Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy Holidays, Y'All

The Saturday before Christmas is the party night. I think it says something for the Moyas that so many people trusted them with the gaiety in their lives. Through JC and Laura, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of the coolest people I know.

The vast majority of them are coupled up, and know me as half of Andi and Aaron. Enter me, with Becky.

I’ve heard that couples can be defensive when confronted with dissolved marriages. If their marriage didn’t work, this paranoid mentality goes, then what chance does mine have? I didn’t experience this on Saturday. One couple didn’t mention Andi all night and never met Becky, but it could have been because we were caught up in other conversation; there was no dead point where one of them could have said, “So, where’s…” (of course no one would really need to ask, in the days of Facebook). They may have just been treading lightly around a potentially painful subject for me. Also, it’s a Christmas party. Still, I hadn’t seen many of them for some time, and those who did want to talk about it were all open and honest.

Alcohol helps smooth the rough edges of social awkwardness. It also lends itself to intimate conversations on short acquaintance. I’d only met the Moya’s neighbors a couple of times, but we found ourselves discussing relationships in general and the break up of my marriage in particular like we were a couple of couples who used to take vacations together or something. In the end, I assured them that while there was probably more grieving to do ahead, I was happy most days, most of the time.

“Anyway . . . Merry Christmas!” I said, breaking the emotional bubble which had built between us. They laughed almost until they cried. Timing is everything.

Moya ruined my holiday-schadenfraude / Come All Ye and Pity Me by telling people, “Don’t feel sorry for this guy. He’s happy with his new girl.” A fact I couldn’t deny, and which led to many a toast.

Ketel One, Jack Daniels, Jose Cuervo, and wine, wine, wine. A couple of cigars may have made their way into my mouth along with the baked brie, cheese puff pastries, artichoke dip, shrimp cocktail, chicken salad and apricot dip (light years more delicious than it might sound), red velvet cake, chocolate squares, and homemade pizza.

Becky and I requested “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and got “Merry Christmas, Baby” instead. We danced anyway. Between Becky's magical presence, the swirl of cocktails in my system, and the lateness of the hour, I wondered why we ever left the Treehouse.

Acoustic guitars appeared. The crowd had thinned, but those of us who remained sang with gusto. I didn’t expect anyone to leave the circle of live music to say their goodbyes, but this being Miami, people still hugged and kissed us out the door. The spirit of the season, coupled with the spirits, made for some fierce, warm well-wishes.

I love this town.

On the way home, Becky drove us to a 24-hour Walgreens for cough medication and cigarettes. The odd coupling of items flashed me back to upstate New York, maybe fourteen or fifteen years ago, Andi and I checking out of a 24-hour Wegman’s with coffee and condoms. The guy in line behind us laughed hysterically. The lateness of the hour, the coffee, the condoms; I don’t know, it just hit him. For us, we just happened to be out of those two vital staples of cohabitation and didn’t feel like leaving the house the next day. For him, we were tired and horny and wanted to get caffeinated and stay up all night fucking.

“This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” the guy said, wiping tears with the heel of his hand.

“Really?” I said, because I didn’t have the heart to say, “You should really get out more.”

When Becky slapped Wal-Tussin and Parliament Lights on the counter, no one at the Walgreens even blinked.

I hate this town. So jaded by all it’s seen.

At least Becky and I found the purchase deliciously ironic.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


When people say they don’t believe in God I can only marvel. Look beyond the seeming randomness of events and you’ll learn there are no accidents.

In 1998, Starbuck’s corporate offices realized many of their stores failed to stock first aid kits. When Corporate sent our store a letter expressing concern over this, I took it upon myself as Assistant Manager to order one. After reading the letter, our General Manager also ordered one. Starbuck’s claimed the usual warehouse didn’t have the updated first aid kits we needed, so even though both our orders had been confirmed, Corporate gave us a phone number to call for a different kit. I wanted Corporate off our backs, so I called the number. So did my GM. Soon after we called, Corporate decided such a priority couldn’t be trusted to store level personnel. They shipped a fist aid kit to every store in the company, including us.

Over the next two weeks, we received five fairly expensive First Aid kits. Burn cream, band-aids, aspirin and ibuprofen (which by corporate credo we couldn’t dispense even to ourselves), gauze, mini-scissors, and rubber gloves. We tried to return them for credit. The problem is, we had followed the Corporate credo. Upon receiving the First Aid kits, the first thing we did was trash the aspirin and the ibuprofen (I don’t know who sued Corporate for dispensing medication, but there are a lot of aching baristas out there cursing their name). Also, between slicing bagels, steam wand burns, paper cuts, and banged knuckles, the band aids didn’t last a week. With these items missing, the kits were considered damaged; unreturnable.

Each first aid kit also had a bio-hazard kit. In two years and three stores I had never seen a bio-hazard kit used, but I was sure it was a nice thing to have, just in case. Five, on the other hand, is a lifetime supply.

One afternoon, as my GM and I discussed passing the kits out to other stores in the district, our good customer Dane came in and asked her for “ass paper.”

Dane was a regular. He came in several times a week and was a sweet guy. He had half a face, and that only thanks to extensive reconstructive surgery. Scabs covered his body. He also had a speech impediment heavy enough to bend steel. When he asked for ass paper, it was so far removed from our normal coffee talk that Janet, our GM, had no idea what he was saying. She laughed and got him his usual. We did that sometimes when Dane felt chatty because of the trouble understanding him. Also, that afternoon we had wall-to-wall people desperate for caffeine, so Janet didn’t have the time she might otherwise have spared to parcel out what Dane was trying to say.

Dane wandered over to the bar to doctor up his drink. When he turned from the condiment bar and back toward the counter, he had left a little something behind.

Now, in case I haven’t been clear, this man was struggling with a number of physical differences. Not only does he not look like the average guy, his system must not work the same. Lying in front of the condiment bar were what could only be described as a pair of very dark, soggy prunes. He got about five feet before another pair rolled down his leg from inside his shorts. At that point, no one had really noticed. Dane asked again, more insistently but no more articulately, for ass paper. The other customers gave Dane the stare-ahead, pretending he didn’t exist. Then the smell hit.

One minute, a crowd of cranky people waited impatiently for their double-tall lattes and grande 180-degree, one-and-a-half Equal cappuccinos, the next minute . . . well, I don’t want to exaggerate. No one ran for the exits, but when I looked up from the bar only two people waited for their drinks. A guy who just paid stood at the register. Everyone else had taken their caffeine Jones to greener pastures. Or more to the point, a coffee shop that didn’t smell like a truck stop bathroom.

The light went on for Janet. Once she understood Dane’s problem, his words were clear. She happily handed over a roll of T.P., asking only that Dane take it with him and stop leaving more personal deposits on the floor for us to clean up. He wanted to hang around and express gratitude; Janet assured him it wasn’t necessary. As Dane made his way out, the lumps finally stopped rolling down his leg. Still, he left a good-sized liquid trail almost to the door.

Understand, cleaning crews cost money. If you’re not a multi-million dollar store (and to make millions of dollars a year in coffee is a lot a lattes), then you don’t get one. Therefore, at Starbucks throughout the land, the hands that scrub the toilets and pick gum out of urinals are the same hands that make your macchiatos (side note: I once hung signs in our bathrooms expressing this and they got a whole lot cleaner. When touring corporate big wigs saw the sign, they told me to take it down. Doubtless, their offices have cleaning crews).

To recap, we had four piles of fun on the floor and one good-sized trail to the door. We also had five first aid kits. Kits with a package for cleaning up biologically hazardous materials. Five kits of something that we had not needed in the twenty-four-plus months I’d been doing the job. Five kits that we received only through miscommunication and Corporate Hairball business-as-usual. Five kits which had finished arriving that very week.

Five bio-hazard kits, five craptastrophes. Coincidence, or providence?

We sprang into action. By we, I mean mostly me and Janet. As managers, we were expected to do that kind of stuff. There are managers who become managers so they can order others to do stuff like that for them; they’re called assholes. I’m just an asshole sometimes, but I’m not a major asshole, and Janet wasn’t even remotely an asshole, so we just did it. Also, I can only breathe out of one nostril. My sense of smell isn’t so great, so I’m ideal for that kind of stuff. We had the place clean and ready for customers again in no time.

My friend Amanda was working there at the time. When we tell the story, she says, “I thought, ‘Unless they want to be cleaning up shit and vomit, I better stay on this side of the bar.’”

I’m struck at how often Amanda and I relate this story to the general merriment of others. If the point of having so many kits available was to clean up after Dane, maybe the point of having Amanda and I working on the same night was so we would always be able to spread laughter when we come together, and share the time we saw God’s design.

You might not understand it when you’re elbows-deep, but give it time. There is a plan for the mess you’re going through.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bound and Rebound

Alert readers will notice my attempts to keep Cleopatra firmly under pseudonym have developed some cracks. Since I’ve figured out how to avoid the curse of the rebound (and since she doesn’t mind, I’ve used her picture, and everyone who knows us knows about us anyway), I’ll tell you her real name: Becky.

How is that I, mere bookseller, unpublished (well, unpaid for the few times my words have seen print) writer, nearsighted, halfbred, recently separated from a ten-year marriage and sixteen-year relationship, avid reader and Seinfeld fan, how is it I managed to uncover the secret when so many before me have tried and failed?

Some folks are good at making money. Some are good at making friends. I’m lucky in love. What’re ya gonna do?

I supposed you’d like to know the secret. Well, tough. I’m saving it for my guest column in O.

Just kidding! I flew back from Thanksgiving vacation on a Tuesday. I landed at noon and Becky was waiting. We’re in the beginning stage where separation is torture; I’ve never been glad to leave my family and head home to Miami after Thanksgiving, but knowing she was picking me up filled me with joy. We whiled away a day or so before work. I kissed her goodbye on Wednesday night. She had Thursday off; I wouldn’t even get to see her at work.

The emptiness where my family had been hit like a lead sack over my heart. The realization that I would spend the day without Becky didn’t help. I missed my friends. That night I biked home in the dark, got to the Treehouse, and moped. Slope shouldered, bottom lip pooched, frowning down at my stupid book I didn’t feel like reading, sniffing through dumb CDs I didn’t feel like hearing and boring DVDs I didn’t feel like watching, sighing at luggage and laundry I didn’t feel like putting away or washing, turning my phone on and off to make sure it was working.

A few martinis and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and I could have had a good old Self Pity Party.

Thursday morning, I didn’t hit the snooze on my alarm. I got up at five am and wrote for over four hours. I did my job at Books & Books. I posted on this here blog. I biked to the grocery store and loaded my backpack with goodies for the week. Once home, I made Jamaican Jerk Chicken with asparagus on the side for dinner (waaay over-spiced, but I chowed it down with relish despite the sweat on my brow), as well as a double-batch of my award-winning chili for the week (I lost the award-winning recipe which I thought would be my legacy to the world, but I’m getting closer to re-creating it with each attempt). After dinner, I settled in to read. “Mystic River” hit me just right.

Somewhere in the middle of making chili and preparing dinner, I realized Becky and I had texted, but not one of those marathon back-and-forth torture sessions where all I can do is lay there and wish she was next to me. Just a text here and there to keep the romance alive. I was enjoying my day, thinking my thinks, examining my life, doing things I enjoy doing, not simply wishing I had Cleopatra’s company.

I realized I didn’t need to worry about my new relationship combusting, about rushing things, about breaking my heart in a rebound. Writing, not staying over-long at work, cooking, reading, these were the things I enjoyed about single life. Between bouts of misery, I had periods of productive solitude. I need to enjoy Becky’s company without revolving my life around her. I need to keep evolving as a person instead of putting all of myself into a relationship.

A simple insight, but powerful for me.

Having Becky has also given me the courage to look back at my marriage with both eyes clear and open, rather than blurred by tears. I see now how stagnant Andi and I had become as people. Yes, we enjoyed each-other’s company in a way our friends envied, and yes, we shared a lot of love, and yes, we had many good years. But what about our lives, our personal goals? What about us as individuals?

A friend of mine reminded me about a past post, “Sharing,” how our lives began moving forward when we fell apart. It often seems to be the way of things. My sister sent me this great quote from Tobias Wolff; “We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.” It’s not grief and anger over my failed marriage I need to worry about suppressing, it’s my own development.

Before Becky and I even discussed this, she brought the truth of it home. Our bodies entwined like apes on the branches of a tree, basking in each-other’s warmth and scent, my alarm beeping at a ghastly hour of the morning, she kicked me out of bed.

“I don’t want to be the reason you don’t write,” she said.

I’m still struggling to find the balance between snuggling time and work time, between loving another and loving myself, but she’s supporting me the whole way.

It’s one of those things that feels like it’s always been there when you first discover it. The things you own end up owning you? Duh. No matter where you go, you can’t escape yourself? Of course. If you’re no good to yourself, you’re no good in a relationship. Ah-hah!

Simple, sure. But it’s allowed me to relax into us.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

An Off Year

Many large families gather around an event which brings all the extended members together for at least a day. Fourth of July barbeques. Christmas dinners. Annual reunions. Since moving to Miami in 1998, I’ve lost touch with my father’s side of the family. I miss those reunion barbeques in August at my Uncle Don’s house, eating grilled hotdogs and hamburgers, sucking down soda and a dozen different side salads, playing horse shoes and bocce. But travel isn’t cheap, and sacrifices must be made to honor that most sacred of holidays, Thanksgiving.

Aunt Val hosts Thanksgiving every year. We don’t all pull up on Thursday, watch some football, eat, watch some more football, and go home. I mean my aunt hosts. We start arriving on Tuesday. My parents, my siblings and their families, my cousins and their families, my aunts and uncles and their families, and often friends of the family. Tuesday’s dinner is chicken and rice. Wednesday is spaghetti with meatballs and sausage. Thursday is turkey (with mashed potatoes, stuffing, banana bread, zucchini bread, a pickle sample platter, cranberry, gravy, salad, celery stuffed with cream cheese, five kinds of squash, pistachio whip, broccoli, rolls to sop it all up with, and an extra turkey for sandwiches the rest of the week). Friday is ham. Saturday is pork loin. Drinks are milk, cider, lemonade, and Folgers and Starbucks coffee.

Dessert? We still talk about the year Aunt Elly, Aunt Val, and my sister-in-law Kim got overzealous. We had enough pies that we could have taken one a piece, over twenty in all. Each year, we have pumpkin, apple, cherry, lemon meringue, and chocolate. Usually there’s pecan, and at least one raspberry or blueberry. It’s the variations which defy pie logic. Pecan pumpkin. Stawberry rhubarb. Deep-dish apple. Granny smith apple. Cranberry apple. None of this includes cheesecake, ice cream, Val’s brownies, and Elly’s life-altering Peanut Butter Blossoms.

Sunday we make our way back home, driving from as close as ten minutes away and as far as four hours and all points between, some of us waiting for flights back to Florida. Aunt Val doesn’t bed all of us for six days anymore. My cousin Shannon bought a house a few years back, and some of us have taken to staying there. But we remember growing up, how every flat surface of the living room had a body. We make sure the youngest generation is aware of what they missed.

Traditionally, drinking happens after nightfall. My parents’ generation enjoyed tipping a few but stopped the practice before I developed any solid memories of their behavior. My own drinking started at the tail end of my generation’s wildest behaviors. It’s all fairly mellow now. A few beers around the bonfire (there’s always a bonfire Thursday, sometimes expanding to Wednesday and Friday as well) or at Shannon’s, progressing to several beers and a shot or two as the week goes on.

This year we didn’t play Kick the Can during Thursday’s bonfire because the ground was too squelchy. We took a lap around the fire to honor Tota’s memory instead. Let me say, not much of an honor. I can picture Tota looking down and rocking with her powerful laugh that sounded like climbing stairs, up and up and up and up, even as she’s touched by the emotion behind our amateur effort. Our family is not traditional. We’ve never attended dances or ceremonies. Still, we took a lap around the bonfire.

My cousin Ciera, who has been to ceremonies, told us to all move in a slow circle. The last person ran to take the lead, then the new last person ran to take the lead, and so on. I had one piece of Indian music from my CD collection memorized, so I started to sing it. I have no idea what I was saying. We giggled as we moved, gradually getting faster. Eventually, we were racing my sister when her turn came, and she never made it to the front. I stopped singing, and we grew self-conscious and stopped moving.

“I’m sorry, Tota,” Aunt Jeri laughed up at the night sky, tears rolling down her cheeks. “That’s the best we could do.”

This year my brother AJ and my sister-in-law Kim didn’t come. He’s never missed a year. Not once.

Every year for decades, we’ve played a Turkey Bowl. My uncle Mark retired at forty, scoring touchdowns in November, crippled with Rheumatoid arthritis in February. We’ve played Ice Bowls and Mud Bowls, we played two-hand touch in the street one year when the ground was frozen to concrete, and we’ve fielded a full eleven on eleven, with subs waiting on the sidelines. In twenty-five years we’ve never needed one phone call to gather a neighborhood crowd.

Every year starts as two-hand touch and winds up full-contact.  As my siblings, cousins, and my Shannon’s friends from the neighborhood have approached and passed forty, injuries have mounted. But we’ve always played.

Not this year.

My aunts and my parents have been getting up at five for Black Friday’s shopping specials since forever. This year they slept in.

My nephews - eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-two - asked if they could spend the night at Shannon’s. Really, they were asking to party with us. There’s nothing like seeing a kid whose diapers you’ve changed holding a beer to tell you time is passing.

It’s been on our minds for some years, on our lips more often. How much longer can we keep this up? When we compliment Aunt Val on her hosting and cooking skills, she pooh-poohs her efforts, saying she gets so much help that it's a breeze. She says she’ll keep doing it until it stops being fun.

Here’s hoping she’ll always find it fun.

Here’s hoping she lives to be a hale one hundred.

Here’s hoping my generation will be able to host a feast half as decadent, delicious, and filled with love.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stephen King and Sarasota

Cleopatra and I recently took a road trip to see Stephen King at the Van Wezel in Sarasota. With all the author appearances I’ve seen during my five years at Books & Books, it's funny to remember my first. Way back in junior high, at the Landmark Theater in Syracuse, NY, I watched Stephen King read the opening chapter from Needful Things.  He did it in character, using the flat vowels, wide r’s, and dry tone of the native northeasterner.  I didn’t consider it something I’d ever do again; I’d seen my favorite author – why would I need to see some lesser writer?

Back then I couldn’t imagine I'd be a bookseller, how many stories and authors I’d discover. Now I watch readings as research for when I'm behind the podium, and to express my appreciation for the writer's work.

Thankfully, Stephen King didn’t read from the mighty Under the Dome.   I’ve seen enough authors read to know that very few of them perform successfully.  Further, books were meant for a reader, not a listener.  He was interviewed for ninety minutes by Susan Rife of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. He was witty, intelligent, and interesting, and Cleopatra and I enjoyed ourselves completely. Not enough to wait out the crowd for a lottery ticket and a remote chance at perhaps possibly getting a signed copy if maybe we were unbelievably lucky, but we enjoyed ourselves.

What struck me about Stephen King was not the reading, but the people with whom we spoke about it afterwards. We told everyone we met what had brought us from Miami to Sarasota, and everyone had read at least one of his books.

Only if you work in the book business can you understand how rare that is. I’m so used to getting blank stares when I mention Ethan Canin, or Amy Hempel, or whoever I'm in love with at the moment, that the sentence is pre-diagrammed. “Do you know so-and-so? Doesn’t matter, here’s what s/he said…” This even happens among booksellers. Tens of thousands of books are published every year, with readers for each one. Co-workers all read fifty to sixty books on a yearly basis and might not overlap a single one.

 The best we can do is something along these lines:

     Bookseller A: You’ve never read Lolita? What's wrong with you? How can you call yourself a bookseller?

     Bookseller B: Well, you’ve never read The Secret History just because it was published after 1970. Really open-minded, by the way.

     Bookseller A: Lolita is a classic. It’s on more must-read lists than you can name.

     Bookseller B: Secret History is a modern classic. Fifty years from now, readers won’t know there was ever a distinction between how the literary community regarded them.

     Bookseller A: Okay, then I’ll read Secret History if you read Lolita.

     Bookseller B: Fine.

Bookseller snobbery be damned, the leathery blonde woman managing a mechanic shop was a Stephen King fan.

The scraggly outdoorsman working at the Big Cat Habitat loved Stephen King.

The career waitress at Hob Nob had read a few Stephen King books and enjoyed them.

Everywhere we went, his books had come before us. Most critics sniff when his name is mentioned, as do many booksellers and "serious" readers, but you have to respect someone whose work has reached so many.

While in Sarasota, we checked on Cleo Pater’s 1960 MG at a mechanic shop specializing in restoration of British classics.  A toothless, scrofulous blonde man pulled himself from under a car frame right out of James Bond.  He walked up to us wiping his blackened hands on a filthy rag and said, “Can I help?”  In his rugby-inflected English, it came out “Can’ai ‘elp?”   I wanted to put a shovel in his hand and force him into a grave so we could discuss skulls.
talking her way inside; squint and you'll see her butt
The Big Cat Habitat is only open weekends, and I had no hope that Cleopatra would get us inside.  I underestimated the force of her will, and the depth of her tiger obsession.  She charmed her way in on a Tuesday, and we got a private tour.  Her face glowed the entire time.

At Hob Nob, Cleopatra ate a very healthy-looking chicken wrap.  I slobbered down the greasiest food I’ve ever put in my mouth.  This grilled ham and cheese dripped down my arms and soaked three layers of napkins.  Just watching me eat it made Cleo gag around her smart food choices.  Hob Nob apparently caters to all types.

There was romance on our adventure as well. An intimate hotel room, glasses of wine on a deserted beach watching a meteor “shower” (I saw a meteor shower when I was a kid; three comets does not a shower make), coffee chat in fuzzy robes under the morning sun, a brief art walk, and more wine while watching the sun set over Sarasota Bay.

With perhaps twenty minutes to spare, we left our bench on Sarasota Bay in search of an unobstructed view. We found a sparsely-populated white sand beach and enjoyed a lemon-bitingly beautiful sunset. Clouds streaked in fiery gold, flocks of gulls, a crisp breeze, and someone special to share it with. How fucking romantic.

A friend from my hometown of Syracuse stayed in Sarasota for four months doing theater; she called it the “slowest place she’s ever been.”  So if you're wondering how slow Sarasota is, a lifelong Syracusian called it the slowest place she's ever been.  Coming from a denizen of a college town whose economic hub is a mall, that's damn slow.

But it’s the kind of slowness that’s made for lovers.  Go there.   Bring someone special.  Take a breath.   Watch the sun set.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Brief Update in Real Time

Since I wrote about Halloween after Thanksgiving, I’ll probably be writing about this Thanksgiving come New Years. My blog ain’t as much about what it is, as what it was.

Howzit, you may wonder?

Books & Books is crazy, as can be expected for a retail job during the holidays. For some reason, management has chosen this time to trim labor to the bone. Sure money is tight, but you can’t just look at numbers when it comes to capturing sales. As Mos Def says, “If you push too hard, even numbers have limits.” Our booksellers are taking on more and more work. Expecting them to give the kind of outstanding service this competitive economy requires - despite the workload weighing them down - is farce, if not outright fantasy. But I don’t run the place and don’t want the job, so what do I know and what do I care?

I miss my friends. I haven’t done the I’m-dating-someone-so-screw-the-plans-we-had thing, we just haven’t made plans. First, it was out of town to Orlando, then Miami Book Fair International, then out of town to Sarasota, then a week up north for Thanksgiving with the family. I’m hopeful that holiday parties will draw us back together.

Speaking of the someone I’m dating, that’s going well. I finally met Cleopatra’s kid, the same day I met her best friend. Then at the Book Fair, I met her mother, and then her father.

I thought I was scared working up the courage to kiss Cleopatra, but that was nothing to the terror of meeting her five-year-old boy. Thankfully, Cleo Jr. inherited the best parts of Cleopatra. He’s polite, caring, funny, and enjoys helping people. I won’t say it was one hundred percent comfortable for me from the moment I saw him, but compare it to dating. There’s always an adjustment period. Of course I don’t know how to date, so what do I know? What I mean is, there were moments being with Cleo Jr. felt comfortable and natural, moments upon which we can build.

Cleo Compadre is crazy. Funny as hell, but clearly nuts.

I haven’t read any Orhan Pamuk yet, although I have two of his books on my shelves. I sensed it was important to Cleopatra that I look knowledgeable to Cleo Mater, so I drew on my bookselling experience – sales and word-of-mouth – to act like I knew what I was talking about. It seemed to go well. Cleo Mater took my recommendation. I also made her laugh, which can’t hurt.

Before Cleo Pater met me, he asked Cleopatra, “Should I say ‘*I’m a black belt in karate and a former sniper’ or just ‘Hi, it’s good to meet you’?”

Cleopatra told him to go with the latter. Thankfully, he did.

The most fun part about Cleopatra, Cleopatra Pater, and Cleopatra Mater? They all hover just over five feet tall. When you take a picture with the three of them by themselves, they look average (they clean up nicely, too). You’d never know that if you stuck me behind them, I wouldn’t fit in the frame.
The second most fun part? They invited me to their Noche Buena this year. Cross your fingers.

The writing goes well as well. I’ve been devouring fiction again, loving Junot Diaz's Drown, David Eagleman’s Sum, and especially John Fante's Ask the Dust over Thanksgiving break. So far Dennis Lehane's Mystic River makes his detective series, the Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro Novels which I read and enjoyed tremendously, look like dress rehearsals for the big show. Rich in plot and character development, Mystic River has a tone of mystery and inevitability that turns pages like a hot knife slices butter.

I’ve taken my first tentative steps back into writing fiction, as well. I realized a short story I’ve been writing would make a better novel, and a great screenplay.

The day I had that realization, Mitchell introduced me to his production partner at the Book Fair. He told her, “Soon we’ll be optioning his book for a movie.” I told him I’d had a good idea just that morning. He smiled like he didn’t know whether I was joking, which is the problem with always trying to lighten the mood.

I also decided … well, it’s too soon. We’ll see. Let’s just say I have another story cooking which could be a doozy. Could also blow up in my face and leave a shattered remnant of a failed writer in its wake, but that’s the fun part, isn’t it? The fearless casting of one’s muse into murky waters, unsure whether the hook will catch a meal, a sneaker, nothing, or a whale.

* Not a joke, FYI.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Someone’s shitting in my bathroom, and it isn’t me.

The first time I noticed anything untoward was a few weeks back. I got home from work and saw something dark on the counter to the left of my bathroom sink. It looked like a Hershey’s Kiss at one-eighth scale. A tissue easily wiped it up, yet I smelled not chocolate but the signature scent of fecal matter.

The ceiling above this area is intact. In the Treehouse, that’s saying something. There are gaps around the ceiling fans and the closet light. The space around the kitchen fixture is big enough for a fist. The tops of the walls don’t quite meet the ceiling all the way around, and only some of the space has been “sealed” with silicone. Black silicone in spots, clear in others. We’re calling this charming.

If I had to guess based on a sliding scale of most mistakes to fewest, the amateur carpenter who installed this admittedly gorgeous (at first glance) ceiling started in the closet, moved to the kitchen, then on to the living room, and finally the bathroom. Or maybe the smaller bathroom space just meant less to fuck up.

Anyway, I wiped the Fecal Kiss from my bathroom counter, chalked it up to a furry visitor, and went about my life.

Then the pooping continued. Nightly. It became part of my morning routine, checking the bathroom for mini-poop. As you can see, sometimes the Scat Phantom hits his target, the swooping side of the towel rack:

Sometimes the Scat Phantom doesn’t get enough fiber:

Other times, he misses altogether:

This is possibly some kind of rodent ritual, like when frat boys on spring break climb balcony railings and let piss fly on more drunken frat boys below. A group of furry friends, high on fat Coral Gables foliage, squeeze their way into the Treehouse. Remember, rats can wriggle through a hole the size of a quarter.

But these aren’t rats. They are mice. Perhaps there are three, and they’re blind, and have simply mistaken my bathroom for theirs. These things happen. Or maybe they’re like the Mouse Guard of Sprucetuck, tipsy from hoisting a few too many thimbles of spiked sap after their latest battle. I’ve seen pictures.

The point is, not rats. NOT RATS.

“Oy, Fuzzy,” Sir Furface slurs, “betcha can’t make the towel rack from all the way up here, on the window sill.”

“Pah.” Fuzzy McDowell waves a paw at this amateur request, puddling his mouse britches (made of silk thread from pet larvae and dyed with blueberries) around his ankles.

“You can squat,” Snoots Brownie says, raising his three-fingered right paw, “but you can’t dangle.”

Fuzzy pauses at the window sill. Snoots always gestured with his mangled paw to give his words extra emphasis. Like loosing two digits to a kitten made him some kind of tough mouse.

“Fellas,” Fuzzy says, looking blearily between Furface and Snoots, “just watch.”
Fuzzy pushes his cape (made of mouse leather from conquered tribes) aside, squats over the edge of the windowsill, and squinches his eyes tight. The others giggle in anticipation. When Fuzzy’s whiskers start to twitch, they cheer him on.

Anyhoo, this clearly didn’t happen because this is not the work of a drunken rodent team. No, this is the work of a Unishitter. For one thing, no drunken rodent team could be so consistently accurate. For another, I don’t think this is mouse poo. It has a white part, like guano, and it falls apart in the toilet like a tiny cigar separating into tobacco leaves.

Of course when it comes to crap, I’m no expert. Maybe it’s a ghost turd. Maybe there’s a perfectly legitimate sewer system somewhere, cosmically speaking, and the exit just happens to be right above my towel rack. A flash of lightning not unlike the one on the living room ceiling in Poltergeist, and poo drops from the ceiling.

Thus far, there has been no pilfering of food. The Scat Phantom is like me; he just wants a little privacy for his bodily functions. We have a nice, you don’t fuck with me, I don’t fuck with you apart from shitting on your towel rack vibe going. Fine, for the moment.

We’ll see what happens when MiniMe moves in.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Halloween Parties for Jesus

On Halloween, I was supposed to meet a girl who works with JC, one my one of best friends. Great, I thought, this is where I’m at in life: the fix-up. Excellent. JC and his wife Laura spent a goodly portion of my birthday weekend prepping me. Not a fix-up, they assured me, just a costume party at which we’d both be in attendance. Fine.

Between telling me how funny she was, that her name was Marcy Graham but everyone called her Macy Gray, and that they thought we’d hit it off, it was a picture show.

AJC: Wow, I can’t believe you got us all tickets to Leonard Cohen tonight.

JC (thrusting IPHONE into my face): Here’s her Facebook picture.

AJC: She’s cute. I’ve always wanted to see Leonard Cohen, but the tickets-

LAURA (thrusting IPHONE into my face): Here she is at a Cancer benefit.

AJC: Okay, she’s cute in a cocktail dress. Um... but I thought the tickets were too expensive. Should we have a cocktail first, or-

JC (thrusting IPHONE into my face): Here she is with purple hair and a nose ring.

AJC: Great, she’s cute and punk and I’ll meet her at this Halloween thing and we’ll hit it off and have lots of sex and babies, okay?

JC & LAURA: If you want.

AJC: Let’s drink now. Heavily.

Anyhoo, JC and Laura had one reservation about Macy Gray; she attends church. Doesn’t cross my eyes none (no pun intended). I subscribe to the Bible passage in Matthew where Jesus says to go into your room and pray by yourself (and "Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you"), but I’m not much for fellowship. As long as Macy didn’t expect me to attend with her, cool.

I was trying to decide what to be for Halloween. With an eye for the romantic, Cleopatra pounced on Macy’s church-going ways. Cleo told me I should find out what Macy Gray planned on being, then dress up as her partner.

“For instance, I’m going as Cleopatra,” she said. “You’d be Anthony.”

Of course, that’s what ended up happening (and why I call her Cleopatra), but I bring up Macy Gray because of what Cleo said next.

“Oh, she’s a church girl. I’ve got it; you should go as Jesus. The second you walk into the party, she’ll be all over your dick.”

JC took me to Casa de los Trucos on eighth street; Historic Calle Ocho, if you subscribe to hyperbolic street signs. The line to get in Casa de los Trucos stretched to the parking lot. When customers left, a bouncer would let the next few people in. Inside it was hot, crowded, loud, and festooned with every costume you could ever want, on the cheap. Thankfully, I was rolling with JC, one of those guys who doesn’t necessarily know everyone, but who knows someone who knows someone. In this case, he used to rent an apartment from the owner. He looked up the costume I needed (on the cursed IPHONE) and got us help.

Thrift led me to a Caesar costume similar to how I remembered Marlon Brando’s senate robes as Marc Anthony in 1953's Julius Caesar. Here’s a picture of the costume I bought at Casa de los Trucos:
This is no Caesar. Clearly, this costume enjoyed a previous life as a Prince of Peace costume. It didn’t sell, so the company was like, “Screw it. Sew some gold around the edges, put some leaves in the dude’s hair, and change the name.” And I, balking at the price tag of the costume I really wanted, fell for it.

It might be worth noting that Trucos is “tricks” en Englais.

When I got home and took a long look, I realized this would not do. It might be a funny sight gag for Cleopatra. Remember how I was supposed to be with Church Girl tonight? But then she’d have to stand next to me the whole night.

No problem. I haven’t made my own costumes in a while, but it’s like riding a bicycle. All I needed was a trip to Party City and a sewing kit from CVS. Fifteen bucks later, I had this:
That's me between Caesar and Cleopatra.

Marc Anthony, not the singer.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Toad and Scorpion

A toad and a scorpion come to edge of a river.

“Oy, Toad,” says Scorpion. “How about a ride across yon river?”

“No chance,” says Toad. “You’d sting me.”

“Nonsense,” says Scorpion. “If I stung you, you would die, and I would drown.”

“Makes sense to me,” says Toad.

Scorpion climbs onto Toad’s back, and Toad jumps into the river.

Halfway across, Toad feels a burning pain in his side.

“Why did you sting me, Scorpion?” he cries. “Now we both shall die!”

“I can’t help it,” Scorpion murmurs. “It’s in my nature.”

My friends and family worry about me. Awfully serious awfully fast, they say. Be careful of the rebound, they say. Don’t forget to floss, they say.

For the most part, they’re glad to see me so happy. They also don’t want me to get hurt. For my part, I’m glad to be so happy. And I don’t want me to get hurt, either. It seems we’re all on the same page.

I’d like to ease back into dating, to see who’s out there, to cautiously, judiciously, and soberly consider my next course of action. Well, a woman is not a course of action. And fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t know how to date. What I do is dive from the cliff and into the waters below, with all the restraint of a child blundering through a field chasing a butterfly. It’s not shrewd, I know, but I can’t help it.

It’s in my nature.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Let's Not Be Hasty

There’s a Sedano’s, a CVS, and a coin laundry walking distance from the Treehouse.  I haven’t lived here long, so I’m still developing a routine.  My grocery shopping was sporadic and bacheloresque.  Eggs, juice, and frozen pizza at Target when I bought a shower curtain.  Apples, eggs, and bread when I helped a friend throw a barbecue.  A Swiss cheese platter at Fritz & Franz kept me in grilled cheese and omelette de fromage for two weeks.  I ate a lot of eggs for breakfast and a lot of salads at The Rubber Duck for lunch.

I finally shopped, lugging a cartful of groceries six blocks in one of those big blue bags from Ikea.  I switched arms often, but I think they still stretched a good two inches each.   This is the last thing I need.   It’s not height giving me my impressive reach, it’s my simian arms.  I once beat the captain of our high school basketball team in a tip off, and I have no vertical leap.  None.  Another few months of lugging groceries, and I’ll look like I’m walking with ski poles.

Thankfully, my bike is fixed now.  I can shop every few days.   I’m down to one plastic bag too many.  My next trip, I hope to fill my backpack precisely and not need to worry about beating my groceries to death with my knees on the ride home.

While procrastinating getting my bike fixed (or rather, procrastinating asking someone with the means of transporting my bike to the shop for help), I stopped getting rides into Books & Books from co-workers. I decided to walk instead.

Coral Gables calls itself The City Beautiful, and it is.  There’s so much foliage around my house, the air feels thick with oxygen.  The sun shining down from Miami’s blue skies, banyan trees shading my path, I feel very European, going for long, rambling walks among the greenery.  It's easy to smile surrounded by all this beauty.

My internal dial has adjusted itself to a slower pace.  Cars move at improbable speeds.  TV ads and sitcom dialog sound ridiculous.  I can’t bring anything into my home, dirty any dish, wear any shirt, without thinking of the consequences.

My hope is that I’ll continue to live life more deliberately.  I want to consider my words, and my relationships.   One of my problems has always been saying the first fool thing which comes to my mind.   I’d love to take a breath before speaking.  I’ve been giving my time to people I normally wouldn’t, opening myself to new experiences.  I’ve rediscovered one of the talents I had as a younger man, which is listening without thinking of what to say next (the trick is not to be so afraid of silence).

The questions we need to answer about why we’re here, what we’re supposed to do, and what does it all mean, along with searching for the joy and the lessons in any given moment; lately, I seem to have more time for all of that.  Which is ridiculous, since my days are fuller than they’ve ever been.  Must be just perspective.

People marvel that I don’t own a car in a city with terrible public transportation.  If I did, I’d crank the music up and joyously sing along, but my exercise and meditation time would be lost.  My grasp of the present would fade.  I’d go back to drifting through life, instead of living it.  Not gonna happen.

According to Paul Auster, I’m already there in my chosen mode of transportation.  He compared trying to make a living through writing to watching people zoom past in their SUVs and saying, “Yes, I see those cars and that's great… but I’m going to stick with my bike.”

Me, too, Paul.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ode to Joy

I’m reading, and loving, Arianne Cohen’s The Tall Book. According to Cohen, “talls” react to their height in one of two ways. They wilt under all the attention their height garners them, holding up the wall at parties, slouching their way through life, or they develop the large personalities people expect to accompany their size.

Cohen, naturally shy and bookish, forces herself to become larger-than-life. Even though I’m not a super tall, 6’3” is in the ninety-eight percentile of height. I empathized with Cohen.

So let’s consider Cleopatra. All 5’1” of her.

When I’m out and about with Cleo, a line from Ani Difranco's “Evolve” always runs through my head:

I walk in stride with people / much taller than me.
Partly it’s the boots / but mostly it’s my chi.
Cleo keeps up. She also fills a room naturally, in a way I never could. She gets toe-to-toe with strangers. She moves through life without fear, using her cute-as-a-button face and petite frame to excuse behavior which would come across as pushy and aggressive in someone my size. I love that.

“Oh, I get it,” a crackhead who wanted money for watching Cleo’s car outside a club one night drawled, “She’s the one in charge.”

“Absolutely,” I told him.

The whole petite, cutesy, childish thing works for Cleo, but it’s also only one facet of her. People who only see that will never know the woman she is, what it feels like to drown in those huge, dark eyes.

I can’t do an “Ode to Joy” (that’s what I had in mind, an Ode to Cleopatra) because I’m not Leonard Cohen. Really, I want to have written “A Thousand Kisses Deep” before he did. Parts of it, anyway.

Cohen fills an entire mead notebook for one song, a whittling process with which I’m not unfamiliar. Although Ming basically dictated herself to me, I’ve written thousands of pages for Scratch the Dead Places, what will eventually be a three to five hundred page novel. Most first drafts of my short stories are two or three times longer than the finished product. Keeping that in mind for my Ode, I just wrote free-form, pages and pages as they came to me, knowing I would burn most of them later to find the salvageable truths.

You know the one about a hundred monkeys typing on a hundred keyboards for a hundred years (or maybe it’s a thousand monkeys for a thousand years), how one of them would produce the complete works of Shakespeare? I felt like one of those monkeys.

I’m no poet. Still, even though I can’t put it on the page, poetry healed my heart. I never would have guessed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Couple Years Back, Another One Bit the Dust

Growing up, my best friend Jason lived within easy walking distance of my house and even easier biking distance, two and a half blocks away. We waited at the same bus stop for school in the mornings, ate lunch together, messed around in the afternoons, shared dinner at each-other’s houses, had sleepovers. In summers, camping, biking, going to different playgrounds, gaming, and movies were common activities. People constantly took us for brothers; Jason called us identical twins born six months apart.

It’s safe to say we were Geeks. Nerd, dork, and loser all raise my hackles, but I can embrace Geek. Even the coolest people in the world geek out over something. The rock star with her model trains, the artist with his encyclopedic knowledge of orchids, the sports star with the screening room showing black and white films reel-to-reel. Since Jason and I were little more than a collection of odd obsessions like these, we were Geeks full time. Whether enjoying books, movies, music, candy, soda, games, school, or (eventually) girls, we brought the same level of obsessive, life-or-death intensity.

In eighth grade, Jason’s family moved and carted him off like luggage. My family didn’t own a car. He only lived forty minutes away but it may as well have been another world. For a few years, we saw each other when we could. Then life continued.

I lost my best friend when all the cliques had already formed, and I didn’t have the social skills to make inroads. In some ways, I never recovered.

I didn’t have another best friend until ten years later. George and I worked together at Starbucks. He was gay, hilarious, disheveled, and pretty. Shai Lebouf, if Shai Lebouf was tall and Cuban. He volunteered with developmentally disabled kids. He chain smoked. He collected dolls and action figures. He had five cats and lived with his boyfriend’s family.

When I lost my job, he and his boyfriend moved in with me and my wife. It was tight quarters - four people and seven cats in an apartment sized for two - but we needed their income to survive. Living together strained our relationship, but it was still strong. When I had no way to afford it, George used connections to get me a free flight back home for our week-long family Thanksgiving bacchanal. In fact, he got tickets for all four of us.

This grand gesture killed our friendship. George invited a childhood friend to come along. Meredith paid for her own ticket and flew separately. She and I did not get along one iota. Hate is a strong word, but our mutual animosity skirted damned close. The trip veered between exhilarating fun and torture. When we returned home, Andi and I asked George and Jose to move out. We loved them, but we were afraid our friendship would die if we continued living with them.

They claimed to be fine with this decision. We continued being friends, although we didn’t see each-other as often. Then George and Jose broke up, and George moved in with Meredith. I imagine she spent her days speaking ill of me. George and I grew further apart. The last time we got together it was stilted and horrible.

The loss of that friendship was more devastating than losing Jason. High school was terrible and I didn’t have the best home life, but I was young and I survived. Miami is a tough town to do alone. It feels like a party is always happening somewhere, and if you’re not part of it then you’re just a loser. After George and I parted ways, I stopped trying to join the party.

Eventually, through whatever means these things happen, I found another group of friends. I was the oldest by several years, but I felt comfortable with them. I also had the good sense to appreciate them.

I particularly remember a trip to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Orlando, the third year we’d gone. On Sunday, we had our traditional Cracker Barrel breakfast, pushing three tables together to do it. Bellies full, we talked over coffee and food sculptures made from leftovers, laughing until we choked. I stepped back for a moment. The late morning sun slanted on our table, horizontal blinds making ladders on their smiling faces. I realized I would never have a group of friends like them. So many coming together so often and so well, it never lasts. Others friends would gather around other tables, but not the same faces.

I’m glad that I took that moment.

One of the people at Cracker Barrel was Gabriel. Over a space of years, he became best friend number three. Gabriel and I mostly sat around and watched TV. Still, I was completely myself around him. He fit the bill in a way no one else did, and he moved to Seattle.

In My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding, the character of Ian Miller asks the actor Ian Gomez (on whom he’s based) to be his best man.

“I’m touched,” the actor Ian Gomez says. “I had no idea you had so few friends.”

In Tombstone, a stuntman who trained the lead actors in gun play asks Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday why he’s doing all this for Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp.

“Wyatt Earp is my friend,” Kilmer / Holiday says.

“Hell, I’ve got lots of friends,” the stuntman says.

Kilmer / Holiday answers, “I don’t.”

Since my shared language with Gabriel has mostly been movies, I think using these shallow examples to express deeper emotion is appropriate.

It’s possible Gabriel had no idea I considered him my best friend. It’s even probable. The virtual age disconnects what we feel from what we express. In my case, compound that by my being a writer. To write that I love him is easy, and I’ve told him before, but I don’t know if he understood how much losing him hurt.

Moving has made him a better person. He taught himself to cook, he exercises, eats better, climbs mountains, and has become something of an environmentalist. I admire him for knowing himself. I admire him for his candor. I admire him for being the spark in a party that others gather around. He is my friend and I have missed him dearly.

Of course, a tiny, selfish part of me hates him for leaving.

I don’t know who my next best friend will be. I already know I’ll never have another friend like Gabriel.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Turning Point

Blogging is an odd contribution to my writing skills. If the differences between my first Bottega Favoritta post and the second are any indication, I’ve gotten better at it. I thank Andrea Askowitz and Lip Service for giving me the discipline I’ve needed to get my point across with fewer words.

A friend of mine who teaches at a private school of some note decried the state of his students’ papers. He tries to explain the importance of revisions to a sea of blank stares. His students’ confusion is the confusion of the novice writer: “You mean writing isn’t just dump and flush?”

In part, yes. Chuck Palahniuk even makes this comparison during his readings. He knows some writers believe writing every day is important to the craft, but he only writes when the urge is hot.

“Put it this way,” he says with a sly grin, “do I sit on a toilet, waiting until it’s time to take a shit?”

Of course, Palahniuk has eight books published. He can afford to court his muse however he likes. But to a novice, waiting for inspiration is just self-delusion. A hundred things will fill your day before you “find the time” to write. Once you’ve made the decision to be a writer, you need to write, every day, for at least a few years. Until you can just sit down and do it without waiting for… whatever. It’s just a job, a skill to be honed, not some mysterious lighting bolt from God.

Don’t get me wrong, dump and flush is an important part of the process. That’s why I began writing at five AM in the first place, before coffee, before breakfast, putting my thoughts to paper without judgment, as close to that waking-dream state as possible. I don’t rely on that so much anymore, although that’s still where my best new ideas emerge. Starting a fresh piece, it’s important to follow the muse.

Writing is revision. It’s setting your words aside for a time and returning to them with fresh perspective. Ironing, twisting, whittling. If you’re lucky, you may even have some readers you trust who won’t bullshit you about the weaknesses and strengths of what you’ve written. Don’t fall in love with your words; when people suggest edits, they’re right ninety percent of the time.

I like at least three passes at something before anyone reads it. This flies in the face of the blog, or at least the entries which are supposed to be a record of my day-to-day life. I revised the Leonard Cohen post three times in two days and didn’t lose much time getting it posted, but that’s rare. I like to take my time, which leads to some inconsistencies. I wrote Reflecting Pool with a mind for the next round of Lip Service some weeks back, but then decided it didn’t quite measure up. That’s why it has a little more behind it than some other posts, and why it sticks out as a throwback to the misery surrounding me when I settled into my new digs. Next thing you know, I’m developing feelings for Cleopatra.

If you’re reading these as I post them and they come across as contradictory, I apologize. But I need to revise.

Of course, people are full of contradictions. That’s part of what makes us fun. James Ellroy started his recent reading at Books & Books with quotes from T.S. Elliot and Eudora Welty, and called Don DeLillo's Libra a huge influence on his Underworld USA Trilogy. Later, he said he has no influences and never reads anything but his own work. For inspiration, Ellroy said, “I sit by myself in a dark room and brood.”

Now I’m pushing my blog into murky waters. What my style of posting does to the tone of “Sweet with Fall and Fish” can’t be helped, but the content is up to me. I’m dating someone special, and my instinct is to write all about it (within reason, of course). I’ve followed blogs which became profoundly boring when they try to be coy, posting without revealing too much.

How much do I write about what’s happening now? Do I take Cleopatra at her word that this blog is “my thing,” that it has nothing to do with her?

Even writing that question is odd. Shouldn’t I be asking her? Of course, she’d assure me to write whatever. We’d all like a secret window into what our friends and lovers really think of us, but what if she sees something she doesn’t like? Further, how honest can I really expect myself to be, knowing she’s reading?

Also, the creation of a relationship is largely the business of the ones creating it. If you’re curious, take a listen to Charlie Rich's Behind Closed Doors. For the time being, I’ll post praise where praise is due, but I’ll save my doubts for Cleopatra’s ears.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Story

Everyone loves to hear the story, told from lips which can’t stop smiling because they’re reddened with fresh kisses, below eyes shining with the glow of new regard. People love to bask in new relationships because everything is sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops. You’re taken back if you’ve been there, given hope if you haven’t.

We’ve worked together about a year and a half, Cleopatra and I. She’s an awesome coworker because she makes work fun. She’s responsible and always willing to help. She’s cool, laid back, and accepting, deflating stress and frustration with laughter. In Miami parlance, “Down as fuck, bro.”

I’ve never looked at her twice.

Why not? Well, I was married, stupid, what do you think?

I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. When the marriage ended, there was the age difference. Except one girl in high school, everyone I’ve dated has been older. One year, six years, ten years, twenty-four years. My wife was only two weeks older, but you get the idea. I prefer someone older, or at least in my age range. Eleven is just a number, but in years, that was a large enough number to make Cleo invisible in that way.

Consider another number: fourteen. This is our height differential, in inches. Remember, seeing women five nine and up makes my blood run hot. Strike two against Cleopatra.

At a barbeque several weeks back, everyone went inside to play a game we had no interest in playing, so Cleopatra and I stayed outside. I realized we’d worked together all this time but I barely knew her. I knew she was a single mother, but I didn’t know the particulars of the relationship. I learned some pretty horrific facts. Many try to reclaim their hardships for pity points; she didn’t. She wears the scars of her life with grace, not letting them affect who she is. We had a good rapport, and my respect for her grew.

Next week, she was one of the crowd who helped celebrate my birthday. She bought my ticket to “Where the Wild Things Are.” She moon-walked during a traffic jam in the parking garage. She drew a picture for me on a placemat at Fox’s lounge, scribbling an accurate Carole in seconds.

The following Monday while Cleo and I were drinking at The Bar, I thought I was picking up a vibe. A co-worker showed up before I could make a drunken move, a development I met with equal parts relief and frustration.

A few days later, Cleopatra invited me and another friend to Orlando for Halloween, a friend to whom I confessed my what if feelings. As I was praising Cleopatra, wondering if it was all in my head, this friend received a text message. She read it and her face lit up.

“I have to show you this,” she said.

It was a text from Cleopatra.

Before we road trip I must confess, I have quite the crush on Curtis.

I remember it word for word because I read it so many times that night. I stopped short of asking to have it forwarded to me, but not by much. I have mixed feelings about cell phones, but at that moment, telling my friend what to text Cleopatra, having her answers read aloud, Cleo clueless to it all, technology was my friend.

The next night we hung out after work again, with predictable results.

“Geez, you’re quiet tonight,” Cleopatra said.

Of course I’m quiet, I thought. I’m attracted to you, so I can’t talk to you.

Well, I’d been talking to her for months, so I forced myself back in that mode. This is your friend Cleo, I told myself, nothing to get nervous about. It worked, and we shared some laughs.

Saturday was a memorable night. From club to club, our friends did their best to leave Cleopatra and I by ourselves. I finally saw Churchill’s and Transit Lounge, places I’d heard tell of but had never seen. The venues barely registered. I was trying to work up the courage to kiss Cleopatra.

I’d read the quite the crush text. Cleo gave me signals all night which were the courtship equivalent of neon signs with letters three feet high. Example? She gave me half her beer at one point, telling me she was tipsy enough, but she’d hate for me not to have enough Irish Courage to “make my move.”

Still, I was paralyzed. Until five in the morning, when we ended up at my place.

“I’m staying with you,” she said. “It’s too long of a drive back home.”

Which it is, frankly.

“I don’t want to impose…”

“Impose isn’t the word I would have used,” I told her. “I promise to be a perfect gentleman.”

“I can’t say the same,” she said.

We giggled our way into pajamas and under the covers, still never having shared more than a friendship hug. We admitted the situation was awkward. What happened then? None of your damned business.

Okay, we shared a first kiss I’ll never forget. It was too soon for anything more.

I couldn’t sleep because her scent was so intoxicating.

The next day I spent with my head in the clouds. Staying up twenty-four hours and beyond, I should have been cranky and exhausted. Instead, the memory of an awkward night which ended so sweetly sustained me.

I have worries. Everyone at work loves her. If things don’t work out, I’ll be the douchebag who broke her heart. I could be taking one of the few reasons I enjoy my job – running into Cleopatra every day – and making it a point of awkwardness. I’m also afraid I’m Captain Rebound. My vulnerability amplifies her every move to Mach Q levels. I also haven’t met her son yet.

For the moment, I’m happy, and the more I learn about her, the more I want to know.

One day at a time, I tell myself.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Maria Show

Maria Clara Ferri has shown up in two stories of mine, “Drunk Talk” and “Happy Halloween,” and in one nonfiction piece, “Karaoke.” For a variety of reasons, some people can’t be contained on the page. There’s something about them which is beyond words, like trying to capture the beauty of dust motes in sunlight or a plume of smoke in a velvet room. Maybe your emotions about them are difficult to identify. Or maybe the difficulty is simply trying to describe something which needs to be experienced to be understood, like hearing their voice or feeling their skin. Sometimes metaphor helps. In any case, you’ll recreate these people as fictional characters again and again because they fascinate you, and you can’t pin them down.

We call Maria “The Maria Show.” The problem pinning her to page is that she’s too large. Her over-the-top personality – the kind which makes people comfortable using the word persona - can’t be captured by anything as trivial as words. Some people light up a room; Maria turns a room into a disco ball.

I’ve always enjoyed spending time with her, but during my separation she’s stepped up to blow the dust from the corners of my mind and shake me into action, she’s listened to my rambling phone calls and offered some of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten. I’ve attached myself to her coattails, or rather the length of her flowing summer dresses, and my social life has blossomed by proximity. If Maria hadn’t kidnapped me a few weekends, I may have reached out to someone else, or someone else may have reached me, but more likely, I would have wallowed. I can’t imagine these last months without her to see me through.

And she left. She left Miami, and she took her charm, her laugh, her smile, her understanding, her candor, and all the wonder of The Show with her.

I wish her luck. With her twenties behind her, I hope she finds the man she wants. I hope she builds new friendships as deep as the ones she’s made in Miami. I hope she gets back all the happiness she gives.

And I wish Atlanta luck in trying to hold her back.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Carrie Called it the Za Za Zoo

There’s people you should date, people you want to date, people you end up with, and people from whom you should stay as far as possible.  It’s odd how seldom these categories overlap.

What is that spark of attraction?  More to the point, why is it?  Apart from nothing you can define, reason with, or manufacture.  It’d be nice and safe, and certainly easier, if we could bottle that spark, put it on a shelf, and forget about it.  I could get on examining my solitude, mending my broken heart with words and workouts, not letting my mood depend on outside sources.  In other words, how well I’m handling the breakup on a given day is directly related to hearing from my unrequited crush.  This is not healthy.  I know this.  I tell anyone who will listen (and now, apparently, anyone who will read, har-har).  Knowing it’s unhealthy doesn’t stop depression in the face of her silence, because the heart wants what it wants.

Sorry, I hate clichés, too.  Yet again and again during these past months, clichés have popped up to wag their fingers in my face.  Told you so, told you so, toldyou-toldyou-toldyou-so, they say.  One day at time, they say.  We grew apart, they say.  The heart wants what it wants?  Oh, just fuck right off.  But…yes, it does.  If I could pluck that longing from my heart and box it until I’m ready, how less dizzy my head would be, how even my emotional recovery, how neat and inhuman my heart.

Take it to another level.  Imagine pulling that spark from someone who doesn’t spark back and putting it someplace you wish it would.  I’m speaking of my friendships with some truly amazing women.

During my marriage, I often looked at these fabulous singles and wondered what’s wrong with the men in Miami.  Now that I’m single, I have two dilemmas.  First, the odds of a relationship working out are low. I value my friendships too much to jeopardize them on what if.   Second (and this is where the spark-in-a-bottle comes in), I’ve been in the Friend Zone too long.  I’m having a great old time with perfectly attractive female friends, and part of me thinks, my life would be so much easier if there was any sexual tension between us.  My dating life, at least.

Of course, sometimes you get lucky.  The spark sneaks up from an unexpected source.  Someone you never considered turns out to be exactly the person you need.  Friendship turns to flirting, laughing to longing, and there my alliterative comparisons run out.

I know it’s too soon.  I know it’s foolish.  I know there’s a reason people warn against rebound relationships.  I also think I’ve been miserable long enough.  I’d forgotten I used to be a joyful man.  The joy Cleopatra (not her real name, obviously) brought back to my life has lately felt like something more than friendship. Something like a spark.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Campfire Stories, November 2006

The sprawling branches of my mother’s side of the family are gathered around the traditional after-Thanksgiving bonfire in my Aunt Val’s backyard. AJ, my older brother by five years, and his nineteen-year-old son, Jason, are here as they are every year. My sister has a blood clot in her lung so she wasn’t able to make it, but her fifteen and sixteen-year-old sons Johnny and Steven are here. Johnny is at the age where he wants to be called John. Steven has one kidney so he’s banned from the Turkey Bowl, a fact he makes up for with a combination of martial arts and hunting. He’s also something of a Guitar Hero prodigy. By virtue of driving them up with us from Syracuse, my wife and I are in charge of them. They’re normally self-sufficient, but get them around the bonfire and suddenly it’s a challenge to keep them from jumping over.

AJ stops them with a story. He and fourteen other guys were camping and drinking and decided it would be a good idea to jump the campfire. That got boring after a while, so they upped the ante. "Let’s jump over it after it’s freshly stoked."  "Let’s jump over it after we throw on a fresh pallet."  Or two pallets. Or three.

“This guy goes up to jump it,” AJ says, acting it out in slow motion. “He slips and lands just likes this” - his arms are twin L’s and either side of his head - “face-first on a fire.” That camping trip ended with a drunken trip to hospital and a friend with third-degree burns on his face.

“Are you going to fall in?” he asks. “Probably not. Probably not ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But is it worth that hundredth time?”

The story stops Steven and Johnny from jumping.

It’s sad that my sister Cass can’t be here because my cousins are up from Florida for the first time in almost twenty years. Aunt Val is Mohawk Indian and Uncle Tim is Irish, but the Irish won when it came to naming their three boys: Shawn, Shane, and Shannon. The six of us were inseparable as children, but in truth being the youngest made me more of a hanger on. AJ and Shawn are eight months apart, Shawn having just turned forty and AJ waiting until March. I haven’t seen Shawn since I was thirteen, the year I grew taller than him to become the tallest in the family. He’s outgoing and personable and has become a great storyteller, like his father. The middle cousin, Shane, is the same age as my sister Cass. He’s the ladies’ man. Shannon, the youngest, is two or three years old than me. There’s hardly any difference between 34 and 36, but subtract a few decades and it’s a world. One eight-year-old versus five kids aged ten to thirteen. A ten-year-old versus a pack of twelve, thirteen, and fifteen-year-olds. You can do the math but you can’t measure the gap unless you’ve lived it.

More than our ages growing up, it’s a temperament, a feeling that I’m a sensitive soul born into a family of real men (truthfully, Shannon shares this same sensibility; he just blends better). It’s clear by the different stories we have.

Shannon asks AJ to tell the story about the time my brother-in-law took on four guys on Marshall Street. Marshall Street is on the hill at Syracuse University, a row of bars and pizza joints that caters to college students. Cass’s husband Eddie, Johnny and Stephen’s father, is a six-foot-one, two hundred and twenty pound ex-Marine. He sleeps naked with a machete under his mattress for home protection, but that’s another story.

We gather around eagerly.

“Yeah,” AJ says. “Four guys started some shit and Eddie beat ‘em up really quick.”

We’re all standing around the bonfire, waiting for more, but AJ’s already gone to get another beer.

“AJ, man,” Shannon says, “you need to work on your storytelling.  You got all these guys waiting around for something and that’s the best you can do?”

We all laugh.

“Well, that’s the story,” AJ says. “Four guys jumped us on Marshall Street and Eddie beat them up real quick.” His words run together, making it almost one long word.

“Okay, I’ll tell the story.” Everyone looks at me. I’ve never heard this story and have no idea what happened. By their eyes, they can’t tell whether I’m joking. “So AJ and Eddie are out drinking at 44's. It’s filled with all these jock douchebag frat boys, right? So these four guys start fucking with them, like ‘what are these broke dick old motherfuckers doing in our bar, blah-blah-blah-”

“Actually, they were throwing peanuts at us,” AJ says.

If you want someone to tell a story, start telling it wrong.

“It was this bar where they give you peanuts, and these guys were throwing them at us. We saw who it was in the mirror” - here AJ looks at Steven - “and your father went over and said something to them.”

“My father said something to them?”

Everyone knows Eddie is tough. By his tone, Steven is still surprised that his father is say-something-to-four-rowdy-dudes-in-a-bar tough.

“Yeah. So it ends up with the four of them and us in the alley. This one guy who’s holding the door open is like, ‘You’re boy just fucked up. These guys are off-duty sheriffs. He’s going to get his ass kicked.’ I’m like, “Yeah, you’re probably right.’

“It wasn’t even one at a time, they all just rushed him. The first guy, Eddie boxes him, takes him out with one punch.” AJ acts it out, holding up his fists in a classic stance, crossing a right punch over his body to pantomime how Eddie knocked a man out. “The second guy Eddie turns around and takes him out with a kick to the head.”

AJ doesn’t actually kick, he swings his body from the imaginary punch and lifts his knee to show us how it happened, one smooth, balletic movement.

“The third guy, Eddie just totally connected, laid him flat out. One punch.”

AJ lowers his body from the kick, bringing his whole weight back up into what looks like a vicious upper-cut. He finishes in the boxer’s stance.

“Eddie looks over at the fourth guy, and the fourth guy is like-” Here, AJ hold his hands palms out in the classic gesture of surrender. It’s amazing to hear, like something from a movie, made more amazing by the fact that it’s someone we know.

Eddie’s had four back surgeries. His damaged vertebrae put pressure on his spinal cord, sending constant pain down his leg and turning his foot into little more than a useless club. Three months ago, he got a handicapped tag for his car. He’s on full disability now. He’s afraid of the one fight he has left in him, what could push him to those circumstances, how easily his need to end it quickly could turn lethal.

This starts the fight stories. Shane and Shannon, drunk out of their minds, fighting two gym-muscle guys on the street because they bumped into Shane and made him drop his pizza slice. Shawn throwing a guy through a plate-glass window for calling him a faggot. Uncle Tim punched by a rowdy drunk he rousted from his bar, the subsequent beating Tim dealt which ended with Shannon cracking the drunk across the face and screaming, “Don’t ever hit my dad!” And so on, until the stories of violence are exhausted and there is silence, some of us watching the fire, some of us marveling at the stars overhead.

“Gee, I wish I had a story,” I say wistfully, and they laugh. I haven’t been in a fight since grade school, and that was me sitting on the school bus while a bully half my size punched me in the face several times. I had the inclination to punch back, or at least defend myself, but I didn’t have the will.

Their laughter makes me bold.

“This one time, a guy came into Books & Books and he didn’t have exact change . . .”

I let it trail off on a wave of their laughter. They talk about me grabbing the guy by his tie, beating him, turning into the Book Nazi and banning the guy for a year. No book for you, no book for you, they yell. 

Humor is the bridge I can build, the willingness to poke fun at our differences. Shannon is the funniest in our family, but I treasure the moments I make them laugh.

My brother can build an entire house from a hole in the ground. My nephew Steven can bow hunt and gut a deer. My cousin Shannon can lay a man twice his size flat in one punch. These are men who drink life in great droughts, who smoke life to ashes all the way down to the filter and look for more. They revel in each other’s company and in the company of men like them. They enjoy drinking and playing football and one-upping each-other verbally and physically.

I live my life behind a lap-top, alone in my room, listening to music and pushing the cursor across the page. They don’t understand how I can take or leave the Turkey Bowl, skipping this year like I skipped three years ago. A beer or two is enough for me while they rage toward oblivion. But we’re family, so we accept and love each other. We laugh together, play kick the can, look at the stars, and talk a lot of smack.

Their smacks are just more literal.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Reflecting Pool

The road is blurry. My legs are pumping hard, trying to get the bike home as quickly as possible. Breathe, I tell myself, breathe through it. Legs pumping hard. Get home, get home, get home.

I can barely see the staircase, my hands on the keys, the knob. I manage to get inside before the tears fall, barely. I pull my sweaty clothes off. I’m naked, sobbing on my twin daybed, wishing I was curled on the floor because the daybed feels too high and I should be curled in the corner but that would involve getting off the daybed and right now my body feels like lead and I’m crying too hard to move anyway so it will have to do.

I’ve been biking to work for two years. Both years, summer snuck up on me. The first year, I was biking home in July completely dehydrated, black flowers blooming in front of my vision under a brutal sun. Instead of taking it easy, my solution was to pump harder, to rush home before I passed out. I stripped and collapsed on the same daybed when it was just one of our two sofas, when we had three bedrooms and two and half baths, when there was still a we and an our.

How did that man become this man, in such short order? He was wiser than the first dehydrated biker I was last summer. Obviously not wise enough to replenish his fluids before biking home in ninety-eight degree weather under peak sun, but he’d been experiencing the slow release of love from his marriage for months. I won’t say he was learning what it felt like for love to leave his marriage, because that would imply a larger perspective. A fish in a tank doesn’t know his stagnant water is running out of oxygen, he just feels the effects. He doesn’t even know he’s wet. It’s all clear in hindsight. Blood dripping from a slashed wrist, air hissing from a slow leak in a deflating tire.

These two men, him and me, we share a similar physicality. But I’m thinner. I have more grey in my hair. My eyes are slightly rougher, because he slept sweetly night after night, content, accompanied, well-spooned, while I . . . don’t.

There are environmental differences, too. Compare the aforementioned condo with the many rooms and baths of the first man with the studio in which I live. Oh, the decorative palettes all that wall space offered him! I’m surrounded by wood. Wood is my power element. I looked at a lot of places but kept imaging myself in what I’ve come to call the Treehouse. That man had his LEBO paintings, I have my uncle’s artwork, my friends' photography. That man kicked his feet up to watch TV on a sofa which has become this man’s bed. That man’s furniture was Asian eclectic, dragged from New York to Virginia to Miami and picking up new pieces along the road. Most everything I have is new, white, and Swedish modern. Ikea is a hell of a drug.

He’s been living the DINK life – that’s Double-Income-No-Kids – since he was a teenager, while I’m living MAW; Me Against the World. He had a retirement fund and disability insurance. I have prayers I never get sick. Letting go of TV, internet, satellite radio, and a car leaves room for the things I need to be happy. Buying decent food. Going out to eat. Books. I couldn’t tell you what he spent his money on all those years, with so little to show for it in the end.

Sex . . . well, he wins. By a lot.

Besides sex, I envy him one thing. He read and wrote fiction almost exclusively, while I seem hopelessly mired in reality.

When my wife and I separated, I thought of my heart as layers of something brittle, a dried cigar or a dusty rose. I worried I would never love again.
As I biked home, blinking tears away, my heart felt like glass. Not a glass onion, and not a piece of delicate blown artwork. A solid, hefty chuck of glass dealt a heavy blow. Cracked through, separated into several large chunks, parts ground to powder at the point of impact. I will love again; I have too much not to give. My concern is how to put my heart back together. Will it be melted and remolded into a heart, looking brand new but slightly smaller because of the missing pieces? Will it be an ugly, damaged thing, the cracks plainly visible to anyone who gets close? If I can’t mend it, what happens to the pieces? They’d only be good for cutting myself and others.

I’ve begun to realize how people die of broken hearts.

It’s too soon to know what shape my bachelorhood will take. I could hide my emotional turmoil beneath unrequited crushes or too many drinks or a strained smile. I could end up married to the first person who tosses me a pity-fuck, or in jail for beating a certain ex-high school boyfriend Facebook predator into a coma. I could also follow my original plan and go monastic, keep exercising, surround myself with books, push the cursor hard, tell the stories which are my real life work and the only way I know to serve God.

Wish me luck. Sometimes the road is blurry.