Friday, October 16, 2009

Me vs. Cars

And now for something completely different. A LONG one. So sit down and get ready to laugh and ponder. Here's an essay I recently read at Four Stories .


I hung my head in shame, literally. Defeat was making itself at home on my shoulders. Finally, I said it. “I’m willing to negotiate.” I’d held out for so long, it almost felt good to cave. Almost.

My adversary stared at me from his position on the kitchen table, his exaggerated roofline and custom rims no less intimidating for being 1/450th scale. The Matchbox 1968 Toyota Land Cruiser in Canary Yellow from the Adventure Collection. His mirrors glittered with sunlight and power. He held all the cards, which was odd, since he was a toy truck, but let’s face it, this isn’t my first awkward surprise of parenthood.

The war had waged for over two years. The causalities – too numerous to count. I’d made the tactical error of assuming my shock and awe campaign, completed last spring with a giant woven basket from Pier One Imports, would secure victory. The wounded and wheel-less, I’d simply disposed of. I had scooped up the others, every last one of them, under cover of daylight, into the basket and then to the detention holding area of the front hall closet. Fellow detainees the vaccum cleaner, Deluxe Scrabble, a Medela breast pump, and an old rabbit fur jacket circa 1984, had had to make room for the new arrivals.

“This is just a holding area,” I reassured them. “It’s only temporary.” I received looks of contempt. “We are citizens of this household!’ one shouted. “We have a right to be here!” another argued. Then, something about having been welcomed here earlier with open arms, now suddenly they were being treated as criminals, blah, blah, blah. Halfway to the bathroom, I couldn’t hear them anymore. It seemed a finished business.

And yet they had prevailed! Little by little as mud and rain gave way to heat and crickets, then chilled mornings and shorter days, I saw evidence of their escape, but like a hallucinating freak in denial, was convinced they couldn’t possibly have gotten out of the basket, much less the closet, on their own.

A souped-up Mazda in the bedroom, a Honda Accord in the kitchen, a Buick under the refrigerator. A tow truck poised for duty at the front door. And now here we were. In a meeting arranged by former President Bill Clinton, I was finally face to face with their leader – the ’68 Land Cruiser, my son’s favorite, and therefore, enjoying diplomatic immunity. I was sweating, and there was no doubt he was seeing it. Me sweat, I mean. Even though he was a toy. Don’t laugh. This is fucking serious…

They were in my bookshelf. My last haven of adulthood, the lone reminder that once, I’d been a thinking person, with literary and analytical ability. I could discuss things! I could stay up late drinking wine! My poor bookshelf. I glanced there now, a deep and lonely longing for grown-up words and sentences welling up in me.

There’s my copy of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It’s the story of the glamorous playboy editor of French Elle, and what happened to his life, and his idea of his life, after he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. One moment he was driving his convertible and the next he was in the hospital, completely paralyzed and mute, someone sewing up his right eye. “You have ‘locked in syndrome,’” a doctor told him, meaning he had full mental capacities, but no physical ones. He learned to communicate by blinking his left eye, and with the help of his therapists, wrote a book about his experience. He went from putting out a monthly fashion magazine to writing a deeply personal book with his one good eye. The book was a massive hit – critically and commercially. What you took away from the story was how he had spent a lot of his life taking for granted his connection to all the things that mattered – his career, his wife, his kids, his mistress, his intelligence. But with this unimaginable loss came a new discovery: a different beauty, one he learned to share.

Anyway. I stared at the Land Cruiser in earnest. “This time I mean it. I am willing to –“

“Negotiate?” He laughed, a deep carburetor sound, though not unfriendly. “You have no leverage. We’ve already infiltrated the last neutral zone.”

“Not the bathroom cabinet!” I was aghast. The last sanctity of my private womanhood. My tampons, makeup, exfoliater and thirty-five dollar conditioner - violated! In the bathroom cabinet is an old Ziploc baggie. My secret baggie, seven years old. When I left L.A. I put in it all my pretty and sexy hair accessories. Rhinestone butterfly clips, crystal encrusted bobby pins, tiny velvet bows. These things seem ridiculous now, but ten years ago fashionable young women wore them to clubs, restaurants, movie premieres. I know, because I was one of them. Now they are dented and dusty, broken and dull. But they are mine. Mine!

“Foolish woman. The bathroom was ours last winter. Your son –“

“I know, I know. Lightning McQueen.” Good old Disney and their Manifest Destiny approach to childhood. My son was no match for their marketers, and neither was I. He slept with Lightning McQueen, wore him on his chest, festooned the tiny holes of his Crocs with him, lovingly spoon fed him milk and cereal at breakfast.

“They’re thick as thieves. He’s a very effective agent.” Land Cruiser wasn’t being smug. In fact, I could see, he pitied me.

It was true I had no bargaining power. They were everywhere, unstoppable and menacing in their smallness and sharpness. Every time I opened a door there were more. Tractor trailers, pickup trucks, Cadillacs, corvettes, Dune Buggy Volkswagens - even a Prius! And for my son I had to pretend all was groovy. Force a smile, emit the notion that of course, we could all get along. This was the Land of the Free. But it was still My house. My mind. My life. This is my life now. I had to shed many layers and grow new ones to get here. I don’t mind it, it’s part of evolution. But sometimes I shake with the loss of control. Sometimes I silently scream my lungs out and pray someone will hear me. Then I fix lunch and read Llama Llama Red Pajama.

When the singer Michael Jackson died, the world hungered for someone to blame. What killed him was not the evil enablers, not a drug overdose, exhaustion or suicidal ambition. It was the slow unpeeling of the layers he’d accumulated over the years, decades, to hide who he was – a shy, terrified, lonely and deeply unhappy little boy. This pain had fueled the creation of a gifted artist, a pop music genius and a worldwide celebrity. The fame drove him to a bizarre and troubled existence. He never forgot who he was, which was not the tragedy. The tragedy was that he lost who he wanted to be. He paid the ultimate price – or no, perhaps his children will. I think it’s too early to say.

Later, I discovered the settlements on the front porch, a breach of both the original cease fire and the Second Birthday Agreement. They had dared to establish communities outside the boundaries! Clinton wasn’t available then – or at least that’s what his people told me. Something about his Foundation or getting someone elected, blah, blah, blah. This violation had perturbed not only me but the Tricycle Contingent and the Dumptruck Coalition as well, who had agreed to inhabit a small zone beyond the picnic table, at least during the summer months of heavy travel, and on holidays. After that there were checkpoints for them between the various zones of the property and so far, they’d been cooperative. I prided myself on my diplomatic abilities. I could talk to anyone and I could usually direct a situation toward a positive outcome. Even before playgrounds, snack sharings and toy Land Cruisers -- I had experience with this.

Ten years ago I was at a photo shoot in Los Angeles for a young, unknown actress. She was what people used to call an ingénue, but she wore leather pants and motorcycle boots with flames. She was trying on the expensive clothes the stylist had brought. We were in a fashionable studio in Culver City, and the photographer’s assistant had put on some music to set the mood. “Who is this?” she asked me. “Are you fucking kidding?” I said. “You don’t know Jimi Hendrix?” I felt so old saying that to her. A few hours into the shoot she began to relax, and put on her own CD. “Who is this?” I asked her. “Are you fucking kidding?” she shot back with a wicked grin. “You don’t know Lenny Kravitz?” I felt really old then. And that was ten years ago. I watched as the drama of having your own photo shoot peeled away the versions of her. What the camera wanted was her raw innocence, the gloss of youth, her truth and pain. Of course, with every click of the shutter that was more difficult to capture. The camera was taking it from her, and replacing it with an odd combination of confidence and entitlement.

And so, as the seasons wore on, the business of fighting escalated and the insurgency grew. Our household was divided on the matter; I favored an accelerated defense strategy; my husband seemed satisfied with the current economic sanctions (no new purchases). This wasn’t a terrible idea – at least there wouldn’t be more of them.

Some weeks later I discovered their secret cloning program, hidden for months in the bottom of the toy chest – where, in my pathetic maternal naïveté, I had assumed there lived only innocent stuffed animals. Now, some of them were hostages. For all I knew, it was possible the clones were behind the vicious beheading of Pirate Elmo, but I had no solid evidence. Land Cruiser and his followers were churning out an army whose sole purpose was domination. Yet it went farther than that. He knew it, and now so did I. With every inch of sacrificed real estate went a piece of me. Or what used to be me. Where did that part of me go?

They say that 31% of the country is on antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication, but I personally think it’s more. If you count caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, cold medicine, certain herbs and the random painkillers people hoard after surgeries big and small, who’s not using? And why not? Isn’t it ok to leave yourself behind sometimes? After you’ve smoothed the edges or blurred the boundaries with a little help, how dangerous is it to not go back? But how much of you are you willing to lose to be happy? If happiness is what you’re after. And whose idea of happiness are you chasing, anyway?

How ill-prepared I’d been for this conflict! Now the cars and trucks were influencing the innocent toys. What would happen when the larger ones turned on me? The rocking horse, the Dream Kitchenette?

I wasn’t going to win. I would have to cede more territory simply to maintain my position – or any position. Would I eventually be completely removed from the homeland? I mean, if this kept up, soon I’d be living in the tool shed. And I don’t just mean psychologically. How could I make him understand my fundamental right to exist?! He’d still never recognized this. He’d only recently agreed to acknowledge “two separate states.” I remember thinking this was a victory for me. Ha. I would still have a state. Although where this state would exist was still murky at best. What was my state? If I could have whatever I wanted in this negotiation, what would it be? Did I want my old self back? No, I had come too far. I just wanted to know she was still available to me, if I needed her. I wanted to know she hadn’t been erased. I wanted to know all she had learned, all she had done, all she had written, all she had uttered, thought, all she had loved – before – was not for nothing.

“Think of your son’s happiness,” he’d said. “What price on that?” Was that what it boiled down to? My son’s happiness or my identity? The stuff of Lifetime movies and Danielle Steele? Fuck.

There have got to be babies that went to the wrong parents. Somewhere in history, fifty years ago or five, in some hospital, you just know some hapless newborn got the old switcheroo. Probably it was an innocent mistake, possibly it was deliberate mischief or even malice. The parents, years or maybe decades later, through DNA or some crusading administrative records agent of justice, stumble upon the news. It would be harder to swallow than the accidental truth of discovering you were adopted. Child, you’re not who you thought you were. You’re not even who THEY thought you were. So if you’re not who you were, who are you? Who are your parents? What is your life, now that you’ve discovered it was lived by someone else?

“Do you even know why you’re here?”

At first I thought it was another voice altogether, my concerned neighbor (she’d heard me arguing with the toys before) or the UPS guy. But then I realized it was still the Land Cruiser, with a softer approach, his tone more idling than revving now.

“Why am I here? I’m here because you’ve driven me to the brink of madness. I’m here because I’ve lost my sense of myself and how things should be and it scares the bejesus out of me. I’m –”

“I mean, do you KNOW why you’re HERE?” He was calm, which was infuriating. I mean, had anyone ever taken anything from him?

“What is this, some kind of cruel acid trip?” I sobbed helplessly. It was tiring, this game of mental badminton. “I don’t even take drugs anymore, I don’t have time!”

He ignored my sniveling. “You are here because of us. We are here because of you. We are an inescapable part of each other. There’s no going back. Surely you understand this, by now?” This time I was childishly grateful for his sympathy.

Once, in college at a party, I smoked a lot of pot, super inhaling the entire joint, just to get a cool guy to think I was cool. I drove home carefully, excruciatingly slowly, fearful of a latent incapacitation to drive or really, to do anything involving the simultaneous application of movement and vision. Once home, I lay awake in bed, horribly worried that I wasn’t actually in my bed, but rather, still driving aimlessly, trying to get home. I couldn’t be sure that I wasn’t just imagining I was home in bed. It was a horrible feeling, not knowing where I was – physically, mentally, never mind existentially. I never got stoned again.

But now, if I were really receiving unsolicited but meaningful spiritual guidance from a toy Land Cruiser, then well, things could be worse, I guessed. I might as well hear him out. I had to give him credit after all. Removing my sanity had been no small feat, and it had taken him less than two years.

“You will never be rid of us.”

“Duh,” I hissed immaturely. This felt good.

“I’m surprised you haven’t had this conversation with the Legos.”

“I have,” I admitted, weary of him, of the whole business of losing myself to hundreds of small, colorful objects.

“The harder you fight, the angrier you become. The more you struggle, the farther peace and happiness recede from you.” So the Land Cruiser was a Buddhist. I felt shame creep up on me like a disgraced dog who’s violated the carpet again but still craves undeserved attention.

“We are you. You are us,” he said, sounding like he was selling some sort of religion. “Why must there be resistance at all?”

Resistance. Such a big part of human life. Oh, the tired and predictable ugliness of it. I looked at the Land Cruiser and his family, strewn across my life like tossed confetti, like the blown petals of spent roses. Like, well, randomly scattered toys. They were pieces of me, all of them, the bitter bits and the tender ends.

A small cry, the untamed voice of need. “Mommy, come.”

My son is up from his nap. I take the Land Cruiser and deliver it to him, tousle-haired in his crib, his wondrous eyes and determined mouth projecting a buoyant, boundless gratitude.

I pick him up; the whorl of his cowlick is damp with baby sweat, his round cheeks flushed. One day he will be a man, taking risks and making decisions, trying to do or create something greater than what he sees himself to be.

For now, his wordless smile opens wide, and I feel something come alive, rise in me and settle: this uncanny strength, this crazy peace.

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