Yup, Life is Complicated

I won’t ever forget the date: January 12, 2000.  I had moved two and a half years previously from Boston, Massachusetts, where I had spent ten amazing years; getting my degree, becoming a part of a vibrant community, and really growing up.  I moved to Boston from a small town in Alberta, Canada, where I was born and spent twenty years, to go to Theatre school and realize my childhood dream of treading the boards on Broadway.

To this day, I’m not sure of the exact reason that made me want to move to Los Angeles, California.  There were a lot of factors – relationships, jobs, opportunities, but when I vacationed there for a week in June 1997, I made a decision, and by that November, I was back permanently.

Even though it was not a move to a different country, it sure felt like one. Culture shock hit me – I needed a car to get anywhere.  I knew only a couple of people, and so depended on them for introducing me around – a lot of pressure for them – and had to find a job that would pay the bills but still be flexible enough so I could audition and take classes.  No problem, right?

The pond of Los Angeles turned out to be enormous for this little fish.  Getting acclimated to the traffic, the culture, the weather – it was the hardest transition I’ve ever made, and I’m pretty good at geographics, trust me.  I managed to find an office job, get set up in an apartment by myself, and made a couple of close friends; I even started doing work in theatre as well.  I was in my early 30’s, and though I was depressed that I had not met my self-imposed “Goals by 30” (Husband, Kids, Broadway), I was doing OK.  I had my twelve-toed Calico cat who made the journey West with me, thrift store furniture, a used Honda, and a clunky computer to surf the internet on (what internet there was fifteen years ago was fledgling and slow), and, feeling extremely alone, and lonely, I set out to meet someone, using brand-new dating websites like Spark and AOL.

I’ve always been drawn to the bad boys. I don’t know why. The ones who never quite commit, that always leave you hanging, but have that broken, chewy caramel center inside their hard candy shell. I struck up a friendship with one such Lost Boy on that fateful January 12, 2000.  Isolated and missing my Boston community, and a walkable centralized city, we wrote back and forth via e-mail for a couple of weeks before meeting in person.

I should have listened to my instincts, the ones that said, “Nope. Don’t do it. Just keep walking,” when we finally saw each other. But I didn’t. 

He had hair down to his waist, with a Kool-Aid-colored goatee, a lip, eyebrow, and nose piercing; wore a hockey jersey and mid-calf cutoff jeans with white socks and black Converse hi-tops, and a black watchmen’s cap. 

But those eyes.

Piercing and blue, they were full of rage and love and hurt and pain and soft and hard and need, all at once. I was hooked immediately. We hugged a little awkwardly, and headed out to dinner at Spoons Restaurant, chowing on onion bites and draft beer.  We drank a bit more than we probably should.  My resistance was low, I was lonely, and my self-esteem was non-existent.  We had sex that night for the first of only – maybe – a half a dozen times; and I got pregnant.

When I saw that “+” sign on the ClearBlue test, it was like a Hitchcock movie.  I saw my face in the bathroom mirror, and my focus dimmed, feeling like I was in a tunnel – reality moving away from me as I stood still.  I cried and didn’t stop for about two weeks.

I told him a few days later; I’m pretty sure I had already made up my mind about what I wanted to do, but I wanted to hear him out.  He threw out the “Hail Mary” and I bought it.  “I love you,” and, “I want to be with you,” and, “I just don’t think it’s the right time right now for either of us,” and, “in the future,” and, most importantly, “after we’re married.”  I nodded.  I was relieved. I had never felt so stupid in my whole life. I had been a good, Catholic girl most of my life. The judgment I had rendered on so many others now fell hard on me.

But, I listened, to my inner voice, this time. It wasn’t the right time for us; I didn’t know if that time would ever be right.  He had a problem with alcohol – his blackout drinking continued, and after the abortion, we only slept together once more, even though he kept saying that he loved me.  He finally admitted that he wasn’t in love with me. When we would go out, he would drink till he passed out, and I would put him to bed and sleep on the couch.

After a few months of that, through a weird “six degrees of separation” coincidence, a co-worker asked to speak to me, and when we were alone, told me that her friend knew a friend of his – and that they were “together.” I was hurt, but somehow, I think I already knew.

As if this wasn’t humiliating enough for me to stop seeing him, or answering his calls, I answered his phone once while he was in the shower, and got an earful from that girl he was seeing, where somehow I became “the other woman” and “in the way of his happiness.”

This went on for almost a year.  I am ashamed to admit that.  I couldn’t let go.  I couldn’t sleep.  I couldn’t focus at work.  I lost almost all of my friends, because I couldn’t stop obsessing about him, and what he was doing, and who he was doing it with, and most importantly, why he wasn’t doing it with me.  I thought so little of myself that I couldn’t see how bad this whole situation was, and didn’t have the courage and self-esteem to say, “enough.” I didn’t know who I was going to be, without him, and I didn’t want to find out.

I came home from work every day, and immediately turned on the TV.  It was on for noise, not for content.  I didn’t care what it showed, I just couldn’t stand the silence in the apartment.  On the way home I would stop at the grocery store, or the convenience store, and buy two large bags of junk food. It didn’t matter what it was, as long as it was big, and crunchy, and bad for me.  I would stand in my kitchen, over the sink, listening to the news, or whatever program was on the station I had randomly chosen, and look out the window at the green hills over Burbank, eating everything that was in those two bags without being conscious of it.  Sometimes afterwards, I would throw up. It was pretty much the only thing I was eating – I couldn’t concentrate at work; I was sleepwalking through my life.

I don’t know why the next set of events fell into place in exactly the way that they did, but as I look back it seemed like sheer providence that they did.  I had gone to a St. Patrick’s celebration at a bar with him, and he drank heavily. I decided to try and keep up with him, drinking everything he did.  As we walked back to my apartment, I collapsed on to someone’s lawn and passed out. He left me there and continued to my apartment.  Fortunately, my next-door neighbors were walking home shortly after and found me, helping me up and getting me home.

The next morning, he was gone, and I struggled to get up and go to work.  But I did.  I thought all morning about how I could commit suicide and make the pain stop. Nothing was working, so to me, logically, suicide was the next thing to try.

The window by my desk at work looked over the 134 Freeway, at the Central Ave. overpass.  I had a floor to ceiling view of the mountains in Glendale that day, swathed in mist, lush and green, as a late winter rainstorm slaked the parched earth.  I turned my desk chair towards it, and just stared.  I felt contentment for the first time in many months.  I felt I had lost my faith since all of this began, and I sighed heavily as tears threatened to leak out of my eyes.  “If you’re there, if anyone’s there, in the Universe, tell me what I’m supposed to do! I’m so lost and so unhappy. What am I to do?” I said quietly, the green of the hills and the overcast clouds calming me.  The cars on the freeway below made sluicing water sounds as they splashed through the puddles on the asphalt. I sighed one more time, and as I blinked away the tears, a rainbow came into my sightline from the west, translucent, vivid.  I held my breath as if afraid that my breathing would blow it away. I blinked twice more and it was gone.

Feeling stronger than I had in a long time, I turned to my computer screen.  I vaguely remember someone mentioning Al-Anon to me.  I can’t remember if it was a friend, or a stranger, but I am completely in their debt for it.  I found a lunchtime meeting right down the street from me, got in my car, and showed up.  I was so afraid to go up the stairs to the meeting room, but my legs seemed to go of their own volition. I listened to people share the same feelings, and hurt, and hopelessness that I felt at that moment. A kind woman came over to where I was sitting and introduced herself to me. She became my first sponsor. I told her a little of why I had come, and she gave me her phone number, and said, “call me tomorrow.”  So I did.

We talked, she listened, and she didn’t judge. I laughed for the first time in many months, and she invited me to other meetings, even picking me up, and when I balked, she said gently, with kindness in her eyes, “get in the car.”

At the meetings, I met other people who had similar experiences, and different ones, but we all felt those same feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, despair.

I worked the Al-Anon program really hard those first few years, as if my life depended on it; because it did. I learned so much about myself, and about the disease of alcoholism. I slowly started to regain my self-esteem. I started to trust again. I became a better employee. I was just a worker among workers, person among people. I was able to contribute to society instead of just taking.

It took a lot of time, and writing, and tears, and soul-searching, to come out of the severe depression and hopelessness I had been in. When it came time to make my amends, of course my ex was on the list. I was able to take responsibility for my part in that relationship, ask for forgiveness, and ask what I could do to correct it. He did not want to hear it. But I was able to say goodbye to the person I had been, that had in some ways, thought I deserved to treat and be treated the way that relationship was.

It was the last bit of cleaning up that part of my past.  It had been four years since I had dated, and through listening and watching others, I learned what that really was about.  How not to fall into the physical part of it so quickly – to talk and laugh and learn about a person before giving my deserving heart, and my beautiful body.  Because looks and libido will always fade over time, and if you can’t have a conversation with someone, or make each other laugh, it’s going to be a really long slog.

I was terrified to date in L.A., but my friends and my sponsor helped me navigate those uncharted, and often stormy, waters.  I continued to work my program, and met a sweet, kind, generous, lovely man who gave me butterflies when he smiled at me.  We were married two-and-a-half years later at City Hall in San Francisco, quietly, with two witnesses, and the love bursting out of our eyes.  Eight months later we held a big reception in a friend’s backyard, so that we could share our commitment to one another, and to say, “thank you” to the people who had held us up, protected us, loved us, and strengthened us.

The day wasn’t perfect, the marriage has its troubles now and again, but it’s been ten years; almost fourteen since we met. I look back at that person I was seventeen years ago, and I know the she is nothing like me now.  Marriage is hard work.  Life is hard work, too.  But the rewards are so unbelievable. I wouldn’t have it any other way, truly.

I am still sad sometimes, about the decision I made in terminating my pregnancy.  I would have a seventeen year-old, going on eighteen now. But without a shadow of doubt, it was the right decision for me, at that time.  It was the catalyst, for me, to a new way of living.  If it hadn’t happened in the exact way that it did, I know I would not be where I am right now.

Was it a pyrrhic victory? I hope not. Life is not always wonderful; and I’m not always happy, but I am a better person, in all ways; I am more useful to God, my friends, and my family than I was that lonely night, January 12, 2000, when this was all set in motion. I continue to grow and give away what I have learned, even though the price exacted was enormous. But you know what? If I could go back and do it differently, I don’t know that I would.  That’s how much this journey has been worth to me.

This Is Why I Don’t Like Being Hugged.

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This is not a new phenom for me. It’s been this way since… probably before middle school. Because, it was never just a hug. It was political. Or sexual. Or forced. Or unwanted. Or fake. But worse than that, for me, it pretty much always turned into being sick. And besides all that, I’m tall, so whoever is hugging me feels the need to reach up and get the crook of their arm around my neck and drag me down to their level! Or curl their shoulder cap up under my throat, strangling me.

Hugging, to me, is VERY INTIMATE. Yes, I needed to shout that. I don’t care for this “touchy, feely” part of society I’m apparently a part of. A lot of it seems so forced, so fake. Like it’s just what we do now. Even in primate packs, physical affection/grooming is reserved to members that are known to each other, comfortable with each other.

I say, “NO!”

As a member of a 12-step group, I would consistently sneak in through the kitchen at the meeting room, rather than endure the gauntlet of “Greeter” hugs that awaited me should I go through the front doors. And it always turned into a competition of who could grab me before I protested. “BUT WE LOVE YOU!” Like somehow if you just exposed me to the same uncomfortable behavior I would give up and accept. Capitulate. Just go with the flow. Resistance is futile.

My Western Civ teacher in college told us how he thought we shouldn’t say “I love you” too much. His belief was that by saying it over and over and over, at any time, for any reason, diminished its meaning. I kinda agree. On the flipside, I don’t think you should be stingy with saying “I love you” to those you really DO love. Especially children. They do need to hear it, and when you say it, you need to look in their eyes and mean it. I feel the same way about hugging.

And then there are the conversations that people had about my dislike of hugging.

“Oh, she’ll learn, one day.”

“It may take a long time, until she likes herself more.”

“When she sees what she’s missing.”

As an adult, I make sure that I get permission if by some crack in the cosmos I feel like hugging at that particular moment. Even I am struck by sentimental thoughts sometimes. At a party at our house one Christmas, my friend and her family were saying goodnight, and I leaned down to her oldest, to get on his level (who must have been 10 or 11 at the time), said how glad I was that he had come, and could I give him a hug? He immediately said “No!” and I said, “Fair enough! Would it be OK to shake your hand then?” And he gave a little smile, and we shook.

This is MY body. No one else’s. I have never had autonomy over it, never felt comfortable to say “no.” Didn’t feel I ever had the right to not let someone touch me, or put me on their knee, pick me up, stroke my hair, “you’re such a pretty little girl!”

As if that makes it OK. Oh, I’m pretty! OK, then, I guess I am just an object for you to do with as you wish.

Maybe then, pal. Now, it’s over my dead fucking body.

When I hug you, I really mean it. If I hug you, it’s real. Like my husband’s hugs. Pure magic. But they are borne out of trust, respect, love, consideration, and time. They are intimate.

Last week, someone hugged me (I couldn’t cut it off at the pass) and held on. It was nice, fine, they told me they missed me, etc., and then let go. Then ten seconds later, mentioned, “I’m not feeling great tonight.”

Fuck. Literally, just fuck. Cue up 36 hours later, my nose is stuffed, throat scratchy and coughing, headache.

FIVE DAYS OF THAT CRAP. For one ten-second hug.

I ask you, is it really worth it? To me, it is not. I know you like me. You care about me. Then hold out your hands. Chances are, I’ll let you take my hands. Squeeze them. Look into my eyes and tell me what you have to tell me, and I’ll return the sentiment. We can smile, maybe I can touch your upper arm gently, or you can touch mine.

And then, if it’s cold and flu season, I can go wash my hands. Please don’t take it personally.

There’s Power in Aging Ungracefully

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I get Miley Cyrus, in some ways.  I truly do.  Discovering the power of your sexuality, and trying that out, not caring about the consequences – we’ve all been there.  Women are powerful, and not just sexually, at all ages, but unfortunately it’s been stamped on and shamed on and controlled for so long that we have no clue how to just… be, most times.  Unless we make ourselves attractive and have a powerful man standing beside us we feel naked, incomplete, irrelevant.  Unless we act the way that society says women should, the way that men say we should, we are labeled – feminists, ballbusters, lesbians, bitches.  I understand, I truly do, why youth is so appealing, why we celebrate it, worship it and try to hold on to it as much as we can – younger spouses, cosmetic surgery, staying current on trends.  But where does that leave the rest of us?  I’m not in my 20s or 30s anymore, and I feel a bit like I’ve been cast aside, that my opinion and my person no longer matter.  And most especially, now that my uterus is no longer fertile and I don’t want to spend endless hours preening and slaving to fashion and makeup, I feel… dead, sexually. Undesirable, in every definition of the word.

I drove home the short way a few weeks ago, which I rarely, if ever do, because of situations like I’m going to recount.  It was a lovely Southern California day, the windows were down, and the sun was going down, angling low across the sky, making it a backlit canopy.  On the two-lane stretch of Woodbury where I was driving, the speed limit was 40 mph.  People were going slower than that, and it did annoy me, only because I had to be somewhere, but I wasn’t driving like a jerk.  Trust me; I know when I’m driving like a jerk.  I’ve done it for a long time and I am UBER-aware of myself tailgating, getting frustrated…this was not one of those times. (I have tried to curb my aggressive driving tendencies, and I think for the most part, I have succeeded.  LA is a difficult town to practice Zen driving in, believe me.)

I changed lanes to the far left and fell in behind an old, red Honda.  He was a couple of miles below the speed limit, and I crossed over Washington behind him, as he zigged into the right lane, I followed, and had to stifle a chuckle when he passed a fire truck on his left and stuck his hand out the window to wave and give a solid “thumbs-up” to the riders. The fireman on the passenger side raised his hand slightly and gave him the smallest, briefest of waves.  The red Honda then pulled ahead into the left lane, and I followed.  At the next light, he slowed to get into the far left turn lane. And I mean, really slowed. Trying to piss me off slowed. The light was still green and I braked, turned my wheel hard to the right to get around him, and then hard again to the left to straighten out, but missed the light.  He crawled up beside me to my left, rolled down his window and tossed the opening salvo – “You’d better be careful there, girl, tailgating like that!”

Where do I even begin. Do I feel flattered that thinks I’m a “girl,” not a woman? (He was under 60, therefore not old enough to play the age card) Do I mention the tortoise-like (read: controlling) maneuver of his that precipitated the event? Do I laugh it off and ignore him, turning my music louder?  Well, unfortunately, the answer is d) none of the above.  I was so annoyed with him a) being distracted and waving at a fire truck like a 5 year old, b) purposely slowing down and trying to control others (namely, me), but mostly… mostly, I was hot that he had called me, “girl.”

Listen, I’ve had a great fucking life so far. I really do not have anything I can complain about that I wouldn’t feel ashamed complaining about.  I did what I wanted to do, for the most part, and made a life for myself in another country, even while being illegal there; I was gorgeous in my young womanhood, and I knew it.  I drank and smoked and cursed and fucked with the best of them, and men loved it (well, most men anyway, the kind of men I liked back then). It’s looked on a lot more favorably when you are 25 than when you are 45 (and quite a few pounds heavier than you were then as well). I know now that some of my affections, and my actions, may have been misplaced, but I really do believe that particular truth is given to us at a time when we are most open to receiving it.

So, in that bohemian, independent spirit of my youth, I laughed under my breath, turned to face ahead of me again, and muttered, “Fuck off.”  To which he looked taken aback, and said, “What did you say?!?!”  God, will this light never turn green???? Is what was going through my head, but, not turning to him, I responded, without malice, or intonation at all, “you heard me.”  There was silence, except for Def Leppard vaguely playing in the background.  Then, after a few moments, came the kicker.  The retort that comes only when you can’t think of anything else to say and are pissed off enough to want to hurt.

“You’re a fat pig… aren’t you!?”  The last bastion of the witless.  Although it’s probably true to some extent, I’m heavier than I’ve been in a long time and certainly not the looker I once was, but how does someone even know that, seeing you from the shoulder up?  Are my jowls really giving me away? (I’ve got to look into that Lifestyle Lift.)  And really, there were so many adjectives that flew into my head to counter with (balding, ginger, pockmarked, to name a few), it could have gotten much uglier.

The light finally, FINALLY turned green, and I stuck my long, manicured hand out the window and flipped him off hard, like Jennifer Aniston showing her boss her “flair” in Office Space.  I gently pressed the accelerator in my Prius and silently headed home.  Oh, it hurt.  Believe me, it hurt.  I’m no longer as adept as I once was at sloughing off the slings and arrows sent my way, back when I was gorgeous and didn’t care, about authority or much else.

But what gives him the right to say that to me? I’m a big fan of men, I love them, have always been around them; I feel their plight as they head into this brave new world of metrosexuality, 24/7 porn, and women fucking like men, and can understand their bafflement. I see that they too feel irrelevant, out of touch, unnecessary. But I also know the surest way for a man to control a woman is to make a dig about her appearance.  This jackass is one in a long line of social fuckwads that has said something blatantly ridiculous to me in the hopes of hurting and showing his power and control over me. Now that I’m older, I see them as sad, pathetic, lacking in confidence, no self-esteem – and I can have some compassion.

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The only good news that came from this encounter was that I’ve started taking the long way home again, even though it adds 5 minutes to my already ridiculously short 15-minute commute.  I didn’t fall into depression and hate the world for being so mean, as I would have years ago.  I didn’t carry it with me, because even though I may have been unwise to “poke the badger with a spoon” and tell him to “fuck off,” his response was completely irrational and uncalled for.  And one of these days, I’m going to really be able to say that I don’t care about what people think of me.  And I will believe it.  And the fucking roar that will issue forth from my mouth upon that happening… well, that will be something, won’t it?

Expansion Paige Bradley

(Expansion by Paige Bradley)