“I don’t want any apartment plants, they’re just not my thing.”
That was my usual go-to reply whenever somebody wondered why there were no plants in my home. “I’m not good at taking care of them, I have neither the time nor the patience to keep them alive,” I would continue, if they insisted.
That was the easiest way of avoiding a conversation on a topic that was somewhat unclear to me too. I liked decorative plants. Yet I knew I didn’t want them in my home.
I leant over the small fence, resting and taking in the view. My feet and I were no longer on speaking terms, but it wasn’t really as bad as I had feared.
Once I no longer had to focus on breathing and on stepping the right way, memories and thoughts started bubbling in my mind, all at once.
I looked at the tents spread a few metres below me, trying to remember when I last slept in something like that. I was still in my teens. Look at them, they seem such feeble structures… yet they were the epitome of shelter and safety during those trips of ours. In many ways, I was a creature of comfort, even as a child; and nights spent in a tent didn’t quite go with that part of me.
Looking at them now, I experience a different kind of gratitude and satisfaction, this time deriving from knowing I don’t have to make that compromise anymore. Sure, we used to have fun back then – we were together and we were escaping… That was it, the escape… That’s why climbing the mountain, the hike itself, were less satisfying now than I remembered them being back then.
It wasn’t an age thing. Anything that wasn’t home, anything that allowed us to detach ourselves from our families and everyday lives was bliss. For a while, we were in a different universe. We could pretend we wouldn’t go back. We could attempt to believe in freedom and convince ourselves and each other that everything was possible. After all, why shouldn’t it be? If we could push our boundaries like that, if we could conquer and survive nature, then nothing could stand in our way.
My mind went blank this time too, the same way it did back then, allowing all my resources to focus on the physical effort. Not thinking of anything was comforting, but not in the same way. Now I was calm; back then, I felt such a rush simply by not thinking of anything anymore… But now I don’t need to forget about going back home, there’s nothing scary waiting for me behind the locked door. Now it truly is a trip, not an escape. This time I feel like I’m travelling, not running away without looking back.
Those feeble tents made for good shelter, in spite of all their uncomfortable features. We were resilient too, and if we had to, we could look after ourselves – occasionally, even after each other. Our dysfunctional families were what we had in common. Only now do I realize how dangerous some of our escapades had been. Our parents rarely knew what we were up to, and most of the time we were sure we preferred it that way. But did we, really? You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t ask for money. You can have all the money you want and do as you please, as long as you aren’t in the way. You can do whatever you want, as long as you get good grades. You can do whatever you want, as long as you keep up appearances and don’t embarrass the family with scandalous behaviour. Each one of us received their freedom at certain costs, and we chose to enjoy it together, because we understood and supported one another.
Then we started choosing our own paths, building on those shaky foundations, structuring our beliefs and characters. So we grew apart, because dysfunction was no longer enough. When constructive, destructive and self-destructive tendencies manifest themselves within each and every one of us, often all at once, while we struggle to find our way, it takes more than dysfunction, we need to have more than that in common. Or at least that was the case for us.
You get much clearer a perspective from that place, thinking back and appreciating the present. I take the Sprite bottle my friend got me. I don’t normally have fizzy drinks, but I wanted something sweet, something I would have liked back then. The two of us remained close and in our own personal, very different ways, we found some sort of balance. The kids we were would be pleased with the adults we are, I realize while staring at the forest, the mountains and the tents of past, present and future. We may not have kept in touch with the others, but these days one finds out things even without trying. So we know that some of them followed in their parents’ footsteps, no matter how much they hated the perspective back then. They now have dysfunctional families and children of their own, who try to escape. Dysfunctionality breeds dysfunctionality. Some are somehow frozen, unable to be self-sufficient, constantly relying on their families or partners for support. Some lead normal, average lives, somewhere in the middle, completely ignored by certain people, utterly envied by others, depending on perspective.
We all failed, we all succeeded, it just depends on the moment and the point of view. But what I think we could all agree upon, if we were to meet around another camp fire, sharing stories and dreams, is that the stability we silently craved is one shaky, complex and tricky structure, that constantly needs to be propped up.
She had a “cat that ate the canary” look on her face, but I chose to ignore it. I was too tired, too hungry, and the only thing I craved more than food was a cup of coffee. If nothing else, you could always count on her to have a fresh pot handy when she was home.
I blindly reached for a cup, but my fingers wrapped around what turned out to be a wine glass. Nothing was where it was supposed to be and I was pointed to the most illogical place for a coffee cup. She had taken upon herself to reorganize my kitchen cabinets, the way she would have liked them to be. The same way her mother used to do to her… the same way her mother-in-law used to do to her, until they took back the spare key they had so gracefully offered her. Who cares that this is my home, not hers? Who cares that she knew what a nuisance this type of behaviour can be?
As I was being given a tour of my own kitchen, I tried not to choke on the cigarette smoke. Who cares that I’m not a smoker?
“Do you like it?”
I hate it.
“It’s fine. It was fine before too…”
I was a student and it was the first time my mother was visiting me, in my own home. Of course I wanted everything to be perfect… as close to perfect as it could be on a student’s budget. Sure, everything was old, but I took pride in how spotless and tidy the place was. I had worked really hard to get it in such a decent shape. But I didn’t feel like arguing after the long day I had had, considering everything I still had to do that evening.
“Did you go out today?”
“No, I was waiting for you to come back. Do you really have to spend this much time at the university, even when I’m here?”
Ok… just let it go… breathe and ignore her… one more sip of coffee… you can do this…
“Well?…” She gestured widely around the kitchen, clearly waiting for some sort of comment.
“Have you nothing to say about all the work I had to do for you today?”
I knew that tone of voice. Just breathe, choose your battles.
“Oh, you mean the cabinets… thanks, it was very kind of you, but you really shouldn’t have bothered.”
“The cabinets? Is that all you have to say? I break my back for you and that’s the thanks I get, you don’t even notice… you and that husband of mine, two peas in a pod, just taking me for granted.”
I looked around carefully, only to notice that aside from a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke and some dirty dishes in the sink, the kitchen was just as I left it. Then she angrily grabs at the old fridge, pulling it aside.
“Can’t you see I cleaned behind the fridge,” the voice is shrill, bordering on hysterical.
Forgive me for not using my X-ray vision… and for being one of those few deranged people who don’t go looking behind the fridge, first thing when they get home. But most of all, sorry for not generally noticing you cleaned a place that had already been scrubbed clean and disinfected only one day earlier. And that was only the second day from a three week visit…
Those who know me, tease me about being a neat freak… but I’m nothing compared to the neat freak my mother used to be. Whenever this tendency of mine seams to take an unhealthy turn, I remember her scrubbing the spaces between the tiles with a tooth brush when I was child. That will never be me.
Many things have changed since that visit of hers. Many things will forever stay the same. She no longer cares about having a spotless home; but she bitterly criticizes everybody else. I no longer care about her approval, but I do tend to go overboard when expecting her for a visit. I do eventually manage to step back, take a deep breath and say to myself, “The hell with it, nothing will ever please her anyway.” Last autumn, just before her impending visit, I had that revelation while polishing the exterior of my entrance door. The following day, she was waiting for me to find my keys in my bag, while noticing my neighbour’s door.
“What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they know the door is the first thing one notices about their home?”
“Don’t you know that’s possibly the last thing anybody cares about?”
I smile and she smiles back, because she chooses to consider such comments part of my strange sense of humour, cynical ways.
Many of us spare no effort in our endeavours to change that often perverted order of things, where we become our parents. Difficult as it may be, it is doable; and it can often be a great self-control mechanism. Yet it can only go so far… Certain things are beyond our control, I realize while staring at a recent photo of my mother. Tired and in a foul mood, with no makeup on, she looks exactly like my grandmother when she was about her age. So I wonder… as the years go by, will I end up hating my reflection in the mirror, simply because I might feel my face belongs to somebody else more than it does to me?… All I can hope for – worst case scenario –is to only ever see that reflection in a mirror, and not when the two of us are face to face.
Instead of sharing an image of a spectacularly dangerous corner of nature or of anything else around us that might suggest great peril, I’m stepping outside the confines of this week’s challenge. In fact, I’m dropping the “photo” part of the challenge altogether, and I’m focusing on the topic alone. Thus I would like to share a few thoughts on a book I’ve read recently, a book written by somebody you might already know from the blogging world. And yes, there is a connection… As I see it, one of the relevant dangers of being human and of allowing ourselves to experience the greatest joys of our nature is loss. Death is part of it – an unavoidable part of it. So we are all confronted with it and we have no choice but to learn how to deal it.
“Death is messy and often is accompanied with unfinished business. The leaving behind of everything and everyone you could possibly imagine. There is no way out of it.”
Putting pain into words is one thing; putting those words in writing is another. But putting that writing out there, for everyone to access and interpret is an act of bravery. After reading Mourning Has Broken, one can only admire Carol Balawyder’s courage to share her experience with grief and loss.
I’ve read other books written by her, but this one touched me the most. Perhaps it’s the disarming honesty with which Carol writes about the pitfalls of dealing with death, loss and grief. Perhaps it’s the fact that everyone who has ever dealt with such issues can relate to the tone of the book and the emotions shared, if not also to some of the exact manifestations. Either way, a sense of gratefulness and respect builds up as one keeps reading – gratefulness for sharing and respect for the woman who has managed not only to work through incredible loss, but to also find hope and meaning in her experiences.
Grief is personal and there is no sure “recipe” for surviving it, and Carol’s book doesn’t try to give advice; but in trying to make sense of pointless, heart-breaking events, she does manage to cleverly insert a sense of hope. Somewhere, underneath all the pain, guilt and regret, there is strength – strength to move on, strength to remember, strength to hurt and fall apart, yet somehow continue living. The dead survive through the memories and feelings of the living, and allowing this connection to manifest itself once in a while is not only natural, but it can also be helpful, we are reminded. Memories of the past find embodiment in the present – a recipe, a book or a clothing item are not only a reminder, but a way to reconnect, to understand, to find peace.
There are numerous kinds of death and they never really find us prepared. What we know may seem useless, so we despair, but we also try and create our tools to help us deal with such situations. If nothing else, Carol’s book is a ray of hope from somebody who has survived and wakes up every day knowing she has to keep working at surviving. This is something that had to be said, Carol Balawyder’s fluent style convinces the reader – the same reader who gets a distinct feeling that the writer not only knows what she’s talking about, but has also thoroughly researched the matter, to facilitate the mourning process. The answers she found, she shares with us… and for that, we can only be thankful.
“Mourning, I realize, must come in small parcels. To realize the immensity of the loss at once would be too overwhelming and unbearable. It must be done in bits and pieces of dreams disappearing one sliver at a time.”
The snow covered mountain tops seemed… they seemed familiar. We had been driving up and down through the mountains all day long, we were heading towards yet another landmark, but… there was something about those peaks, like I had seen them up close. All day I kept trying to figure out which mountain was which, as terrible at geography as always. My sight oversaturated with all those wonderful landscapes, I still couldn’t help staring in that particular direction. Then I noticed the signs, as we drove into possibly one of the dullest small towns I had ever seen.
My throat closed with emotion for a moment, as I recognized the memory and remembered the place. The name of the place typed into the GPS, I never even glanced at the route. The destination was the main concern. I turned my head and as our eyes met and we smiled melancholically, I knew my friend was thinking the same thoughts.
For a week we woke up to see those peaks first thing every morning. An indescribably old, barely functional truck drove us and our rucksacks several kilometres down a terrible, pothole filled road. Not too long a hike and we were finally at what we chose as our camping site. I stare at the mountain and I remember all the drama and adventure of that trip as though it was yesterday. The guys who climbed all the way to the top of those steep rocky cliffs… the guy who abandoned his girlfriend on the mountain, on a storm, in the middle of a passionate fight, and then went after her… that day I decided to hike up the mountain on one of the more accessible trails and how I decided that torrential rain wouldn’t stop me, even if that meant I had to drag my boyfriend after me, even if that meant my best friend felt compelled to come after us, worried something might have gone wrong. I remember how intense love felt back then; I remember how friendship used to be more important than anything else. But above all, I remember those nights around the camp fire… we were just a bunch of teenagers, having little else in common but our wanderlust and our need to escape our lives. Somehow, right there, in the middle of nowhere, having nothing else but a fire, our tents and each other, we felt safe. And we were happy.
We look at each other again.
“Were we… what, fifteen, sixteen?… Sixteen, we must’ve been sixteen… that’s right…”
And we do the math, but avoid actually saying how many years have passed since then; we feel old, and at the same time, we’re giddy like children. We keep driving down today’s road, giving voice to yesterday’s memories.
As the days get warmer and longer, this crazy urge to just pack my bags and go – anywhere, everywhere – takes over me. Sometimes it finds an outlet, and it also finds company. I can’t help appreciating the irony of then versus now… just like I can’t help noticing how many various ways there are to reach the same destination. We keep focusing on the destination and finding value in the journey that takes us there. How about the company we choose? What if that’s the most important part, especially when it comes to the more difficult journeys? I only know this – if wanderlust hits and I want somebody with me, that person is somebody truly special to me.
Not even the cleverest makeup can conceal certain marks on a woman’s face. I could imagine her sitting in front of her vanity mirror in the morning, sad and lonely, trying to make those ugly shades of purple disappear under layers of foundation, concealer, powder and blush.
Sometimes they were easy to hide. But even then, when you saw her walking down the hallways in her elegant outfits, head rarely held high, you knew something was out of place. She normally wore only a touch of makeup… when there was nothing to hide.
Her husband was a doctor. She was a teacher in my school – a beautiful, intelligent, highly educated woman, with a great sense of humour. Everybody knew. Nobody seemed to care. If anything, they turned up their noses and shook their heads, when her private life was in plain sight, written on her face, scarring her delicate, still youthful features.
Sometimes, she would miss work several days in a row. One some rare occasions, she would disappear for a couple of weeks. Once, her voice wasn’t the same for a while, some broken teeth affected her speech. Then she disappeared again and her teeth were absolutely perfect when she returned. Everything could be fixed, everything could be covered…
Everybody gossiped, nobody interfered… because it wasn’t out of the ordinary. It happened in all walks of life. Cultural and social status may have been a catalyst at times, but it was never a deterrent. I wonder, how many of her female colleagues – the ones who were only too thrilled to spread the word – went home to a similar life? I wonder, how many of her male colleagues went home to dispense the same kind of loving treatment to their wives? Envy was the one thing most of them shared – what was a few bruises, some broken bones and teeth, compared to everything she had? She certainly couldn’t afford all those nice clothes or that home in a nice part of town on a teacher’s salary… And many women put up with much worse… And maybe she deserved it… maybe she even liked it.
She would leave. All her friends and acquaintances had heard her talk about leaving him. She shared her incredible plans for a better future with anyone who would listen. And people listened, because that’s what you do. You sit down and have a cup of coffee with this woman who seems so together, she all of the sudden becomes unhinged, while calmly telling you how she would leave that home of horrors. She doesn’t even feel the need to explain why she would leave, because she knows you know, in spite of all those stories about walking into doors and falling down the stairs. You nod and agree with her, because you have no idea what else to do. But just like everybody else, you don’t believe her, because she’s been talking this way for years. Nobody believes her, not even her husband believes she could ever leave.
Then it becomes clear – that was her plan all along. She wasn’t as unhinged as everybody thought her to be. One morning, she was simply gone. First, nobody paid too much attention to that particular matter, she occasionally spent the night at a friend’s place. Then she failed to show up at work… or at home… or anywhere else.
She was gone.
Gone were all her personal things as well. Her wardrobe was empty. Her jewellery box was empty. Only most of her makeup was still on the table, in front of her vanity mirror. She was nowhere to be found.
Pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. She had systematically taken her things to a friend’s place over the preceding months. She had everything set up – a new job, a new home, a new life. And once her child was old enough, once she had that child’s future secured, she could finally buy a plane ticket.
Suddenly, everybody believed her. She hadn’t only left him, but she left the country. The saddest part was that most of them considered her happy ending, her new beginning, as nothing more than a pathetic, insane, unacceptable choice.
Here’s to hoping that more and more women in her situation manage to find the strength and resources to make such a choice!
She spent all the time admiring herself in the mirror… she went on and on about her perfect body and her toned abs, lifting her shirt to show me. Could she be vainer?
I knew the girl who had been getting on my friend’s last nerve. She was attractive. She was beautiful. But most importantly, she knew it and she loved flaunting it. Personally, I admired her fashion sense – she was one of those women who instinctively know what suits them best and could create astonishing outfits from unremarkable items – and I found her lack of false modesty refreshing.
I also knew what that story was about… Equally beautiful, equally vain, my friend was more subtle about showing off her best physical features. It wasn’t difficult to know when she was truly happy with her body. She’d emerge from dressing rooms half naked or she wouldn’t mind undressing in front of other women. We’d pretend to go to the gym only so we’d have a good excuse for sauna and massages.
On the other hand, whenever she put on some weight or she obsessed over imaginary cellulite, shopping with her was a nightmare. My needing a size smaller than the one she was trying on generally resulted in a variety of mood swings and was often met with a particular grimace – the one she was saving for those special cases when someone’s actions were perceived as purposely directed against her. Our guilty pleasure – a nice meal and sharing a large slice of chocolate cake at our favourite restaurant – would be replaced by a blend salad and a lecture on the dangers of sugar and carbs.
All of the sudden, she’d show up wrapped in an oversized towel, the kind she always made fun of when seeing other women wear when taking a sauna. Like I said, I knew what it was about – she had cancelled our sauna and gossip sessions entirely for several weeks, when our acquaintance was showing off her perfect body.
It looks like all that time she spends exercising is paying off… Well, some of us don’t have the time for that, some of us have to work…
The time for feigning acceptance had passed. I could envision their afternoon… after all, I had witnessed such displays so many times. Both of them beautiful, both of them competitive, both of them frustrated in different ways. One would brag about her career and stable future, the other about her looks and her obscenely wealthy boyfriend… one of them relying on her education and her supportive family; the other one relying on nothing else but her beauty and survival instincts, her family offering her nothing but a bedroom in their home… both of them sharing one common goal, in spite of their temporary independence and rebellion – meeting a man they’d marry, the way it was expected of them…
I think of that conversation once in a while… particularly when I notice people shaking their heads and rolling their eyes disapprovingly if I make it clear that I feel good about the way I look… particularly when I notice people sigh with exasperation if I’m displeased with my appearance. So get ready to roll your eyes, because I’m going to say it. We were in our twenties back then and all three of us were beautiful, in conventional and non-conventional ways.
What is so wrong in saying that, anyway? No matter what we look like, we are constantly bombarded with clichés on the importance of self-love… so much so, that it’s really easy to end up hating ourselves for not loving to bits all those perfect imperfections we abhor. Yet the very moment we actually find a way to accept and appreciate our individual beauty, no matter what that might look like, countless brows frown and condemning whispers point out how such deluded vanity is unacceptable. What is the crime in it, that we have to tare each other apart this way? Everything in moderation, one might say. But moderation isn’t always an option… Much like beauty, moderation is subjective, defined by the eye of the beholder. Call me crazy, but I’d rather err on the side of deluded vanity/self-love…
Yes, we are can be wonderfully generous and we can be frightfully mean; we can be insecure and we can be arrogant, even at the same time; we laugh, we cry, we hurt and get hurt. We are only human. We live. So perhaps – once in a while – we can just live and let live… especially on this day of ours. Rather than trying to set new patterns that “need” to be followed, we might consider respecting each other’s choices, even if we may not always agree with them. Rather than trying to define, rule and regulate what a woman “should” be, let’s take a break and appreciate who we actually are.
This is supposed to be our day, so first and foremost, we should celebrate ourselves. Then we might want to think of all those other wonderful women in our lives. Then we might want to take a moment and think of those special people in our lives, the patient and loving ones, the ones who make us feel like ladies each and every day, and thank them. We all know who they are 😉
“She stands still, looking around, never moving, never changing. People leave. People change. New people always arrive, so they would take their turn leaving sooner or later. And they live and die, they experience a constant transformation. Yet she transcends stages of life without moving, because she cannot undertake the usual, normal human evolutionary road and follow it through the same ditches of failure and disappointment. So she stands still, most of the times alone, breathing steadily and sometimes stopping someone to keep her company, help her forget fear and loneliness and hatred… and just trying to live.’
I barely managed to quietly lock the door behind me when the ringing made me jump out of my skin. Whoever was calling, I begrudged them. That phone was so loud, that you could hear it from any corner of the house… especially in the dead of night.
Great! My grandmother was already standing in front of me – the woman could certainly pull a frightening judgemental look, even in her frilly granny nightgown, measuring me from the tip of my high heel boots to my mascara covered lashes. Our make-believe game was working so well… I would pretend I got home early, she would pretend to care enough to stay awake and see when I returned; as long as nothing happened, so she wouldn’t have to be confronted with the truth, as long as none of her friends could prove my disobedience, the system served us both so well.
What time is it? I answered, defiantly looking her in the eye. Why did we need to pretend, anyway? Who was calling at this hour of the night? How was I to know? Perhaps I could find out, if she moved aside, so I could get to the ringing phone… No. That was unacceptable. The phone would not be answered. Calling that late in the night was simply a sign of bad manners. I scowled, as my grandmother stood in front of me, arms crossed, sleep marks on her face, yet stubbornly blocking my path to the phone. Maybe it was an emergency, I ventured a guess. No emergency justifies bad manners! I wasn’t going to win that one, I knew it.
Perhaps getting a mobile phone wasn’t an entirely bad idea, I thought to myself, entering my room once the ringing stopped.
The desk by the window remained empty that day. I hoped she would eventually show up. But she didn’t, and I couldn’t fight that feeling of dread and helplessness taking over me as the hours went by.
I had to ring several times before the door eventually opened. Her brother looked sad, but relieved to see me. Something in his voice made me believe that he was constantly feeling the dread and helplessness I had experienced that day, but ten times, a hundred times more intensely. She was fine… well, she was upset, but she was fine… she just didn’t feel like going to school, that was all. Was he trying to convince me or himself? Why didn’t he go to work that day, if he believed it?…
Relax… No pills, no trips to the emergency room, she smiled sadly as I entered her room. No more of that, she did promise, after all… Was she trying to convince me or herself? She was just in a bad mood; everybody can be in a bad mood once in a while, right?
When she didn’t come to school for about ten days several months earlier, nobody could get in touch with her. But nobody worried too much either, she often missed school for days at a time. She was a bright girl, so she always managed to keep up with all the school work… and let’s be honest, we all did our best to skip as many classes as possible.
She loved life and she knew she had made a mistake in a moment of weakness. Last night was just bad, that’s all, she told me. She knew that talking about it would make her feel better, would chase away some of her despair, fear and loneliness. Her brother was out. So she tried calling her closest friends… but it was late, very late in the night, so nobody answered.
Of course they didn’t, manners were more important than emergencies, I thought to myself, not at all sure whether what I was feeling was anger or guilt.
Then she dialled some random numbers, she continued to tell me the previous night’s story. Eventually, somebody answer. A stranger. A kind, patient stranger, somebody completely unfamiliar with certain good manners, answered and listened. A stranger can sometimes be more understanding, helpful and objective than any friend. But most importantly, it can be a lot easier to talk to a stranger, especially when they do answer their phone in the middle of the night. She cried, she talked about things she didn’t even know she needed to share and in her turn, she listened to a stranger’s opinions and personal stories. In the end, the experience had been cathartic, but exhausting as well, because it was morning by the time they hung up. That was why she hadn’t come to school, she needed to sleep. I was relieved; at the same time, I felt awful.
I wanted to make my grandmother feel guilty, I wanted to make her understand how wrong she had been. It didn’t work; some people can never see anything outside that small box which represents their close-minded vision on life. But whether she liked it or not, telephone etiquette was no longer respected.
I often ignore phone calls, but to this day I always answer when the phone rings in the middle of the night. You never know when allowing someone to speak out about something completely irrelevant to you might actually be a matter of life of death for them…
I had to admire their stubbornness, resourcefulness and shamelessness – once I had refused to meet any of these so-called suitors, they found a loophole and came up with one I had already met before… moreover, they actually snuck him into the living room when I literally wasn’t looking. Who was I not to appreciate the humour in it?
To be fair, they had done worse in the past… This one might actually make for a fun fling. A good sense of humour, not hard on the eyes… She was right, we did get along well, there was some chemistry there, from the moment we had met a couple of years earlier; it never went beyond innocent flirting, we had never been single at the same time… until then.
So much for being comfortable around each-other… they’re singing my praises. Isn’t that a nice tree? She decorated it, you know… here, have some more cake, she baked it. She’ll make somebody a great wife someday. I chocked on my food instantaneously – they’d gone too far with that one. Oddly, our guest didn’t even flinch.
Poor thing… how he suffered after the break-up… But I know you’ll find someone right for you, you’re such a great guy. So my mother was in charge with talking him up. If only I didn’t know what she really thought of him, the disposable boy toy… I knew that if I wanted to get back at her, all I had to do was to seriously get involved with him… or any other guy like him. Hmmm… she would deserve that, wouldn’t she? Let’s see how the night goes…
Strike one – he’s all of the sudden intimidated by my mother; he’s even afraid of her! A man in his thirties, who’s been friends with her husband for about a decade… that’s simply unacceptable. Oh well…
On the bright side, at least this one wasn’t gay, like the one they had in store for me the previous year. Casual dinner with some friends, they said. Yes, a married couple and their son… their clearly gay son (clear to everybody but his parents and my stepfather). And playing the part of the jealous party crasher, none other than the son’s “best friend”… Come to think of it, this was actually an improvement.
Somehow, dinner crawled to an end and we, young folk, were sent out in the world to have some fun. The guy thought we’d go see a movie, he had already gotten the tickets. I rolled my eyes – strike two. Predictable and boring. I hate going to the movies on a first date. I would rather spend that time getting to know the person, not in a movie theatre where we can’t talk. Family holiday, that’s what Christmas is, how could you not come and spend it with us? Of course it is… I had flown thousands of kilometres the day before so I could spend Christmas Eve in a cinema, watching a movie I didn’t feel like seeing with a guy I barely knew, surrounded by strangers. Merry Christmas to me!
It was all too ridiculous and harmless to be angry, really… And I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the innocent victim he was in our family antics. I could just see him as he was approached earlier that day and told I would really like to spend the evening with him, but I was just too shy to ask him out… so the date might come as a surprise to me, a really pleasant surprise… he hadn’t thought they wouldn’t tell me… but he couldn’t waste such an opportunity, could he?… Poor, poor, poor guy – he’s expecting who knows what sexy vision of a woman and instead he gets me in all my messy, domestic glory. Yet, he’s still happy to go out with me, even after that charming appearance and my parents’ behaviour. That says a lot (most likely, that he’s crazy and/or desperate)…
But he’s slowly becoming the guy I used to find quite attractive, so the walk to the cinema turns out to be just what we needed. After all, an outlet, a refuge from my family during my stay with them is always beneficial. And we are both consenting adults, perhaps later – if things go well – we could openly discuss the rules and limitations of short term dating. Aren’t I the romantic one?…
Let’s see what he suggests we do after the movie and how he behaves. Dancing the night away in a club was the perfect antidote to that evening (if fun I was supposed to have, fun I would have, and they would end up regretting it). But introducing me to his friends as his girlfriend halfway into our first date… well… strike three! That’s not to say he didn’t make for a fun escape that holiday season… But best of all, the way I simply – and apparently insensitively – said goodbye to him when leaving, according to the initially set rules, hurt his little boy toy heart, becoming a great source of gossip for their entire group of friends and acquaintances, thus insuring the end of all attempts to set me up with various individuals.
It was shortly after lunch when I started looking forward to the comfort of a hot shower, a fluffy bathrobe and a pair of soft slippers . I made it back from the local shopping centre frozen, hungry and somewhat scarred for life by the madness of last minute shoppers – one of which I had unwillingly become that year. But at least my frozen claws were clenched, holding on to their sought after and fought over prey – a not too big cardboard box containing a brand new artificial Christmas tree and a plastic bag with a few decently looking ornaments.
She could’ve at least checked to see what state it was in, I couldn’t stop thinking somewhat resentfully, because my mother’s old Christmas tree was beyond redemption, as I got to find out earlier that day. But after fighting tooth and nail with the cat in order to recover each and every one of the bobbles my mother so gracefully spread all over the floor for the little animal to play with, after figuring out where the tree could be safely set, out of reach of the spoiled four-legged menace, after some pre-Christmas cooking and baking, the evening ahead seemed promising. I was exhausted, but it looked like we were about to have a nice, calm, peaceful family Christmas Eve for a change.
Fluffy robe and cute slippers on, hair in a messy ponytail, all relaxed and reinvigorated, I’m making my way to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee before I decide on something nice and comfortable to wear – and all of the sudden I feel like I’ve forgotten how to breathe… and utter words. I don’t blush. I never do. But I feel my face burning, it must be red this time. There he is, the family friend… all dressed up, looking festive, uncomfortable and equally speechless. And there’s my mother urging me to be polite and hug the man – after all, we hadn’t seen each other in such a long while. And there’s her husband, grinning smugly, whispering to me, I couldn’t fit him under the Christmas tree, but you can thank me later.
I really should have known better… both of them had been on their best behaviour the entire day, occasionally exchanging amused glances or leaving the room in order to make various phone calls. But I fell for the mirage of that simple, tranquil, boringly normal Christmas Eve dinner, and you just don’t question a miracle if you feel it’s about to happen.
I needed help with my outfit, so the gentlemen had to excuse me, while my mother had to explain herself as soon as we were out of the room. It was really all his fault – she would blame it on her husband, as usual; she would have preferred someone better. But this one would have to do on such short notice… it would have been nice of me to let them know I was single at least a few weeks in advance. What’s the harm in it, anyway? He’s a nice guy, I had met him before, we always got along well… and you have to admit he’s hot, she tells me. And he broke up with what’s-her-name, now you two can finally have some fun.
I really should have known better. It was all about the perfect package – and as long as I didn’t have a date for Christmas or for the New Year’s Eve party or for any of the other holiday related events, I was not the full package. I had once again forgotten that everything I had accomplished held value only if there was a man there to hold my hand. And since I was in my mid-twenties, I was practically an old maid already. It didn’t really matter if I was dating somebody at home or not – as long as I didn’t bring anybody with me to introduce to them, I was fair game and they took it upon themselves to set all sorts of uncomfortable dates for me. I had no problem getting dates on my own, thank you!
A few weeks ago, I jokingly threatened someone to reveal their age in a birthday post. It’s generally assumed that women are the vane and sensitive ones when it comes to this delicate subject, but from what I’ve noticed, men are equally touchy. One enjoys one’s birthday to be acknowledged and celebrated, but one hopes one’s age be forgotten. So don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me 😉 .
There’s a very special gentleman out there – one very important to me – who’s one year older today, yet just as young at heart as he was the day we met. To him I’d like to wish a very happy birthday! May all your hopes and dreams come true! And don’t forget, the best men are like fine wine – they get better with age 😉 .
With Christmas only a month away and the air getting chillier every day, with seasonal decorations and gift suggestions invading every corner of our lives, some of us find it difficult to chase away a certain feeling of anticipation. That childish giddiness is almost in the air again, and personally, I have to exercise a certain kind of self-control and not succumb to that exaggerate desire of purchasing more and more Christmas decorations I won’t have where to store once the holidays are over.
The slide down memory lane is inevitable when trying to make some sort of holiday plans and my oldest, closest friend and I have our own traditions. First, we do our best to spend some time together in December, preferably over the holidays (that used to be so much easier to accomplish when we were kids…). Then, once that happens, old photos are pulled out and all sorts of memories are rehashed – bitter, sweet and bittersweet ones alike.
He was the child who refused to believe Santa wasn’t real, until he had no choice but to accept that life is harsh and its struggles sometimes have to be faced at an early age. He believed in magic and magic was suddenly taken away, to only be replaced by sadness and disappointment. I, however, never believed in Santa Claus. Christmas was my favourite time of year. I loved and enjoyed every moment of it for several years before it all became too real; yet I never believed in Santa, even if presents mysteriously materialized under the tree every Christmas morning. I couldn’t really explain why, it was a feeling more than anything else. My intuition simply didn’t allow me to believe it, even if in a way, I would have liked him to be real. Later on, the explanation crystalized in a few simple words, which apply to so many other instances of our lives: it was too good to be true. Like my friend said, I must have been born a cynic. It’s probably also true that he was a happier child before he saw the magic die in front of his innocent eyes.
Now we can make light of such memories, the ones about how we found out for sure Santa wasn’t real. Once I had decided to obtain irrefutable proof that the jolly man in red was only a lie, nothing stood in my way. Evidence once found, my plan was to wait until Christmas morning and then tell my mother I already knew what my presents were. But once I proclaimed I knew there was no Santa and I could prove it, I could clearly discern a shadow of sadness and worry on my mother’s face. I needed to prove I was right; but she needed me not to, she needed me to believe in magic. So I said nothing else aside from the usual, “I just know”. After all, I knew what the truth was and that was enough. Sometimes, parents lie to protect their children. And sometimes, children do the same to protect their parents. On that particular Christmas, the magic was all about a mother and a daughter wanting to make each other happy.
I later understood there was a different magic of Christmas in which I actually believed, and that had simply been the first time I had experienced it. It wasn’t about religion, myths, superstition or supernatural beings making dreams come true. Instead, it was about offering myself some moments of childish joy and also about creating a happy instance for somebody dear to me. What can I say, there’s magic and there’s magic… Mine just happens to be of the more realistic, non-idealized, superstition-free kind.
It starts off light, little things here and there, which only make you believe she is simply a more forgetful person than others. An assignment not carried out in time leads way to an almost hysterical reaction as she is blaming everybody for not telling her she was the one supposed to do it. Nobody can possibly imagine she would react that way if indeed she had known and forgotten about it. That is, until the situation becomes a recurrent event… because she does indeed forget, she forgets she was told in the first place, then she forgets having forgotten. Therefore it never happened.
Regina is not like everybody else, she knows it and she cultivates this idea, mainly to the benefit of her own peace of mind. One of those things that make her so special – aside from her uncanny intelligence, unspeakable beauty and impeccable taste, of course – are her high moral standards. Therefore she makes for one very interesting case study, as all people may lie, but not so many of them have so helpful a subconscious that it literally deletes all unwanted and unacceptable memories.
Selective memory works in mysterious ways, you suddenly remember while she pouts and accuses you of all sorts of sins, such as betrayal, false friendship and selling her to the enemy. With all those invectives thrown at you in one angry breath, you can barely gather yourself and wonder what the hell you did wrong this time, in order to earn you such a warm welcome.
It all becomes clear when you slowly understand that if some people might forget a name, a date or a place, Regina can forget an entire relationship. Thus you are blamed for all kinds of unfriendly, treacherous behaviour, because she only remembers the first time she dated that particular man. But the second time around – the one which lasted half a year or so and even brought about the possibility of an impending wedding – is lost somewhere in the mists of Regina’s selective memory.
You can find the full version of “Glass Slippers and Stilettos” on iBooks, Kobo, Barnes&Noble and Smashwords. I hope you enjoy it!
She twirled the fork in the cold pasta once more, still unable or unwilling to taste it. She closed her right eye, giving the plate a suspicious look. She’d been playing that game for a week. The doctor’s words were ringing in her ears, no matter what she did. So she started repeating them once more, not caring that the man sitting across the table, eating his dinner in silence, had heard them time and time again, first from the doctor’s mouth, than from her, doubled by a variety of emotions. Sadness, disbelief, hope, despair, resignation, acceptance… hysteria… he’d witnessed them all. For a moment, she felt relief, as though saying the words out loud made the problem evaporate into thin air.
“You’ll have surgery and everything will be fine again. You’ll see.”
He swallowed his half chewed pasta. There was a faint aftertaste of guilt, he noticed… he’d heard the story so many times, that he’d become immune. He no longer cared about her drama – real or imaginary – but nothing in his actions would betray it. After all, they were married…
20%… It was that number that got to her the most. It was all about the numbers. She hated mathematics, therefore she spent the better part of her life stubbornly trying to disregard the numbers she despised. But they’d always been there, tormenting her, challenging her, making her happy and sad alike, even if she had chosen to look the other way.
But she was too young… wasn’t she? Wasn’t it only old people who needed cataract surgery? She swallowed the tasteless pasta. Apparently not, that’s what the doctor said… either that or she really was old, and she just couldn’t see it. She swallowed her tears along with the pasta.
She looked at all her bookshelves, absentmindedly trying to count all the books she had read and all the ones left to read; and there were so many more that she would never even get to hear about. The numbers were winning once more. Did she only have 20% of her life left as well? The surgery might very well fix her eye – the numbers were in her favour there – but it wouldn’t fix much else. How much was left? And what to do with it?
She closed her right eye again, staring at her left hand. Only half a picture, yet somehow it looked clearer than the full picture. The diamond sparkled as she stretched her fingers and she tried to remember all its numbers – the size, the price, the date she said “yes” to it, to him, the years that had passed. Were they wasted years? Half a picture said “no”; the other half told another story. No eye surgery could help her see her present clearly.
The pasta was blend that evening, yet he wasn’t complaining about it. He always complained when the food wasn’t the way he liked it. Was this good or bad? Was he trying to be understanding and supportive or had he reached that point where he couldn’t be bothered to care enough in order to complain? A 50-50 chance. She knew she often felt she was approaching that point. So potentially 100% for their couple… was that how relationship maths worked?
Her eye moved up to her wrist. The numbers pointed to the fact that it was almost time for him to go out and meet his friends. It was almost time for her to be alone again. The number of minutes in the days in the months in the years they had been married could easily be calculated. But she loathed the result, because she had the feeling she’d been lonely for the better part of them. She also loathed to think whether he was lonely as well.
Perhaps that was why there were no more watches, no more jewellery, no more flowers. As the numbers of their relationship went up, the number of tokens of appreciation decreased, until it reached 0 and stagnated. Or did he think that holding her hand at the eye doctor was a sign of appreciation? Maybe he did… after all, she thought that remembering to buy his favourite socks was a sign of affection. They barely remembered each other’s birthdays or their anniversary these days, but the memories of earlier years were crystal clear. His birthday had come and gone, adding one more uncelebrated year to his number. Her birthday was coming up; so was their anniversary. She didn’t feel guilty for not celebrating his; she would resent him for ignoring hers, theirs… But she would pretend she didn’t care, the way she had for the past several years. How many years was it now? Anyway, she would pretend not to care, she would make light of it… after all, they weren’t children… after all, they were married…
“We should have dinner somewhere nice on our anniversary… or maybe on your birthday. That way, you don’t have to cook…” He pushed aside the half empty plate of pasta and left the table. It was time for after dinner drinks with his friends.
Both her eyes were widely open, silently staring the man in front of her. But she couldn’t get a clear picture. Was it because he hated her cooking? Was he trying to be nice? But if he was, why didn’t he suggest they go away for a few days, just the two of them? Could he no longer stand to be alone with her for a few days? Could she put up with him for a few days, just the two of them alone, all the time? Would this year’s celebration celebrate something? What were the chances for that to happen? Surely they could be calculated. Perhaps she didn’t want a clear picture after all…
Alone once more, with nobody to share her tragedy, having to face and accept the separate beds situation, Regina also has to accept taunting memories that refuse to stay selectively lost. Inconsiderate has no knowledge of it, but when initially leaving her for not being appealing enough, he became an influential factor in Regina’s evolution. Non-revealing, somewhat blend, often boring outfits used to be her signature style. That’s how you get a husband, she had been taught; she was also quite sure her mere existence would be reason enough for any man to reach ecstasy. On top of everything else, she had the upper hand, she looked the part of the moral compass she believed herself to be, thus feeling entitled to pass judgement on any other woman.
What really annoyed her at the time, she remembered, was the fact that her style had worked on several men, all enthralled by her innocent beauty and charm. She was particularly fond of one memory… After a pleasant evening together, her date was walking her home. It was a warm summer evening and she was wearing the most unassuming, somewhat outdated dress and pink flip-flops. They had had such a great time together, that she just didn’t want their date to end, so she invited him to stay for coffee. But it was only their second date, so he chose to be a perfect gentleman… yet when he held her tight and gave her a long, passionate goodbye kiss, pressing his body against hers, she could clearly feel how much he desired her. So men had to make an effort to control the wild desire she stirred up in their loins, in spite of those unrevealing outfits she used to wear. However, she failed to remember a few insignificant details… They had to run through torrential rain that beautiful summer evening and by the time they reached her door, the boring dress was nothing but a semi-transparent piece of cloth clinging to the naked body underneath. But such things rarely make a difference when it comes to a man’s desire anyway…
Meeting Inconsiderate was a revelation. He was the first real man she fell in lust with and not only did he fascinate her, but he also made her feel small and simply not good enough. Everything about him exuded power and success, she felt; and she absolutely loved how he only wore designer clothes and accessories… She was equally impressed and intimidated by his disdain for people who found it acceptable to drape their bodies in cheap, ordinary clothes and in case one didn’t manage to catch a clear glimpse of all the labels he was wearing, he would certainly find a way to work it into conversation. Women were occasionally exempt from the designer rule, if and only if the flashy outfits covering their perfect bodies left very little to the imagination and their pretty faces expressed endless awe and admiration for him. Complete with an equally extravagant car he would change at least yearly (because he kept wrecking each and every one of them), the stunning new man in Regina’s life was absolutely irresistible. Anyone saying otherwise was just too jealous to admit it!
You can find the full version of “Glass Slippers and Stilettos” on iBooks, Kobo, Barnes&Noble and Smashwords. I hope you enjoy it!
“… had a feeling… he did … found out by mistake … and now … yesterday … telling you …”
Oh yes! Gloves, gloves, gloves! Those turquois ones… They definitely have the best selection. Gloves, gloves, gloves…
“Do you mind if I have a look?”
“Help yourself! Try on everything you like.”
Next to being left to my own devices in a candy store as a child, what else could be better? Quick, let’s have a thorough look before she changes her mind and becomes a suffocating sales person again.
“And the kids… there’s the kids to consider, after all…”
And the elbow length ones… look at those beauties, they’d go great with my cape. Behave yourself, you have a pair just like them at home! Oh well… perhaps in a different colour… maybe the royal blue pair. Between the intoxicating smell of leather and all the colours and styles, how’s a girl to make up her mind? Decisions, decisions…
“The business too… Don’t you think?”
I confess, I have a weakness for leather gloves. I blame it on my childhood (isn’t that what we always do when it comes to our quirks and foibles?). I’m partial to accessories in general, like most women, but come the cold season, I can’t help thinking I just need to have at least one more pair of leather gloves… or two or three… and perhaps some new boots too… Oh no, one obsession at a time!
Anyway, as I was saying, I’m sure I can blame this one on my childhood. My grandmother used to have this pair of fur trimmed, unimaginably soft leather gloves and I remember I so wanted a pair just like that. When you grow up, she’d tell me, they’re not for children. So I eventually did what any rebellious, stubborn kid would do. If I wasn’t going to have the ones I wanted, then I would not wear any gloves. However, that did not change my grandmother’s mind, so I went a couple of winters without actually wearing gloves, even if I was offered several colourful, girly, woollen choices. (I did occasionally cheat, I had a pair hidden in my schoolbag, just in case of an impromptu snow fight; but I wouldn’t wear them otherwise.) The denouement came as a shocking surprise when my mother eventually noticed my frozen hands and she was told what the reason was. All this drama for nothing, I remember she muttered, angry with my grandmother. Here, you can have mine, I never wear them anyway. With the simplest of gestures, she took a pair of black leather gloves out of her handbag and gave them to me. See if they fit. They did, they fit almost perfectly and they smelled like leather and her perfume. I was finally an adult, I thought to myself, ignoring my grandmother’s angry, disapproving looks.
“He’s been seeing her for over a year. I have no idea what to do now, I mean, I have to make a decision, right? Do I divorce him?”
Something’s wrong with the speakers, a good part of them stopped working and now the woman’s monologue is loud and clear, I can’t miss a word if I tried. She obviously doesn’t care, she keeps pouring her story over her friend or acquaintance, the one she’s holding captive, who looks so embarrassed, so ill at ease.
Anyway, I just wanted to stop by and say hello… But the words don’t sink in and they don’t grant her an escape. She looks like a trapped animal, ready to make a run for it, wanting to be as far away from that mundane drama unfolding in front of her. To say hello to an acquaintance, maybe a hugely discounted pair of gloves, that’s all she wanted; and now that hand holding her arm in a friendly, yet desperate grip was dragging her into one of those unpleasant situations in which none of us want to find ourselves.
I can’t say I don’t understand her. I don’t want to hear the most private, embarrassingly painful details of a stranger’s marriage. I hate whoever is in charge of the sound system. Now I have to leave, because I feel so uncomfortable listening to all that. In her attempt to escape, the unwilling confident has slowly motioned towards the exit and now the two of them are blocking the small doorway, none of them letting go of the pair of gloves which had been purchased and dearly paid for.
Why should I leave? This was supposed to be my treat. I was looking forward to the leather goods fair. It’s always small family businesses that attend and there are always great deals to be found. I want my damn gloves! I wasted all that time looking for a parking spot and now I should just leave? I’m going to stomp my feet and dive right back into the plethora of colourful gloves, together with the other uncomfortable customers. That’s what I’m going to do. Look how pretty those fuchsia ones are… wait, I already have a pair of fuchsia gloves… I bought them here last year… They always have the best selection, don’t they? All sorts of colours, not just your usual black, brown and beige variety…
Right… two pairs will do, and for the first time I don’t want to spend any more time here than necessary.
“Should I leave him?”
Strangers ask me the most unexpected questions… like that lady at the supermarket, asking me what pickles she should buy – what do I know, I don’t even like pickles? But this one really takes the cake.
I looked up, making eye contact with the woman holding on to the small shopping bag. She isn’t trying to cynically punish me for having unwillingly witnessed her loud confession. She is expecting an answer. A one word answer, not an opinion, not pity or husband bashing. She needs an answer, I can see that.
That is the only one word answer she is looking for. I know that. I know it, because much as I tried, I couldn’t help hearing everything. I couldn’t help understanding that – whether she knows it or not – her mind is already made up. All she needs now is somebody to support that decision, somebody she can blame in case it’s the wrong decision. So I’ll give her that.
She lets go of the small shopping bag we’re both holding and she smiles.
Maybe it wasn’t my place to answer. Maybe it wasn’t even the right answer. I don’t know. What I do know is that it was what she needed at that point. What I do know is that it wasn’t my place to tell her that I believe almost everybody cheats at some point or another, in some way or another, for some reason or another. It wasn’t my place to tell her that everything she was relating suggested the fact that her husband would most likely leave her before she might even get a chance to verbalise her decision.
I walked away with my nicely wrapped new gloves. There’s more to the life of an adult woman than such delightful treats. We need our armour to protect us from the tricks played on us and from the potential guilt resulting from the tricks we play on others… and on ourselves. And if some soft leather gloves or any other kind of delicious, frivolous accessories can help build and maintain that metaphorical armour, then so be it! If we need to occasionally relinquish responsibility, revert to childhood and blame the world for our misfortune for a moment or two, then so be it!
She was quickly becoming a pain in the neck… literally. Holding the phone to my ear with my shoulder while ironing may have not been one of my brightest ideas. But conversations with her were generally long and boring. I needed some other dull task to focus on, so that they wouldn’t feel like a waste of time. After all, that’s what people do, right? They try to keep in touch, they make an effort to communicate and mind each other’s dull nonsense… that is, until you start feeling like throwing your phone out the window.
Apparently she was having a husband bashing night and I just had to be part of it…. Oh well… Sure, I could let her vent and throw in a yes, no or a wow once in a while. I knew the drill, she just needed to tare him apart and contradicting her would only anger the woman even more. But strongly agreeing with her while listing all his flaws without mentioning any redeeming qualities was also a faux pas. After all, she wanted some compassion and empathy, she didn’t want to hear that she had married the wrong person, that the two of them were not compatible, or – horror of horrors – that some of their marital problems might have also been her fault. But once she was done, she generally occasionally able to hear that perhaps he wasn’t all bad, that she might not always be a delight to live with and that all in all, they needed to work together on solving their problems.
Then there were the times when conversations took a twisted, shocking turn…
“I just can’t do it anymore… I have to do everything… he can’t even be trusted to take out the rubbish… you wouldn’t believe for how long he can leave the rubbish bag right there, by the door…”
Oh yes, the “who takes out the rubbish” conundrum… I heard that one before. Whenever she’s mad at him, you’ll always hear about the rubbish.
“I put it next to his shoes and he still claims he didn’t see it, that’s why he didn’t take it out. I swear, next time he’ll find it all over his beloved loafers. I’m not joking, you know. I told him that.”
I had to stifle a few giggles. I know how annoying such small things can be, they get to me too. But for years and years, I keep hearing all about the rubbish drama. She keeps finding amusingly creative ways to point it out and he keeps ignoring it. I wouldn’t be surprised if one morning he found potato peels in his shoes, leftover pasta in his pockets and shrivelled lettuce in his wallet.
“He’s taken it too far… I don’t know how long I can put up with this anymore. I’m all alone all day, taking care of our sick cat and what does he do?… The poor thing isn’t doing better, I’m the only one giving her the treatment and it breaks your heart seeing how she suffers…”
Goody… more cat stories now. I made a face at the phone, while picking up a pillow case from the decreasing laundry pile. I am not a cat person. She always talked about her cat the same way doting mothers talk about their babies. Much as I wanted to be open and understanding, I couldn’t help thinking there were deeper issues behind her behaviour.
“I give the cat her medicine, I try to get her to eat something, I’m the one who stays awake watching her at night…”
Why would she do that in the first place? I was pretty sure the cat wasn’t awake all night… Oh well… moving on to the next pillow case.
“… and he sleeps right through it! Then he’s at work all day, of course. And who has to take care of a sick cat every day? Not him! You know he hasn’t taken one single day off to stay home with her?”
What sane person would?
“And now, do you know where he is now? Well, do you?”
Oh, that wasn’t a rhetorical question… How am I to know?
“I’ll tell you where he is. At the hospital, visiting his mother! Every day, after work, he goes straight to the hospital to see her. He has a sick cat at home and he goes to the hospital to see his mother every day!”
Okay… this I was not prepared for… how does one react to something like this?
“Do you know that I had to take the cat to the vet all by myself because he was too busy looking after his mommy?”
I unplugged the iron and sat down, holding the phone with one hand and massaging my neck with the other. I like animals too. I had pets too. But this was too much. This was insane. There was a woman suffering on a hospital bed. Her husband was terrified facing the possibility of losing his mother, and all she cared about was a damn cat with an ear infection.
This was a new low, and it had nothing to do with me not being a cat person or with a man too lazy to take out the rubbish. Nevertheless, I am the one labelled as uncaring and cold-hearted, because I am not moved to tears by the suffering kitty… Well, call me crazy, but I want to desperately hold on to this insane idea that people, especially the ones we choose to have in our lives, should be more important than a pet.
I kept changing the channels, barely noticing what was on… nothing was interesting anyway… not the book I was reading, not the homework I knew I was never going to finish, not the outfit I was going to wear the following day, and certainly not my life that evening. A movie was about to start and I decided to give it a chance. And this is how I got to watch experience Dirty Dancing for the first time.
I would have been too young to understand or show the slightest interest in it in the 80s, but the 90s teenager was absolutely fascinated by the romance unfolding on TV. Of course, the fact that Patrick Swayze was absolutely yummy didn’t hurt; I also loved the dancing, but it was the passion between the characters that I envied. Their story wasn’t exactly what I would have imagined as the dream romance, yet it was subjugating nevertheless. I wanted to feel something like that, the kind of consuming, overwhelming, out of control love which gives you wings and the strength to defend the object of your affection, no matter what. Such an ecstatic experience was definitely one worth having, I decided. But the ending… it made me sad. Sure, he came back for her, he didn’t allow for anybody to put Baby in a corner, they had one last amazing, unforgettable dance, but then I was left with the feeling that the end of summer was also the end of their romance. Why couldn’t that sort of love motivate two beautifully passionate people to try and find a way to be together? The movie ended on a cheery note, but I was sure that was the end for Baby and Johnny. It couldn’t have been any other way, yet I didn’t want to look beneath the surface and acknowledge the obvious answers to my questions.
I had experienced that unbelievable, unexpected, overpowering passion, I had even done some dirty dancing of my own by the next time I watched the movie, in my very early twenties. Sometimes, when we get to experience the materialization of one of our dreams, the reality doesn’t meet the expectations. That wasn’t such a case. The reality was every bit as deliciously amazing as the dream. In some instances, it might have even been better, because some sensations cannot be fully understood if only imagined and not even once perceived.
Come the end of summer, came the end of romance as well – a known, anticipated and planned ending. The truth couldn’t be denied. It was exactly that pre-established ending that increased the intensity of our passion. The awareness that our infatuation wouldn’t last forever allowed us to give everything and open our hearts, souls and bodies to each other’s desires and feelings. It was the kind of passion that would haunt us for years to come. It was the kind of passion that would make us see the other person’s features everywhere. It was the kind of passion that brought tears to our eyes when hearing a certain song, knowing we wouldn’t see the other person anymore. It was the kind of passion which even when no longer felt, but only remembered, would make us pick up our phones and send the other a text, sharing a memory or an instance which triggered a feeling. We both had our own separate lives, yet those texts never went unanswered. It was the kind of passion that needed no explanation between the two persons who had once shared it.
I watched Dirty Dancing that second time, melancholically wondering if I would ever find that sort of passion. Experiencing it only once was never going to be enough for me, few things could compare to it, few times had I felt that alive. I had a feeling I would experience it again, just as I knew I would watch that movie over and over again. I didn’t question the ending anymore. The ending was absolutely necessary… but perhaps it could be changed in real life, under the right circumstances… or so I liked to think, even if I didn’t really believe it.
I couldn’t see past that happy ending separating the couple. Actually, I could, but I preferred not to look. I didn’t want to see a drunken, aged, frustrated Johnny, unable to cope with Baby’s successful career, incapable and unwilling to be part of her world. I didn’t want to see a sad, lonely, frustrated, prematurely aged Baby trying to make ends meet, regretting her choices, wishing she hadn’t given up her future and squandered her potential for a man she barely knew. They had made the right decision, the only smart one.
I watched Dirty Dancing many times since. I got to experience that passion again, more than once. I don’t know if I’m luckier than others or that kind of passion is out there, available and real for everybody, as long as we allow it and accept it for what it is. What I do know – now that I’m in my thirties – is that I could live it again, if I decided it was worth it. Knowing the inevitable ending, being able to recognize the stages deprives it of some of its magic. Watching Dirty Dancing again makes me realize I’ve become more jaded and cynical than I thought I was. I no longer feel that strong wish to live such a story, and not because I don’t think it’s worth it – it definitely remains an incredibly great mixture of emotions and surprising moments – but because I now know it’s not as unattainable as it might seem. While each and every one of these stories is special in its own way, none of them is really unique… And they all die out the same way. It’s passion able to regenerate its strength that’s truly hard to find, not consuming passion that burns out with a bright, short lived flame.
So what I wish now while watching Dirty Dancing is that I hadn’t lost all my naiveté, what I dream is to occasionally forget how jaded I am. That way, next time I am presented with a Dirty Dancing kind of passion, I wouldn’t stop and wonder, Is it worth it?… even if I’m pretty sure the answer would still be Yes.
No, she didn’t want any desert. Yes, she was saying no to the best tiramisu in town. Her daughter raised her eyebrows in disbelief – she had never heard her say no to tiramisu. Occasionally binging on sweets was their thing. Was anything wrong? No, everything was fine, she was just trying to cut back on sweets and eat healthily. After all, her daughter was doing the same for several years, she should understand. After all, the fact that she had just made that decision wasn’t relevant to the matter. More for me, and the daughter winked at her mother as the waitress placed the desert accompanied by two spoons between the two of women.
She watched her daughter obliviously savour her tiramisu. She used to be able to indulge in such calorie bombs, but she learnt not that long ago that such luxuries don’t last for a lifetime. Halfway into her mascarpone delight, her daughter put down the spoon, that was enough. A wave of resentment was coursing through her veins. The younger woman could still enjoy her deserts without worrying… and she could also control he urges. The only way she could stop herself from devouring the whole thing was by not even tasting it.
She used to wear the same size her daughter did. She used to borrow her daughter’s clothes whenever she had a chance, pretending not to notice how much the younger woman hated to have anybody wear her things, forgetting how much she herself used to hate it when the roles were reversed and her teenage daughter borrowed her outfits. Her daughter must have been relieved now, there was no way she could do that anymore.
Her eyes involuntarily went down on the loose top she was wearing, noticing the way it was clinging on her no longer flat tummy. Swiftly she straightened her back and readjusted the frilly ornaments of her top, hiding her flabby waist. A quick peek at their reflection in the nearest window reassured her. She wasn’t really fat, she was just fatter than she used to be… fatter than her daughter, that nagging reminder of how she used to look when she was that age, of how she used to look until a few years ago.
The evening air was getting chilly. Here, have my jacket, I’m not cold, her daughter offered. Her first instinct was to grab the cute little jacket and enjoy the youthful feeling wearing her daughter’s clothes always gave her. She stopped herself just in time. That’s ok, I’m not cold. Better the cold than the shame. What happened to that red leather jacket I gave you, do you still have it? The question was harmless, yet it felt like an insult. Yes, she had it, it was her favourite jacket. But nowadays she can only wear if she doesn’t need to close it.
After spending the day going from one store to another, trying on things and debating the latest trends, the way they had always done when they met, she felt she couldn’t sink any lower. Seeing her daughter pick a pair of skinny jeans off a shelf, the smallest size they had, made her strongly wish they wouldn’t fit. Seeing her daughter try a skirt and complain it was a bit large, made her hate the young woman with a vengeance. That used to be her! Only now that it wasn’t her anymore, was she able to understand what great a part of her identity that had been.
Two sizes. That wasn’t too much, was it? But when you live your whole life effortlessly having a perfect, enviable figure and you take it for granted, two sizes might as well be ten. She had always complained that people notice her looks before they notice her intelligence; only now could she admit she loved it. She was normal, she wasn’t overweighed, but standing next to her daughter in front of the mirror, getting ready to go out, was a bitter reminder of how much better than normal she used to be.
She liked these loose clothes, she repeated in a convincing manner. She couldn’t be bothered with too much makeup or high heels anymore; after a certain age comfort is everything. That was perfectly fine, her daughter agreed, as long as it’s comfort you’re looking for, rather than an excuse to let yourself go. She hated it when her daughter was right – she had given up on herself, because if you can’t be the most beautiful woman in a room anymore, what’s the point in doing anything? At least she still looked better than most of the women her age and she kept stating it loudly whenever she remembered she couldn’t stop time. In spite of what she may have claimed, maintaining her figure hadn’t been an effortless task; once she had stopped exercising, once she refused to adjust her diet to the changes her body was undergoing, time simply caught up with her. Fast.
Walking behind her daughter, she hungrily analysed every little detail about her yet again. Then she caught her reflection in the window once more. She looked fine… for her age. People used to be surprised when they were introduced as mother and daughter. Now they don’t even blink. Time. That’s all there was. Who knows, maybe she’ll decide to fight it again. But one thing made her feel slightly better – knowing her daughter would eventually go through it as well. She wasn’t alone in this.
Those eyes will wonder from the stiletto heels, upwards on the long, graceful legs, even more enticing in black stockings; they will linger hungrily on the garter belt and on the lace panties and they will take their time, being thankful for the tight corset, sending a distinct message to the tip of the fingers which almost feel it, anticipating the moment when they would struggle to tear it off the woman’s body; they will feel the heat of the body, as they focus on the whole image of the sensual woman standing a few metres away, the white flesh contrasting with the sexy black lingerie, her soft, long hair covering her shoulders and her naked back. The happiness becomes complete when those eyes meet another pair of long lashed, desire filled eyes which mirror the same wishes and carnal promises for the moments to follow. The young, beautiful face becomes even more irresistible, when the sincere smile lights it up with images of seduction and satisfaction, as the woman acknowledges her power, beauty and control over the man, yet again. She knows what effect her standing there, a speechless embodiment of sex, has over the man in front of her, and she takes her time, because this is one of those sensations which need to fully be perceived in order to set the right tone for the night to follow. She then motions slowly and lasciviously to pick up the almost forgotten glass offered to her moments or maybe centuries ago.
“It’s like this glass of water,” and she points to the wine glass in front of her instead. “I have this full glass and I give him half. Then I give him half of what’s left. Then I take a few sips myself, I need to drink too. And so on, until the glass is empty. And when it’s empty, I have nothing else left to give. Nothing left for him. Nothing left for me. Nothing left for anybody.” She lifts the wine glass which she stubbornly calls “water” and she drinks greedily. “And it’s still not enough, he’s not happy. He says I’m selfish and self-involved and never give anything back… when all I do is give until there’s nothing left.”
The whiny voice drowns into another sip of whine, waiting for compassionate words to wash over her. I have no such words to give.
“Did he ever ask you to share that glass of water?”
“No… But that’s what I felt I had to do.”
“Was it? Or did you simply decide that’s what he should need?”
She was quiet, trying to suppress those angry words bubbling inside her. Aren’t the two one and the same? What difference did it make, she knew better… she always knew better than anyone else.
“Did you ever stop and wonder if he wanted or needed water? Maybe he wanted a slice of bread instead, maybe he asked you for it time and time again, yet you didn’t care one bit; you had already decided he should only want water.” Because water was all you were willing to offer, even if that water was make-believe and was in fact wine…
“He should have wanted water!”
Being at the receiving end of that sort of generosity makes one feel worthless. It’s degrading to see your needs, hopes and dreams swept aside like disgusting dirt that they are in somebody else’s eyes, only to be replaced with the “appropriate” ones. You will only want that which I am willing to offer, and you’d better be forever grateful, her actions always made it clear.
“He says that hurts him. That it hurts him to see what I’ve become.”
She was on the edge of realization. He was on the edge of collapse. Their relationship was on the edge too.
“But it’s his fault.”
She couldn’t help herself. Reality was swiftly pushed aside and she was about to yet again plunge into that imaginary world where she is always the victim and the hero.
“No, it’s not. Not everything is his fault. Take responsibility for who you are!”
I poured the batter into the baking tray and when I was done, I licked the spoon. It tasted good, the flavour was just right… wasn’t it? I licked the spoon once more… something was missing. I could just see her face, I could just hear her voice, “Well, even I could have baked something like that. But I appreciate the effort, darling.”
I’m a good baker… not open-my-own-bakery-undiscovered-talent good, but good by comparison to many other women my age who have a life and also like cooking/baking. I was running late and I went for my safe and fast desert, my somewhat personalized lemon sponge cake. I could prepare that with my eyes closed, one hand tied behind my back, I used to think… until today.
Baking powder! I ran all the ingredients in my head and that’s what was missing. Damn, damn, f***, f***, damn! I felt like throwing the whole thing out, baking tray and all. But then I’d have to start all over again, and judging by the way things were going, I would never finish it without blowing up the kitchen. So… after having used three more eggs than the recipe called for simply because I failed to separate the eggs properly (I must’ve been 7 or 8 when this happened to me last and I always laugh when I see others messing it up – this’ll teach me), now this. Ok… I put in the baking powder at the very last moment, I mix the whole thing right in the baking tray, hoping for the best and that’s that. I know that if it doesn’t rise properly, I’ll just throw it out and give up on preparing any desert whatsoever.
She’s a terrible cook and she can’t bake to save her life, but god forbid I make a mistake. So I triple check the temperature and timer and in the oven it goes. No time to watch it, I have so many other things to do. One restless look and I can see it’s rising nicely. Kitchen decluttered, dishes washed, I can stop for a moment and enjoy the delicious smell… and wonder why the oven timer has stopped ticking, yet it hasn’t rung. Yeap, it was back to 0 and kept quiet about it. By this point, I’m eying the unopened bottle of red and feel like saying, “the hell with it”. Instead I just pull out the baking tray, hoping it wasn’t too late. Any other day but today…
I was going to sprinkle some powdered sugar on top and serve it with a scoop of my own homemade ice cream. Instead, I carefully cleaned the slightly burnt bottom layer, and covered it the best I could with dark chocolate glazing. She won’t notice I baked the sponge for too long, that much I know. There won’t be any ice cream on the side, because my evening continued along the same lines and I gave up on preparing it.
Pointless to say, the rubbish bag broke as I was trying to pull it out of the bin, spreading all that stinky mess on the kitchen floor… Once it was all collected and safely double bagged, I threw on a decent maxi dress instead of my chocolate and flour covered ensemble and good thing I did, because several of my neighbours were standing right in front of the building, bickering about some imaginary issues. A teenage girl with perfect hair gave me a disapproving look. Just you wait, my friend… You’ll grow, up, move away and one day your mother will be paying you a visit… then you’ll know what this feels like… One mean, piercing look and she was staring at her toenails. Ha!
I was polishing the outside of my entrance door when a neighbour gave me a crocked smile, staring at my short shorts (the ones I normally only wear in the house), while insidiously wishing me a good evening. What, you don’t dust and polish your door? Neither do I – normally – and neither does my mother… but boy, will she passively aggressively criticize my not doing so. I can just hear her, “You’re so lucky you’re not married… You can clean when and if you feel like it!” Her own home is an indescribable mess these days, but that’s not the point, right?… It was time to throw in the towel and call it a night… and perhaps open that bottle and have a nice glass of red wine. But first, I need to clean the toaster too, how did I forget about that one?
There’s a special kind of hell that only a mother can inflict on you, especially when only distance can keep things civilized between the two of you. I’ve long ago given up on pleasing her, I can accept some things are simply impossible. I normally manage to distance myself and ignore her criticism and offending comments. This time, however, I don’t have the energy to argue incessantly on a daily basis… I’m trying not to give her reasons to criticize, so hopefully in return, I don’t throw back all the venom gathered over years and years of not at all motherly behaviour on her behalf.
“Let’s see… I bought some new kitchen knives and they’re great, so cooking’s been fun, I’ve been slicing and dicing and chopping…”
Our conversations had been reduced to various domestic matters and not much else. But that was fine with me, I had no desire to share anything more personal. In fact, I could hardly wait for that phone call to be over.
“Finding good knives at a decent price is so hard… My only good one might need sharpening soon. I didn’t tell you how I got this one, did i?”
Who cares? I stifled another yawn.
“I don’t think so.”
Not that again… I thought they were done with it. She continued telling her story of the stolen knife in a cheerful voice, as though it was the funniest, most normal thing in the world.
We were sitting around their kitchen table, steaming coffee cups in front of us. She lit a cigarette and I started fiddling with the ice cream cup I had just been offered.
“New ice cream cups?”
The design of the spoon looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Not one of hers, I thought… Maybe she got new spoons too?…
“Not really… We only have a couple so far, but we’re getting there,” and she winked, giving me a crooked smile. I didn’t know what to make of that comment, so I said nothing.
Their friend’s restaurant, that was where the two “new” ice cream cups were from. She wasn’t feeling well one evening, so their friend offered her husband two cups of her favourite desert to take home and cheer her up. How nice of him, I thought. But as no good deed goes unpunished, they “forgot” to return the cute cups. That wasn’t very nice of them, I couldn’t help commenting, when in fact I wanted to say they didn’t deserve to be allowed back in that restaurant. I had just realised where I’d seen the pattern on the spoon I was holding. That couldn’t be a coincidence.
“If he ever asks us to return them, we will. He should, if he wants them back. But I think he forgot about them anyway.”
“Or he’s just avoiding the uncomfortable conversation….”
“Exactly,” and the crooked smile was back.
“Besides, did you see that new Omega on his wrist? He’s clearly doing well, he can afford it,” her husband added.
The ice cream suddenly felt a lot colder than it should have been. I discretely pulled at my left sleeve. It was no Omega, but I was wearing a new watch too. Who knows what reactions that might trigger?
It wasn’t an isolated incident. There were spoons to go with those cups, as I had already noticed. She pulled out some more knives and forks and she proudly shared their story. Some were from a pizzeria where she found the service was too slow.
“The place was full, you should’ve seen it. All the money they make and they can’t be bothered to offer decent service. That’s the least they could do to compensate me for all that waiting around when I was starving.”
You don’t like the service, you don’t tip your waiter… you don’t start stealing the cutlery! Or do you?… Some coffee spoons followed and there was no story attached, no excuse – she simply liked them, so she took them, and she couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Then there was the matter of the 20 euros… well, he might have gone a bit too far with that, somebody might have noticed, she added. Yes, somebody might have noticed him going behind the bar and taking a 20 euro bill in another friend’s little pub, a place he goes to almost daily… But that would have been the only issue with that… after all, it was really his money, hadn’t he just spent more than that there the previous day?
All their friends who didn’t seem to have obvious financial issues were probably going to miss cutlery and various small items, maybe even the occasional 20 euro bill here and there. Now there was the kitchen knife, another item they had “borrowed” from their friend, the chef and Omega watch owner… I knew the man. He had his own restaurant and worked hard to keep the business going. If he was making enough money to treat himself and his family to nice things, it was because of his relentless efforts and remarkable talent.
I knew what prompted their behaviour, but it was still unfair, so childish, so mean…
There’s a frame to every story and the more you widen that frame, the more you pull at it trying to tear it apart, the better chance you stand to find out how the story came to be. Frustration, envy and anger made their fingers so sticky. The more they couldn’t afford expensive things, the more expensive their tastes became.
She just had to have more and more beauty products, and the prices of the ones she chose was getting higher and higher. Besides, what woman can say no to the occasional designer bag or pair of shoes? She never missed a chance to subtly put down any woman who spent less on her skin, hair and general body care; and those special moments brought a big, satisfied smile to her face. He smiled a matching smile whenever he added one more piece of designer clothing to his already stuffed wardrobe.
Bills kept coming. More and more often, they were just shoved to the side without a second glance. The economy was the culprit, many people were in the same situation. Their income was just not enough to cover their expenses anymore and the economy was to be blamed – the economy, the government, the world in general, but mostly their friends who still managed to keep their financial situation under control. The 80 euros electricity bill was something to bitch about for two weeks… but at least he got to bitch about it in his new 200 euros (on sale) pair of jeans.
Desolation was framed by a myriad of pretty things and revenged by a series of petty thefts. The beautiful frame dragged those it portrayed deeper and deeper. Those who tried to pull them out were immediately written off and no longer accepted as friends.
If the homeless guy at the street corner simply took the designer jacket he is wearing or the nice bag she is holding, would they find it normal, acceptable behaviour? After all, the guy is doing much worse than they are, so according to their theory, he should just help himself to whatever he wants, as long as the one he “borrows” from is doing better… They find delight and validation in pitying their friends who have less than they do, but would that still be the case if things started to go missing after their visits?
I wanted to understand, because I know how terrible constantly sinking can be. But the truth is, I don’t agree with their approach. They’re entitled to their lifestyle choices and I, to my opinions. I can’t do anything to change either of them. All I can do is check my kitchen drawers before she leaves, next time she visits.
The espresso pot was making its usual burbling noise. Coffee was almost ready. I looked outside through the large glass door. The sky was on fire yet again. I am a not a morning person. I took the pot aside, switching off the stove. I am a coffee person. I poured all the freshly brewed espresso in one of those big ugly cups that came with the apartment. For about one year they had been our cups. And that had been our apartment. Just like that had been our town.
I pushed the glass door open and stepped out on the terrace. It was still winter, but the air felt like a warm spring day was about to unfold. We don’t only say goodbye to people. We also say goodbye to the places with which we connected, which meant something to us. I didn’t instantly like the big, crowded town still snoozing behind the early morning lights. But I had spent so much time there, going back and forth, that it had become a second home for one year. Pretty soon I started to understand its language, its pace and its peculiarities and it grew on me.
I had a few minutes to spare. And we needed to say our goodbyes, the half-asleep town and I. The culture, the history, the fun, the laziness and alternating fast pace, all the discoveries that I hadn’t gotten around to make, I would miss them all. Places can surprise you… just like people. Would I ever return? Who knows… who knows when or how… We can only know for sure when we leave. But one thing I did know, it would never be in that same little corner, in that same little moment in life.
So goodbyes had to be said quietly, over that last cup of coffee, staring at the colourful view I had enjoyed so many times. Curled up on a chair, my bare feet freezing and my palms pleasantly hot around the coffee cup, I took it all in one more time. Goodbye, Madrid!
The luxury car crawled by slow enough to let her notice every detail, from the tinted windows, to the impeccable paint shining in the sun, to the speckles rims. But in the congested early evening traffic it was still moving faster than most. A few more elegant manoeuvres of an experienced driver and it disappeared somewhere among the SUVs in front.
“Did you see it?”
Of course. A car like that was hard to ignore. So was the hungry, tormented look behind her sunglasses and those tiny beads of nervous sweat that had appeared on her forehead as soon as she noticed that ghost of a car on the other lane.
“Could it… Do you think it was him?”
No, his car is a different colour.
“Who knows…” She was already fidgeting in her seat, her eyes searching for the car that slid by just moments earlier.
“Can’t you catch up with him? Follow him, see where he’s going, see if it’s him?”
“Look at this traffic… there’s police everywhere, what do you want me to do?” I didn’t even try to hide the irritation in my voice, but she never noticed it. All she had eyes, ears and thoughts for was that car… was him… just like all those years ago.
“But you could try anyway,” she ordered, forgetting it was a favour she was asking for.
“No,” but the answer fell on deaf ears.
I had done more ridiculous things than try and follow a car, all in order to help with her romantic games over the years, but not this time, not for him… Even if I knew it wasn’t him in that car, she couldn’t have known. She was still chasing him, no matter what, no matter where, no matter who got in her way, no matter who got hurt. Well over a decade had passed since she hadn’t seen or talked to him, yet he was still haunting her. All it took was a glimpse of what might have been.
I tentatively moved forward, upsetting other impatient drivers, but the mystery car was nowhere to be seen, as expected. Yet now she could tell herself she had tried… and hopefully she wouldn’t have to tell me as well.
“Anyway, it couldn’t be him… I think I caught a glimpse of the driver and he looked nothing like him,” she tried to convince herself, settling down, disappointed the unexpected sighting was not going to become anything more. There was no way she could have seen the driver, but then again, she could never see clearly when it came to him.
The rest of our drive home was quiet. I knew all the memories, the regrets and the what if’s that car had triggered. While I may have despised him for the way he had treated her, while I resented her for what she had put everybody else through for the sake of their relationship, I couldn’t deny understanding at least part of her melancholy.
He had been and would always remain the love of her life. The love of her life and the passion of her life, both entwined in one selfish, arrogant, irresistible person…
Once in a while, she’d try to convince herself the man she married was the one she loved most. And once in a while, she would believe it. Yet, the more she saw herself disappearing in a marriage with a good, loving man who could never understand her, who had nothing in common with her, the more she looked back, remembering only the good times, only the passion, only the happiness. She used to have a life of her own, a career, she used to travel and be independent. She used to be alive.
Now she was somebody’s wife and nothing more. A housewife nobody minded anymore, that was all that she was, and most of the time she couldn’t even be bothered to care. She didn’t go anywhere anymore. She hardly left the house to go anywhere but the grocery store. She cooked meals, she cleaned their home, she listened to his boring work stories and once a year or so she managed to convince herself to visit me. So when one of her old, snobby, so-called friends told her how well he was doing and casually happened to mention one of the cars he was driving, she suddenly found herself canvasing the streets, hoping…
But she no longer was the strong woman she used to be. Seeing him, being rejected by him would have broken her. As one of the two persons who would then have to put Humpty Dumpty back together, I reasoned there was nothing wrong in trying to prevent Humpty from falling off the wall in the first place. Some feelings will never remain in the past, and just like she could never forget how much she loved him and how passionate their relationship had been, I would never forget how much I loathed him. She deserved a night out, I figured. She deserved some fun and she deserved to forget for a moment or two. She also deserved to be happy, but that wasn’t something I or anybody else could offer her anymore.
The luxury car drove by, obnoxiously manoeuvring through rush-hour traffic. This time, it was his car. This time she wasn’t with me. He drove the same way he lived – fast, recklessly and passionately. In his own twisted, selfish way, he had loved her too, that I knew; but he had never really cared. He would always be the love of her life. She might be his. For many of us, the greatest love of our life is one we can’t help but leave behind before it consumes our entire soul. That love remains so great in our memory also because it had no time to die on its own, to become mundane, boring and real. It existed in a dimension of its own, even when it lasted for years.
Reality is a different sort of game. She continued her life with her husband, who never started really seeing her. Once in a while, life would through a tantrum and they’d lean on each other, weathering the storm, hoping that would bring them closer. Then they’d forget it as soon as the weather was good again and they’d go on ignoring each other, living apart together, until the next storm would throw them back into each other’s arms. But one way or another, the past would always loom, breeding frustration and unhappiness. Or was that happening because the present was breeding frustration and unhappiness?
I don’t remember her name. But she always wore bangs, that I remember. She wore bangs when not many fashion conscious women dared even consider it. Her haircut wasn’t always the same, neither was her hair colour, but she always wore bangs… and she looked great. Looking impeccable at any moment seemed like an effortless endeavour for her, like it was an extension of her being. From all my mother’s friends, I liked her best. Beautiful, elegant and graceful, she had an extraordinary ability to combine elements and come up with the outfits that suited her perfectly. Unlike some of their friends, she was never ostentatious, she knew exactly how to discretely emphasize her features in order to look attractive without being vulgar or tacky.
But it was her bangs I was particularly interested in that summer, and I had a good reason for it. After all, I wanted to get bangs as well, yet I wasn’t allowed to. If I wanted to be pretty, I couldn’t have bangs covering my forehead or strands of hair getting into my eyes for that matter; besides, all I had to do was look around and see that no pretty girl wore bangs, I was told. I rolled my eyes, but my grandmother had deemed the conversation over.
I loved spending time with my mother’s friends. They were an endless source of interesting information and great gossip and they never filtered their conversation when I was there. I felt like one of the girls, not just a child, and being with those wonderfully independent, outspoken women was so much fun. They were nothing like my friends’ old-fashioned, boring mothers, even if some of them did have children. So in a moment of relative silence, while coffee cups were being refilled, I walked up to her and asked her, how come she always wore bangs? In my mind, I was going to put a flattering spin on my curiosity, but before I knew it, I had just blurted out my out of context question.
She stopped smiling. She stopped looking at me as though I were some adorable doll, the way she usually looked at me. All of the sudden, she was serious and I was her equal, I felt, as her eyes were staring into mine while speaking. She never wore too much makeup, I couldn’t help thinking, and her face was always fresh and natural.
“You make your own style. You don’t let fashion or people dictate how you’re supposed to look, do you understand me? You adapt fashion to your needs, to your personality, not the other way around. You…”
“Don’t depress the girl,” the one who was always the loudest and the most direct of them interrupted, giving her a friendly nudge. “She just always wears bangs, it’s her thing,” she winked at me. “Just like my thing is being a bitch,” she continued, noticing her friend’s sad, lost gaze. She caressed her hair and handed her a fresh cup of coffee.
Years later I would think of her when seeing the Samantha character in Sex and the City.
Somebody dispersed the tension by announcing she had a new lover. Everybody lit up cigarettes, sipped their coffee and loudly asked for details. I kept mulling over the serious style advice I had just received. Sure, my mother had told me the same thing, but it never hurts getting a second opinion… after all, mothers weren’t the most reliable source, were they?
On the way home, I was told the full story – I was old enough to understand and I had to know I hadn’t done anything wrong. Besides, my mother thoroughly enjoyed to have me as a gossip partner, since I could be trusted not to tell anything to my grandmother. Her friend’s haircut wasn’t a fashion statement, it was necessity. She had adapted her hair style to suit her needs after having been in an accident which had left more than emotional scars. There was also a very real, visible, long scar on her forehead, one she hid well with skilful makeup and by wearing bangs. She was self-conscious and didn’t like to be reminded of the trauma she had suffered, yet it was unavoidable, the scar taunting her from the mirror every day. I regretted having voiced my curiosity… or perhaps I didn’t really, since it had gotten me answers. Nobody was perfect, yet one could still be remarkable.
A few days later, while my grandmother was taking her afternoon nap, I was taking a pair of scissors to a chunk of my hair (what girl hasn’t done that at least once?). I contemplated the result with great satisfaction, even though I wasn’t yet sure it looked good.
As a result of my actions, I was rushed to the hairdresser’s. My grandmother couldn’t contain her outrage, while my mother couldn’t contain her amusement. I had been overly enthusiastic with the scissors and had cut a bit too much, so my amazing new bangs were too short and I looked slightly ridiculous. The hairdresser did her best to fix what she could; after that, all it took was patience over the following weeks, until my hair grew… and surprise, surprise, I discovered that I could still be pretty, even with bangs. Besides, what mattered most was that I liked my look, that I was happy with it. I was taking steps in the right direction and she had been right, I realized.
The dishevelled person staring back from the mirror looks nothing like the one who used to be there on so many other occasions… or like the one who can still make an appearance sooner or later. There simply are such mornings, such days… such stages. It might have been a night of crying or a night of drinking and dancing and forgetting, it may have been days and days of exhaustion and despair that have pulled that unrecognizable creature to surface from the depth of one’s being. Those versions of the past and the potential future are simply unavoidable.
It becomes a reflex in most of the cases. Somewhere between several cups of coffee or tee, after all those smoked cigarettes, during those extra moments of applying makeup or whatever other daily rituals, one generally gets one’s face on and they’re once more ready to deal with the world… or at least to hide well enough until they are. We don’t really do it to protect others, or at least we don’t do it only for that particular reason. It’s self-preservation, the need to protect ourselves from the way others might react if they caught a glimpse of all that lurks under that socially acceptable mask. Some do it better; others find it difficult. In the end, it can even be a silent competition – who’s going to fall apart first, whose face will betray them, exposing that creature taunting them from the mirror early in the morning?
“How did you do it? How did you call it again?”
Relationships wear masks as well, not only the people they involve. Silent, sometimes unintentional, sometimes quietly, mutually agreed upon masks. When the mask breaks in two and neither one of those halves can be worn convincingly, you know. You notice the cracks even if you try to look away, so you can “call it”, as my friend put it.
I met recently met a couple I hadn’t seen in a long time. They’re not close friends, just some acquaintances, but it was still nice to see them and catch up. He is a friend of my closest friend; she is his girlfriend. What did I think about them, after all those years, my friend asked… Among many other impressions I was left with after a whole day spent together, I got the feeling their relationship was approaching its end. She would end it, I told my friend. Sure enough, about a week later she informed him she was moving out, my friend told me.
How did I always predict it, he kept asking, as though I was some sort of relationship bad omen. I tend to notice certain details and this wasn’t the first time I had “predicted” such situations. There were cracks in her mask… cracks she was trying to hide, but which were obvious whenever he kept ignoring what she wanted, replacing it with what he thought she should want or with what he needed. Small things, here and there, symptoms of something so much deeper… symptoms he stubbornly ignored. If I – a person who didn’t know her all that well – could notice them, why didn’t he, the man living with for several years? Why was he waiting for everything to fix itself, if he still wanted her to be part of his life, if he still loved her?
But I knew the answer, or at least part of it, because I knew he had behaved the same way in previous relationships. You want the girl, you make an effort and you get the girl. But once you “have” her, that’s it – that is the destination, the final point and from then on there is nothing more that needs to be done. That’s the kind of guy he is… complete with the ability of stubbornly hiding from the fact that she is unhappy. When he forcefully has to accept it, it’s generally too late to do anything to change the outcome… an outcome that breaks his heart once more…
The masks fall – his, hers, theirs – and break into countless pieces. The moment becomes the opposite of what he thought it was. The moment becomes the one she was trying to avoid. The moment no longer inhabits the destination, it becomes yet another beginning – an unwanted and no longer avoidable one.
Many times, the kindest thing you can do is look away from the cracks and allow a person to wear their mask as well as they can… hoping they will show you the same courtesy. But when you share a mask with someone else, staring at the cracks from the inside, what is the best moment to stop ignoring them and start focusing on what they reveal?
It started off as the MissShy Chronicles in the early days of this blog… Some of you may have read those posts, some may even remember them. I was really fond of my MissShy character, I wanted her to grow, so she became Regina and the Chronicles evolved into a collection of ten short stories. After months of procrastination, it all came together under one title, behind one girly cover and now I can finally share Glass Slippers and Stilettos with everybody.
Regina’s adventures are nothing like Amalia’s from Parallel Lives. Light and humorous, the stories present the bratty, entitled character in various stages of her attempts to secure a husband and a fairy tale ending, all the while trying to preserve appearances and comply with pre-established patterns.
Regina is the woman everybody loves to hate and hates to love. Behind the gorgeous, demurred façade lurk selfish ambition, ignorance and a desperate need to find her happily ever after. The search for a man to rescue her and make her dreams come true follows a sinuous, often obscure, but entertaining path. Regina may try to deny it, but she is no innocent princess, Prince Charming can be a beast in disguise and modern-day happy endings are nothing like their fairy tale version.
The ten short stories are a satire of her journey, presenting the almost stereotypical character in various everyday moments and contexts, all of them related to her extraordinary ability to manipulate the men in her life. Other (often equally shallow) characters, such as Nice Guy, Boyfriend, Ex, Impeccable Pedigree, Sweet Girl, Lover or King will keep her company, allowing Regina to use them and occasionally using her, thus supporting her belief that she is a victim of circumstance. Charismatic and wild, Regina likes to enjoy all life’s pleasures and wants to have the best of everything, while endeavouring to preserve her “good girl” image. There are many obstacles between Regina and her ideal man, but her high heels relentlessly walk over them and the people in her way, hoping for her dream marriage to become reality.
In spite of her many flaws, Regina remains a likeable “villain”, able to trigger a spark of compassion mainly because one can occasionally relate to her amusing predicaments and moral dilemmas. After all, many have struggled with some of these issues – or similar ones – at least once.
If you’re heading for the beach this summer, Glass Slippers and Stilettos might just be that light, entertaining read you want. You can pre-order it on iBooks, Kobo and Barnes&Noble (release date – August 5th). I hope you enjoy it!
Those who come to the beach on their own often tend to search for a partner… someone with whom to share a brief, torrid, summer fling… or maybe someone who simply enjoys the same kind of beach fun they do. Either way, it’s always amusing to observe their group dynamics 🙂
But here’s a cute reminder that we do have the strength to get over all those bumps on the road on our own as well. Not having someone to lean on at all times doesn’t make it impossible. Some may have the certainty there’s always somebody ready to catch them, yet so many face the hardest challenges on their own… and that’s not always a disaster.