Sheila's Secret Sauce

I was an unseasoned nineteen year old, when my Aunt Sheila and her psychic girlfriend deposited me like a sack of flour on her friends’ front porch in Central City, Colorado.  They were a couple of “old gay rednecks from the hill country,” Barrel chested Harry would say while running Texas-sized fingers through his mop of brown hair.

“Speak for yourself, you old queen,” his partner Bob would reply, tittering about, while Harry swatted at him like a June bug.

They operated Saddle Bag Bakery, in the center of the old mining town on Eureka Road nestled in a crevice along the ridge of the Rockies. The only remaining gold came from the pockets of super-sized tourists gasping in the rarified air, who would shell out a few bucks for a cream cheese and strawberry jelly pastry and tromp through a tour of The Lost Gold Mine, following a skinny teenager with a battery powered lamp (yours truly).

Sheila and I had been turned out of her tidy Denver home by my aunt’s partner, who in a fit of jealous rage lobbed a pot over the fence at Sheila, barely missing my head. “Cook your fucking fetuccine alfredo for your new truck driver girlfriend,” she shouted, insulting both my aunt’s signature dish and her saucy new girlfriend.

Sheila cupped her hands around a lighter, picked up the pot and then calmly said with cigarette perched in the corner of her mouth, “I paid a lot of money for this.” You could talk smack about any number of things, but when it came to her cooking, the buck stopped here.

“I suppose I should have seen that coming,” Sheila said.

Or maybe? Her psychic, truck driver girlfriend, Stella, should have.

And so I found myself living with two gay bakers while my aunt searched for a new place to live, until 
one night I was awakened by the rustling of sheets and the scrape of a toenail desperately in need of a pedicure against my leg.

“Bob?” I stuttered, “You’re in the wrong bedroom. Where’s Harry?”  I was woefully innocent. 

“He’s down at the shop baking,” he said, snaking an arm around my waist.

And then it dawned on me that Bob had not made a logistical mistake.  I was like a Hostess Twinkie that he could not resist.

“You should join him,” I said and watched him sulk out of the bedroom like an old dog denied a table scrap.

After wedging a chair beneath the doorknob for the rest of the night, I placed a call to my aunt the next morning and that afternoon we moved into an unfurnished apartment with a couple of mattresses on the floor and a brand new set of expensive baking dishes in the kitchen.

“Where’s Stella?” I inquired.

“Didn’t last,” Sheila said while pulling out a pot. “Besides, now I’ll get to spend more time with you.”

“Honey, why don’t you make us a couple of vodka tonics, while I prepare my secret sauce,” she motioned towards the freezer door.  When I turned around with glasses in hand, Sheila was unscrewing the top of store bought alfredo.

“This’ll be our little secret,” she said.

That evening we dined on paper plates under the shadows of the Rockies, sharing stories and getting sauced.  If food truly is a metaphor for love, that summer, I got my fill.



Spinning Bottles

The first time I kissed a girl, I was twelve years old, which was also the first time I sampled my first taste of alcohol.  The two were, rather surprisingly, unrelated.  The former involved a gaggle of eighth graders in Carolyn Clancy’s backyard, spinning an empty green bottle and the latter a bubbling champagne fountain at my step-grandmother’s second or third wedding in Danville, Virginia.  Both of them left me feeling slightly nauseated.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why my father thought it was A-OK to let his twelve year old son drink four glasses of champagne.  Perhaps, he thought it might put some hair on my chest or maybe he found it charming the way, when loosened up, I performed my Cary Grant impersonation for the crowd.

“Judy, Judy, Judy.”

My step-grandmother wore a smart, ivory, lace jacket and skirt suit, smiled widely and her lilting southern accent curled up at the ends like her Mary Tyler Moore hair-doo. She wore bright red lipstick and from a distance she could have been a beauty queen, but when you got up close you could see how the lipstick bled into the tiny cracks around her mouth from years of smoking Virginia Slim cigarettes. The effect was slightly horrifying.

I suppose that’s the way I felt about Karen Enright too.  From an emotional distance, she looked appealing, but when the mouth of the bottle stopped spinning and pointed at her like a gulping fish I scanned the expectant crowd and wondered if they might settle for my Cary Grant impersonation instead.

“Kiss her!” The boys shouted at me.

“Judy”—I muttered.

“Just do it Dameron!”

The crowd wanted a lurid display of sex.  Sister Mary Claire had just that year, attempted to teach a classroom of hormonal boys the facts of life.  The girls were sent to another room to learn about their monthly gift. But, when Alex Brethette asked Sister Mary Claire if a blowjob was considered pre-marital sex, she became red-faced and was replaced by our hunky physical education teacher with the porno-mustache.  I was thrilled, however sorely disappointed that Alex never broached the blowjob question with him.

I finally mustered up the courage, stepped across the divide of the circle, closed my eyes, and planted a kiss squarely on Karen’s nose. My aim was a little off.  She jumped up, holding her hand to her nose and inexplicably, started crying.

“I’ll hate you for the rest of my life!” She bawled.

Her hatred lasted for one week, maybe two. My embarrassment lasted a little longer.

The first time I kissed a boy, I was nineteen years old and unsurprisingly, it involved alcohol, gobs of it. There was no spinning bottle, but the stars above us were twirling and they all seemed to point at a guy I met in a bar on the edge of town, beneath the moonlit shadows of the Colorado Rockies. My aim was much better this time and despite being a little more than tipsy, I don’t remember feeling nauseated in the least, quite the opposite.

I first kissed my husband in the cold Burlington Mall parking lot. There wasn't any alcohol involved, but the effect was no less intoxicating.   If I could go back, I’d tell my twelve year old self a few things. Ignore most of what nuns teach you about sex, alternate glasses of water with the champagne and have faith, it will take forty-four spins of the Earth around the sun to find your own charming Cary Grant. It’s worth the wait.


Driving Instructions

We are driving in circles.  From my reclined position in the back seat of the car, I watch the glass square of sunroof above us become blue, cloudy, blue then cloudy again, the mirror image of a hawk turning lazy circles in the sky.

“Keep going, keep going, keep going!” Paul is offering directions and then adds “Sometimes the safest pedal is the one on the right.”

With this bit of advice the car lurches forward.

“That’s it!” he says.

Beanie’s posture behind the wheel is as stiff as a pose from a nineteenth century daguerreotype portrait, her face as stoic and her complexion just as pale. 

“You act like you’re driving a piece of glass,” Paul says.

I want to add that we are surrounded by multiple pieces of glass, which can shatter into a million razor sharp shards upon impact, but I withhold this information. My job, as I have been told many times before, is to sit here or in this case, to lie down and look pretty. I am keeping my head, indeed my entire body out of Beanie’s field of vision.

“See how I’m turning my head? I’m always looking left and right, left and right, left and right,” Paul says as he demonstrates, his head bouncing like a bobble head doll and then adds “Ow,” when his neck cracks.  

We continue our Sunday afternoon tour of the Lowe’s parking lot in Sanford, Maine. I lie still as a corpse, biting my tongue, while Paul tosses out dubious bits of wisdom, “Don’t think, just drive!”

I don’t remember my father giving me driving lessons, although he did throw out doubtful snippets of word vomit.  It was the type of thing parents said when they were navigating their own treacherous intersections and didn’t have time to think about the word pairings.

“The army would make a man out of you,”

“Just join us for one date with my girlfriend’s daughter,”

“Do you really think you can support yourself with a degree in music?”

The words seemed benign enough, but when combined with my own heightened sense of insecurity they sent me in a direction in life that required some back tracking.

I remember when I was eighteen, on a hot summer day when even the breeze seemed to be heated up by the sun, sitting in a diner with my father on a stretch of road somewhere in the middle of North Carolina, a dot on the map.  We had come to Asheville to rescue my grandmother’s old blue Chevy Nova from her failing eyesight and trembling hand that was more accustomed to holding a highball than a steering wheel.

“Son,” he said, the same name he used to address all five of his boys, “You finish your lunch up here, I’ve got to go.”

“Honey!” he shouted out to the waitress, the same name he used to address every woman and gave her a twenty.  He left to the tinkling of a bell over the door before I could swallow my chew.

Faced with the challenge of finding my own way home, before the advent of gps or smart phones and in a strange car with no air conditioning, I tentatively pulled onto the highway. Within minutes, I peeled off my sweat soaked shirt, rolled down the windows and cranked up the radio. Like it or not, I was driving down this road on my own, searching for signs.

If you were a hawk and could see a great distance, you’d laugh at all of the circles and mistaken exits I have taken. But no one can deny, lying in this backseat, listening to my husband teach our own daughter how to drive, I finally found my way home.


A Quick Load

I met George at a support group for gay fathers.  He was not a father, had never been married, but he had been engaged to a woman once, and I suppose that made him feel like he had been close enough to the blade. The rest of us opened up our wrists every Wednesday night in a semi-circle in the basement of a Unitarian Universalist Church in a Boston suburb, airing dirty laundry with our “God knows I tried,” stories. 

We would pass the talking stick around and one by one, a nervous guy would fidget, tug at his collar and stammer through this week’s trials and tribulations on the road to, I don’t know where, but it sure as hell wasn’t here.

When the talking stick landed in George’s lap, he stood up and the room took notice.  He was broad shouldered, cocky and wore a blonde crew cut.  He was shaped like a refrigerator, all hard angles and cool.

“I’m not a father,” he said and the room of enraptured men replied “That’s OK!”

“I can’t say I’ve ever been married,” he continued and the room shouted “Good for you!”

“When I told my mother I was gay, she said you must get it from your father’s side,” he said and the applause was so thunderous that you would have thought that God had just farted.

When the meeting was over, word went around that perhaps we should all just walk over to the local bar and continue the support over a libation of our choosing, give us a chance to talk in a less formal setting, which was code for “hook-up.”  The apple-tinis, cosmos and chardonnays were cast aside for something more manly seeming, like beer, in the presence of “box boy.” The appellation was justified, as later we would learn that in addition to being shaped like a box, he also sold them for a living.

I was the lucky one who nabbed his number, or he nabbed mine.  In any case I ended up speaking with him on the phone for an hour or two that night replying “uh-huh” and “you don’t say,” while he told me what a catch he was.

“I’m looking for something long term,” he said.

“So am I,” I replied.

When I met him the following Sunday at his home he wanted to show me his hobby, which was a collection of vintage washing machines in his basement.  Now, most people would begin to second guess a relative stranger’s invitation to voluntarily venture into their basement to take a gander at their “hobby,” but I decided to find it cute and quirky.  It wasn’t like he held up a rag and asked me if it smelled like chloroform.    

We never made it to the basement. We hardly made it from the sofa and we never made it to a second date. I was foolish.  He just wanted to wash a quick load. Maybe we were both looking for something long-term.  It just wasn’t with each other


Kelli With An i

Kelli is not having a good morning.

Perhaps it is because her parents gave her a name that is too frilly and simple, ending it with an “i” and now that she is a middle aged woman, it is a reminder of her misspent youth.   Maybe she used to draw a little heart or smiley face on top of the letter and now it has shrunk, like her ovaries into a little shriveled up dot.  Or perhaps she is upset with the color of her latest rinse.  It is simply too red and the ends are fried. Something about it is just not quite right.  Or maybe she detests working at the Rite Aid in Wells, Maine on a Sunday morning, where the average customer might walk in to purchase a newspaper and loaf of bread, but they will not have their Wellness card and this is a crime in the magnitude of the first order.

Whatever the reason, she is simply not having it.  She rolls her eyes so wide that she is in danger of losing a contact and then she throws her hands up into the air.

“Why don’t you people keep your Wellness card on your key chain?” She reprimands me.

You people? What people does she think I am?  Does she mean you people, the customer?

“I’m sorry,” I reply and then ask “Is it difficult to look up?”

I know that it is not.  I have done this more than a hundred times.  We “people” in this small town typically do not lock our doors when we leave the house and walk to the store for a loaf of bread. Besides, I have tired of threading all of the “You People” cards onto my key chain.

She stares at me with contempt.

“I don’t have a key chain,” I add.  I say this in the hopes that she will think that I don’t own a car or a home and then by God, she’ll be sorry.  She has just reprimanded a homeless person for not carrying a key chain, a homeless person who has just spent his last five dollars on a loaf of bread and the Sunday newspaper.

But, she is not sorry.  She takes the bread and the newspaper and crams it into a bag so small that it would not be big enough to contain her tiny Grinch heart, if someone were to rip it from her chest. 

“Have a nice day,” she says, emotionless, as I walk to the door.   

I let her know that the service she has provided is number one in my book, by showing her my number one finger.  There is an audible, satisfying gasp. 

No I don't. I send a curtly worded e-mail to the store.  The pen is mightier than the sword.

Kelli is not having a good morning.


Eye of The Beholder

I am taking pictures of the clouds with my iPhone and casting a shadow over Paul. He is lying on his stomach in the driveway,scrubbing the rim of a car tire with a brush specifically designed for this task, when he grunts “Can you find something to do for an hour?”

An hour really isn't long enough to do something productive like exercise or write and I have already taken the opportunity to go for a run on the beach, while Paul cleaned the gas grill.  It is a found hour, sort of like a crumpled twenty dollar bill you might pull out of your pocket.  Not enough to buy something you really want, like say, a life sized golden piggy bank, but enough to make you a little giddy with the possibilities.

I decide to take a selfie and try photo-shopping different eye colors, which is not as easy as it sounds. First, if your eyes are as beady as mine, you need to take a picture where they appear open, but not like they are in a state of shock; as if someone has told you that golden piggy bank costs more than $100, for example. Then, you need to get the right size software tool to color the iris and erase the spot over the pupil.  If you go too blue, then it just looks fake.

When Paul opens the front door and enters the kitchen, I am surprised that an hour has passed. He glances over my shoulder at the laptop screen and asks “Did you spend an hour on that?”

“I know,” I exclaim and then add “It’s really tricky, getting this to look real.”

He wipes the sweat from his forehead and stares at me without blinking, which is when I realize that his eyes are a mixture of brown and hazel and that this subtlety is exactly what I am missing.   As I adjust the tool and zoom in on the picture of my eyes, Paul grabs a rag and the spray bottle of vinegar and plods to the bathroom, where I assume he is going to clean the glass shower doors. I’m proud that I suggested a dual headed shower, though it requires more cleaning. I have learned not to complain about the vinegar smell.

It is precisely this moment when I realize his suggestion of finding something to do for an hour might have meant anything other than performing virtual cosmetic surgery, which is why I think our relationship works.  I bring a sense of whimsy to his otherwise strictly ordered life.

The next morning, Paul is driving me to work while The Captain and Tennille are singing on the radio about how love will always keep them together. Unfortunately, it did not.  Toni was always the bubbly outgoing one and The Captain was content hiding behind the piano. Something must have changed, a power struggle perhaps. Maybe The Captain said “You know Ton, I’d really like to get up and dance the fandango when we sing Muskrat Love,” to which Toni replied “It’s the Tango you buffoon! And that spotlight is mine, bitch!”

I offer to drive us in to work.

Paul rolls his eyes and says “Honey, I’d really like an enjoyable ride in today.”

Maybe our roles are as immutable as our eye color, but I know our emotional piggy bank will always remain full, because unlike Toni, I’m not a diva and I’m willing to bend.  Good thing we met later in life when our interests were equally shared, but if we ever need to change, I know we will, because we both have the right set of tools and more importantly?

We know how to use them.  



Word Fishers

When you are writing a memoir, each morning you sit at your desk and kill your father, slander your mother and shame your children.  This is the price that you pay for seeking your version of the truth and that truth is like a wadded up ball of string that you pick away at slowly.  You may be able to get a purchase on the beginning and the end, but the middle seems hopelessly riddled with knots.

Once you untangle the twine, you are not even half way there.  You tie a hook on the end and throw it into a sea of words and hope to catch something, anything.  Most days pass without a tug.  Then, you feel a slight nibble and you struggle to reel it in.  Sometimes the catch is too small, sometimes too big and still others are monsters with razor sharp teeth and dark eyes too terrifying to consider. You cut the line.

At night, when sleep eludes you, the words swim through your mind. 

They shudder with a bright silvery flourish just beyond your grasp, but you try to remember. In the morning you say “Here, this is the spot,” and cast your line.  If you are patient, you catch a few and then some more until the boat is teeming with words.

Once you have enough, you select the best and prepare them, fry them, broil them, bake them; add a bit of salt here, add a dash of spice there until they are ready to be consumed.  You place your dish proudly in front of other fishers of words.

You wait.

You wait.

You wait.

“This dish is too cold.”

“This dish is too hot.”

“This dish stinks.”

They pick apart the words and spit out the bones.  They ask if you considered baking it less or baking it more or adding this spice or just throwing the whole damn thing out and starting all over again.

You swear off fishing for words. 

“I can sit on the beach with my friends,” you say.  They seem perfectly happy, you think. You rest.  You drink.  You go out to dinner, but you cannot stop thinking about the monster that lurks in the murky depths of the ocean. 

The next morning, when the world is sleeping and your dreams are like the mist on the sea, your line breaks the glossy surface. You let it sink deeper and deeper until it reaches the abyss where the weight of the words on the string threatens to capsize the boat.  You kill your father, slander your mother and shame your children. Because you know that if you don’t catch the words,the words will devour you.   


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