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.
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.