Thursday, October 19, 2017

Settling Down: Why I'll never settle

Can someone answer this question for me? Okay - not that one. The one I'm about to ask.

I don't know if this is generational and if this notion is on its way out (God, I do hope so), but I've been thinking a lot about the concept of "settling down" lately.

And by that I mean marriage. Yes...not just a stable relationship. MARRIAGE.

Now, I come from a southern family that is fairly traditional in their views and I know that's not the way everyone's family operates. But to give you an idea - I was married at 20, much to the delight of my parents, and when my sister was 22 and not engaged yet, my grandfather joked that she was an Old Maid.

At 22.

So, we both married and "settled down." My "settle" only lasted 11 years until the death of my husband and then I tried to "settle" again, but realized that I would truly be "settling."

And I've been single ever since.

So here's my problem: When we think of a friend who is single and - let's be honest - FEMALE, it seems to certain people that they haven't "settled down."

What a bunch of bullshit.

Again, it seems like this is pushed upon women more than men and promotes the idea of the helpless female who can't operate without a man to depend on. I mean, I truly hear "I wish SHE would settle down" way more than "HE" - although I know there are some men out there who will dispute this.

Okay, so I wasn't originally single by choice, but I certainly am now. In fact, I'm possibly as "settled down" as I have ever been. I love my life. I've figured it out. I know how to get things done, who to ask for for help, and how to live my life on my terms.

Think about this.

Let's see a show of hands: How many of you out there have friends who are unsettled in their marriages? Who knows couples who are so unstable in relationships that they actually don't depend on that person at all?

Why does it seem like the goal is to "settle down" and get that we can then sometimes move on to the next phase of being in a relationship that shouldn't have happened in the first place? I mean, really. I do think that settling down is pushed on us so much that it almost doesn't matter if it's right. It only matters that it happened.

Why can't we think of "settling down" as being comfortable and happy in one's own life...rather than strapping it into the notion of marriage? I'm settled. REALLY. I am. And let me tell you - there were definitely moments in my "settled" years of marriage when I wondered what in the world I was doing. And that was very unsettling.

Yikes. I just read this over and realized that it sounds like I'm marriage-bashing. I'm really not. But as I watch my children grow, I think about what's coming. Is it marriage? Maybe. Children? That would be great.

But don't think for one second that I'm going to encourage my kids to "settle down" unless it's into their own idea of happiness and comfort...whatever form that might take.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Wish You Were Here: Chapter 11


 It seemed that as soon as she appeared, she was gone.  Henry stared at that space next to me for a while, and I kept looking around like I had seen anything in the first place, but apparently she had vanished just as quick as she appeared.  Adrenaline was rushing through my body so fast, I thought it was more likely that I would spontaneously take flight rather than sleep.  I lay on the bed, my body rigid, as Henry and I talked about what seeing her might mean.
            “Maybe it was just a fluke,” he said.  “Maybe I was just imaging things.  You know, wanting to have company over here in my spiritual state so badly that I just conjured her up.”
            “Maybe,” I said, doubtfully.  “But if you were going to do that, why wouldn’t you summon up your grandparents or someone you knew?  You never even met her.  I only showed you her picture in my photo album a few times.”
            “That’s true,” he said thoughtfully.  “I mean, if I was going to conjure, why not go for broke?  Like Dick Clark or Jean Harlow?”
            “Jean Harlow?”
            “What?  She was hot.”
            We both thought in silence for a minute.  “Maybe everyone you loved is going to start appearing for you,” Henry brainstormed.
            “Oh great.  I’m going to be like that kid in The 6th Sense.”
            “What’s wrong with that?”
            “Are you kidding?  Seeing dead people completely killed his social life.  No pun intended.  And I think if that started happening, there wouldn’t be enough Lunesta in the world to make me sleep again.  Besides, that doesn’t make sense.  I couldn’t see her.  You could.”
            “That’s true.”
            Henry and I both laid there in silence for a while.  “Dick Clark?” I asked.
            “Just think of who he might bring with him.”
            “I won’t lie to you.  It kind of creeps me out that you’re fanaticizing that Dick Clark is hosting a dead man’s version of American Bandstand.”
            “It gives me something to look forward to.”
After that, Henry and I fell silent and, as hard as this was for me to believe, I must have fallen asleep because when I awoke, sunlight was streaming through the windows and Henry was gone.  I felt the thud of reality I had experienced every morning since he died.  That moment, that split second, when the first thing I thought of upon gaining consciousness was, “Oh.  It’s time to get up.  Henry’s dead.”
            I hated that feeling.  I hated experiencing it every day.  Even if I woke up with the winning lottery ticket in my hand and an elephant in my room that would still be the first thing I thought of.  “Henry’s dead.  Oh look.  I’m a millionaire and there’s a pachyderm.”
            I padded my way into the kitchen, started making some coffee, and put a half of a cheddar cheese bagel in the toaster oven.  I sat at the kitchen table and waited for everything to percolate and cook while Glenda lazily made her way toward me and started winding her way through my legs, wanting attention, but too snooty to really ask for it.
            “Hey, you,” I said and bent down to pick her up.  I started petting her thick fur while she purred in my lap.  “Finally figured out that I’m as good as it’s going to get around here, did you?”
            She stretched her pink nose up to mine as if wanting to give me a kiss and then jumped to the ground when she heard the pop of the toaster oven switching off.  I rinsed off my hands, grabbed a plate for my bagel, and then slathered on cream cheese, convincing myself that it was okay because I was only having half the bagel and then talking myself into another dollop reasoning that surely I had burned a ton of calories the day before with all of that moving on I had done.  As an afterthought, I grabbed the paper from the driveway and tried to actually read it this time, something I hadn’t had the attention span for since Henry had been gone.  After I’d poured my coffee I made my way out onto the back patio.
            The air was definitely starting to change.  Houston was a long way off from feeling like fall, but it was starting to announce its arrival.  I sat there for a moment, just listening to the sounds of the city waking up late on a Sunday morning and then I tried to balance my plate on my lap while opening the paper at the same time, finally giving up and grabbing the cooler that always sat out there so I could use it as a make-shift end table.
            “I should get a patio set out here,” I thought.  “We talked about it all of the time, but I really should do it.  Maybe I could get outdoor wicker.  No, wait.  Henry hates wicker.”
            Once again, that feeling. That realization that he was dead, that he really didn’t care if I bought wicker or not.  But this time, I didn’t fight it and I didn’t try to distract myself.  I let it sink in and let my soul steep in it.  I felt that prickle behind my eyes, but the lump in my throat wasn’t as overpowering as it had been.  I didn’t fight the tears, but let them roll down my face and blotted them a little with the sleeve of my robe.  For just a moment I let go of the fear of grief and let myself cry, let my body know that it was okay to do it now, and then, after a breath that went all the way down to my toes and then back out again, I opened the Sunday paper to the advertisements.
            “Okay,” I said to myself in my most determined voice.  “Let’s find us some wicker.”
            I’d never really thought about who might be at Home Depot at 9 AM on a Sunday morning and once I got there, I decided that I probably should have just stayed at home and lived the rest of my life not knowing.  People milled around, getting their paint mixed or buying lumber for weekend projects.  I saw couples arguing over lighting fixtures and carts filled with plants and fertilizer.  So, not only did this little excursion make me feel completely alone, I felt far less industrious than I had just an hour before.  After all, the guy in front of me was buying wood to make his kid a playhouse, something that it was apparent he had researched and planned himself.
            I, on the other hand, was buying something that would help me with my favorite pastime.  Sitting around doing nothing.
            “How can I help you?” asked Betty at the customer service counter.
            “I’d like to buy this patio set I saw in the ad this morning,” I said.
            “Oh, that’s a lovely set,” she said.  “I have that myself.”
            I ignored the fact that she was probably around 96-years-old and that was precisely Henry’s argument against that type of set.  “Why would we buy wicker?” he would ask when we tried to work out a compromise.  “The only people who buy that stuff do it because the iron furniture is too hard on their hemorrhoids.”
            “Because iron will get too hot on our patio!” I told him over and over again.  Then we would both leave the store in a huff, each of us thinking that the other person was being unreasonable.
            “And do you need some help loading it up?”  Betty asked, breaking me out of my daydream.
            “Oh…I…can it be delivered?”
            “Of course.  And do you need help setting it up or do you have someone at home who can help you?”
            There it was.  Just a simple question that turned buying patio furniture into a future therapy session.  “No,” I said, starting to tear up.  “There’s no one.  No one at home.  Is there anyone here who can help me?”
            Betty patted my hand in a grandmotherly way.  “Of course, dear.  I’ll just make a note of it on the delivery instructions.”
            I made it to my car before I really started to cry.  I put the keys in the ignition and brought it to life and let the air conditioning cool the tears running down my face.  I looked down at the order form and saw in the instructions “NEEDS HELP.”
            Oh, Betty.  You have no idea.
After my little excursion to Home Depot, something I wasn’t likely to do again for a while, I was tempted to head back home and crawl back under my covers.  But I felt like a gauntlet had been thrown.  Henry had left for the day thinking that I couldn’t really manage by myself, that I was so awash in loneliness that there was no way I could float on my own for a day.  And there was still that wifely need in me to prove him wrong, to get as much done that day as I could while he was gone so that when he returned I could say, “See?  I can do this!  Now, don’t ever leave me again.”
I stopped by Starbucks and grabbed a latte, sitting outside for a while and watching the world go by.  I waited until my watch said 10:00 before I called Paula, not wanting to bother her too early because I wasn’t sure what her usual weekend routine was.  In fact, I didn’t really know what her routine was at all.  She had started as a receptionist just a couple of months earlier and even though I hadn’t been in the right mindset to meet new people, you’d have to be on another planet to not get a little caught up in Paula’s spirit.  She came in every morning and sat at that desk as if there was no place else she’d rather be.  I could hear her booming laugh from across the office and when she made her way through the cubicles, greeting everyone as if they were all long, lost friends, her whole body seemed to bounce with the joy of life.  Everyone was a “honey,” “sweetie,” or “darling” to her and it didn’t seem to be just a figure of speech because the way she said it really did make you were the sweetest person she’d ever met and that she just couldn’t wait to talk to you.
I had a feeling it was a shot in the dark, being able to get my hair done by her daughter on a Sunday, but I figured I’d give it a go.  Truth be told, I was kind of hoping that she wouldn’t be able to do it and that I could tell Henry later that I tried, but since she wasn’t available, I decided to stay home and unpack everything we had put in the donate pile that weekend, transforming the house back into what it looked like before he demanded that I change it. 
I waited as Paula’s phone rang and just about hung up when I heard a chipper, “Hello!”
            “Hello?  Paula?”
            “Yes?  Who’s this?”
            “It’s, um, Jane.  From work.”
            “Well, hey Jane, honey!  What’s going on?”
            “You, um, gave me your number and said that if I ever wanted to get my hair done your daughter might be interested?”
            “Of course!” she said, her voice getting even brighter.  “She’d love to!  When do you want to come over?”
            “Well, I know this is an imposition and I’m sure that you already have plans, but…does she have anything going on today?”
            “Honey, we don’t have a thing to do today except washing the truck and giving the dog a flea dip.  Why don’t you just come on over now so that we don’t confuse what we’re doing with you with what we’re doing with the dog later?”  She said, her hearty laugh bringing an instant smile to my face.
            Suddenly, I felt a small surge of confidence.  I could do this.  No.  I was going to do this.  Sure, it was hard to break new ground and meet new people, to say nothing of how scary it was to entertain the idea of getting a new haircut.  But the idea of spending the morning with people who didn’t know Henry and me, they were just getting to know me without Henry, sounded unexpectedly appealing.
            “Paula?  Can you give me your address?”

            “What am I doing, what am I doing, what am I doing,” I said to myself over and over like a chant, my hand clutching the directions I had written down and my eyes scanning the house numbers on either side of the street.  That faith in the unknown I had felt just a half an hour earlier seemed to escape me the moment I pulled onto Paula’s street, my insecurity causing all of my muscles to seize up to the point where I didn’t know if I could make it out of the car.
            “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” I changed my chant as I spotted her house with an enormous Chevy truck that looked like you’d need a step ladder to get into and a small dog of indeterminate breed running in circles around the front yard.  I parked in front and slowly made my way out of my car when the screen door suddenly banged open and there was Paula in washed out sweats, her hair looking as perfect as it did every day.
            “Jane-honey!” She exclaimed like she hadn’t just seen me the week before in passing on her way to make copies.  “Get on over here!  Jason!  Get this damn dog and tie him up out back!”
            “Paula,” I said, letting her envelope me in a rib-crushing hug.  “You’re so good to have me over.”
            “Think nothing of it,” she said, leading me up to the front door by holding me close to her body with one arm like I was her new favorite appendage.  “Cassie is so excited that you’re here.  She’s run out of women to do on the block and is just dying to get her hands into some new hair!”
            “Well…I’m glad I could help.”
            “Cassie!” Paula yelled up the stairs.  “Miss Jane’s here!  Come on down!”
            Moments later, a tiny looking girl who looked to me like she couldn’t be more than 12-years-old, slowly made her way down the stairs.  She gently took my hand and said in a quiet voice, “Miss Jane?  I’m Cassie.  It’s nice to meet you.”
            Oh my God.  What have I gotten myself into?
            “It’s, ah, nice to meet you, too, Cassie,” I said.  “How long have you been cutting hair?”
            “Oh, she’s been doing it for about two months now,” Paula took over.  “But she has a real knack for it.  I tell you, this girl can look at just about anyone and come up with the best style for her face.”
            Cassie didn’t say anything and I couldn’t help but notice her scrutinizing everything from my eyes to my chin.  She walked around me for a minute, taking stock of my general generalness, my limp hair and scant make-up.
            “Shorter,” she said succinctly.  “We need to go shorter.”
            “Shorter?” I said somewhat alarmed.
            “Not Halle Berry short,” she said, trying to reassure me.  “But you have great eyes.  And a nice neck.  All of this hair you’ve got going on right now is just weighing you down.”
            “But I haven’t had short hair since I was in the 6th grade,” I began to protest.  “And it looked terrible on me.”
            “Sugar, look at me,” said Paula.  “Do you like my hair?”
            “Well, yes,” I said, looking over her shoulder-length cut.  “It looks great.  I told you that the day you started.”
            “Cassie gave me this cut the day before.  I was so nervous about it I could hardly speak, but, as her mama, I didn’t want her to think I didn’t have faith in her.  Hell, she could have shaved my head and I probably wouldn’t have said anything about it.”
            “Yes, but – “
            “If it hadn’t been for her, I would have started that first day with my old haircut, which let me tell you got some looks and not in a good way,” Paula went on.  “The moment she finished, I went into my bathroom and pitched my Aquanet and home bleach kit.  And, honey, I’ve never looked back.”
I closed my eyes for a moment and took a deep breath.  “Okay.”
Paula led me through a cluttered living room and into the kitchen which was obviously the hub of their home.  The old linoleum had that weathered, beaten down look, but its yellowish color actually looked warm and homey to me.  The kitchen table was something that you might see at any yard sale and was piled high with bills and cards from friends and relatives.  Amateur paintings and family photos covered the refrigerator so thoroughly that I couldn’t tell what color it was until I got closer.
Paula kept chattering as she led me to a chair and where I saw they had made a make-shift beauty salon at the kitchen sink, the only place in the room that was spotless.  Cassie asked me to sit down and when I did, she continued to circle me, every once in a while grabbing a handful of my hair as if to test it.
“We going to do some highlights,” she said in her quiet voice.  “And then I’m going to do an all-over color.  After that, I’ll cut.”
I silently nodded in agreement, saying over and over in my mind, “It’s only hair, it’s only hair.”  Meanwhile, Cassie started mixing colors, painting small strands and wrapping them in foil.  Paula fluctuated between talking about nothing important to being proudly silent as she watched her daughter work.  And Cassie, fully concentrated on the job at hand, didn’t say a word.
While I waited for my highlights to take effect, Paula stood up and said, “Can I get anybody a Coke?  I’m just parched.”
“I’ll take one,” said Cassie.
“What kind?”
“How about you, honey?” she said to me.
“I’ll take a…Coke.”
“Be right back.”
The kitchen was quiet as Paula made her way out to the garage to find the soda.  Cassie gently asked me to move my chair to the sink for a rinse and when I leaned back she seemed fully engrossed in washing out the color, making no effort at conversation, a trait I found soothing.  She ran my head under the warm water and began massaging my scalp, soaping it up and then rinsing again.  For a moment, I felt completely relaxed and thought I could just about fall asleep.
“Here we are!” Paula said, coming back into the kitchen with cold sodas from an outside refrigerator.   She started popping them open and putting them on the table.
“Feels good doesn’t it?” Paula said, coming over and leaning to observe Cassie’s technique.
“What?” I said, surprised.
“Having someone touch you,” she said.
“Mo-ther!” Cassie exclaimed in the loudest volume I’d heard from her so far.  She pulled her hands away from my scalp like my hair was on fire.
“What?  It does.  It’s hard to go without contact for a long time.”
“I…I don’t understand,” I said.
“I heard what happened,” Paula said in a loud whisper, even though it was only the three of us in the room and we could all hear her.  “With your husband.”
“Oh…I….”  I started stuttering and wanting to get the hell out of there, soapy head and all.
“It’s okay, honey.  Same thing happened to me.”
“It…it did?”
“Sure.  First husband.  Tractor accident.  He was only 25 and I had just turned 21.  Felt like I had an alien growing out of my head for months.  People looked at me like I did, too.  Cassie, stop staring at the two of us and keep going.”
I felt the gentle massage of Cassie’s hands on my head once more as she worked in the cream rinse.  Then she helped me up and wrapped my head in a brown towel that looked like it had been in the family longer than Cassie herself. 
“I just remember thinking,” Paula went on, “that I’d give anything for someone to touch me.  Oh, not in a sexual way,” she said, using her loud whisper.  “Just hold my hand.  Give me a two minute hug.  Something.  Anything to make me feel human for just a little while.  Back then, massages weren’t as ‘in’ as they are now.  But believe me, if they had been, I’d have been getting one every other day just to feel less lonely.”
I looked at Paula feeling a little bewildered.  That had been something that had been missing from my life and I didn’t even know if I realized it.  I had been craving something that I couldn’t put my finger on.  Izzy always joked that I should go out and “get me some” but that wasn’t it.  I didn’t seem to require that right now.  It was so much simpler.  Just that caring touch, longer than a friendly hug but shorter than a one-night stand.  That’s what I wanted.  That’s what I missed.
I began concentrating on taking deep breaths, a trick I’d learned in the last few months, to keep the tears temporarily at bay.  Cassie put her hand under my neck to help me lean up and started towel drying my hair just as one of Paula’s other children starting calling to her from the backyard.
“’Scuse me,” she said, hopping up and disappearing through the back door.  Cassie began circling me again, as if to come up with a firm plan of action.
“My husband liked my hair long,” I said, not even realizing it was out of my mouth until a few moments later. 
“Men usually do,” Cassie said in her quiet voice.  “The problem is that they like long hair no matter how it really looks on you personally.”
She began picking up sections of my hair and gently cutting them, inches falling to the floor.  My body stiffened, a reflex I just couldn’t help.  “Miss Jane,” she said.  “I promise that I won’t do anything you don’t want me to do.  I won’t make it too short.  But I think every woman needs to feel good about herself, no matter what’s going on in her life.  And I know that a haircut may not seem life-changing.  But you’d be surprised at how much it helps.”
At that point, I decided to surrender.  It was just hair, after all.  It would grow back.  And it’s not like I had been really invested in my looks lately anyway.  I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of Paula and her other kids outside while Cassie continued to run her fingers through my hair and carefully cut small sections.  It was a strange feeling, getting a haircut without a mirror in front of me.  I had never had a haircut and not watched the progress.  In a small way it was exhilarating and I began to get more and more excited about seeing what I looked like for the first time after she was finished – kind of like my own before and after experiment.
I felt her stop, opened my eyes, and watched as she laid down the scissors and comb and pick up a hairdryer that was sitting on the table.  She began drying my hair and then picked up a big round brush.  I could feel curls tickling my chin and my bangs sweeping to the side, falling to the right just below the bottom of my eye.  After about 10 minutes, I heard Cassie quietly say, “There,” more to herself than to me.  Then she put the dryer down and gave me a hand mirror.
“All finished,” she said a little nervously.
I slowly picked up the mirror and aimed it at my face.  To say the woman in it wasn’t recognizable was inaccurate.  I knew who she was.  She had the same eyes, the same nose, and the same mouth which at that point was hanging open in astonishment.  Because the hair that surrounded that face now accentuated the eyes that had never before been much of a feature and the subtle highlights made the formerly pale complexion almost look peachy.  Where the hair stopped, showed more of her neck and seemed to slim the double chin she was worried she was getting, thanks to age and Blue Bell.
“Don’t you…don’t you like it?”  Cassie asked, visibly anxious.
“Cassie I – “
“Well, look at you!” Paula exclaimed, suddenly barging into the room and letting the back screen door slam behind her.  “You look like a whole new woman.  No!  Better than that!  You look like yourself only prettier!”
I couldn’t help but smile and my eyes gravitated back towards my reflection. 
“Cassie…I don’t know what to say.  I love it.  I more than love it.  I never knew I could look like this.”  And to my horror, I began to cry.
Paula leaned down next to me until she was almost cheek to cheek, her face joining mine in the reflection and her hand falling to my shoulder.
“Well, you can,” she said in the gentlest tone I’d ever heard her use.  “And you do.  That’s still you, sweetie.  You’re still in there.  You’ve just changed a little.”
The mouth of the woman in the mirror began to turn up a little, meeting the tears that had rolled down her cheeks.  The haircut made her look different, but I could still see who she was.  She was the woman who had been through more sorrow than anyone should have to go through at her age.  But for the first time, she had a look of hope about her and she seemed to understand that even though she might carry the burden of loss with her for a long time, moments of joy were not impossible.  There was a little light in her eyes that she thought she had lost for good and a rosiness in her cheeks that only comes during moments of true happiness.
“I’m still here,” she whispered to herself in the mirror.  “I’m just a different me.”