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My sister gave me a T-shirt for my birthday in August that read:
In August. As in, the summer.
That’s how bad 2020 was. I wanted that year of my life to end also, but it seemed like a lot of pressure to put on 2021. “Does The Universe know that it is a new year and that we pin a lot of meaning to that change of numerics? Does it care?” I was, of course, looking for an end to the shit show that was 2020. But I didn’t want to put my one fragile egg in that basket.
Before long (but also years later, 2020 was weird that way), November came. I spent election day working the polls at my local precinct. It was a sixteen hour shift indoors, interacting with my fellow poll workers (who were strangers) and hundreds of other people (strangers), helping them to vote. That night, after the last person voted and we secured the machines and cleaned the precinct, I drove – not home – to Park City. I rented an Airbnb for fourteen nights (AKA a fortnight! That’s what that word means!) in order to isolate from my family after that prolonged exposure, “just in case!” It was partly out of my own concern about the COVID risk, but also deciding that A) it was important to me to follow through with the commitment and B) to prove to Matt’s ex that I did give a damn about COVID prevention (an ongoing argument in the family).
It was a one room apartment with no natural light, and the main light in the room was out. I contacted the owner, and she wrote back and said that the guy who did those things for her was busy, but might contact me at some point. (He never did.) I could have gone out to get a light bulb, but I wasn’t about to go out and buy a ladder. So, I moved the lamps around as I did my work and I went for walks to get some sunlight, but it was snowed in and 30 degrees, so those turned out to be short damn walks.
Mostly I sat there, bored and lonely, watching an unhealthy amount of cable TV, and wondering if Steve Kornacki would ever be allowed to change his pants. And, also, crushing a little bit. (Oh, Steve! Tell me more about Maricopa County, you nerdy boy!) It took days, but eventually there were developments. Joe Biden was (finally) declared the winner. A few days after that, Pfizer declared success in the development of their vaccine.
This was of particular interest to me, because I volunteered to be a Guinea pig in that clinical trial! And here they were, saying that their projected effective rate was 95%! I had a fifty/fifty chance of having received that vaccine! (Also a fifty/fifty chance of having received the placebo.) “So, 50% chance of having received a vaccine that was 95% effective equals…” I was talking to myself, obviously, “fuck if I know? Less than 50%? I feel like that’s math done right.” I stayed put in my isolation hovel.
And THEN! a week later Moderna made a similar announcement about their vaccine! And people (still on MSNBC) were saying that vaccinations might be available as soon as December! And, damn me if I didn’t start to have a little hope. Hope that Steve Kornacki’s pants would be donated to the Smithsonian for all to appreciate, and hope that 2021 might be different. Could it be that there was light at the end of the tunnel?
It was somewhere in that time that went home, but also I saw a pin that called to me. So much so, I ordered one for me and another for a friend. It said:
I decided that these would be my “words” (in the Game of Thrones sense of things) for 2021. Because, in addition to copious amounts of fried food and barrels of wine, I ate a lot of shit in 2020. Bags and bags of pungent, gluey, unsalted shit. From The Universe, from the pandemic, from my boyfriend’s ex, from the world in general. I was getting plates of shit served to me on a daily basis, and I was ready to say, “No, thank you!”
And so I got onboard the “2021 Will Be Totally Different!” train and got my ticket punched.
But you know what? I was right to begin with. The Universe doesn’t care if our year changed (aren’t we cute, though? With our fireworks and our kisses and such?). The horror show of last year is not done with us yet. Clearly.
We had Ethan for New Year’s so we took a little road trip to Arizona. It was fun, and we saw some really cool birds and animals (some that I had never seen before) and then we headed back toward Utah. It was January 1st, the first day of my new mantra, and we broke up the driving to Salt Lake City with a night in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Again, we were doing the Airbnb thing, and we had a little spot reserved near the university’s campus. We met the couple who were in the next apartment over as we were coming in and parking our cars. We chatted briefly and mentioned that we would be driving to Salt Lake the next day. The woman exclaimed (with a notably gruff voice) about the length of the distance, but that was the end of the conversation.
It was a cozy spot with only one bedroom so we just piled in. Unfortunately, their sitting space was adjacent to our sleeping space, and the walls turned out to be wet pasta thin, and we could hear every word of their profane conversation. The bedroom had a TV so we found some episodes of Shaun the Sheep (turned up louder and then slightly loud) in the hopes of reminding them that we had a child with us and, also, “Did you notice these walls are super thin? Guess we gotta work together, to coexist, ya?”
They did not take the hint. We wanted to be in bed by 10pm to be fresh for the long drive (about 520 miles), especially because we let Ethan stay up until midnight the previous night for New Year’s. We turned off the TV, but after a bit Matt pounded on the wall to try to send a stronger message.
That had the opposite of the desired effect. The woman exploded with expletives, outraged that we would complain when it wasn’t even ten yet (by minutes), and who did we think we were? It was clear to me from the sound of her voice ( imagine either Patty or Selma Bouvier, without the redeeming qualities) that they had been drinking for a while and that we probably shouldn’t provoke them. At the end of her rant, we heard her say to her man fellow, “Jesus, are the walls that thin?”
Matt said, speaking directly to the wall, “Yes. They are.”
There was a brief pause at that before the couple’s profane conversation started up again, as if they hadn’t heard every word, easing back into their conversation made of words that I didn’t even learn from my sailor father.
There was nothing to do but try to make the best of it. We all went to bed, tucking Ethan in between us. I tried to fall asleep but, tired as I was, it was just impossible. It is annoying enough when you can hear muffled noises coming from the next room, but when you can hear every word? She was ranting left and right, it seemed, about everyone they knew. But there was a moment where she was tearing yet another close friend to shreds, and I was thinking, “Poor girl. She does sound like a mess. I wouldn’t have called her that word, but I do hope she can get her shit together.”
Matt got up and moved to the couch. The next day he said he tried to get my attention, but I didn’t respond so he decided I was asleep. Without my contacts I am blind as a baseball bat so I’m not surprised. And in the dark? Forget it. I was glad though, because he was driving and so it was most important that he got some rest. Ethan was out like a hibernating hive of bees. I shifted to my back and tried to conjure the sounds of the ocean as a meditation, but I suck at meditating. Eventually, as time droned on, I began to think about revenge. For hours. From when we went to bed at 10pm until they went to bed at 1am, I had a lot of time to think about things I could do to them that would give me some sense of vengeance.
I thought about getting up at first light, walking Murphy, and then, upon our return, writing “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” on their windshield in dog shit. I smiled, starting to relax a little. “Finally, a type of meditation that is actually helpful!” It was no good though, I realized, coming back to a state of stress. They would know it was us. It might make it on to Matt’s Airbnb review and that would be bad for us in the future.
Lotion? I could write it in hand lotion! It would take some effort to clean it off. Especially in the cold weather. And I had a bottle with me that I bought but found I was having an allergic reaction to the fragrance… No, no, no. If they are going to know it is us, it might as well be dog shit.
Dog shit, but just on the door handles?
No! They can’t know it is us. Matt rented this place. Any blow-back would be on him. Not me.
That’s when I got an idea. An awful idea. A wonderful, awful idea.
I was thinking about car sabotage and suddenly remembered the time that I last had an issue with a tire. The tire was low, so I filled it up. A few weeks later, it was low again, so I took it in. There was a nail in the tire, causing a slow leak. It had been weeks since I picked up the spike, so who knows when or where it happened?
“Oh,” I told sleepy sleepy me, “that’s bad. So mean and so bad! And anyway, where are you going to find a nail? It’s not like you have one in your purse for just such an occasion (note to future me).” But the idea of it, the thought of this tiny sharp little thing making such an impact… soon? Or in a week or two? It made me smile and relax, and I finally fell asleep.
A few hours later, I was awake. My first thought was of my last thought. It seemed strange that I was still angry after getting some sleep, but I was. I was still in that same crazed place. These people fucked with my family. In 2021. The year when I told myself that I would be done taking shit! I had drawn a line in the sand, and I said, “No more!” And yet, on day one of 2021, these people gave me shit. And I took it. I laid in bed next to my stepson, trying to get some sleep, but taking shit instead. My mind hadn’t changed. I needed to give these people their shit back. Because I am not taking it! I made a promise to myself, goddamit!
This didn’t resolve the issue of the nail. I was still in bed pondering this issue and finally told myself, “Okay, this is the deal. I will walk Murphy up the block and back. If we happen to find a nail or similar, then great. The Universe is on my side. If not, then whatever. The Universe has spoken.”
I got up and went to the bathroom. As I sat on the toilet, shading my eyes from the too bright light, I admired the lovely and fashionable tile work of the shower. I was envying it a bit, actually. But that made me think, “This place was renovated very recently. So… maybe?”
I finished my “bidness” on the toilet and then washed my hands. And then, I got down on my hands and knees to have a look. Having completed enough bathroom remodels of my own, I had a hunch. There, under the sink, below all of the new furnishings, I could see some of the older pipes, and there, near the old shut-off valve, was a shiny brass screw. Just sitting there. Like, y’ know. Screws do.
“Oh. My. God. I thought,” having only moved six feet from the bed where this idea was hatched the previous night, wondering wherever I might find such a thing. “The Universe loves this idea so much, it is shitting its own britches!”
I changed into a preliminary dog walking dress, 50% pajamas, 50% street clothes, and I dropped the screw into my pocket. Then, slipping out in the cold, I walked Murphy for about twenty minutes, letting him explore the strange snowy neighborhood. I felt a little dreamy, not in the sexy way, but in the blurry way. “Are you seriously doing this? What the hell are you thinking?” a vague voice from far away asked me, and I patted the screw in my pocket to check that it was really there. But I felt like that questioning voice was a “put on” thing. Like me trying to have a Jiminy Cricket character on my shoulder because I thought there should be one, even though I felt fine. Not just fine; justified.
Murphy and I got back to our rental. I had a dog turd in hand and a screw in my pocket. Suffice it to say, lot’s of options. I opened the door and let Murphy in, but lingered outside for just a minute more. I checked for cameras. I looked for lights in the rooms of our neighbors, who were clearly still sleeping off last night. Then I did the deed. I could have left the screw standing upright on the concrete behind the back tire, but I didn’t. She might have backed up slowly, just knocking it over to the side as they left. I was angrier than that. I took the time to push the point of the screw into the tread, and wedge a side of the flat end into the concrete. Then I tossed the dog shit in the trash bin as I walked inside.
Like a fucking snake who takes no shit.
I won’t pretend that I feel profoundly guilty about it. Or even mildly guilty. I am not. I had several chances to remove that screw that morning as we were packing up, and then again as we left. As we drove away, I felt no compunction. No second or third thought. I literally screwed that lady and it felt great, like revenge on the entire 2020 and the let down of the promise of 2021. “This is what ‘taking no shit’ feels like!” I thought.
And then I sat in a car for eight and a half hours. I still didn’t have second thoughts or a moment of regret. I smiled each time I thought about that brassy little screw, waiting to ruin that woman’s day with no hope of teaching a lesson or sending a message or doing any greater good whatsoever. It was a point without a point.
But it did make me think. How does one refuse to take shit without doing harm? Is it even possible? Without going into details about the struggles between me and Matt’s ex, no matter how carefully I push back, (thinking that I’m just defending myself and “taking no shit”) I do harm. I do harm to the relationship, and the inevitable reaction brings harm on myself. I can only assume I am harming her also, even though that is not my intention. I spend so much time trying to draft these messages to make them set boundaries without insult, but I can’t predict the reaction and it seems backlash is inevitable.
On that long drive, I reflected also on 2020, and all the shit that it dished out. I don’t know how I will remember the pandemic year, but I hang on to the helplessness that I felt. At first, the hoarding was so disheartening, but I managed to keep my family in stock. Then, I wanted to help the people who hadn’t managed. I joined a neighborhood group to try to get essentials to the elderly or strapped who weren’t able to find toilet paper or isopropyl alcohol and other necessities. No one called. I tried to find other ways to contribute. I didn’t know what to do, but I looked for opportunities, and ended up as a subject in the clinical trials for Pfizer, and then a registered poll worker.
This sounds like virtue signaling but that isn’t what I mean (which is obviously what any virtue signaler would say). I had a box of toilet paper in my garage for all of the spring that none of my neighbors needed. Someone in my city needed it, I knew that. But I didn’t know who and finding them proved hard and I stopped trying. I want to help but there is a limit to what I will to do try. I don’t know how.
That brings me back to this pin. The “take no shit, do no harm” motto I spoke about. That clearly doesn’t work at all. It is a nice idea. It sounds so nice. Something that could elevate one above the fray, into a position of purity and faultlessness. That isn’t the world I live in. Even if it was, it isn’t a position that is meaningful, that might effect change. That isn’t who I want to be. I want to find opportunities, not just to be harmless, but to do good. As bad as 2020 was, I found some of those opportunities. Things that I could tell my great nieces and great nephews. With a wobbling voice, I might talk about the vaccine trials, or about wearing a mask while registering first time voters to participate in the 2020 election. And then I might say, with grandmotherly wisdom. “Some’a those cunts didn’t know their ass from a gov’ment issued ID!”
As for my new pin, I will hang on to it. The message is completely impractical, but who doesn’t like to imagine a quixotic future of easy coexistence? Also, it looks kinda baddass. Meanwhile, my words for 2021, I have decided, will be, “take some inevitable shit, and look for opportunities to do some good.”
It wasn’t an intentional goal but it guided me well last year. In that way, it was a better year than I realized at the time. That said, may we never see another like it.
P.S. To the lady I ‘screwed,’ I can’t apologize in earnest, because I listened to you spew your rants about everyone you knew for hours and you seemed awful. Thank you, however, for being so awful and allowing me to be awful with a sense of justice, because, if it wasn’t clear before, you are a dick and being a dick to you felt really good.
Happy New Year! (in dog shit).
That’s worse, right? The dog shit? I feel like you (and not a mechanic) would have to deal with that, and you wouldn’t like it. Therefore, making it worse? But whatever. You suck. And I may always backslide. Just like Mrs. Hedgehog.
I love Christmas. I love Christmas so freaking much. It surprises people because I am loudly atheist and I guess that seems like a big disconnect. I don’t notice because I always forget that Christmas is about Jesus. I get excited about finding memorable gifts and knitting scarves and baking pies. I had to make a rule that I couldn’t start Christmas shopping until after Labor Day (a rule I have frequently broken in the past) but to make up for it I am allowed to MAKE gifts all year round. (Not pies, obviously.)
The sad this is that I love Christmas so much I usually ruin it. I realized some time ago that I have this habit of trying to recreate the perfect Christmas, which doesn’t exist. Or rather, in my mind, is actually a combination of memories from several Christmases from my 43 years with all the bad parts snipped out. Nothing could ever live up to my expectations. My family would come and I would be waiting for the magic to start, but their excitement didn’t match mine. Which made me anxious. They aren’t having fun! I’m doing it wrong! So then I’d open up some wine to try to “fix” it. After an hour or so I’d be drunk and go to bed, and then next morning I would realize I had ruined it yet again.
This year, my 43rd Christmas, was supposed to be one of the *good* Christmases. Those are the ones where my sister and her husband and their two children come out from Seattle and we have a big Christmas with our entire family all together in one house. But this is not going to be one of the *good* Christmases. This is going to be a COVID Christmas (hopefully it will be “The” COVID Christmas), and no one is going to gather, much less travel from Washington. I’m feeling cheated and sad about the whole thing. But maybe it is a good thing? I can’t ruin anyone’s Christmas this year but my own. And Matt’s. Sorry, Matt!
I can’t say I’ve been dreading this weekend. I’ve just been pretending it’s not coming up. And then, when I couldn’t do that anymore, I’ve been pretending it isn’t a big deal. I’ve been feeling this pull to do the complete opposite of ruining Christmas with my insane enthusiasm. I’ve been wanting to ruin it in a new way, by skipping Christmas altogether and stay in bed with a book. Like a readathon in grade school! Those were the only times I felt safe as a bullied kid in public elementary school: double-insulated by hiding inside a book, under a metal legged desk. I grew up in the 80s when they still did they occasional “hide under your desk, it might save you from having your cells liquified by an atomic weapon!” drill. I didn’t worry about that so much. That was just a faint possibility. Other children were my Cold War, and they showed up every goddamned day.
I was thinking about this great episode of This American Life from many years ago, where they tackle the issue of the repetitive side of the holidays, where people do the same twelve things every year because they are traditions and because it brings up those memories of years past. It’s a fraught enterprise, I have decided. It’s comfortable, sure. Like settling in to your own well worn butt grove in your favorite chair. But it is also a high pressure delusion. You HAVE to get it just right, or you BLEW IT! And if you DO get it just right, you will never truly be sure which Christmas you are remembering when looking back on it, because you went to the same performance of The Nutcracker for 35 years in row.
With that in mind, this year, I’m blowing off the traditions and trying to do some new things. We can’t do the traditions, anyway, so why not? Matt and I sat down and planned the Christmas Eve and Christmas morning menus, choosing new recipes we have never made before. We drove to the Salt Flats, west of Salt Lake City, to see “the great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, which cannot be repeated for another 60 years, so no traditions there!
The hope is that it will help me to miss everyone less, because I’m not eating our family’s traditional Christmas oyster stew and looking around my table at all the people who aren’t there. Which, frankly, is a bonus because I don’t like oysters. I usually just eat the potatoes and the bacon and fling the little oyster bits into potted plants or dog’s mouths when no one is looking.
Besides going to see “The Christmas Star,” as people are calling it (I suppose because it has a more romantic ring than “The Planetary Alignment Which Happened to Occur on Earth’s Winter Solstice”), I also made my first Yule log. I’ve been doing some research on Pagan traditions and I read that the old custom was to throw a large log on the fire to celebrate the return of the longer days and the sunshine. In the 19th century, it became a cake that looks like a log. I’ve seen pictures before but it always looked too difficult and time consuming. This year, I decided to make one to celebrate solstice, and because what the hell else am I going to do?
It was easier than I thought it would be. There is this great recipe online that has videos showing the rolling part, which was great, because I couldn’t picture it at all. (Don’t skimp on the powdered sugar on that step! It will save you and your dishtowel some stress!) More than that, it was fun! Something completely new. And, if I do say so myself, it was damn yummy.
This is my strategy for the next week. Don’t try to make it perfect. Don’t try to make it terrible in revenge for the fact that it won’t be perfect. Just let it be what it is and find some adventure as a distraction from the fact that I won’t get to see my sisters or hug their kids.
Happy holidays, everyone. I hope they are either perfectly mediocre or memorable in a good way.
Me, teaching the third grade:
Ethan (pointing to a problem in a math book): Rachel, do you know how to do three digit subtraction with the regrouping strategy?
Rachel: I sure do! Here…. lemme find.. oh got it. This little machine is called a calculator. Punch in the numbers and… 152. That’s the answer. Here, you can keep it. I have one on my phone. Let me know if you need anything else!
100 years ago today, on August 18, 1920, women gained the right to vote here in America. In 1924, Native Americans were granted citizenship and the right to vote, and in 943, Chinese immigrants/citizens were given the right to vote. The final change that would guarantee all men and women of this country their right to vote wouldn’t come until 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
My grandmother was born in 1909. When she was eleven she would not have been allowed to vote, but by the time she graduated with her master’s degree, she could.
The suffragettes fought for over 80 years to get the Nineteenth Amendment. It is hard for me to believe it took until 1920 for just the first women to get the right to vote, but it shouldn’t be. After all, we are still fighting for voting rights in 2020.
At least once a day, everyday, this happens:
I see Murphy’s rocket shaped tooth brush somewhere in the house… wherever he left it last.
Then, I register [yet again] just how much it looks like a dildo.
Then, for anywhere between fifteen minutes and an hour, I hear Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon” in my head.
I am not sure this is sustainable.
Trigger Warning: this post deals with domestic violence and horrendous human shittiness. (Also, it is not funny.)
Something happened two months ago, and I’ve been struggling to write ever since. I’ve been struggling to do anything, to be honest. But I’ve been creatively stuck and I’ve been looking for lighthearted things I can write about to make people laugh, which is my clearest goal here. It would seem that I can’t. I can’t think about other things yet, so I’m going to write about the terrible thing here and remove it from my soul, like a fatty blockage in my heart. It’s rough but here we go.
We have to go back to the late 90s and early 2000s, or, as I like to call them, the aughts. I had just graduated from the university here in Salt Lake City. All of my college friends had moved away, and I stayed here with my husband at the time, who had a grown-up job. I didn’t have one of those yet, and I was trying to figure out what came next. In that time, I met a lot of people – all through my husband, Vin – and we became something that I later referred to as an “urban tribe.”
We went to the gym together. We met for lunch a couple of times a week. We went to bars and drank cocktails. We had breakfast at some chain dive every Sunday morning. We went to Vegas together once a year. I had nothing in common with these people, really. But we bonded and created a profound number of memories.
It was a transitional period for all of us, and I sometimes felt that we were clinging to one another instead of trying to figure out what came next in our lives. (Relationships? Children? Career change?) My friend Gina used to refer to Vin’s male friends (they were mostly men) as “the Lost Boys,” a reference to Peter Pan. Every Saturday, as they gathered at our house or another house to play violent video games, I would look up from a book at them and feel that was apt. But what was I doing? What was I waiting for?
One of the men I met in those years was named Brian. I had a hard time with him from the start, to be honest. I found him sexist and homophobic and I would argue politics with him regularly. He was dishonest and an all around bad influence. I wanted to cut him out of the group, but it wasn’t up to me. Vin saw the roughness that I saw but he was more inclined to bring Brian closer, rather than pushing him away. That was Vin’s way; be compassionate and ignore the bad behavior, all while being a good example. That was hard for me. When Brian said something awful, I felt it reflected on me because I was sitting there, associating with him. He drove a Hummer and voted for George W. Bush. Twice. I wanted to cancel him before cancelling was a thing.
That said, Brian had his moments. He could be funny. He could be kind. I think he tried to do the right things, sometimes. As it happened, I had been pleading with Vin to get a dog but he was set against it. One weekend, just before the 2005 Independence Day holiday, we (Brian, and his newlywed wife) went to lunch. Brian took up my canine cause and – as a consummate salesman – won Vin over on my behalf. The next thing I knew, I had a tiny Yorkie puppy in my arms that we would name Wenselydale after the favorite cheese from the Wallace and Gromit shorts that I loved, and my life would never be the same.
Brian even paid for Wensley! He bargained with the pet shop and got a discount for paying in cash. I paid him back with a check later that afternoon. I will never know why he did that for me. But he did.
I think my strongest memory of Brian, however, comes from years before Wensley. It was 2002 and we went to see The Ring in the theater. The Ring was a big movie that year; it seemed like everyone was talking about it. I didn’t like scary movies, but I was outvoted, and I decided that I could survive some terrible images and a few nights of bad dreams. I even had to admit to myself I wanted to see what all the buzz was about. And it was scary. It made me jump and cover my eyes several times. It was something to do with a tape (those were our DVDs, kids) you shouldn’t watch because if you did a monster child would come out of the TV and kill you in an undefined but terrible way. That might not be right. It’s been so long, and I never saw it a second time. Mostly I remember thinking that the creators of the movie really understood just how creepy hair and fingernails can be, and I learned that wet hair is even creepier.
Anyway, the next day I talked to my sister, who was dating one of the Lost Boys. Neither of us are much more than 5 feet tall and back then we were around 100 lbs. Brian was a weightlifter / bodybuilder who liked to show off his biceps, but he was scared out of his magic Mormon underpants after that movie. She told me that he had asked her to walk him to his car, and that when she put him in the driver’s seat he told her that he was going to drive straight home to pray. Which, we later confirmed, is exactly what he did. The idea of this sexist muscle bound man needing my tiny sister to walk him to his car… My sis and I laughed about it for years.
That was a troubled time in my marriage and all of those weekends Vin played video games where I sat off to the side, bored and contemplative, didn’t help. We split up 2006. I have stayed in contact with a few people through facebook or similar, but for the most part these were the friends that I lost in the divorce. I accepted that and created a new life.
Okay, enough stalling. We’re in it now.
On the first Tuesday in June, around ten o’clock at night, I was getting ready for bed when I got a call from Vin. I knew something wasn’t right because that wasn’t normal, but I had no idea what was going on. My fears were confirmed when the first thing Vin said was, “are you sitting down?”
That is when he told me the thing that I have been trying to make sense of for the last two months. The thing I will probably never make sense of for the rest of my life. He said, “Brian killed his kids,” and then burst into sobs.
We talked for a long time and I was slowly able to assemble the pieces of what had happened. Brian and his wife, the woman who had helped me wash and feed Wensley that first day he was in my life, were divorced in October. I knew this, as she and I had reconnected on social media and I saw her and their two boys at a Halloween party, shortly after the split was final. I also knew that Brian had been struggling with his mental health, but I didn’t realize the extent of it. I knew he was depressed, but he was also bipolar and trying to come to terms with having lost his family.
She is a nurse and has been working long shifts, like all health care professionals in this country. Brian’s job was either paused or lost due to COVID. There have been no summer camps or daycare, so it made sense for Brian to watch the kids during the day. (The local news said he was “babysitting” which made me want to kick the reporter in the dick. “Pretty sure that when it is YOUR child it is called parenting!” I might say as he lay in a fetal position on the ground. I’m off topic, but this is living in Utah, people.)
Okay. I have to get through this part fast:
Brian’s wife came home from work. She found the younger child bleeding out from a gunshot wound. She called out for Brian and her older son but there was no response. Aware that there was very little time, she rushed her 8-year-old to the hospital where he died of his wound shortly thereafter. The police were sent to the house and they found the bodies of Brian, who shot himself after shooting the boys, and the older son in the basement.
It’s been two months and I still cannot believe this happened. It was so violent and so permanent. It is profoundly fucked up and it is never going to be okay.
Four days after the murder/suicide, we celebrated Ethan’s birthday. (I never told him what happened. He only met the boys at a couple of parties and I don’t expect he will ever ask about them. I would rather he not know that something like this is even possible, for now.) We were so concerned about giving him a good birthday this year. Ethan, an only child, hadn’t interacted with another kid in months and of course we couldn’t have any kind of in person party. We didn’t want him to remember this birthday as yet another disappointment in this disappointing year. His mom and stepdad set something up where he could play a game with kids online, which was great because he had friends and family from three states join.
I’m off topic again. Here is what I’m getting to… Brian’s youngest was 8. Ethan turned 8 that same week. Brian’s youngest was a bookworm who was learning the violin. Ethan is a bookworm who is learning the violin. There was no real connection but it felt so connected, somehow. My mind was churning terrible thoughts and images and memories of the old days and I couldn’t make it stop, even for an hour. I would look at Ethan and see his small body being torn apart by a bullet and I just wanted to have my arms around him at all times. I felt a NEED to know how Brian could do that to any child, let along his own. I obsessed about the fact that the kids had braces. How could you put these kids through braces and then end their lives while they are in elementary school? Then I couldn’t stop thinking about that moment… Because he had already decided he was going to do it. But there must have been a moment, after he went to his car or his bag or whatever to get the gun that he brought to this house that he moved out of eight months prior, where he made the choice of which one he would shoot first and which would watch his brother fall to the floor…
I learned that we – all four of Ethan’s parents – would be spending his birthday together at his mother’s and stepfather’s house. This was important, I learned, because the one thing that Ethan had asked to receive for his birthday – the thing he really wanted – was for all of his parents to be able to hug him goodnight, just that one night. Matt told me this and I was undone. I found an excuse to take a second shower so that no one could hear me cry.
We did it; we spent all day and three meals together and were civilized as fuck. We actually had a good time bonding over our mutual hatred of Trump. And we all hugged Ethan goodnight and it was so special and sweet to be able to do that for him. And I got through the entire day without sharing these things that I couldn’t shake from my mind, and I was proud of myself for that.
As I said, that was two months ago. Lately, I’ve been feeling that, due to COVID 19, the entire world is going through a shared midlife crisis. I know I am, and I see the signs everywhere. These things feel connected to me. The stress and the strain of the pandemic and economic instability crushing down on people who were already trying to hold it together; the universe itself feels ruthless.
This is not me giving Brian a pass. I can’t even be as generous as Vin, who said on the phone the same night this tragedy took place, “He died from his mental illness. They all did.” Vin stayed friends with Brian and his family all these years. Their kids were as close as cousins. Closer, maybe. They were launching rockets in a field a little more than a week before this happened.
But I can’t go there. I can’t be that compassionate. Yes, he was ill and he was suffering, but I know many bipolar people who have not become violent, much less committed double filicide. My mind goes back to the sexism that he and I used to argue over and I can’t help but see it through that lens: His wife didn’t have a right to leave him and take his kids away. How dare she? He was going to punish her in the most painful way he possibly could and then she would learn a lesson…
This is based on outdated information from a long defunct friendship and I know it must be more complicated than that. (Dear God, IT MUST BE!) But this is the only way I can make sense of the fact that a man I have known for twenty years could do this. It is the only answer to the question that I have been asking myself for weeks and weeks: How did the man who put puppy Wensley in my arms become the monster that came out of the TV? But so much worse than that – it’s the worst thing I have ever known a person to do. How is this fucking possible?
Sometimes, something happens that makes you re-evaluate things. This time last year, I was commiserating with some fellow writers about agents not returning my emails, not even to say, “fuck off and never write again, you hack.” We drank wine and we laughed and cried and they told me what I wanted to hear. “Don’t give up! Keep trying and it will happen!” I have now accepted that it will not happen, and it seems like the smallest thing in the world to have cared about. I was so obsessed with “leaving my mark” and doing something special with my “one precious life.”
Seriously. Who gives a fuck if anyone remembers my name? I remember being a teen or twenty something and hearing what I thought was old folks (they were probably my age now which is 42) saying that they had learned what really mattered and it wasn’t getting published or getting reviews. And I cynically said to myself, “says the guy who failed to get published MUCH LESS get good reviews, ammaright?”
Now here I am, 42 and wise as fuck, and I’m telling you (as a person who has published one short story and got my last good review on a play I wrote in 1999), it doesn’t matter. What does matter? Your friends and siblings. Your kids and their happiness. Doing everything you can to give someone a wonderful birthday in a pandemic even when you are wretched on the inside. Getting the chance to select the songs for your father’s funeral, because while he was tragically flawed and hard to know in so many ways, but you loved him.
In the past two months I have had so many memories of that “urban tribe” surface. So many basement movie nights. So many car journeys. Hundreds of shared meals. I have never paid attention to how many times flashes of those times pop into my head until now that they hurt my heart to behold. Brian made an indelible mark on my brain, and not just by bringing Wensley into my life. There were things he said and these voices he would do. I would be so angry with him and he could still make me laugh.
I shared this with Vin and he told me, “that Brian has been gone for a long time.” Which feels right to me. The person who did this was someone I didn’t know and never will.
I don’t have a good ending for this post. Maybe it will come to me in time. I have to say, one thing I have been thinking about constantly in addition to (but also combination with) all of this, is the idea of “cancel culture.” I mentioned that I cancelled Brian before that was a thing. At the time I was so satisfied with that decision. It made me feel superior to an unenlightened jerk with stupid ideas. I no longer had to feel ashamed of my association with him.
I needed to get away from Brian and that entire part of my life, and I don’t regret that decision. Sometimes you have to set a bridge on fire to light your future path. But, on some level, I do regret the sense of satisfaction it gave me.
I am not saying that you should keep a relationship no matter how toxic or vacuous it is. There are friendships that need to end, just as romantic relationships need to be left behind. I think what I am saying – I’m still trying to figure out what this complicated sense of regret is truly about – while ending my friendship with Brian felt right to me, I think Vin was more right. Vin decided to keep the friendship with a deeply flawed human being. He was able hear Brian’s misguided opinions without taking it on as a personal burden. He could listen to them and disagree without feeling ashamed of that association. I wasn’t in a place where I could do that, and that is fine. But I would like to think that, someday, I could be Zen enough to sit with a person I might otherwise find irreparably thick and wrong about everything, and share my disagreement, but understand my sitting next to this person is not a reflection on me.
Isn’t that what cancel culture is really about? Showing your values, not through demonstrative action, but by who you decide to exclude? In the future, when I feel compelled to “cancel” someone, I want to remember that. When I am more concerned about how I will be perceived by others if I associate with a deeply flawed human being, instead of “unfriending” them or throwing a drink in their face (I never did that… I just always wanted to), I want to remember that all I really need to do is clearly express my dissent and then be an example of a person that I would admire. All this “cancelling’ leaves people without a dissenting voice to challenge their premises. It just pushes them toward their silos and makes them dig into their established paradigms. Seriously, if Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia could be friends, what is our fucking excuse?
Sorry, I’m off topic again. And I know that this connection I’m making doesn’t really make sense. There is no part of me that believes that if Brian and I were still friends that I could have prevented this. But what I am pondering, is if Brian hadn’t been raised in the tradition of toxic masculinity and felt that it was possible (and not a weakness) to ask for help when he needed it most… Well, my strategy of cancellation left him a vacuum. But he might have called Vin. Obviously, that didn’t happen. But it might have made a difference, and I think Vin can feel good about that.
This was an odd thing for an atheist to do, but I saw it and I had to have it. Right now I feel like if I can support a small business and soothe my grief, I gotta do it.
Gotta say I’m completely satisfied with this purchase. When I was placing the order I was looking for a way to get paws because the hands and feet are kinda creepy… but now I have it and I love it.
GoSaintYourself (on Etsy) for the win!
Happy Birthday to me,
My chest has a “V”
I’m older than the internet…
And it’s hard to not pee.