For 2020, partly inspired by my mother, I made a promise to myself that I would write a story each week. 52 stories for the year. Stories from my life, as a start to my perhaps eventual memoirs, you might say. I’ve decided to name the series “Mild to Moderate Shock” as it might work both ways: it might have been how I felt through these events, or perhaps how you’ll feel reading them. I hope you enjoy.
22 Mar 2020
My maternal grandmother was referred to by a nickname, DoJo, for much of her later life. This was a moniker taken from Doris Johnson, her married name. I knew that from birth she was Doris Cave, because her maiden name is my middle name (I am Amelia Cave Sciandra.). I also knew that she was at one point in her life named Doris Pearson. This was my mother’s first last name, and the surname of her birth father, John. He fought in World War IIl, came home, then sadly succumbed to cancer in the 50s. So, with two young daughters, Doris was a single woman, alone. I knew that at some point in the following few years she met and married Joe Johnson, who adopted my mom and her sister, and became the man they called dad and I called my granddad. Doris took his name, and her nickname was born: DoJo.
DoJo was inimitable. Imagine being a woman alone in the 1950s, with two young daughters. Your husband survives a war and then dies. What else could you do but survive? So, she survived. She thrived. She was one of the most well-dressed women I ever met. She used to dress to the nines even to go to the grocery store. I asked her why once, and she said, “You never know who you’re going to meet.” She was obsessed with the idea of my having a “beau,” as she called it. That was always one of her first questions when we saw each other, “Now, do you have a beau?” She was from Philadelphia and retained some of her accent so she spoke with occasional punches. She wanted to pour my milk for me, even when I was 13 and could do it myself. She lived in two fabulously decorated houses in the time of her life when I knew her. First, she and my granddad lived on a golf course in Pinehurst, North Carolina like good retired people do. Then, they moved to Winston-Salem to be closer to us.
Once, when I was about ten, I was over at her house with my mom. They were chatting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, so I went off to play. My grandparents had a very cool old desk that I loved to play in. It made me feel like I was travelling back in time, and I always pretended that sitting at it I was writing with a quill. Like the inquisitive child that I was, I looked through everything in the desk, pulling open drawers, searching every nook and cranny for whatever it could offer me. I came upon an envelope upon which was written “Doris Mulhearn” in Doris Johnson’s hand. My grandmother had incredibly recognisable handwriting: a sloping script from a time now forgotten. I was confused. I knew she was at one time Doris Cave and Doris Pearson. I had never heard this last name associated with grandmom. So I took the envelope to the kitchen.
I approached my mom and said, “Hey, what’s this?” She looked at it, looked at me, glanced at her mom and then said, “Please put that back where you found it, right now.” She was not angry. But that was the end of the conversation. So I did what I was told. But I never forgot about it.
Flashforward eight years. My mom and I are driving together to Philadelphia to see the other side of the family: my dad’s parents and his large Italian family all still lived in and around the city. My mom and I were (and are) lucky: we were very close. My mom is one of my best friends. She was a teacher at my high school and rather than that being a source of embarrassment for me, it was wonderful. (Remember, I was a nerd.) Over the course of those four years, where I lived sort of as an only child, because my closest brother is four years older than I am, our relationship grew and deepened. So at 18, I was happy to be on a nine-hour road trip with my mom. We never ran out of things to talk about, and if we did, we’d pop on a CD we both loved and sing our hearts out, often to Disney music. In one moment of companionable silence, I said to her, “Mom, can I ask you about something from my childhood I have never forgotten?” What a question! She was obviously not terribly excited about saying yes, but she acquiesced and I took her through the aforementioned afternoon and the envelope with the mystery surname.
She was quiet for a bit and then she said, “I will tell you but you cannot tell your brothers. She doesn’t want everyone to know.” It turns out, my grandmother had been married a third time. Shortly after her first husband and the father of her children died, she met a man named Mike Mulhearn. He was an art teacher. He seemed kind and for a woman on her own in the 1950s with two young daughters, you cannot blame her. It didn’t work out. So only a few months later, she was a widow and a divorcee. It was a thing that filled her with great shame, such that after meeting and marrying Joe Johnson, she tried with all her might to hide this part of her past. She was very much a product of her time, and cared deeply what others thought of her. So Doris Mulhearn was buried, deep in her past. And though my mom didn’t remember when I found the envelope, she wasn’t surprised to hear how she reacted. Grandmom didn’t want anyone to know, and at 10, I was too young to comprehend why.
Two years later, my grandmother died. The family gathered in our house for her wake. My grandmother had one sister, Janet, who had three kids, two of whom were there. My aunt was there, with her husband and son. I was sitting on the couch between my brothers, and I remember my cousin Joseph was in a chair across from us. The room was full of sadness, but also laughter. We were doing what you tend to do when a loved one has left: we were telling stories. The subject of marriage came up, and the room was self-deprecatingly realising that everyone in the room, barring my parents and one of her cousins, was not on their first marriage. People began sort of listing off who was married how many times, and I said, not thinking, “Well, and Grandmom was married three times.” If it had been a film, my brothers both would have done spittakes. Instead, both of them, and my cousin Joseph, mouths agape, said “WHAT?!”
Everyone else in the room nodded quietly to themselves and it was my turn again to reveal the envelope I had found over a decade earlier and the secret my mom entrusted me with. “You knew all this time and you never told us?!” my brother Xav was indignant. “Everyone knew?!” The room chimed in with their own reasons for keeping DoJo’s secret, acknowledging that it was a different time and she would have had her own reasons herself. There was a collective release of breath, as if we had all unknowingly been holding it.
I was proud to have kept my grandmom’s secret for her when she was living. I understand why she did what she did. I think of her then, not even my age, a widow and then the next man she marries doesn’t work out. I imagine she must have felt such shame, from society, from within. But she soldiered on. She found a wonderful man who adopted her daughters and loved her the rest of his life. She could be imperious, but mostly she was a tough old broad who didn’t suffer fools easily. In my family, we call it “channeling DoJo” when you steel yourself and do not brook idiots. I am like her, I think, and I am proud to be.
15 March 2020
Call Me By My Name
If you liked the story where a boy ghosted me after a romantic weekend, you’ll like this one too.
In high school, as has been established, I was not very cool. I was PG, vanilla and rule following in every way. So, unsurprisingly, I tended to fall for “bad boys.” By which I mean, I always liked the boys who couldn’t get their shit together. I ended up “dating” one of these kinds of fellows when I was a sophomore in high school (15 or 16 years old). I put dating in quotes because I was Ms. Priss, so, to my memory, I don’t think we even kissed. But he had asked me to be his girlfriend and that was a very big deal for me.
One Friday evening, he was unable to hang out with me because he had been grounded (see above mentioned “bad boy” pattern). I called my friend Emma to come stay the night over at my house because I couldn’t hang out with my boyfriend. Like teenagers do, I wanted to call my boyfriend while my friend was over, probably partly to brag about the fact that I had a boyfriend and partly to prove the relationship was real. Boy, was I in for it.
When I called him, he picked up, but sounded quite distracted. We chatted aimlessly, mostly I listened to him complain about how unfair it was that he was grounded and how he wished he could have come to hang out with me, like we planned. I commiserated with him and shook my fist at the injustice of it all. Then, in the background, things started happening.
First, I heard a deep voice from far away say, “[boy’s name has been redacted because we are too connected in the 21st century], what the hell? You’re supposed to be grounded! What the hell is she doing here?”
Then, a girl’s voice said, “Oh, Mr. [Redacted], I’m so sorry! It’s okay, I’ll go!”
Then I said, “Wait. What’s going on?”
And then he said, “No, dad! Come on, it’s okay! Wait!”
Then his dad said, “Get your things, I will take you home. Goddamnit, [son’s name]!”
Then I said, “Is she there with you?!”
A brief break in the action to say that this boy had a very close relationship with another girl in our grade, but she had a boyfriend too. They’re running story was that they were just *best friends,* which is why they could each date other people and it was totally okay.
Then he said, to her in the room, “Wait, just don’t leave yet. Dad!”
And I said, “[His name], are you kidding me?!”
And he said, to me on the phone, “No, HER NAME, it’s not what it sounds like.”
So I said, “Well, you just called me her name, so I think it’s exactly what it sounds like.” And I hung up.
Luckily, my friend Emma was there to comfort me, rage with me, plan revenge with me, console me, and laugh with me at the absurdity of it all. I began the sleepover in a relationship, and was single before we even slept a wink. The boy kept calling me back over and over, but I never answered.
Finally, around midnight, just before we wanted to go to sleep, I picked up one of his numerous calls. I wanted to tell him we were going to bed so leave me alone. Before I could say anything he said, “Before you say anything, look out your window.”
He had, of course (as bad boys do), snuck out of his house and come to mine. He was standing on my driveway looking pitiful. He waved lamely at me. I hung up the phone. Emma and I debated for a few minutes on whether I should go down. Eventually we agreed that it was probably the only way to get him to leave.
I snuck down to my front door, whose hinges always creaked ridiculously loudly. I swear my parents purposely never put WD-40 on them so they could hear when my brothers were sneaking around. I never did, of course. This leaving the house at midnight to speak to a boy (even if he was just on my driveway) was very much pushing it for me. Good girls didn’t do things like that. I walked out to meet him, keeping my distance. When I got about five feet away, he started apologising profusely in a half-whisper, trying to explain that he and this girl were just studying together for a test they have, that’s it, it was totally innocent. I, of course, questioned why he was willing to risk hanging out with her while he was grounded but not hanging out with me. He didn’t have a good answer. I told him we were done and to not call me anymore and to not come back to my house. I went back inside, locked the door and turned off the bedroom light. He stayed on the driveway for about 15 minutes, hoping, I guess, that I would come back down and dramatically take him back. Emma and I went to sleep.
I found out later, of course, that they were not just studying. They were doing a lot more. And a lot more than I had ever done with him. So I don’t necessarily blame his teenage hormones for choosing that over what I was offering: sparkling wit, charm and some light hand holding.
To this day, if someone calls me by another name, I bridle, instantly. I’m working on it.
8th March 2020
For our first romantic weekend away when we started dating, Chris and I went to Cambridge. It was Valentine’s Day weekend and we were very much in the throes of new love. But we were still students and could only afford a rather…unconventional holiday.
We paid for an AirBnb rental that was a caravan in the back garden of a house in Cambridge. There was a bed, a small countertop with a kettle, a tiny fridge and not much head room. The bathroom was in the house, so you had to walk twenty feet in the cold to brush your teeth and have a wee, even in the dead of night.
The other obstacle to easy loo access was a group of four chickens. Rather large, the entire garden was their domain and they were not happy to be sharing their realm with us. We were embattled with them all weekend, with one serious incident on Saturday night.
As we left the caravan to brush our teeth, a chicken jumped inside.
To be honest, I was terrified of the chickens. So I stood in the house and watched through the sliding glass door as Chris struggled with the dinosaur-like creature. They danced around each other while I laughed and tried to coach my husband from across the garden, protected from their beaks and talons.
For about 15 minutes Chris struggled to get this chicken out of the caravan. When he finally did, he quickly closed the door, but that left me in my pajamas alone to navigate the (as I assumed) now angry chickens. I sprinted across to the door and banged on it and I had to jump in the door before another beast could follow me.
Aside from this terrifying moment and a few hits on the head on the low-hanging ceiling, we had a gorgeous weekend together in beautiful Cambridge and took a very cheap but very long bus ride back to Birmingham.
That’s love, folks.
1 March 2020
Such a Samantha
If you like schadenfreude, this story is for you.
When I lived in New York City, I was in my mid-twenties, young, wild and free. I literally used to think to myself, “I’m living my Sex and the City years.” I was such a Samantha. Or maybe I just wanted to be.
I met a boy, and per usual, I went mad for him. I was always a hopeless romantic and I was always sure that every boy I met was “The One,” and wouldn’t treat me as badly as the guy before did. I was usually wrong. In this case, I was very wrong.
This boy was unresponsive and hard to get a hold of, and I was too blind to see that as a sign. Instead, I threw myself a bit harder in his direction and it somehow worked. He was going to Miami to visit family, and he invited me to go with him. I had no strings, and I was trying to be like Samantha, so I said yes. I flew down on a Friday afternoon and he came to pick me up at the airport. On the drive to his grandfather’s house, where we were staying, he said, “So listen, my grandpa has security cameras all over the house because he’s so afraid of being robbed. I have covered them up with socks, because he can’t know you’re here, but I think I missed one. So when we get there, just stay in the car until I come get you.”
If I could have opened the door and rolled out of the car without dying, I would have. It was the strangest thing anyone had ever said to me. But I was in Florida, hundreds of miles from anyone I knew and I was smitten, so I just smiled and said, “Okay.” I did ask him, when I was finally let into the house, why his grandfather couldn’t find out I was there. He didn’t have a good answer.
The next day, we got up before the sun rose to go to Disney World. We drove three and half hours. In my memory, nearly the entire drive was silent. This can’t possibly be true: young lovers in their twenties on an adventure with nothing to say? But I have no recollection of any conversation.
We had a nice time at Disney, we rode rides, and met characters. I had just come off of living on a Disney Cruise Line ship for a five-month contract so it was special for me. He didn’t seem to care one way or the other. The only thing he was adamant about was that we were not in any pictures together. (Note: if you’re starting to see concerning signs, you’re smarter than I was!)
On Sunday, I had to travel back to New York. He was staying in Miami for a few days more to visit family and then would be back to the city. We agreed that we would see each other the day after he got back. I thought we had a nice weekend: none of the socks had fallen off the cameras, so we were in the clear, plus we didn’t fight. I got on the plane sad to leave the warmth of Florida, but sated. I had happily survived what I perceived as a very adult experience: a little weekend jaunt with my new lover. I was a total Samantha.
A few days later, once I knew that he’d be back in New York, I sent him a text to set up a date. I was still glowing from our romantic getaway and couldn’t wait to see him again. He didn’t respond. That wasn’t shocking behaviour; he was wont to go a few days, sometimes a week, without saying anything. Two weeks went by, then three. He completely ghosted me. I could not track him down, I didn’t know any of his friends to call and see if he was okay. I couldn’t get the book back that I lent him. He was done with me.
Does this make me more of a Carrie?
23rd February 2020
Birth of a Weirdo
In February of 1989 my mother was very pregnant. It was her third baby, after two boys, one of whom was born on the 16th of February, so she was praying this third baby would wait a bit and not come on her oldest son, Matt’s, birthday. Her hands were full with Matt (7) and Xavier, called Xav (4). She desperately wanted a girl.
My grandmother was taking care of Matt and Xav while my mother was going into labour. Luckily, it was happening on February 22, not even a week after Matt’s birthday, but thankfully long enough. The baby was breech (meaning it was going to come out bottom first, rather than head first). The doctor wanted to do a C-section, but the nurses convinced him it was a bad idea. With two little sons and a third baby, mom didn’t have time to recover from surgery. Also, it was 1989.
At 2:31pm in Plainfield, New Jersey my mother miraculously brought me into the world. As I came out folded up, with my feet reaching towards my head, they knew I was a girl right away. The nurse said to my mother, “Leave it to the girl to come into the world bass-ackwards.”
As the story goes, back at the house in Fanwood, my grandmother was informed that I was a girl and told my brothers that I had arrived. Matt jumped for joy, and Xav burst into tears.
I hope to go to my grave bass-ackwards, too.
16 February 2020
This is a story that, for some reason, has become slightly apocryphal in my family and with some friends. It is, admittedly, ridiculous. But also, I hope, quite funny. It is a peek into my brain and how silly I am inside my head, a part of me that I show outwardly sometimes. I often wish that I could show more of it, that I could be braver in wanting to give over into silliness, as I truly love to make people laugh. It is a joy I am afforded from time to time and it is my favourite thing to do. So I hope this gives you a giggle, or that quiet snort out of your nose that is almost a laugh. Or even just the *hint* of a smile.
In my pre-teen years I played pretty competitive soccer. I made it to what was then (and I think still might be?) called “classic” level soccer in my hometown. It was pretty serious (though there was still a level above it, “premiere”) and took up a lot of time. My parents were true heroes for driving me (and both of my brothers!) all around North and South Carolina and sometimes Virginia for children’s competitive football nearly every weekend in the fall and spring for years. They paid money to do that. For us. And none of us now plays soccer to the level where we could make money off it and pay our parents back for that. It’s so silly! I digress.
I was a midfielder and a decent player, I was especially fast back then so even though I was quite small and skinny, I could sometimes beat an opponent on speed before she inevitably destroyed me on strength. One Saturday, I had been thus successful and had actually scored a goal. This was a big deal, as it wasn’t a rare occurrence but also didn’t happen tremendously often. It happened just frequently enough that we could celebrate each one. And we did. That day on the way home from the game, my mom bought me a vanilla milkshake from McDonalds. Because what better way to reward someone’s physical prowess and agility on the sports field than by giving them a sugary, calorie-ridden dairy beverage?! I had begged for it, as my “treat” and my mom acquiesced.
Delighted with my milkshake, I went along with my mom to the grocery store. Invariably, I walked off to look at the snacks I wanted and hoped to convince my mom to buy me. Picture me thus: I was a skinny, little 11 or 12-year-old girl, I had a blue soccer uniform on. The top was too big and was untucked and the shorts were baggy so I looked sort of like a blueberry with chicken legs. I had pushed my socks down and had undone my shin guards. This was a “cool” thing to do, and I had seen famous female soccer players do at the time (Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain) so I was emulating them. I even wore those ridiculous “soccer slides” that everyone had at the time, which made you shuffle rather than walk to keep on your feet and all the athletes were wearing them to and from games. My shin guards were too big because my calves were so skinny so they were flopping down to touch the ground with each step I slid forward in my stupid shoes. I had long hair then, and would wear it in a ponytail, and, as was also popular in the times, I wore a string-like hair tie around my head to keep flyaway hairs out of my face while I was sprinting down the field. The hilarious consequence of those hair ties is that after the game, you look like a catfish, as all the flyaways are now shooting straight up out of our head like whiskers.
There I am, in the snack aisle, hunched over because the air conditioning in grocery stores is always blasting, and I was drinking a very cold milkshake, and I was very skinny at the time so had no body fat to keep me warm. Sliding around in these idiotic shoes, with my catfish hairs and floppy shin guards, and I am thinking to myself, “Why won’t my mom ever let us buy Goldfish?” when I turned and glanced down the aisle. Just in front of the silver staff double doors, a man with a chef’s coat and hat stood. He had brown hair and a moustache and was wearing gloves. He was standing just outside of the fresh fish counter, so I knew that’s where he was destined. His pants were awesome. They looked like a mix between pajamas, scrubs and slacks and they were navy blue and white pinstripe. I thought they rocked. And so I said aloud, to no one in particular, in a very strange accent and voice, perhaps one might think I was attempting to speak like a muppet doing French mixed with Russian maybe Spanish or Portuguese (à la a bad Bond villain), “Hmm. I like your pants, Seafood Man.”
The Seafood Man himself was twenty feet away, at least, and there is no way he could have heard me. But the woman about two feet away also in the snack aisle did. She looked at me like I was insane, and then pushed her cart away quickly. I started to giggle because i thought it was so hilarious and then I couldn’t keep it together and I was doubled over in laughter, hands on my knees, alone in this supermarket aisle. My mom found me this way and she said, “Oh no. What did you do?” And I proceeded to tell her the story, pointing to the Seafood Man in the distance who had gone through the double doors to end up back in the store but behind the fresh fish counter, selling people salmon and tuna. She also thought it was hilarious and began to laugh with me standing in the aisle. We decided to go the long way around to the cash registers, so that my mom could pass the seafood counter and try to get a look at the pants I was so moved by.
I have told this story for years, and many people know this phrase who are not members of my family, but know they could go up to either of my brothers, either of my parents, or any number of my old friends and remark, “Hmm. I like your pants, Seafood Man.” and they will get an enormous laugh.
I hope, now, you’ll join that group and next time I see you, or unexpectedly in an Instagram story or tweet, or anytime you find you need a smile and a bit of a laugh, say (to yourself but out loud), “Hmm. I like your pants, Seafood Man.”
9 February 2020
The Girl Who Cried Wolf
I’m a hypochondriac. It’s not a diagnosed condition, but true to form, like a good little hypochondriac, I have self-diagnosed. A large portion of my anxiety is wrapped up in my certainty that I have health problems. I’m terrified of being sick and yet, so sure so often that I am. What a conundrum.
When I was a teenager it was particularly bad. I used to come downstairs every morning with a new disease. Once, at the beginning of this adventure into my neuroses, I came into the kitchen and announced to my mother whatever illness I had discovered that week that explained my (non-existent) symptoms. Because I watched a lot of House, I always thought I had lupus. That day, my eldest brother Matt was home. He was sitting in the kitchen with my mom and so when I walked in and triumphantly declared the diagnosis, he said, “Uh oh. Looks like we have a hypochondriac on our hands.” And I, like the fool that I was, responded, “I don’t know what that is, but I probably have that too.” Walked right into it.
The rule became that I was no longer allowed on the website WebMD.
During my junior year of high school, when I was 16 or 17, I began to feel poorly in earnest. It started as a cold, and I complained to my parents that it wasn’t just a cold. Per usual, and I do not blame them, they essentially ignored me. They bought me cold medicine and orange juice and told me to keep drinking fluids. After a week or so, I was not getting any better and begged them to let me see a doctor. This, again, was not out of character, but they acquiesced. I could drive, so I took myself, as it was right down the road from school and less than ten minutes from home.
At the doctor, she listened to my chest and then recommended I get an x-ray. This kind of thing is a gold mine for a hypochondriac. Feeling simultaneously vindicated and terrified, I called my mom to let her know that I was being sent for a chest x-ray. I’m sure that this is when my mother began to see that, perhaps, for the first time, I wasn’t being overly dramatic. She was a teacher at my high school, and couldn’t get away from class to take me across town to the tech, so my dad came. My dad, even though we were being sent for a chest x-ray, did not believe anything was wrong with me. He is skeptical of doctors in general, and he thought this was an overabundance of caution, and maybe a way for the medical industry to make more money. Just before I left my doctor, I asked her what it could be, and she said she was sending me for the x-ray because it could be pneumonia.
I read a lot of the classics. I knew that young women died of pneumonia all the time. This was it, my time had come, I was going to die. When I told my dad in the car on the way to the technician’s office, he rolled his eyes and said, emphatically, “You do not have pneumonia.”
The technician’s office was really strange. It was a tiny, odd building with labyrinthine rooms. They took me back for the x-ray and I wore that heavy smock while they did their magic. Then they put me and my dad into this little room with just a chair and a phone on the wall. The nurse said, “When the phone rings, pick it up, it’ll be your results.” My dad and I held it together until she closed the door and then we laughed. It was the weirdest set-up we had ever seen. We waited for a long while. I sat, curled up on the chair because I didn’t feel well, while my dad paced and tried to make me laugh and checked his blackberry. After about 15 minutes, we were looking through the small window in the door to try to get someone’s attention because we didn’t know how long we were supposed to wait. A different nurse walked by the window in entirely yellow scrubs. My dad and I burst out laughing. We called her a banana, and questioned why she would choose that colour. For whatever reason, it really tickled us. While we were still laughing, the phone rang. My dad answered jokingly, “Hellooo?” with a little lilt in the word. And then his face dropped. He listened and said, “Uh huh” a number of times and then hung up, his demeanour wholly changed.
He turned to me and said, in classic Dad form, “It looks like you do have a little pneumonia.”
2 February 2020
I grew up going to summer camp. I know that to Brits, and even to some Americans who never had the experience, there are a whole lot of stereotypes that go along with camp. Some of them are really true, and others not so much. I am so grateful for camp. It was an incredibly formative place for me, as this story will show, and it will undoubtedly come up in further stories, in both wonderful and terrible ways. But for this story, I take you back to 14-year-old me. Braces, super skinny, just out of freshman year of high school and really not sure who I was at all. I had been a cheerleader for the basketball team because I desperately wanted to be “cool.” I was not. I ended up quitting cheerleading to do the spring musical, and started to find my people (theatre nerds). When summer rolled around, I was delighted to be returning to my happy place, for one of my final years as a camper.
Camp can be magical. It’s really a huge social experiment. You take children away from their parents, their homes, their schools, their rules and you place them in the care of teenagers and young 20-somethings for a week or more. You change the dynamic of what authority looks like, and you invite kids to meet their edge, be daring, try new things and make new friends. Many kids will try things at camp they could never imagine doing back at home. Also, my camp had counselors from all over the world, and for many children it was the first time they heard another accent in real life rather than on television. It is an awesome learning environment, without the confines of the school building and its regulations. Bonds are formed at camp that often cannot be broken, through supporting your friends to zipline down the lake, to climb a 30-foot telephone pole and jump off to try to catch a trapeze in the air, to hike the camp’s steep mountain and catch stunning views you can forge lifelong friendships, borne in the bliss of being a carefree young person.
At camp, I felt different. At school I was a proper Hermione Granger. My hand was always up, I worked incredibly hard to get good grades and school meant a lot to me. But at camp, I started to find another side of myself. I could be silly, do funny voices, make people laugh, encourage my friends to be daring, lead my cabin through team building exercises with wit and grace. It was exhilarating, but I was also 14. I was obsessed with what other people thought of me, I was always worried a joke wouldn’t land and everyone would judge me. We torture ourselves so much as teenagers, and even though I felt a freedom at camp, I was shackled by this hell of my own devising.
There was a boy there, who was a counselor-in-training (CIT) that seemed to be unaffected by all of this. He was just two years older than I was but it felt like a lifetime. He had this ease about him that was electric. He could charm anyone into anything but it was genuine. He cared so deeply about people and asked the kind of questions that challenged you to think harder, feel more and look inward. I was mesmerised by him. It helped, of course, that he was incredibly attractive with a smile like none other. I know people say “his smile lit up the room” but Will’s smile really did. He was truly one of the loveliest people planet earth had ever been blessed with.
I followed him around like he was a pop star. He was so funny and was always cracking jokes and I hoped some of his humour would rub off on me. I hoped he’d be assigned to help at my activities and during any free time I was always trying to find him, to soak him up. One evening, the camp was called the flagpole, as it always was before the nightly activity, and we were all told to head down to campfire. Everyone turned around and began the walk across the lower ball field that would take us down near the lake. I managed to find a way to walk near Will. We were chatting, joking around, and I did something silly, as I was wont to do. He stopped short, looked me right in the eyes and said, “You’re goofy.” He took a short breath, and in that pause I wanted to die. I had read everything wrong, we weren’t friends, I wasn’t funny, I was just a 14-year-old hanger on, trying desperately to force a bond where there wasn’t one. Then he said, “I like that.” And kept on walking.
They were two sentences, five words, but they meant the world to me. Will taught me, in that moment, the lesson I had been trying slowly to learn all summer. It was okay to be me. I would find people who liked the parts of me I was afraid no one would. They were out there, and Will was one of them. The friendship he offered me in those five words changed my life. I was different, after that summer. I went back to school with a new lease on life, and understood that I could be my “camp self” and my “school self” all at once. I didn’t have to choose, or pretend, or shut off parts of myself in either place. I could be both. I was both. I was me. I was goofy, but people were going to like it.
On this day, February 2, now 14 years ago, my friend Will died. He had been getting ready to go to the Marines, was just a few days from leaving, in fact, and was messing around with his friends in their car. He was riding on top of it and was thrown off. He fought in the hospital, but was in a coma, and eventually succumbed to his injuries. He was 18. I honour his memory by writing this story, and by trying to remember, as often as I can, to be the light, to fill up those I love with as much goodness as is possible. And to live my life truthfully, with integrity, to be unabashedly me, as he taught me so many years ago.
I love you, William, and thank you.
26th January 2020
The Car Thief
When I was 20, I worked as a nanny for a family in my hometown. It was the strangest set-up you can imagine: the father worked from home as a consultant and so was in the house every day I was there to take care of his kids. His office was off the kitchen and sometimes he closed the door, but more often he kept it open, demonstrating his clear trust in me. Not.
One morning, I was playing on the kitchen floor with the kids. Ben was around three and his sister Sofia around five. I found him adorable but she was difficult. She was very precocious and her father believed that five was young enough to teach her about rhetoric and debate. He gave her far too much power in making decisions and because of it, she was demanding and recalcitrant. We were driving little cars driving around the kitchen floor when suddenly Sofia reached over and grabbed the car out of her brother’s hand.
Ben leaned back on his knees and said to her in his cute little voice with a healthy dose of venom, “I’m gonna punch you in the cho-cho.”
It was so out of the blue and hilarious that I was flabbergasted into silence. Before I could say anything, or even do my job as a nanny, from his office, their father yelled, “Ben! We do not say things like that to our sister. You apologise right now.” Of course, this is quite similar to what I would have said as well. But I also would have had some follow up questions for little Ben. For example, what part of the body, pray tell, is the cho-cho? And as I had guessed which part, I would have asked, “And how did you come to call your sister’s private parts her ‘cho–cho,’ young sir?” But there was no time for these queries, as discipline needed to be handed down.
Ben, still angry at the theft of his car and the injustice that he had to apologise but his sister wasn’t being reprimanded for grabbing, shouted, “YOU’RE A CHO-CHO!”
It wasn’t clear whether this epithet was for his father or his sister. I was choking back laughter and attempting to form a sentence when the father stormed into the kitchen. He was obviously angry, but his dramatic entrance was prevented by the baby gate in the doorway. He fiddled with the latch furiously as he chided Ben, “That’s it. You apologise to me. You apologise to your sister and then you go to your room for a time out.” It very much seemed this man did not need a nanny, as a dummy shaped like a woman would have done him just as well. I watched the scenario unfolding like theatre. Sofia, all the while, connivingly played with the little car she had stolen from her brother.
Ben, now thoroughly in trouble, begrudgingly said sorry to his sister, then his father and began leaving the kitchen. Satisfied, the father immediately returned to his office, without so much as a glance at me. Ben, for his part, on the way to his bedroom let out one word, under his breath in a fed-up tone far too adult for his age: “Cho-chos.”
19th January 2020
Two months after I graduated from college (uni, for the Brits) I moved to the Dominican Republic to be a teacher. It was a wild choice, and one only a 22-year-old girl would make as blindly as I did.
I knew nothing of the country before I moved there. Embarrassingly, once my mother said to me, “You’re going to stick out like a sore thumb.” And I laughed and said, “No, I’ll get a tan and fit right in.” Nearly 5’ 8”, skinny as a rail (oh, for that figure again!) with bottle-dyed blonde hair, there was literally no way anyone would ever have mistaken me for Dominican.
But it wasn’t just the people I didn’t know anything about. I went idiotically ignorant to a country in the developing world. I didn’t realise that stop lights there are a suggestion, or that the police can’t be trusted, or that littering would never be prosecuted as a crime. I didn’t understand that lack of infrastructure means that when it rains, the water stacks in the road until it’s a foot and a half deep. The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, with incredible history and culture. Santo Domingo is the “oldest city in the new world” and you can still go there to the Zona Colonial and see Christopher Columbus’ house. But it was unlike anything I had ever experienced, as this story will demonstrate.
I do not remember how I met this boy, which says a lot about my time in the country. (A “jumbo” [larger than a 40] of the most delicious Dominican beer, called Presidente, was something like 50 pesos. And a man on a motorcycle would deliver it directly to your door. I…took advantage of that situation, let’s just say, quite often.) He was tall, with slicked back hair and money. He paid me attention, which at that time in my life was pretty much enough for me. He asked me on a date and because I was young and dumb, I acquiesced. He came to pick me up in a Range Rover, and I don’t know anything about cars or years or models, but it was nice. Very nice. We were driving, I assume to a restaurant, but I truly have no idea (this is how dumb I was), on a road with not a lot of light. In the rear view mirrors, police lights suddenly flashed. He looked down at the speedometer and sort of clicked his teeth. He said something along the lines of, “Don’t worry, I wasn’t speeding. They just want money.” I had no idea what this meant.
He pulled over and the cops come to the windows with their flashlights. I should say here that Dominican Spanish can be very hard to follow. It’s really fast, with a lot of slang and colloquialisms and though I moved to the country incredibly confident it took me months to truly understand what people were saying. But I got the gist of this interaction. Immediately they ordered him out of the car, asking him what he had hidden, insisting he was guilty of some kind of crime. I was terrified. I sat in the front seat, my insides turning ice cold, rehearing a speech in my head for when they finally spoke to me. I was going to tell them that I was an American, insist they take me to the Embassy, that I had my passport and they could not arrest us because he hadn’t done anything wrong. Neither of the cops paid me any attention, except to tell me, at one point, to get out of the car.
I stood by the side of this dark road, while these two police officers tore this car apart looking for anything. Periodically, one would go up to my date and say something like, “You know if you just pay us, this will all be over.” But he stood his ground, letting them search his car repeatedly, pulling up the carpets, going through the glove compartment, the trunk, folding down the seats, everything. It wasn’t cold (it never is) but I stood there shivering, absolutely scared shitless, sure that this was where I would die. On the side of the road somewhere in Santo Domingo with a boy I barely knew, shot to death by cops.
When finally they exhausted their search, they again plied my date for money. I heard them asking for just 2000 to 3000 pesos, that was all they needed to leave him alone. He refused, asking them if they found anything wrong, if he had done anything wrong. They hadn’t, he hadn’t. So he repeatedly denied their pleas for cash, saying he didn’t have any anyways, finally telling me to get in the car. He got in, told them no again as they stood at his window, almost begging, and then drove us away.
I remember looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the two policemen standing in the light of their cruiser’s headlights, hands on hips, dejected. My date drove along, turning the music up and the windows down. He seemed utterly carefree.
I said, “Where are we going?”
“I think I want you to take me home.” My voice shook a bit.
He finally looked over at me, almost laughing. “Why?”
“That was really scary. I don’t think I feel up to dinner at a restaurant.”
“Scary?!” Then he really did laugh. “You can’t be afraid of them. They’re just desperate for money. They see a car like this, and they try to force you into giving them cash. They’re corrupt, but they aren’t scary. They couldn’t have done anything to us. This restaurant is really nice. You’ll like it, I promise.”
I was dumbfounded. It was one of those moments when you realise, quite suddenly, that you’re completely out of your depth. I knew nothing of this country. I knew nothing of its ways. I truly was a stranger in a strange land.
I should have at least read the Wikipedia article about the Dominican Republic or something.
12th January 2020
A “day before the wedding” story, because tomorrow is our two-year anniversary.
On this day two years ago, I awoke with an insane headache. Truly it was like nothing I’d ever felt before. When I looked right or left or up or down, it felt like a lightning bolt striking my right eye. When I kept my head still it sometimes felt like a small person was behind my right eye, trying to push it out from my head. My right eye was getting a little more bloodshot by the hour. The pain was stressing me out (not the other way around, truly) and I had no idea what to do. All I knew was that I didn’t want to spend my wedding day feeling this way.
Our rehearsal at the venue wasn’t supposed to be until later in the afternoon so I agreed with my mom and Chris that I’d go to a walk-in clinic and see if anyone could help me. See, I didn’t really live anywhere at the time and I didn’t have insurance. My teaching contract had ended in North Carolina and I was staying in South Carolina, without any recourse to a doctor aside from a clinic. Brits won’t understand this but it’s sadly common in the US.
Those involved in the whirlwind adventure that was this day all have differing, fuzzy memories of who went where and when. Suffice to say there were multiple trips and a variety of combinations of my friends and fiancé joining me in the trek to find a doctor who would help me. We drove all over Charleston looking for someone. The closest UrgentCare clinic had a waiting time of hours, so we tried three different CVS pharmacies. The one in the middle of downtown (the third we visited and with the least accessible parking) finally had a woman who could see me. She listened to my symptoms, typed a bit on her computer and then said, “It’s kind of crazy because you’ve almost quoted the symptoms verbatim. I would guess that you have something called a cluster headache.” I had never heard of this thing so I was quite shocked to hear that I had listed the symptoms so precisely. I asked her what you can do for cluster headaches. She said she couldn’t do anything for me there, I would have to go the clinic.
So we drove back, put me on the 4-hour waiting list at UrgentCare and sat in one of the most depressing waiting rooms I’ve been in, aside from the DMV, for hours. My friends left, Chris stayed with me, we cancelled the rehearsal and decided that our priority had to be getting any help we could for my head. I was in my pyjamas. Neither of us had showered. Chris and I sat there just looking at each other as the time ticked on.
I was finally seen at 5:00pm. I explained my symptoms to the doctor, and she agreed that it sounded like I had a cluster headache. The treatment that she recommended was breathing pure oxygen for 15 minutes. She disappeared for a long while to get all the necessary accoutrements for this strange treatment. When she returned, it turned out that they didn’t have the appropriate mask so she had macguyvered one for me. I sat, breathing, for over 25 minutes. Nothing happened. Chris stared at me. By this time, we were missing our own rehearsal dinner party. Over 30 people were at the house without us, waiting for us, drinking to our future.
When the doctor finally came back, I asked her what else she could do because the oxygen wasn’t working. She said the only other recourse she could offer given that the next day was my wedding day was a cortisone shot. She said they often works for people but it wasn’t a guarantee. By that time I didn’t care if it was a needle the size of Texas (it was), or if the chance it would work was one in a million, I wanted it. So she left again for another exceedingly long while. I think this clinic must have had underground tunnelling in which she got lost because whenever she left it seemed to take her ages to find us again. When she returned she looked at Chris and then at me, then she said, “Okay, pull down your pants and bed over the chair.” Whilst my family and friends were partying to celebrate my nuptials, I was getting a shot in the ass.
There is a silver lining. When we got back to the house, Chris went to shower and an army of my friends came to help me get ready. They laughed at the hilarious bandaid on my right butt cheek, brought me white wine, and did my makeup all while keeping me smiling. The house my parents rented for the wedding week was incredible and enormous. The bedroom where I was getting ready was on the floor below the party. When I was dressed (only an hour or so late for my own party) I went upstairs and there was a set of French doors leading to the guests. I got to throw them open dramatically and the room erupted in applause. I was in a wide-lapelled white jumpsuit, I looked fierce and I was finally there to the celebrated bride.
An actor always knows how to make an entrance.
5th January 2020
The White Couch
or Sorry, Mom and Dad
A New Year’s story, for the new year.
For several years in my late teens and early twenties, my parents allowed me to throw a themed New Year’s party at our house. That’s the kind of young adult I was: dramatic and verging on ridiculous. (I was, in fact, president of the Thespian Society– Troupe #1478, I think?)
As 2008 was turning to 2009, the theme was “movie characters.” Admittedly, this was one of my less creative themes. But we were young and loved dressing up and didn’t really care about the parameters. I had only recently begun the phase of my life (that I’m still in and will probably never leave) of having very short hair, what you might call a “pixie cut.” I wanted to choose a costume that suited my relatively new look. There’s a lesser known movie that I’ve actually never seen (embarrassingly for this story) starring Keira Knightley in which she sports the same haircut and plays a model turned bounty hunter (typical). She also quite famously sports tattoos. So when my friends began to arrive and (nerds that they are) were easily able to identify my character, they noticed I wasn’t tatted up the way the character was. This was for a few reasons: the aforementioned (that I hadn’t ever seen the movie) and that after a google search I found out that her most noticeable tattoo is on the back of her neck and I could not reach that part of my body. The issue was quickly remedied: my friend grabbed a marker and gave me the important “Tears in the rain” text and that was that.
My parents were totally okay with me throwing the party that year (I was a really well-behaved kid), as long as their brand new perfectly white leather couch remained untouched. I was militant about this. I covered the couch in two bedsheets, and when every guest arrived, I opened the front door and said, “Happy New Year! Don’t touch the white couch.” Everyone knew to be careful. Even amidst ridiculous games, shouting, drinking and dancing, the couch was all right.
After a number of Mike’s Hard Lemonades (check the year, I was a young idiot) it turned out to be yours truly who fell asleep on the white couch. Someone else was in my bed, and in the guest beds and so I kipped in the family room, on the then infamous white couch. Who better to sleep on it than the person responsible for it? This way, I ensured that no one did any damage to it in their sleep, as so many are wont to do…
I awoke late and quite groggy on January 1st, 2009. Everyone was already gone, having headed home to shower and recover. When I rolled off the couch, I turned to pull the sheets off and saw to my utter dismay a number of purple spots dotting the beautiful white leather. My hand immediately went to the back of my neck. My stupid fake neck tattoo to be a nonsensical character from a bad movie no one ever even saw at a dumb theme party I invented had ruined this thousands-of-dollars couch the protecting of which was the only parameter my parents had given me when I wanted to throw said ludicrous shindig.
I burst into tears.
After a bit of a cry, I immediately went to my trusty friend google, to find out how to remove ink stains from leather. There were a number of recommendations, all of which I tried, hungover and half-crying. Nothing worked. I decided to take a shower, try to clear my head, and come at the problem from a different angle. I sat on the floor in the shower, weeping uncontrollably, trying to imagine how I could cobble together the $3000 (at least) I owed my parents.
Once cleaned and some of the cobwebs of drinking cleared away, I went back to google and moved down the list to the more “experimental” remedies. I was desperate. One site, probably 15 down the list, said something along the lines of, “You won’t believe this but if you need to get ink out of a white couch, THIS home product really works!” I am naturally skeptical of anything phrased this way but nothing had worked and I was envisioning myself in indentured servitude to my parents for the next decade paying off this couch, so I clicked on it. This fool claimed hairspray would pull the ink off without damaging the leather. Hairspray. Please.
So I grabbed my mom’s bottle and a few paper towels and headed to the scene of the crime. Lo and behold, the hairspray was working! Nearly weeping again, this time with glee, I worked that damn cheap hairspray into the various purple spots until I could not see them anymore. I took pictures of the couch and sent to my friends, “Can you see any ink on this couch?” “Does it look normal?”
A traumatic two hours later, and the house was cleaned up, no sign of a party ever having taken place besides a recycling bin full of empty bottles of Mike’s Hard. My parents returned home and were never the wiser.
I told them, a few years ago. As time had passed, they laughed it off. But it was one of those laughs that kind of dies at the end, you know? One that tells you that if they had known back then, at the start of 2009, my ass would have been grass.