Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Keep You Hands Where They Can See Them....
On day three of the trip, while driving around Seattle Washington, our navigation system's female British voice, instructed us to Make a right turn on "Mah-tin Lou-thah King June-yuh Boulevahd"
"Lily?" I adjusted the rearview so that I could see Scottie's 17-year old daughter. She smiled and met my eyes in the mirror.
Lily had volunteered to ride with my mom (Linda), Miles and Justin and I on the first leg our road trip from Vancouver to Los Angeles. She was sitting behind me in the rented, burgundy, Kia minivan. My mom sat next to her, Justin was in the way back and Miles was riding shotgun.
"We're going to fill in some of the 'Black holes' (as it were) in your education during this trip, okay?"
"Ok-kay...?" Her blue eyes wide with anticipation. "What kind of 'black' holes?"
Justin sat up and made eye contact with me in the rearview too, his eyebrows knit with mock concern.
Miles tapped my arm impatiently and mouthed "what black holes?".
"Lesson number one, Lily" I continued without looking at them, as we turned into an Ezell's Chicken parking lot. "No matter what city you're in, when you're you see the names of historically significant, Black Americans on street signs, schools or hospitals -- where are you?" Both Miles and Justin made muffled "OOH!" sounds and put their hands in the air like they were watching a game show where the contestant didn't know the answer.
Justin put his head between the seats next to Lily's face.
"The hood!" he yelled in her ear, not giving her time to think about it.
"The hood," I agreed smiling at his eyes in the mirror.
"So Lily," I turned my attention back to her, putting the car in park.
"Here we are at Ezell's Chicken on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. Can you tell me where are we?"
"The hood...?" she ventured with a tentative smile.
"The hood!" I affirmed with a wide grin, dangling my hand behind my headrest so she could give me 'five.' "That is correct!"
From that point on, we developed a kind of "cultural exchange" as we drove our 200 mile stretches of freeway. It became part of what the five of us did to pass the time. We, the Robbins' (and Ternoir) family regaled Lily with tales of life in Los Angeles; movie premieres, basketball tournaments, which rapper was dating which Kardashian/Jenner, etc. And Lily gave us Stowe - camping sleepovers, swimming in ponds, ski races and bonfires.
Two weeks later...
"I think I know what I'm going to write about for my college admissions essay."
Scottie had Lily on speakerphone in the kitchen where I was sautéing mushrooms for vegan quesadillas. She was back in Stowe, and had just finished the first day of her senior year of high school.
"I think I want to write about our family. I've been thinking about it since our road trip."
I turned the pan off and pushed it to the back burner. Scottie was looking at me and smiling, like he knew what she was going to say.
"Really? Tell me."
"I went through a few different topics with my councilor," she said. "He said they were all good, but really common — there wasn't anything there to set me apart. So I just started talking to him about our summer and ended up telling him about how being with you guys made me see things differently for the first time."
"You mean, like Martin Luther King Jr, Blvd?" I was smiling now too.
"Yes...but I really meant more like when you talked to the boys about getting pulled over."
I closed my eyes for a second to remember what she was talking about.
"You mean when I told them what do if they were pulled over by the police?"
"Yes," she said quietly. "No one has ever talked to me about that. I don't think any of my friends have ever had that conversation either."
That day in the minivan came flooding back to me.
"Okay, okay" I said quieting them down after a highway patrol car passed us up. "So what's first if you get pulled over?"
"Pull over," said Justin in a deadpan voice.
"Signal then pull over" I continued undeterred. "And...?"
"Get your license out," said Miles. "Do we have to do this again? We know it, Mom." "Yes, we have to do it again. And No! You wait until they ask you for your license. But the most important thing is you keep your hands where they can see them. On the steering wheel unless they instruct you do anything else."
"Right, right... keep our hands on the steering wheel," they both said at once in bored voices. "Always" I emphasized, trying to keep the emotion out of my voice. "Keep your hands where they can see them. Don't do anything without being asked. Take your registration out of the glove compartment slowly and only when they ask. Please take this seriously. If they ask you for your driver's license you reach for it slowly and tell them what you're doing: "I'm just getting it out of my wallet, Officer."
And remember always address them as Ma'am, Sir or Officer."
"This is serious."
"Lily?" I pulled myself out of the memory. I grabbed the salsa verde from the refrigerator and sat down at the table with Scottie handing him a plate. "I don''t know if this is helpful, but did I tell you why I started telling them what to do if they got pulled over?"
"I don't think so," she said. "Maybe..."
"It was because of this mom from Miles's school and her son, 'Eric?"
"No, I don't think you told me."
"Okay, so this kid 'Eric' and Miles are the same age. Eric is one those magic teenagers who is good looking, sweet and kind and gets unbelievable grades. Hearing his mom talk about him it is hard not to compare him to my kids. I mean, I try not to compare my children to anyone's else's kids. But some people make it very challenging, you know what I mean?"
Both Scottie and Lily laughed, "Yeah," said Scottie. "And I know who you're talking about too!"
"Eric," I continued, putting my hand on my hip and adopting a higher voice, "worked all summer and made enough money to pay for his own car insurance. Eric got a humanitarian award from the city for his work with the homeless. Eric got all of his friends to help raise money for a prom ticket for a kid at his school who couldn't afford to go."
Lily was laughing at my mimicry. Scottie smiled as he spooned more salsa on his quesadilla.
"But then one day, a group of us moms were all chatting after a meeting, and she said this, 'Eric got pulled over in his new Audi and argued his way out of ticket. He was actually quite arrogant about it.' She was laughing. I just stared at her in stunned silence.
'I told him,' she continued, 'that he shouldn't speak that way to police officers, but I was secretly quite proud of him for standing up for himself.'
While other mom's chimed in with stories of their own children's bravery (and audacity), I quietly excused myself, walked outside and closed my eyes. The tears were already forming.
My heart was pounding in my chest with the un-fairness of it all.
And I thought, My kids will never be able to do what Eric did...
"It was then, Lily" I said, snapping myself back to the present, "that I started quizzing Miles and Justin about what to do if they got pulled over. As a young, White teenager, maybe Eric could
argue with the police and get away with it. But I'm not willing to take that gamble with Miles and Justin. Whether they're behind the wheel or whether they're a passenger, when those flashing lights appear in the rearview, all bets could be off. So I take every opportunity to tell them the same thing over and over and over, in the hopes that some of it will stick. Like, keep your hands where they can see them."
"Yes!" said Lily, she sounded excited. "That's exactly what I mean. Like I said, no one would have ever thought to teach me about that. But that was kind of just the beginning," she continued. "Suddenly it was everything. It was the way that people looked at you and Daddy when you were walking down the street holding hands. It was the way people looked at all of our faces one by one when we showed up for a reservation like they were trying to figure out who went with who. People were mostly polite about it, but when I'm with you guys, people don't see me the way they see me here in Stowe, they see me as something else. And that is what I think I'm going to write about. I want to explore what it feels like to be who I am in our family, when we're by ourselves and when we're out in the world."
I looked at Scott with a look that said "do you know how amazing that is?"
He nodded and started validating her experiences with some of his own.
"You remember how when we went rafting and the guides were like,'well we know who's kids are who's here'?
"Right, Daddy," she said. "They always say something. Even if they don't say it out loud, you can just tell what they're thinking."
"Lily," I said. "I think you really found something here. Something that will not only set you apart in the world of college admissions, but something that will set you apart in the world."
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
5 people that I love have lost a parent this summer.
I don't ever remember having so many conversations about death and dying before. I don't ever remember thinking so much about memorials or funerals. On July 13, I sat helplessly watching Scottie edit his mother's eulogy on a laptop in a Richmond hotel room on the morning of her funeral. Over the past 3-weeks, I've answered two separate calls from two very dear friends, only to hear that horrible pregnant pause after my second (slightly impatient) "hello?"
"Laura, my dad passed away".
What do I say to someone who has just lost a person they love?
I've never been one to give the idea of death much time or energy. As a rule it's just not something that has really interested me. Although as a kid, I would always read the obits in the paper (actually I still do -- to me they're like lovely mini biographies). But as the fifty-first year of my life comes to a close this week, I've found myself reflecting upon mortality. Not just my mortality but the mortality of the people I love. My mom, Linda had an outpatient surgery procedure done on Tuesday of this week. Before she went in she got all of her "affairs" in order. My brother Kenji and I have always been crystal clear on what she'd like to happen regarding her quality of life while she's alive ("I don't want to be kept alive by machines!") and after she leaves her body ("please no burial - I want to be cremated"). But yesterday was the first time it occurred to me that I might really have to effectuate her wishes one day — and maybe not in the very distant future.
For real, for real.
So I decided to sit down give myself an internal diagnostic check for fear.
When I think of death, am I afraid?
I think the answer for me is probably more complicated than for some of you. Because for those of you who may not know, I am a woman in recovery from a disease that wants me dead (but as my dear friend Odat says, "Will settle for destruction"). For years I lived on borrowed time, keeping my life as together as possible on the outside but killing myself a little every day on the inside. I don't mean just spiritually or emotionally (although that was definitely a huge part of it), but I mean I was literally, physically killing myself with substances. Oh, I wasn't doing it on purpose. I mean, I don't ever remember thinking, "Tonight I want to die," but the truth was that my actual safety and well-being came second to my desire to feel "good" or "normal." If I had to take or drink "more than prescribed" in order to achieve that state of being -- then I was willing. And that's how I lived for years. It was a nightmare for me and the people who loved me.
Going to treatment 8-years ago and getting sober was much more than the end "partying" for me — it was the beginning of my seeing my life for exactly what it is — a precious, temporary, gift. I almost cheated myself out of this gift, but moment-of-clarity after moment-of-clarity brought me to this place where I am now. My sons have had their mom for 8-years longer than they might have had I stayed on that path. My parents have had their daughter and my siblings have had their sister. I got to meet my Scottie and fall in love with someone as my AUTHENTIC self -- just over 8-year's ago. What a gift that was!
So back to the question, as I sit here scanning myself and thinking about death, I do come up with some actual, real fear. But upon further examination, I think that it maybe less of a fear of dying and more of a fear of not really living. What has become clear to me is that I am downright terrified of taking my life for granted. When I wake up with a churning stomach or when panic grips me midday, it's usually because I'm alarmed that maybe I forgot to be present or grateful for something or someone. For the first 44-years of my life, I spent so much time in a fog (with or without the help of substances), that now I yearn for the ability to be "where my feet are" and not somewhere else far, far away. And every morning when I wake up, I try to access that gratitude for life. I don't want to waste my day worrying about avoiding the inevitable (we will all suffer the same fate, or so I'm told), but rather I want to focus my energies on staying gratefully here in this life I've been gifted, one day at a time.
But continuing to live means getting older. Turning 52 means I'm solidly in the category of (gasp) "a woman of a certain age".
It's true. I was just telling my mom the other day that when I hear on the news that something happened to a 52-year old woman, the woman I picture does not look like me or move like me. She does not dress like me or talk like me. A 52-year old woman sounds, well -- old.
But I don't get to stay there very long. I can't. If I look in the mirror and see something I don't like, I force myself to keep looking until I can see the good stuff.
I didn't die 8-years ago. So hot damn, I GET to get older!
So right now at this moment, this idea of getting one-year older, of turning 52 at midnight on Friday, August 26 is less scary for me than it is cool. How cool is it that I get to; chair another school event, scream at my kids as they drag themselves out of the house in the morning, spend laborious hour after laborious hour in the gym every week, answer endless phone calls and let Justin drive me around well above the posted speed limit in the hopes that it will help him pass his driver's test next month. All of these things that I used to have t o do, are now things that I get to do. I got to do them for the entire year that I was 51 and if possible, I'm going to get to do them all (plus more)! for year 52.
But, don't get me wrong, " I'm not all — Age is just a number! It doesn't matter how you look! It's how you feel!"
I call BS on that (for me)! I would really, really LOVE to age gracefully (have you seen Christie Brinkley or Pat Cleveland?!?). I'd really love to keep my boobs, butt and skin firm. I'm going to try and keep my face line-free around my eyes and forehead (hello botox)! I'd love to find a fix for my under-eye circles that force me to wear concealer (even on my "no make-up" days) and I fully intend to keep dying my roots (for now anyway). But every time my mind gets trapped in that eddy (It's over! It's a losing battle. I'm old!) I try to force myself to remember how utterly grateful I am to have been alive for these past 8-years. I am so fortunate to have had this time. So Yes! Even though I'm couldn't read the words I'm typing right now without my prerequisite "over fifty" reading glasses, I'm still grateful for this year that I've had and grateful (in advance)! for the year to come.
So happy birthday to me. And it is — a truly happy, grateful birthday. And thank you all for spending it with me.
Lots of love,
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
An Open Letter to Miles
On your 10th birthday, you were playing in a rec-league basketball game. You were tall even at a young age, so people always had high expectations for what you'd be able to do on the court. But let's face it, at 10, you weren't the team's star player. In fact, in that particular game, you hadn't been able to score once. Your team-members began to shake their heads every time you missed a shot (I devised various murder plots for each of the head-shakers as I pleaded to the "basketball gods" to end my misery and let the game end quickly!). Finally, it came down to a few seconds to go and somebody passed you the ball. Everyone gasped collectively as you turned to face the basket, heaving it into the air for the win. It clunked so loudly when hit the floor instead of the backboard that I restrained myself from "shushing" it. The cheers from other team's fan's were startlingly loud (they thought they'd won the game). But miraculously enough, someone had fouled you before the ball left your hands. So, amid the din of all of the shouting from both sides, with your team down by 1 point, you went to the line with 10 seconds left. The gym air that had been heavy with the moist smell of basketball-boy sweat, was now alive with tension. All of the dad's on our team stood up in unison and began to shout out encouragements. I sat there on the bleachers, rocking back and forth and biting my lower lip. The entire game was resting on whether or not you could make your free throws. Make one and you tie the game. Make them both and we win. Make neither and well...
You looked back at your dad and I with a plaintive glance. Putting my hand on your dad's arm and raising my other fist in the air, I gave you my best "you can do it!" smile. I knew I that had to somehow give you the confidence you needed to make this shot. This was your shot! You practiced free throws at home. If I could just somehow get you to look at me again, I knew I could give the confidence you needed!
Just then I saw your own teammate, the star point guard smack his forehead with exaggerated frustration, while your some of your other teammates shook their heads and looked over in your direction. I hoped with all of my heart that you didn't see the head-smacking and shaking. I forced myself to turn my attention away from trying to cut them with my eyes, and toward giving you the confidence to make this one shot.
Don't let him miss, I thought, and I will never, ever ask for another thing!
I left my seat and fell to my knees beside it, looking up toward the ceiling, my eyes filling with tears.
"Please," I said whispered out loud, "it's his birthday. The actual day of his birth. If he misses this shot the team won't celebrate him when we all go out to pizza afterward. Please! Let him know he can make it! I'm not asking for a win. Just let him make this one shot. Just this one little shot. Just don't let him miss. I'll never ask for anything again. Please..."
The gym was suddenly soundless as the ref tossed you the ball. I sat back up on the bleacher-seat and squeezed my hands together, mouthing "please, please, please, please" under my breath.
I'll do something to stop the game! I thought wildly. I'll go lay down across the court and they'll have to call the game off.
Your dad must have seen/felt my panic because he put his hand on my arm as if to settle me. "Look," he said, pointing toward you.
And I did. You stood there, lining up the shot, bending your knees and then straightening up. How could I not have seen it before? You didn't look scared at all. You looked so sure of yourself. I had a minor shift in that moment.
Hallelujah! Maybe my prayer worked! Maybe he's going to make it!
I gripped your dad's shoulder and the hand of the mom sitting next to me as I continued to mouth "please, please, please, please."
But all at once, I heard a voice in my head. It was calm and clear above the fan-screaming which had now reached fever pitch.
What if my prayer actually does work?
I sat back against the wall like a giant hand was pushing me.
"What if my prayer works and I rob you of the experience of losing this game and learning some valuable lesson?" I whispered to the ceiling. "Maybe you are supposed to sink the winning shot, but maybe, just maybe, you're not."
I can't ask for you to make this shot. I don't know what experience you need to have.
Suddenly, I had a moment of clarity and I knew what I had to do. Before you released the ball, I quickly dropped back down to my knees and looked up toward the ceiling.
"Scratch that first one," I whispered hastily. "Thank you for letting me be here to share in whatever experience Miles needs to have now. Thank you for allowing me to be present. Thank you for letting me be here to comfort him if he loses or celebrate with him if he wins. Thank you."
I blinked tears out of my eyes as I took my seat on the bench again (I'm sure your dad thought I was crazy with all the tears and getting up and down!). Without looking around this time, you released the ball toward the rim. You were an archer letting his arrow soar high into the air. The ball flew up in a perfect semi-circle and then landed just on the side of the rim, bouncing noisily to the floor. There was a murmuring among the crowd. One of your teammates walked over and slapped your open palm and said something to you with a nod of encouragement (I wanted to run over to him and kiss him!). You nodded back at him and prepared for your second shot. Again, it went straight toward the basket, but it was like the hoop had an invisible lid on it. The ball spun and then rolled to the side, landing on the floor underneath with a dull thud.
The game was over.
The point of this story is that not only did you survive that day eight and a half year's ago, you've thrived. You've become this social, brilliant, funny, resilient young man. And had I interfered with your experience that day (by throwing myself out on the court or through divine influence), had I been able to manipulate any of these events so that you would have been "okay" (thereby making me more comfortable), things may have turned out differently for you. In two weeks you'll start your senior year of high school -- your final year. And last Friday you and I started planning next year's annual summer road trip. Next year, we'll be driving across the country and dropping you off in New York for school. Next year, for the first time, you won't be returning home with the rest of us after we get to our final destination at the end of the summer.
For the past few days I have been gripped alternately by stomach flops (along with trembling hands) and a deep sense of melancholy. You're going to New York City for school next June. I don't know what could possibly fill the Miles-sized hole that will be left in our home. I've always loved our summers. A lot of parents can't wait for summer to be over and things to get back to "normal." Not me. I dread the end of summer. I hate that first day of school. I LOVE spending time with you and your brother, lazy mornings, movie nights, dinner in front of the big tv. But the end of summer 2016 seems to be racing to a conclusion at an amazing speed. I didn't really want to think about it before, but it has been, will be, my last summer with "high school Miles."
I started to wallow in self pity yesterday. I wanted to change your mind about going away.
I thought, There are really great schools right here in California. Maybe I can persuade him to take a second look at that one near San Jose?
I have to ask myself, what is the truth here. Why do I feel like I'm losing you? Am I really that afraid of letting you go to New York for school? Or am I afraid to let go of the ideal that I've held on to all of these years? The ideal that you are mine "for keeps" and that you continue to exist simply because I've kept you safe from harm.
And the truth is, somewhere inside me I really do believe that I keep you safe from the world and I believe that when we drop you off in New York next summer that I'll be losing you. Those ideas are very real for me at times. But there are more truths if I dig a little deeper. Truths which I need to look at if I'm not going to over-burden you with the notion that I will be lost when you leave in June. I keep thinking about things like, when "our" fall TV shows come on next year, we won't get to watch them together and rehash all of the dialogue. I won't smile at night when the front door slams because it means you've driven home safely from basketball practice. I'll miss our Sunday dinners together, since you won't be there to cook (and use every dish in the kitchen)! I'll miss our those nightly talks with our heads together before you go to sleep. And it's true that I sleep the soundest when I know that you're safe and secure in your bedroom for the night. All of these things are true.
But if I dig even deeper I find that there are many more truths. Truth's like the fact that I'm excited for you because you are going away to school! I never got to do what you're doing. I wish that I had. And the truth that you're not going away forever -- your program is an accelerated one. In fact, you'll be back faster than most kids who go to 4-year institutions (you'll also be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas)! And I can't tell myself that you're too irresponsible or that I'll worry too much about how you'll take care of yourself without me.
You've been grocery shopping and cooking meals since you were 10. You shower and brush your teeth every night without being told. You make your own barber shop appointments and restaurant reservations. You've filled out your own W2 form. And as far as being responsible goes, I've seen you pack yourself for long trips and successfully navigate the Midwest, the eastern seaboard, Hawaii and Europe without either me or your dad. The truth is that you've grown up. And as much as I love my little boy, I am confident that I will love the man you've grown into just as much -- if I give him a chance.
So, just like that day in the gym, instead of wishing that I could keep you mine. Wishing that I could keep you small and under my protection. Just like the day of your 10th birthday, I will be thankful. And I am so grateful Miles. What a gift you are. What a gift it has been being your mother who got to watch you grow from a sweet, curious little boy in to this tall, intelligent, amazing man. And rather than beg the "powers that be" to keep you small so that I can continue to perpetuate the illusion that it is I who keeps you safe, I am going to work on not presuming that I always know what's best for you. There are experiences that you need to have out there that I'm not going to like. But I know now that it doesn't mean that you shouldn't have them. You must have them, just as I did (and still do)! You will learn and grow from each one. Not only can I not protect you from that, but it would be small-minded of me even to try.
So here it goes: "Thank you for letting me be here to share in whatever experience Miles needs to have now. Thank you for allowing me to be present. Thank you for letting me be here to comfort him if he loses or celebrate with him if he wins. Thank you."
I love you, Miles.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
I'd Like to Introduce You to...
"Do you know who I am?"
I stared at her unable to speak. I had no idea who she was. But I knew what was happening. I was getting "jumped".
My "friend" Jennifer, who had been walking with me, sprinted toward Center Street and left me there as soon as someone said, "White girl — get the fuck outta here!"
I watched her helplessly as she disappeared around the corner, her long legs kicking behind her.
Why did they let her go?
This alley behind the JC Penney was a shortcut that Jennifer and I took everyday after school on our way to get vanilla lollipops from the See's Candy by the BART station entrance. Somehow these four girls knew that we would be heading through there after school today.
They weren't interested in her!
I was startled by my revelation.
They waited here for me. They wanted me. But why?
"Did you HEAR me?" she raised her voice. "I asked you a question. Do you know who I am?"
I remained mute and backed up as far as I could go. I felt the wall behind me frantically with my fingers as though maybe I could press a secret button and open an escape panel. The porous brown bricks grabbed the knit of my red and white, cotton baseball t-shirt every time I leaned forward.
Why do they want to beat me up?
The leader took a step forward and pushed my forehead back with a gloved finger. It was a dirty, thick work glove, like a glove you would see a farmer wearing while driving a tractor. As the back of my head hit flat against the wall, I kept eye contact with her, but I could see an object in her hand out of the corner of my periphery.
She's got a baseball bat....
"Look at her" she said to the others with a snarly laugh.
They all snickered and smacked fists into open palms, like in an 1940s gangster movie. I resisted the insane urge to laugh.
I stood straighter against the wall. I felt terribly under prepared for whatever was about to happen. I had never struck anyone. I had never been struck. I hoped fervently that the two pair (yes two pair!) of size double zero Sticky Finger jeans I was wearing made me look bigger than the 98 pounds I weighed. I was taller than her by a head (at 5'8, I was taller than almost everyone in the 9th grade), but she was more solidly built than I.
It was easily 75 degrees outside and all four of them were wearing heavy, black "derby" jackets that read "Westside De Berkeley" on the back in gold embroidery.
Why, they're in a gang, I realized dreamily as sweat trickled down the sides of my face.
I'm getting jumped behind the JC Penney by Westside De Berkeley!
"So who's gonna hit her first?" The leader held the bat toward the other 3 girls and took a step away from me with a flourishy arm-movement that looked like an invitation to "step up to the plate".
"Come on? Who's first?"
It went on like that for what felt like minutes, but was probably more like seconds.
"Come on, Terri" said one of the shorter ones with a high, squeaky voice. "Somebody needs to hit her."
So her name is Terri.
I wracked my brain for any encounter that I could have ever had with a Terri that would have been offensive.
What did I do to you, Terri?
Terri put her face right in front of mine. I could smell her lavender gum and freshly Aqua-netted hair.
"I'll tell you what Bambi," she said menacingly.
"Bambi?" said the squeaky-voiced one.
"Look at them big eyes," said Terri. "Don't she remind you of that fuckin' deer?"
She turned her attention back to me poking my forehead with her finger to emphasize each syllable.
Michael? This is about Michael?
"I almost got my ass kicked!" I screamed to Jennifer on the phone later on.
"I ran to get help," she said. "I'm sorry. Did they hurt you?"
"Really?" I said, not try to keep the accusation out of my voice. "You ran to get help? What happened?"
"I came back as soon as I could with Big Keith," she stammered. "But you were all already gone."
"They had a bat! Did you know that? They said I was lucky."
"Did they hurt you?"
"They didn't touch me."
"Because..." I said in a far away voice. "Because it was a warning from his girl.
to stay away from Michael."
But instead I stayed away from that alley behind JC Penney's. I stayed away from girls in black jackets. And eventually I stayed away from Jennifer too (I couldn't get over the fact that she'd just left me there). But I could not, would not stay away from Michael. I didn't care if there was someone else. Even someone who could have a girl-gang jump me in the alley. If he loved her, I was willing to wait until he didn't. And so I waited in the wings through most of high school, while he and his real girlfriend carried out their public high school romance. I could accept that he needed to be with her. But for me, there would be no one else but Michael.
Before he was mine, Michael would invite me over to hang out with him and his folks (when "she" wasn't there). I would spend many happy hours in Michael's home with his little sister, Teri, his mother, Emmarine and his father, Ronnie -- they became like my second family. I was almost 18 before I could really call Michael my boyfriend. But by age 20, when I decided to go live with my dad in Florida and go to junior college there, Michael opted to stay in Berkeley and take the fire fighter's exam. I loved him, but I was eager to see what the world beyond Berkeley had to offer. And so, after a few tearful talks in my childhood bedroom, we parted ways for good.
I found out about Emmarine's passing this January on Facebook like most of our other Berkeley High-classmates. I hadn't spoken with Michael in a long, long time. He had been in Germany for almost 20 years and only made brief trips back to the states (which I knew of mainly from Teri's Facebook posts). I messaged them both but it was Teri who responded first. They were heartbroken. It was totally unexpected — the worst kind of devastation. There was so much hurt. My heart hurt as well. She had been like a mother to me too.
Emmarine's passing rekindled my relationship with both Michael and Teri. As we messaged back and forth, memories of the times we spent together came crashing in like the waves on a beach.
"My kids, Scottie and his kids and my mom and I will be going through the bay area on a road trip in August," I messaged Teri, in flurry of nostalgia one day. "I would love to see you guys." The moment she typed back "yes" I got knots in my stomach.
What did I do? I made a date to see my old boyfriend and his sister with my boyfriend and our families? What will Scottie think? I haven't Michael in over 30 years. Is it too strange?
Two weeks ago Scottie, my kids, his kids and my mom, Linda arrived in San Francisco. We were on the second to last leg of our annual summer road trip that had begun 8 days earlier in Vancouver, Canada. Back in March when I was planning this leg of the trip, Scottie had taken the news pretty well when I told him that I had invited Michael and Teri to meet us for lunch.
"High school boyfriend, huh?"
"And his sister," I offered quickly. "They were like my family for quite a few years."
"Okay," he said. "If you think it'll be cool. I'm okay with it."
We hadn't discussed again it since then, and now it was eminent — we were meeting them the next afternoon.
"What's the day tomorrow?" he asked (this is our bedtime ritual. We run through the following day's itinerary with the other before we go to sleep.)
"Um, tomorrow, we're meeting Michael and Teri for lunch in Oakland."
I took in a deep breath. "Michael, my high school boyfriend and his sister, Teri."
"That's tomorrow?" he sounded slightly irritated. I chastised myself inwardly for not having reminded him sooner.
"Yeah - tomorrow."
I rolled him over so we were facing each other. The chintzy hotel pillow cases crinkled like wax paper under our heads.
"It's just lunch. I don't know how it will be. I haven't seen either of them in years. I don't think I've seen him for 30 years or so. Maybe you can bring your camera?" I said brightly.
Scottie looked tired. He hadn't had moment to rest. His mom, Nancy, had passed on July 8th and he'd only just returned from settling her affairs in Virginia before he had to pack up and come on this pre-planned road trip. My heart suddenly ached with compassion.
"Would you rather not come?"
"No," he sighed. "I'll go. I'm sure it will be fine. But it's just kind of weird. I forgot about it, is all."
Michael and Teri were seated at a table, facing the entrance when we walked in to The Southern Cafe. The enticing aroma of smothered pork chops and fried chicken hit us as soon as we walked through the door. I placed my open palm against my stomach to buffer the sound of it's growling as they both got up to greet us. Michael looked exactly the same as he did the last time I saw him, handsome, chocolate brown, close-cropped hair and muscular. Somehow, he seemed to be slightly shorter than me (I swear he used to be taller). He and I are about the same age, but he looked just like he did in high school. I mean, he had a stray gray hair or two around the temple (and a couple in his sparse chin and sideburn hair). But other than that, he looked as youthful as he had back then -- it was uncanny.
Teri looked the same too, she had the same big brown eyes and big, beautiful smile. She just seemed a bit more mature — more like her mother than ever. She and I fell into each other's arms. It had been 16 years since I last saw her (she came down to LA for a visit once). But the time and the absence of contact hadn't diminished how we were with each other. Holding her felt like it was 1982 again - she was my little sister.
Michael and I hugged each other gingerly. I was mindful of Scottie's presence and eager to introduce them, just to avoid any potential awkwardness.
"Honey, this is Michael and Teri. And you guys, I'd like to introduce you to Scottie." Michael gave Scottie a handshake/hug. "Hey - I'm sorry to hear about your mom," he said, making eye contact with him.
"Thanks," said Scottie. I watched him soften as he received Michael's heartfelt condolences. "I'm sorry to hear about yours too."
We all found seats around the large table set for 9. Scottie and I sat across from each other and Michael sat next to Scottie, also across from me.
"So..." said someone.
I made myself exhale because I realized that I'd been holding my breath. I looked around a realized that Scottie, Lily and Nora were the only White people in the restaurant. I hoped the location wasn't a mistake.
I was slightly disappointed in myself. I hadn't planned to be nervous. If I was nervous that might set the wrong tone for the lunch. Because yes, Scottie was right, it was weird. Here was this man that I was basically willing to die for 30-something year's ago, sitting next to my Scottie -- who everyone knows is the love of my life. I was sitting across from my past and my present and feeling overly protective of both. I didn't want Michael to feel out of place because Scottie was there with me and I didn't want Scottie to feel out of place because we were having lunch with my high school boyfriend.
I shook out my fingers under the table. I knew that none of this was anything I could control. I could hear my sponsor's voice telling me "Sometimes the greatest gift you can give anyone is the dignity of their own experience."
So there it was. I had created this potentially awkward situation and there was no going back. We were here in Oakland having lunch together. All of us. I couldn't control how Michael or Scottie felt. I couldn't control anyone else's comfort level.
Can I just be myself and not try and "manage" this whole thing?
I looked over at Michael. He was staring down the table toward my mother, who was telling a story. I knew Michael had a daughter that was younger than my kids. I knew he had moved back to Berkeley right before his mom passed, but I didn't know much else. His Facebook page lacked a storyline. His posts were few and far between and some didn't include photographs.
I exhaled again when my mom finished her story.
"How's your daughter, Michael?" I asked.
His whole demeanor changed when he told us about Sophia. The iPhones came out (both Michael's and Teri's) and pictures of this beautiful, fair-haired child with Michael's smile were passed around the table. He spoke woefully about how he had been reluctant to leave her in Germany and how they worked out an arrangement where she visits with him frequently for extended periods of time.
Scottie put his left hand on Michael's arm and motioned across the table to Lily and Nora with his free hand.
"Hey, I've got that same deal with them," he said looking him in the eye. "And now, Lily is here looking for colleges in California. We're going to her first college interview this week when we get back to LA," Scottie's smile was the one that he saved for his kids. It was both joyful and proud at the same time.
"So what do you do? Asked Michael, "Summers, Christmas?"
"All of that, I bring them out whenever I can. And when they can't come out here I go to Vermont."
"Do they travel by themselves?"
"Just this year, Lily started flying alone. Nora can travel with Lily, but when she's by herself she has to go..."
"Unaccompanied minor" they said at the same time with a laugh.
Michael turned his chair to face Scottie and they drifted off into their own conversation. Suddenly they were no longer my past and present, they were two fathers conferring on how they could spend more time with their daughters.
I floated into a conversation between Teri and my mother while my boys played on their phones and Lily and Nora listed attentively like they were watching a tennis match.
By the time the peach cobbler came, I forgot that I was nervous. I looked at Scottie with loving eyes across the table and thanked him silently.
You did great, Hon. Thank you.
Scottie winked at me and smiled as we all got up from the table. He got his camera out of his bag and held it up.
"You wanted some pictures, Hon?"
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