Sal

She came over last night. Texted first.

Hey you gonna be home 2night?

Yes, I’ll be there by 7 for damn sure – hopefully sooner. What’s up?

Holler when you get settled we can have a nightcap

Sounds good.

~

I’ve only met her twice. She lives across the street and is a friend of my roommates. We sat outside, laughing and toking and sipping alcoholic beverages, trading stories around a fire. (Well, I mostly listened and laughed as Sal and one of my roommates traded stories and bantered.)

I’d ignored her Thanksgiving text.

Hey this is sal across street. I’m making yummy food & watching football if you wanna come over

I heard the soft alert. Picked up the phone. Discovered my roommate must have given Sal my number. Swiped to read the text. Read the text. Turned the screen back off. Flipped my pillow over for a new, cooler side. Smooshed my face back into said pillow. And went back to sleep.

Though I apologized only a couple hours later and was honest about what my day looked like (this time of year is rough on me, y’all, but she was also alone), she hadn’t spoken to me since. And, of course, I’d read into that, but I shouldn’t have.

So this time, I immediately responded. “Sounds good. :-),” was my reply, even though it didn’t. Sound good, that is. It’s fucking cold out, and I knew she’d wanna hang outside. I was hungry. Grumpy. Sleepy. Itching to read my third book in as many days.

But Sal is lonely…no, starved for attention and affection is more like it. Polite. And harmless, if occasionally flirtatious. The roommate she’s closest to was out of town, and the other roommate hides in his room more often than not. So this would just be me. Me and Sal.

~

I get home from work, tend to the kittyboys, bust out the leaf blower to clear the back patio and pool cover, use the bathroom, wash my hands, pop open a sour, and let Sal know I’m home.

I perch myself on a kitchen stool and try to focus on the words of the book in my hand as I wait. Half an hour. Not really frustrated, but wishing I knew if I had time enough to eat.

I’m out back

As I’m opening the sliding glass door from the dining room to the patio, I see Sal standing there, slightly stooped over and cupping her hands to coax a flame from her lighter to the tip of her cigarette. She’s tall: a good six inches taller than me, at least. Sturdy, but not in the way “creative” authors use “sturdy” as some innovative and less-offensive term for “fat.” No, the woman is sturdy. Strong. I don’t know what hair, if any, she has. It’s winter, and I’ve only ever seen her with a hoodie on, over a beanie. No stragglers peeking out. She’s wearing tan colored overalls. The hoodie she’s donned over that is orange, and her beanie is gray. Fuchsia slippers adorn her feet. That’s right: slippers.

She has some mystery foot ailment, you see. I heard hints at it on the first night I met her, but last night she explained.

Doctors don’t know what ‘n the hell’s wrong with my feet. Open wounds. Blisters-like, but not blisters. They’re hard. Can’t stand them fuckin’ shoes any more’n I have to, so I put on my slippers soon ‘s I get home. Reckon I’ll lose my feet one o’ these days. But for now, these slippers sure are nice.

Sal, would you like to sit down?

Naw. I’m use ta standin’, but thanks.

Sal fires up a joint and puff-puff-passes it right on over to me. Of course, I oblige. And she chats.

And chats.

And chats.

That’s all Sal wanted, really, all she needed: someone to talk to. Not necessarily with, but to. And to know that that someone was listening, actually and actively listening. She’d first arrived under the pretense of borrowing something from one of the sheds.

Promise I have permission. Told her I needed a scale, and she says there’s one on the shelf in her shed.

HOLY shit! Holy SHIT! *Sal emerges from the shed, holding aloft a bulky black scale.* I told her it was for WEED. I could stand on this thing! I mean, I’d break the motherfucker, but point is I could fit both my feet on this som’bitch.

That scale was a source of random jokes over the course of the next hour or so, but her true purpose was to chat. No, to not be alone. If only for a little while.

~

The longer she was there, the happier I became. And not because of the herb. I didn’t let myself partake enough to be too far gone. I just became aware of how special it was to her to not be alone for a while, and I indulged in that feeling a bit myself. Allowed myself to be happy and present, rather than silently willing time to fast-forward to a not-so-distant future point when Sal’d be gone and I’d be alone again.

Sal’s forty-nine years old. Did I tell you that? A forty-nine year old self-described “uber butch” lesbian, who tries really hard not to flirt with me but would “eat [me] from sundown to sunup” if I let her. She’s actually cut it out, so I can relax and enjoy conversing. (First night in her presence was rough, lemme tell ya. She was relentless.)

She filled me in on weighty chunks of her life story last night.

Her father molested her as a child. For ten years. Ten. Fucking Years. The state finally found out when she was twelve. (That’s right. TEN. YEARS. By the time she was TWELVE. Let that shit sink in.) No thanks to her mother, who knew all along and said nothing. Did nothing. She was placed in foster care, group homes, but ran away and struck out on her own at sixteen.

Her relationships have composed of a series of women whom she busts her ass for, remodeling kitchens, constructing retaining walls, designing elaborate landscapes, building furniture to desired specifications, staining and restaining this surface and that. Only to be brushed aside when the last project on the list gets checked off. The last one was so nuts, she locked Sal in their bedroom (with her own children witnessing it all) for twelve hours. Barricaded her there. Then called the police on Sal and had her jailed, making all these wild accusations about her life being endangered. Even the woman’s kids reported on Sal’s behalf that their mother was the crazy one, here.

~

There were tears in Sal’s eyes as she told me of her adoptive parents. She’s going to live with them in Upstate New York, where she’s from. Moving sometime before Christmas.

She just met them a couple of months ago and went to visit them for a couple of weeks.

My dad has cancer. I know this is gonna sound bad but I don’t mean it but I do but I was hoping that som’bitch would die while I was in the area. So I could poke that motherfucker and make damn sure he’s really dead.

Turns out, the woman watched Sal grow up. She was married to Sal’s father before Sal’s mother was. Sal’s father cheated on her with Sal’s mother. This woman never had children and always hated the way Sal was treated. Watched her grow up…from a distance. Even attended her ballgames. But never said a word. Not even when Sal could have used somebody when she went into the system at twelve.

But the woman is there for Sal now. The woman and her husband, both. And they’re – no shit – adopting Sal. Formal, legit, legal papers are being drawn up, so Sal will have the family – the parents – she’s always longed for. She already calls her “mama.”

She was so excited. So fucking excited. Her eyes were filled with it – this giddy, unvarnished excitement that we tend to call “child-like.” But why can’t adults feel that way, too? Yes, there’s a lot to Sal that can be considered “child-like” and under-developed. But she’s also a grownass woman, one that has lived her whole life in search of someone to love her. Need her. Cherish her. Value her. Parent her. Nurture her. And by god, her excitement and relief and hope and regret and optimism and fear were palpable. Palpable. 

She tried to apologize, and I had to stop her. Express to her how special this all is and how I’m sharing in her excitement and hope.

You’re fun, Stephanie. *smiles genuinely at me* Really fun. This was fun – thank you for talking to me.

No, Sal. Thank you. Really.

~

Sal left me with more jokes about the incongruous scale, hopes that her old beater truck is up to the several-hundred mile journey ahead, and half a joint.

I shall enjoy it this evening, while reflecting on Sal and her journeys past, present, and future. And the little, tiny slice of her life I’ve gotten to share in before she moves on to her next chapter.

Or perhaps I’ll invite her over and actively engage…save the reflecting for days Sal-past.

Advertisements

A Public Censure from a High School Outcast

I am in the process of preparing my house to put on the market. This is finally the year that I put myself first, no matter how difficult that is for me – because it is completely out of character. And this is going to involve some major changes and upheaval. I always put others first, even (usually) to my own detriment, almost without exception. I have been this way my entire life.

This change wasn’t some lameass resolution for me. I don’t do resolutions, at least not in the way most do. Life changes and extensive shifts in perspective don’t suddenly and miraculously happen simply because the clock ticked over to a new year. Time as we know it is a man made construct anyway, but I’m seriously digressing here.

The point of bringing this up was to mention I’m working on getting my house ready to sell. And this means days and weeks of meticulous sifting through thirty-five years of accumulated stuff. Some of that stuff is meaningful; some of that stuff is being donated; some of that stuff is being sold; some of that stuff is outright garbage and has been hauled straight to the bin and to the side of the road where people pick it up (you know what they say – one man’s trash is another man’s treasure), but some of that stuff is meaningful to me in some way or other and cannot simply be tossed out. Like the box of letters from my paternal mamaw. She was my penpal for a good two decades. Or my diplomas and commendations. Or my report cards and IEPs from elementary school, and the notes from teachers and little awards I received. Or the stacks of photos and photo albums. There have been lots of laughs, lots of tears, some raging and ripping up photos of that man who ruined my childhood and so much of my life and my outlook and behaviors, some quiet reminiscing, some shock; you get the idea.

One thing I came across was surprising to me. I didn’t even know I had it. A simple piece of paper brought on a flood of memories. Unpleasant ones at that. I was in 11th grade, I think, which puts me somewhere between 16 and 17. I was depressed and miserable and hated high school with all that I had. Not long after this period, I experienced some of the best years of my life until the bottom fell out of that, too. But for now, I was fucking miserable. I experienced suicidal ideation. I never cut myself, but I’ve always had this problem with picking and digging and tearing at my skin. So I’d wear long sleeves almost exclusively, in order to hide my arms.

I had changed schools that year, which is what seriously ramped up my depression and self-loathing. Those last two years of high school did a lot of damage to me, but the others did as well. Before I changed schools, I never had what you would call friends. There was simply a group of outcasts who would gather together during lunch. Some of them hung out together after school, but mostly we just clung to each other on the sidelines of life. It was our own little depressed group of grunge kids on this life raft we created to weather the storm of cheerleaders and jocks and geniuses and rich kids and bullies. It raged around us, splashing us with its venom and vitriol. The bullying had gotten so bad that I perfected this death to you glare and assumed anyone and I do mean anyone who looked at me meant me harm. I struggle with that still. And so we gathered together in this little corner at lunch. Playing hacky sack. Sneaking to the bathroom to smoke a roach. Talking about The Doors and Pink Floyd and Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Wearing the tie-dye Grateful Dead shirt I bought at a yard sale. Long sleeved of course. And that silly “Elvis is Dead. Deal with it.” t-shirt I wore all the fucking time. Mostly because it was black. And I was in a black wearing, flannel over-shirt phase. Close friends and confidantes we were not. But we needed each other. Or at least, I needed them.

1990s-grunge-wear
This is what we were like. Only there were far more dudes than chicks. Most of the chicks were banished for bringing drama to the group.

So when I changed schools, I lost that. I no longer had a shield or raft to cling to against the raging tide of bullies. Especially the preps. They were the worst. Those were the ones that made my life hell all through high school. And now I had no protection. I had no wall of outcasts surrounding me to buffer me from the storm of bullying and back-stabbing. Which leads to the piece of paper I found last night.

I had an AP English class, which I would have loved (because English. Yay. My favorite subject for years.). Except there were about a dozen cheerleaders in that one class. They chose it on purpose because the teacher was the mother of one of them. I had no idea, or I would have scheduled a different class or requested a change. Such as it was, I was stuck in a very special hell of torment and glares and snickers and cruel jokes at my expense. Me, the poor girl in hand-me-downs, thrift store clothes, high-water pants and shoes held together with duct tape I’d taken a black Sharpie to on the black parts and White-Out on the white parts so the tape wouldn’t stand out so much.

At some point during the year, we had an assignment. We were instructed to write an original poem and then select one from our textbook that went along with the same theme. Then we had to buy white t-shirts and somehow paint our original poem on the front and the textbook poem on the back, then wear them to school on the day they were due and recite our poems from memory. This terrified me. I didn’t learn how to be able to do public speaking until college in my twenties. I can do it now, but I was terrified back then. Like vomiting over it a couple of times leading up to it the week it was due.

I couldn’t persuade my father to buy a new white t-shirt for me. “I don’t have the money for some fucking school poem bullshit. Use one of my old undershirts.” No, of course he didn’t have the money. He’d spent it on the twice weekly sacks of pot and pain meds from his 19 year old dealer. The shirt he gave me had the inevitable pinhole burns in it and huge deeply yellowed pit stains. I stole change off of his dresser to buy this glittery green puff paint to get the poems on the shirt. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. But I knew I would be humiliated, and I was. But this time, it was mostly in my head.

It was time. The teacher called my name. My stomach flipped and then flopped, and I felt dizzy and off-balance as I left my back-corner desk and walked to the front of the classroom. Voice shaking, I began:

Nobody

You think that you are better than me
From your clothes, to your style and your hair
You think that you are better than me
But I have ceased to care

You smile and pretend that you are my friend
But I am not here for your pity
You smile and pretend that you are my friend
But I will have nothing to do with your sympathy

In your eyes, I am nobody because I don’t measure up to your standards
But I am not the one who tries to be something I am not
So before you judge me again, take a look at yourself
And face the reality that you are no better than me

And as time marches on
And your shine is all gone
For all of your glitter, you have nothing to show
Now you are nobody, and I am somebody

And you will never be better than me

To their credit, after the snickering subsided, the room got dead quiet. Not even the usual whispers and note-passing that happens during things like this. And the looks on their faces were a mixture of confusion, disgust, surprise, shame. This quiet, wallflower, grungy, nerdy weakling was speaking words of condemnation. To them. This was directed at them, and they knew it.

And then I read the poem I had selected from the textbook, and their shame and confusion turned to shock and fear. I could see it in their eyes, because I had finally worked up the nerve to make eye contact. And so I began:

Richard Cory
by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich-yes, richer than a king-
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

I somehow got through to some of them. But not in a way that made them nicer to me, more in a way to make them lean away, look away and leave me completely and utterly alone. Which was a relief and respite from the bullying, at least in that class. I think they were afraid of me. Nervous. Fine. Yes. Great. This I can use. And so my death to you glares increased. I rarely spoke, but I could shoot daggers. And I did. And I relished them shifting in their seats and looking away. I felt guilty for a lot of this later, in some ways still do. But at the time, I finally felt relief and used my anger as my new wall of protection, my new life raft.

I read the paper. I re-folded it and sat there in this reverent silence. Then I opened it and read it again, finally re-folding it and tucking it away among the things I’ve decided to keep. At least for now. As a reminder of what I was, and what I’m working so hard to leave behind. The anger, the fear, the skittishness, the guilt, the distrust, the anxiety, the self-loathing, etc.

Here’s to my year of change. It will happen slowly and then all at once. And I can’t fucking wait.