings. I tuned in completely though when I felt his hand pull away from mine. He grabbed his tea instead and concluded with, “I would never hurt anybody.”

Unfortunately, because of my drug-induced half-assed attention, I wasn’t sure how this statement played into the whole story of his boys’ mother not wanting to commit to him completely and if I suddenly asked, he would’ve known I hadn’t been listening. So his words just sat with me as I suddenly over-focused on him slurping his tea. People slurped, they also chewed, but at the time the sound while high as a kite, was more than mildly annoying. No matter, every now and again I also found myself falling for him and then in the next moment he came off as slightly pathetic and unappealing.

I had fallen asleep to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and woke up in the morning to the sound of the waves and the smell of coffee. My feet were curled up under a blanket and I was still on Oscar’s couch. My eyes darted about but I kept my heavy head on the pillow. I was unusually cozy. As I became more clear, I started to regret being stoned and paranoid and wished I had listened to Oscar more intently. I wanted to go to the wall, take the postcards out of the frames and read the back to see if one or more of the boys had written them to him. It was becoming important to know whether they were at all fond of their father who visited them so sporadically.

Off of Oscar’s wall and in person at the baggage claim, they were the most striking boys I’d ever set eyes on. They stood in age order from left to right. Antonio. Alvise. Andrew. I forgot for a moment about needing to know their stance on Oscar’s fathering and was more interested in knowing whether they enjoyed the simple things the way he did, simple things like Gouda cheese and the beach.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shelter Island - #3

Surely Oscar remembered that he gave me a loose invitation to karaoke after the Overeater’s Anonymous meeting last week. Much to my delight, the invite was made right after I got up the nerve to ask him to be my sponsor. It’d been about ten years since I really had trouble and nearly faded away, but I still needed a sponsor to stay on track, like any other 12-step program, it was essential. Since I was one of the trimmest in the crowd, and didn’t want to take life lessons from anyone overweight, although I respected their internal issues, Oscar’s good-looking place in life made him seem the right person to choose.

I had heard from my cousin that his family owned one of the world’s largest greeting card companies. I had also heard that he wasn’t as old as he looked, his hair had gone white from stress the day his wife left him. What I’d been hearing from his own mouth on a weekly basis in meetings had to do with his anxiety over never seeing his three sons who lived in Sicily, a sudden fear of flying his planes, and a compulsion to over-exercise in compensation for occasional binges. He was the older ex-fat dude who now looked pretty normal and I was the former anorexic boy who now appeared to have his life together too.

As soon as I put my butt on the chair, Oscar was getting up to karaoke so he didn’t even see me before getting on stage. I sat alone and started drinking as he started Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan.” Did I want him to be my sponsor or did I want something more? There was a time early on that I sat across from him in meetings and only yearned to be his CPA. Well, admittedly, I still wanted to be the one to give him sound financial advice but asking for that place in his life somehow seemed a bigger step. His voice was nowhere near as deep as Leonard’s, but he sounded good and clearly practiced this song often. Oscar wore sneakers with his suit that night. He didn’t always.

He continued to lament on stage and I could see him recognize me. Eventually his eyes shifted to the back of the bar and clearly followed the bartender girl as she made her way to the stage and started into the microphone on female vocals. A small pang of jealousy washed over me. I questioned the feeling for a split second and then shut it down. Admittedly, they were good singing together though and she had a sweet voice. I finished the rest of my beer much faster than I had intended. The bar room applauded and Oscar grinned, a real grin, that I had never seen. Thankfully, the bartender girl made her way back through the tables to do her real job and he sat down to his ½ full glass across from me.

“I like that song,” I said awkwardly.

“Me too, somehow it sticks with me.”

He took a sip of his drink and then…

“You want to take the ferry back to my place so we talk?”

I couldn’t help but laugh a little. I had just got off the ferry and I wasn’t ready to talk on and on about myself. Ignoring my issues in that moment sounded much better.

“Honestly, I’m good just hanging out here.”

Oscar seemed pleased by my response and we had a careful second round. He refrained from another song and enjoyed watching everyone else sing instead. He encouraged me to do my theme song, but it wasn’t my thing to be in the limelight. I played keyboards a little in high school and sang backup in a band someone decided to call Privileged F**k but even that was uncomfortable. The stage wasn’t for me.

Sitting next to him through everyone’s theme songs became one of those magic moments. Chalk it up to extra-sensory perception or pheromones or whatever you want, but it was all clicking and right. I didn’t know it then, but within the next week we’d be having a montage of good times, listening to the waves high on junk from his vaporizer, visiting the local supermarket’s deli to get free samples, comparing record collections, and staring at his collection of planes. In a week and three-quarters time, we would become fast friends, but sadly, that would be the end. On the third Thursday in November, a week before Thanksgiving, Oscar mustered up the courage to fly one of his planes again. He took off from a private runway in his prized Zero and not long afterward, plummeted into the Long Island Sound.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Shelter Island - #2

The ferryman was always a good face after a long day behind doors. I needed to see some faces and take in a few ounces of fleeting cheer. I had gradually been meeting people in town, but as the weather turned, more of those people seemed to be turning inward. It was out of the norm for me to go out on a weeknight, but I always had the book my father gave me on risk taking in the back of my mind. He gave it to me about a year ago before I got up the nerve to leave the nest in L.A. and move across the map.
New York was the first state outside of my hometown of Los Angeles that I had ever been to and I was back to make it the first in my lifelong tour of the United States. I was 28 now, but in a year, by 29, I would move on toward either New Jersey or Vermont and stay for a year, then move on to the next state. It became a goal mid-high school career to live this way and experience the US. Depending on my health, I would have my 80’s to travel Europe. I needed to conquer the US map first; a story for every state. I had been on Shelter Island for three months and was slow getting a story in this place going.
As I rode the ferry I could see the party lights already on at the Chequit Inn at the tip of the island behind us. The Inn made it a point to keep a lively glow all the way through summer and into winter, giving off a feeling of festivity even when there was very little. Ahead, Greenport wouldn’t exactly be alive compared to Shelter Island, but since it was a little more working class, there were still a few people out and about, most heading home from a days work, grabbing a quick bite to eat, or starting to close up shop.
There were a fair amount of regulars in the place already since it was happy hour still. I thought I’d grab a beer since it was the warmest and would take me the longest to drink. I swore I’d have one beer only as I didn’t want to lose control completely, save my waist, save the cash. As I ordered an older lady on stage was singing along to Kim Carnes. The red-headed bartender girl had her eye on the older lady all the while she asked for my order. I couldn’t help but turn and look as well. I eyeballed the rest of the place as I grabbed my beer, tipped, and then sipped, not yet sure if there was a comfortable place to sit at a table or if I should settle at the bar. And then I saw Oscar at a table, unmistakable white hair sticking up from his head, poised in one of his suits and nodding his head ever so slightly to “all the boys think she’s a spy she’s got Bette Davis eyes.”

Friday, October 29, 2010

Shelter Island - #1

The first winter living on the island was as desperate and lonely as I expected in comparison to the summer vacation that burned a postcard image into my boy-head. I stumbled through that winter envisioning myself as some jean jacket wearing character in a well-paced art house film on a journey to find the key to his existence, all the while a really great soundtrack being the glue holding the audience captive. In reality I was doing about the same as that fictional hero, but I didn’t own a jean jacket and was smart enough to arrive with a heavy winter coat.

Since I always had it in mind to go back and spend more than just two days on the island, I decided to move to my great aunt’s Shelter Island house indefinitely. When she died, the house was left to her son who died shortly after her from botulism. Her son’s wife, also the island’s best postal woman, didn’t want to live in it alone, and decided to rent it to lucky me.

I’d rather do five sets of fifteen push-ups than try and describe winter on the island properly. I lack confidence in describing my surroundings. I tend to over-focus on the dynamic between people and the thoughts racing through my own head rather than the local architecture, and the way in which the clouds roll in. But, I’ll give that kind of description a crack as we move slowly into winter and then let’s hope I can give you more of a flavor as time goes on. Let me warm up and introduce you to some of the most important people first.

It had been a typical, lonesome, working day for me when I finally met Oscar in person. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon and I had been running numbers at my desk that faced the bay windows looking out over the slope of what used to be a lovely lawn. The curtains were open to let in the rest of what was left of the dimming daylight, my computer was still on, my coffee mug half full, and there was a line of birds on a wire, like the Hitchcock movie, The Birds, but don’t give the birds I’m talking about as much credit. Just picture the moment as bleak and as still as some of those in the movie.

Some real estate agent trying to rent the place over summer might have called my workspace a breakfast nook, but I referred to it as my office. My aunt’s old study was upstairs but I could never bring myself to work up there. It was too dark and the window faced out toward the backyard so I stayed downstairs, plus the record player was in close proximity. It’s great that a record needs to be turned over because I needed an excuse to get up often.

On this particular day, instead of putting another record on, I turned the player off and put on my heavy coat. I skipped finishing the rest of my coffee, and vowed that I might get back to my clients’ work when back from the bar in Greenport, the town just across the sound. It was karaoke night and I was ready for a drink and a bit of a scene. At this point, I had no idea that Oscar would be there singing Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan” and no clue that he would become more to me than just some wealthy man who got shuttled to and fro in his Jaguar on the ferry.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Laundromat Love - a short story

It was our Saturday morning tradition to go to the laundromat, drink coffee, read the paper. We’d watch the little kids who came in with their parents sitting on top of the washers eating Doritos and hot dogs from the neighboring convenient store. She always saved the machine’s left over lucky pennies for the really little kids. She liked kids and wanted to have one someday when she was done with school.
In the first weeks after the break up I avoided the laundromat on Saturday mornings thinking it was too obvious a run in and was doing my laundry on weeknights. I didn’t want her to think I was aiming to run into her, especially since I was the one who ended the relationship. I shouldn’t want to see her if I had ended it. But recently I had started heading back in hopes of a run-in. For a month straight, she wasn’t there on Saturdays. Then September rolled around and I went in on a Sunday.
There was no parking in the lot, which was common, so I parked on a side street. I started down the sidewalk with my bag over my shoulder and soap in hand and there she was. It was suddenly that simple. She was sitting in her favorite place on the stairs, backpack on her back, her back turned to me. All I had to catch was a glimpse and my gut churned. I turned around instantly and headed back to the car, laundry back into the passenger seat next to me. I sat for a minute feeling like a chicken and debated going back. I tried to remember again the email she had last written as I drove away.
1. I will miss you holding me and I'm sorry if I did not hold you back enough
2. I will miss the TV
3. I will miss having you to tell about my tiny adventures in a day
4. I will miss our neighbors
5. I will miss your dumb jokes (even though a lot of them weren’t funny)
6. I will miss sharing music with you
7. I will miss all the different bowling alleys you took me to
8. I will miss Ella, of course (please clean her litter box often)
9. I will miss your bed stand and all of the glasses I had to bus for you
10. I will miss the smell of your clothes at the end of the day
11. The hair on your face
12. Your chair
13. The way your mom asked me 9,000 questions over the phone
14. Our dinners together with way too much silence
15. All the time we had together alone (even though in retrospect – too much silence)
16. Your shoes in a line
17. Your coffee (this should have been #2 and the TV 17th-ish)
18. The way you charmed my mom
19. How I had to reach up to you
20. Your compliments
21. Your hair hitting the ceiling of the car
22. The way you would preface sentences
23. Your Thursday nights out with the boys – I thought it was sweet
24. Our walks
25. Thank you for giving me space
26. Thank you for your kisses.
27. Thank you for trying to adapt to my way of life
28. I loved you
29. I was proud of you
30. I just wanted to know you even more…that’s all.
It made me a little sad still, but there wasn't anything more to know about me. I would do my laundry on Monday.

Photo: DC