40. Pi

The thing I didn’t mention about my birthday is my toes.

Ok, I did mention my toes.

My shoes.

What I didn’t mention is that since I’ve lost the heels people would compliment with envy, the beauty, the stride, and the height…  if I’m wearing a pretty dress I don’t have a lot of options.  Work flats don’t go with strappy dresses and boots make me look like a streetwalker.  But thankfully this is Los Angeles so in a pinch, a pair of glittery flip flops will do the trick.

In Massachusetts, I’m a high maintenance clusterfuck.

In Los Angeles, I get called “busted” because I don’t paint my toes.

It’s stupid to say out loud but an athlete may define himself by a weight class or a line drive.   An intellectual is allowed to hold their identity in their ability to reason and recall.  My strength, my beauty, my ferocity, and my ambition were expressed in a wickedly vast, slick salvaged, bargain basement, sky high heel collection.

It’s pre-party and only Cindy and Mel are at my house, unpacking extra wine glasses and opening makeup cases.  I’m hovering, vibrating in flux; a weird sad hummingbird tittering around my shoe based insecurity.  If I have to wear flats, I should at least put on nail polish.  Like looking good after a breakup, it’s less about inducing longing and more about the fact that you just can’t have any kinks in your armor.  No notches that don’t bend or holes in the armpit.  You can’t let the fragile parts show.

It is only when I get on the ground  that I realize I don’t think I can do this.  The bending and reaching.  The time it will take on one side.  I realize the physical impossibility of it.  No.  It’s your birthday.  Don’t cry.

As always, with a dumb sense of fight that can’t be cured despite an ever mounting pile of losses, I struggle to put all my weight on my left side and prop myself with my left elbow as I reach for the polish.

“You want me to do that for you?”  It’s Mel.  It’s a simple question.

“I got it”  I smile.  And I do have it.  I do.  I’m deftly painting my left toes almost like you might expect a girl to do.  From a distance, I could fake it.  You’d never know.  I finish, satisfied.  And then stupidly look to my right.  I twist.  I bend.  I grope.  I fail.  I can’t do it.  I just can’t.  There’s no way to paint my right toenails without gross bodily harm.  And I want to do it.  I want to do it so badly that I have a kicking, screaming, fighting match in my brain before I look up at Mel and start to open my mouth.

It seems simple to allow someone to help you; I know if I were seeing it from a distance I would wonder why it was so hard.  Hell, even up close and experiencing it I wonder why it’s so hard.  Shouldn’t it just be like letting a tall person get a box of cereal you can’t reach?  But it isn’t.  You see, you were never tall enough to reach that cereal.  But just yesterday, or at least, the last time you checked, you could paint your own damn toe nails.  Your life is suddenly full of surprises, painful puzzles you never see coming.  Over and over again, unexpectedly having to solve for pi.  You get ready to do something you’ve done a thousand times, like sit in a chair, or drive a car, or paint your own stupid toe nails… and you can’t.  You can’t and you don’t know how to live your life without everything you knew to do before sickness.  You don’t know the first way around it.  And when you finally start to figure it out you realize the answer is just a damn circle, a snake eating it’s tail.  An answer you can keep solving for day in and day out, from the moment you wake up till your head hits the pillow – and you’ll still never be finished.  Pi.

I realize why asking for help is so hard.    It is because with every concession, you feel you are reneging on a piece of your humanity.  In every trip I can’t make, in every part of my own body I can no longer get my fingers to, I’m losing a sense of adulthood, autonomy, and self.

But Mel is looking at me.  And she’s a nurse, she’s not dumb.  She can see I can’t reach.

“Yeah,” I whisper, “Maybe I do need you to do the right side.”

And I scoot across the floor towards her and let her paint my toes.  Grieving my losses while thanking whatever goodness there is left in the universe that someone is still there offering to help.  Because for now, whether or not I like it, I’m still solving for pi.

And today’s flavor is humble.

39. Birthday to you

I hate planning birthdays.

I just hate it.  I don’t like the stress of having to plan a whole party and make sure it goes well when all I want to do is relax and have fun.  I worry about if everyone has enough ice.  I don’t like the fact that half the people who RSVP flake and I spend my lunch breaks revising and reversing the sushi reservation eighteen times.  I don’t like getting older anymore.  I’ve hit that limit.

But I have Ash.  And Ash simply says things like:  I’m free on Saturday, it’s your birthday.  See you then.

As generous and sweet as she is ravenous and ridiculous, Ash shows up with cupcakes you didn’t order and a tiara you don’t want to wear because it’s your birthday goddamit and you will enjoy it despite yourself.  Thank god for Ash, where would we be without friends like her.

Ash insists that your life is an occasion.  She is glitter and the Playboy Mansion and the Oscar afterparty with Charlize Theron.  She is six feet tall, blond and blue eyed, and and she is intent that I celebrate the anniversary of my own existence.

Ash is a good friend.

I have a hard time planning celebrations thanks to a long history of being let down.  Sometimes it just takes a kind hand to guide you and remind you that you’re not a kid anymore, you’re more resilient than you used to be, and regardless of what anyone else does, someone will show up with a damn tiara.  It’s your birthday.

It’s only been two weeks since the last time I spoke to E.  Fourteen days is not a long time to grieve before having to go celebrate.  I have this weird thing with redeeming objects.  If I’m stuck with something that reminds me of you, I can’t get over it until I purge it.  If I can’t bring myself to purge it, I have to somehow make it right.  Right now I’m just thinking I have nothing to wear for this damn party. I have felt out of place in all of my clothes since I lost the ability to wear heels.  My strength was in my extra 5 inches.  I’ve never been quite sure who I am closer to the ground.   Then, pushing apart hangers I am struck by the red dress I had picked out back in December.  The one I knew he might not like but was the first thing I had found since I’d gotten sick that made me feel like I might still be beautiful.  I was going to wear it just for him, but now that it’s my body, my life, I’m pulling it out.

The girls come up in a laughing, giggling swarm.  We tumble and swirl around the apartment, the old familiar energy I love.  The frenetic clash of curling irons and blush brushes, the leaning and bending into mirrors, the last eyelash curl before the taxis show up.  The lightness and the love.

Someone tells me I look beautiful.  And even in my flat shoes with my hip donut, I somehow, crazily, feel a little beautiful.

We go to sushi.  I remember this place.  The back alley and E pushing me up in against the car.  But my new memories, stronger and searing and expanding by the second, are starting to eat the old.  We reach across each other for more edamame, we curse chopsticks and shoot more sake, we swap and taste and tell stories over miso soup.  I am happy.

The lights dim and suddenly everyone is singing to me.  Ash has a point.  No matter how many years you may do it, there is something special about people going out of their way to show you love.  I put the damn tiara on while they bring out a giant boat made of fruit.

When dinner’s over we trip back to mine for sweatpants, cupcakes, and card games.  I decide to make a move.  I plunge into my closet and grab E’s birthday present, a sushi and sake set.  He had mentioned in passing several times over the summer how he had wanted one, and after raiding everywhere from Sawtelle to little Tokyo, I determined nothing in Los Angeles was quite special enough for this man, and (way over my budget) had a set of four cups and plates handmade to my exact specifications for his apartment.

“Pour them out” I say, setting the cups on the table. Chloe, always prepared, has brought a bottle of sake.  Leave it to that girl to expect me to be brave.

“I knew you had it in you.”

“Just hush and let me sip one, I didn’t take my meds today”

We laugh.  We share.  It was a work of art.  Far too beautiful to smash into the ground (Chloe’s original idea) it has a presence all it’s own.  I thought it was so precise, so exact, that it could only ever be meant for him, and what good was it otherwise?  It seemed wrong to regift something so carefully measured out and planned for someone else.  As it turns out, a room full of girls laughing and holding every piece seemed to soak the pain right out.  Redemption, right?  It all feels good.

It’s at this point, that I remember the one thing I still have to get rid of.  He’s off my phone, out of my photographs, and away from my bed, but I still have these damn wine glasses.  The ones he bought from the each time we tasted wine.  His thing.  His thing that blew it all up.

“Who wants to smash some glasses tonight?!?”

And I know it’s sounds ridiculous, but we’re doing the only thing in the world that makes sense.  Trust me, it’s my birthday.  We march out of the apartment, down the stairs and to the car park, armed with glasses inscribed with the names of every place I want to forget.  I feel enlightened and I feel powerful and I feel – CRASH!  And the first glass shatters into the dumpster.  I jump, then I laugh, and as we keep going, I get lost in the giggle, the flurry, the buzz of love around me.

There is nothing else in this bedroom neighborhood but Saturday silence.

But here, in my home, there is the sound of girls with curled hair and false eyelashes, stumbling in high heels and short dresses, gasping, screaming –  smashing memories into oblivion as we laugh into the night.

37. Dirty 30

Dear Jon,

I miss you.  28 year olds aren’t supposed to die of cancer.  28 year olds are supposed to hug their 10 month old sons with arms that aren’t emaciated.  28 year olds are supposed to speak with mouths that still have tongues, to talk sweet baby talk.  Have gentle hands that can wipe baby food off tiny faces.

I miss you.  I am one of a thousand that do.  I see you in your son’s eyes, I still hear you laughing when my brother laughs.  I miss you at the most ridiculous and inappropriate moments because that’s when you would have told a joke to make everything ok.

Could it possibly have been this long we’ve been without you?  Like all of my memories, it somehow feels like a thousand years ago and yesterday at the same time.

I can still feel your hug around me when I was crying in your car at seventeen.  I can still feel your hand reaching up to grab mine as I sat by the last bed you’d ever lie in, comforting me of all things, in my apologies and tears.  I just wasn’t there for you enough.

Happy Birthday sweetheart.

We miss you.  We miss you so.

29. Too.

It isn’t until the morning after – the sunlight streaming through the half ripped out vertical blinds – that I really feel like shit.

I only had one drink last night, followed by a plastic cup after plastic cup of water, and a cold walk in the dark from downtown.  I spent an hour crying on a bathroom floor.  My phone, screaming accusations, but all in text.  He wouldn’t take any of my calls.  Or my thousand requests for Facetime to prove I was where I said I would be.  I was doing what I said I would be doing.  I am frantically texting pictures of my face, my feet, the room, my friends, and begging please.  Please.  I don’t understand.  Why are you doing this to me?  I love you.  Why?  Please.  Please.  And so many other phrases that turned out to just be words strung together that should have meant something but didn’t.

I cried on the cold bathroom floor until three am.  Begging and grasping and completely lost, why would he do this to me?  I didn’t do anything wrong… I love him so much… I asked him if it was ok to come down.  I went out of my way to stay with someone he could be comfortable with… Why is he doing this?  Why is he doing this.  And then I realize he is doing this because he has been drinking.  And I realize this is never going to end.  And I realize I should turn off my phone.  I tell him what I need to say.  Then I make good on my word.   I cried on the bathroom floor until three am. Then I washed my face, turned that phone off, and climbed into Travis’s bed, wearing his old sweats.  I tell myself I am not going to cry there, but I keep crying there, then asking if it’s ok with his girlfriend, then crying again.  He reminds me that the living room is freezing, that his girlfriend is a nice and understanding person, and that we’ve known each other since we were eleven.  Its’ ok.  I cry some more and tell him I’ll try to shut up, but since I’ve cried so much I’m sure I’ll snore.

Travis falls asleep immediately.

Travis snores.

In the morning, when the light shines in too bright and it’s maybe only 3 hours later, we get up, because it’s too light to sleep.  “I want to make you breakfast” he says, because he is a good friend, and because my stomach is empty, and because I have black rings under my eyes and am in desperate need of care.  I tell him that’s sweet but not to worry.  “I have eggs!” he yells, before realizing they’re past the expiration date.

“Eh, whatever” I say

“You really want to take that kind of a chance”

“I’m feeling lucky”

I pause.

“Oh fuck it, I’m feeling the opposite of lucky.  I’m feeling a million times worse than lucky, but I’m feeling so terrible a couple of bad eggs can’t make things any worse”

Travis laughs.

“Everything you say sounds like it’s a quote from a book or a movie or something”

“I think men fall in love with me because of that and then leave me when they realize I’m an actual person.”

He hugs me.  We go to Ralphs for eggs.

We make and enjoy breakfast.  I hand him my phone as it turns back on and ask him if there was anything not hideous or hateful said as it rings 6 or 7 times, indicating all the texts to wade through.  Travis checks the phone.

“No” he says decidedly.  So I don’t read them.

About an hour later, another one comes through.

“Everything after last night just left me more confused than ever…”

And confused myself, I read every last word from the night before until I am unshakable.  And all I do is copy, word for word, the final text I sent before I turned off the phone.

“If you are confused, allow me to clarify.  By the time I come home, I want all of your things out of my house.  I want you to leave your keys on the table by the door, and I want you to leave, and never, ever come back.”

He tells me he can’t get there.  He tells me this.  He tells me that.  He gives a thousand reasons and excuses but he has a functioning car and his crap in my home, so he’d better remove it.  I ignore it.  Travis illegally downloads Catching Fire so I can watch it with my broken body (movies are hard for girls who can’t sit) and it turns out movies where lots of people die are hard to watch after you’ve just had a loss.  I cry, then say it’s an amazing movie, then cry, then say I love Lenny Kravitz, then cry.

Enough people have died in the film at this point and I’m starting to lose it.  I ask Travis to pause the movie and he does.  He has me in blankets with a heater straight on me, and I’m still shivering.  He comes over to hug me while I start to sob.  The hateful words said to me, the loss of love I thought would last, the disintegration of everything I planned around me all over again.  And it’s only because I’m so broken and so vulnerable, only because I’ve been ripped up one side and down the other, only because the nerves are raw and the heart is bleeding, and the dreams are crushed, do I whisper in his ear what I’ve been stuffing into corners, under cheerfulness and positive platitudes, afraid to say out loud for the last four months.

“Jon died.  Jon died.  I could die too.”

“I’m scared”

And he holds me.  He holds me like a good friend would.