Especially the kind who reaches for their camera before saving you…
Thoughts on Life and Lemons by Rachel
In the summer of 1999, Jules and Demetria and I were on a long road trip through the Louisiana and Texas. I had never been to the South before and I found it quite mysterious. I had never experienced humidity before, for one thing. And the bugs down there are mind-blowing. I remember being astonished by the number and size of the bugs I saw, but mostly I was amazed by the sound. We have crickets in Utah and they sing quietly on warm nights. The crickets they have in the South are something else, entirely. I honestly don’t know how anyone in Texas gets a good night’s sleep in the summer.
We arrived at Juliane’s Dad’s place in Beaumont, Texas, and decided to go out and soak our feet and legs in the pool. My legs were covered in large and swollen mosquito bites and I was really suffering, so it sounded like a great idea. That is, until Juliane handed me a net on a long pole and told me it was to scoop the frogs out of the pool.
“I’m from the desert.” I told her, looking down at the net in my hands. “We don’t scoop frogs in the desert. I’m going to need more instructions.”
A few flung frogs later, we were sitting on the edge of the swimming pool cooling our feet and sipping beer. After a little while, Jules hopped up to let the dogs out. That was another thing about that trip. Everyone we stayed with had dogs. Big dogs. I grew up in a house with cats and staying with dogs was completely new to me. The Beaumont dogs were especially frenetic. They whipped me with their tails and they licked me in the face. I thought they were going to push me into the pool a couple of times.
After a while, I had to ask Jules to pull them off of me. She tugged them toward her by their collars and let them lick her face.
“Good dog,” she said. “That’s my good boy.”
They settled down and we got back to our conversation. It was some point after that when I felt a hard little raised speck on my arm. It was dark and I couldn’t really see it, but I knew what it was.
“Oh shit! I have a tick!”
“Are you sure?” Jules asked.
“Look, it’s here on my arm. Can you see it?”
“Oh yeah… what is that?”
“Fuck fuck fuck. I’m going to get Lyme disease. This is what I get for running around barefoot in Texas!”
“What does that have to do with anything? It’s on your arm. Let’s go inside and get a better look…”
Juliane’s father and step mother are both doctors, but they had gone out for the evening. I was sitting on a stool in their kitchen and we were trying to figure out what to do. Then I remembered something that my dad told me.
“My dad said that when he was working at Outward Bound, they used to find ticks. And he they would light a match, blow it out, and burn the tick with the tip, but they found that it worked better to pour cheap wine on them.”
“Really?” Demetria sounded skeptical.
“Yeah. Because if you burn them, you might kill them. And then, because they have burrowed in, you still have to dig their heads out. But if you can get them to back out, that’s the best way. And Dad said that he would put cheap booze on them and then they would ‘back out happy.’”
“We can try it,” Jules said. “Of course, my dad doesn’t buy cheap wine. So we might want to keep this hush hush…”
Jules found a shot glass and set it on the counter. Then she left the kitchen to go to the wine cellar and returned with a bottle of white wine in a plain and expensive looking European label. We opened the bottle and poured a shot of wine. Then Deme flipped it over quickly and held it against my arm. We all watched intently to see what would happen next.
The tick didn’t move.
“Shit. Do you think it’s dead already?”
“I don’t know. Give it a minute.”
We sat in silence for another minute or two. And then something strange did happen. The little thing seemed to change shape a slightly and drift away from my skin.
“What the hell?”
Demetria lowered the shot glass and I inspected the tick, which was no longer as hard as an exoskeleton should be. I was now able to pull it from the arm hair it was sticking to.
“Um, guys? I’m sorry. That was a false alarm. It isn’t a tick.”
“What is it, then?”
“I think it’s a dog booger.”
“Shut up. You just made me pour sixty dollars of wine on a dog booger?!”
“I said I was sorry!”
Of course, at that point, there was nothing to do but drink the rest of the wine. I don’t actually remember drinking it, but we must have. I do remember swearing them to secrecy because I was so embarrassed and just a little bit terrified of Juliane’s dad. He was even more intense than the dogs – though in a different way, obviously. But if he noticed that the bottle was missing, he didn’t say anything.
I didn’t get comfortable around dogs until after I got Wensley, and that was many years after that trip. It’s funny to me to remember this, because now I’m the girl who always stops to pet the dogs. Matt was teasing me a little while ago about my dog love. “Uh oh, all conversation must stop – Rachel saw a dog!” It’s true, I’m a complete dog dork, and I’ve interrupted many perfectly good stories with my outbursts. But in my defense, there was a dog.
I spent the summer of 2001 working (unpaid) for a small artists’ venture called St. Jayne’s Theatre Company. The company was founded by a girl I knew from college, who I would have described as a “frenemy” if we had that word back then. She was passionate and driven and was dying to produce good theatre. But she could also be vain, obstinate, and a bit of a drama queen. I was concerned when she asked me to be on her board of directors because I didn’t trust her leadership and I was worried the project would end badly. I also wanted to be making theatre and there were a number of other people on the board I respected, so I said yes. I thought there was a good chance we would pull it off.
I was wrong, though. It didn’t end badly. It started badly. It got worse as it went along. And then it ended in tears, accusatory phone calls, and terminated friendships. What I hadn’t counted on – what I didn’t realize at the time – was that I could also be vain, obstinate, and a bit of a drama queen. And the two of us together, my frenemy and I, twisted our vain obstinate energy into a vortex of destruction and bitchery. But somewhere in the middle of all of that, we put on a play.
I’m glad that I did it, though. I learned a lot. We overcame some serious obstacles to persevere and I am still proud of the production. The play was SubUrbia, and there are two things that I remember most about it. Both require a little bit of explanation. The first one is the sound wall.
We were doing the play outdoors at a music venue called Kilby Court, which is in the center of a block in an industrial area of Salt Lake. It made sense because the play takes place in the parking lot of a Kwiky Mart-type convenience store, but if a band was playing on the stage across the alley, it was too loud to hear the actors. So the board decided that we would need to get a contract from the owner of Kilby Court that stated that we had exclusive performing rights on the nights of the show and we tasked the founder of the company, my afore described frenemy, to get the contract signed.
I asked about the contract during rehearsals and my frenemy responded by saying vaguely, “yeah yeah, it’s fine… it’s taken care of.” In fact, she had approached the owner with the contract and he refused to sign it because he couldn’t afford to lose the profit from the bands and take the risk that we would be able to deliver a similar amount. It was smart, and I understood where he was coming from. We never drew in the same sized crowds as the bands. But she was afraid to tell us what happened, so she just… didn’t. We didn’t find out until the weekend before the show opened that the owner of Kilby Court had booked bands in his other space for every single night we were performing.
That night we were sitting on the deck trying to figure out how we could possibly make it work. We talked for hours and a plan began to form. Twenty four inventive hours later, we stood in the alley of Kilby Court looking up at our brand new, functional sound wall. That day, we rented two stories of scaffolding from a construction site, assembled it ourselves, and filled it with a ton of hay that we bought off a local farmer. Then we covered it with tarps. It wasn’t beautiful, but it worked. The show could go on!.
The second thing I remember most about SubUrbia is the giant purple dildo.
The main female character in SubUrbia is a twenty-something girl named Suze who is planning to move to New York to become an artist. In her first scene on stage, Suze presents the performance art piece that she has been developing.
The monologue is a fuming estrogen-angst filled rant that is desperate to be shocking, but comes off as a poor knock-off of Ani DiFranco lyrics from the early 90s. We wanted it to be a parody of clichéd performance art. We had a trunk full of props. We put her in a body suit that she could paint on as she wore it. And best of all, we got The Blue Boutique to donate a large double-sided dildo in exchange for advertising in our program. Every night, Suze ended her monologue by swinging the dildo over her head and then letting it go, making it thwhack the brick wall behind her and fall down behind her feet with a thud.
The only problem was that people actually lived at Kilby Court and there were a couple apartment windows that ran along the wall that we were using as our Kwiky Mart. So we were really careful to choreograph the dildo-throw to make sure that it always hit the bricks and only the bricks.
I was elated when closing night arrived. After a series of ugly arguments, my relationship with my frenemy had devolved to fit under the less complicated “enemy” category. We were a handful of livid phone calls away from never speaking to one another again. The audience turn-out was a less than half of what we had hoped for. Everyone involved in the company was losing money, and I couldn’t take the stress much longer.
I was sitting in the audience, thinking “all I have to do is get through this performance, unload a ton of rain-sopped hay, disassemble two stories of scaffolding, return it to the construction company, and I will be done with Saint Jayne’s and I’ll never have to do theatre again…” when, something went wrong with Suze’s dildo-throw. For some reason, after weeks of perfect executions, the throw went wild and the dildo sailed through the air and disappeared through one of the darkened apartment windows with a slap and the tinkle of shattered glass. The audience must have known that wasn’t the plan, because that was the only night we didn’t get a big laugh. There was some laughter but it was mostly uncomfortable.
“Oh my God, ohmigod, ohmahGAWD!” I was thinking, as I snuck out of the audience by squeezing through a gap in the hay. “We’ve killed someone. We’ve killed someone. At the very least, we’ve killed someone’s cat…”
I I pictured a leathery old man – recently homeless, reentering society through the devalued rental property of Kilby Court – sitting in a rocking chair and reading a tattered paperback copy of Keats poems. When suddenly, without warning, there was a crashing sound and… “wisht, wisht, wisht…” something long and purple spinning through the air, and then, “BAM!” right to the forehead, knocking him backward, over, and out of the rocking chair! And then, SILENCE. Death by dildo…
I found one of the managers at Kilby – a really nice guy named Mike – and I told him what had happened. He told me not to worry about it. He said he knew the guy pretty well, and he would talk to him. I snuck back into the audience and watched the rest of the play, which unfolded without further incident, but I was distracted. We were going to be sued; I was sure of it. I was twenty-four, unemployed, and done with theatre. And, at that moment, I was quite certain that I was going to have to go into some sort of indentured servitude to pay for the ex-homeless man’s funeral and a new window for Kilby Court. At that point in my life, I would have had to go into indentured servitude just to buy the man a new cat.
But after the show, I found Mike again to see what he found out and he told me the man wasn’t home. “Whew. That’s a relief,” I said.
“Trust me; it’s fine. I’ll talk to him when he gets home.”
I expected to hear more, but I never did. I wasn’t even contacted about paying for the new window, which I thought was the least that would happen. About half of the cast showed up to help me return the scaffolding to the construction company, and a friend with a truck was kind enough to come and take all the hay out of Kilby. I was done with the show and I promised myself that I would never use my degree in theatre again, and I have mostly kept that promise.
Then, ten years later, I spent a weekend this fall at a writer’s retreat in southern Utah. I was one of six other writers staying on a small ranch outside the desert town of Torrey. We were all from Salt Lake City and we spent the days writing and the evenings talking about writing and making one another laugh.
One of the writers was a musician named Jeremy Chatelain. Jeremy has toured with a bunch of east coast bands over the years, but he has also been in a lot of bands here in Utah. Another writer remembered him from a band called Iceburn Collective and the two of them started talking about these old local Utah bands that I’ve never heard of. In fact, I was basically tuning out of the conversation until he mentioned that he had been in a band with a guy named Gentry.
I interjected then and said, “Wait, Gentry Densley?”
And Jeremy said, “No way, you know Gentry?”
And I said, “No, not at all. But I remember that his band played at a fundraiser for a theatre company I worked for a decade ago called Saint Jayne’s. He was great.”
Another one of the writers named Adam said, “I remember Saint Jayne’s.”
“That’s not possible,” I said. “We lasted one summer and no one came to our shows.”
“Oh no, I remember. I was living in an apartment at Kilby Court that summer. And they were doing a play called Suburbia. And I remember that I came home from a late shift at the hospital one night to find broken glass everywhere and I giant purple dildo in my bed. And this guy, Mike, who was running things at Kilby, came running in and was like ‘oh dude, I was hoping to catch you before you got home… I wanted to try to explain…’ But I was like, ‘Dude!? How? How could you ever explain THIS?”
And I said, “Oh my God… I’ve spent the last ten years wanting to ask you if you were okay! I remember watching it go through the window and thinking, ‘oh Christ what have we done?’ So let me just finally officially say to you, I am very very sorry about that.”
I didn’t think we would ever stop laughing. I was relieved to find that he wasn’t angry. He was just disappointed that they didn’t let him keep the dildo.
“I was going to frame it and hang it on the wall so I could point to it when I told the story.” Then he pointed at a random spot on the wall and said, in an old man voice, “And that thar is the very same dildo that came through my window that night…”
“Really?” I said. “Because we didn’t get it back! I would have let you keep it, for sure. Mike would have known you shouldn’t use it after it’s been in contact with broken glass, right?”
The next morning we told the rest of the writers the story and Adam said, “I’ve been telling that story for so long now, as an example of the texture of Kilby Court and what it was like to live there. Who knew I would come down to Boulder Utah and meet the person from the other end of that dildo?”
Maybe it’s just a trait of my generation, but I constantly find myself eating things in bar form. Breakfast bars. Snack bars. Bars to save time. Bars to burn calories. Walk your dog, do long division, do yoga and eat a bar – all at the same time! Bars that taste like brownies. Bars that taste like fruit. Bars that taste a bit like sidewalk – but promise to give you rock hard abs (neglecting to disclose, of course, that they achieve this effect by becoming a rock physically lodged in your abdomen).
I’m eating one right now. It promises me that it will make me happy and thin. It promises that when I bite into it, I will close my eyes, rock my head back in serene joy and sunshine will spill out from somewhere and bathe my skin and shoulders like warm water. It isn’t working. I’m still functioning under the same florescent hum that illuminates the rest of the cubicles in my area. And it doesn’t really taste like ‘cookie dough,’ which is another of its claims. It isn’t disgusting, but it certainly doesn’t inspire the satisfaction that comes from whipping up a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough in the middle of the night and then allowing that unspoken ravenous instinct to take control, preventing even a single spoonful from enduring until the oven can pre-heat.
On the other hand, real cookie dough can’t easily be dropped in my purse and saved for work-time consumption. That is, after all, the real draw of the bar. Its supreme convenience. Someday, working girls like me will be able to go weeks without eating anything that didn’t come in a slick wrapper and cardboard backing. They will conduct meetings, coach soccer, catch up on the daily news, and knit Christmas presents, all the while devouring a protein packed three course meal. They won’t even go out after work because they can eat a mojito bar without leaving their desks. Chase it with a caffeine loaded coffee bar and they can clack away through the night.
After a few decades, no one will remember what real cookie dough was supposed to taste like. Then if, by some strange chance, someone should stumble over a recipe book and take the time to dust it off and peer inside, they will discover that cookies were once made from scratch. Maybe she will try, for the sheer novelty of it, to combine the elements as described on the tattered yellowed page. She will scoop in with her spoon (after Googling the word ‘spoon’), place it on her tongue and her head will rock back in serene joy, feeling the sunshine pour down her face for the first time.
I like running in Sugarhouse park for a number of reasons. I know that two laps plus the interior driveway into the parking lot equals one 5k. I also appreciate the difficulty. There are two good hills in the circuit – four total. It hurts but it is a good workout. I love it. Especially in spring when the baby ducks are out. The cuteness is a good distraction from the burning calves. Usually.
Recently, however, as I approached the first hill I noticed a… what? A cluck of ducks? That’s probably not right. But there were five mallards off to the right on the grassy hill, which is the wrong side of the road. The pond is in the center of the park, off to my left as I run counter-clockwise around the loop.
Something about their behavior seemed strange and I turned to watch them. There were four males and one female. If you are wondering how I know a male mallard from a female mallard, they are easy to differentiate. They are similar in shape but the males have bright green heads and with white collars where the throat starts to widen into the body. Females are slightly smaller and are mostly spotty brown but with bright blue patches on their wings.
One of the males had a splotch of white on his mostly green neck and another white blob on his body, like someone had thrown bleach on him. Or like a watercolor painting that is nearly complete but not quite. This means he is a mixed species duck – part mallard and part white duck. There is a duck like this that lives in my boyfriend’s neighborhood. We saw him one morning and I said, “We should call mutt ducks ‘mucks.’” He didn’t laugh. I reminded him that it was still early and I hadn’t had any coffee yet. “I mean I’m not saying it’s an A plus joke,” I pressed him at the time. “Clearly it’s B work. But seriously… nothing?”
I was rethinking my evaluation as I ran in the park and decide he was right. I was downgrading the joke to a C plus – B minus at best – but before I could finish the thought, the one female in the cluck made a sudden turn and darted out into the road with the three males chasing closely behind.
There was a car but it was able to stop just in time. The female kept running and crossed the road in front of me with the males closing in on her. The fastest one caught up with her as she stumbled over the curb on the pond side of the road. Before she could pull herself up onto the grass, he clamped his beak on her thin neck and twisted it awkwardly to the side as he scaled her back. The muck and the other two males gathered around, waiting their turn.
I can’t claim to have had a clear impulse to do anything in the moment. And yet I had many impulses – layers and layers of considerations that lodged in my gut like an onion swallowed whole. I spent the rest of the run peeling it and contemplating the pungent concerns as I carved deeper into it.
It certainly occurred to me – maybe a few paces down the path – that I should go back and rescue her. I could chase the males off, couldn’t I? Or would I just scatter them temporarily? Then they would resume as soon as I got back on my way, with that female or the next one they saw.
I remembered what I’ve read about duck copulation before. Specifically, I recall reading about the roughness of the males. Witnessing it was certainly more brutal than I imagined while reading about it. Still… this was “natural,” right?
Then I remembered my friend Meg telling a story about a pair of ducks rogering around the grass on the day of her wedding. I remember she was disturbed by it, but her sister had said, “no, ducks fucking are good luck!”
“Duck fuck, good luck, duck fuck, good luck…” I repeated to the rhythm of my running pace as I fought my way up hill number one. This helped for a moment, but I kept picturing the awkward angle of the ducks neck as the drake held her down, pushing her throat into the grass. And then I remembered something else that I read about ducks as I crested the hill. “What was it?” I asked my brain. “Something about the fact that the penis is corkscrew shaped? For some gawdawful reason?”
As my shoes slapped down the declining side of the hill the shock wore off and I suddenly realized that I had witnessed something intense and violent. “What is wrong with me!? Why didn’t I help her?” I yelled at myself. “What about SISTERHOOD?”
With a pang I remembered that one of the reasons I run in this park was the baby ducks. “Is there anything cuter than a baby mallard? Now I know where they come from. I guess it’s evolved that way for a reason? Corkscrew cocks and all? Otherwise, no more mallards.”
The trail was leveling out and I realized that I was justifying my inaction using the old ‘means to an ends’ trope. “Who am I? I sound like Rick Santorum, telling rape victims to ‘make the best of a bad situation.’”
I tried to banish the image of the other drakes – the slower ones – forming a jumbled and impatient line as I approached the steep raise of hill number two. That article I read didn’t say anything about gang rape. I was not prepared for that.
“I’m not heartless,” I told myself as I fought the gravity asserting its full force on my calves. “I am impartial. Like a documentary film maker. I am here to observe and learn, not to judge or intervene.” On the steepest part of the hill, my pace slowed to a run just slower than a walk and I started to lose track of where my legs ended and where the sidewalk began. “I am Sigournie Weaver,” I declared. “Narrating with my soft as suede voice as an arctic wolf gnaws on the leg of a still struggling baby caribou.”
I crested the hill but continue walking, trying to catch my breath. “Except Sigournie Weaver wasn’t actually there,” I remembered. “I am the dude who keeps filming when the shit goes down. The one I always scream at. ‘Put the camera down and throw the polar bear a damned fish! Don’t you know what climate change is doing to them?!’” I picked up speed and made my way toward the downward slope on the West side of the park.
I told myself that if the ducks were still there when I made it back to the scene of the crime I would intervene. I rounded the corner and searched the grass and the shore of the pond, but they were gone. “Maybe she got away?” I thought about her waddling at full speed out in front of the car. Was that intentional? Escape through frantic suicide?
Slogging up hill number three it occurred to me that she ran, but she didn’t fly. “Why didn’t she fly? Maybe it is all part of the mating ritual. Play hard to get but not too hard to get.” I was starting to feel better and I repeated the mantra from the previous trudge up this hill. “Duck fuck, good luck, duck fuck, good luck…” I played through the scene in my head again. “She certainly looked like she was desperate to get away, but it must not have been with a full heart, or she would have flown. Right?”
“Oh Christ,” I thought as I crested the hill. “Did I just make the duck equivalent of the ‘look what she’s wearing’ argument?” I was flying down the back of the hill, hating myself with every step.
I remembered then that I had been driving passed this same park the week before when all the traffic came to a stop for no apparent reason. Once I was close enough I saw that there was a pair of mallards in the center of the six lane street, herding a half dozen babies up the median with the female leading the parade and the male bringing up the rear. This is one of the things I love about mallards. They always seem to make such cute couples.
Another time, years ago, I was driving through another part of Sugarhouse and I saw the carcass of a female mallard to the side of the road and a male standing watch over her lifeless body. You will see this from time to time. They seem to be very devoted. I used to think monogamous, “or at least they stay partnered for the mating season?” Suddenly I wasn’t sure. “I’ll have to look that up, I guess.”
It was the last hill and I could see where this was going. I told myself to skip the scene which was obviously coming. The one where I berate myself for letting the male off the hook” because they make such cute dads, after all.”
Utah was in the news that same week because a judge had praised a former LDS bishop as a “good man” as he sentenced him to life in prison while his victims sat in the courtroom. “Great men do bad things,” he said. I was outraged when I read it in the paper.
“Not going there,” I thought. “Just, not even going to do it.” But it was too late. I felt no better – no more ‘woke’ – than that judge. I used my self-loathing as fuel to get me up the last hill and onto the flat stretch along the north side of the park. Just one more downhill and then the turn into the center of the park where my car was parked.
I finished the last stretch and I asked myself if my real problem is that I’m too disconnected from the natural world. The real one, not the artificial landscaped park meant to look something like nature that I conveniently touch base with on my lunch breaks. It isn’t the same thing, despite the occasional wild encounter. “Has urban living made me so soft that I cannot bear witness the brutality of the real world? Or has it made me too hard in some way? Has my voracious consumption of liberal punditry turned me into a habitual moralizer, constantly monitoring of my thoughts for traces of ignorance, and leaving me unable to make sense of what is around me without anthropomorphizing?”
I dug the key to my Toyota out of my sweaty sports bra and I flopped down into the driver’s seat. It was the most exhausting three miles I have ever run.
“I am a bad person, a bad feminist, and I will never look at a baby duck the same way again. Fuzzy little fuckers.”
I turned the key and steered my car onto the park road. There was one thing I did feel I understood as I worked my way back around the loop toward the exit. “The next time I am yelling at a nature show because the photographer is so cold hearted as to just stand there and film while the wild dogs surround the limpy gazelle, I will remember this outing in the park and I will tell myself to go to hell.”
Last weekend, we took Ethan (age four) to a Bees game, which is the minor league team here in Salt Lake City. He and I were bonding over our love of hot dogs. He asked if he could get one for dinner at the game.
“You have to get a hot dog at a baseball game,” I said. “Anything else would be un-American.”
My boyfriend, Matt (Ethan’s dad), didn’t agree. “You two enjoy that,” he said, wrinkling his nose at the thought of overpriced and nitrate-loaded junk food. “I’m getting something else.”
“Is it because you want the terrorists to win?” I asked sarcastically.
Before I could add “Why do you hate America?” Ethan responded.
“Nooooo!” he said. “You HAVE to root for the BEEEES!”
I bit my cheek to keep from laughing as Matt assured him that we were all pulling for the same team, and then we left to catch our train to the ball park. Come to think of it, we didn’t really clear the matter up. Ethan probably spent the entire game thinking that the Salt Lake Bees were playing the Omaha Terrorists.
I have become an expert on soup. I have a few recipes that I can whip up in the crock-pot that I enjoy – broccoli cheddar, Tuscano kale, a basic chicken noodle that I sex up with salsa – but I bored of my own cooking quickly after my jaw surgery. Twelve days into my eight-week liquid diet, it was time to venture out.
Harmon’s, the local grocer, has a variety to chose from in their deli. One standout is the red potato and onion. It is generously loaded with bits of thick country cut bacon and small pieces of celery to fool you into thinking you ate a vegetable. The sharp cheese flavor is unsubtle and aggressively salty. It might actually be too salty. It’s hard to tell when I’m simply delighting in the fact that, fifteen minutes after I have it for dinner, I can still taste it. Just as though I really ate something.
Wasatch Brewery’s corn chowder is creamy and sweet. The color and flavor is fresh and sunkissed; there are no brown or tinny notes of canned corn. Normally I would exclaim “and not too filling” as a positive attribute, but that isn’t my problem right now. Right now I worry that I’ll ever feel “filled” again.
I know Noodles & Co. is a chain, but their tomato basil bisque is truly lovely. There is slight complexity in the flavor, as both the citrus and the earthy tones of the tomato are featured on different levels. Still, this is not an adult soup. It is lively and bright and would pair perfectly with a crisp buttery grilled cheese cut diagonally for optimal dipping, the molten cheddar webbing out between the fanned halves. Alas… the grilled cheese will have to wait.
“Four weeks in, you are really going to want a burger,” my surgeon told me. “That’s what all my patients say.”
This is week four, and I don’t miss hamburgers, per se. Don’t get me wrong; I could go for a burger. But it isn’t what comes to the fore when the hunter-gatherer part of my brain starts to forage for ideas while the rest of my mind is still focused on another task. It isn’t any particular flavor, actually. What I crave is texture and density. A variety of temperature and solidity. Sustenance that will resist and put up a fight, and not voluntarily be lifted by a spoon.
I want to break a cold branch of celery with my incisors and then crush it mercilessly between my bicuspids. I want to feel the greasy graveled skin of a deep fried drumstick against my lower lip just before I tear into the muscle, releasing the steam as I peal it back to the grey and purple marbled bone. I want to stab through layers of steak, potatoes and an over medium egg with the tines of a fork and then force the too large perfect bite through my lips and onto my tongue where the flavors will splash and mix and divinely expire, reduced to mashed splendor and disappear. Bite. Chew. Repeat. Heaven.
Hell. I’d kill for a crouton. Just something crunchy to top my tomato bisque.
Not yet, though. This is week four. Four more to go.
There was a part of me that was really looking forward to this surgery. That was, very specifically, the part of me with post-election depression that allowed me to put on an extra ten pounds that I’m calling my “Trump bump.” I was told that I would lose at least ten pounds, maybe more. I’ve lost five. I’m blaming that on the fact that cheese is so easily liquidized, especially in – for example – hot soup. Now I can see that as soon as I get the green light to chew those five pounds are going to come right back. And then some, if I’m not careful.
After all, I make a great grilled cheese.
The diner is called Pig & a Jelly Jar but Ethan insists on calling it “The Pig in a Belly Bar.” Ethan is four.
Matt, my boyfriend, is driving. “Are you sure you are okay with this place?” he asks. “We kinda just… decided. But I was thinking there’s bound to be something you can eat… like, oatmeal or something?”
“I’m not worried,” I respond. “If nothing else I’ll get a scrambled egg.”
“Why can’t you eat… things?” Ethan’s voice is reedy and small, but slightly deeper than other four-year-olds I know. Like a darker shade of honey. I turn around to look at him in his car seat. It’s a winter morning but it is sun is reaching through the trees of the park we are passing, making Ethan’s eyes light up in pulses. They go from dark to the color of a glass of root beer at a picnic and then dark again. I have an impulse to take off my sunglasses and put them on his too small head. I don’t do it. I resist urges to mother this child daily, it seems. “He’s got a mom,” I remind myself yet again. “Don’t overstep.”
“Rachel just had surgery on her jaw, bud.” Matt looks at Ethan in the rear view mirror as he drives. “Remember? She can only eat really soft things.”
I look in the mirror on the passenger’s side. My face is badly swollen and my chin has a patch of color that could be mistaken for a blueberry juice stain. I try to decide if I feel self-conscious about heading out to a restaurant – in public – with Matt’s parents and a super-sized face. I decide that I don’t and I look back at the trees in the park.
We arrive just ahead of Matt’s folks and we all cross the street together. Ethan, already holding his father’s hand, slips his other hand into mine as we step off the curb. A muted smile trips across my swollen lips and lands warming my throat.
We chat easily over coffee. Matt’s parents are relaxed and open and they make me feel like we have known each other for years. Both ask questions about my surgery but don’t ask me if it hurts as bad as it looks. They strike the perfect balance between awkwardly drawing attention to, and awkwardly ignoring the elephant at the breakfast table.
Once the food arrives I have to tune out of the conversation. The lower half of my head is still numb and I need all of my concentration to will my fork to deliver the bits of egg directly into my mouth and nowhere else. I feel like a Jedi knight, trying to retrieve my light saber from the next room with my mind (Jedi’s are a prevalent theme in my life since meeting Ethan). I don’t bother to look around to see if anyone else is watching me. I’m too busy with my task.
Ethan says something but no one quite catches it. “What, Buddy?” Matt asks. Ethan looks up but gives the shy eyes kids get when you ask them to repeat something they weren’t confident about saying in the first place.
“My waffle. It’s really soft.”
“Um, okay. That’s good, I guess.”
Matt doesn’t see where that came from, but I think I do. I lean in and lower my head a bit.
“Do you think it is soft enough for me to eat?” I ask Ethan. He gives me a nod. He stops short of offering me his waffle, but I tell him that I’m fine anyway. “Don’t worry about me; just enjoy your breakfast.” The warmth in my throat returns and swells to fill my chest.
Last Valentine’s Day, I wrote an essay about accepting that I was likely going to be single for the rest of my life. I wrote about the fact that ten years out from my divorce, I didn’t see it happening for me. I talked about turning my attention to building my other lifelong relationships with my family and friends. I hadn’t found what I was looking for and I was letting go. Not in a defeated way, but I was resigned.
This occurs to me now as I sit in the Belly Bar with four people who treat me like family and I have two thoughts simultaneously. One is warm like Ethan’s little hand in mine and it says, “What a difference a year makes, huh?” The other is cold like a bad memory bursting to mind unbidden and it says, “Please don’t fuck this up.”
Matt is looking at me, smiling. He gives me a wink. I smile back to the best of my ability and return to the task of feeding myself.
I woke in a puddle of steamy dread earlier, realizing “It’s today! I have to get up and get ready for my surgery!”
I grabbed for my phone to see why the alarm hadn’t gone off. 3:46 a.m. That’s why. Because time is linear, and I wasn’t there yet.
I tried to settle in to fall back to sleep, but I had a feeling that wasn’t going to work out. After all, it’s surgery day. And I’m just a little bit afraid.
The last time I had surgery was nearly ten years ago. I had an accident on an ATV and broke my nose. A few weeks later I was having surgery to have it reset.
I remember lying in the pre-operation room where the nurse was going over some last minute things. She was about to give me a shot of something. I forget what. And I noticed a few bubbles in the syringe as she moved the needle toward my arm.
“Oh, wait!” I said, pointing them out helpfully. “Aren’t you supposed to do that… tap tap… squirt thing? To get the air out?”
She laughed patiently. “No dear. Bubbles only kill people on TV. In real life, people die in ATV accidents.”
I’ve told that story to a few nurses over the years and I always get a big laugh. Good lesson, though. And a good reminder. Statistically speaking, I won’t die in surgery today. It will be the next ATV-like thing that I didn’t take as seriously as an operation that may kill me. Or, if I’m lucky, just send me back into surgery.