The only reason Iím sitting on a toilet seat in the handicapped stall of the ladiesí room is because Iím hiding. My break is just fifteen minutes long and Iím trying to decide with the help of a book on the subject of ìthe changeî if Paulette was really on to something when she suggested I get a blood test to see if my hormone levels were diminishing. And if it turns out to be true, I might want to get them replenished with something besides the Good & Plenty Iíve been eating by the handful for the last seven or eight months and I donít even like licorice. Iím also sitting here with an old issue of Bead & Button trying to figure out if I shouldíve played it safe and used plastic instead of glass beads since I just had to make my very first jewelry attempt a gift, and because sometimes I do think that more is better, just had to add three strands more than the instructions called for and now I donít know how to close up the ends. Iím not used to asking for help.
Paulette claims Iíve been showing enough symptoms of a perimenopausal woman to warrant further examination, which initially irritated me. She merely closed her eyelids over those hazel contacts and sucked her tongue across those shiny white veneers and whipped over one shoulder all five hundred of those individual braids that are way too long for a forty-eight-year-old woman who is no Donna Summer and said, ìI know what Iím talking about. You remind me of me four years ago.î
Experiencing something once does not make you an expert on the subject.
The rampage I went on last week about Leon may have added more fuel to the flames. Perhaps my reaction to my husbandís forgetting to set the empty water bottles out was a little strong, but it was totally symbolic of a lot of other things he neglects. Ten minutes into my rant, Paulette just said, ìGirl, you need to hurry up and have that test so you can be restored back to full sanity. Assuming you once were! But seriously, you need to do something because your circuit-breaker is not working. On a lighter note, donít forget: Pity Party next Friday at Bunnyís. I canít wait to hear your latest bullshit, if thereís anything left to tell. And as an FYI: Bunnyís taking another online course, girl. This time itís psychology. So be prepared. Sheís probably going to be Freudís little sister. Just try to be nice, Marilyn.î
ìNiceî has been difficult for me lately. Paulette has also been kind enough to point out that all those who land in my path of wrath (as she calls my unconfirmed Pause Personality) deserve a break, especially Leon, and Arthurine, his nosey mother who has eyes in the back of her head and lives with us along with her handicapped dog to whom I have the luxury of being a private nurse. I wish I could take all of them on a one-way cruise out to sea and then sail back to shore alone. This does sound mean, but some days I canít help it.
I have to admit that I have experienced quite a few of the symptoms Paulette was sweet enough to bring to my attention. But I didnít tell her. She loves being right and I hate being wrong. I snap the book shut. Should I break down and spend even more money on French wire and Bali silver cones to close up the ends of this damn necklace? Trying to achieve true beauty can be expensive. But Bead & Button seems to imply that using inferior (or cheap) materials will help deter that dreaded question: ìDid you make that?î
Iím making this damn thing for Bunny, my other best friend, for her thirty-seventh, thirty-eighth, but most likely her fortieth birthday. Iíve got close to a month before she turns the big hand on the clock. But even with my 20 percent discount, weíre still talking about explaining to The Husband Who Is Not at Sea why these sums are necessary when they appear on the Visa or MasterCard bill. And if I do mess up (orójust say it, Marilynóif you fuck it up), since one never knows one has even made a mistake until after one has made it: at what price, friendship? Not that Bunny would notice.
Class is something she doesnít respect, understand, or care about. ìWhat can you do with it?î sheís asked Paulette and me over the years. Particularly when weíve tried year after year to persuade her to trade in that Atlantic Cityñlooking 1989 red Corvette she insists on driving; we dropped major hints that she might want to try going to a real furniture store to purchase real furniture one or two pieces at a time instead of decorating and designing her entire condo in a single trip to IKEA where they may as well have airbrushed the four showrooms directly into her crib; and we encouraged her to reconsider always having on display her recent purchase of a D cup. But Bunny has consistently ignored us. ìItís all good,î as one of my sons would say.
Tonight Iíll be stretched out on her make-believe sofa with thirty minutes to pour out my suffering soul after weíve eaten takeout at her little table for two and she and Paulette will say whatever it takes to lift my spirits to a level of clarity since Iíve obviously had difficulty doing it on my own.
The ladiesí room door bangs. Shit! Itís them. The crazy women Iím hiding from, the ones who always want me to take part in their thrice-weekly reality show. I have been ordained Craft Staff Supervisor here at Heavenly Creations, and these two are not only the storeís very best customers, they also purportedly work here and provide live entertainment.
Now Maureen shouts: ìIím just so outdone! Iím going crazy, Trudy! I mean really frigging crazy! I canít believe he did this! To me! After fourteen years of what I thought was a goodóno, greatómarriage and out of the blue he just decides to tell me heís found a new torch thatís been turning his low flame into a forest fire and that according to Dr. Phil heís been in denial for five years about how bored heís been with ëusí and the whole suburban lifestyle and he said he didnít want to hurt me and the kids by coming clean but there was no getting around it and by the way her name is oh who cares what her name is!? Trudy, I feel like such a fool! I mean, what am I supposed to do without a husband and three kids all under the age of twelve?î
ìYou really think youíre extraspecial, donít you, Maureen? Thatís your whole problem. Well, welcome to the pool of pain millions of women have been swimming in for years, sweetheart.î
ìYouíre not making me feel any better, Trudy. I thought I could confide in you.î
ìYou are. But let me finish my thought. Itís a miracle to me just how well some of us have managedóthose of us who are the unfortunate beneficiaries of out-of-control husbands. I truly believe that the women who were only given fifteen minutes to adjust to their newfound fame as Single Mothers and only used six or seven of them, have been touched by an angel of some kind because how else could any one human being adjust so quickly and handle so much responsibility without a quick stint in the Loony Bin? You and the kids are probably going to be better off, if you think of the odds.î
ìWhat odds?î Maureen asks.
ìLetís face it. How much do husbands really do? I mean, what role do they really play around the house? Go ahead and say it, Maureen! Not much. Iíve managed to marry three cut from the same exact mold. Go figure. They think their paychecks and their penises equal making a physical contribution, which is why weíre always too tired to fuck them. Am I on track here or what?î
She had a point, and I squirmed on the hard seat. Leon would certainly fit in if they were to take a group photo.
ìI hadnít thought of it like that before, Trudy. But even still, Iíll take his paycheck and his penis any day over nothing.î
Maureen and Trudy are both what I call Craft Junkies because in the year and a half Iíve been working here, theyíve taken just about every three-hour and five-week class offered as long as it didnít involve fire, food, or fumes. Theyíre also ìrepeatersî because they took my beginning pillow-making class so many times that once I realized theirs were actually better made than mine, I got the owner to hire them to help with the setups. HC (as I call it) is small enough that it feels intimate. Here, nothing is locked behind glass or steel cabinets except of course the spray paint, but thatís only because of the teenagers. Other than this, nothing suffocates under plastic that we arenít happy to unwrap. You can touch anything we sell at HC and we carry the very best high-end arts and craft supplies available in the United States. And I should know, because Iím a junkie, too.
Trudy and Maureen often forget to pick up their paychecks, which they seem to think of as weekly gift certificates. I do not have the nerve to ask but Iíd sure like to know where they put all those damn pillows. They think theyíre hot stuff because they can make up to twenty different kinds of knots that they learned in Stephaniaísóthe spinster from IsraelóBeauty of Knots class. Lord knows theyíve made enough floral arrangements to cover ten fake funerals; so many gingerbread houses that some of our Olympian ants stopped trying to penetrate them; and enough of those Little House on the Prairie year-round wreaths that ten years ago were like status symbols on front doors across America but now donít even generate a comment when a stranger rings their bell.
Trudy washes her hands then hits the dryer button. Iím starting to slide off this toilet seat. I lean forward and swirl these black-denim hips around like they were thirty-six instead of forty-four inches as quietly as I possibly can while lowering my sneakers to the floor, but when my cell phone starts vibrating in the uniform pocket above my left breast, the magazine and book fall off my lap and hit the floor. Shit!
ìIf he thinks Iím leaving without putting up a fight, heís got another thing coming.î
ìI wouldnít jump so far ahead of myself,î Trudy says. ìTake a deep breath.î
I hear Maureen inhaling and swallowing air.
ìAnd another. One more.î
ìTrudy, I wonít be able to breathe if I keep taking breaths! Now Iím standing in front of you with a busted heart so cut me some slack on the breathing, okay?î
ìOkay, okay. Just trying to help you relax and not blow a gasket. Weíre at work, remember?î
ìBut weíre not on the clock.î Maureen blows her nose and then starts washing her hands. If I was really interested, I would wonder what theyíre doing here at this hour but itís anybodyís guess. Sometimes they come in here to kill time between drop-offs and pickups at any number of sport venues for adolescents.
Trudy and Maureen would be the first to admit that making things that are unnecessary is not only fun, theyíre happy to have something to do that gets them out of the house. Something that has nothing to do with children or husbands. They arenít particularly fascinated by art or beauty, just grateful for the distraction: this is precisely why they had designers decorate their homes and gave them carte blanche. They wanted to avoid feeling overwhelmed by having to make too many conflicting decisions at once: from hardware to fabric, carpeting to faux finishes, to where the trampoline would be safest. They wanted to be surprised when they moved in.
ìHe cheated cheated cheated!î Maureen blurts out again as if sheís trying to remind herself of it. ìBut donít you worry one bit because heíll pay for it. Big time,î Trudy says a little louder. Iím not sure if sheís talking about karma, child support, or alimony.
ìBut I donít want a divorce!î Maureen slurs, which just means the Xanax sheís ìrequiredî to take must have kicked in. Now sheís crying. ìI just want things to be back the way they used to be! Exactly, precisely like they were! Normal!î
I press the magazine against my chest like it has some kind of healing properties. Twenty-some- odd years ago, I was drunken-in-love with Leon and life, and with all the possibilities my future held. I canít remember when the dreams stopped being real and reality wiped out the dreams. When everything that took up my time was always something tangible. How do you lose so much and not notice when it starts evaporating? Why does it feel like I missed something or that I forgot to do something? It feels like all Iíve been doing is shaking out wrinkles. Tears are rolling down my face because I realize how comfortable Iíve gotten with this numbness.
I just want things to be back the way they used to be. Exactly. Normal. I feel like yelling out to Maureen that nothing can ever be the way it was. We just long for whatever was once good. Itís the longing that makes us slide into a nostalgic coma. Itís a way of resisting what is happening right now. I loved raising my kids but I wouldnít want to go through it again. Theyíre finally out of the house and off at college. If the truth be told, I crave the exact opposite of what Maureen wants: to go forwardónot backward. Iím just not sure how to get there. Which is probably why Iím now bawling my eyes out.
Trudy knocks on the stall door. ìAre you all right in there?î
ìYou wouldnít think so, Trudy,î I say, gathering my composure and reading material before I open the door like Iím stepping into the light.
ìMarilyn, what in Sam hell are you doing in the handicapped stall? I should give you a ticket! Are those tears in your eyes? What is this, the Tear Factory? I suppose you heard Miss Maureenís good news so we can pretty much label her tears, but what are yours for?î
ìI honestly donít know. I think maybe it was hearing about your situation, Maureen. I suppose.î
ìItís a situation all right,î she says, as if a thickness is coating her tongue.
ìHow many years have you been married now, Marilyn?î Trudy asks out of what seems like the blue.
ìThatís entirely too long,î Trudy says. ìWhat I mean is, itís too long for you not to be just as miserable as the rest of us. So come on Miss Pillow Perfect, tell us youíre on the one-Zoloft-a- day-diet like the rest of us and weíve got ourselves a club.î
ìSorry, Trudy, but I donít think I qualify. Iím not exactly bursting with joy but Iím not miserable. You could say Iíve been living somewhere in the neighborhood of Mediocrity but have been waiting for a reserved parking space to open up in Happy Hills.î
ìWhere? What are you talking about?î Trudy asks.
ìItís not important. Anyway, Iím really sorry to hear about Roger, Maureen.î
ìItís fine. Iím fine. Weíll all be fine. If he thinks heís going to just walk out of my and the kidsí lives because he wants to live on Fantasy Island, I mean, hello? I didnít hear you flush, Marilyn. What were you doing in there?î
ìIíd already flushed. But once Maureen got going, I didnít feel right opening the door.î
ìNo worries!î Maureen says. ìLook, we were here for the bread-making class, but I just canít handle it today.î
To show that I understand, I nod. ìWait a minute! You did just say ëbread making,í correct?î
ìYes. Weíre evolving. Out of the fire and into the pan or something like that,î Trudy says.
ìCome on, Mo, let me treat you to a mocha nonfat latte with no foam and one Equal?î She winks at me. ìSee ya next weekend for a little trim, Marilyn.î
After they leave, I drop the book and magazine on the dry part of the sink and put my hands under the faucet. I look down at the silver stream that gushes out, but can still see a shadow of myself in the mirror above. If I look up, Iíll see the truth in my eyes. What the hell am I doing? Here. Not in this store? But here: in this world, in northern California, in February 2004? Worrying about my hormone levels? Not only. I need to breathe. To stop pretending.
What I do know is that Iím forty-four years old. That I have been attached to my husband and kids for so long I need to find out what kind of person Iím capable of being as Marilyn Dupree and not just as Marilyn Grimes: mother and wife. But how do you make changes in your life without upsetting everything and everybody around you?
Iím scared. But I have to do something or the spirit I still have left is going to petrify. I just canít believe that I grew up and became one of those women who got married and had kids and forgot all about my personal dreams. At first I just tucked them away and then as the years passed, they got buried and I felt embarrassed or ashamed to have had them in the first place. I figured after I finished raising my children Iíd at least get the interesting man I married back (didnít happen) and reacquainted with my other self and pick up where I left off.
They call us housewives. But contrary to popular belief, weíre not all trophies like Maureen or as uneducated as Trudy, no malice intended. In fact, I did more than go to college. I got a degree, although Iíve almost forgotten what I majored in. Might as well have been Intro to First Husbands 101 (Gordon) the soul mate I let get away, and after two summer sessions of nothing close to intimacy, was coerced into repeating the class and enrolled in Second Husbands 101A (enter Leon). But then, after Iíd barely flipped my tassel and was taking a one-year sabbatical before heading back to grad school because I thought being a social worker would help me steer as many unfortunate folkóblack folk in particularóas far from self-destruction and poverty as they could get, but then surprise, surprise, here comes what I thought was only going to be a temporary interruption: Daughter 101 (Sabrina, a.k.a Isnít-She-Cute-and-Smart-Those-First- Eleven-Years, and then The-Rebellious-Iím-Already-Grown-and-Having-Sex-and-Getting-an- Occasional-Buzz-I-Could-Strangle-Her-Teenager-Years), who is now twenty-two and did a 360- degree turn. She became a vegetarian, got spiritual, and may be her generationís Iyanla. Next came Fraternal Twin Boys 202 (Spencer and Simeon, nineteen): straight up and down computer and math nerds like their dad, who makes sure buildings are built properly so they wonít buckle during earthquakes. Leon helped build our house a century ago. Itís big and boring. Itís up in the Oakland Hills in what has been renamed The Fire Area since in 1990 almost all the homes up here were lost when some idiot set some eucalyptus trees on fire. Sometimes, I wished ours had burned to the ground so we could start all over. But it didnít. We only had minor smoke damage. Leon planned on doing the renovations himself, but fourteen years later, I stopped holding my breath.
Being a lifetime wife and mother has afforded me the luxury of having multiple and even simultaneous careers: Iíve been a chauffeur. A chef. An interior decorator. A landscape architect, as well as a gardener. Iíve been a painter. A furniture restorer. A personal shopper. A veterinarianís assistant and sometimes the veterinarian. Iíve been an accountant, a banker, and on occasion, a broker. Iíve been a beautician. A map. A psychic. Santa Claus. The Tooth Fairy. The T.V. Guide. A movie reviewer. An angel. God. A nurse and a nursemaid. A psychiatrist and psychologist. Evangelist. For a long time I have felt like I inadvertently got my masterís in How To Take Care of Everybody Except Yourself and then a Ph.D. in How to Pretend Like You Donít Mind.
But I do mind.
ìMarilyn? Are you still in here?î Trudy asks, sticking her head in the door. ìYour fifteen minutes have come and gone, sister, now get your behind out here and sell some beads or something! And youíve got a phone call.î
ìDid they say who it was?î I ask, pretending to fluff my flat hair. Leonís out doing seismic studies in a desert down in southern California where his cell never works and he wonít be home until Monday afternoon, which also means heís golfing. He rarely calls me at work because Iím usually busy demonstrating, hunting for, or explaining something to someone. And ...
ìItís your favorite person.î
ìSay it out loud. I donít mind.î
ìLine three. Have a nice weekend, Marilyn. Iím outta here.î
I walk behind the framing counter and press the blinking red light. ìHello, Arthurine. Whatís going on?î
ìWell, you know I wouldnít bother you at work unless it was important ...î
ìHas something happened? Itís not the kids or Leon, is it?î
ìHold your horses, chile. No. No. The Lord says ...î
ìArthurine, I have a pretty good idea what the Lord had to say about being patient, but could you just get to the point, please? Iíve got customers waiting.î
ìWell, you didnít ask if something couldíve happened to me or Snuffy?î
ìWell, youíre in good enough shape to call me so how bad off could you be? And if it was Snuffy Iíd think youíd sound sadder.î
ìYouíve got a point, except what if I ... Oh, never mind. Your doctor called and said you should call her.î
ìYou want me to say it louder?î
ìDid she say why?î
ìThey donít usually say why unless itís a matter of life and death and we both know you arenít dying. So think about it for a minute and call her.î
ìDid she leave her number?î
ìYou want me to dial it for you and make this a three-way?î
ìNever mind, I forgot Iíve got it stored in my cell. Thanks for letting me know.î
ìYouíre welcome. What time will you be getting home?î
ìThe same time I always get home, Arthurine. In plenty of time to pick you up from Bible study, but Iím going over to Bunnyís tonight to play cards.î
ìDidnít you all just play cards last month over at Pauletteís?î
ìWhy donít you never want to play with me when I ask?î
ìBecause you only like to play solitaire, Arthurine, and itís hard to play with another player.î
ìWell guess what?î
ìI canít ...î
ìPeggyís daughter is being a good Christian and has offered to bring me home after Bible study.î
ìWell, thatís nice,î I say, trying not to sound too relieved.
ìI sure wish I could manage to cook something but my arthritis been acting up all week long and itís hard for me to open a can.î
ìWell, I wouldnít want you to strain yourself. Iíll pick up something on my way home.î
ìCould it possibly be Mexican or Chinese?î
Sheís giggling when I hang up. She gets on the nerve that runs directly from the left and right sides of my brain. But God donít like ugly and Iím trying not to let ugly register anywhere near my heart or mind because Paulette probably has hidden cameras watching me. When I take my cell phone out of my jacket pocket I realize that it was my doctor whoíd called while I was in the bathroom. I hang up and press ìcalls receivedî on my cell and get her office. ìYes, this is Marilyn Grimes and Iím returning Dr. Hiltonís call. Is something wrong? Was my blood test abnormal or something?î
ìNo, no, no,î the receptionist says, almost giggling, which makes me feel a little better. ìThe doctor just thought you might want to come in to talk about the results of your blood work, thatís all.î
ìHow about Monday?î
ìShe could see you between two and four.î
ìIíll be there about two fifteen. And youíre sure Iím not sick?î
ìNo, you are not sick, she just wants to explain what your test results mean and then let you weigh your options.î
ìThen itís pretty clear that Iím going through menopause? Are my hormones disappearing?î
ìThe doctor will explain all of that to you when she sees you, so donít worry, Mrs. Grimes. You have a nice weekend.î
I hang up the phone. If I get in there on Monday and find out Iím dying, Iím going to strangle this bitch.