Marianne stumbled on a root protruding from the sweltering sidewalk, nearly losing a scoop of orange sherbet in the process. Relieved, she paused to lick creamy rivulets from the sides of her softening cone. It tasted like summer, like granny wasn’t sick, like no one would call her names on Monday.
She imagined Maxwell Detweiler looming and poking at her–as he had three days in a row–and how it would feel to shove her sticky treat into his stupid face. But no, that wasn’t right. She’d spent two dollars and seventy-nine cents, which was more than he deserved.
Be ready for anything. Best case scenario: you are well-rested and patient, have a sense of humor and a full tank of gas, plenty of cash and Kleenex on hand, complete flexibility with your time, musical preferences, and volume tolerance, endless appetite for YouTube videos and Instagram feeds, a copy of Twilight, a portable charger, tasty, plentiful snacks, a working knowledge of 8th grade common core math concepts, endless sympathy and advice for tricky social and academic situations, and you don’t mind being completely ignored if none of the above is needed. Worst case scenario: you have a flask.
Acne, drama, self-doubt. Excessive mooning about. A variety of binges and very bad decisions.
I behaved irrationally, irresponsibly, disrespectfully, and the one I treated the worst was me.
Yet having a teenager may be even more terrifying.
Still plagued by acne and self-doubt, my lingering woes are compounded by close proximity to this raw lump of developing human–one who wears her disdain, depression, euphoria, and ill-founded bravado at the very surface. Nothing I can say or do will serve as salve. It is what it is–a tough row to hoe.
Drawing from a menu of punishing mountain bike rides, power tool projects, heavy lifting–plus a litany of other sketchy activities most rational people avoid–this guy regularly attacks his protective coating, limbs, face, whichever part happens to be handy. It’s not unusual to point out a bruise the size of an eggplant, a mysterious swelling, or a bloody gash and watch him strain to recall its antecedent. Pain and injuries happen frequently, and the spouse just plows ahead, ho hum. Very occasionally–if a laceration is deep and dirty enough–he might swing by the hospital, because no one likes to take a Brillo pad to their own raw flesh. Only after stopping for a milkshake and fries, however. “Who wants to wait around in ER on an empty stomach?” he explained.
In his eyes, medical assistance is a nuisance to be avoided whenever possible. He once waited so long to call a doctor, and was so ridiculously cavalier about his symptoms, that by the time his appointment rolled around, the doctor took one look at him and sent him straight to surgery. “You should have mentioned that you’re Australian,” Doc advised. “You Aussies never complain.”
So recently, when he hit a bit of a health snag, I found myself in a bind. How much could I fuss without annoying the crap out of him?
We were on vacation out in rural parts, and I was about to tidy the path to the lake when my normally handsome spouse emerged from the water looking strange. “Are you having some sort of allergic reaction?” I asked him. He said, “Yeah. I think I got some lake water in my sinuses.” He sounded a little strange, too, but he shrugged and continued up to the car to get some tools.
Without giving it a second thought, I raked until he passed me once more, this time carrying lumber to fix the dock. He looked even stranger by now, and puffy. Wandering down to speak to him, I watched him for a minute, pulling off the rotting boards he wanted to replace.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“Yeah.” By now his voice was beyond strange; his head and upper body swollen and beet-colored.
I was dubious. “I think we have some Benadryl back at the cabin.” He shrugged again, and started hammering.
Ok, ok. Play it cool. Enough anxious hovering. I quit raking and changed into my swim suit, heading down to the water’s edge. Maybe I should take a quick swim before heading back. But we should really head back soon and look for that Benedryl.
By this point, however, the spouse was unrecognizable. No swim.
“I’ve decided to head back to the cabin now, to see if we have Benadryl,” I said. He mumbled a verbal eyeroll. “It’s just my eyes,” he said, I think. The man sounded like he was chewing socks.
“Your eyes look terrible, but it’s your voice that concerns me; it sounds as if your throat is closing.”
Calling to the girls—out jumping off a raft–I tried so hard not to panic that I couldn’t get their full attention. Clearly they had no idea of the gravity of the situation, which was probably for the best. I left them with their aunt.
Normally quite difficult to corral, I somehow coaxed him into the car with me. “Why don’t you come with me? It’ll be so much faster.” I probably complained lamely about the inconvenience of driving back and forth. Then, once I had him in the car, I realized I could take him wherever I wanted. It’s not like he was going to leap out of a moving vehicle or anything. “You know,” I ventured, “we’re already halfway to the hospital; I think I’ll go there instead.”
He tried to argue—we weren’t halfway at all, and I could tell he was getting frustrated–but his tongue was easily five times its normal size, and we were already rolling. I turned toward the hospital, but not without some lingering doubts.
Now it all seems ridiculous. In the midst of a medical emergency, was I really worrying about him getting pissed at me for seeking help? In essence—I see now–would I rather he was irate or dead?
We walked into Urgent Care, the spouse’s eyes disappearing like two pissholes in the snow. “Um heffng a theveer ahluhgish ryeassion,” he announced. The intake nurse blinked once, looked at me, and pointed down the hall. “That way to emergency,” she said calmly. My first thought was: Thank god. Validation!
We didn’t fill out any paperwork or even make introductions before the wheels started turning. Medical personnel took one look and—all rooms being full–put him on a gurney in the hallway. A crew of four hovered and circled with an endless series of injections and an IV.
Sock Tongue said, “What am I? A pincushion?” It came out: “Wuddammiuhpuhncshnn?”
As the only one who understood him, I got shocked scowls from the doctors for laughing at such a grave situation, but I was thankful for an expression of levity from a man who might have died.
At last, one of the doctors turned to me. “You’re his call button,” she said, so the two of us loitered in the emergency room hallway for the next three hours, both wrapped in sterile blankets against the chill and the unknown. As time ticked on, the spouse looked less like an enflamed Michelin man and more like some distant, swollen relative. His blood pressure stabilized. The visiting doctors and nurses fussed less frequently; even smiled now and then. We picked up an epi pen—a new and permanent accessory due to some unknown allergen. With that in hand, plus the loathsome Prednisone and a boatload of Benadryl, we made our way back to the cabin, where my mom was hosting a strange little dinner party in full swing. Poor timing. What I wanted to do was hold the spouse and weep a little with gratitude. Instead, I tucked him in with a plate of food and a good book, and went back to listen to some mentally ill man yammer on about politics. “Jill Stein! Jill Stein!” he kept insisting. My thoughts wandered.
I’ve had cats for most of my life–all short-haired, lithe creatures with dignity and self-control. I scoffed at other, substandard cats: the ones who binged and barfed, destroyed the furniture, and peed in the corner.
Then came Elsie.
At first she played endless games of fetch and slept on my neck like a tiny scarf. Such charm! Such genius! Once again, I felt pretty smug. Elsie had long hair, which which she deposited generously, and she developed odd habits that made me question her IQ–why would a black cat sleep on the floor right beside my bed, even after being stepped on thirty or forty nights in a row? I’m half-blind with a miniature bladder, and she’s nearly invisible in the dark. Think, cat, think! But then she’d bring her toys and purr in my ear, and all doubt would subside.
Now that her fetch days are over, however, I struggle to entice her with catnip mice, yarn, or even the laser pointer–a toy supposedly irresistible to our feline friends. If I’m lucky, Elsie will drag herself half a yard across the living room rug before flopping in a heap. She still sprawls on my head at night, though, kneading and purring, while dumping her ass-end on the spouse’s pillow. This explains his difficulty sleeping and my recent trips to the chiropractor.
“When did you trade your adorable cat for a giant mop?” a friend asked. A reasonable question, but I don’t really know. It must have happened infinitesimally slowly, in the midst of the chaos and clutter of daily life. We did nothing different with this one: topping up the kibble, checking the litter, letting her in and out ad nauseum. Isn’t that all you need to do with cats?
Recently, I woke in terror as an intruder ascended the stairs. “Calm down,” my bleary-eyed spouse advised. “I set the alarm; no one’s in the house.” Unconvinced, I went to investigate, but all I could find in the shaky circle of my flashlight was my beloved fur turkey. What was happening here? It took half an hour to get my heart rate down and admit that my cat made the stairs creak. Considering Carl Sandburg’s poetic line: “the fog comes on little cat feet,” it was time to do something about my corpulent pal. As a Bay Area resident, I’ve seen the fog roll in a bazillion times, and it never makes a ruckus.
Since Elsie’s unable to reach around her belly to groom herself properly, she has also developed a case of back dandruff and a small mat near her tail. I’ve tried to help. I now own a variety of supposedly life-changing tools—all with names like “The Furminator” and “The Unhairing”–but the only brushing Elsie will tolerate without retribution is on her cheeks. This doesn’t solve any of her developing issues, but man, oh man, are her sideburns soft and sleek.
As her mat grew and multiplied, I began to consider professional grooming services, which felt like some sort of personal failure. After all, I cut my kids’ hair—always have—and only recently graduated from Supercuts myself. How could I drop that kind of cash on a cat, especially since they’re supposed to groom themselves?
To make matters worse, the cat carrier scares the crap out of Elsie. Literally. Ever tried to remove diarrhea from the long fur of a pissy cat? I wasn’t about to shell out for a kitty day spa, only to arrive home with a fecal-crusted ball of claws. Not only did I need a groomer, then, I needed one to magically appear at my doorstep. Too ashamed to ask for recommendations, I rooted around on Yelp.
Apparently magic entails a lot of paperwork. After filling out four pages of disclaimers and waivers–basically assuring the legal team that I would pay for every scratch and tear my pet might inflict–I started to panic. Elsie’s not a fan of strangers, or being held, or grooming, or anything besides eating and hopping on my head in the middle of the night. But what choice did I have? So I continued. I answered all sorts of logistical questions and personal queries and checked a litany of boxes: dry shampoo, thank you very much. I’ve seen what a terror my cat is when she gets wet. Yes, yes. A thorough brushing. Nail clipping. Booty buzz. Extra fees for mats. Dang. This was adding up like a weekend in Napa.
Nine days later, help arrived in what looked like a Frito-Lay truck. Let’s call her Agatha. Agatha was friendly and fierce, with big, brawny arms. Immediately at ease, I handed Elsie over. “Please remove your cat’s claws from my flesh,” Agatha said calmly. She was so calm, in fact, that I thought I had misheard. Next, we reenacted an episode of the Three Stooges before prying my pal off because–let’s face it–Elsie has four paws, and I’ve only got two hands. She proceeded to glue herself to the exam table like a starfish. “Ah,” said Agatha. “The pancake defense.”
Agatha took this moment of paralysis to lecture extensively about reading food labels and calculating the proper caloric content for a cat of this stature. “Even an extra ¼ cup of kibble a day could have caused this,” she said sternly, pointing to Elsie’s swollen torso. She introduced me to the concept of “puzzle feeders,” devices designed to make my cat exercise in order to get her food, and gave me a pep talk about pet health and happiness. She advised me to start setting aside $2,000 for a deep dental cleaning when Elsie turns 10.
Then she went to work. Agatha was not a pushover like me; she gave Elsie a brushing to remember. “I call it ‘making kittens,” Agatha explained, “because there’s a ball of fur big enough to make another cat.” This was no exaggeration. “Look at all that fur you won’t have to eat today,” she said to an aggrieved Elsie, as the hairy mountain continued to grow. She brushed with the fur and against it. She hauled the cat up and brushed her belly, her legs, her tail, her hindquarters. “You need to check her lady parts frequently for foxtails,” she advised.
I’m pretty sure I’ll repress that advice—just like the vet’s recommendation to brush my cat’s teeth.
Agatha clipped claws, removed all mats, and shaved the butt of my yowling cat, even managing to fasten a purple bow-tie around her neck. Elsie looked great—maybe even a few pounds lighter—but she was mad as hell.
I tipped Agatha extremely well. I couldn’t have made kittens without losing a limb.
These days I’m brushing Elsie more regularly–on more than just the cheeks–as well as feeding her more conscientiously. She’s still quite large, but I’m not worried. I’ve got Agatha’s number, so help is just a paycheck away.