Hip, Hip…Hooray?

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I cannot predict the future, but I do know what will happen.

This morning, when I set out for my morning dog walk, my calendar told me that the date was November 10, 2018.  The sunlight that shone through my window was vast.  The air that hit me in the face when I opened my back door was not the bracing, invigorating air of late fall, the chill that brings a healthy rose to your cheeks and energizes your step.  It was the unwanted, unwarranted, unexpected, entirely RUDE slap in the face of mid-winter.  21 degrees.  I could sense the sun laughing at me.  Hahaha, fooled you.

Here is what will happen.

One hundred nineteen hours from now (seven thousand one hundred forty minutes, four hundred twenty-eight thousand four hundred seconds), a man will hold a brutally sharp knife just above my skin.  He will have marked the spot.  Possibly with a Sharpie.  He will slice my skin on a precisely drawn line, and he will watch as six or more inches of my skin separates into parts.  Copious amounts of blood will spread from the split.  People, ones who are not holding the knife, will have prepared for this.  They will mop up the streams and rivulets with highly absorbent sponges.

The fall has lingered this year.  It has taken its time, languorous and slothful in showing its colors, the trees refusing to let go of their flaming displays.  But after a blustery rainstorm, many trees gave up all at once, raining a thick carpet onto the ground.  When it dropped well below freezing last night —  for the first time —  another miracle.  Trees and leaves can no longer cling to one another.  Emblazoned leaves let go, one at a time, in a slow motion and silent shower.  They spin, twirl, dawdle in their descent, and they come to rest among the thick carpet of their brethren.

Once the myriad tissues have been cut through or pulled to the side, the man will put down the knife.  He will remove my femur from my acetabulum, or in simpler terms, he will dislocate my thigh bone from my hip socket.  He will then take a bone saw and cut off the top portion of my femur – the largest bone in the human body.  He will cut it entirely off.

Perhaps I can predict the future.

On the morning of November 10, 2018, I watch the leaves drift one at a time to their resting place on the newly-frozen ground.  Their crunch underneath my feet, even as I walk along with my cane, is one of the glorious sounds on earth.  My dog sniffs for the perfect place to plop down and roll back and forth in the leafy carpet.

When I walk among the leaves a year from now, I will not need a cane.

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Tennis Racket Banjo and Other Unexpected Encounters

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I was living in a space that was approximately 4’ x 10’, with a ceiling of the usual height.  During the daytime, I would put my feet on the floor and gaze out the window.  At night, I put my legs up and my upper body down, rearranging the pillows so there would be one for my head.  I would close my eyes,  facing away from the windows, and sometimes I would sleep.  For the first few nights, I pulled the drapes closed, blocking out the lights from the enormous construction project as well as the blazingly-lit buildings that surrounded my location in all directions.  By the fourth night, I stopped closing the shades, finding the idea of the lights gleaming just behind my head to be strangely comforting, a presence I wanted to maintain.  Even with the sense of being immersed in a constructed reality – my own personal Truman Show – the lights of this Stepford world flickered just as prettily.

In a city known for its unreasonable hills, perennial fog, and enchanting Victorian architecture, my couch home existed in an area that lay completely outside the farthest bounds of expectation.  It was, in other words, completely flat, continually drenched in blinding, bright California sun, and so utterly brand new that the majority of the area was a cacophony of rebar and beams and gridwork.

I knew that I would awaken the following day well before the natural light of morning flooded the room.  Sometime between 5:30 and 6:30 am, a voice would pierce the pre-dawn by saying, simply, “I’m awake.”  This would be followed by complete silence – unusually complete, for the general layout of the area made for an absence of the routine sounds of early morning, such as birds chirping, dogs barking, a stirring of the natural world. Perhaps ten to fifteen minutes later, once again, “I’m awake.”  The tone was neutral, not pressed, or irritated, or perplexed at the lack of response – simply a statement made into the dark void.  Then silence once again.  Ten minutes later, when the voice returned, there was a difference.  Factors had been weighed.  Conclusions had been drawn.

Unable to reconcile the possibility that the voice may have been heard, but not responded to, the conclusion was that the voice must not have been heard in the first place.  Thus, when the voice cried out again, it was outstandingly loud, and crisply clear, and delivered in the slow, exaggerated way that we often speak to people who are hard of hearing, or have a different native language, or whom we are openly dissing by acting like they are total cretins.  “I AM AWAKE.  I AM READY TO GET OUT OF MY BED.”

The brand new fake wood floors muffle every iota of sound.  There are no footsteps, no shuffling scraping warnings.

A moment later, I open my eyes.  A very small person stands two feet from my face.  He holds a spray bottle in his mouth, his lips closed around the nozzle while the bottle hangs down.

“You’re starting with the saxophone today, I see,” I say to him.

“Saxophone first.  Then tennis racket banjo.”

“What song are you playing?”  I ask him.

“Bump.”  He says.  “After that: Chick Habit.”

And with the naming of his two favorite songs from his most favorite band – a Chicago Punk Marching Band – my day with my 2-year-old grandson begins.

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My life according to me

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D-Day. June 6.

D-Day marks the anniversary of the Normandy landings during World War II. Twenty-four thousand U.S., British and Canadian troops landed on five separate beaches across a 50-mile-wide stretch of northern France. The largest seaborne invasion in history, the operation began the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control, and contributed to the Allied victory on the Western Front. But, “victory” took months, and Allied casualties numbered greater than 10,000, with more than 4,100 confirmed dead.

On the anniversary of D-Day this year, I officially outlived every member of my family of origin. I woke up to my 22,481st day, overtaking my father, who put his cigarette down and slid off his chair into a quick and peaceful death on his 22,480th day. I had long surpassed my mother (20,792 days) and my brother, the one most gypped of the additional days I so wish he could have seen (17,590 days).

I originally began this blog as a vehicle to post sections of my third novel as it was being written, and I titled it “My books My writing My life according to me.” With my third novel completed (at least I hope that it is completed. I would like it to be completed, not because I shirk from doing further work that might make it a better piece of fiction, but because I believe it accomplishes what I ardently wanted it to accomplish – to capture an instant in time. Altering it seems almost like doctoring pictures of the D-Day invasion. They may be more captivating, or graphic, or even more beautiful photographs, but that’s just not what happened); I am switching my blog more to the “My life according to me” thing. I have redesigned it!

Is this a grateful-to-be-alive every single day kind of blog? A bluebirds-on-both-shoulders-singing-in-my-ears sort of thing? Um, no. Well, partly. I chose the wonderful photograph above by Annemiek van der Kuil as the perfect “emblem” for this blog, as it mirrors the world that I see, where juxtapositions and ironies exist everywhere: a world that is at once beautiful and messy, where there is loneliness and separation as well as jubilant connection, peacefulness and chaos, profound pain, but always, always possibility.

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Touche

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In its first incarnation, my novel which ended up as You, in your Green Shirt, began as a memoir, entirely non-fiction. Over a process of years, two agents, many publishers, a lot of thought and two complete rewrites, I determined that the material – the sum total of story, voice, and intent –could be better served if I abandoned the “facts*” and allowed the characters free reign to tell their tale.

Still very much in a new and experimental place, my current thinking is that A January Diary might benefit from a similar break from reality. Thus (I’m always looking for an opportunity to use the word thus!!), following is the first foray into the realm of the constructed reality known as fiction for A January Diary.

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It was after the first time we – hmmm, should I say made love? Had sex? Fucked? It’s best when it’s all three, all at once.

Should I fault myself for not remembering the details? Of the actual sex, I mean. Other things, I recall with the clarity of a photograph that sits right in front of me. One that I can stare at, examine over and over, discover new and more new. There was the Very Serious expression on his face. His extreme thinness, combined with his heights – he’s a blue person! I thought. One of the blue people from the movie Avatar!! The shocking cold of his foot afterward, as he traced it along my calf.

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There was the languid and lovely movement from the breathless, voiceless sinking into one another’s bodies that immediately followed, to the murmured first words, to the return of full sentences, to the eventual time when we woozily sat on the edges of the bed and regarded our widely-strewn clothing.

By the time all of our clothing had found its way back onto our bodies, we stood fully upright and regular conversation had resumed. He was saying that he really needed to get started on his Medicare stuff, grumbling about the whole pain-in-the-ass of it. I said that I was counting the days until I qualified. Why, I said, do you have any idea what I’m paying for my health insurance right now? Being a Company Man, the kind with paid-for health insurance, of course he had no idea.

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I threw out the monetary figure, which elicited a visible level of shock and horror. He actually paced around his hallway a little, trying to wrap his head around the sum. Ha! Saw my opening. So with a totally straight face I said: well, this is as good a time as any to segue into something I really need to talk with you about. You can probably understand now why I have an ad up on Craigslist – I’m advertising for an arranged marriage for health insurance.”

Without a second’s hesitation he said: Hell, I’ll marry you. Let me call the benefits office right now and get the info. Lemme just go grab my phone.” And with that, he walked away, pretending to search for the phone.

Touche, I thought.

Touche, indeed.

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The First Time I Died

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The air was hot, and dry, with a burning white sky ablaze from the sun. There was no wind. It was so utterly unmoving that the scene was completely silent, like being in the movie theater when the sound suddenly snaps off and the picture continues in the dark, silent cave. “Have I suddenly gone deaf?” I thought, and I looked around to see if anything was moving – a branch, a lizard, a bird – something I might be able to hear.

The young woman wore full native dress. A skirt that went all the way to the ground, a long sleeve shirt with the sleeve bottoms rolled to reveal inches and inches of bracelets. Her waist-length braid had been bound with a thin leather strap. She turned to glance at me when I approached the edge, briefly, then looked back down. She did not say a word. She did not say hello, which I thought was odd, because almost everyone says hello to a four-year-old child, especially one who is approaching the edge of the Grand Canyon.

She sat very near the edge. But she wasn’t sitting, actually, she crouched, as if it wer the most relaxed position in the world, and she wove her basket. I watched the quickness of her hands, young hands, and I thought she might be very young despite the baby beside her. A papoose. I was proud of myself for knowing the word for an Indian* baby who was bound up in a beautifully adorned little cocoon. The baby was wide awake, but utterly silent, his calm black eyes focused far away.

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I thought they must be miserably hot. In my 1960 shorts and sleeveless blouse, I couldn’t imagine how they seemed so——————

My foot slipped. At first there was just the scrape of my saddle shoe’s heel against the dry dirt. Then the grate of my calf. I felt the skin rub away and felt the first tiny droplets of blood rise to the surface. But after that I was in free fall. My feet flew out from under me and I was face to face with the hot white sky, falling, and falling.

My back hit first. I felt the sensation, the pain I suppose I would call it, for less than a second. It was like the wind being knocked out of you, except I knew that it was not the wind. I was instantly surrounded by the blackest darkest night, but within the black, an ocean of spark-like bursts flew from my body in all directions at once. I died.

I lay in bed for a long time before I believed that I could breathe.

I have died many times in my dreams. This was the first.

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*The term “Native American” was not in widespread use at this time.

 Graphic by Scott Snibbe

Angels

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Entry #2: A January Diary

The plane was nearly empty. When my mother switched seats to talk with my aunt, I had the entire row of three seats to myself. She probably thought that if I were by myself, I would fall asleep, as my older brother had done, his knees drawn up and his freckled face squished against the seat back. His long skinny legs – like my mother’s- showed a mile of bright white sock before they disappeared into his pants leg.

My grandmother was dying, and we were racing across the country to see if we could make it in time to see her, while she was still “her.” My other grandmother had died three months previously. I missed her terribly and talked with her every night while I lay in bed. This other grandmother, the one who had just suffered a stroke, had always been more distant, in every way. She was a stranger who visited infrequently, made my mother send me to my room when I had disobeyed, and thought a disgusting menthol cough drop was a reasonable peace offering offering that I should leave me deeply grateful

Way below us was a solid floor of dazzling, puffy clouds, like a miles-deep bed that would catch us if we fell. The sinking sun shone on them like it does on a new winter snowfall, making tiny lights dance in front of your eyes from the blinding white. I believed those tiny white blue yellow bursts of light were angels. The same ones you could see in the very middle of the night if you stared very, very hard at the nothingness of the dark.

I spent a lot of time wondering if my grandmother would look like her older self as an angel, the way I had known her, or like her younger self. I wondered if she got to choose. I tried to picture her based on the one picture I had seen of her as a young woman, plain and clear-eyed and strong, her arm around her big sister.

I rested my forehead against the airplane window – wondering what in the world it was made from that could be strong enough to hold an entire airplane together – as the sun dropped below the cloud floor. The light changed to an in-between that was neither light nor dark. It was nothing. I felt perfectly suspended, floating with no effort, in an endless world between light and dark. I was eight years old, and I thought : Death. This is what death is like. Exactly and completely…nothing at all. The angels are all around. And you float.

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Bottom two photos: Winged Victory, also known as Nike

A Wee Ball

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Entry #1: A January Diary

That cat seemed to love that little boy nearly as much as she did. From the time he was able to pick up the ever-spreading, quite portly Bo, Dylan would careen around with Bo eternally spilling out of his arms and sliding every which way, while Dylan staggered under the weight. The loving, philosophical Bo just let it all happen, trusting, she supposed, that he was close enough to the floor that serious, lasting damage was unlikely. Bo let himself be carried from room to room, and hoisted on to various pieces of furniture, and shoved through holes in the cat climbing tree, often purring through the entire journey.

Dylan would finagle Bo on to the sofa, look up at her and say, “Want to snuggle him with me, Abuela?” To which the only reasonable reply, even while she prayed that she would not tear up and be unable to explain this to a child so young was: “of course I do.”

Bo slept with Dylan at night, and spent most of each day in his room as well. They had a favorite game they played, where either she or Dylan would look up from reading, playing trains, racing around the house doing laps, measuring various things with his animal measuring sticks, jumping from couch to couch, making a fort, and suddenly say: “What a minute! Where’s BO!?”

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At which point they would dart around the house, pretending great alarm, venturing from room to room while saying: “I don’t see him in here. Huh. Where in the world could he be?…” until at last they would end in Dylan’s bedroom, where Bo invariably lay curled into a wee ball, a mountain of blankets surrounding him.

On New Year’s Eve, the final day of a rough year, Dylan said to her: “Buela, want to play a game with me? I’m going to curl up with Bo, and you cover us up with all the blankets you can find, and pretend that we’re a present, and unwrap us!” Dylan glanced at Po, then made himself into a ball that replicated the exact positions of the cat’s head and paws. He raised his head to say: “Make sure you start with OG blanket. On top of me. With the fuzzy side down.”

OG blanket was followed by second OG, then 3rd OG, then a baby blue electric blanket, then a fluffy down comforter. When any trace of living creatures had been thoroughly obliterated into a shapeless heap of fluff, she said: “Oh! Look!! A present!!! I wonder what in the world it could be?!?! Oh boy oh boy, let’s unwrap it and see. Let’s take off the wrap…why…there’s nothing here but more wrapping paper!” She proceeded through each blanket layer, pretending pouty frustration each time a peeled off blanket exposed no marvelous surprise.

When at last Dylan was revealed, she exclaimed: “Why look! It’s a boy! A lovely and wonderful boy! Not to mention a cat.”

“Again, Abuela, again!! Make Bo and me a present again!!!”

Dylan tucked his head and folded into a ball, and she thought: how in the world did he get this idea? This magnificent idea? And piling the blankets atop him, on New Year’s Eve, it seemed to her that this was the best idea she had ever heard. She could not imagine anything as lovely, as perfect, as making herself as small as she possibly could, being covered by a mountain of tenderly embracing warmth. Smaller and smaller, she could be swallowed by this cozy cave, until she disappeared altogether. Until she would not have to see the things January would bring.*

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*This is a work of fiction. In real life, the cat is female.

Three More Nights

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When my marriage of twenty-one years came to the death throes of its legal ending, I scrimped and saved for a new mattress. This morning, nearly fifteen years later, I lay in bed until the unheard-of time of 7:30. I will sleep on that mattress only three more nights. It is long past its useful life; a new one sits in a box downstairs. I will instruct the movers to leave the old one behind, to be hauled away. The one in the unopened box will be driven to my new home on Thursday, set up in my new bedroom, and made ready for me to lay down my head at the end of the day when I will move from my home of thirty-two years.

I took out a lease on my new apartment nearly a month ago. Each week I visit it, at least once. I walk through the rooms and plan my furniture arrangements. I take measurements here and there, but I never write them down and don’t remember them later. Often I simply stand in each of the rooms, one at a time, and drink in the quality of the sound. Filmmakers always record this: the sound quality in each room when no one is speaking and nothing is happening, because each room is completely unique.

Sometimes when I walk into my empty apartment, I hate it. What was I thinking? I ask myself. I want to fall on the floor and cry. I go through machinations in my head to determine if it’s too late to change my mind. Other times I walk in and I am nearly overwhelmed with the lovely, homey charm that told me this assortment of rooms could be a home, a real and true home, for me.

I lay on my old mattress this morning listening to a rain so gentle, I had to work to hear the fine drops land. I listened to the birds’ joyful songs, the ridiculously loud ones and the more restrained, for a very long time.

I walked through the door of this dearly-loved house with a new baby in my arms and the entire life of a family ahead of me. After thirty-two years, there are many times when I ask myself if my body will know how to breathe in a different place, if my eyes will cease to see, to make sense of things, when the views out my windows are entirely foreign and not the views have been a constant through the whole arc of a life lived.

In three nights, a new chapter begins.

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Runaway Train: new from “Pushing the River”

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Marie is poking at a few hundred cloves of garlic she is roasting in the oven when Madeline comes into the kitchen.

“Are you mad at me?” Madeline asks her.

“No,” Marie says, in a tone of voice which successfully imparts the following: “I’ve considered whether I should be angry at you; and whether I really am angry at you but am fooling myself into thinking that I’m not; and whether I have a lot of very complicated feelings but none of them seems to be anger. So – no.”

“Is your sister mad at me?”

Marie pokes at the garlic. “You know, Madeline, everyone has told Savannah her whole entire life that she can’t do stuff. That she’s not good enough.”

“I know.”

“She’s been made to feel like such a piece of shit. From day one. Bounced back and forth.”

“I know,” says Madeline, feeling like a piece of shit.

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“It felt like more-of-same to her. Like you’re just one more person who’s telling her that she’s a total fuck up. That this is yet another thing that she can’t do.”

Madeline considers for a moment just how much Marie is talking about her sister. “But she can’t do it right, Marie. Not because she’s a bad human being. Because she’s fifteen. Because no fifteen-year-old can do this.”

“She really really believes that she can.”

“I completely agree that she really really believes that she can. I agree that she really really wants to. With all her heart. She believes that this baby will land in her arms, and she will magically be able to give him every single thing that he may ever need in his whole entire life – that’s what I know she wishes. But she is fifteen fucking years old.”

“Well I for one am going to do everything I possibly can to help her.”

“Runaway train never going back/Wrong way on a one way track” – that’s what lurches through Madeline’s mind as Marie says those words. Great, she thinks; on top of everything else, fucking Soul Asylum stuck in my head.

“And I think we should all be completely committed to that,” Marie adds. “All of us. To help her as much as we can.”

“There isn’t enough help in the whole world, Marie, not enough to make this work.”

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Photos from the film “Stand by Me” (top and middle)

from the film “Lone Ranger” (bottom)

Becoming Billie

As I [try! to!] return to writing the novel “Pushing the River,”  the character that I find haunting me is Billie.  As regular readers may recall,  I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book.  In the novel  overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action.  But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present.  I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable.

I have previously posted excepts from Billie’s story; this is a continuation, meant to be somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle.

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Billie Rae would brush her hair for hours. “That feels so nice,” she said. “Please, just a few more minutes, Stevie, pretty please?” Steve weren’t never the one who had brushed her hair – it was always Carol. But who she’d gone fishing with, and who made her special grilled cheese sandwiches just the exact way she liked them, and who done her hair, had gotten all mixed together inside of her. They was all people that used to be there, and now they wasn’t.

Billie wasn’t scared no more to walk home from school all by herself. She and Steve talked the whole entire way. He laughed and laughed at her stories. “You’re still my baby sister, Billie Rae, but I swear that when your times comes, you are going to have yourself the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop. The boys are gonna be lining up, Billie girl, so they can laugh their fool heads off.”

The door to her mama’s bedroom was closed when Billie got home. Always. She knocked on the door, said, “Mama, I’m home? Did you have a good day, Mama?”

She no longer waited for a response.

It was completely silent on the other side of the bedroom door. Billie used to remove her shoes in the kitchen, and tiptoe to her mother’s bedroom. Without making a sound, she lowered herself onto the floor and rested an ear against the cool glossy paint of the door. She sat for a long time, straining to get even the faintest hint of stirring, an audible breath, any sign that there was a life on the other side.

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She made up stories after that. Her mother had been secretly taken away by gypsies and was playing a tambourine with bright yellow and orange streamers every evening around a roaring campfire while men played the fiddle and women told tall tales and babies ran amok. Her mother had run away with a traveling circus and proven to have a remarkable talent with the elephants, who understood that she loved them dearly and would do whatever she wanted for the reward of her gentle strokes and soothing words. Her mama had been sucked right out of the window like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and was traveling through a magical and wonderful land, but all she wanted to do was get back home.

Billie had a recurring dream. She was in a beautiful place, right next to a dazzling blue sea. She said to the owner of the restaurant: “I’m waiting for my family. They’ll be right here.”

“We’re very busy today,” he replied. “Very busy.”

“They’ll be right here.”

He seats her at a table. She gazes out at the endless blue and feels a sense of tremendous peace. She enters a dozy, dreamy state. When she emerges from the deep reverie, a woman is sitting at her table, kitty-cornered from her. Billie is unsure what to make of this. She thinks that perhaps the owner has allowed the woman to sit there for a bit because it is so crowded. She’s not sure whether to pretend the woman is not there at all, or whether she should say something. The woman looks up from the book she is reading, gives Billie a small smile.

“My family will be right here,” Billie says, with an edge of assertiveness in her voice.

The woman smiles her small smile again, and resumes her reading. Friends, or perhaps they’re family, come over to the table, with much chatter and buoyant good cheer. They pull out the chairs and sit at Billie’s table, everyone talking at once as they open their menus and engage in a lively discussion of what wonderful foods they will all order. The waitress comes to the table, and Billie’s earlier sense of peace shatters like a pane of glass, the shards floating inside of her body, tearing at her.

The others look at her when it is her turn to order. “But…my family…”

They laugh, and return to their conversation. Billie doesn’t know if they don’t believe her, or if they don’t care. The little shards of glass rip at her guts.

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Top painting by Otto Pilny