The Forgiveness Chronicles: Part IX - Overflow
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
The Forgiveness Chronicles, Continued
Part IX: Overflow
“You’re going to love this story, Doty!” Gramma JoJo told me as she tucked me into bed. My parents were out that evening, and I got Gramma all to myself! Her stories were the best.
“Okay!” I said, snuggling into my blankets. Gramma JoJo was my favorite person.
“A long, long time ago, in the Old Country – which was really called Romania – there lived a band of Gypsies,” she began. Her eyes were intent and sharp and full of mystery. I listened closely. “Gypsies travel around in a caravan, each one in their own wagon. The wagons are where they live. They are beautifully carved and painted, pieces of art on wheels. They would sometimes circle their wagons and create little villages in forests, mountains, or fields. Sometimes they lived by a river. Sometimes, they would live by a lake. Sometimes they would even travel to the outskirts of a city and play music alongside the road,” she said.
“Did they go into the city?” I asked.
Gramma shook her head. “Not together, and only rarely,” she said, her dark curls bobbing around her ears.
“Why not?” I asked, brow furrowed.
Gramma had a tense smile. “Because, Doty, they were different. They wore loose, colorful clothes, wore makeup and jewelry, and they did not have homes. They would sell their wares but not with permission, and some of the Gypsies struck very hard bargains. They didn’t have a lot of money and sometimes the Gypsies would steal…bread, wine, bracelets…whatever they could.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “Did they get in trouble?”
Gramma shrugged. “Sometimes. But not always.”
“Why not always?” I asked.
“Because there were some that were powerful fortune tellers,” Gramma explained, shifting on the edge of my bed. “And that’s the important part of the story. Long ago, there was one very powerful Gypsy and her name was Rosana. Rosana was said to be the most gifted seer in all of Romania. She could see years into the future and every fortune she had ever given was said to have come true.”
“Did you know her?” I asked, wide-eyed.
“She was my ancestor,” Gramma smiled proudly. “And one day, she gave a fortune to the wrong person. A member of royalty had come to the camp late one evening. They were drinking wine about the fire in the woods outside of town. A cloaked man approached and said that he needed to see Rosana, and that it was a matter of great importance!” Gramma paused to take a sip of water. My breath hung suspended in my throat as I clung to my stuffed rabbit. “Rosana took him to her tent, where she read his fortune. No one knows what the fortune was, but the man stormed out of her tent, furious, and had refused to pay her. She was said to have shouted after him that failure to pay for a fortune would bring him bad luck. When something valuable is given, failure to return the favor in kind means something will be taken from you as compensation.”
“Who was he?” I asked.
“A nobleman,” Gramma replied. “A wealthy landowner who lived in a castle. Two days later, someone close to him died. He had come back to the camp to find Rosana, to blame her, as he insisted she had cursed him. He had a few men with him and he gave an order: burn the encampment!”
I hugged my stuffed rabbit close and sunk into the pillow. I squeezed my eyes shut. “Did Rosana survive?” I whispered.
Gramma patted my arm. “She did, Doty! Everyone did, though a few of them lost all their possessions. The eldest woman in the caravan was Rosana’s Great Aunt, Ioana, gave Rosana her wagon and sent her away. Ioana told her niece a prophesy. She had said, ‘you are meant to travel your own path now, as your gift is too well known and too dangerous to the rest of the caravan. You will have seven daughters. The first born daughter will have your gift, and forever and ever into the future, the first born daughter will always have the gift!’”
“Are you a first born daughter,” I wiggled.
Gramma smiled mysteriously. “I am.”
“And then it is Aunt Kerry?” I said referring to her daughter.
Gramma shook her head. “No,” she said. “Even though your mother isn’t my blood daughter, she is my spirit daughter, and she is older than Kerry. It is she who has the gift, and that is why she got my special cards.”
Gramma folded her hands in her lap and looked at me. “You see, Doty, you’re next in line. Someday, those cards will be yours. You have the gift.”
“I do?” I said with disbelief and wonder.
“You will see,” Gramma said in a whisper. “Someday, you will also have a daughter. But it will be harder for you,” she said. Her eyes looked faraway, as though she could see through the wall. “Your life will overflow with abundance, but not the right kind. You will know too much in your heart, you will see to much inside your mind, and it will be difficult for you,” she said. “But, you will find your way. Balance, Doty. Balance. Don’t lose your way.”
“Did Rosana lose her way?” I asked.
Gramma’s vision focused back into the present, and her eyes met mine. “Yes, she did. And we have all been lost since. You’re the one who will help balance our ancestral karma.”
Breastfeeding was an unmitigated disaster. Because my daughter had been born so spontaneously, she had a conehead, which slightly misaligned her jaw and made it difficult for her to latch. As my breasts swelled with colostrum and milk, I sobbed, holding her to my chest, pleading for her in whispers to drink. She would just squirm and cry. My daughter, Reece, was born on a Saturday evening, and the chiropractor my midwife had recommended could not see us until Monday. Until then, with the sympathetic instruction of a lactation consultant, Chet held a tiny spoon under my nipple as I tediously squeezed colostrum onto the spoon, drop by drop, and fed the nutrient rich fluid to our baby. It was painful and humiliating and exhausting. I wept with frustration the entire time.
We tried nipple covers and those didn’t work. We were afraid that if we pumped the milk and Breeze became accustomed to drinking from a bottle that she would never latch. Dealing with the breastfeeding pitfalls during those first 48 hours were enough to make me wish I had never decided to breastfeed my baby. I laid in bed, towels across my chest, smelling like an old cow as milk leaked and dried, my breasts swollen and painful. I stared at the ceiling and struggled to maintain control over my emotions. I was worried my angst would be transferred to the baby, causing her to become listless and fussy…something I was desperately trying to avoid.
After getting the cranial-sacral adjustment at the chiropractor’s office, Reece began to eat and the pressure had lifted, at least temporarily. I spent those first few weeks feeding and pumping and pumping and feeding. I got caught up on six seasons of Grey’s Anatomy; the six years I had spent getting through law school, graduating, taking the bar, and starting my practice.
The warm glow of Reece’s arrival soon wore off as a renewed sense of panic set in. Though I had planned for three months of maternity leave, I only got three weeks. The court had refused to turn over a file on a case I had previously entered my appearance on because the prior attorney had not withdrawn or done any work on the case in a matter of years. The judge insisted upon holding a hearing and I was ordered to appear with my client; my request for a post-partum continuance was denied…twice…by a female judge. I decided to try a third time; by that point, I knew there was no way I could be gone from the house for more than ninety minutes without pumping. I contacted the judge’s clerk, explaining that I had a newborn at home and that I needed a continuance. The clerk explained that the case had been sitting on the judge’s docket for too long and the judge wanted the hearing to occur right away and that no continuances were to be allowed.
You can have it all, just not at the same time. The words haunted me like a plague.
Becoming a mother did not feel as natural as I thought it should have. I knew breastfeeding was the right decision for my daughter and I, but I abhorred the process. I was feeding my daughter every two hours and my breasts were constantly aching from milk production. The odd tingling surge of a milk “let down” heralded the need to either feed or pump, otherwise, my shirt would wind up soaked and I would end up smelling like sour milk. Preparing to leave the house for a half hour drive to court, sitting through what could potentially be a two-hour docket, and then the drive home, meant that I would be gone at least three hours – twice the time of what my body was currently used to. Bracing myself for the possibility of leakage, I shoved the eco-friendly fabric pads into my bra and prayed I made it home before they soaked through.
I arrived in court on time, but the judge was twenty minutes late getting on the bench. I nervously watched the minute hand on the clock as time ticked by. I should have known this would happen, but I had not anticipated the delay and it wasn’t factored into my precarious three-hour timeframe for leak guards and childcare. The judge was a woman and I hoped she was a mother herself. I prayed that she would take pity on me and rush my case through, if she ever got around to it. My heart began to sink as I realized the docket was moving about as fast as a turtle that unexpectedly finds itself in the middle of a country highway. As I sat through one rusty case after another, grinding slowly with protest through the hulking machine of justice, my breasts grew bigger and bigger, rising under my scarf and aching to the point of distraction. Two and a half hours from when I had left the house, my case was finally called. When I stood up, I looked down. My purple maternity dress hung loose on my shrinking post-partum frame. I no longer filled it out, yet I couldn’t fit back into my pre-pregnancy clothes, either. Added to the fact that my dress didn’t fit properly, my chest was soaked. The two fabric pads were saturated and two big, wet circles were spreading across my chest. I maneuvered my scarf to try and cover the mess, but it was impossible. I got up from my seat behind the bar and walked toward the bench, feeling all the eyes in the courtroom on me. I heard murmurs at my back. My face burned hot with humiliation and resentment. The clerk gasped when she saw me approach.
The judge didn’t bother to look up from her paperwork.
“So this is the matter of the Southerd Estate, and nothing has been filed since…” she shuffled some pages in a thick file in front of her. “Two years. And there’s an old attorney, Mr. Jensen, who filed a motion to dismiss – and just for the record, we don’t dismiss probate estates,” she said continuing to shuffle, eyes glued to the file. “And then Ms. Gann-Redmon, who entered an appearance four months ago, and then, what? Nothing?”
She looked up with a hard stare, challenging me to answer, and then saw my chest. My eyes met hers. “Correct,” I said levelly. “I have requested the file and my requests were denied by the clerk because there’s another attorney on the case who hasn’t withdrawn.”
Her face instantly flushed. I hope you’re ashamed of yourself, you heartless bitch, I thought, struggling to control my glare.
I continued before she could respond. “In fact, when I asked for the file before I went on maternity leave,” I let that hang in the air a moment, “I was told that I had to come in here, today, no exceptions, no continuances, because this was sitting too long on your docket. I gave birth three weeks ago, I again asked for a continuance three times because of that fact. It’s been three hours since I pumped.” I waved a hand across my chest. “Can we just assume Jensen withdrew, allow me access to the file, and revisit this in three months? Please.” It wasn’t so much a request as it was a demand.
The judge’s eyes had grown wide, but her mouth was clamped shut. She shook her head. “I am sorry Ms. Gann-Redmon.” She turned to the clerk. “Kim, make the file available. Ms. Gann-Redmon, go down the hall to the office and collect the file. We’ll docket this for three months,” she said curtly as she slammed the thick file shut and tossed it on top of a pile of folders to her left.
No apology. No real acknowledgement. It was typical of how courts were run. I suppressed the nasty look of disdain that I felt twisting at my mouth.
As I walked passed my colleagues and their clients, everyone averted their eyes. I went down the hall to the clerk’s office to obtain a copy of the file and meet with the clerk to figure out what was needed to close the case. Inwardly, I groaned. Of all days…I’m supposed to be on maternity leave. With my baby. I don’t want to be here.
Clerks often moved at the pace of three toed tree sloths. It was yet another delay in the bowels of bureaucracy. I thought of my little infant at home and was torn. Would I rather be stuck on the couch catching up on the last five years’ worth of Grey’s Anatomy episodes, or would I prefer to be here, in court, getting paid and taking a “break” from the new obligations of motherhood, where my body and my time were now never my own? It felt like a Hobson’s Choice. Ultimately, the wait and meeting with the clerk took another forty-five minutes. By the time I got home, I had been gone four and a half hours. My breasts were screaming, but my little daughter was sleeping peacefully. Relief came slowly as I hooked myself up to the pump like an old worn out heifer.
You can have it all, just not at the same time. I sighed. Was this what she had meant? I wondered. How come no one told me?
I hadn’t really experienced any internal conflicts over being mom until that morning at court. My thoughts vacillated between wanting to escape the all-encompassing, all-consuming responsibilities of motherhood with work, and then, to escape the stress and pressure of law practice by seeking shelter in the warm glow of my newborn. In truth, there was no escape at all, because either way, nothing was truly mine anymore. Did all mothers cling to this pendulum, hanging on for dear life as it swung back and forth from one extreme to the other? I desperately wanted to jump off and just be alone, sitting with myself back in the woods, nothing but the trees and my own thoughts to keep me company. I had only been nursing my daughter a month and I had eleven more to go. Eleven months felt like an eternity and I struggled to envision a time when I would reclaim my body as my own again. If I had felt that my life was being lived predominately for others before I had a baby, I knew for certain that my life no longer belonged to me anymore…at all. Everything came before my own wants now. My time, my body, what I wanted to eat or drink, when I wanted to sleep…all of it was subordinate to the tiny human I held in my arms, to impatient judges who were late to their own dockets, to anxious clients, and to the marriage and household I had to maintain. In a moment of complete and total resignation, I sobbed. The enormity of it all felt like walls pressing in on me, suffocating me, constricting me.
My daughter’s perfect little rosy cheek was warm against my chest and she slept through the tears that dropped down onto her soft swaddle blanket. I was plagued with guilt for crying and having a moment where I felt selfish and ungrateful for the healthy, beautiful being in my arms. The pendulum swung back again, this time imposing the harsh judgment that I should be honored at the opportunity of getting to be a mother. I sighed. While my husband was enduring his own adjustments, I doubted he was brawling with himself the way I was – the way most women do - when they are faced with having to juggle work and motherhood. Our baby didn’t need him the same way she needed me. As the weight of obligation set in, I curled up in a little ball on the couch and burrowed deep under the blankets, nestling my newborn up to my chest. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew she and I would find our way through this together.
As the months wore on, I looked up and noticed – startled – that it was summer. Just a year before, it had been only Chet and I. The summer I couldn’t eat anything lemon. I had spent the summer on the couch watching television, ankles elevated, belly swelling, learning about herbs from a Wise Woman. It had gone by in the blink of an eye.
I had assumed that when I passed through the door of motherhood that my practice would tank, but just the opposite occurred. Rather than shrinking into obscurity, my inbox overflowed with projects and assignments. By then, Reece no longer slept most of the day, waking only for feedings. She was active, and napped three times a day, usually for an hour and a half at a stretch. That was four and a half hours I could take, each day, to get some work done. Pulling that off on a regular basis required an intense amount of organization. Each day had to be planned out perfectly so that each moment was efficiently designed to lead into the next, not a second wasted. My days became nothing more than one chain of productive six-minute increments after the other. I woke, replied to emails before everyone else got up, tended to the baby, made breakfast, cleaned up, fed and clothed the baby, put her down for a nap, squeezed in some work, started a load of laundry, fed and changed the baby, played with the baby while picking up the house, took some calls, made lunch, fed and changed the baby, put her down for nap number two, got some more work done, folded some laundry, put it away, fed and changed the baby, ran an errand or two, got started on dinner prep, played with the baby, put the baby down for a final nap, got some more work done, started another load of laundry, had dinner as a family, Chet took over baby duty after I fed her, then I got to take a bath and get a moment of quiet before going to bed and doing it all over again the next day. If someone wanted to do something on short notice, my circuits overloaded.
What? Tomorrow? This weekend? But I have a routine! I have no idea how I am going to work that in! I don’t want to go anywhere, do anything, there’s no time, I have nothing left! Maybe plan a couple weeks out…I could take less work or rearrange some things, do two extra loads of laundry on that day, get my shopping done the next day…my head would immediately be abuzz trying to shuffle the packed schedule like a computer trying to clear out the empty space in a defrag. If the routine fell apart, I fell apart. It was the glue that held my sanity together and it was a weak adhesive at best. It was only as strong as my will to maintain it and though I consciously ignored it, the faint ticking inside of me was slowly growing louder over time.
The first time we dared to have company over post-partum, we invited our friends and their daughters over. They had been one of the few couples in our lives that never tried to sugarcoat parenthood.
“No, no, it f*&king sucks,” our friend commented after Chet had told him about some recent incident that had involved a scream tantrum in public.
“Does it get better?” I asked my friend, who chuckled.
“Nope,” her husband didn’t wait for her to respond, shaking his head. “The ‘terrible twos’ don’t end at three. It’s more like the ‘terrible two years’, and then you wind up in the ‘f*$k-you fours.’”
I laughed nervously. “No.”
“Oh yeah. It’s coming,” he said shaking his head and taking a swig from his beer bottle.
Reece began to fuss in the next room. I stuck my head in and noticed her diaper was hanging low. I sighed and excused myself to change her diaper. I took her down the hall to her bedroom and put her on the changing table.
“You’re timing is impeccable, as usual,” I commented to her as I unfastened the Velcro on the sides of her cloth diaper. “Just when I was starting to get a taste of what adult conversation was like again. Can you wet wipe yourself?” I asked her. Gray eyes with golden flecks stared back at me. “No? Then I guess I will take care of that for you, but you need to know I literally cannot wait for you to do this yourself, kiddo,” I told her, taking a wet wipe to her bum.
Her brow knit. I barely turned my back to toss the wet wipe into the bin. “Don’t look at me like that. Don’t judge. You know how much mommy hates –“
In a moment so brief that I didn’t even know what a physicist would call it – a nanosecond, maybe – I heard her stomach growl a fierce, angry gurgle, followed almost simultaneously by a fart that sounded like an inhuman roar, followed by a projectile stream of brown, watery shit. It hit the wall first, splattering everywhere. The changing table was toast, the entire cover was smeared with a dark, spreading, gooey puddle. Stunned, I looked down and there were runny feces all over my shirt. Then, to my horror, I discovered some on my cheek, in my hair, and as I turned, looking around in complete dismay, I noticed it was everywhere. There was a stream of it across the carpet and it had even made its way to the dresser, the foul-smelling specks scattered across the face of the drawers. Something inside of me just shut down. There were few things that skeeved me out more than poop. I simply couldn’t handle it. My gag reflexes kicked in and I began heaving.
“Pooooooooooooooopppppp!” I shrieked. I am certain I was hysterical.
Reece began to scream and writhe on the changing table, her hands about to find their way to the muck. I heard the familiar sound of Chet’s gait jogging down the hallway.
I was whimpering and wheezing in disgust, frozen in horror.
“Is everything…ok…oh,” he said as he arrived at the door and surveyed the scene. A look of consternation crossed his brow.
I continued to gag. Our friends inched up behind Chet in the doorway. The looks on everyone’s faces was something between shock, horror, and amusement. I was about to puke up a lung.
“Go get cleaned up,” he instructed me. I was clawing at my shirt, trying to yank it off without getting poo anywhere else. Our guests stopped short at the threshold. I could see they were trying not to laugh.
“Oh, yeah…that’s happened to us before,” my girl friend said, trying to reassure me.
Her husband wasn’t as tactful.
“Yeah, it sucks when they shoot shit across a room. Been there,” he chuckled, taking another sip of his beer and heading back to the living room.
I hurried off to the bathroom to wash up and change. I grabbed Reece once Chet had finished cleaning her up.
“Go hang out, I’ll get this,” he said, gesturing to the splattered feces across the room. I looked at him thankfully.
The challenges didn’t get any easier. When Reece was learning to crawl, my dog, Moo, had nipped her. She was playing with a toy that scooted across the floor as it flashed bright multi-colored lights and made annoying high-pitched noises. Everyone thought it was just the most hilarious thing in the world to get kids these obnoxious toys. They would stick around to watch the kid open the toy, making sure to help open the package and let the kid play with it and become enamored with it before the parents could reject the offering in some tactful way: Oh gee, thanks Auntie. We love it. Honey, would you put this over there to open and help her put together later? Wink, wink…as in, fuck that toy…it’s got a one-way ticket back to Target for an exchange. It’s so funny to torture the parents and the pets. Except some pets and some parents can’t handle it. Know your audience.
Moo was not a forgiving audience. The dog sat and nervously watched, intently, for a few minutes before slowly inching forward towards the toy. Suddenly, as Reece’s little hand reached for the toy, Moo lunged forward in a blur and nipped Reece on the head. I scooped up my toddler and stared down at my dog. Moo stared back at me defiantly, as if to say, “I just saved your baby from that horror show. Where’s my treat?”
Reece cried in my arms as I examined her head. There was a red mark, but luckily no blood. My heart began to tear in two, because I knew what was coming next. Chet didn’t miss a beat. His footsteps up the stairs from the basement were more of a march, purposeful in their rhythm. Those footsteps told me that the floor was thin and he had heard everything. I braced myself, staring at the door. He was standing there in seconds and looked immediately at Reece’s face and head.
“She’s gone.” He had looked away from the baby and glared at the dog.
“Maybe if we just keep them separated?” I suggested weakly. I knew it was futile.
I stared at the furry brown and white face that I had loved from the moment we had picked her up in Bob Evan’s parking lot five years ago. It had been a cold night, just before Thanksgiving. A litter of pit bull puppies had been born to a fight dog chained in the backyard of a guy who ran an illicit dog fighting ring. The dog had gotten knocked-up by a neighborhood lab. Thinking the puppies wouldn’t be good for fighting, the entire litter had been thrown out in the cold in a box, separated from their mother, with nothing but frozen water and kibble they were too young to eat. A network of dog rescuers smuggled the pups that hadn’t frozen to death out of the yard and had scattered them about the community, urgently searching for homes. I jumped on the chance. We picked up the little four-week old pup and took her home. I bottle fed this new baby for another month, switching to bowls of formula, and then finally weaning her. I was this dog’s mother. And now, faced with having to protect my human baby, I would have to let go of her. I was the only one who knew and loved that dog.
I grabbed Reece, put her to bed in her crib, and went to sob into my pillow. Moo seemed to know it was the end of a good run. We had made it five years together. She jumped up into bed next to me and curled up at my hip. Her warmth melted my heart. I scratched behind one of her velvety ears as I cried. The dog had always been a nervous mess, the most anxious being – human or animal – that I had ever met.
Fortunately, my in-laws were huge animal rescue advocates and agreed to take the high maintenance dog for us. Each time they came to take Reece for the weekend, we got to have Moo back. At first, I thought this would be great, because I would still get to see Moo. It was a good fortune that most parents aren’t so blessed to enjoy.
The following summer, when Reece was a year and a half old, I was ploughing my cart through Costco on a Friday evening when a stabbing pain jerked my breath from my lungs. I doubled over the cart. Reece grabbed a fistful of my hair and giggled. What the hell is that? Is there no dignity in being an overworked Mom? I wondered, tenderly touching the lower right side on my back. It wasn’t on the surface. Something was wrong deep inside me. A bead of sweat formed on my brow and I wiped it away. My phone started to ring. Aw, what the hell? Of course…of course someone calls when the last thing I need is one more thing to do! I thought, digging through my purse for the phone as sweat continued to bead on my forehead. It never failed that the one thing I was digging for had always found its way to a deep, dark, cavernous pocket somewhere in my handbag. My fingers brushed against the hard-plastic rectangle and I yanked the phone from its subterranean hiding spot.
The glowing screen told me it was Janis. I answered as I eased back into a standing position. She was sobbing.
“I fucked it up, he knows,” she howled into the phone. “He fucking knows.”
I sighed. Of course he did. She flew home from that conference in Detroit and when her husband went to pick her up from the airport, he was looking around for the guy. Some guy. Any guy. It was obvious. Late nights at the office…classic. Calls unreturned over lunch. Calls and texts to and from the same strange, unlabeled number from a personal cell phone he could check while she slept or went outside for a smoke.
“Jack’s threatening to call my work, report him to my boss for sexual harassment,” she wailed. “And the boys are upset!”
“Okay. Stay there. Let me get out of Costco and I’ll come get you,” I said.
I could hear the bath running in the background. “I’m gonna take a bath,” she slurred.
“Good idea, but keep it shallow. Be there in an hour.”
I hung up the phone. I wished she would just leave him. Each time she tried to “fix” her marriage, it was met with more and more disappointment and frustration, and a renewed sense that she had chosen to spend her life with the wrong person.
I met Janis five years prior. Only eight months after being admitted to practice law, I quit my job at the law firm. I was sitting at the bar in Maneulo’s restaurant, having just lost my first trial. It was a pro bono eviction case that the firm had schlepped off onto me. No one in the office knew how to defend against an eviction case. The lady was disabled and lived in government subsidized housing. They had claimed she was a hoarder. I remember driving over there to check out the apartment for myself. The stench had been awful and it bore all the signs of someone with a serious inability to throw anything away. I tried in earnest to argue that she had a mental disability and that the Americans with Disabilities Act prevented the complex from evicting her. The judge had been old and crotchety, and even though the landlord didn’t have an attorney, she still won the case. My client had sobbed the entire ride back. She had no family, nowhere to go. It was the worst experience a new lawyer could ever have, being thrown – alone – into trial with no experience, for a case everyone knew was a destined loser.
Two construction workers had come in and sat next to me at the bar. They wore tattered clothes covered in hard, dried paint splatters. It was just after noon. They were laughing as they tipped back cold bottles of Mexican beer and crunched on chips and salsa. They were enjoying an early start to their weekend because they were self-employed. My boss back at the firm thought I was still in court. I didn’t have the heart to go back to the office and listen to another pep talk about “fighting the good fight.” I just didn’t have it in me that day.
The guy who owned the place, Manuelo himself, looked down the bar at me after he put some cash into the register. He smiled and walked over.
“What’s the problem, mija?” he asked.
I was peeling at the label on my beer. “Rough day at work.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “It’s not work if you love what you do. But second best, if you cannot make money at what you love, at least work for yourself.”
He winked and walked off to handle other business, leaving me there with my thoughts. The guys next to me were a sign. Manuelo’s comment was a sign. I had been thinking about it for a couple months. In that moment, I knew I had to give notice and strike out on my own.
Within a month, I had printed up business cards and hit the pavement. I had big ideas about doing estate planning for gay couples; I had done my dissertation on it. One of the first spots I hit was the Gay Pride Parade and Festival downtown. Numerous vendors had set up booths, branding themselves as LGBT friendly businesses. That was back before the “Q” had been added. I was overwhelmed by colorful feather boas, heels so high they looked like vinyl stilts, and electric blue eye shadow with false lashes so lush they could have come from ten supermodels. I envied those wearing shorts shorter than I would dare to wear and watched as an army of rainbow flags fluttered in the breeze that hot summer afternoon. It was almost like being in Las Vegas. I wasn’t sure where to begin.
The first booth I had encountered was manned by a property management company that was trying to fill occupancy in newly remodeled units in a part of town that was trying to clean up and attract new residents; gentrification at its finest. Behind the table sat a vibrant red head with a raspy, throaty, laugh that was so rich, it could fill a room. I was always attracted to laughter. I figured anyone with a laugh like that had to be friendly. I ventured over.
“Well hello, how are you?” she popped out of her chair, immediately grabbing swag bags as I approached.
“I’m good. You?”
“Fan-f*&kin’ tastic!” came her reply. I immediately liked her. “Are you looking for an apartment? We’ve got some available! Urban living on a quiet side street setting, newly renovated, just a few minutes from downtown,” she continued, her smile so big that her eyes nearly squinted shut.
I shook my head. “No, I’m actually trying to meet some people,” I said.
“I’m Janis,” she said, thrusting out a perfectly manicured hand with screaming candy apple red nails and about ten different bracelets. I took her hand and shook it.
“Aubs,” I said.
“Well is that a fancy name. It’s nice to meet you!” she gushed. Not a single thing about her seemed inauthentic. I could tell that this woman loved people. “Want some swag? Everybody loves swag!” she said, handing me a bagful. “So, what do you have there?” she said, pointing at my hand. I had my business cards in a death grip.
I handed her one. She looked at it. “Lawyer! Well alright!” she smiled. “Estate planning. Everyone needs that. I dunno about you, but I’m not planning to leave this rock alive.”
I shrugged and smiled. “Right. Job security,” I smirked.
“Well can I have one of these? I might need it,” she said, holding the card to her chest as though loathe to part with it.
“Maybe we could go to lunch? I’d like to learn more about what you do,” I told her.
Networking wasn’t my thing. It felt too much like speed dating. Running about a room, drink in one hand, shaking hands with the other, making painfully awkward small talk with people who either weren’t interested or thought they were too good to be seen talking to you. Lunches were more my speed. I could eat tacos and drink beer. It was easier. If the conversation sucked, at least I had gotten a meal out of it.
“I love lunch!” she said. “You just tell me when and where and I’ll be there.”
I picked the following Tuesday at Manuelo’s and she was game. I had arrived early, as usual, and had gotten us a table. I was halfway through a Corona when she arrived, flustered.
“I’m so sorry,” she said breathlessly, taking the seat opposite me. “I’m always late. But hey, I like your style,” she said pointing at the beer. Was it faux pas to drink at lunch? I wondered. I was in my first month of self-employment. I was never one for convention.
The waitress appeared, and Janis didn’t miss a heartbeat. “I’ll have one of those, too,” she said, pointing at my beer.
I tipped my beer. “Make that two.”
“So, what’s good here?” Janis asked.
“I get the shrimp fajita tacos, every time,” I said. “The best part is the diablo sauce. Manuelo makes it out of some kind of Japanese pepper. Its super hot…but the flavor! Oh my god. It’s the best.”
“I’m havin’ what you’re havin’,” she said with decisiveness, slapping the menu shut and putting it down on the table. “So, what’s that mean?”
She was pointing at the tattoo on my bicep, her blue eyes intent. I looked down my shoulder at it.
“Oh,” I said shrugging. My tattoos were personal to me. I had drawn each one of them and struggled to discuss them. I never thought of them as a conversation piece so much as artistic reminders to myself of milestones in my life. “It’s a dove, for peace,” I answered vaguely. That was mostly true. The deeper meaning had its roots in an esoteric mystery school my Gramma JoJo had been a member of and that I had joined when I turned eighteen. But to discuss that was to go down a rabbit hole that I knew would have to wait for another time.
“Well, I am into peace, love, and happiness, too,” she said, smiling. Her lips were red with lipstick, which highlighted the fact that one of her front teeth was a tiny bit crooked. It made her smile endearing. “I want to get one, too, someday. I just have never been able to decide. But the bicep is a bold move. How many do you have?” she asked as our beers arrived.
She cocked an eyebrow. “Do you plan to get more?”
“We’ll see,” I replied noncommittally.
“Well okay then,” she said, taking the long, red nail on her thumb and punching the lime wedge down the neck of the bottle. “I’ll drink to that!”
Our bottles clanked in cheers. I smiled. Her enthusiasm was contagious. Lunch ran a little longer that day than the average business lunch should, but neither of us cared. I knew instantly I had made a friend for life.
That was then…five years ago. This new development was an avalanche that started two weeks earlier and felt uncomfortably familiar. By now, the tiny snowball was reaching the end of the slope and threatening to devour anything in its path.
It had been a particularly rough day; the court decided to kick about half of my filings because they weren’t double spaced per some new court rule. The update had probably escaped me because I was trying to multi-task. You know, just culling my email while I was supervising toy pick up, at which time my toddler pooped on the rug and then flung half her lunch across the kitchen. Deadlines pressed down like boulders, ten loads of laundry had piled up, and the air conditioner was going out in the house. At nap time, I went down to my office, shut the door, opened the closet, sat on top of a stack of archived files in banker’s boxes, closed the door, and sobbed…uncontrollably. I couldn’t remember the last time I cried, but it felt like it had been too long. Motherhood hadn’t obliterated the need for a scheduled cry; it had intensified it. Months of bottled up frustration and stress cascaded out of my eyes. Every. Single. Thing. I had shoved it all down and buried it, just so I could get through another day of too many obligations in too little time. It all burst forth like a breached levee. The bubble gum bits plugging the holes in the dam gave way, the façade cracked, and I found myself swimming in my own emotional backwater, gasping for breath. Swirling around me were all the suppressed moments I hadn’t taken the time to process: the irrational potential client who had emailed everyone and their uncles when I had turned down her case; the new judge that didn’t know what he was doing and made me write a memo, unpaid, on a particular type of action before he’d allow me to file my motion; the lady who had raced in and stolen my parking spot at Target despite my blinker; the postal service that had swallowed an important package into its incompetent abyss, never to be received; a check from a client that had bounced; my kid suddenly deciding it was time to go from two naps a day to one; the Tupperware container in the fridge with one bite of casserole left in it; the meeting that never happened and kept rescheduling; the mosquito bite on my ass; and the fact that I was out of vodka….we were all circling the drain together, one big happy family.
I was in that closet at least half an hour.
When the tears were gone, and I had flushed out all the frustration, I was left sitting alone on top of the drain. My pragmatism returned. A good cry was part of the equation, but it wasn’t the solution. What do I need right now? As soon as I asked the question, the answer came to me: I need adult time. And not just any adult time, but female bonding. Yes. I need to have at least one night a month where I can cut loose with my girl friends, other working moms. And, I will schedule another good cry for next month so maybe it won’t be as bad next time. I marked my calendar for July 6, “find alone time for good cry.”
Yes, it is a weird commentary on modern society that a working mom needs to pencil in a time for a good cry. And we would not have known it then, but that's when the avalanche had begun. We never would have known that two weeks later, Janis would be bawling her eyes out in a bathtub on the brink of her world completely imploding around her...and my sanity pushed to its limits, struggling to find the most elusive thing in the world: balance.