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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Belabored Chapter 11: David

“[We receive] no government funds ever. So we can keep 

sharing the Gospel. Amen.”  –  

                   Karen Hess, Executive Director AlphaCare Pregnancy Center

I can tell this is gonna be a long night.

Jess’s impish behavior makes dinner a disaster, and Bonny’s losing her mind about little things. I make a joke to try to get Jess to drink her milk, but I don’t time it right. She decides to comply just when I get to the punchline, which sends her into gales of laughter, spraying homogenized chaos all over the kitchen.
Tanya isn’t any help, either. She steadfastly refuses to go to the fundraiser, even though Bonny begs her.
“But Honey, you’ll enjoy yourself,” Bon wheedles while mopping up milk with a dishtowel. “Denny Jacobs is gonna be there, giving the keynote speech. Did you know he and his wife, before he started playing professionally, they were so broke they considered aborting their second child? We could get a babysitter for Jess and –”
“Not a babysitter, Mommy!” Jess erupts indignantly. “Babysitters are for babies!”
“Alright, Jessica, just a sitter, then. Tanya, how ’bout it?”
Tanya rolls her eyes and gets up from the table. Ironically, the sweatshirt she’s wearing has Jacobs’s name emblazoned on the back of it, along with the name of the team he pitches for.
It was nice of Jacobs to get them for us. He offered them to all the staff at the pregnancy center and their families. Said it’s the least he can do for people who are, as he puts it, on the “front lines” of the battle for life. He even got one in Jess’s size – a fleecy thing with a hood – that Bon wanted to put away for Christmas. My wife usually starts shopping for next year the day after Christmas so she can hit all the bargain basement sales, but work’s been so busy for her this year, she’s running behind. I know she’s afraid she won’t have enough to put under the tree, and she doesn’t want Jess to think Santa shortchanged her. She really is great with money – much better than I am – but in this case, I managed to talk her out of her practicality. I didn’t want Jess to see the rest of us bumming around in our hoodies and wonder why she didn’t get one.
“Look, Mom, I’ve told you before, and I guess I’m gonna have to tell you again. I don’t have time. Why can’t you get that through – I mean, why can’t you understand that?”
Tanya’s snotty tone isn’t lost on Bonny, who glares at her with a mixture of anger and disappointment.
I wish she wouldn’t be so desperate to drag Tanya to these things. Bonny figures anything with a Christian label could be the key that will unlock Tanya’s heart and bring her back to church. I favor giving the kid time, letting her grow back into her faith, but when you get right down to it, she’s Bonny’s daughter, and I can only say so much.
“Alright, Tanya, I won’t ask again,” Bon says in a hurt tone, then turns back to Jess.
“Now, you listen, young lady,” she begins, “You finish up your dinner ’cause we’ve got to get you into the tub. Your father and I have a banquet to go to, so you need to get in and out of that bathtub lickety split. No silliness tonight. Mommy’s been working hard on this banquet, and she can’t afford to be late.”
I smile to myself, thinking how the benefit for Bon’s pregnancy center must mean about as much to Jessica as meeting a baseball player does to Tanya. None of us are sports fans, least of all our teenager.
Tanya starts across the floor, but her sock monkey slipper lands in some milk that escaped Bon’s wiping frenzy. Tanya skids, then catches herself on the counter edge, letting loose some choice words in the process.
That does it for Bon.
“Alright, Tanya, that’s enough! Take yourself upstairs this instant! Can’t you even control your tongue around your baby sister?”
“I’m not a baby!” Jess screeches. Her indignation is barely audible over the barrage of fury Tanya’s unleashing. Bonny begins to cry.
This is my cue and I know it. I put down my coffee mug and pick up Jess.
“OK, little lady, time to head upstairs now. Tanya,” I venture, trying to sound authoritative without overdoing it, “Let’s make this easy on everyone. Let’s call it a night, OK? Your mom asked you to go upstairs, so please.”
Tanya, looking only slightly less dangerous than Lizzie Borden, mutters “Fine!” and stomps out of the kitchen. Her exit would be more dramatic if her wet monkey slipper weren’t making sloshing noises each time it connects with the linoleum.
I swing Jess around to my back and head for the stairs, winking at Bonny on my way out. She half smiles, then blows her nose on a napkin. As I round the upstairs landing, I hear dishes clanking as Bon hurriedly clears the table and puts away the remains of our meal.
When we reach the bathroom, I say, “OK, Girly, let’s get this bath over and done with, so Mom and I can get out the door. Hop to it. First you better sit on the potty while Daddy fills up the tub.”
By now Jess is over her tirade about being called a baby, and narrates non-stop everything she’s doing.
“OK, Daddy, I’m gonna go potty now. Wait, need help with this button.”
I give the requested assistance, then turn to test the water from the tap.
“K, Daddy, lifting up the potty lid. Uh oh, it gots pee pee in it. Eeew, it smells bad, Daddy! Daddy, it’s really stinky! Mommy must’ve forgot to dump it. No sticker for her! Daddy –”
“Never mind, Hon, I got it!” I chuckle, reaching down and removing the basin. She’s right, I note while rinsing the offending article; it does do quite a number on the olfactory senses. I can only imagine how much worse things would be if our daughter were having greater success in the full gamut of potty training.
Bonny comes in, rattling off instructions. One thing I love about her – she does let things go pretty quickly.
“Ooh, Dave, you’d better get dressed, Honey! We have to be out of here in 20 minutes. Here, I’ll finish with you, Miss Jessica.”
“OK, but what about you? I mean, don’t you have to get ready too?”
“Don’t worry, Dave, I have my whole outfit laid out, and I can do my face while this one’s splashing around. Oh, wait, I forgot to get out the pin I always wear to these things. Oh, you know the one I mean, don’t you? The one with the baby feet? I don’t wanna forget that.”
I know the one. A tiny pin with an even tinier stick to fit through her lapel. It has two little gold feet the size of my pinky nail. She wears it to every fundraiser the pregnancy center has. Supposedly, it’s the same size and shape of a 10-week-old unborn baby’s feet.
“No worries, Hon, I’ll get it for you. In your jewelry box, right?”
As I root through necklaces, unattached earring backs, and even a few earrings (it’s on Bon’s to do list to clean out her jewelry box, but I doubt she’ll ever get to it), I wonder about the night ahead. I hope her expectations aren’t too high. She’s been running this organization on a shoestring budget for years, doing wonders with the peanuts she has to work with. She says this annual fundraiser covers about a quarter of their operating expenses, helping to stock their “Baby Boutique” with clothes, baby food, diapers, wipes, toys – you name it. Apparently, the expectant couples take parenting classes (I think they even sneak in some advice from the Bible), and as they finish each course, they earn “Baby Bucks” which they get to “spend” on items in the boutique.
Bon says they hand out stuff like vitamins for the moms to take while they’re pregnant or breastfeeding their kids, and don’t charge a cent for any of their services, including pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. They offer free counseling for women and couples who didn’t plan to get pregnant, and even for people who aborted in the past and are having a hard time living with it. Bonny says she’s praying they get enough donations this year to start doing STD testing at no cost.
Ah, there’s the pin, tucked inside an antique amethyst ring. When I pick it up, for a weird
second my mind flashes to Kermit Gosnell, the abortion doctor who got thrown in jail a few years back for keeping his “clinic” about as clean as a barnyard, and staffing it with unlicensed personnel and drug addicts. Apparently, his solution to late term babies who were unlucky enough to be born alive during attempted abortions was to jam scissors into their necks and sever their spinal cords to “ensure fetal demise.” Somehow the miniature golden feet on Bon’s pin conjure up for me the workings of that sadistic monster, who also had a creepy foot fetish, and kept the tiny feet of aborted babies in jars like cocktail sausages.
Bon’s voice down the hall sounds harried.
“Jessica Rose, if you step out of that bathtub one more time –”
She leaves her sentence dangling ominously. I picture Jess giggling while climbing back into the sudsy water. I need to grab that pin, throw myself together, and get in there to relieve my frazzled wife.
 I do a quick clothes change, tie my tie, and snatch up Jess’s princess PJ’s, which are strewn carelessly over a chair in her room. Marching into the bathroom, I try to sound serious.

“Alright, little lady, you heard your mother. We’ve got a banquet to go to tonight, so you’d better hop out of that tub right now and into a towel. Hustle your bustle!”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Belabored Chapter 10: Tom

“Silence is a true friend who never betrays.” – Confucius

            My wife, Emma, isn’t an emotional person, but I can tell when she gets off the phone that something’s up. For one thing, her face is the color of my grandmother’s hair after she stopped dying it. For another, she ignores my question about who was on the phone, and goes right into the house. After eight years of marriage, I know when to give her space (usually), so I do my best to exhaust the boys, then plop them in front of a video and go into our room to talk to her.
            Em is sprawled out on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Her baby bump, as the tabloids love to nickname such things, isn’t much bigger than my fist, but the sight of that little knot sends the same bolt of excitement through me that I felt five years ago when the bump that was Kyle first started rearranging Emma’s tiny figure.
            “OK, Em,” I say, “what’s wrong?”
            Her lips move, but her eyes stay fixed on the dead white paint over our heads. Finally, she blurts out, “That phone call – it was Dr. Rivera. She thinks there’s something wrong with the baby!”
            I go numb.
            In the space of five minutes, Emma pours out the problem, the possibilities, and her panic over what might be.
            I like to fix things, like the plate that toppled from its place on top of a bank of windows, leaving a gaping hole in the arrangement Emma carefully created in our dining room. Our older guy, Kyle, freaked out when I shooed him away from the shattered pieces on our hardwood floor. He went on and on about how the four remaining plates would be lonely without it, despite the fact that I told him it was only a dish and Mommy could get another one to replace it. Didn’t matter. The kid wouldn’t calm down till I got out glue and mended the thing. It looked ridiculous next to the others in all their perfection. There was a big chunk missing in the middle, but Ky-Guy, as I like to call him, let loose with a gap-toothed smile, threw his arms around me, and shouted, “Yay, Daddy!”
            I wish stupidly for some sort of glue to repair whatever damage is going on inside of Em’s uterus.
            I can’t think of anything comforting to say, so I just lay down next to her and cradle her the way she likes in the crook of my arm. After a while, I can feel her softly crying. I stroke her cheek.
            “Hey, Babe, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I say, hoping that will be enough to calm her. I’ve been known to say the wrong thing when I try too hard.
            “I know, but Tom, what if – what if it’s one of those things she said it could be? What if it’s the worst case scenario – one of those awful diseases, er, conditions, that can’t ever be fixed? What if he – or she – has a huge hole in his back? What if –”
            I’m thinking all those same things, but I have to slow down this train wreck somehow. She’s, what, not even in her second trimester? We can’t go on projecting like this through the whole pregnancy, or it’ll make us both crazy.
            “Whoa there, Babe, let’s back the truck up,” I say as evenly as I can. “We don’t know what, if anything, is messed up. Right?”
            I look hopefully at her face, searching for something optimistic in her usually serene, blue eyes. Today I read nothing but fear.
            “Right?” I say again.
            “Right,” she concedes, but without conviction.
            My mouth goes on without my permission, uttering things I want to I believe about the doctor probably being mistaken and everything turning out fine. I finally realize I’m probably making things worse by protesting too much. I force myself to shut up and let the silence soothe her.
            We lay that way for 20 minutes or so, till the kids’ show ends and they start yelling in the living room.
            “Hey, Babe, one of us needs to go in there and settle those savages down. Tell you what. You get some rest, and I’ll make dinner and take care of the chuckleheads. Do we have any spaghetti?”

            She gives me that winning smile that attracted me to her in the first place, and says she loves me.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Belabored Chapter 9: Emma

“It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station,
that great characters are formed.” – Abigail Adams
            As Tom releases two-year-old Kevin from his car seat, the straps of which pin him in like two vinyl arms (rendered a bit less severe by the fluffy teddy bear covers Velcro-ed around them), my phone rings. The sweet, sing-song-y voice of my obstetrician fills my ears when I answer. In her usual endearing way, she identifies herself using her first name.
            “Hi, Emma? Heidi Rivera.”
            “Oh, hi, Dr. R! How are you?” I begin, while attempting to wipe my four-year-old’s
 runny nose with a napkin from last night’s trip to Willoughby’s. “Kyle, stop, Mommy’ll be done in a minute!” I chide my older son, who furiously resists my efforts to make him presentable. 
            “Sorry, Doc., I’ll be right with you,” I add, remembering my manners. “It’s just, Kyle’s fighting me on –”
            “Take your time, Emma!” she chuckles on the other end of the phone. “I remember those days very well.”
            “Thanks, Doc,” I say after laboriously winning the battle with Kyle. “Now, to what do I owe the pleasure of your call on a Saturday?”
            “Well, I’m in the office tidying up some loose ends – you know me – and, lo and behold, I see that your lab results are back. I wanted to see if you and Tom could come in this week to discuss them.”
            I may not be Phi Beta Kappa, but I can detect when a doctor sounds too casual. Her seemingly innocuous statement sets alarm bells clanging in my head. First of all, why is she calling me on a weekend? Why can’t this wait till the appointment I have scheduled next Thursday? Why does she want us both there? Something’s not right.
            “OK, Doc,” I say with the familiarity I’m entitled to, if only because I allow Dr. R. to peer into crevices of my body where angels fear to tread. “What’s going on?”
            “Well, Em, I’d really rather speak with both of you, if at all possible. Is Tom able to talk, too, by any chance?”
            “Well, yes, he is, but he’s chasing after Kevin at the moment,” I reply with growing suspicion. “We just got home from a foliage ride and they’re raking up a big pile of leaves for the boys to jump in. Can you just give me the short version of what’s up?”
            “Sure, of course, Em. The fact is, there was an unusual finding in your AFP test. That’s the blood you had drawn recently. Turns out the levels were higher than we like to see, which could indicate a problem.”
Just like that, my life changes. Within 15 seconds, I go from being sated with the beauty of the autumn day and our perfect little family, to frozen in fear and uncertainty. I try to speak, but the only thing that comes out is a squeak.
“Em, are you there?”
“Um, yeah,” I manage. “What kind of problem?”
“Well, what I’d like to do is have you get an amniocentesis in a week or so. That’ll tell us
whether or not we even have anything to worry about. It’s a needle procedure, but don’t panic.
It’s not a walk in the park, but it’s not horrible, either. It’s pretty quick, and nothing compared to giving birth!”
           Her weak attempt at humor in no way diverts the gruesome scenarios my mind has been conjuring up since she uttered the word “problem.” She fields the few questions I come up with, which open the door to some pretty frightening possibilities. While trying to wrap my mind around her news, I watch Tom bury the boys in the gigantic leaf mountain they’ve been constructing. Meanwhile, my world starts to crumble.
            I look heavenward, where the earth tones of the mountainside make magical music with the gold and rust colored leaves of mid-autumn. Our small Pennsylvania town, Rock Face, is a scenic area any time of the year, but especially in the fall. Named for the chiseled auburn crags that grace the east side of Interstate 650, the main highway of our anywhere USA town tucked away in the southeastern quadrant of the state, Rock Face is home to approximately 10,000 hard-working families who exist in the divide between workaday life and activity driven weekends. We were one of those families five minutes ago. Now we’re a family in trouble, and my husband and kids are making fragile leaf piles that look heartier than I feel.
           I guess Dr. R. can tell I’m terrified, so she tries to do damage control.
“OK, this sounds scary, I know. But here’s the thing. We aren’t sure your little one has
any problems, but it’s best to proceed as if he or she might. That’s why I’m ordering the amnio.
We’ll do an ultrasound at the same time and this will all give us a much more accurate picture of
what’s going on than we have at this point. If you want, we can wait a couple more weeks and
probably be able to tell the baby’s sex at the same time. How does that sound?”
            I try to respond, then realize she can’t hear my head nodding. I mutter that I’ll talk to Tom and then call my primary to get the referral for the amnio. I pretend to believe her assurances that everything’s probably fine, and hang up the phone.
            I want a new pregnancy!
            To my shame, this thought keeps running through my head as I try to think of a way to tell Tom without bursting into tears. I, who bring my kids to pro-life prayer vigils outside of abortion clinics. I, who pray regularly for a baby for my sister and her husband, whose efforts to achieve pregnancy have cost them upwards of $30,000 over the last few years. I, who wasn’t thrilled in the first place to learn we were expecting again, but was just getting used to the idea.
            I feel smacked down by almighty arms that are, on one hand, forcing me put my principles to the test, and on the other hand, perhaps punishing me for not appreciating the amazing gift of life I’m carrying.

            “Who was that, Em?” Tom calls after dislodging himself from the kids’ efforts to obliterate him with leaves.

Belabored Chapter 8: David

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." – Robert Burns

            “Come on, Tanya! We don’t wanna be late for church,” Bonny calls, seemingly oblivious to the fact that late is exactly what Tanya wants to be. She must have convinced herself that our daughter is joining us out of interest, instead of the real reason, which is that she was tricked into it.
            “Listen, I’ve gotta finish my hair, and I’m not even dressed yet!” Tanya bellows down the stairs. “Why don’t you guys just go without me?”  
            “Oh, please, Honey, you don’t wanna disappoint Pastor K., do you? I mean, didn’t you promise to come hear him speak?”
            That’s how our day is starting. I hate to say it, but I think Bon was wrong to sic the youth minister on Tanya. The only reason she’s agreeing to come to church after all these months is because Bon got after Seth Kaplan to get in touch with her. He’s still in training and sometimes the senior pastor gives him a chance to preach. Today’s one of those days, and I think he convinced Tanya to come cheer him on. A good strategy, but unfortunately, his last talk on seeking heavenly treasure in lieu of earthly things fell pretty flat. He seems like a decent guy, though, and my wife thinks he might be able to rekindle Tanya’s interest in spirituality.
            I think Bonny and Seth may be putting the cart before the horse, though. I’m no expert, but it’s always seemed to me that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than chilling at the beach makes you a seahorse. If I were them, I think I’d be putting more effort into conversations with the Almighty and less into arm twisting a teenager. Still, this comes under the vast category of things that aren’t my business, so I say nothing unless I’m asked.
            Anyway, Tanya comes down about as cheerful as a bear without honey. Bon manages to drag her out the door, but when we get to church, she sits stone-faced through Seth’s mediocre sermon and reluctantly goes out with him and his wife, Vicki, after the service. Bon set it up that we would take the Kaplans’ three kids out to Willoughby’s for lunch so Tanya can have time alone with the two of them. With coupons, the bill for the six of us only comes to $24, so Bon’s a happy camper.
            Jess has fun with the Kaplan twins, and it’s kind of funny to watch the older kid mother the younger ones while they play in the ball pit. The kid’s only seven, all of two years older than her twin sisters, but she calls them and Jess “Honey” and ushers them over to me and Bon whenever anyone gets a “boo boo”. So Bon and I are in pretty good moods when we meet up with Seth and Vicki at the church to swap kids at 3.
             Tanya says almost nothing on the ride home.
            When we get back to the house, she makes herself scarce by saying she has a lot of homework. I let Bonny take a nap while Jess and I rake up a huge pile of leaves for her to jump in. We even manage to get a few of them out to the curb for pickup. I’d have bet money Jess would’ve strewn them all around, but she seems just as happy to do “grownup work” as she is to play.
             That kid is so much fun. Everything makes her laugh. Sure, she’s energetic, but what kid isn’t at that age? I remember being outside from dawn till dusk when I was growing up, coming in exhausted and starving, wolfing down dinner, then running out again to play till the street lights came on. Mom had to pry me away from my friends.
            It’s interesting that I’m getting such a kick out of a daughter. I have no experience with little girls, being from a family of all boys. My brother, Jack, and I darn near killed each other a couple of times, all in the name of male bonding. We used to play a game called “Tickers,” which involved trying to make the other guy pass out by cutting off the circulation in his carotid. No one was more surprised than me when I woke up in the ER after “winning” the game when I was 10. Jack got Lenny and Al (who hustled me off to the hospital) to promise not to tell Mom, but when the bill came in – well, let’s just say, Mom put the kaibosh on that particular form of relationship building.
            I guess I figured when Jess was born that she’d be breakable or something, but she loves doing the stuff I suggest, which are all the games I played as a kid – except Tickers, of course. Who’d have imagined life could be this good?
            Tanya’s seemed unhappy most of the time I’ve known her. I wonder if anyone ever taught her how to have fun.          

Belabored Chapter 7: Bonny

         “I pray every day for my little girls. It’s hard for the younger generation.” – Angie Harmon
            I’m in trouble again. Tanya knows I asked Seth Kaplan to speak with her. I had hoped he’d think of it himself, what with her not being around for a few months, but I guess he’s busy. Maybe the Catholics have a point about celibacy. Seth and Vicki sure have their hands full with those three kids and all their youth group responsibilities.
            Tanya comes at me with both barrels.
            “Mom, I know you put him up to it! He’s never called me before, and now I have to take precious time from my school work – the work you’re so proud of when I bring home A’s – to have a meeting I don’t want and don’t need! Admit it – you’re behind this!”
            I study my hands before responding. They’re getting gnarly, just like my mother’s. I would’ve hoped I’d at least be into my forties before arthritis started to rear its crippling head. Tanya lets loose with a few expletives, and I break my silence.
             “Alright, Tanya, there’s no need to speak to me that way. I won’t have it. Yes, I’m not gonna deny it. But you have to understand, I’m worried about you. You’re –”
            “I’m fine, that’s what I am! Mom, I’ll be 18 in a week! I’m not your little baby! I’m not Jessica! I’m about to graduate, if I don’t keep getting interrupted with ridiculous meetings to ‘have a Coke’ that my hips don’t need, at the top of my class! Why isn’t that enough for you?”
            “Oh, Sweetheart, I’m so sorry if I make you feel that way. You must know how proud I am of you. But, Honey, there’s something so much more important than grades, your relationship with –”
            “I know, I know. I’ve been hearing it my whole life. My relationship with God. Well, guess what, Mom? God gave me huge hips and thighs, and a face full of zits! Look, I’m not saying I don’t believe in Him, but why do I need to go to some building on Sunday morning when I need sleep so I can keep getting those 'A’s' you’re so proud of? Why can’t you just let me worship Him in my own way?”
            I don’t know how to answer when she says things like that. I don’t know why she’s having such an awkward adolescence. I suspect she thinks I’m more attractive than she is, and no daughter wants to take a back seat to her mother. Besides, she won’t take my advice when I try to give it. I’ve been where she is, I’ve done the growing up thing, and I could make some good suggestions so she could maximize what she’s got until she grows into her best self.
            I think all these things, but don’t dare say any of them. Instead, I stared at the floor tiles, which are the one thing I love in our outdated kitchen. Their little blue cornflowers are so happy and carefree, like Tanya and I once were. Oh, we always had money problems, but that paled in comparison to the adhesive bond we used to have. I taught her the words to that old Helen Reddy song, “You and Me Against the World,”© and sometimes we would sing it when life got hard to handle.
            I wonder what Helen Reddy would say to Tanya now.

©Williams, Paul and Kenny Ascher. “You and Me Against the World.” Recorded by Helen Reddy, Love Song for Jeffrey, Capitol Records, 1974.

Belabored Chapter 6: Tanya

      “Who would ever think that so much went on in the soul of a young girl?” – Anne Frank

            Pastor Kaplan texted me today. He and his wife, Vicki, run the youth group at my church.
If you’re thinking that’s a strange name for a Baptist minister, you’re right. He was raised traditionally Jewish, but claims his belief that Jesus – “Yeshua,” he calls him – is God’s son only makes him more so. The way he tells it, Jesus and his first followers were Jewish, so why shouldn’t he consider what they have to say?
            I’m sure Mom hounded him to get in touch with me, and I don’t appreciate it. She knows how I feel about church these days, and I told her what happened with Ryan. Why can’t she respect my feelings? Let her and Dave drag Jess with them on Sundays, and leave me to sleep in.
He asked if he and Vicki could take me out for a Coke. They’re such nice people that I didn’t have the heart to tell them I’m not interested in that stuff anymore. It’s gonna have to be a short visit, though, because I’m really busy with this debate project at school.
Senior year, everyone has to take a quarter class that drives us all crazy. We’re paired up to research and present a slide show about a controversial topic. Then both partners write a paper taking either the pro or con position. As if that’s not enough, we then get the distinct privilege of debating the whole thing in front of the class. There isn’t enough cover stick in the world to disguise the breakout I’ll be having that week.
In the meantime, I’m frantically trying to keep up with my other classes. I also have AP English and government, and ecology (yawn – I had to take a science, and that sounded like the least amount of work – I was wrong). Next semester I’ll have creative writing, which will at least be fun. Hopefully, that’ll take some of the sting out of calculus.
I don’t know why I do this to myself. It’s not like I plan to be a rocket scientist or anything like that. I guess I just like to show I can do things, and it seems to make Mom so happy. She could barely stay in her seat at my “graduation” from middle school when I picked up all those awards. Strange how everything has to be a big deal anymore. Whatever happened to just graduating from high school and college? Next thing you know, they’ll be handing out awards when kids get their first tooth.
how bout chick filet tues around 3? I text Pastor K.
If I had a decent phone, I could send talk texts and not sound so illiterate, but with this ridiculous, antiquated slide phone, everything’s an ordeal. I’m embarrassed to even pull it out around my friends. Mom won’t see reason, though, and says I have to earn enough to buy what I want and pay the extra $50 a month for the upgraded plan. I don’t know how she thinks I’m gonna be able to do that and save for college at the same time.

Wasn’t she ever young? 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Belabored Chapter 5: Bonny and David

     "Who, being loved, is poor?” – Oscar Wilde
            Tanya and Chuck took the baby to the playground yesterday. That’s another thing – I’ve got to stop calling her that. Poor child keeps reminding me she’s not a baby, she’s three and a half (that half really means a lot to her), goes to the potty all by herself, even picks out her own clothes.
 I’ll be 40 next month, and Jessica will almost certainly be my last child. It’s hard to let go of the concept of my own fertility. Makes me feel old. When I moan about it to Dave, he smiles and says he loves every wrinkle, something no woman wants to hear.
            The way Tanya tells it, Jess took off for the swings like a rocket the minute Tanya unhooked the straps on her car seat. I guess that’s when the diaper bag fell off the back seat, spilling its contents all over the grass. Oh, that’s right, I’m not supposed to call it that. Jess wants me to call it her “big girl bag” now that she’s out of diapers. Whatever. It still comes in handy to carry snacks and juice, and makes for a nice dumping ground to shove things in when I run out of room in my purse, which is most of the time.
Apparently, I neglected to remove the coin filled baby bottle Colleen Caspar gave me last Sunday for the pregnancy center’s fundraising drive. I stuffed it into Jess’s bag and forgot all about it. It must have rolled under the car or something, because when Chuck repacked everything, he didn’t see it. Dave and I went back to the park to search for it, but no luck. Some undeserving kid probably has a nice chunk of change in his piggy bank now. 
I'm so mad at myself. The pregnancy center works on a shoestring budget, and we could have used that cash, especially with Christmas just around the corner. Colleen had even stuffed some paper money in there.
            Dave says I have to let it go, and he’s right.
            “Earth to Bon. You in there, Bon?” my husband jumps into my reverie. I look up from the onions I’m slicing for Thanksgiving tomorrow. Don’t ask me why, but Dave loves creamed onions.
            “Oh, yeah, I’m fine, Hon. Just thinking about the baby bottle again. I know, I know. It’s over and done with, but still.”
            He smiles indulgently and starts cutting up the carrots I hand him. My husband’s the first to admit to being a consumer rather than creator of meals, but he’s more than willing to help out. We have some of our best conversations under the fluorescent light in our antiquated kitchen. It’s on Dave’s long to-do list to hang the new one I picked out, but given his level of handyman expertise, maybe I’m better off waiting.
Suddenly, I catch a distinct twinkle in his eye.
            “Dave Gullickson, what’s up with you?” I say with mock suspicion.
            “Oh, nothing that a kiss from a ravishing woman can’t get out of me,” he teases.
            “Oh, yeah? Well, if I see one, I’ll send her right over.”
            “Now, that’s enough of that, Mrs. Gullickson – oh, Lord, how I wish I could’ve given you a more normal name!”
            I agree, but I’ll never tell him that.
            “Listen, I took you for better or worse, for richer or poorer. If I had wanted a guy named ‘Smith,’ that’s who I’d have married. So let’s get off of the name subject and tell me what’s up with the Cheshire cat grin?”
            “Alright, alright, you wormed it out of me. It so happens that today was a banner day. I’m about to show you something that I have a feeling is gonna make you forget all about the pittance in that bottle. Now, all I need is that kiss so I can show you what I have in my pocket.”
            Every once in a while, I like to catch Dave off guard. I know he won’t expect me to lunge at him with my eyes full of onion tears. So that’s exactly what I do.
“Whoa, woman, give a guy a chance to protect himself!” I snort when she grabs for the letter. Actually, it’s a “paid in full” hospital bill for a longstanding debt she incurred before we were married. When she reads it, she breaks down in tears – real tears, not from the onions – and hugs me so hard I almost disgrace myself.
            The bill goes back to when Tanya was five or six. The poor kid had broken her arm and needed surgery to have it set right. Bon’s insurance has always been lousy, and she still owed almost two grand when I married her. I’m not Sir Galahad, but I try to do what’s right. Getting Bonny out of debt comes under that category.
            “Oh, Dave, what a great Thanksgiving present!  I’m so glad this is where we were headed!” she squeals as I kiss the top of her head. That’s something I do often, since I’m 6’2” to her 5’7”.
            She’s referring, of course, to the unforgettable conversation we had the night she asked me to marry her. You heard that right. Bonny’s no shrinking violet, and she knows what she wants. Oh, my lips popped the question, but Bon brought it to the table.
She opened the subject by asking coyly, “Dave, where are we headed?”
Her attempt at subtlety amused me, so I decided to tease her.
“Why, home, of course,” I responded with a rogue smile.
            “Dave Gullickson, you know perfectly well what I’m talking about!” she grumped, mock hitting me on the shoulder as she did so. That’s a mannerism I find endearing; I joke that she should find a support group to help her kick the habit.
I looked her right in the eye and said, “We’re heading for the altar. We both know that.”
She smiled, then frowned.
“What’s the matter, Bon?” I put to her. “I just asked you to marry me. Why doesn’t that make your day?”
“Oh, it does, Sweetie! Nothing’s the matter. It’s just, well, we’re not exactly setting the world on fire with our salaries. Are we gonna be able to make it with kids and all?”
I pulled her close – well, as close as the bucket seats in my 2005 Honda Civic would allow. I bought it new when I got out of college and landed my first real job in graphic design. It’s getting a little long in the tooth now.
“We’re gonna be fine,” I assured her. In the back of my mind, I was having a lot of the same reservations she was, but I knew we loved each other, and that would make penny pinching a little easier. I’m not one of those romantics who believes love conquers all, but neither do I think wealth makes for happiness. Too often, I’ve seen just the opposite. Look at Hollywood.
So we tied the knot, and part of the package in my mind was Tanya’s outstanding medical bill. I told Bon not to worry about it anymore, and took over the monthly payments she had been struggling to make. I added a little extra whenever I could, and after three and half years, the deed was done.
“Dave Gullickson, you are the sweetest, most wonderful man who ever walked the earth!” she crows as we continue prepping for Thanksgiving. As usual, I chop and she cooks. My idea of haute cuisine is my signature tuna salad, the secret ingredient being just the right amount of wine vinegar, but the girls don’t want to have that every night, so I humor them by pretending to enjoy the amazing meals Bon turns out. My jobs are things I can’t get into too much trouble with, like peeling potatoes and tearing up bread for stuffing.
“That’s what they tell me,” I say in response to her gushing. “So how was work today?”
“Oh, it was good. A little sad. A woman came in today with her husband. They’re
looking for hope ’cause they just found out their baby’s gonna be born disabled. May
 never walk. They don’t know where to turn, so they came to us.”
“Man, that is sad. I can’t imagine what we’d have done if that had happened with Jess.”
“Or Tanya, for that matter,” she reminds me.
“Oh, sure, of course, but I mean, I wasn’t around then, so I’m just thinking of Jess.”
“I know what you mean, Sweetie. Anyway, we referred them to some agencies that deal with their child’s disability and gave them a few pamphlets. We told them we can help them out with diapers and things like that, clothes even, if they need it. I don’t think they’re gonna take us up on our offer of counseling, not that we have much to say that could cheer them up at this point, but we just hope we can steer them away from abortion.”
“Y’know, Bon, I’d like to know what you could say to keep them from going that route. I mean, you know I'm not for it, but in all honesty, what a burden.”
“Well, the good thing is they’re religious. They attend a Catholic church and their priest actually sent them to us. Works out better when ministers don’t try to tackle these sorts of problems long term. They can’t be experts on everything, but this is all we do, day in and day out. We know who to connect them with, the mountains they’re gonna have to climb. We don’t just say, ‘Don’t abort; God doesn’t like that.’ We come alongside them and stick with them.”
This is Bon’s passion, but for me, it’s just part of our bread and butter. But I do know this: I meant what I said to Bon. I wouldn’t want to know how I’d react if something like this came my way. I consider myself a God-fearing man, but this is one trial I’m glad He didn’t see fit to send me.
I guess my eyes are starting to glaze over because Bonny changes the subject.
“Listen, let’s not talk about work. We have so much to be thankful for. Two healthy kids, a nice home, one less medical bill, thanks to my wonderful husband, good jobs where we make a difference – oops, there I go again, talking about work!”
“You do good work, Hon,” I reply, then turn my attention to hacking up celery for the stuffing. 
“No, Sweetie, it’s gotta be minced fine, like this. Remember how I showed you last year?” Bon says, smiling indulgently and taking the knife from my clumsy hands.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Belabored Chapter 4: Tanya

“First appearance deceives many.” – Ovid

            “Tonna, come snuggle with me and Mommy!” Jess begs when Mom brings her up for the night. This is just what I’m trying to avoid.
            Yes, Mom apologized and I accepted, and yes, we can be friends again. She doesn’t always get it right away, but often she gets it down the line, if you know what I mean, and that makes it worth hanging in there with her. But when she asks me to do the “family bed” thing when she’s reading Jess a bedtime story, it gets to be a bit much. I have to lie and say I’ve got homework to finish. I won’t say it’s not cozy when the two of us squeeze into Jess’s little twin bed with Jess in the middle; Jess loves it and says cute things like, “I am warm, and very, very toasty!” But it really is a little weird, and we have to shoehorn in the way I do the second-hand jeans Mom got me last spring. Then, when you factor in the safety rail that keeps hyperactive Jess from cracking her skull open when she gets out of bed (at least it slows her down) – well, it’s over the top.
            Mom comes through like a champ.
            “Jessica, Tanya has to study. She can’t read with us tonight.”
            Jess starts to whine and fake cry, something Mom won’t put up with.
            “Now, that’s enough, young lady,” she scolds. “You come on in with me and we’ll read Winnie the Pooh.”
            Jess wails louder and keeps pleading.
            I do love the kid, so I commit to the playground.
            “Listen, Dolly,” (that’s what I sometimes call her), “if you’re a good girl and tuck in with just Mom tonight, maybe Chuck and I will take you to the playground tomorrow.”
            Mom tries to hide her smile, but I know she’s thrilled to get some time to herself after work.
            “Yay!” Jess exclaims. “OK, Mommy, let’s do Pooh!”
            I find myself wishing it were that easy for me to forget my disappointments. I have a hard time letting go of things like that, especially things that really strike a nerve. Like, for example, I haven’t gone back to my church youth group since the day Ryan Neeley texted just about everyone but me, inviting them over for a swim party. I didn’t take a poll, but it seemed like just about everyone except me and this other girl, Caitlyn Briggs, who also isn’t very attractive, got an invite. It was bad enough I was left out, but it didn’t help that I had a wild crush on him, and still do, if you want to know the truth. He tested my commitment with that stunt, but if he texted me today, I bet I’d answer.
            “That’s my good girl,” Mom says, then turns to me. “Thanks, Tanya, for our talk. I feel much better. I hope you do, too.”
            “Me, too,” I lie. I mean, it’s not that I’m sorry we made up, but sometimes she just wants to be more buddy-buddy than I can handle these days. Like she still wants to hold my hand once in a while, like when I was a little girl and it was just her and me. It’s one thing when you’re seven, but not at this age. I have enough social obstacles to overcome as it is.
The things that cause most of my appearance problems are my acne and my weirdly shaped body. I have very unpredictable skin, meaning one week things will be fine, and the next week, I look like a topographical map of the moon. Mom says it’s a blessing I’m a girl so I can use makeup to cover it up, but I envy girls like Susan Kilroy, whose alabaster skin with its rosy highlights makes her look like the porcelain doll Mom gave me the day she told me she and David were going to get married. But I digress.
            Mom says I’m too hard on myself, but then she goes and says things like do I really want more potatoes, when clearly I do, or I wouldn’t be reaching for the bowl, now would I? She’s also pretty quick to point out that I’m scarring my face when I pop my zits, but I can’t help it. It’s either that or go around looking like I have an unrelenting case of chicken pox. When my back started breaking out, she said, “Hallelujah! Maybe it’ll limit itself to your back so you can cover it up!” She’s all about covering up unsightly things, which I think is one of the reasons she married David. She won’t admit it, but I’m pretty sure she was pregnant with Jess before the wedding – either that, or Jess was an awfully big preemie, which is what Mom wants me to believe. 
            The thing is, I don’t understand why she doesn’t just come clean and admit they were fooling around before the wedding. After all, she told me all about the circumstances of my birth, which was a lot more interesting when you get right down to it. Apparently, there was this guy who looked a lot like Orlando Bloom, but according to Mom, he checked his honesty at the door most of the time. Mom says the final straw was when he stole a hubcap from another car while she waited for him to finish pilfering so they could go to dinner. She got one last meal out of him (I have to give the girl credit for getting her needs met), then told him to shove off. Afterwards, she found out she was pregnant with me. She decided she would rather raise a kid alone than co-parent with a thief, so she just never told him about me. I guess it was just as well. She found out later that he died in a car wreck when I was about two, so I wouldn’t have had a father either way.
            I guess one of the reasons she won’t tell me the truth is because she frames my whole birth story as a big error in judgment. Not that she makes me feel like a mistake – far from it. She tells me all the time how glad she is that she kept me and that I’m a wonderful daughter even when I’m not. But I think she’s probably mad at herself for doing the same dumb thing twice. That and the fact that she’s the director of a pregnancy center where they help girls like her who get into these types of situations. They helped her when she was having me. They gave her clothes and other supplies, and she says they really helped her emotionally. They even gave her a job, and she eventually went back to school for her degree so she could do more for them. When their director left, they hit Mom up to take the job. I think she’d be mortified to admit that, having landed that position, she got herself into the same boat again 15 years later.
            Then there’s the fact that Mom adores Chuck. Don’t get me wrong. Chuck’s a nice guy, and he thinks the sun rises and sets on me, for some reason I can’t figure out. He’s been interested in me since the day we met at Willoughby’s, the hamburger joint we both worked at before he started college last month. I was working the register and he was prepping food, and he kept smiling at me over the fry pit and insisting I smile back before he would hand over the fries. It would have made me feel good if I hadn’t kept noticing the way Steve McElroy was looking at Megan Natale’s backside as she rang up customers. Steve looks like a Greek god and Megan, well, she’s sort of an Italian princess, not someone I find beautiful, but apparently she makes Steve’s heart skip a beat. They’ve been going out for a couple weeks now, and since Chuck is friends with Steve, we’re supposed to double date next Saturday if we can all get the night off. I’m going to see if I can get away with “forgetting” to ask for off, since I figure watching Steve drool over Megan will be not quite as much fun as having a tooth pulled. It’s one thing to be on a date with a guy who doesn’t excite you, but it’s another thing to be on that same date, wishing you could be the girl in the other couple. That’s been the story of my life.
            I don’t think Mom gets that at all. I know her skin broke out when she was young, but she never had a problem attracting men, apparently. She still has photos of herself with old boyfriends, which for some reason doesn’t bother David at all. If I were him, I wouldn’t want my wife keeping a pictorial record of the ones who got away, but he just smiles and says they don’t know what they’re missing. She even has some “cheesecake” shots of herself on the beach wearing almost nothing, and looking great in it. I couldn’t get my big toe into those swimsuits, and would look ridiculous if I tried. Mom’s one of those women who isn’t classically beautiful, but knows how to really put together what she has.
            Anyway, Mom thinks Chuck’s the greatest thing since Jess’s baby wipe warmers. That’s right, there really is such a thing, to keep apple-sized butts from getting chilled while they’re being, you know, handled. I never could figure out why, on the one hand, we spend big bucks on junk like that and cribs that look like four poster beds, but on the other hand, we stick our kids in day care practically the minute they exit the womb. Why not scale back on non-essentials and actually stay home and raise the kids? As a veteran of day care, and all the living by the clock that goes with it, I would much rather have skipped those frantic mornings and been satisfied playing with pots and pans if it meant I got to bang them around with my own mother, rather than playing on a laptop with babysitters.  
            But that’s another story. What I was trying to get at is that Mom can’t see Chuck the way I do. I mean, some of the guys in her past were drop-dead gorgeous, which is something I’d like to have happen to me just once in my life. I went on a retreat with my church one time, and Ryan Neeley was hanging all over Debbie Friel the whole time. Debbie Friel, whose hair looks like it just barely escaped a close encounter with a gaggle of geese, and who must get her clothes from the Salvation Army. I tried to pay attention to the “Rah Rah, let’s be on fire Christians!” pep talks the youth minister spouted, but I was miserable the whole weekend. I know Ryan has nothing upstairs, but oh, how I’d love to be bored with him for a few days.
            Mom keeps telling me there’s more to Chuck than his looks, which aren’t terrible, but nothing to brag about, either. His hair’s the color of industrial sand, and would probably curl if he let it grow out a bit. He has dull, almost muddy brown eyes. I don’t get so much as a shiver when I look into them. He’s tall and lanky, which makes me look even pudgier when we’re together.

 I will admit that what Chuck lacks in looks he makes up for in work ethic. Wouldn’t give up his job at Willoughby’s till he was sure he’d landed one at the gas station near his house. He doesn’t just pump gas, although he’d probably be quite content with that. He got the job because he was able to sell them on the fact that he changes his own oil and knows how to do repairs like brake pads and routine maintenance. He figured he could pick up some training and get paid for it, which sounded better to him than flipping burgers all through college. I know he’s sweet and has a lot on the ball, but is that enough to build a relationship on? I mean, I felt affection towards the 70-something crossing guard who used to say, “Good morning, Morning Glory!” while helping me cross the street, but I don’t want to go to the prom with him, either.