I often think o…

I often think of Erica.

 

I met her last year in an elementary literacy methods course. At the time, she was a thin, wiry-haired twenty-six year old with a quick wit and a seriously pretty smile.

Erica had a fiancé, and they lived together near some shady neighbors three blocks from Steffan Manor in central Vallejo. What I knew about him was that he was from New York, and she’d met him there, while she was working at a bakery.

I loved that Erica had worked at a bakery in New York, and that now she was working on a teaching credential in California. It felt like the right amount of things to do in your twenties, and I admired her for it. I would say we swapped stories, but, mostly she just told me stories about New York- about the fun she had, the cost of living, and how she’d missed her family and come back.

I liked her because I felt like, in another life, I could’ve been her. I liked that she moved to New York but then moved back. I liked that she’d moved to New York at all. And since I wasn’t sure I’d ever be brave enough to do it myself, I liked her even more.

Her fiancé, whose name I never got, remained a New Yorker in California. And he struggled. The last I checked with Erica, he hadn’t been able to find a job and was now considering working for Erica’s dad. He was less than pleased. She told me this over several weeks as we poured over our writing “mini-lessons” for our elementary portfolio.

During the last week of class, we read a sample piece in which we were to write with thick detail, allowing the reader to be part of the scene we created to the greatest extent possible. Erica went first. She read a beautiful, descriptive, even lyrical piece about the first time she tried on her wedding dress. She described the intricate glory of the dress itself, along with the warm hugs and wet kisses that her mom and sister gave. The way she described this fitting was evocative of actual transformation; I welled up at picturing how that beautiful, bejeweled dress represented a tangible shift in the role Erica was to hold in society. Her words touched me- they inspired me. I could see that many others in the room were smiling and tearing up.

 

The professor was no exception. “Erica! That’s lovely! Tell us, when are you getting married??” She awaited the response with baited breath.

 

“Actually, the wedding is off,” Erica said, looking several of us dead in the eye. “He really couldn’t live here, after all.”

At this point Erica had broken up with her fiancé, and was fully credentialed (with the exception of this four unit course) and had yet to find a job. She was twenty-six and, it seemed, starting over, yet again.

But I just remember that she kept smiling, and I still don’t know how. I don’t know what she went home to at night, or how she paid the rent during those hazy summer months, but she always smiled, and she smiled genuinely.

 

At the end of July, we had a small party to congratulate ourselves on our successful completion of the course. Erica, only on being asked, admitted that she had accepted a job in Woodland, as a math and science teacher at a middle school she’d attended.

Inexplicably, I was elated. And I often think to myself, if Erica can go through what she went through and make it then I can survive anything, too.

And this- this is my little way of thanking her:

 

I often think of Erica.

Profile/ I’m a Nerd (but this is fun!)

 

Name: Erin O’Brien

Goal: To contribute to young people’s development and improve the quality of society

Immediate Goal: To be a hardy student teacher

What keeps me going: 5 words: “Oh! Now I get it!”

Best kept secret: Closet idealism, crying over deli sandwiches while watching “What Not to Wear”

When I knew I should be a teacher: When I knew I shouldn’t be a nurse. I think people entering both of these fields have a similar “spirit” to them, most of the time. It’s something I think I have.

On being a teacher: What I’m doing is raising little Californians to become critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and people who wouldn’t cut in front of you in line at the Cheesecake Factory. I see myself as an artist and  strategist, and this is a huge undertaking. I hate to see teachers, and students,  fail.

Why what I do matters: Because children become adults.

What I do best: Take risks, paraphrase, eat copious amounts of ranch dressing

When I felt most alone: My entire freshman year of college. The night I missed a connecting flight to Sacramento and had to spend the night alone at a hotel in Phoenix. I was awake all night because I was terrified about not knowing a single soul in the entire state of Arizona! In the morning I made coffee and congratulated myself for my awe-inspiring self-sufficiency (Not!!!).

Weaknesses: Sierra Nevadas, Nate Ruess, transferring colleges

In High School I… did Drama, Sports, was an “AP kid”. But ultimately I was isolated. I enjoyed high school but took it a bit seriously. I spent every weekend in Green Valley with David, Colby, Andy, and Sally. When you’re a teenager you have no idea it’ll never be like that again.

When I was Most Excited: Every time I fell in love, and when I got into Davis!

 

Personal Narrative (from elementary literacy)

He passed through the doorway as a ghost of his former self. Khaki pants, neatly tucked polo shirt, a gleaming whistle resting on his overstuffed belly. Everything down to his scruffy loafers and silver mustache was the same, but everything was different. He said nothing. He didn’t even raise his eyes to ours. He just stood behind his desk and leaned. He opened his mouth to talk and it closed. He looked at the desk and he looked at his shoes. The little palm trees on his shirt danced before my fixed eyes. An obedient silence washed over the class as we searched in vain for the incurable optimist, the basketball coach, the no-nonsense History teacher who once stood where the ghost of Mr. Bonfigli stood now.

 

Suddenly his throat cleared, and I felt a shot of adrenaline pulse through my veins. “Class,” He wasn’t looking up. “My Norma passed away on Saturday.” He spoke, but his voice was hollow, fragile, broken. Where was Coach? Where was Mr. Bonfigli? Where was our pep talk on taking school seriously and going to mass? We sat at attention, our eyes filling with tears at the mere suggestion that that man was gone.

 

“She got real sick, real fast. She had a-” He stopped, removing a handkerchief from his khakis and patting his cheeks. I felt sick to see him like this. He couldn’t stop leaning on his desk. He never leaned on his desk. “She had a brain aneurysm.” Finally he looked upward, and began to address the ceiling. “They rushed her to Stanford on Friday night, but there was othing they could do.” Then he paused, shook his head, and for the first time, looked at us. “I would have carried her down the aisle. I told her that. I said Norma Jean, I don’t care what happens to you, If I have to carry you down the aisle, that’s what I’ll do.”

 

We couldn’t move, let alone speak, after that, and he didn’t have to. But when the bell rang minutes later, we didn’t listen. We didn’t go to lunch. We stayed at our desks so Mr. Bonfigli would know that he was still our coach, still our teacher, and we were all his friends.

 

Perfect.

I always had your back out of the corner of my eye. And we were always thinking something well beyond our years. Did you ever notice?

You had her hand; you had my heart. In my mind that’s all that mattered.

I know that you have no idea how much I love you, and neither do I.  Sometimes I have tears I can’t account for on account of you and all the misconceptions we’ve given to each other. We had something years ago, and since. 

Half the time I don’t know why you even look at me anymore, but I’m glad you do. You’ve rescued me more times than I care to admit. I’ll never know why you always forgave me, loved me, and held my hand, but I’ll always know that when it was dark you lit the way, and often I gave you nothing; you expected nothing. What have I done to make you expect nothing? Is it too late to change?

I don’t know what part of us caught over the years but I’m stuck on you. Always have been, always will be. And wonderfully, terribly, I’m a better person for it.

At a Loss

Remember how we sat, at the top of Wild Horse Valley, and we were stuffed? How you leaned back, and I leaned back, and we ate the little Profiteroles from my Coach purse? How you gave me that purse, you gave me the stars? You were my eighteenth birthday, my nineteenth birthday, my twentieth birthday.

On Fridays you took me to our regular waiter, and gave me a regular waiter, and taught me that people even had such a thing as a regular waiter. I drank for the first time with you, because of you, for you, before you. You taught me what to order, how to order. “The appletini and grilled salmon” became standard Friday night fare. I wore black flats and citizens and a gaudy ring on my left ring finger. And we were together. Whether anyone believed us or not.

We visited Rocco and the zoo and the Legion of Honor. I always thought I made you laugh and you really made me laugh. Together we had more fun than I ever thought I could have with anyone. We imagined everything; together we owned real estate and ran an empire, we dressed to impress, and we evaded every high school convention imaginable.

We spent hours at the recorder’s office and went to the courthouse for fun. When we were in Napa we were up 29 meeting tangential friends and acquaintances for cocktails at inappropriate times and places- always without consequence.

Once, our car broke down in Calistoga and we were rescued by chipmunks. I don’t know who we met at Hydro Bar but the bartender was pregnant. It made me think about pregnancy and life and our relationship to each other. You hadn’t told me you were gay. And sometimes, I’d write your last name after my first.

In Rutherford you told me you wouldn’t take me to prom. I had hardly felt more isolated in my life. I knew we could go together. I knew I’d wear flats. I watched my Arnold Palmer through cloudy eyes. I stirred the ice cubes recklessly as you professed your affection for a classmate of mine, a female classmate, who you said you’d bring instead. I don’t know who I went with anyway. 

In Huntington Beach, you called me to tell me about Daniel. But I told no one. I knew exactly what street you were on, and I always did. I don’t think you knew about me, looking all the way back.

But when I flew out to Dallas for you, I meant it. I meant it the same way I did when I brought your coffee into AP English or held your hand when we heard about Damian. I meant it how I’d meant it when I ignored what people said, when I trusted you, when I always found you in the hallway. All those years I know I was as much your refuge as you were mine, and I’m thankful.

And I miss you. And you hurt me. And I never saw it coming. And it makes me so, so sad.

I always thought you’d be Uncle Cam.

Please take my poll:

When You’re 23…

A boy once told me that I should wait to be 23.

When I was 23, he claimed, the offers would be endless: the door would be knocked down. He advised two phones over one- and multiple lines. It seemed to me that turning 23 would be something I’d *have* to wait for, but it hadn’t occurred to me to be something I *couldn’t* wait for.

“You’ll be pretty, and you’ll have a good job,” he predicted.

“But be careful: you’ll only have a year.”

Seeing my carriage melt into a pumpkin, I inquired if there was anything I could do to hasten the finding of my glass slipper.

“What should I do when I’m 22?” I’d asked, scrambling for a pen.

“Stay home.”

Apropos of nothing, a concentrated part of my 22nd year saw me leaving the house, and keeping company with any number of familiar strangers.

And I had found myself desperate for a cream mini cooper or a trip to the U.K. I decided on the first.

However, to compensate, I started dropping the ‘Ts’ our of words that didn’t end or start with t, and bought a bunch of glittery shoes as if preparing for a reunion tour instead of a school year with Napa Unified.

Had I not been dating, I could have concentrated more on my knitting, or something else in my life that needed a lot of work.

Rapidly approaching the age that was touted to me as my very own fountain of youth, I invested in cleansers and moinsturizers that came neatly packed from Laguna Hills. I experimented with red lipstick and flirted with the idea of cat-eye glasses. I started listening to alternative British music and dry-conditioning my hair. No trend was safe from my auspices. NO TREND.

The only thing that made me feel better was the surf shop in Santa Cruz where I’d had no business being. I loved the idea of belonging to something I wasn’t a part of.

And maybe that’s what caused the dates. When I wasn’t called back, when I wasn’t asked out, maybe it was because I was 22. Or maybe I didn’t belong.

Either way, I hoped that the boy was prophetic.

Because I’d always thought myself decently attractive and sharp in a way that lent itself well to my sometimes cunning wit. And, I was educated and had a penchant for such oddities as antiques, biographies, coastal areas, and consignment stores. I became irate when old churches did not match my expectations for their architecture. I could spend inordinate amounts of time alone and could almost pull off wearing lace. I made a mean lemon drop and could recite the Greek alphabet while muddling mint for a mojito (all of which would be handy in a classroom). I am splendidly self-indulgent in my writing, and am not afraid to use words that don’t exist.

We all know things don’t go as planned. Accepting that is different from theorizing it, which is easy in the way that prophesying it must be.

So, to that boy, what should I say?

I’m older now, would you care for a drink?

Three Matts, You’re Out

I met my first Matt inside my car during a particularly rough bout of Salinas traffic. I was antsy for a boyfriend and had a sore back that needed rubbing, so it was fortuitous that my match.com app had produced several winks during my time in San Luis Obispo.

“This one likes to cuddle,” I told Kelsey, “And he likes to hike and eat meals”
“He looks like a pastor” she observed, but I remained fascinated with his penchant for romantic comedies and desire to have children “someday”. I was also thrilled that he was “spiritual but not religious” and imagined we’d eventually summer in Big Sur where we’d camp and attend holistic wellness functions and yoga retreats.

On our first date, at a Sonoma bar, “Petaluma Matt”, as he came to be known, was unabashedly charming. He appeared nearly on time in a crisp, white-collared shirt wearing trace amounts of hair gel and aftershave that reminded me of my first communion. We ordered beer on tap and summed up twenty-five years of life in twenty-five minutes.

Later we went for a walk. He was no taller than 5’9 and seemed to have no desire for physical contact. We kept a minimum of eighteen inches between us at all times. I tried to make myself shorter by slouching when we stopped at corners. I shifted uncomfortably; I was wearing the most slimming black dress in my closet with flat shoes.

After briskly rounding the square, I suggested we sit down in the freezing-cold park because it encourages canoodling, and it makes for great stories to tell the grandkids. I’ve been out in Sonoma before.
He quickly turned me down citing an early wake-up call, which should have been a wake-up call for me.

“Ok” I smiled politely, and we were soon hugging in front of my car. I texted him from highway 12 thanking him for a “great night”. The first of many.
By the following Tuesday Petaluma Matt reported he “couldn’t wait to see me” and was “very excited”. He chose an offbeat Himalayan restaurant and, quaintly enough, made a reservation. With my work schedule permitting, I arrived around 9:15.

We wore the exact same outfit.

And though he remained calm throughout dinner, I couldn’t stop giggling. Here we were, side by side, eating Himalayan potstickers over Starmont chardonnay while dressed in identically pressed white collared shirts and darkly washed Levi’s. We were so convincing as possible tasting room employees or casual waiters that numerous visitors asked for directions and dining recommendations that evening. Frazzled, we rushed into Steiner’s for beer.

After screaming towards each other for the better part of an hour and getting tipsy, we stumbled out awkwardly and proceeded to stroll down the road in our matching outfits. “I’m gonna do this now” I said as I linked my arm through his. This was one of my moves. I used it when he appeared to not have any.

Shortly after, Petaluma Matt and I attended a Giant’s Game where he put his arm around me and paid for valet parking. When, at the end of the night, he kissed me in front of the Catholic church I could not believe my luck and began envisioning myself a third grade teacher named Mrs. Grebil. “Kissed!!!!!!” I texted Kelsey excitedly, though there was no tongue.

For about a week he didn’t contact me. There was something wrong with my lips, my weight, my height, or my socioeconomic status. I made detailed lists of what was wrong with me and time stamped them. If I ever get a Psychiatrist they’ll be happy with my record-keeping.

Our last meeting was for a home-cooked meal and The Graduate. That night we learned that I had a healthy obsession with 1960s nostalgia, but Matt had an unhealthy obsession with the sixties. He wanted to marry someone from Mad Men who’d bring him his cigarettes in a silver case and tend his children while he worked long hours on Wall Street. He wanted to marry someone who’d answer only to “Mrs. Grebil” and would support his development of an organic poultry farm on their property. He showed me, in detail, how to part out a chicken, though I’d asked him to only as a joke. He said he’d kill a chicken gladly. He fed me two flavors of organic ice cream after making me eat spinach leaves and organic chicken (with water!), which he referred to as “dinner”. I googled in-n-out on my phone. I wanted him to leave the room. Or, better yet, his apartment. I wanted to be alone with this delicious ice cream to watch The Graduate on his comfortable bed. But he stayed. And he put on his glasses for his”night blindness”. Then he put on a USD sweatshirt and sat next to me on the bed, leaving a ruler’s length between us.

That night he hugged me and made fun of my grocery bag. I never heard from, or saw him, again.

Two days later I met Matt Kirson, or “Sacramento Matt”. Sacramento Matt wore American Eagle shirts that were too small and needed ironing. His hair was a scruffy light brown and his face was broad and shiny. He looked like a nineteenth century European immigrant, so I e-mailed him.

Meet me in downtown Napa on Sunday at 7. I’ll be at Fish Story. See you there.

I had no interest in wasting time following the evident split from Petaluma Matt. Sacramento Matt seemed demographically promising; he was 24 and had graduated from Cal. At Fish Story, I learned that he was unemployed and currently “renovating” his “house” in “Sacramento”. I trusted none of these leads and asked him if he lived with his parents.

And thus, ten minutes into cocktails, Sacramento Matt was made to confess that his parents had died. Years ago, in a plane crash, in Napa. I stared shamefully into my lemon drop, then up at Matt, cautiously. He said his grandparents had wittingly moved down from “The Sea Ranch” after it happened and they’d committed themselves to his upbringing.

I was sad over his parents but anxious for property in “The Sea Ranch”. I’d learned about “The Sea Ranch” when I’d worked for an estate planner. It was a place where Marin-based doctors and their wives could spend weekends harmonizing with nature and perusing academic journals. At “The Sea Ranch” I would accrue an expansive Biography collection and keep separate bins for recycling and compost. At Thanksgiving, everyone would play card games and the ukulele. The kids would be asleep by nine in their bunk beds and I would retire to the lookout for brandy and jazz. Morning hikes would commence at seven. I would learn to make really good sandwiches. I would have kids, some of whom would be probably be boy scouts and others of whom would probably collect rocks. I would wear hemp pants and clear mascara and keep newspapers clippings. “The Sea Ranch” was the only place that it was the 1960s anymore.

And Suddenly I missed Matt Grebil.

But Sacramento Matt and I, we got on well. By our third date we were holding hands and actively contemplating a weekend in “The Sea Ranch”. He kept calling it Sea Ranch but every time he did I mentally corrected him and put it in quotes. I was dying to go. I would bring crosswords and a bathrobe and feign vegetarianism…

His friends apparently put an end to it. They insisted that I was not “cool enough” with them to “fit in”, or so I imagine the conversation must have gone.

Soon I was searching for more Matts, and eventually found one who was a militant Christian; as passionate about the Lord as he was about squirrel hunting. He invited me to go fishing. I swear to God, I almost went fishing. Thursday afternoon. One Boat. Two Strangers. And possibly some very resentful fish and a displeased deity. I backed out Thursday afternoon over the phone, yelling over the third Matt as he alternately sang country songs and conversed with his dog. He still insisted I meet him in Petaluma for fishing. I wondered how much longer I’d have to date for.

When he texted me later that evening, I was surprised to find he asked me if I was a Christian. “No,” I told him, “I’m a lapsed Catholic.” He still insisted that we meet. I told him frankly, I enjoyed alcohol, caffeine, square dancing, and cursing and much more closely approximated a sailor than a fisherman.

And now I’m sitting a few rounds out.

These goddamned Matts just get my hopes up and disappear, and I’m not having it. I’m staying home in my fleece pajamas with my takeout Chinese and reading biographies.
And God help anyone who’d have to read mine one day. Pun intended.

Opportunity Cost

In college I studied people and not economics.

But I do know that both factor in, often inextricably, in life.

so it is that I place a particularly high premium on my interactions. People can surprise you and make it all worthwhile.

This was invariably the case with the seemingly endless stream of friends and associates Cam paraded before me. “Eat too much dairy and it’ll come out of your pores.” warned the slightly more incandescent half of a young gay couple. “That’s a terrific cardigan. J.Crew?” cooed another. I enjoyed all the attention. So much so that I cockily set off to Starbucks, armed with plans to “re-brand” myself as a Taylor.

I realized I was incurably Californian when the barista asked me where I was visiting from and I lit up like the proud mother of an underage Rhodes Scholar, “California- San Francisco” I beamed, waiting for her excited response. It came.

When, a full five minutes later, we parted with her wistful, “Bye Taylor, y’all have a great trip!”, I left glowing.

Later that day, I slid [considerably] from the limelight. I attended to Cam’s mother at the traditional Neiman-Marcus, pre-baccalaureate makeup session where we fretted over light pink versus soft pink shades of gloss at the Dior counter. I acted as executive assistant in the capacities of on-call photographer and personal shopper, all at the reasonable rate of temporary room and board.

[Almost symbolically, I slept in a base level room with Cam two floors above me in the master. It was akin to Harry Potter's pre-Hogwarts accommodations and, with it's "L-shaped" interior and poor ventilation, approximated the proverbial equivalent of the smoking room.]

As such, I set off dutifully to procure Cam’s personal effects, clutching a Claire’s bag on the arm of my diamond-clad finger.

I was understandably a study in contrasts, with my Tory Burch bag full of autobiographies from the public library, strutting haughtily through North Park Mall and masquerading as a Taylor.

That afternoon it was clearly the case, as I alternated mentally financing my mini cooper with carrying coats, wallets, and sunglasses and shooting a sample portfolio of photos that would reflect the overall intention of our commissioned photographer. He concentrated well despite his alleged cocaine addiction, and I was drawn to his wide smile and distressed vans slip ons. I wanted to ask him about freelancing in the arts, but couldn’t. This was Cam’s day (week?).

That evening we proceeded to baccalaureate- Cam’s uncle, mom, dad, and myself (Cam came too). Uncle Jaymie and I were abandoned in a blessedly short “queue line” where we joined others in our quest to witness a peripheral commencement ceremony from balcony seating. After 38 minutes of man-hunting and app-purchasing in front of McFarlin Auditorium, we were rewarded for our efforts.

The next twenty hours or so were consumed by ceremony. Having never really attended a “wedding weekend”, or anything of the ilk, I didn’t know what I was in for. What I know now is that it was a whirlwind of golf claps, crab dip, snapshots, and Methodist preachers. Saturday also involved one questionable veggie burger and some three dollar potato salad. I couldn’t stop applying lipstick.

My respite was Matt, who I met later that evening. Already hopelessly overshadowed by the pomp and circumstance of the weekend, I greeted him coolly: “I’m jealous you were invited to Palm Springs and I wasn’t.” I said without looking up from the buckle of my teetering heels.

When i did look up I liked him instantly. That indescribable, yet very much palpable, phenomenon of human connection is powerful. and priceless. At dinner we found we were kindred spirits. We talked money, religion, education, technology… even about his long distance relationship. I reassured him about his post-secondary accomplishments, we promised each other things would get easier. At night’s end he told me I’d made him better and I smiled. I demanded his number from Cam and texted immediately for a safe drive home and requested he have brunch with us tomorrow. I’d had a highly successful date with a gay man. (On Sunday, after brunch, I hugged him twice and teared up a little).

Some people just make you want to reinvest.

fittingly, I hung out with one of my favorite investments (of the emotional variety) Sunday afternoon, once the smoke had cleared and we started to emerge from our mimosa-induced haze. We sat on the steps of Dallas Hall feeding taco bell to the squirrels and I remembered why I’d bought into the whole thing to begin with. He was a college graduate now, but the biggest gain was still his potential. He had been worth every minute. I knew he felt the same. The potential gain had, alas, outweighed the risk.

I know little about Economics but Bankruptcy is, of course, when your liabilities exceed your assets. I spent the weekend with a bunch of newly-minted bachelors of economics and what I learned is…

I guess that applies to money, too.

You used to let me in and lock the doors.

You told me what but not why
How but not why
Who but not why

The checks were just checks. There were no balances.

And there I was, Frankenstein’s little Scientist. The lovechild of mercy and terror. At once the legitimate bastard offspring of fortune and exile, wherever they intersected.

It’s true that I didn’t know. But my ears were open. My eyes were open. I was sorry. And now you are, because I chose happiness. And you, under a heavy veil of self-pity and denial, chose self-pity and denial.

Someone always cracks under the pressure and someone always breaks the cycle. And I am the latter.

So if you would, please open up. I’ve had enough.

I never- I didn’t get out.

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