Time for No-Turning-Back
Every left turn, right turn, sign post, cyclist, parked car, lane change, traffic light was a potential lawsuit, fine, altercation. It's safe to say, I don't like driving, a lot! My nerves we're frayed, way beyond bleeding-raw and crackling on overload by the time I got to the home center's order desk.
Poke, poke... click. Poke. Then a lazy stare off into space. A long, whistling exhalation through booger infested nostrils. Pen tapping on the monitor. Beep! The clerk looked at his grungy screen. "Eh!" Smack, smack, chew. Gum, he'd probably been enjoying since the heady days of glam hair-metal. "Check it out, lady!" Flipping his Rogaine starved mullet off one shoulder with the pen, he half laughed -- more like, grunted: "Laaah-val, pee cue," and went blank. All cerebral electrical activity had ceased.
Was he dead? "Ah, scuze me." Should I poke him?
"Oh yeah." He regained awareness of my presence. "It ain't here, eh. Went to pee cue."
My turn to stare.
"Lady, like I says. It went to pee cue." He swung the wobbling CRT to show me that he wasn't hallucinating. Sure enough, smoky orange characters, glowing through the screen's layer of protective filth, uncovered the secret meaning of pee cue.
"P. Q." I said the letters out loud. "That means, 'province of Québec'! " I stifled a nearly obsessive urge to add, you moron!
"Yeah, like I said, eh." Chew, chew, smack. "Laa-vall, province of Quebec. Sure isn't anywhere near here, eh."
"Right, it's a suburb of freaking, Montreal!"
"Montreal, eh?" He squinted at the screen. "Wrong side of the country, eh?"
"Any way you can get one from another store?" Then I added, "Aaaaay?" When in Rome... and the natives appreciate it when you try to speak their local dialect.
"Lady, that's a special order, eh. Gotta clear customs. Could be why it's in pee and cue?"
"No, they called me from the pee and cue store, to come and pick it up. That is why I am here!" Then it hit me, no wonder the caller was speaking French.
He laughed. "You came to the wrong store, eh!"
"No, I came to the right store, aay. This is where I ordered it from, aay, and bee, and see! " I pulled a Palm Pilot from my oversize, fake-suede, fake-fur lined coat. "Damn, I'm hosting an Arts & Crafts meeting this Friday! At my place! You won't have any trouble finding it. It's the Craftsman bungalow with a naked bulb dangling where a light fixture was supposed to be. Oh man, I really, really, really need that fixture."
The clerk poked at grubby keys, tapped the beat to My Sharona on the monitor housing until I just about snatched, and smashed, it. Then proclaimed, "Nothing in stock in Canada, eh."
"It came from California. If it had to clear customs, why bloody Montreal?"
"Yeah, that's pretty funny, eh? I'll call tomorrow, see what's going on. East coast is, like, you know, closed by now." The clerk straightened up. "Eh, you could expedite with air-freight, get here Friday, maybe."
"Know how big this thing is? Air-freight'll cost a bundle." I banged on my Palm Pilot with the stylus -- probably, just a standard disco beat, being way too pissed off for rock.
"It's a light fixture, eh?" The clerk asked.
Silence. Maybe his brain blue-screened again. Then I got it. "That was a question?"
"Duh! I said, 'It. Is. A. Light. Fixture... Eh?"
"Yes. It. Is. A. Light. Fixture. Aaay! I just don't know when 'aay' is a tribute to The Fonz, the first letter of the alphabet, or an actual question."
"Can't cost that much to air-freight a light."
"A light? Calling this thing, 'a light,' is like calling Aida, 'a song.' It's a reproduction, California Arts and Crafts, Pasadena Gamble house, chandelier. It's probably in a box the size of a washing machine, and almost as heavy." I slapped the Palm pilot shut: a castanet exclamation point, highlighting my extreme pissed-off-ed-ness. Damn! I was going to be such a hit with that light fixture. Now what? A naked bulb dangling from wires was the ultimate insult to my painstakingly reproduced, cedar shingle walls and perfectly matched moldings. What a goddamned disaster!
Swinging the Volvo wagon into the driveway, I was delighted to see twinkling shards of colored glass littering my hand antiqued, cobble, pavers. Another tranche of smashed christmas lights. "Last merry freaking christmas I put up goddamned lights," I fumed.
Back, when I bought the bungalow, Oak Bay was just starting to get oh-so-trendy. But with subprime lending out of control, and house flipping sending real estate into high Earth orbit, it had become a hip location for the upwardly mobile and their angry, disenfranchised kids. The children of the me generation, with every gadget imaginable, were understandably bored out of their minds. They filled the void by mimicking their favorite street gang, wrecking stuff, binge drinking and beating the shit out of each other. Ah, but it's home... or will be, if I ever finish it, I thought.
The Palm snagged the wi-fi and signaled, I had email, before the Volvo had time to finish dieseling, to a coughing, rattling stop.
It was from Elena.
My heart raced. Christmas lights forgotten -- not like I celebrated, I just faked it, like everyone else without family, or not on the receiving end of a truck-load of gifts -- I vaulted the stairs two at a time. Last time I wrote to Elena, I suggested, we meet in Kiev. I'd been there recently, reveling in the Orange Revolution, and I was frothing at the mouth to go back for more.
Elena, obviously didn't feel the same. "Kiev is too far... Parents will never let me go..." She had written.
Parents? I wondered. Was she nuts... or a child? On the phone she sounded like an adult. In photos she looked like an adult. Well, an adult with a deer-in-the-headlights look, sure, but an actual grown up. She sure didn't come across as someone whose parental units could dictate where she went, or didn't.
Until my possibly impetuous invitation to meet-up in Kiev -- to weave through crowds of banner waving protesters, taking zillions of pictures, getting high on the energy of revolution -- my discourse with Elena had been heartfelt, honest. Truth be told, I had found things Elena wrote about, rather moving. Her descriptions of life, her commentary on how she saw things, the way she described the people and the lives around her, the photos she took: literally a graphic representation of how she saw even the simplest of things with an artist's eye, had, more than once, left me in tears. Elena was an amazing presence, unquestioningly open and emotionally honest. Which is why, the email she had just sent didn't feel right. Something lurked between the lines. Something was wrong. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I was genuinely worried about the extraordinary woman reaching to me through the data-stream.
Why is it, the higher the rank of the jokester, the more uproarious the response he gets? Of course, we all know that privilege has its rank -- in the olfactory sense -- so, why was I surprised to get shot down using his own stupid joke? "I know what you mean, Sir." I even explained it. "The academic, failsafe excuse that keeps on giving: the 'Selective Second-language Recognition Incident.' " It was safe, or it should've been. I mean, within the hallowed halls of academia it was a wildly popular, inside joke -- a reference to a class of antidepressants -- and, like the antidepressant, the joke was meant to lighten the mood.
It flopped. Doctor William Hacket -- PhD, not MD -- was not amused. Not fair, damn it! The SSRI reference provoked uproarious laughter when he used it. He looked over his glasses, leaned forward, rested his elbows on the desk. "I don't think you do." He glowered at me. "They are foreign students."
Standing before the director's imposing, Mission style, Craftsman, Arts and Crafts, solid, red oak desk, was always intimidating. Suddenly, it felt more so than ever, and I instinctively pulled back. "So?" I spoke cautiously, looking side to side at the symmetrically placed, period, Arts and Crafts, leather chairs. I swear those chairs were designed to trap the sitter and lower their stature.
"So... they pay more." It wasn't a joke.
It wasn't the response I expected. Who was this man I worked for?
"Look, Meg, we need the money." Hacket yanked off his glasses, tossed them onto an open laptop. They hit with a clatter.
Maybe you need money for a new laptop, or glasses, I thought.
"Okay, how about this..." He plucked the glasses from the laptop, put them back on, and leaned back in his period office chair. "If they handed anything in, bring it to me. I'll handle it."
"Actually, each and every one of them submitted identical assignments. They even used the same student number."
"Really..." He chuckled. "So, how do you know who submitted the assignments?"
"They put their names on them." I seriously wondered if he'd find that funny.
"Ah, there you go." Apparently, he was amused. "Well Meg, you've got to give them credit for that, at least."
"No, Will..." It was a progressive institute: first names only. "... I don't. You do." At the time, I was sorry I didn't have actual papers to toss onto that solid oak desk. Damned electronic submissions. I had to settle for walking out. It felt like the office door was getting further and further away, like that haunted house at Disneyland.
"Heeeeeeeey, what's with da 'tude, babe?" Just no way to describe a sixty-plus, privileged, white-male, with a Peter Pan complex, and upper-class, Bostonian accent, attempting to lighten the mood with ghetto-speak.
"You still set on doing that Arts & Crafts society thing at your place, Friday?"
"Ah..." Shit, I'd forgotten all about it. The clerk hadn't called back about the mondo light-fixture. "... I guess. Look Will, I'd rather not. Nothing to show off. The stupid light went to Montreal."
"Great! I mean, sorry about your lamp." William de-reclined back toward his desk. "Thing is, Sarah would love to host the meeting at our place. We won an original Stickley sofa at auction. Wait until you see it!"
"Bought: highest bid, rather high, but it's a nice piece." He chucked his glasses at the laptop and reached for the phone.
I just stood there, like an idiot, holding the doorknob, staring in William's direction. Truth be told, I suddenly really didn't want to be at that meeting, regardless of its locale.
William hit speed dial, dismissed me with a wave of the receiver. Crossing the threshold into the outer office, I heard him yell, "And bring something Martian, Venetian, what the hell is it you eat?"
"Vegan." I sneered.
"Yeah, that's it, whatever -- for the grill, unless you want steak -- twitching-n-bleeding rare."
It seems crazy, but since I'd opened up to Elena, my whole interest in the Craftsman revival thing had been on the wane. At first I'd loved it. We were like a secret society supporting each other's obsession. Lately, it was starting to feel an awful lot like a bunch of really bored, rich people one-upping each other with what they could spend. An exclusive club where the Arts and Crafts ethic of, By Hammer and By Hand, could be had by handing over hundreds -- if not thousands, and into the millions -- of dollars.
I got to the Hackett's place and found a note taped over the doorbell, instructing visitors to, "Please gong," with a masking tape arrow pointing down. Just in case one missed the conspicuous gong and mallet placed there.
It was loud, but waves crashing on rocks, a hundred feet from the front door, were louder. So, I stood there, waiting, freezing, feeling more than a little stupid with the gong's mallet in my hand. I gonged again, whacking it with way more gusto. If I didn't think I'd send the gong flying into the ocean, I might've kicked it. Upscale waterfront wasn't just loud, it was bloody cold, and windy. Cutesy games with period architectural details wore pretty thin in that environment. The doorbell's lighted button glowed through the note. Screw it, I thought, and pressed the doorbell, through the paper note, with the end of the gong's mallet.
William opened the castle-like door, drink in hand. "Why didn't you gong?"
I handed him the mallet. "I did. Your gong is out of order. Had to use the doorbell." Then I headed for the kitchen, tofu wieners in hand. It felt good, leaving my idiot boss standing by the open door, mallet in one hand, whiskey in the other, mouth hanging open. Krikey, I was hoping they'd have had the party catered. The usually did, so I was hopeful there'd be someone to talk to.
No luck. It was Sarah behind the indoor grill. "Oh, hiiiiii! I see you brought the tofu dogs. Be a dear and pop them on the grill. Will's got me running off my feet. He decided that doing this party ourselves, casual and homey, would be a nice change."
The kitchen looked like it had blown up. "No problem, let me take over at the stove." I preferred it to the psychological chess, playing out in the living room. So incredibly boring. I had to put up with William during the day, just so I could teach. I resented prolonging the charade after hours. It sure wasn't for the money. Besides, I'd come into a sizable inheritance, and had, since coming-out, become a remittance woman.
Boisterous, forced laughter emanated from the living room.
"That's my William." Sarah sighed. "Laughing at someone's expense, to be sure... Probably mine."
I was stunned. Nothing like sarcasm, snide comments, and domestic drama to make for a nice relaxing evening.
"Forget it. I'm just tired." She covered. "You can go and join the party. I'll be alright."
I looked at my unopened tofu-wieners. Somehow my appetite had deserted me.
"You better tell him how much you like that -- I guess it's called a sofa -- he paid more for that thing, than for my car."
I was reminded of my stupendous light-fixture. Buyer's remorse was setting in, hard and fast. Too bad I ordered it. And yes, I'd seen the sofa on the way to the kitchen. It looked an awful lot like a futon I'd had as an undergrad. "You're kidding, right?"
"Nope, not at all. If you plan on teaching next term you better gush over that -- I'm not even sure it is furniture -- thing, out there."
"I meant, costing more than your car."
"I know you did." Sarah jammed tongs into the salad. "I am just saying."
All I managed to say was, "Wow," long and drawn out, barely audible.
Sarah was right. She had more time to figure it out.
It was a game: a life destroying, all consuming, self-denigrating, game of sucking-up, and all for what? A really huge lamp, and center stage in a lecture theater of undergrads who'd rather be anywhere else. My head was starting to spin, and I hadn't even hit the booze. "Sarah, I'm sorry. Not feeling great. I have to leave."
"No problem. Be glad that you can."
"What?" It took me a while. "Oh yeah, right. Sure you're okay?" I picked up the tofu-wieners and shouldered into my coat. I just wanted to be gone from there.
"Use the back door, Meg. William will never know you have gone."
"About the torture rack, I will tell him you love it." Sarah added.
Facing the ocean, the wind made opening the patio door a serious struggle. With my hip, I held it half open against the blast and turned to Sarah. "No, please don't. Don't lie for me, in fact tell him that I walked out." Then I added, "And tell him, I took my Martian wieners with me."
By the time I got back to my half-finished bungalow and had the tofu-wieners sizzling in the microwave, I knew exactly how to answer Elena's last letter. With an itinerary.
It was time for no-turning-back, so I booked my flights to Kiev and wrote: "I'll be there on February sixteenth for at least a month. You are welcome to join me, and I desperately hope you will."