Let’s say, hypothetically, that there are people on this earth who are currently saner than you. Who knows how many, who knows how much more sane, let’s not get nitpicky; let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that this is true, and that you’re okay with it.
Receive all information about yourself through word-of-mouth reports from people you see at the grocery.
“I saw her with…”
“I heard that her mom…”
“She’s looking skinny, like skinny-skinny. I hope the cancer’s not hereditary; wouldn’t that just be something?”
Purchase cereal intended for children and wine in a box for yourself and various bloody-red meats for your dad. Smile at the cashier and hand him your driver’s license even though he doesn’t ask for it.
When he says, “It’s cool, I got you,” smile and say, That’s what I like so much about living in a small town, even though you know that’s not what he meant; he doesn’t recognize your face, simply that you are old.
Say you’re 33. Say you have limp ash-blonde hair that used to be more reddish when you used to take better care of yourself. Say your mom died in the winter; say it was kind of a long process; say thanks, me too when people tell you they’re sorry. Say you moved back here to be with her and now you’re kind of stuck. Say you used to work in political communications for the City of Chicago but now you are running “new media” for a local village board campaign in a town of 17,000 people; say you make $12 an hour; say the candidate is 29 years old and named Justin; say he’s running unopposed and you’re not sure what you’re going to do when the redundant election is over; say you’re still not sure what new media is. Say que sera, sera because uncertainty sounds better in French.
Make your mom’s joke about How do you know a Notre Dame man when you see one?
Just for the hell of it, admit that some people think your dad is kind of an asshole. Admit that his worldview makes you want to barf, but that he has a good heart. Admit, smiling, that he’s really come to love cats since your mom died; do not admit that some might consider him a certifiable animal-hoarder. Say he’s got five cats now and he loves them; don’t say that he loves them more than he loves you and you’re worried he might get ratted out by one of his neighbors and be forced to give them up; don’t say that the scariest thing for you currently is the thought of him losing those cats, because even though he’s mean to you it’s not like you hold it against him, really, because you’re the one who’s left but you’re not the one he wants; let them eat cake and let them have cats. Say you go to his house and make him dinner three nights a week; don’t say that he never offers to help with the dishes. Tell the adorable story about how he lets the littlest cat, Maxine, sleep in his bed at night because he’s convinced she has bad dreams.
Deliver the punchline the way your mom used to except with less tenderness. How do you know a Notre Dame man? He’ll tell you. That’s how you know.
When people ask if you have any siblings just tell them you have a brother and that he lives in upstate New York. Don’t say that you’re convinced he was adopted or hatched from a pod but that those suspicions will go forever unfounded because now your mom is dead and can neither confirm nor deny a viable pregnancy ending in a live birth in 1971. Put in that he has twin boys hilariously named Lance and Luke; leave out that you are sure they’ll grow up to be identical ritualistic murderers. Because it’s funny, put in that the whole family has the same crew cut, even your sister-in-law; leave out that you’ve only seen them twice in the last five years, once at Christmas in 2009 and once at your mom’s funeral. Put in that your parents tried for eight years to have you after your brother was born because your mom really, really wanted a girl.
Purport, coyly, that you are dating a tall pile of driftwood arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way, and let’s say this wooden statue’s name is Chad and that he is generally a little slow on the uptake. Say Chad is like a Nordic carving of a real person in that he is extremely beige, even his hair, and he can go for a long time without blinking or saying anything of substance. Say you might as well be dating a Hummel, except Chad is more durable.
Respond affirmatively to reports that before basswood Chad you were dating a slightly more animated character named Peter Zimmerman who was Jewish and a lawyer and who broke up with you when you decided to move back to Sycamore, Illinois, to care for your ailing mother. Shrug at suggestions that he is engaged to someone new even though you know he is because she signed the condolence card: We’re so sorry, Love, Peter and Beth. Send back a card that says Thanks, me too, Love, Susie and realize after you’ve put it in the mailbox that the reply only really makes sense in conversation; realize after you’ve put it in the mailbox that your use of the word Love, like their use, might be misconstrued.
Say if you look long enough at Chad’s frozen maple face that it becomes something kind of lovely; say when he puts his big hemlock hands around your tiny waist it makes you feel like something that’s capable of being protected; say the only time you hear real silence is when he has his hickory billyclub dick inside of you; say that this is not the same as feeling pleasure but that for now it’s close enough; say hickory billyclub dick three times fast; say one advantage to dating the most boring person on the planet is that the boring tend to be very gentle. Say oh I’m just kidding when your friends hear this and stare at you, agape, over the polo-shirted shoulders of complacent husbands or the bald veined heads of nursing newborns. Say yes of course I’d like to get married; yes of course I’d like to have a baby; yes it would also be nice to have a job where I make a little more money. Say, nonsensically, yes I said yes I will yes and smile and don’t bother trying to explain it to the people who look at you blankly; resign yourself to your fate as a doddering old woman; embrace your inner spinster; hug her really tight.
Put in there somewhere about how you’ve lost a lot of weight since December, about how when you take off your shirt your breasts, which you got from your mother, hang over the ladders of your ribcage like some kind of demented Candyland destination, Cotton Candy Clouds over Emaciation Station. Put in that you make a joke to Chad about looking like an Olsen twin and put in, to showcase his blandness, that he says, “Naah, your eyes are too small.” Put in, for character development, that your dad makes a joke that you look like a concentration camp victim and put in that you tell him it’s still not okay to make jokes about the Holocaust. If you want, if it doesn’t hurt too much, add the part about how he calls you a bleeding-heart socialist and tells you you need a haircut. When Chad sees a photo of your family stuck to your refrigerator and says, “You look just like your mom,” smile goofily at him and say actually, that’s my dad and wait awhile until he gets the joke.
Put in, for levity, that you went to church last weekend on a whim. Put in that you went to the 11:30 mass for lazy people and that you decided to take Communion for the first time since tenth grade because if you’re going to eat something it might as well be the body of Christ. Pause for laughter. Put in that when you put your hands out before the priest you put them right over left, and that the priest looked at you for a minute and then whispered, “Other hand; it’s the left hand.” Don’t put in that he winked at you after he said this, because it would make your mother mad to hear suspicions about the priesthood being confirmed right at her very own St. Elizabeth’s.
Actually, scrap it all; just say: Yes, I went to church when people look at you skeptically; just say that and smile, closemouthed, like a saint.
Speaking diplomatically, admit that your apartment kind of looks like a place where some backwater hog-wrangler might keep his sex hostage. Say you used to live in your very own half of a brownstone on the desirable side of the U of C campus and it was very clean there and you and your boyfriend had a housekeeper named Yesinia who came every other Wednesday. Say, if anyone asks about all the newspapers, that you’re working on a book. Say you’re sorry in theory about the fact that your neighbors frequently beat on their ceiling with a broom because you listen to a lot of loud classic rock.
Say Pretty pretty such a pretty pretty pretty girl to Chad in a falsetto when you’re drunk on gimlets and only reach out a hand to touch his broad, balsa forehead when he asks, “Is that Dr. Seuss?”
Say your mom liked numbers; say she was good at math and would have gone to accounting school if she hadn’t gotten allegedly pregnant in 1971. Say she was allergic to cats. Say she really liked butterscotch and say she used to sing you to sleep with Beatles songs but not the ones you’d expect, not the really tame ones but lovely lullaby versions of “Twist and Shout” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” Leave out that last week “Julia” came on when you were in the candy aisle of the 7-11 and you threw up all over your shoes like a little kid. Leave out that you stole one of her fanciest lace bras when you were cleaning out her dresser and that you wear it often, even to bed; leave out that you keep some of her ashes in an Altoids tin in the glove compartment of your car; leave out that sometimes you miss her so much your scalp hurts; leave out stuff like that because stuff like that makes people uncomfortable.
Say I used to be someone! but say it as a joke, jabbing your bony forefinger into the air over the palatably suburban glasses of Chardonnay that all your friends from high school drink now. Say yes of course I’m okay to drive when they ask and then drive yourself carefully home; drive yourself past your parents’ house to make sure you can see the moving shadow of your dad through the front window. Say it again, aloud, over the bass of “Satisfaction,” when you’re home alone trying to declutter, less jaunty this time, more of an affirmation: I used to be someone; just a fact.
Hold tight, baby; hang on; hang ten; summer’s coming; keep that head down. Say you’re in a transitional state. Say you’ve got time. Say it over and over and over yes; no; maybe; someday; thanks, me too. Say it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s really, really, really all going to be fine. Say it’s a phase. Say it’s going to turn a corner, because really, turning a corner, wouldn’t that just be something?