August 25, 2008

Big Girl Outing

If sisters were free to express how they really feel, parents would hear this: “Give me all the attention and all the toys and send Rebecca to live with Grandma.” — Linda Sunshine


David staggered out of bed at 7:30 a.m., half-asleep, to placate the ringing phone. I pulled the comforter over my head and almost slipped back into unconsciousness when I heard David’s voice through the haze of down and cotton: “Yes, Maria, she’s right here.” I instinctively clutched the phone as it was pressed into my hand. “Hi, Mom,” I croaked.

“My hand is sore, it’s killing me,” she said.

“What? Why?” I remained horizontal as the fog of sleep began to clear.

“It’s sore from signing autographs,” she joked, prompting us both to laugh. The previous morning, Mom had joined me for a short spot on the news to highlight some local Mother’s Day events. This sore-hand bit was an continuation of her kidding sentiments the evening before her big television debut, when she’d called to say, in an exaggerated Old Hollywood drawl, “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. De Mille.”

When our chuckles had tapered off and our vocal chords were fully awake, Mom got down to business: “Can you and Jenny drive up to Heather’s together? Everyone can meet there at noon and we’ll leave from there in Heather’s car.”

“Sure, no problem,” I said. “Now I think I’ll go back to sleep for a bit.”

“Okay, honey, I’ll see you soon,” said Mom. I was about to doze off again when a potential problem occurred to me. Without looking at the keypad, I dialed Jane’s number.

“Yo,” Jane answered.

“Yo,” I said. “Hey, we’re all going up in Heather’s car? Do you think we’ll fit?”

“Her car is a lot cleaner than mine,” said Jane. “So, yeah, we should be fine.”

“Do you think you guys are really going to be there by noon?”

“Mom and I are going straight to Heather’s from Bella’s dance class, so we shouldn’t be held up.”

“Awesome. See you soon,” I said, and ended the call.

I then called Jenny to determine what time I should pick her up. Over the next two hours, Jenny called Heather, Mom called Jenny, Mom called Jane, Mom called Heather, Jane called Heather, and I called Jane, Jenny, and Mom once again for good measure. “Jesus,” David said between calls. “A simple trip to a store in Irvine and your family places more calls and makes more plans than preceded the invasion of Iraq.”

I only smiled in response; it’s not like any reason I gave was going to make sense to the über-logical man in my life. David looked like he was about to say something else, but the high-pitched trill of my cell phone silenced him. I laughed as I answered; David rolled his eyes and returned to his desk.

At 1:30 p.m., seven females (five adults, a four-year-old, and a one-year-old) packed into one minivan in San Marcos. The next day was Mother’s Day, and Mom decided she’d like to celebrate by having the women of the family go to Irvine to pick up Jenny’s wedding dress from a specialty bridal store. Jenny, the clan’s token blonde, is to be married to her longtime boyfriend, Brad, in July. I was looking forward to a day with my sisters, mother, and nieces, but I was also glad for the opportunity to see how normal women like my sisters go about the whole wedding thing — picking up the dress is one in a series of momentous events to occur over the next few months. I was either too young or living out of town to be involved in the hubbub preceding both Heather’s and Jane’s weddings. For my own nuptials (at the county courthouse, squeezed between errands on a Wednesday morning exactly one year ago), I wore jeans.

Jane, Jenny, and I sat hip to hip in the very back of the van. In front of us, Bella and Olivia were strapped into those kiddie safety seats, and in front of them, Schoolhouse Rock played on a flip-down screen; “Conjunction Junction” blasted from speakers on either side of us in the back. Heather drove, and Mom rode shotgun. Bella craned her neck to take inventory of the vehicle and then squealed, “Nana! All of your daughters are here, Nana!” The child’s astuteness and truth of her comment seemed to please my mother, who smiled and said, “That’s right, Bella. All my daughters are here. And all my granddaughters.”

“Bella, you’re a big girl now,” Jane said to her daughter. “And you’re on a big-girl outing.” Bella beamed in response.

A moment later, Jane slapped my arm, pointed to the truck passing by on my left, particularly to the creepy-looking guy in the passenger seat, and said, “TYB!”

“Really, Jane?” Jenny said. “Let’s pretend we’re back in college, and I’ll lift my shirt and flash the guys in the next car.”

“You used to do that?” I asked, and Jenny’s entire face answered no.

“Yo,” said Jane. “TYC,” and she gestured to the driver of another truck, who was wearing a cowboy hat.

She looked so pleased with herself, I couldn’t help but play along: “Yup. There’s my cowboy, right there, come to rescue me, his damsel in domestic distress, from this here minivan.”

The moment Heather pulled onto the freeway, the controlling women in the car — that is to say, all of them — scrummed for the role of backseat driver. “You’re too close to that car,” “Why are you braking so hard?,” “Didn’t you say you wanted to take a nap; are you too tired to drive?” “Why don’t you pull over and let Mom/Jane/Barb/Jenny drive?”

“Mom,” Heather whined in exasperation, “Make them stop!”

“Settle down back there,” said Mom, as if she still held dominion over her brood.

When torturing Heather got old, Jane opened one of the bridal magazines on her lap; Jenny and I looked on from either side as she slowly flipped through the pages. The magazine was filled with pictures of gown-adorned models barely old enough to marry in the red states, and first-time brides’ questions answered by self-proclaimed wedding experts. “Oh, here’s a good one,” said Jane, pointing to a question at the bottom of one page. “‘How and when do I distribute the gifts I purchase for my bridal party?’ Huh. Jenny? Do you want to read the answer?”

“It’s funny you find that one question out of all the others to emphasize,” Jenny snapped.

Ignoring her youngest sister’s comment, Jane raised her voice so she could be heard over “I’m Just a Bill” to the front of the car and said, “Hey! You guys have any gum up there? Their breath back here really stinks.” Jenny and I each poked Jane with an elbow, but not before breathing into our hands, just to check. All of the women in my family are excessively horrified at the prospect of smelling badly. Jane had already asked ten times if anyone had deodorant on them. Both she and Jenny are compulsive users of nice-smelling lotions and sprays, and they reapply the stuff as frequently as I touch up my red lipstick.

Irritated that she couldn’t hear the lyrics to “Naughty Number Nine” over our clamor, Bella squirmed around in her seat and said, “Could you please be quiet.” Mom and Heather laughed in the front while Jane, Jenny, and I gushed our apologies to the girl who proved to be bigger than the rest of us, and then we promptly shut up.



Heaven and Hell

Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. — Woody Allen


I led David to the nose of the ferry — it was a gusty day and the sea was choppy, so the ride was sure to be thrilling, and I didn’t want to miss a bump. The only other people who chose to sit in the bow were two older couples traveling together. When the boat pulled out of the Los Angeles Port and reached full speed, anyone attempting to stand was tossed about like jeans in the dryer. The two men and two women chatted and laughed about the tumultuous ride for a bit until one of the women grew quiet. Complaining of motion-sickness, she fixed her eyes on the horizon with laserlike intensity. When the novelty of the real-life roller coaster wore off, I turned my gaze to the book in my hands, silently thanking the fates that I’m not one of those people who gets ill from reading on planes, trains, cars, or, in this case, boats.

The passengers settled into their seats for the hour-long ride to Catalina Island. All, that is, but one.

He appeared to be the oldest among them (like, 80-something). To overcome the constant roar of the motor (and his probable impaired hearing), the man spoke in a near shout that was impossible to tune out. He and the seasick woman sat in the very front row, their backs to the prow, facing the rest of us. Evidently uncomfortable with silence, the man never let more than three beats go by before he continued his bellowing thread about his days during The War. He was a loud and annoying encyclopedia of facts — the total number of troops sent to Saipan, the number of Marines lost on Iwo Jima, and how many Japs were killed. Yes, he called them “Japs.”

For 55 minutes, I wanted nothing more than for the man to fall mute. Even the people traveling with him seemed fatigued by his clamorous monologue. But having been inculcated with the adage “respect your elders,” my brain would not allow my mouth to tell an old man to shut his goddamn yap. So, instead, I did what any respectful young woman would do in my position — I glared at him. It was my hope that his spectacle-free eyes could focus as far away as my face and that, noting my displeasure, he would shut his goddamn yap. I could have sworn that, on a few occasions, he looked right at me, but either he was numb to the daggers I was blasting at him from over my book or he reveled in their sting, because he never let up.

I’ve always considered myself a direct person. But despite my willingness to speak my mind in most situations, I shy away from unpleasant confrontations, even if I end up suffering further as consequence of my reticence. It wouldn’t be so bad if I could actually brush things off and simply shy away, instead of fester and stew and grow increasingly resentful of whomever it is I find irritating. I guess I experience with my boiling bitterness what Buddha meant when he said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” In situations where confrontation would mean upsetting some old guy who’s trying to relive his glory days, I’d rather clutch the hot coal in my hand than use it to burn him.

When it comes to younger — and, in my eyes — less innocent offenders of my peace, I wish I could be more like my friend Ollie. Ollie doesn’t hesitate to voice his frustration with those who tread on his tranquility. Once, as we were sharing coffee and a muffin inside Bread & Cie, a guy started digging through the trash bin a few feet away from us. He was up to his elbows in slop and I was dying to say something to make him stop because I was about to lose a blackberry, but the moment Ollie opened his mouth to tell the guy to knock it off, I begged him to let it go, and he graciously complied. Even indirectly, even though I wanted nothing more than for that guy to go away, I cringed at the discomforting idea of someone asking him to leave. Everyone, however, has her limit.

The first two evenings at Two Harbors on Catalina Island were quiet and blissful. David had planned the trip to be just that — he wanted to take me away from all the hullabaloo of home, to a place without Internet, TV, or phones, where we could hike through the hills spotting bison, stand watching the waves lap at the sand, or just sit in our room overlooking the sapphire-blue harbor, sipping wine we’d purchased from our favorite seller in L.A. a few days before. For two days, we walked and lounged and romanced — it was a taste of heaven.

If I have learned anything from dualism, it is that for every heaven there is a corresponding hell. On the third day, as if in punishment for our scandalously selfish and corporeal activities, David and I were cast into our own personal Hades. On that day, the harbors were besieged with children, as there was a regionwide Little League championship being held there over the weekend. A few groups of boys and their male parents (mothers were conspicuously absent) were staying at the same bed-and-breakfast as David and me. Though we feared the worst of them, the children turned out to be harmless, shrieking imps that were easy enough to avoid or intimidate into silence. The worst came in the form of one of the chaperones, a man who was Satan incarnate, evil lord and premier antagonist. He and at least a half-dozen feral boys shared with us a wall that was as audibly opaque as vellum. I could hear them breathing.

We did not suffer much the night they arrived — they were tuckered by the time they got in at 11 p.m. The torment began the following morning when, at 6:30 a.m., Lucifer began yelling at the children. Not the usual kind of parental yelling one might overhear, but really mean shit, like, “You’re a moron; you’re not even supposed to be here!” to a kid I assumed was not his blood, and “You idiot, why are you wearing those socks!? Stupid moron!” The yelling didn’t stop. David and I sighed heavily and complained to each other, and still, the assault continued unabated. I stood and stomped around, thinking that since their footsteps vibrated in our room, mine might give the man pause. But here’s the rub — if a person doesn’t stop to think that screaming at dawn might offend neighboring guests, or to consider whether spitting such vile things at kids who couldn’t have been more than seven years old might be unnecessary and/or damaging, he sure as hell is not going to have some kind of epiphany prompted by the sound of a few footsteps. After all, this was the Beast of the Underworld I was dealing with.

I wanted to rail into him, to humiliate and emasculate him in front of the children. I could tell from the brutish and juvenile things he was shouting at kids that it would be easy for an adult with a substantial vocabulary and a shred of psychological insight to make short work of him. But I didn’t want a scene, and from what I had heard so far, it was probable that Beelzebub would end up taking out his embarrassment on those poor wretches, demonstrating his strength in order to compensate for his weakness. So I muttered, “Jesus!” under my breath and continued stomping, to no avail. David, lying on the bed, looked as exasperated as I felt. I needed to be more direct.

I stepped up to the wall and slammed my fist against it in three deliberate thumps. The Prince of Darkness scrambled across the floor, and his voice fell, but I could still hear every word: “Shush, shh, I said be quiet, dammit!” When he was finished shushing and I was sure I had his complete attention, I spoke in a forceful tone, emphasizing every word so as to be sure he realized just how thin that wall was, “Can you please keep it down.” It was not a question. As I suspected, the devil turned out to be no more than a dog, and the yelling ceased. I climbed back into bed beside a grateful David, and realized, with relief, that my proverbial hand had finally stopped burning.



Little One

Families with babies and families without babies are sorry for each other. — Ed Howe


The gestation period had only been three months — from the date I conceived my little one to the moment she was delivered. During that time, my friends, whom I’d infected with my excitement, would ask me to predict the exact delivery date. But, as those sorts of things go, even after numerous consultations with experts, I was unable to suggest anything more precise than a two-week window.

“I’m thinking of throwing you a shower,” said my friend Jen, two months before the big day. Assuming she was kidding, I laughed it off. When she mentioned it again, I giggled at her continuing joke. But the fourth time she offered, I realized she was serious, and why not? A shower is celebration-inspired consumerism at its least apologetic. An event that unabashedly declares, “A welcome addition will soon enter this woman’s life; therefore, you must select and purchase for her an item from this list she has so kindly assisted in compiling!” Then it hit me — Jen had been joking; I had just been too obtuse to catch her more developed lead-up to an even grander punch line.

“I think I might take you up on the shower thing. I’ve even started to figure out what to register for,” I said to Jen while hiking with her in Torrey Pines.

“Shh, David might hear you, and that would be bad luck,” she said.

Mirroring Jen’s mock seriousness, I said, “Don’t worry, he’s behind me, my words are lost to the ocean breeze. Isn’t that right, David?” I said, in a slightly raised voice.

“What?” David huffed, more from frustration than exhaustion.

“Nothing, beh beh,” I responded, flipping my head to flash my love an adoring smile. Facing forward to Jen, I said, “See? Now, what was I saying…right, there’s this catalog. I’m only thinking of the things I need, of course, things I couldn’t possibly afford at this juncture, what with all the new financial responsibility I’m taking on. It’s not like I’m simply being greedy, you know. It’s just that I had no idea that a basic check up could cost so much. Oh, and I also came up with a few games we might play at the party.”

Jen smirked, perhaps remembering our conversations about the banality of such games, and my countless rants against the myriad vulgarities of gift registration. The subject was dropped in the next moment, as Jen pointed out a slate-colored bunny munching on a blade of grass just ten feet away from us.

My decision to dispense with the child-rearing phase of life allows me to spend what, to those who have chosen to breed, may seem a disproportionate amount of time and money on other subjects of my choosing, be it myself, my friends, or, most recently, my new car. Each day, after custom ordering my Mini Cooper Sport from England, I checked on its progress. I knew when it was being built, when it was placed on a ship to New York, when it was loaded onto a truck to be driven across the country, and when it was delivered to the dealership in Escondido. I picked it up and drove it home to meet its father, David, who was waiting to greet the new addition to our parking garage.

David pampers the car more than I do. He can hardly pass by the miniature machine without taking a soft cloth to some part of it, gently massaging away a fingerprint here, a black smudge there. I express my affection in other ways, like dressing my beloved new thing like me — that is, in red and black, the dominant colors of my wardrobe. Regardless of our different ownership styles, the fact remains that David and I are both enamored with our new toy.

After two weeks of exploring the streets around its new home, the dust-covered Mini was in need of soap and water. David insisted on joining me for this momentous occasion. Just after we pulled into the carwash, a white Mini pulled up next to us. David and I got out of ours and a man and woman exited theirs. Smiles were exchanged and then each couple noted the other’s matching dealer plates. “Hey, no way, yours is new too?” I said, bridging the grinning gap of silence. I learned the cars had been purchased from the same dealer within a week of each other. The four of us made our way into the store, where cards and air fresheners are sold on one side, while on the other, people peer through windows to watch their vehicles go through the automated wash.

“So what’s its name?” asked the woman.

“I’m Barbarella, and this is David,” I said.

“Oh, yes, sorry, I’m Barbara, and this is Frazer. And there,” she said, gesturing through the window at the cream-colored car, “is Pepe.” She raised her brows in expectation.

“Oh, its name, right,” I said. “We don’t have a name for her.” Her disappointed expression made me feel remiss. “I mean, not yet.” I breathed a sigh of relief as the smile returned to her face.

“People at work think I’m crazy the way I talk about Pepe,” she said. “But that’s how I feel when they talk about their kids, so…”

“I totally know what you mean,” I said. I was beginning to like these people.

“I noticed you have a ‘she’; that’s nice. Is this her first bath, then?” I nodded, and the four of us turned to monitor the Minis as they passed slowly by the window. David used his iPhone to take a picture of ours.

It’s common for two adults to make each other’s acquaintance because their children befriended each other at school or in the park. Without knowing a thing about each other, the parents socialize. Because of similar life circumstances, other commonalities are virtually assured and the two gravitate easily toward points of intersection. It’s harder for people like David and me, with our tendencies toward counterculture pursuits, to find likeminded others to whom we can relate.

I was considering all of this when, as if reading my mind, Barbara said, “We should schedule a play date!”

“You mean like take them for a ride to Julian or something? That sounds lovely. It would be their first road trip,” I said.

“Or,” said my new friend and fellow Mini mother, “the four of us can go have dinner or wine, like normal people.”

“I’m about as normal as I want to be,” I said, and handed her my card. “Please, email me.” I thought it might be nice to learn something, anything about these people before setting off on a day trip. “I have an idea — why don’t the two of you come over to our place? You like wine and cheese?”

“We love it,” said Frazer, in a Scottish brogue I hadn’t picked up on when he’d first said hello.

“Great, then. Shoot me an email and we’ll set a date.” The guy standing next to my car waved a blue towel in the air. “That’s us,” I said. “Better go before she suffers separation anxiety.” When I reached my car, I turned and waved goodbye to our new friends, and, as we pulled away, I beeped bye-bye to Pepe.



Techno-Laziness

We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors and furniture polish is made from real lemons. — Alfred E. Neuman


After searching every aisle, I found David squeezing avocados in the produce section. “When you’re done with that, you need to see something,” I said in a no-nonsense tone.

“What is it?” David’s voice was casual; he continued testing for ripeness.

“I can’t describe it,” I answered. “You’ll just have to come and see for yourself.”

David studied my face for a moment. Deciding this wasn’t just another fashion-vandal sighting, he raised the avocado in his hand and said, “This’ll do.”

I led David past heaps of onions, potatoes, and lemons to the refrigerated section in the next aisle where bags of shredded cheese were suspended above shelves of vacuum-packed cold cuts. “There,” I said, pointing to a package on the lowest shelf. “What do you make of that?”

He looked at the package and read the words, “Fast Franks.” Through the clear plastic wrap he could see three hot dogs nestled into three buns, each of which was encapsulated within its own microwavable paper sleeve. “What the… No,” said David, as the horrific implication sunk in.

“I know,” I said. “I mean, is it really so hard to place the wiener in the bun that this sort of convenience is marketable?” In my best commercial voiceover, I added, “Tired of wasting your time by placing your hot dog inside the bun? Irritated that you have to soil a plate in the microwave? Never know what to do with those two buns you’re left with when the hot dogs run out? Well, hold on to your ball caps and break out the mustard because we have a revolutionary idea that will change the way you look at hot dogs forever!”

David shook his head and muttered, “The Apocalypse is near. Come on, let’s go check out. I can’t look at it any longer.”

At home, after the groceries were put away and another Scrabble game started, my mind wandered back to Oscar Mayer’s latest innovation. It occurred to me that my reaction to the preassembled hot dogs had been hypocritical. How could I condemn one product of convenience when there are so many others I enjoy? For Christ’s sake, I buy my eggs already hard-boiled so as to spare myself half an hour and a dirty pot. You’d think I’d be a tad forgiving about someone who doesn’t want to expend the effort of removing a wiener from one package and a bun from another, placing the dog inside the bun, putting the combo on a clean plate that will need washing, and then sticking it all in the microwave.

I can’t remember a day that I did not make a handful of “clever” decisions in the name of convenience; decisions that, when scrutinized, turned out to be nothing more than a series of choices made to satisfy laziness. Products of convenience, by definition, are created to save time and effort. This, in turn, leads us to invent new ways to spend our time — most often, in Sisyphean efforts to shed pounds and tone atrophied muscles, the side effects of our newfound leisure time. For example, a man might purchase a riding lawnmower and, a week later, a treadmill — one machine to save energy, the other to expend it. We must give pause before dubbing that man a fool. How many of us drive our cars to the gym?

It all seems to be about control; whether it’s saving time and effort (from microwaves to Segways) or spending it (from elliptical trainers to video games), people want to do so on their terms. I am alternately lazy and energetic when I want to be, not when I have to be. But, as writers of fables have tried to teach us for thousands of years, getting what we want when we want it does not always make for the best outcome. Take the past 50 years’ advances in communications technology, for instance. It may be easier for us to get ahold of people, but the price for that ease is more interruption and distraction in our daily lives.

Technology now allows us to work, attend meetings, shop, and pay our bills without crossing the threshold of our front door. One afternoon I took a break from the relentless torrent of information gushing forth from my laptop, grabbed a book, and retreated to the reading chair in the corner of my office. Moments later, I heard my cell phone chime as it received a text message. It was from David. He was sitting in his office, one room over. Rather than laugh aloud or shout to him across the divide, I chose the path of least resistance — the path of the thumbs — and texted him back. An hour later, we convened in the kitchen and prepared dinner: flash-frozen broccoli in a bag (five minutes in the microwave) and Trader Joe’s premade turkey-stuffed red peppers (four minutes).

Ironically, it seems the more time and effort I save myself, the more stressed and frazzled I become. I feel pressed to fill every second of that time, as if once saved, it becomes more precious. “We used to call that a ‘blibby’ in New York,” said my dad when I’d complained to him that I felt I had more to do than time to do it. “You’re squeezing in a lot more than you can,” he clarified. “A blibby is 15 pounds of shit in a 5-pound sack. And that ain’t gonna happen. We think we’re being efficient if we’re doing more things, but we’re no longer paying attention to the things we’re doing. If you do what you’re doing 100 percent, you’re going to enjoy it more.”

Despite my geekiness for gadgets, one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve ever had was due to the absence of the very same modern conveniences I felt I couldn’t live without. It was the time David and I stayed with our friends, Urs and Gudrun, at their home in Öland, Sweden, and then, together with them, in a small villa in Trevi, Italy. For those weeks I was without phone, a clothes dryer, microwave, and dishwasher. Televisions were available but were never turned on. Despite the lack of access to my usual “timesavers,” I had a surprising amount of free time. In the evenings, a bottle of wine would be opened and dinner prepared, not from a box or bag, but from actual individual ingredients. The table was set and, eventually, the four of us would sit and take our meal accompanied by the soft textured sound of Urs’s classical music on the stereo. I have dined at four-star restaurants, but I cannot remember any meal tasting better than the savored fare from those unhurried evenings.

When we returned from our European adventure, David and I tried to re-create the leisurely charm at home. We turned off the ringers on each of our cell phones and the landline. We chose a recipe for which the microwave was not required and went shopping for ingredients. We opened a bottle of wine, turned on some music, and set about preparing the meal. As I washed the dishes and David dried, both of us ignoring the fancy stainless-steel dishwasher to our left so as to have a reason to stand next to one another and chat, I said, “This was really great, beh beh. We should do it more often.”

“I’d like that,” said David. We promised to make it a habit, to take our time, to turn off our phones and shut down the computers, at least one evening a week. And though both of us have yet to do so, these months later, we still vow daily, between phone calls, errands, and emails, to stop saving time and simply take it.



My Kryptonite

For every man there exists a bait which he cannot resist swallowing. — Friedrich Nietzsche


It was a cruel thing to do, but I don’t blame him. I doubt he understood the ramifications of typing those words and hitting “send.” Or maybe he did — you never know with Ollie. I might have held off on viewing the message had I not been charmed by the subject line, “in terms of cuteness…” I coaxed my cursor and clicked to read the simple sentence that would purloin hours of productivity: “You’re going to want to look up ‘sugar gliders.’” I had a lot to do. I should have waited until I’d at least responded to a few emails before opening Google and typing in the two innocuous seeming words.

The moment my eyes alighted upon the first picture of the velvety squirrel-like creature with huge black eyes, itty-bitty paws, a thick, fluffy tail, and webbed flesh on each side that allowed it to sail through the air, all thoughts of to-dos evaporated from my mind. How had I never come across this adorable critter before? I clicked on every link and thumbnail photo I could find. I learned the sugar glider is a marsupial — a bit of trivia that, for some reason, only made the thing seem cuter. Then I found out they live as long as cats and that people keep them as pets. As pets! I pictured myself relaxing on the couch, watching a movie, when suddenly, my very own sugar glider floats across the room from where it had perched atop my television, lands on my lap for a bit of a cuddle, and falls asleep in my hands as I absentmindedly stroke its fuzzy little head. Then I frittered away more time researching how to care for them and where I might acquire one. It didn’t matter that — like the almost as adorable but just as lovable ferrets — keeping sugar gliders as pets in California is illegal. I wanted one.

I don’t know how I’ll die or when, but chances are there will be some kind of fluffy, cuddly animal involved. My prognostication is not mere whimsy; it’s based on an extrapolation from past events. When I was four, I stood in a neighbor’s garage and patted the ears of their St. Bernard until the beast became irritated — expressing his displeasure, he knocked me onto my back and pinned my neck to the ground with his teeth. Stitches were needed to reconnect the torn edges of my throat. My parents were horrified, but even at four, I knew guilt, and I blamed myself for antagonizing the animal. As soon as I was well enough to go out and play, the first thing I wanted to do was pet the doggie again.

Two years later, curious to see how my family’s new puppy would react to a neighbor’s giant, fluffy, white cat, I collected the huge Persian into my arms and carried it over to where our puppy, Penny, was tethered to a pole in the back yard. The cat freaked out, bit my arm, and then used my face as a launching pad to rocket into the air. This time, the doctors had to suck some kind of cat-tooth poison from my arm before sewing one of my eyelids back on. When I was 13, my front tooth was busted in half when, after leaning forward to pet my friend’s mini-Lassie, the stunted pup suddenly leapt at my face. As the dog was unable to find purchase on my face from that weird, flying-through-the-air angle, and as I was in a sort of open-mouthed surprise at the time, our teeth collided. It was one of the funnier moments of my life, and I chuckled all the way to the dentist.

My most recent animal-inflicted wound was the work of a fat, furry rodent. It happened in November 2005, when my sister Jenny and I went to Balboa Park to feed the squirrels and take some pictures of the wildlife. But that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to touch one. And not just any one, but the big-ass fluffy one that was bold enough to come right up to me and put his tiny toes on my hand. As a reward for my affection, the cutest squirrel in the world gave me one tooth-punctured nail and finger, and several scratches on my arm, from what I’m convinced was an attempted hug. My epitaph will read, “Here lies Barbarella, dead for her inability to resist cuteness.”

“Animals are your kryptonite,” David said as we drove my new Mini toward Ocean Beach. “And anything sparkly,” he added as an afterthought. I wondered if he was aware that the dog-per-person ratio would increase dramatically once I veered toward Sunset Cliffs, which was not only the direction of our dinner destination, the Third Corner, but also of both an immense dog park and the popular Dog Beach.

“You saying I’d let something cute or sparkly get the better of me?” I prodded.

“I’m saying,” David said, sitting up in his seat, “that if, when you were buying this car, those dealers had set a puppy on the counter and told you to pay twice as much, you would have signed the paper without blinking. Or tearing your gaze from the puppy.”

“Nonsense,” I said. “Hey! Dog’s head out the window, to your left. It’s a Siberian husky. I love huskies. Aren’t they beautiful? Are you looking?”

“I wish I had a video camera at the ready to catch all the times you dork out over an animal. How ’bout you look at the road?” David said in an I-told-you-so tone of voice. “But isn’t she beautiful!” I shrieked. “Yes, you are! Aren’t you? Yes, you are!” I baby-burbled at the husky.

This past weekend David and I attended a small gathering over at Kimberly and Shawn’s place (a couple in the adjacent building that I have befriended since first ogling them from my office window two years ago with the binoculars David had given me for my birthday). Kim and Shawn have a large black-and-white cat. Their neighbors, Eric and Robert, have two teeny wiener dogs. Vinny, a squat black pug belonging to Gretchen and Daniela, whom I’d just met, was trotting around our ankles, hoping to catch some scraps from the table.

What does David know anyway? I thought, as I maintained a delightful conversation in the face of all those cute animals. I wasn’t struck dumb or incapacitated. Sure, there were animals all around, and if I let my mind wander, I could easily imagine myself in the forest glen, communing with the wildlife like Sleeping Beauty, but I’m a grown woman. No smooshed pug faces, gregarious cats, or silly-shaped dogs were going to distract me from taking part in stimulating conversation with other adults over wine and Robert’s edamame tofu dip. Kryptonite, my ass, I thought smugly.

“Did you hear that, Barb?” David asked, pulling me from my reverie to find a mischievous look on his face.

“No, missed it. I was thinking about the topic we were on a moment ago, about the crazy shit we get to see because we live so close to these nightclubs,” I said, proud of myself for thinking quickly.

“Yeah, clearly you didn’t,” David said, stoking my curiosity. I extended my arm, and David filled my glass from the bottle in his hand. He was watching me carefully.

“Well? What did I miss? Are they leaving?” I gestured to Gretchen and Daniela, who had risen to their feet.

“Yeah, we’ve got to go, I’m pretty beat,” said Daniela. “I was just saying I wanted to check on Mr. T.”

“Mr. T?” I asked.

“Thomas, our rabbit.”

“Rabbit?” I said, playing it cool. “You, uh, got him in a cage over there?”

“No, no cage,” said Gretchen. “Thomas is house-trained, so he just roams around the apartment.”

“You have a bunny, just out, like, hopping around in your place right now?” I shot to my feet and set my glass on the table. “Can I see him?”

As I pushed Gretchen and Daniela to the door, I caught David leaning toward Kimberly and saying, “Told ya.” But I didn’t care. I was about to pet the bunny!





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