Sunday, May 24, 2015

Finest Worksong

Mom was annoyed that I'd gone into labor early.  She and my sister were planning to visit the following week.  She'd bought me several modest nightgowns with matching robes that she wanted me to wear in the hospital.  I called the house from the phone in the recovery room to let her know that Kirin had arrived.

"Mom, it's Mary.  He's here."

"Goddamn it," she said.  "What am I supposed to do with all these nightgowns?"

Perhaps my mother thought some practical sleepwear would help me develop the sense necessary to take care of a baby.  That's the best explanation I've got for that question.

"What are you wearing?"

"I packed t-shirts and boxer shorts.  They said I could put them on tomorrow."

"Jesus Christ, Mary.  Must you go out of your way to embarrass me?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're a mother now.  You've gotta stop dressing like an asshole."

And then, we talked about Kirin.

"You realize I'm not dippy about that name."

"Yeah, Mom.  I figured."

"What does it mean, anyway?"

"It's a Japanese beer.  A Seagram product," I told her.

"I'm calling him Devin.  I like that better."

She wasn't kidding.  She hung onto that threat for months.

My sister had already been to Disneyland on her honeymoon, but it was Big Mare's first plane ride.  She was a little wasted when Jason and I came to get them at the airport.  When I think about that trip, I realize what a huge deal it was for my mother to travel 1,250 miles to be with us.  To leave my dad to his own devices, even for just a couple of days, was a miracle.  She must have been a nervous wreck. She didn't know Jason from a hole in the wall.  We lived in an unknown place.  She was always worried about me.  And now, I had this child to raise.

I could tell Mom was still angry with me for getting pregnant.  She was, however, just as equally overjoyed to be a grandma.  She and Judy slept on foam rubber folding chairs in Kirin's room.   My mother fed, rocked and burped the new baby. She changed diapers and did laundry.  She filled our refrigerator and pantry with groceries.  Even though I was grateful that she bought us some stuff, I felt threatened by her patronizing maternal instinct and largesse.  Her generosity came at a price, and I was never sure how much it would cost.

We went out to eat twice during their stay, at restaurants that didn't serve alcohol. The town we lived in, Jacksonville, was in a dry county.  We generally bought our liquor in the next town over or on base.  Mom stared into the waitress's apron just a little too long when the woman told her she could have iced tea, but not beer.  My mother looked like she really could have used a drink.  Me, too.

"This Ahrkansaw is bullshit," she whispered loudly across the table.

I couldn't have agreed more, but I felt determined to make the best of it.

After supper, we went back to the house and passed the baby around.  Like always, my mother inventoried each trip I made to the fridge.  She commented on every glass of wine I poured.  She could drain as many beers as she wanted, but she was dead set against my drinking.  And she made sure everyone knew it.

"What are you?  Your father?" she asked.

At one point, she caught Jason laughing at something I'd said.

"You think it's funny now," she told him.  "You have no idea what you're in for."

I tried to ignore her snide remarks.  I resented her condescending judgment.  I felt bold and out of control, like a willful child.  Determined to do exactly as I pleased. For fuck's sake, I was a grown woman.  I'd show her.  I drank even more.

Our visit was strained and unpleasant, punctuated by the screams of a colicky newborn and the smell of baby shit.  My mother turned her cheek away and lifted her eyelids dramatically when I kissed her goodbye.  She squinched up her face, as if my gesture was something to be endured.  I missed her as soon as she left.

And then, it was just the three of us.  For a very long, very short time.

Every day, I got more familiar with loving my son.  I was surprised and confused by the feelings he encouraged in my young, inexperienced heart.  I couldn't believe I was capable of that much emotion.  We lay in bed together in the early mornings, getting to know one another.  With him propped against the front of my thighs, I sang little songs into his open face.  He cooed and barfed up the contents of his bottle into the crook of his neck.

Motherhood was hard work.  I found myself in my pajamas all the time.  I was worn out and needed more showers than I was getting.  The house reeked of sour formula and throw-up, as did I.

I held my baby and watched TV.  I washed his little clothes and picked up the house while he slept.  I felt tired and shellshocked all the time.  With seemingly so much to do every minute of the day, I was still terribly bored and lonely.

Beyond the three rooms that Kirin and I occupied during the day, the rest of the world moved and spun on its axis.  I watched from the window.  My husband left every morning for work and returned in the evenings, exhausted and stressed out. Babies were more expensive than either of us realized.  It seemed as though we needed so many things and had very little.

Jason was conscientious and pragmatic in his approach to our married life and the future.  I was impractical and unrealistic.  I wasn't interested in agonizing over our finances.  I was afraid to learn how to drive.  I was more concerned with why I no longer felt attracted to my husband.  I dismissed the possibility that I was afraid of having sex again.  I thought if I got myself drunk enough, I might feel more inclined to be with him.  Most nights, however, we ate supper in near silence, he went to bed and I just kept pouring.

It's funny.  I don't remember us fighting much.  We just drifted toward our neutral corners and worried about different things, separately.  The whole while, I continued to drink.

I curled up on the couch listening to music with headphones on, sobbing myself to sleep. It became a regular way to comfort myself, along with the booze.  I wondered if Jason was getting sick of me.  I was certainly getting sick of him.  And that made me cry even more.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Dum Dum Girl

Jason and I were relocating to Little Rock after he finished his technical training in Biloxi.  I called my mother to let her know where we'd be going next.

"It's in Arkansas," I said.

"Ahr-kan-saw?  Where in the hell is that?" she demanded, so determined to despise this bit of news.

I wasn't sure what to tell her.  I didn't really know where anything was located. Besides, Mom was suspicious of all life that existed beyond the parameters of Macy's in Parkchester, Frank and Joe's Delicatessen and St. Raymond's Church.

I looked on the map Jason kept in the car.  I pored over the big drawing of America, divided into color-coded sections.  It was like I was seeing this information for the very first time.  I examined how some states I'd never even previously considered were wedged up against each other - Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma. And how far away on the diagram they seemed from the Bronx.

"How much longer is he gonna have to do this shit?" my mother asked.

"What shit?"

"Army shit."

"He's in the Air Force, Mom."


I felt equally sad and relieved that we weren't moving any closer.  That woman drove me up a wall.

We rented a tidy two-bedroom apartment near the Air Force base.  My mother sent us some money to buy a couch.  We drove to J.C. Penney, and I chose a gray one with little blue flowers on the cushions.  There I sat most afternoons, scribbling letters on looseleaf paper to Mom and a few girlfriends who I thought might write back.  I went to the toilet every ten minutes and stared at my growing belly in the bathroom mirror.  I waited impatiently for a small person to arrive and keep me company.

We signed up for Lamaze classes and watched a movie on how babies get born.  I decided right then and there that I would have to die in my sleep before my due date.  There was no way in hell I'd be able to survive childbirth.  Even with the help of that film and the certificate they gave us upon completion of the course, I was not confident in my ability to cooperate with this process.

I really couldn't tell if Jason was okay with all the stuff that was happening.  Being married and becoming a dad.  It wasn't like he said anything negative, even though I knew he was disappointed that we weren't stationed closer to New York.  He missed his old pals in Queens.  They were a close bunch.  I wanted him to be happy and excited about what we were doing together, but I felt as though I had a tough time competing with all that nostalgia.  For the most part, he seemed sullen and depressed, and I had no idea how to pull him out of it.

As time went on, it became apparent that folks back home were moving on with their lives.  For as many pages of descriptive correspondence that I penned and addressed, I got very few responses.  Jason's mother wrote faithfully, but I was convinced that she disliked me.  Nonetheless, it was always nice when her packages arrived in the mail.  Homemade pretzels and cookies, suggestions for unique baby names.  A book strongly advising against circumcision.  My mom sent coupons for diapers with holy cards paperclipped to them and one sentence scrawled across the back of each envelope.

Remember to take care of that baby, her messages warned.

Occasionally after we'd already been in bed for a few hours, the telephone would ring.  High school classmates or co-workers from my old job.  Drunk and coked up, they took turns shouting into the receiver.

"Mare!  We miss you so much," they bellowed above the noise of some raucous keg party.

"I miss you, too."

"Wow.  You're gonna have a baby!  Oh, my God!  How is everything?  Are you excited?  When are you coming back?"

I answered as best I could.  "Good.  Yes.  I don't know."

"Wow.  I can't believe you're a mom.  And you're having a baby.  Wow."

"Well, not yet," I said.  "I still have a few more weeks."

"Oh, right.  I knew that just before.  Until I forgot."

They all laughed.

I'm not sure if these girls were impressed or shocked or disappointed with my condition.  It was hard to tell.  As the months passed, our conversations became increasingly strained. We seldom spoke unless a group of them were all together and drinking.  It was kind of sweet.  It was almost as if they were taking attendance and were concerned that I was absent.

"What's new there?" I asked.

"Oh, you know.  These assholes...  What?  Okay, just a minute.  Hold on."

I waited for the next voice to say something.  Until I realized they'd resumed their incoherent discussion and had forgotten I was still on the line.  I listened as they considered getting more blow.  Eventually, I just hung up.  As big and round as I was at that point, it would take forever to get back to sleep.  I was jealous of my friends.

"Who was that?" Jason grumbled into his pillow.

I mentioned their names, but he didn't really know any of them.  He barely knew me.

"They need to stop calling here in the middle of the night.  I have to wake up in a few hours."

He was right.  But still, I began resenting his disapproving tone.  I couldn't help but think my husband's sour mood was my doing.  I'd gotten pregnant too soon.  I didn't have a job and generated no income.  We had bills and needs.  I felt anxious and increasingly compromised.

Jason worked with this nice young man named Ben.  He and his wife were from a farming community in Missouri.  Tina was a heavyset country girl  — extremely loud and bossy, almost intolerably so.  She and her tremendous baby started ringing our doorbell regularly.  I guess I hadn't much exposure to infants, and the size of this child was intimidating.

I got the impression that Tina found me very entertaining, what with me being from the big city and all.  She spoke openly about she and her husband's sex life and their plans to make additional enormous children.  I tried not to encourage these details.  She could be really gross.

I thought maybe if I found a cheaper place to live in town, Jason wouldn't be so glum.  Something with a little yard so we could barbecue and play music loud if we wanted.  A set-up that seemed more like a house than an apartment.  Tina and I cruised through neighborhoods searching for available rentals while her gigantic daughter slept in the back seat.

We found a vacant duplex that wasn't half bad, priced at forty five dollars less than what we were paying.  Both units had been inexplicably empty for quite some time. A kitchen and living area with two small bedrooms separated by a short hallway. A tree in the front and an attached shed out back for a washing machine.  I did see a few cockroaches in the bathtub, but they were all dead.  I pleaded with Jason for us to move.  He begrudgingly agreed and let me have some money for the security deposit and one and a half months' rent.  The landlord gave me the key.

The two of us drove over in the dark that evening to check the place out.  When we turned the flashlight toward the doorknob, we noticed cockroaches crawling all over the front of the house.  Along the bricks and door frame.  As we let ourselves in, water bugs fell from the ceiling.  The carpet looked as though it were moving. That's how badly overrun with bugs this shithole was.  Like a terrifying fever dream.

No one could live there until the larger nests were removed and each apartment was thoroughly fumigated.  That operation could take nearly a week. The baby was due soon, and there was still tons of stuff to do before its arrival. Jason was clearly annoyed and even though the roaches weren't my fault, I kept apologizing like they were.

We stayed with Ben and Tina for several nights, sleeping on their couch and loveseat.  Listening to the sounds of them adding to their family in the other room. Yuck.

I lay awake and tried to think about the things I wanted in my life.  I didn't even know what they were.  I thought I wanted to be married, but I hadn't really settled into being a wife.  Before I knew it, I'd be someone's mother.  I started to feel as though when Jason looked at me, I was just another pest making his life more difficult than it needed to be.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Dream Big!

May 13, 2015

Mr. David Sedaris
℅ Catherine Cullen
Little, Brown and Company
1290 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY  10104

Dear Mr. Sedaris:

It was such a pleasure meeting you recently when you came to Charlotte to read at the Belk Theater.  I was so excited for the opportunity to chat with you briefly after the show.  It has been a dream of mine since April of last year.  I practiced what I would say while I waited in line, so I didn't sound like a moron when I got my turn. I think I did okay.

After we met, I realized I didn't introduce you to my husband, David.  Perhaps you recall the nervous, hulking presence standing to my right.  He was wearing a purple shirt and holding all my stuff.  I briefly considered dragging him back over to the table where you were seated, signing books.  I know he would have loved meeting you as well.

Admittedly, I was a bit starstruck.  And our conversation was over before I really had a chance to think straight.  I felt kinda bad.  Dave did buy the tickets for your show as a Christmas gift, so I could actually see my dream realized.  I'm never that supportive of his dreams.  None of them are anywhere near as interesting or awesome as mine.

I apologized as we rode the escalator together toward the parking deck.  I found myself crying momentarily.  It was weird, but I was fine by the time I got to the car. I have a feeling I know why I reacted this way.  It was a great moment.  Meeting you has been one of the most inspiring experiences that's ever happened to me. Plus, you were kind and courteous and pleasant, just like I'd hoped.

Don't get me wrong, Mr. Sedaris.  I do lots of cool stuff.  I have a terrific life.  But this was big.  I admire you a great deal.  I was also relieved to find out that my letters didn't freak you out to the point where you felt it necessary to enlist the help of an outside agency to beef up security on your tour.

Writing to you is fun, and I enjoy being your pen pal.

Love always,

Mary Killian  ox

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Black Velvet Band

My mother had a gift for killing me regularly with very carefully chosen phrases.  I wish you could have heard the way she said them.  You, too, would have died.

"You look cute" was among her favorites.   Another was "Have a good time."

These gems were unleashed whenever I got ready to leave the house.  They were meant to discourage my confidence.  To temper my enthusiasm with self-doubt and guilt, hopefully preventing too much fun and the harrowing possibility of a careless pregnancy.

I shook off these manipulative attacks like a rhino with a poison-tipped spear in its flank.  I was going out, damn it.  And I was determined to have fun and sex and more fun.  Ideally, in that order.

"Have you even looked in the mirror?" she sneered, as I hustled past her down the front steps.  "Get your ass back inside and wipe that warpaint off your cheeks."

Mom sat in her beach chair, smoking a cigarette and pretending to read "The Thorn Birds."  There's no chance in the world she ever finished that book.  It had way too many pages.

"How am I supposed to check my face?  You took the mirror," I called boldly over my shoulder and kept walking.

It's true.  Mom got pissed because of all the hairspray, and she lifted the mirror right off the bathroom door.  We lived like daytime vampires.  No reflections, super pale skin.  Of course now, I understand where she was coming from.  I'm cleaning sinks and toilets all the time, and it's a grind.  That AquaNet was some unforgiving lacquer.  It left a film on everything.  I would have blown my stack if I were her.

"It's as if you're asking to get raped," she yelled after me.

"Nobody asks, Mom!  It just happens."

I feel compelled to clarify that my mother loved me very much.  Because I know the pictures I paint with the words that I choose sometimes make it sound as though she were a monster, and she wasn't.  She just didn't want anything bad to happen to me.  She would sooner beat the living shit out of me herself than watch somebody else do it.  Intimidation tactics were her most creative defense against the unknown.

I tried to tow the line, even though the line kept moving.  I longed to be the good girl she wanted me to be, but the demands were so fucked up.  All that twisted talk was really confusing.  If I had the help of an interpreter who could translate her emotional frustration, then maybe I might have been able to understand what she was going through.  We didn't have emotional frustration when I was young.  It hadn't been invented yet.
I called my mother five days after the hurricane.  We still had no power, but when I picked up the phone, the dial tone had returned.  It was also my birthday, and I couldn't bear the thought of her not knowing where I was.  Not one moment longer.  Although I did see myself as a victim of my mother's cruelty, the world was still very much all about me.

My father answered, and we had a lengthy four second conversation.

"Hi, Dad."


"How are you?"

"Good.  Lemme get your mother."

He yelled to her, and I heard the sound of her plastic slippers flopping down the stairs.  I wanted to squeeze myself through the phone wire so she could pin my shoulders against the kitchen wall again and scrub my face like when I was a kid. Yank my wrist backwards and tuck it under her armpit as we crossed the street. Rub my chest with Vicks when I was sick and sing old Irish songs.

I heard my dad tell her, "It's the kid."

And she asked, "Mary?"

There was excitement in her voice.  But by the time the phone changed hands, she was cold and guarded.  Poised to attack.


"Hi, Mom.  It's me."

"I know it's you."

My heart sank.  It had been more than six months since our last argument, and she was still angry.  Still holding her breath, waiting for me to say she was right and I was wrong.  Or so I perceived.  I spent most of my young life trying to guess what the fuck was going on.  But I could only see things one way.  My way.  Same as her.

"Guess what.  I got married."

"I heard."

I couldn't imagine how.  I hadn't spoken with anyone from back home.  But Jason's mother knew.  She wasn't all that thrilled with the news, either.  Perhaps they'd gotten in touch with one another.  I would've loved seeing that introduction.  Two completely different women, forced together through concern for their children's impractical choices.

"And I'm gonna have a baby."

"Well, I figured that."

Her comment crushed me, and she knew it.

"How in the hell are you gonna manage with a baby?"

"Whaddya mean?  I'm doing good."  I tried to sound sturdy.  I added, "We're doing good," for emphasis.

She picked right up on my insecurity and moved in for the kill.

"There's no 'we' in your situation.  That poor boy is carrying you.  You're dead weight."

"I'm not.  God, why do you hate me so much?"

"I don't hate you," she said.  "You hate yourself."

"You know what, Mom?  I gotta go."

I hung up the phone.  I felt all the heat in my body swirl around my heart, travel up my neck and settle into my brain.  I started crying inconsolably.  Pulling my own hair and shouting "Bitch!" into the quiet aftermath of our exchange.  I never cry like that anymore.  If I did, I think I'd scare myself.  I slammed the receiver down a few more times.

All in all, I thought the conversation went pretty well.