autobiographical

Mother’s Makeup

She would not leave the house without her makeup.

Whether to work or the bank or the 7-11 to buy cigarettes, makeup was not optional. My brother and I would question her and prod her about this, being impatient as children often are. She never really gave a reason why but never wavered in her need to hide herself until the makeup was applied.

She wore frosted pink lipstick, cream blush in a peachy shade, brown or green eye shadow, mascara.  All of this on top of foundation intended to disguise her freckled complexion. There was no shortcut, it all had to be in place.

My grandmother, her mother, was demanding and judgmental about female beauty and thinness. There was no pleasing her. By the time I was old enough to be developing my own self image, I had already inferred from the two of them that everything about us all was inherently wrong and shameful.  Whether it was the thigh that was too thick, the hair that was unruly, the unfashionable or classless choice of clothing, nothing was ever good enough. I never expected to like the way I looked, and I didn’t.

My mother berated herself as a rule. One day I realized her mother’s voice spoke through her even as she spoke to herself and to me. My mother rarely spoke negatively to me of my own appearance, but when she did it was framed in terms such as “grandma would not approve.” I sometimes wondered what my great grandmother must have said to her daughter.

I threw away all my makeup years ago. I will not allow my grandmother will not speak through me.

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autobiographical

Fifteen Years

I only have one cat now. I used to have two but a few months ago, the older cat died. He was fifteen but I am still very sad. I am keenly aware that I am experiencing this mourning as one half. I still think of my two cats as one entity, two halves of a pair. So in a way, it’s almost like the cat who died is still here.  I have lost half, but not all.  When the other cat dies, I think I will be a lot sadder, and that’s a little frightening because I’m pretty sad.

Right now, my cat is rolling around on the floor looking like a beached whale. He has almost enough personality for two. I’m glad he didn’t go first because the other cat was the needy one. I think my living cat might prefer being an only cat, in all honesty. I often wish he could tell me.

Fifteen years is a long time. Fifteen years ago I was 21 and living in Massachusetts in a 3 bedroom apartment with 4 other people. It’s hard to conceive that that person was me, and I am still me. It seems like another planet, a chapter in a book. I have old journals from then, sealed up in a box that I am afraid to open. For some reason I do not want to revisit any of that past. I cringe with embarrassment just thinking about it. Feeling sad at age 36 is uncomfortable, but not impossible. At 21 I did not feel sad, I felt a sworling vortex of despair. Or so my vague memories tell me. I could read what I wrote and find out, and I will someday, but not yet.

I wonder if other people forget all the incredibly stupid, selfish, ill-conceived, dangerous things they did in their youth and that’s why people my age seem to have become incredibly judgmental and self-righteous. Sometimes I really do wonder if having children destroys the part of your brain that remembers what it is like to be young. I know those very same self-righteous judging people did the stupid, selfish, ill-conceived dangerous things, whether they remember or not. I remember.

I have this theory that every single person, self included, has at least one belief that is just 100% wrong and they have no idea about it. Think about it. When someone is wrong, they don’t know it so why would you? And whatever it is, it’s something big.

Fifteen years ago tonight. We were probably sitting around the table in our kitchen, which served as our living room since the living room was used as a bedroom. We were probably drinking, smoking pot, and playing Rummy. Or maybe tonight was the night we went to that party and he got drunk and/or lost his shit.  Maybe, fifteen years ago tonight, was the night that my best friend, whose life felt so intertwined with my own as to be indivisible, confessed he had knocked her to the ground before. And when he got home from the party where he had caused the scene, he used his knives and swords to slash up our furniture before pinning her to the wall by her throat. Lesson 1: never trust a man with a knife collection.

All this and more is all recorded in my box of journals that I kept religiously from age 15 to 25. What an age to choose to record. Maybe in another fifteen years, I will be ready to visit my past again, but then, maybe in fifteen years, I won’t want to look at today.

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autobiographical

The Time I Got Fired From Pizza Hut

I worked at Pizza Hut as a waitress the summer after my first year of college.  It was the first of many serving gigs.

Pizza Hut had its fun moments.  Waiting tables, even at a chain pizza place, was much more lucrative than the customer service minimum wage jobs I had prior to that.  People used to go out to eat pizza.  Maybe they still do this?  I don’t.  Pizza is the food you get because you don’t feel like going out.

Pizza Hut in the late 90s was the familiar red-roofed building with a somewhat dark interior, complete with red and white checkered table coverings and personal jukeboxes in each booth.  People had birthday parties for their kids there.  We had a lunch time pizza buffet and people came in on their lunch break.  We had a rudimentary salad bar with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, croutons, a few types of dressing and two types of soup.  You could order a personal pan pizza and it came to you in the pan, which seems hazardous in retrospect.  Those pans were hot as hell.  We sold beer by the mug or pitcher and we a most exciting variety on tap: Bud or Bud Light.  Soda was served in big red clear plastic cups and a big red pitcher for refills. 

Incidents at Pizza Hut that summer:

  • The time we made a Personal Pan Crayon.  We unwrapped a bunch of the crayons that were for kids to color on the paper kid place-mats, put them in the personal pan pizza pan, and sent it through the oven.  This was a truly ill-conceived idea.  We thought we would get an awesome swirl-colored crayon disc.  But pizza ovens are really hot, and wax crayons melt really fast.  So halfway through, they melted over the side of the pan, leaked out into the oven and caused a noxious cloud of smoke that set off the alarms and brought the fire department.  OOPS!
  • The time I passed out while carrying a pan pizza.  I am lucky I did not burn myself.  This was one of 3 times in my life I passed out unexpectedly.  It happened when I was 19, 22, and again at 35.  I have no idea why nor do any of my doctors.
  • The time a table of French-speaking tourists came in and ordered one medium pizza each.  Despite my repeated attempts to explain that a medium pizza could feed 2-3 hungry people, and 3 years of high school French under my belt, they didn’t get it.  When the 8 medium pizzas for 8 people arrived, their shocked faces were unforgettable.

I ended up getting fired after an incident involving an angry man.

It was later in the evening and we were close to closing time.  A very large group came in, something on the order of 20 people.  We seated them and I took their orders.  They were all very friendly, all but one.  The group was mostly women and there was one man.  The man was very grumpy. The good-natured women in the group laughed and joked with me and said to pay him no mind.  But he was very angry and grouchy the entire time.

Because it was late, there was not enough silverware for all of them as it was in the dishwasher or dirty.  I discussed this with the other waiter who was working and we decided to give them plastic utensils.  It’s pizza anyway, barely anyone ever used the utensils except moms cutting up pizza to feel to children too small to eat it as a whole piece.  

Grouchy man did not like this, or anything.  Unfortunately grouchy man was paying and I was glad that the gratuity was included for large tables or I am sure he would have stiffed me.

A few days later the manager fired me.  Grouchy man had called in to complain and the manager had a policy of firing anyone who received a customer complaint.  When I tell the short version of this story, I just say I was fired for giving people plastic silverware at Pizza Hut.

I was 19 and didn’t really care.  I used it as a reason to go to Atlantic City with some friends instead.

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autobiographical

The Craziest Thing that Ever Happened at the 7-11

I worked at the 7-11 in the town where I grew up the year after I dropped out of college, in 1998.  That same year my mom was in jail.  I was 19 and my brother was 17.  He had dropped out of high school.  We lived together alone in my mother’s house with various friends and couch-surfers.

Eleven to seven at the seven eleven.  Graveyard shift.

It was a small town and no business was ever really busy.  We had a fair share of customers until about 10 pm, then another small rush at 2 am when the bars let out, then nothing until the first morning customers came in for their coffee, paper and donuts.  So for the most part it was a really chill job and incredibly undemanding.  I smoked cigarettes back then and you were allowed to smoke in the store.  You used to be allowed to smoke everywhere.  I smoked cigarettes behind the counter, read magazines, and generally tried to entertain myself.  One of my best friends, Tegan, worked there with me and we had a ton of fun.  Sometimes I consider night shift at the 7-11 to be the most fun job I ever had.

Slurpees are pretty good, but they’re better with alcohol.  We used to mix whiskey in with the coke slurpee and vodka in with the orange.

Our friends would stop in and hang out after the bars closed sometimes and we’d play scratch off lottery tickets and giggle over porno magazines.  Like I said, it was a small town and there wasn’t much to do.

Insider tip: Do not eat that pump chili they have for the nachos.  Just don’t.

Most of the time it was fun or boring.  A few times it was scary when a customer would be threatening or try to rob you at gun point.  But that didn’t happen very often.

There was a great cast of characters working there.  Honestly, I could write a screenplay based on the lives of these women that would make a television show every bit as compelling as Orange is the New Black, which I adore.

For tonight’s episode, we have me, your lovely author, 19 year old college drop out female too smart to be working at 7-11.

Shelly had to be 6’3″, 250 lb.  She was a great big woman with big black hair, an enormous gap-toothed smile, a loud voice, and a quick temper.  Probably around 35 years old.  You didn’t fuck with Shelly.  She would have made a fantastic bouncer.

Barb was smaller than Shelly but by no means a delicate flower.  She was closer to my size, 5’8 with a large frame.  Barb had poofy fake blond hair and a face that was always visibly tired.  Her husband was an unpleasant bald-headed buck-toothed fellow who I suspect abused her.  They had three boys who looked just like him who were complete terrors.  Barb was nice but also prone to gossip and drama.  She pushed people’s buttons and wasn’t afraid to say what she thought, regardless of the situation.

It was an unusual night because the three of us were in the store at the same time.  It was early evening, around 6pm.  There was extra staff at that time because the shipment came in once a week and it took a lot of work to put it away.  So once a week, three people would be working in the store instead of the usual one or two.

One of the staple goods of any 7-11 is, of course, fresh brewed coffee.  Fresh is really a sort of relative term of course, and sometimes the coffee was less than fresh.  Especially in the evening when very few people drank it and we got lazy about making it.

So here’s how it went down:

A customer comes in and goes to get coffee.  She’s a skinny little lady, maybe 5’3 110 lb, with stringy hair.  Barb says to her “Hey I’m sorry hun, but we haven’t made new coffee in a bit.  That pot probably isn’t very good.  Here let me make a fresh pot for you.” But the customer waves her away and assures her it’s fine.  Barb tries again to tell her it’s going to be really bad but the customer doesn’t care about that.  Okay, whatever, maybe she likes strong coffee.  So the lady pays for her coffee and leaves.

5 minutes later the phone rings and I answer.  It’s the coffee lady.  She is irate because her coffee is really bad.  I apologize to her but she keeps yelling and getting more and more agitated.  I tell her we can give her her money back or another new cup of coffee if she wants.  She hangs up. I tell Barb and Shelly what happened and we start to suspect something is going to happen.  Barb gets angry because she already warned the lady.  “Buncha bull shit!” she says.  Barb and I go behind the counter and Shelly continues putting away the merchandise from the delivery.

A bit later, a truck pulls up.  A man is driving and the coffee lady is the passenger.  She gets out of the car with her cup of coffee and is visibly amped up as she heads for the store entrance.

Barb, in a predictable moment of hot-headedness, goes out from behind the counter and walks toward the coffee lady defiantly.  Then several things happen very quickly.

The coffee lady throws her hot coffee at Barb, lunges at her, and bites her as hard as she can right on her naked upper boob!  Then she grabs Barb’s hair and holds her head and starts kneeing her in the face.  Barb is clawing and kicking and freaking out.

I push the panic button that will bring the police.

Shelly comes rushing over from where she was and tries to restrain the lady.  Then I go over and try to help her and no matter how hard we try we cannot get this lady to let go of Barb’s hair.  Keep in mind, we are three large strong women and she is one tiny frail-looking older woman.  She had to be on crack or meth or something, there’s no other explanation for her superhuman strength.

Shelly and I do manage to restrain her enough to stop her from kicking Barb in the face, but she’s still hanging onto Barb’s hair when the police arrive shortly thereafter.

The cops arrest the woman and Barb goes to the hospital.  Later she has to be tested repeatedly for HIV because of the bodily fluid exchange that happened during the fight.

When the cops question the man who had driven the crackhead coffee lady to the store that evening, he turns out to be the lady’s husband.

“I just drove here, ” he said.  “She’s gonna do what she’s gonna do and there ain’t nothin I can do about it.”

 

And that’s the craziest thing that ever happened at the 7-11.

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autobiographical

Not This

For as long as I can remember, my driving motivation for major life choices has been getting away.

First, it was getting away from my family.  When I was a little kid, I used to Run Away From Home regularly.  I would get my mom’s suitcase and walk off down the street.  I didn’t put anything in the suitcase; I just knew you had to take a suitcase with you to Run Away From Home.  I would wander around the neighborhood and eventually go back.

When we went on our first school field trip to a city, I knew I was going to move to a city as soon as possible.  The buildings and the sidewalks, all the cars and people, it gave me such energy!  Here, I thought, things really happened.  Not like my small town where everyone knew each other and nothing ever happened.

My family could have been worse.  I was not abused.  My mother was extremely lenient and soft.  She let us do whatever we wanted.  I never had a curfew or any rules.  She taught me to forge her handwriting so I could write my own late and absence notes for school.  We went to the mall together and bought lunch and looked at clothes.  There were lots of good things.

But other things were not right.  My mother wasn’t really a mature adult, in retrospect.  She wanted to be a kid still, not a parent.  Being a single parent was hard on her and I sympathize with that.  I was fine.  I was pretty much born a mature adult.  I have felt “older” than my mother from a very young age.  My brother was not fine.  He needed a stricter parent and she wasn’t it.  My house was chaotic.  He was constantly in trouble.  She listened to the police monitor in case something happened to him.  He threw tantrums.  We fought.  He pushed me down the stairs.  He threw things at me.  He paint-balled my car.  He harassed my friends and called me names.  She could not control him.  I hid in my bedroom reading as much as possible until I could escape.

Escape.  That word is like a light bulb to a moth for me.  Escaping holds so much promise.  Going somewhere else.  Anywhere.  The unknown.  Who knows what it will be, but it will not be this.  Anything but this.  How many decisions have I made in my life that were the result of “anything but this?”

I have lived all over the country because of it.  I am never afraid of a new place or change.  I love it and thrive on it.  I don’t feel tied to anything.  Through moving so many times, and sometimes long distances, I have whittled away my material possessions to the barest essentials.  I don’t need things.  I can pack all my stuff and move it in one small U-Haul in one day if necessary.

I don’t feel like I’m searching for something, I’m just always moving on.  It’s never the promise of what’s to come, it’s getting away from what was.

Some people think this sounds terrible and they love to have things and put down roots.  Not me.  I don’t want roots, they just tie you down.  I am a bird and I will be free.  I will go where I please and there is nothing stopping me.  The less Things I have the better.  I donate unneeded things to people who need them.

Maybe someday I will find a place that makes me feel differently, but if not that is also okay.  The world is large and there is so much to see.  Every new place teaches me something.  Every new state shows me the world from a different angle.  I do not know what it is I want, but I always end up coming back to the same thing: not this.  And then it will be time to move on.

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autobiographical

Mutually Assured Destruction

I grew up under the shadow of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR.  This probably would not have made so much of an impact on my childhood if it weren’t for one differentiating factor: my mother’s extreme paranoia.

It was simply part of my knowledge, for as long as I can remember, that at any moment, we could all be obliterated by nuclear bombs.  I did not question this or think it strange that my mother spent so much time thinking and talking about nuclear war until much later in my life.

The “nukes,” as she called them, were a constant looming threat.  News about politics, war, Gorbachev, Reagan, et al was on the evening news daily.  My mother, eyes wide, watched raptly as the talking heads dissected the possibility that the two most powerful nations in the world would obliterate each other over this or that controversy.

On vacations at our grandparents home, nuclear war was the topic of conversation. My grandfather was a history connoisseur and a veteran of World War 2. He predicted World War 3 was imminent and the discussions lasted into the night over cans of cold beer, my grandmother’s Newport cigarettes and my mother’s True Blues.  My brother and I would sneak out of our rooms after being put to bed, sip unattended beer, and listen to them discuss the end of the world as we know it.

I can’t say I found any of this particularly frightening.  Maybe I was numb to it.  You can only hear that you may die tomorrow in a nuclear blast so many times before it loses its impact.  It was simply a fact of my life.  Nuclear background noise.

As an adult, I can look back and separate fact from fiction for the most part.  But as a kid, whatever my mother said was inherently true.  So I did not question her interpretation of events.  It wasn’t until later that I realized that there was a component of delusion mixed in with her fretting over nuclear missiles.

The “Underground Pentagon” aka Raven Rock Mountain Complex occupied a large tract of my mother’s obsession.  We did indeed live close to it, that much was true.  But my mother had all kind of stories about what was going on in there and why we were definitely going to be the target of the USSR’s first missiles for living in close proximity to it.  She was constantly pointing out mountains with radio towers on top and telling us “Look kids, there’s the underground pentagon.” In retrospect, I think she was just pointing at random mountains.  And I do not think she was lying, she has always believed all of her stories whole-heartedly.

I did a lot of book reports about the nuclear bomb.  I was interested in the physics of it as well as the history.  I knew about Trinity and Oppenheimer and Hiroshima.  I knew what would happen to you in a nuclear blast, depending on your distance from it.  I knew about nuclear winter.  I knew about Chernobyl.

I am so grateful that when I grew up there was no internet and no 24 hour news cycle.  If there had been, the background noise of assured nuclear destruction surely would have been so loud it would have overtaken life. I know this because after the September 11 attacks, my mother found a new obsession to fret about: terrorism.  And the internet made it unbearable.

In a way I feel like imminent nuclear war was my Santa Claus.  It was the story that was told to me over and over again as a child, and eventually I grew up and realized it wasn’t totally true.  There was an element of reality to it, but the scale was all wrong.

The cold war ended. We were never attacked. I am still here. My mom is still here, still full of worry about something else.

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autobiographical

Covert Jesus Party

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania dominated by Born Again Baptists. The first friend I met in elementary school happened to belong to a particularly devout family. Elisa was a very smart little girl with a caustic wit and sarcastic sense of humor. She could deliver a joke with a deadly serious tone that frequently went right over everyone’s head. I loved her for that.

Elisa was not allowed to play with Barbies, which were the popular toy of all our peers. I have never known the exact reason for this, though I suspect it had something to do with Barbie’s sexy appearance. So instead we would play Ghost Barbies using imaginary dolls when her parents weren’t looking, being very careful not to get caught. Talking about Ghosts (aside from the Holy Ghost) was also against her parents’ strict beliefs.

Looking back, I am surprised they let us play together at all. As a child of divorce, I was already on the goodchristian blacklist. I did not attend Their Church. But worse than that, my family was very sporadic in our attendance of any church at all. When my mother did take us to the Lutheran church, she did so “just in case it was true,” which is also the reason I was baptized. It was clear that Mom didn’t really believe any of it, although she kept an open mind. Nobody in my family was particularly religious except my paternal grandmother and she kept that to herself. We were godless heathens, through and through.

Anyway, some of my earliest interactions with proselyting Christians were through Elisa. She firmly believed that it was her duty to attempt to convert me, lest I go to hell. I firmly believed it was all nonsense. Despite all of the differences between us, we remained friends. Even when I declared my defiant atheism and refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because of the God line, we remained friends. Years later, I attended her wedding, where she walked down the aisle in a White Dress and meant it. All along I secretly hoped that Elisa would go off to college and go buck-wild. She was too smart for all this nonsense, I thought. But it never happened. Elisa went to a Christian college, met a Christian husband, and is now raising three adorable Christian children. She seems pretty happy and for that I am happy. I am also secretly disappointed in a small way. Elisa would have been an amazing heathen.

I attended several events sponsored by her church throughout my childhood but one stands out in my memory.

I remember the excitement of being invited to a party at Elisa’s house with lots of other little girls and boys. This must have been around the fifth grade and parties were the highlight of our lives. It was not a birthday party though, and I thought this quite strange. Parties were generally for birthdays.

In many ways the party seemed like any other children’s party. There were snacks and balloons, decorations and cake, party favors and music. Then mid-way through the celebration, we were told it was time to watch a movie. So we gathered around the TV and VCR and Elisa’s mom pressed play.

The movie turned out to be a film about Satan and his evil plot to destroy humanity. Satan had a little impish demon helper slave that was wreaking havoc on the world and reporting back to his master with the news. It wasn’t a cartoon; it was live action. Satan and the imp were puppets I guess. Or maybe Satan was an actor with a horrible mask. At one point the imp said to Satan “Yes master, everything is going according to plan! People are reading their horoscopes and having abortions. It won’t be long now!” I didn’t know what an abortion was.

After the movie ended, we were asked to stand in a circle. Elisa’s father told us that all we had to do to be Saved was accept Jesus into our hearts and we would go to heaven! So one by one, we were asked if we accepted Jesus into our hearts. Most of the responses were not memorable as the majority of the kids were already a part of their church or another Christian church and they had already been indoctrinated to give the acceptable response. One girl, Marissa, who was partially deaf, broke down in tears because she felt that God had forsaken her by giving her a disability. “Why doesn’t God love me?” she wailed pitifully. The Christians comforted her and assured her that God had a plan for her and she should know that God loves all his children and she accepted Jesus into her heart through sobs and tears. Personally I thought it was a valid question. If God was so all powerful, why would he choose to make people suffer?

And then it was my turn.

“Do you accept Jesus into your heart?” Elisa’s father asked.

“No.” I said.

“Why not?” he replied with concern.

“Because I do not believe in God.” I said.

They didn’t seem prepared for this answer, so after some hemming and hawing, they moved on to the next child. Like dutiful Baptists, they continued to invite me to church things. I went to some of them, because I liked Elisa and found it to be an interesting experience. I went to quite a few churches, as a matter of fact, of my own accord. I was intrigued by them and their differences and similarities. I read the entire Bible (it was incredibly tedious and boring.) But never for a second did I waver in my belief that it was all a bunch of bullshit.

Elisa and I remained friends. Despite the bait and switch from fun-party-time to coerced-Jesus-time, I recall that party as a fun event and I laugh at fifth grade me. I was already so determined that all of these people were deluded on every level and living life for a non-existent God of an imaginary heaven, an opinion that has never left me to this day.

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