Relationship Advice

I had a pretty incredible Christmas all in all. But last night was probably the strangest, most incredible experience of the whole season.

My ex-husband, the one with whom I went to China, called to tell me he loved the China book. We got married and went to China after only knowing each other 4 months. We agreed last night that that was crazy. We also agreed it was crazy to have taken our skis. Then he said that I’d accurately captured the fear he felt when we arrived in Guangzhou and there was no one to meet our plane. “But,” he said, “you didn’t write about the other times I was afraid.”

“What other times?” I asked him.

“Well, there was the time the giant spider came out of the bathroom drain. I was terrified.”

“What giant spider? I don’t remember that at all.”

“Yeah. You took me for a walk around the campus and when we got back it was gone. That was good. I felt better after that.”

“Wow. I don’t remember that.”

“Then there the was time, you know, we’d just gotten into our apartment and set it up. we had our beds in that big room, and you wanted to cuddle, but I was still too freaked out. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t.”

A light bulb went on. I said, “I had no idea,” I said and thought, “What if you’d TOLD me that? Why DIDN’T you tell me that?”

Jim and I were not compatible. We tried for 12 years to make something work. My mom loved him, his kids loved me. We liked (still like) each other. We had a lot going for us. We both liked to ski. We came from similar backgrounds, a lot of stuff, but…

We talked on the phone for about an hour. I heard his wife say, in the background, “Are you still on the phone?” He didn’t answer her. Inside myself I nodded and smiled at that. I believe that conversation was the longest Jim and I have ever had.

In the years since, I have quietly diagnosed Jim as being somewhere on the Asperger’s Spectrum.

When you meet someone who has Asperger’s syndrome, you might notice two things right off. He’s just as smart as other folks, but he has more trouble with social skills. He also tends to have an obsessive focus on one topic or perform the same behaviors again and again.”


That little Dr. Google definition of Asperger’s describes Jim. During our marriage, Jim struggled hard to improve his social skills. He really likes people. He joined and became very involved in Toastmaster’s. He knew where he had a glitch. When Jim DID express himself, it was always — to me — a little obscure. Sometimes I felt that I was just supposed to understand things without getting any information from him at all. If I confronted him, it never went well. He had problems even making eye-contact with me. I could present objective facts such as, “If you don’t get a job, we’re fucked,” that just pushed him into wherever he went in his head. He was impossible to communicate with. Impossible for ME to communicate with. I got frustrated, took things personally — but now I get that. None of the skills I had worked at all, and my skills weren’t that great.

A reminder of how Jim’s mind works came when he said he had found 20 small mistakes in the China book. He gently asked if I would like him to put them on a spreadsheet so I can correct them.

“With the page numbers?” I asked.

“Page numbers and line numbers,” he answered. I felt a little twinge of affection hearing that. It’s SO Jim. His profession — at which he succeeded incredibly so — was writing code, programming. He wrote code for the Space Shuttle simulator. Most people would just say, “There are errors on page 10, 23, 40, 100,” etc.

Last night was an epiphany for me. In China, those two times he mentioned last night, he seems to have thought I KNEW he was afraid. How many other times in the 12 years we shared did he think I KNEW what he was feeling? What would our marriage have been like if he had been able to say, in words, “I need to be alone right now,” or “I’m frightened”?

It was obvious in that phone call last night that he is proud of me, that he’s proud of having gone to China with me, that he’s proud of what I’ve accomplished and that he — NOW — feels he can open up to me. I’m not sure 20 years ago I would have understood, and maybe he couldn’t have said, “You didn’t write about the other times I was afraid.”

“I was afraid.” A very powerful admission.

I wanted to wrap my arms around him last night, but that might not have been welcome even if we’d been within 20 feet of each other instead of some 1000 miles. That would have been my instinct, my nature. Instead I said, “We did well over there, Jim. We were just two nice people.”

“That’s true. We were just there being nice to people.”

“Yep. We can be proud of that. We’ve sure lived through a lot.”

“And we’re still here,” he said.


One of my favorite blogs is The Dihedral. It’s a group of young(er than me) climbers who individually and collectively post from time to time. Today Casen, one of the writers, gave five steps for dealing with utter failure. While I’m sure he’s failed at something sometime, based on my experience a lot of what he offers as examples are just bad luck. BUT, his five steps are right on.

I commented that I am a great success at failure. He said he’d like to be in a failing contest with me. I mentioned I have a head start…

The post made me think about failure in my life and how I’ve dealt with it. I started failing subjects in school in third grade (arithmetic). I failed spelling (“belief” was a bitch of a word for me then…) Later in my life I failed courses in my major (Shakespeare, Critical Writing), courses outside my major (20th Century Philosophy — the failure there was that I didn’t DROP it before the deadline), Attic Greek (I thought when the prof called us “dolts” after the midterm he was talking to me; he wasn’t) French (I accidentally wrote the dictation in Spanish though the teacher spoke French; she threw me out)… I’ve failed at two marriages and numerous (basically all of my) significant romantic relationships. I failed at getting any of my books published conventionally. I fail constantly at proofreading. I failed ever to get tenure, even after several attempts and everything “going for me.” I failed the oral Foreign Service Exam (couldn’t think of an American film when asked; came up with a French one). I failed to make the right choice between marriage and remaining in China. I chose the marriage; see above. This isn’t even the complete list.

Looking back on all this failure it seems to me that REAL failure is not trying (when you want to try) and giving up without all the facts. Those are the failures. That’s failing. That’s utter failure. In those events in my life, I can find no redemption. My Greek prof collared me a year after I failed his class and said, “What happened to you?”

I said, “I figured if I failed the midterm, I wouldn’t pass the class anyway. So I…”

“Quit? You shouldn’t have. You were one of the two who passed that exam.”

Kick in the groin, that one. That’s failure.

I love this song, BTW

Accept this Simple Toad

I love P.G. Wodehouse. One winter — 1981/82 — I went through all his novels and short stories like a starving person on a desert island. Later that same year, I ended up getting married to my second husband. It wasn’t meant to be a serious marriage. It was supposed to last a year and allow him to go with me to China. I took everything lightheartedly, flippantly, even, and P.G. Wodehouse influenced the design of my wedding ring.

In one of the stories, the protagonist — we’ll call him Bertie, but he wasn’t Bertie — and his best friend — go out drinking because the friend has a broken heart. At the end of the evening, they end up several sheets to the wind. They say their goodbyes and go their separate ways. In the wee hours of the morning, Bertie falls into a pond. He manages to haul himself out and he staggers home, soaking wet, covered with weeds.

As the friend staggers home, he meets his girlfriend coming out of a cab. They make up, and set a date for their wedding.

As fate (and P. G. Wodehouse) would have it, the two friends run into each other. Bertie hears all the good news but finds it difficult to care. He’s cold, wet and drunk, but he still realizes this is an important moment in the life of his friend. He decides (in his inebriated state) to give his friend something to mark the happy moment. He fishes (haha) around in his pocket and finds a toad. He hands it to his friend saying, “Please, accept this simple toad as a symbol of my feelings on this special moment.”

I wanted that to be my wedding vow. I wanted my new husband to say, “Please, accept this simple toad…” It didn’t happen that way.

The ring is my design. It’s sterling with a toad carved onto it. Its eye was a tiny emerald that fell out when I was trying to help some people push their camper out of deep sand in the Anza Borrego Desert.


The marriage didn’t work out and, sadly, was not the hilarious, flippant, short-term affair I’d dreamed of. I’ve learned over the years that people don’t take my sense of humor seriously.

“Damned kids!!”

Sometimes when I start up my car the music is so loud that I have to yell, “Damned kids!!!”

But it’s just me. There are no kids.

Some songs — by their nature — need to be listened to at full blast. “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath. “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. ” “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols (or anything else by the Sex Pistols, but “Holidays in the Sun” I find makes me so happy that I might endanger my car’s speakers). Anything by the Ramones or Dead Kennedys. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” “Master of Puppets” by Metallica. My list of loud songs is long and spans decades. And I sing along which adds a dimension of volume and horror you don’t want to imagine.

I’ve been married a few times. My first husband — whom I married when I was 20 — and I didn’t get along very well. We couldn’t communicate with each other, a combination of not knowing how and not knowing why. One day I came home to find he’d thrown all my Steppenwolf albums in the dumpster. “There’s more to life,” he said, “than a 20 minute drum solo.”

“Yeah? Well, what, for example?” He had no answer and I dug out my albums, but the nails were being rapidly pounded into the coffin of a very bad marriage.

It’s an interesting (true) fact that I paid for my divorce from him with my collection of Rolling Stones albums which was, apparently, staggeringly good. The lawyer who represented me in my divorce was the assistant dean of the University of Denver College of Law. I got that as a bonus for working there, I guess.

You might be thinking this loud music made it hard for me and my various spouses to talk to each other but that wasn’t the case. This is a CAR thing. I drove on bad brakes for months without knowing it because the music was so loud I didn’t hear them squealing.


Ha  ha ha HA HA ha  ha HA HA HA HA… OH my. Sorry, the word “control” makes me laugh. It’s not honest laughter, or belly laugh laughter, it’s rueful laughter.

Humans have evolved innumerable ways of attempting (and sometimes effecting) control.

Passive/Aggressive: Just don’t respond to or deal with what your partner has expressed. Or, better, agree. Agreeing is good. Some examples:

a) She calls you when she gets home from her job (as you asked her to). She’s a teacher, so she gets home earlyish. “Hi Honey. What time do you think you’ll be home for dinner?”

“Around 6.” (Fact is, you’re not COMING home for dinner, but if you tell her the truth, she’ll just want to know why, etc. etc.) Ultimately, of course, this kind of thing leads to the erosion of trust between the couple and divorce.

b) I’m reading the minutes of the faculty meeting for my department. “Whoa,” I think, “they’re getting rid of the classes I teach! They’re sending them to another college next year! That might be OK. Well soon, someone will talk to us about it.”

A year later, I’m reading the minutes of the faculty meeting (I was not expected to attend — or wanted — as I was a lecturer, not a tenured faculty member) and I see they have SENT the classes to another college as of the coming fall. Wow, any minute the boss will talk to us (me and the other teachers). Never happened. I contact the union. “We’ll look into it,” they said and never responded about having “looked into it” until it was all a fait accompli. Why? To keep control over what they wanted to do and the agenda that propelled them, it was best not to have any contact at all with the people who would be directly affected by the change, best not to tell them, give them options or protect them through the end of their contracts. This led to a lot of people being suddenly and unfairly out of work.

Scapegoating: This is one kind of control my mother practiced on me. “You look at me like that one more time and you’re not going anywhere.” I look at her in puzzlement. I don’t know what my face is doing. “All right, that’s it. You’ve wrecked this Saturday for everybody. No no one’s going anywhere.”

In reality, SHE didn’t want to go anywhere or maybe my dad wasn’t up to it. I don’t know what the reality was, only that wherever it is we were going, we weren’t and it was my fault that the entire day had been ruined. I think (maybe, if there’s anything rational to this) 1) I’m nearsighted and did not have my glasses on, 2) I probably squinted at my mother and it just hit her last nerve.

I have no idea now and I had no idea then. BUT this type of interaction led to some pretty awful fights once I was old enough to fight back, fights that involved saying things to her like, “You’re not the boss of me!” and “I hate you,” countered by “You’re not my daughter!”

Gaslighting: There’s control through gas-lighting which is the creation of a false reality and then practicing any of the other control techniques on the person unwittingly trapped there. The Evil X was a MASTER at that. Driving home from town. “When are we getting the satellite hooked up so I can watch the Chargers this fall?” (He asks, knowing full well that ISN’T going to happen)

“Who said we’re doing that?”

“You did. Several times. In fact, you promised.”

“No. We can’t afford it.” (He’s not contributing anything to the “common” good; the “we” is being kind. His way of NOT paying rent or anything else was simply NOT paying rent or anything else.)

“You fucking bitch. You lied to me.”

This ultimately led to, “I hate you, I wish you were dead, I don’t love you anymore, get the fuck out of my house.” Should have happened sooner…

Frontal Attack — Verbal or Physical Violence, Relentless Criticism:  Just one example — the Evil X once called me a “controlling bitch” simply because I asked him what he wanted for dinner.  I could write a lot under this topic, but I don’t want to, really. It’s enough to say that if you create an atmosphere in which your partner is afraid of you, you can control them.


I don’t know about people or where the need to control others comes from other than the sense of being out of control combined with being dependent on others for feelings of self-worth. I know some people feel the need for power over others as a way to feel good about themselves. One of the Good Xes said once, “The most dangerous person in the world is an insecure person.” He was right. A person who cannot stand up for him/herself, being self-reliant and able to face the day alone is dangerous.

I learned very early in my life that all we can possibly control is our response to factors that are external to us most of the time and the way we deal with daily life necessities. The cliches like “Make the best of it” or “Put a good face on it” are actually good advice. And…all this probably explains why I live alone. 🙂

Abusive Relationships and the Power to Be

Over the last few months (years?) I’ve had to learn some important lessons that I could have used long ago, but maybe we don’t learn a lesson until we must. Maybe that’s a corollary to “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Maybe the teacher isn’t a person, necessarily, but the lesson itself.

The other day, talking with a close family member, “A,” I found myself giving advice I would not have known to give even 10 years ago. She’s having marital problems. Her husband comes home from work and picks verbal fights, usually being hypercritical of her appearance. This does not happen  every night, but often enough that it’s wearing her down. She is a very passive person who tends to dwell on past injuries and sees the future through that filter. She’s unaware that that’s a stragedy she’s developed to allow her husband to put her down. “Well, what can I expect? I’ve never been treated well.”

I heard myself saying, “If you don’t want to fight, don’t. Get up and leave. Go take a walk. Get out of range.”

“Where should I go?”

“I don’t know. I’m not familiar with where you live. Where could you go?”

“There’s a Chinese restaurant a block away. It’s really nice.”

“OK, baby, take $10 and your journal and go there. Order something and open your journal and write down the date and then list your blessings.”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

“It will work. You won’t be fighting. You’ll be drinking tea and seeing what’s good in your life. Your little self-esteem will rise so quickly you’ll feel it.”

“What’s X going to do while I’m gone?”

“That’s not your problem. YOU’RE your problem, not him. He’s his own problem.”

“I don’t want him to treat me that way any more.”

“You can’t control what he does. You can only control what you do.”

“But if he doesn’t change, I don’t want to be there.”

“Are you sure? What if he doesn’t change but you’re not involved in these stupid arguments any more?”

“How does that happen if he doesn’t change?”

“You’re not there, remember? You’re at the Chinese restaurant counting your blessings.”

“Men have always treated me badly. My first boyfriend in high school, and then…”

“They only treated you badly because you stay there and let them.”

“But why? What’s wrong with me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you except that you engaged with them. You let them treat you badly by staying there. You stayed there and argued and engaged with their irrationality instead of leaving.”

“I’ve always been bullied.”

More rationales for passivity. If it’s “always” happened, it WILL always happen. False logic, but we do that all the time. ”Bullies get a payoff from seeing other people suffer. They’re losers themselves. If you understand that and just get out of range, no one can bully you. You won’t be there to be bullied. Just say ‘OK, that’s your opinion. I’ll be back in an hour’ and take off.”

“Maybe if I do that a few times, X will change…”

“It could happen, but that’s not your problem. Your problem is to take care of yourself. That’s your job. X’s job is to take care of himself. Neither of you are doing very well at your jobs, sounds like.”

“But if X doesn’t change, what can I do? I’m dependent on him financially!”

“You just answered your question. You might want to think about becoming financially independent. Tell me baby, what do you really want?”

“I want peace.”

“OK. Take your peace. When he starts, you just grab your purse and your journal and get out and find some peace. He’ll be all wound up but you won’t. You’ll be out there, sitting in that beautiful Chinese restaurant, having a cup of tea and some wonton and maybe a fortune cookie! You’ll be in your own peaceful moment. Sweetheart, your peace is your job.”

“But what if he doesn’t change? What will I do?”

“A” is trapped in a cycle of low self-esteem, financial dependency and love. She loves her husband BUT he supports her and has issues himself, one of which is that he has no education. As has happened between men and women since time immemorial, one stragedy he has for keeping her with him is to make her feel like crap about herself. And, as has also happened since time immemorial, she buys into it as a way to remain in a situation that demands little of her — since she’s worthless anyway, what else could she do? She’s lucky to have him.

All this (which may or may not have any effect) made me think of my own life and the times in which I held myself in the same cycle, most recently with my job. Because I have “only” an MA, I could never get a “real” job. With the exception of one boss, my bosses at the university where I taught on a full time contract (not tenure) never failed to remind me (annually and formally) that I was lucky to have them. I wasn’t there because I did well; I was there because they allowed it. It was very hard for me to get it through my head that I really had choices. As with “A,” part of the question was financial — how could I live without that job? In fact, I could have (now I do).

I’ve often thought that one of the most paradoxical of human survival adaptations is that we can really take a lot of pain; we can endure more than we probably should.

Talking with “A,” I thought of what it really means to stand up for yourself. It doesn’t mean standing your ground and verbally disputing with someone over something. It means doing and being who you are. One of my all-time favorite films is Trois Couleurs; Red by Krzysztof Kieślowski. In one scene the heroine asks the protagonist what she should do (vis-a-vis her heroin addict brother). He responds with, “Etre.” Be. It’s the advice I gave “A.” Be. That’s actually very difficult. Our ability to “be” is compromised constantly by situations like that between “A” and her husband, mine at my former job. It seems that often the LAST thing we do is “be.” Instead, we surrender and compromise rather than looking around and realizing, “I cannot ‘be’ here.”

“A” does not yet understand that the only power she has is over herself and that she must take it and use it. She still believes that her ability to “be” must be negotiated with her husband just as, for the past five years, I have believed that my power to “be” depended on a yearly evaluation and the opinion of a bunch of people who didn’t have any interest in knowing me, because if they knew me it would have been impossible for them to dehumanize me.

A good relationship — even or maybe especially with ones self — depends on respect. I am pretty sure that if respect is not there, the relationship is in trouble, and yeah, even the relationship with the self


Happy Love Story

“Yeah? What?”
“That just isn’t happening, babe. It’s…”
“Too Ocean Beach, right? That’s what bugs you. Well, I think this wedding dress and some glittery silvery shiny flip-flops, perfect.”
“I don’t know what my parents will think. They’re, you know, east coast.”
“From what I hear, people back there don’t even wear SOCKS with their top-siders and dress pants.”
“That’s true.”
“Think of all those sweaty feet in those top-siders. Now that’s gross. You’re wearing socks to our wedding, right? I mean if you wear those dress shoes?”
“I AM wearing dress shoes and you should wear heels.”
“I’m wearing flip-flops, babe.” She spun around the room on her bare feet. “Or nothing.”
“On my FEET, silly.”
Kevin’s phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket and checked the number. “Gotta’ go, babe. See you later.” He kissed her quickly on the mouth and left. He hurried around the building — they were lucky to find an apartment right on the beach like this but parking was a bitch as was extricating oneself from the whole labyrinth of a beach town. It was worth it. Tiffany had never lived anywhere but on the beach. If he wanted her — and he did! — he had to toe her line. Well, OK.

Tiffany held her wedding dress up against her and looked in the mirror! How could she have been so LUCKY! Here was Kevin, gorgeous and doing well in his hedge fund business already! Only twenty-two… Her same age! OMG!!!

(The writer — a wise old woman — interjects here to let the reader know that there will be no tragedy. Kevin will not be in a car wreck on the entry ramp to the freeway, though godnose it’s a bitch, and Tiffany will not suddenly get a phone call from a longed for lost ex, nothing like this. This is going to be a pretty trite story in which, well, never mind.)

“Hi Mom!”
“Hi sweetie. Thanks for meeting me! You know I hate driving down there. It’s SUCH a tangle! I don’t know why you couldn’t have moved up to Del Mar nearer dad and me.”
“No problem, Mom. I’ll meet you anywhere.” Tiffany gave her mom a hug and a kiss.
“Where do you want to look for shoes?”
“SHOES? I’m wearing flip-flops.”
“Sweetie, listen. Kevin and his family are from the east coast. It’s a much more formal part of the country than California. Why don’t you show them a little respect and get some nice dress shoes to go with your dress? Remember. It’s Kevin’s grandmother’s dress. I don’t think back in the 50s women wore flip-flops to weddings, or anywhere. It won’t look good, baby. Why do you always wear your hair in your face?”
“Oh stop mothering me MOTHER!” giggled Tiffany. “How about Macy’s? I don’t want to spend a fortune on shoes I’ll only wear once, right?”

“So, Kev, dude, how’s the gearing up for the wedding?”
“Good, except Tiffany insists on wearing flip-flops.”
“Put your foot down, dude. I mean, you know, like seriously.”
“I just know my parents. They’re so, you know, New Jersey.”
“Yeah. Well, just tell her.”

Kevin got home that night to find, in the middle of the dining room table, a shoebox from Macy’s. “Babe?”
“In here!”
“What’s on the table?”
“Oh, my mom bought me shoes for the wedding. Go ahead and open it!”
Kevin took the lid off the box and found inside a pair of pointed-toe shoes (low heels; Tiffany didn’t think she could walk in a REAL 1958 replica pair!) that would go perfectly with his mom’s 1958 wedding dress. “I love you babe. AND your mom!”


The two weeks until the wedding passed in the blink of an eye. Tiffany looked gorgeous in grandma’s wedding dress. Kevin was every inch the proud groom. The shoes were perfect, “Look like shoes my mom would have worn,” sobbed Kevin’s mom into her Irish lace handkerchief. At the reception, Kevin’s mom packed up two slices of wedding cake for them to freeze for their first wedding anniversary. They went to Hawaii for their honeymoon and everyone lived happily ever after.


Daily Prompt: First Sight, Whether a person, a pet, an object, or a place, write about something or someone you connected with from the very first second.

It was kind of strange because he was just a kid, a boy, 12 years old. He was in the garage with my ex-husband (good X, not evil X) and a bunch of other kids, including his little brother, Mikey. They were building and repairing bikes. He had a home-cut Mohawk, sun-bleached hair, green eyes, freckles and a crooked grin. He wasn’t even as tall as I am, yet, and I’m only 5’2″. He looked up at me from the vise where he had his bike fork. “This is Martha,” said my ex.
“Hi.” He grinned.”Hi,” I said, suddenly getting a kind of electricity from this kid, a feeling I’d had in the past when a relationship turned out to be important. I didn’t give it any thought at the time, but I remembered it, and Jimmy turned out to be one of my life’s best friends. I was 40.

Now don’t jump to weird conclusions. I don’t know about you, but there’s a part of me that IS a 12 year old boy. I have never BEEN a 12 year old boy, but that pre-pubescent moment, pre-romantic relationships, the first signs of adult physical power and skill, the liberty of being self-responsible in the “age of accountability” — well, I was happy at that age. At times I feel that all the other happiness in my life (though real) has been negotiated, compromised. At 40, I didn’t know my “inner 12 year old” wanted out.

That was the beginning of a 7 year adventure with a gang of “underprivileged” white kids and their homemade and patched together BMX bikes. Jimmy was the solid center of that gang, the sane and determined soul that held everyone and everything together. I spent my weekends with them — starting on Thursdays, usually — and a video camera I bought once I’d seen exactly what BMX is and how beautiful they were riding the jumps, and while most adults looked at me as the boy’s benefactor, it was a two-way street. Here is a story from our adventures that shows something of Jimmy’s importance to me in MY life. My life would seriously have been much less if I had not met him and spent four years filming wild boys and sharing their weekends. In this story, Jimmy is 13. His little brother, Mikey, is 9 and their friend, Ryan is 13. They all live on my street in a bad neighborhood (once San Diego’s “Crime Capital”)  City Heights.

Background: In 1992 I was chosen to go to Hong Kong to conduct a business writing program for Hong Kong businessmen through the American Language Institute. I was incredibly excited and worked it out so that after Hong Kong I would return to Guangzhou, to the university where I had taught 10 years before, and do the same seminar or whatever they wanted. I was going home.

China was the greatest love I had experienced until then and it was years before I recovered from the broken heart of having left. Not that I didn’t try to keep the wound open by studying about China, bringing home stray Chinese people I met at the post office, writing a book proving that Pearl S. Buck wrote from the Chinese rather than the Western literary tradition. In 1992 I was still “carrying a torch” for China and going back was all I thought of. Naw, that’s not not true. Looking through the journals I wrote at this time, I actually thought of many other things, many of them quite silly.

Jimmy was out of school and hanging out with me whenever he could, including going with me to work. He had conceived a code of honor in relation to those who mattered to him, his family, his friends, that they should be defended from all the dragons and monsters and evil-doers.

I was married. It was a marriage that possibly should have worked, but it didn’t work. Bottom line, both of us were just not good at forming an intimate relationship with anyone in our close environment. Jim didn’t see such a thing between his parents as he grew up, and I grew up in a house where the closer I was to someone, the more likely they were to hurt me. By 1992, we were very near the end of our marriage, but we didn’t know it yet. Jimmy was the first to point it out to me, and the “man” who demonstrated that what I needed and what I had were not the same thing. That is what this story is about, the wisdom of a 14 year old boy offered to a 40 year old woman, and a kind of love that opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t known anything about.
We leave tomorrow and Jim’s passport is still not here. The INS had a problem legitimizing Jim’s presence in the U.S. He was not born here, but rather in Canada, and we’ve had a whole run around with getting this taken care of so Jim can go with me to Hong Kong. Jimmy shows up early in the morning; he’s going to help me photocopy materials for the class. He jumps in the truck.

“You must be excited!” he says.
“I’m very excited. But we haven’t gotten Jim’s passport yet.”
“You’re taking that guy? Why are you taking him? He doesn’t even like you.”
I’m stunned. “He’s my husband.”
“So? Take me.”
“You don’t have a passport, Jimmy, or I might think about it.” I look at his home-hacked Mohawk, home-poked ear piercing, and know I’d be proud to have him along. Those elderly Chinese women I knew on my old campus, who had come from the mountains of Hai Nan Island, would just think I’d brought my own tribal warlord.

We’ve been listening to Right Said Fred — “I’m Too Sexy”. The boys mimic the video in a way that that makes parody out of parody with their skinny boy chests, the random safety pin hanging from the random pink nipple, the briefs with the elastic separated from the cotton in back, the jeans falling down not out of fashion but because they’re too big, the worn Vans. Mikey, Jimmy’s little brother is the funniest, doing his little “…walk on the catwalk.” Jimmy turns on the music. Right Said Fred takes us all the way to the intersection of Chamoune and University at which point Jimmy giggles and says, “I’m…too sexy for this tape!” ejects it and throws it out the window in a winsome, elegant little over the shoulder toss.

I laugh. The serious moment has passed. We arrive at school and are ready to begin our last minute prep, when the boss tells me that he got a fax explaining that the program has been cancelled because there was a “fire in the venue.”

“Fire my ass,” I think. “They don’t want me and this is their way of saving everyone’s face.” Fuck the Chinese. I am over my love affair. I see them for what they are. Not me. Damn them. I know exactly what had happened. The ALI lacks the cultural awareness to fully appreciate that sending a young woman is something of an insult; to begin this relationship — which they hope will turn into a lucrative contact — they should send the boss.

Jimmy and I get back into the truck. Jimmy says, “I bet you’re disappointed.”
“Yeah.” I’m actually fighting tears. “I really wanted to go.”
“Maybe there’ll be another chance.”

We’re silent. No music, no talk. Damn. I bought very nice clothes for this.

My husband, Jim, is home when we arrive. Ryan and Jimmy’s little brother Mikey are there, too. Ryan is a great kid with a weird mom. Ryan’s big liability is that he is physically as beautiful as any girl. Tall, slender, enormous blue eyes, blond hair. He’s wearing his Guns n’ Roses “Use Your Illusion II” t-shirt which Jimmy mocks mercilessly. Jimmy has intuitively — and accurately — determined that Ryan needs a thicker skin or he’s going to be crucified.

“Are you hungry?” I ask Jim, thinking we could all go to Taco Bell, but while we’re eating lunch, it hits me what has happened and the whole world seems a little askew, surreal, dishonest. I am really disappointed and angry; I’m sad, in fact.

We walk down the street a bit. The light is flat ugly and white. We pass a dead yellow cat in the gutter, really the last thing I need to see at that point. It looks like Sandy, the cat owned by my Chinese brother when I lived in Canton. It seems to represent all my now flattened dreams.

At home I ask Jim if he wants to go hiking with me. A few hours under the open sky will make me feel better, but I’m lonely in my disappointment and don’t want to go just with the dogs. Jim he tells me he has a Toastmasters thing, so no; he won’t go along. As I turn to go inside, I hear Jimmy yell something but the angry noise in my head, angry at the Hong Kong businessmen, my boss and now Jim, blocks the words. Jimmy takes off on his bike. I change clothes as fast as I can thinking, “Fuck Jim,” get in my truck and head to Big Dog Health and Fitness Spa (Mission Trails) for a couple of hours with Molly and Truffle to do as my mom says, “Get my head on straight.”

When I return my whole life changes.

Jimmy is sitting on the curb in front of my house. “What are you doing?”
“Waiting for you,” he says. “I went home to ask my mom if I could go with you, but when I got back, you were gone. You’ve had a big disappointment today and you shouldn’t have to be alone.”
“Wow,” I think. I was gone at least two hours. To Jimmy I say, “Well, go ask your mom if you can go with me for pizza.”
“Can Ryan go?”
“Sure, and Mikey. I’ll go clean up. Come back in about an hour, OK?”

This is our first of many, many trips to Woodstocks. Good pizza, indestructible atmosphere, and the ability to feed half a dozen boys on $20. We sit in the corner that will later become ours, and we play Megadeath “Anarchy in the UK” on the jukebox, then Iron Maiden, then Metallica. We discuss their comparative merits. Only Metallica has any merits. We use paper plates for Frisbees, plug the tops of the salt shakers with torn napkins and loosen the tops on the pepper shakers. We sprinkle too much chili on Ryan’s pizza and then the best moment comes. Ryan goes to the men’s room and comes back. “Martha, can I borrow fifty cents?”
“What for, Ryan?” I’m amused and flabbergasted; he’s 13 and there’s only one thing for sale in the men’s room. We’ve already put enough into the jukebox. It’ll play our four selections over and over for the next hour.
“They have these cool stickers in the men’s room. I’d like to buy one.”
Jimmy actually gets Coke up his nose at that, and then it sprays everywhere. At nine years old Mikey has NO idea, and I’m trying not to laugh.
I say. “I’m pretty sure they’re not stickers. I think they’re probably condoms.”
“Are you sure? The ones on the machine have cool spiders and stuff. One says, ‘Spyder Skiwear’. It’s got this cool spider on it. I want that one.”
“Ryan, people probably put stickers on the condom machine.”
“Do you want to come and look?”
“I don’t think the other guys in there would appreciate it if I went in there to check out the condom machine.”
“Yeah, sure.”He wipes the Coke off his face with his napkin and follows Ryan into the men’s room. Mikey and I wait and wait and wait. They finally come back, both laughing like maniacs. I hear Jimmy say, “Dude, you gotta’ learn to read.”


Post Script: Not long after this, I got a video camera because I wanted to make a movie of our adventures. We wanted to film this scene so we staged it at Woodstocks. It required I follow the boys into the men’s room with the video camera. We actually did this, but the challenge of getting the men’s room to ourselves and acting out that bit was more than we could handle without side-splitting laughter. It took about 8 tries and a couple of surprised — and embarrassed — men. I had to be the one with the camera since all the boys were too goofy to film that shot.

As for Jimmy and the rest, well, Jimmy ultimately rode pro BMX; he got the sponsorship he always dreamed of. He and his brother, Mikey, both graduated high school — that made their mom both relieved and proud. I still know Jimmy. He’s very happily married with two kids (his lifelong dream was to be a dad).

Un-Strip Poker

“How many?”
“No. Wow. I’ve seen six-toed cats but you’re saying your cat has seven toes on one foot and six on the other?”
“A regular Johnny Bench.”
“What about his back feet?”
“They’re normal. I don’t know if cats ever have that digital mutation on their back feet.”
“Imagine that guy climbing a tree if he did. 26 toes!”
“Yeah, actually, the little three-toe cluster is like a super-thumb. We’re here. Come on in. I’ll make you some tea and show you Johnny Bench.”

Terry and Julie entered the 1950’s tract house repurposed as two two-bedroom apartments. “We live up here,” Julie explained as they opened the front door. “A couple of hookers live in the basement apartment.”
“You know they’re hookers?”
“Judging from the sounds coming up the ducts all night every night, and the constant slamming of the back door. I’ve never seen them.”
“Yeah. It’s awful. Howler! Howler!” Julie called her cat, an innocuous looking but ferocious pocket-tabby who’d given birth to a litter of 8, one of them on Julie’s bed. The kitten bonded with Julie and followed her everywhere. From the kitchen came the banshee wail that had gotten Howler her name.

“She’s with the kittens. Come on.”
Almost weaned, the kittens mostly hung around their mother out of habit and a need for security — and sometimes milk.
“Here he is.”
“Amazing. I wish I could have a cat.”
“Who doesn’t?”
“So, now we’re here and we’re alone, what do you…” Terry reached for her.

Julie was nervous. She was wanted Terry, but…there were a couple of  problems smack in between them like concrete freeway dividers. Never one to allow objective reality to impinge on illusion or desire, Julie looked at her feet.

spock_leonard_nimoy_lifesize_cutout_buy_now_at_starstills__39592-1“You want to…?”
“Yeah, but I feel weird doing it in your matrimonial bed,” said Terry, a light edge of New York Irish dark irony sharpened the abrupt cadence of his Flushing accent. “I don’t see why you don’t leave that d***.”
“On the floor in my office?”
“With Mr. Spock looking on?”
“Yeah. We can turn him around.”

Julie had a six foot cardboard image of Mr. Spock standing guard in her home office, an “office” that was, in fact, usually her bedroom.

“All right.”

Holding hands, they walked through the living room and down the short hallway of the grotesquely anonymous tract home. “Hurry up and build those things bub, them GI’s are home and breeding like rabbits!’

Julie spread out the bedroll on which she usually slept. Her husband, well, he was, he was, well, Terry was right. Julie should leave him. She just couldn’t, somehow. She wished she knew why.

They undressed and lay down beside each other. They’d wanted this for a while, but ended up falling asleep in each others arms. No wonder. The hookers kept Julie up all night and Terry?

The winter sun ran its short course, and the light showed pink on the curtains when Julie woke from her nap. “Terry, Terry, wake up. It’s getting late.”

“We just SLEPT????”
“I guess we needed it.”

Julie stood and wrapped herself in the quilt her grandmother had made for her long, long ago and far, far away. Terry saw a pack of cards on the desk. Julie and her husband sometimes played cribbage.

“Can you play poker?”
“OK. Sit down. I’ll deal. Every time you lose or I lose, we have to put on a piece of clothing.”
“Yeah! UN-strip poker!”
“Exactly. But I get to tell YOU what piece of clothes to put on and you get to tell me, OK?

Neither Julie nor Terry was very good at the game and the hands they drew weren’t great, so before long they sat on the floor of the living room in socks. They were halted in mid-giggle by the sound of a key in the lock.

“Shit. It’s him.”
“Why didn’t you tell me he was coming home?”
“He’s early.”
“What should we do?” Terry stood about to make a dash for the office and his clothes.

“What’s going on?”
“We’re playing poker. John, this is Terry.”

Terry, well-trained, reached out to shake hands with Julie’s husband.

“Terry needs a ride home.”
“What the F*** are you doing?”
“We’re playing poker.”

Terry had gone into Julie’s office and pulled on his clothes.

“What HAVE you been doing?”
“Nothing. I need to take Terry home.”
“I’ll take Terry home,” said John.
“I don’t think so. Not without me.”
“I have my bike.”
“No, it’s OK, Terry. It’s my car too. We’ll put your bike on the rack.”
“My dad bought the car,” said John.
“No. Your dad made the down-payment. I made the payments.” Julie thought of all the days and nights working in the ski factory paying for the car and putting John through school. “Damn,” she thought. “It’s MY car!”

The three got into the VW Bug. John enraged, Julie and Terry both terrified. They dropped Terry and went to a Mexican restaurant and ate in silence. Julie knew John would not do anything until the event had festered inside for a while, fermenting and fulfilling itself in blind rage. John would not talk about it or think about why it had happened or the part he might have played in it. 

The next day, Terry called. “I don’t see why you think that guy is so bad. I thought he’d beat me up but he just gave me a ride home! Maybe you’re wrong about him.”
“I’m not wrong about him.”
“Well, it was incredibly embarrassing, sitting their naked in your living room when your husband came in. Are you OK? Did he do anything to you?”
“No. It hasn’t registered yet. But it will.”
“Why do you stay?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t fucking KNOW.” Julie started to cry.
“Are you coming to school?”
“I don’t know how. He took my bike to work with him.”