My writing critique group just had a holiday contest and potluck, this is my submission below. We all had to write a story about the lighthouse in the picture below and this mystery: Every year on the same night, a light shines from the frozen lighthouse. Our story about this mystery had to use at least 4 of these words: abandoned, compass, flag, reindeer, captain, pickaxe, baked beams. Maximum 400 words or less. AND…the story must have a holiday/this time of year theme. Was tons of fun and I incorporated my favorite Holiday season movie!
My name’s Ralphie and in 1963 I shot my eye out. Reminiscent of something you’ve seen on TV, you say? No…that wasn’t the truth. Well, the triple dog dare and the flag pole incident was but I swear on my mother’s grave what I’m about to tell you is the cold hard truth.
Every boy schemes to get his hands on one of these beauties: The Holy Grail of Christmas Gifts, the Red Ryder 200 shot air rifle. Every 10 year old boy must survive this rite of passage with full eyesight intact. One thing is certain, that boys’ daydreams and their wild wild ways have remained the same for hundreds of years.
I played it cool with subtle hints for months. Ads left lying around for my unsuspecting parents to stumble upon backed with a plea to the almighty Santa and, eventually, directly to my parents.
The same classic mantra followed, echoed throughout the world by hundreds of mothers, “No, You’ll shoot your eye out. BB guns are dangerous.”
“But mommmmmmmm. At least I’m not asking for a pickaxe.” I’d say.
It all started Christmas morning, 1963. I had completely given up on ever seeing a Red Ryder 200 shot air rifle under the tree. But, there it was. I tore through the box and held the rifle like a solemn offering. My eyes glazed over, and before another word was uttered, I grabbed my little brother and flew out the door with rifle in tow.
I hung the target, my hands shaking as I squinted, looking down the nose of the rifle.
“Pfffffffft.” Nailed it. And in that instant, fire seeped into my eye. The bullet had ricocheted off the pole penetrating it’s target, my eye.
I know you’re thinking, but that’s not really what happened.That’s not what happened in the movie.
Our town was Port O’Malley, formerly a small summer fishing resort now in the midst of a second coming from the offshore oil boom that took place along the coast. The abandoned lighthouse, once owned by a captain, a reminder of the prosperous years when the affluent built beach front holiday homes for summer holidays, beckoned delinquents of all ages. That’s where where I went for my first shooting practice.
“Please, for whatever is holy, for all the life I have left in me, please don’t let my parents find out.”
And in that moment, the once dormant light shone and my eyesight returned.
Now, every morning, on Christmas, the light shines. It shines for the eyesight of every 10 year old boy, who, on this day, have had the unfortunate incident of shooting their eye out.
You’re in for a world of trouble in Houston if you let the sun rise and simmer before heading out for a run. I’ve known this for years, having run and trained in the sweltering months leading up to early fall marathons. Yes, FOUR solid months of near-death, oven-baking heat slathered with a coating of […]
A brilliant flash of blue passed before my eyes today. Followed by starlit yellow buds and brazen purple blooms. These colors leapt from all directions as Spring’s renewal begins and I started my run. The morning chill lingered past nine this morning, staving off the hovering warmth of the sun, a last-minute stance against the pending heat brought on with this emergence of Spring. I rallied with the chill, picking up my pace, fully aware of the upcoming coup d’etat of summer and the drudgery of running in the Houston humidity. But, for now, Spring is in it’s unfailing bloom, a reminder of how thankful I am for the renewal potential of ‘Do Overs’.
Where would we be without Do-overs? For me, in their simplest form, today is a do-over of yesterday’s failed attempt at a run where I was sabotaged by business calls. Yes, I answered them while out on a run. Breaking my first and foremost rule of my “Do not Disturb” methodology of running: This is my time, my space, my solace, my renewal. Just like Spring’s task of breathing new life into the faded backdrop of winter, my running was my method of resuscitating my mind. After the second call, I decided to simply turn around and walk home 30 seconds into the business call, knowing this run was going nowhere.
Trying the run again, today, I revel in this vivid show of the emergence of spring. The bouquet of the orchestrated scents of honeysuckle and Carolina Jasmine, mingling with the high-pitched chirping of birds carried along with the bass of the background rumble of a barking dog, all exclaiming their exuberance for this beautiful ‘Do-over’ time of year.
Today I’m thankful for this Do-Over and it’s reminder that, in a broader sense, we must learn to master the art of getting back up and being resilient. I can’t tell you the number of times where I’ve fouled up and have just wanted to yell at the top of my lungs, “DO OVER!” Followed by the implementation of a set of standard protocol where everyone and everything hits the Reset button.
Yes, today’s run is this simplest form of these Do-Overs, but let’s try to apply this to everyday living, of being human, of making mistakes. I flubbed up yesterday’s run, and the much needed tranquility and peace of mind that it brings with it. But today, I start anew, just like Spring’s bloom, and revel in the freshness of the day and the excitement of the unknown that a new start brings.
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
and before the street begins,
and there the grass grows soft and white,
and there the sun burns crimson bright,
and there the moon-bird rests from his flight
to cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
and the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
we shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow
and watch where the chalk-white arrows go
to the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
and we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
for the children, they mark, and the children, they know,
the place where the sidewalk ends.
Into controlled chaos is where the sidewalk ends. Today, our walk has taken us to a place where manicured lawns cease and weeds creep, the ladders for dewey kisses on my shins with remnants of seeds plastered for keeps, the vehicle for Mother Nature’s frolick.
DEVO starts pulling, the leash tightening, the soft earth in the open field that runs alongside the bayou is his cue. Soon enough my strides lengthen, our pace picks up. At first, I think I can hang. A perfect sprinter’s form, reminiscent of my youth, erupts. I know it’ll be short-lived as the speed increases, control lessens. I debate stopping him, but I don’t, because at this point, I can’t. He knows it’s his time. For months now we’ve been working on our ‘walking manners’. I haven’t been running with him since the tripping debacle in the middle of a busy road while trying to cross. The passing traffic startling him, launching me over and up as he darted in front of me. My hands and right elbow skidding first with my right hip taking the major force of what in my eyes must have been quite a rubber-necking-spectacle-crash. Dazed, in the middle of the road, I managed to pick myself up. DEVO, sensing my pain, with head lowered, conceded to the slow walk home.
Now we walk, and work on ‘heeling’ and not pulling. I feel bad for DEVO. This isn’t his nature, he was born to run. So every walk I take him to the end of the sidewalk, where concrete meets earth. We both need it. To revel in our purest forms, in a state of chaos, the extraordinary feeling of our world unfurling, pressing down the edges, even if only temporary. A reminder to siphon each day and each experience, and to savor every moment before the edges roll back.
We share this remarkable delight in the fascinating, playful and chaotic. Channeling my inner-child, somewhat cultivated and tethered these days, but without the fear I once had of losing control, essentially, failing.
Yeah, I pay for this freedom with bits of insecurity by not having a guaranteed income, and no structured form of an organized employer that govern most jobs. I have to plan for myself. This lifestyle forces me to work hard, in ways I never expected and to have faith and confidence in my ability. And in return the fruits of my labor: a playground laid out before me, a boundless span of freedom, bits of chaos and, most importantly, choice. Being fully aware and knowing this life is a gift. It’s fleeting, and like my dose of today’s chaos, a daily reminder telling me that we all need to wake up and let go of the need to control.
Ok, now. No, literally. I need to wake up, snap out of it. The leash pulls taut, I’ve truly lost control, I’m being dragged and I’m about to go down. The voices start to scream, let go of theleash. Let. Go. Of. The. Leash.
Hell no. that’s the easy way out.I won’t do it.
I manage to generate a tug and for a nanosecond I pull him off pace as I regain composure and control. And then it starts again. The leash pulling tight, DEVO in his full sprinting stallion mode, and another split second later I’m forced to tug it. This pattern repeats, losing control, pulling him off pace, regaining control. One misstep, one roll of an ankle, a simple divet, a hidden undulation, a deadly ant hill land mine and it’s over. Just like that, very simple, very quickly. It’s bound to happen. I’m tempting fate. Perhaps this is what drives me, this challenge, I’m not sure, but I always manage to figure it out. Another spectacle it would be, the momentum, my flailing arms lifting me, hurling me forward, hands grasping the empty air, then crashing down…maybe a roll or two. “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat…” The film reel plays slo-mo in my head. Yes, this is Vinko Bogataj crash-worthy. I’m not afraid.
And at the end of the field where the postage stamp lawns and composed streets start again, an audience will be watching. Just like in the middle of that busy road. But this time, I’ve steered the chaos towards the cushion of the grassy earth. And when the forward momentum of the crash stops, I’ll lie there, cracking a smile, tasting the “peppermint wind”, knowing it was all worth it.
I already know what’s going to happen. I tiptoe upstairs, don my running gear, tiptoe back down, hoping to slither past the sleeping dogs in front of the fireplace. After their morning rituals and ruckus, the house was quiet.
I make it to the back door ready to bolt and there he is, staring at me. Devo’s head cocked up, his eyes fixed on me, he knew where I was going.
I crack the door and squeeze through, gently nudging him aside. I hear him whine with a dramatic last ditch scratch down the masonite door. I’m in the garage and out, pretending not hear, hitting the roads for a much needed work break run. The fickle Houston weather is playing it’s games once again, the air is sticky and temperatures are pushing 80. This is December, not June! My legs feel as heavy as the thick layer of moisture descending on me. I try to conjure the energy to find my groove.
I schlep along but it doesn’t take long to figure out that this run isn’t going to happen. I turn and circle back to the house. What was I thinking? I need to get my little munchkin-faced pooch, Devo. The one with the symmetrically placed black dot of fur between his ears. The one with the oversized watermelon head and svelte, Dalmation-like body. My pitbull mix. A giant love muffin of goodness. Named after the unique, highly visual iconic rock band of the seventies and eighties, DEVO. Appealing to the tribes of unique outsiders, my Sheriff Devo was one of these, an outlier, judged by his looks and disregarded by the masses. I fell in love with this unique looking guy at the shelter, his loving nature winning me over. He needs this run more than I do today.
He’s still at the door when I come in. He knows the routine, trying to contain his excitement while I quickly harness him and head out. His floppy ears perk as high as they can, like wilted flowers seeking the sun. His posture stately, on high-alert, his body coming to life. His enormous jaw unfurls and I think to myself, if this isn’t a grin, then I don’t know what is. And now, I’m smiling, my doldrum-ridden morning finally takes a turn. I feel the endorphins kick in, the rise in serotonin. His happiness is seeping into me and I’m feeling it. He adusts his strides and sinks in to my slower pace, just happy to be outside.
Little did I know that the same dynamic that brings me consistent joy, witnessing and taking part in the happiness of others, applies to Devo as well. I can revel in his joy just like I do with my family and friends, and at times, even savoring it with strangers. Such a simple concept, a guarantee for constant happiness throughout my life, present every single day. Yes, we all know the fleeting joy of random experiences, but I’d rather have the former any day. The unfettered heart and mind of Devo brings me this today. In fact, he brings it to me every day and I cringe at my selfishness in not returning it to him, not taking part in his playtime, doing what he loves. His body and expressions tell all and today he’s sharing his joy with me.
As my father’s death anniversary passes, I wanted to share this piece I wrote – A story written for a contest my critique circle was hosting…a ‘Feel Good Story’ contest, during last year’s holiday season. A bit morbid according to some, however, it makes me smile and Feel Good. It’s my wishful thinking of how life will be for me forty years from now. – Andi-
Being a runner means you are now ‘free’ to win
and lose and live life to it’s fullest.
“Hey, what took you so long? That spritely forty eight year old body of yours should have caught me a few miles back.” I say, quickening my strides.
My father looks at me, his gentle eyes and soft smile speak volumes. He says nothing, improving the silence, and slows his pace, adopting my loping, almost shuffle-like steps. The same shuffle I’d pointed out and made fun of in my heyday twenties. We’d sprint past the aging gray hairs, distant cousins of the spirit, toning down the banter, but never the pace, to not appear we were show boating. Steady, unphased, and determined, they were icons of the sport of running. And, now, at eighty five years old, I’ve adopted the same form. Time has had it’s way with me.
When I was a little girl, my father and I had a running ritual. On Sundays, when he leavened the solitude of his sport with a social run with me, he’d pick up the pace towards the end, looking over his shoulder as he passed, slipping towards goofiness with his challenging taunts, goading me to pursue. It took me a split second to elicit the sprint that propelled me abreast, then ahead. He sat back, the pacing already figured out in his head as he steadily sped up, gauging the exact distance and time when he needed to turn it on. I knew it was coming, my pony tail flailing, my flushed freckled face boiling, my gangly arms and legs pumping, all working in unison. I was focused on not looking back. Dad taught me to never look back. It was a waste of energy and a sign to my opponent of my weakening speed and, more importantly, my will. I’d watch for his profile out of the corner of my eye, feeling his presence from behind, holding my breath, waiting for the moment when my father passed. I never heard his breathing, his stealth-like body and mahogany hard legs moving ahead of me a split second before the mailbox finish line. He’d turn to me, his face unfurling into a big smile as he nudged his coke bottle glasses in place, putting his arm around me, eliciting a squeeze, and saying, “Maybe next time.” With so few words, he still had me believing that anything was possible. I was certain I’d be the one passing him soon. Just give me time.
These memories flood me as I approach the 20th mile of my 25th consecutive appearance at the New York City Marathon. My eighty five year-old body is a well-oiled, phenomenal machine that has served me well. Running has always instilled in me some sense of control over my life, one of the rare times that my will controls my body, keeping me safe from the other pestering addictions, almost long forgotten. For me, my obsession with running took the spotlight and was the route to my survival. I’ve even gained a bit of notoriety with all of this marathoning in my later years, being hailed as the oldest female contestant in this marathon for the past five years, just squeaking past the other four female octogenarians in my age group. And now, for the past fifteen years, after the death of my husband, Jack, my ever-faithful travel companion and biggest fan, my family has once again accompanied me to New York City for my annual marathon endeavor. My family, ever increasing in numbers through the years, including the arrival of my first great grandchild this year, have made my journey through life a gift. Our annual pre-Thanksgiving holiday has turned into a celebration of the ages.
My father has been ‘appearing’ and running with me my last few marathons, showing up when most people expect to hit the dreaded ‘wall’, usually at around mile twenty, when things transition from hard, to really, really, hard, both physically and mentally. It’s simultaneously a mythical Bermuda triangle, yet very real space. These days, it doesn’t phase my body like it once did, beating me down, with the concrete-based venom poured into my legs, teetering on the threat of earthquake crumbling collapse, my muscles shorting out, the synapses failing to fire. Nowadays, it’s my mind that’s affected.
The first time Dad joined me running after his death, I asked him, “Did you know you were going to die?”
“No. I believed I was invincible. Hell, I’d just started this marathoning thing at 46. I had a few more good ones up my sleeve, didn’t think I only had two years left. I thought I lived my life right.”
I smiled, recalling his finishes in the two marathons that he had run the year before he died. His sub-three hour time was an awe-inspiring feat from a very green, former master’s short distance running specialist.
“Did we do the right thing?” I asked.
His laughter shocked me. “Of course. Why would you ask me that? I was a vegetable, do you really think I wanted to live that way?”
“Yeah, I know.” I’d run with him a few more miles, and, when he knew I was at my strongest, he’d leave me, either dropping behind or running ahead.
For the past five years, Dad’s appearance in my marathons has become a normal, highly anticipated time warp escape together. We had a way of transferring pain back and forth without the banality of words. And, now, here he was again, in my final running of the New York City Marathon.
“I’m proud of you. You’ve raised a beautiful family, inspired them to stay healthy, and have given them stories for generations,” he says.
“Thanks, Dad. I’ve had an incredible life. And, I want you to know, that this will be my last marathon. I’m ready to die. My body is weak, yet strong enough to finish this last one. My memory, now dependent on a faulty camera, is fading. I want to go on my terms, with my family close, full of love, watching me die.”
“Yes, I see.”
“You weren’t ready. We weren’t ready. Bad timing.”
Silent for the next mile, I focus on our pace. We slowly pick it up. This was happy, joyous pacing, not the nervous, bracing for bad news pacing that use to haunt me since that dark night when my father died.
Now, in this condition, with wonderful memories, my head is clear, I feel invincible. This will be forever etched in my mind, just the way it will be in my family’s memories.
I ration my breaths, each one a tiny shout out to Father Time. I start my kick. Each streaking peak on the L.C.D. by my father’s hospital bed flashes in my mind as time and distance took him a little farther away from me. The organ recovery team, just outside his room, waits anxiously in a place where we only say goodbye.
I regain my focus again and shuffle towards the finish, conjuring the same sprint as when I was thirteen. The deafening crowd roars louder. They know me, as my name is announced over the loudspeaker. And, I do look back, only after crossing the finish line, hoping to see him finish.
My V.I.P. status in this marathon has served my large spectating family well. We all know the drill. My arrival is anticipated and officials escort me from the finish line into a very large covered tent, where my family has taken up one corner, congregating there, based on the time I have given them pre-race. I’m surrounded by love. My children, grandchildren, and now, my youngest, my great-granddaughter swarm to me. I take her and swaddle her in my foil wrap lifting her from her mother’s arms like a victory trophy over my head. My body so atuned and adapted to such physical stress, helping me stay extremely strong for my age. I have won life.
My son, a family practitioner, takes my pulse for safe measure. He tells me it’s strong. I knew it would be. My five grandchildren greet me, all adults now, except for the ten year old surprise, who came along when my daughter was 40. I immediately hand my finisher’s medal to her. Her face lights up, as she does her infamous goofy victory dance. Another memory etched into forever. Everyone waits patiently for their turn to hug me as the celebratory melee dies down. Each congratulation becomes my goodbye. This is love watching someone die. Little do they know, they’re watching me now. Life has been a gift, full of joy, and now it’s time to pass my running shoes on.
I died peacefully in my sleep that night, my family close, my father waiting.
Artistic creation is not mere decoration. The artist has to convey his inspiration to others while allowing them freedom of interpretation. (Liu Chun-Hau)
I’ve been smitten with this painting since the day he brought it home. So much so, that an attachment formed, a relationship if you may, between the characters in the portrait and myself. The vivid colors, the loose, whimsical way in which the water color was applied adds to the charm. It’s now embraced by a hand-me-down matte from a discarded picture, always propped up in my study, never fully dressed with the frame it so rightfully deserves. Nonetheless, always in my view, always admired; I stare at it and appreciate its innocent, unassuming beauty. I’ve even gone so far as to pose some names for them. By them, I mean the adorable, ginger-colored, mischevious cat crouching in the center of the painting and, what I believed to be a bird, perched, coy and taunting as if saying, “…and what are you going to do now? Eat me?” The ‘bird’ is captured from behind, looking up at the cat. I can’t see the bird’s face, only the back of his head and the ruffled plume feathers of his tail, pointing in a downward direction.
The painting has remained in my study for years and has brought many a smile to my face while I stare and think of the artist who created this perfect image to aid in my mind’s escape.
Recently, I wanted to duplicate, without scanning, the painting, for I did not have a scanner with a large enough scan bed. So, I took my pens and markers and meticulously copied a smaller, scaled version of the piece. I added shadows and other details. Excited, I showed my copied original to my son, the artist who created it. And that’s when it happened. My imaginary world with cat and bird was about to unravel. Yes, this misinterpretation and deceit was self-imposed. I have gone on for over seven years now believing my ‘friends’ to be a cat and bird without ever asking the artist his thoughts and story behind his creation. The characters, their story and his inspiration was lost on me. I failed to ask. He has seen this picture for so long in my study and knew the affection I had for it.
“Mom,” he said. “What’s that at the top, here.” He says, pointing to the top of my bird’s head. I had added a beak, in an upright position, to emphasize the cocking of its head towards the cat.
“That’s his beak. I wanted to make him look upwards.”
“He’s an octopus, not a bird. See, here are his tentacles.” Like a teacher, he gingerly points to the appendages at the bottom of the body.
“Huh? Oh, I see.” It takes me a nanosecond to realize they weren’t tail feathers.
“I named him Charlie. And the cat is Harry. They’re best friends and they were posing for this picture. See, here are Charlie’s eyes.” And he points to the eyes, and just below the eyes, there was a mouth, on the face of Charlie the octopus.
“Why is he frowning?” I ask.
“Well, on that day, he didn’t want his picture taken. Just like me, Mom. You know I never liked having to take my picture. Charlie is a lot like me.”
Ah, his inspiration. I saw it all clearly now. The arrogance I showed by interpreting the art on my own, even adding my own details, brought on a sense of shame.
And, true, for the minute required to sit still and stop his active mind and body, my son made it a point to never smile in a photo. He was just too busy for such nonsense and believed his defiance, one day, would stop the unnecessary interruption.
“Will you forgive me for the freedom I took in interpreting your art?”
“Mom, you’re the one that taught me that there are many ways to see and interpret the world. Doesn’t the same hold true for art?” He shoves his hands into his pocket.
Is that a breeze I feel? Nah, it’s just my wishful thinking. The heat and humidity have steadily climbed the thermometer to ‘unbearable’ this past month and my lazy bones have postponed my run until mid-morning. Not smart. I contemplate my route, choosing a longer one, along the mostly shaded greenbelt trail on the outskirts of my neighborhood that leads me to the state park at the shores of Lake Houston. I plod along. My quiet tranquility hindered by the thick humid air swaddling me from all directions until I nestle myself in the trail among the protected shade from the trees. My comfort sets in, pace steadies and now my run really starts.
This is the guy that soars out from among the trees at eye level just in front of me: “Red”
A pileated woodpecker? (I wonder until I can get home to research) His sudden darting startles me. He zips ahead, I’m transfixed on his movements as he entertains me, darting tree to tree and coming to a stop, perching at eye level. As I approach, he skirts around the tree trunk teasing me. A game of peek-a-boo? No. The looming threat of my presence as I approach sends him jetting ahead to yet another tree next along the trail. This time, upon approach, I consciously streamline my movements, stealthily approach, believing the more minimal my motion, the less visible I am. A good exercise in efficiency for me; no bounce, no swinging of the arms, no bobbing of my head. The challenge for me is to see how close I can get. His fiery red head and crest feathers glisten in the streaming sunlight like a painter’s fine brush saturated in pigment. He flits around the trunk again. I make it a bit closer to him but, despite my cat-like approach, I’m met with the same reaction, he zips ahead. This cat and mouse game continues for the next mile and a half, my distance closing in on him with each new attempt. He eventually stops scooting over to the other side of the tree and remains on the same side of the trail, keeping me in view the entire time. I get even closer. Still, he flies off. Two miles have gone by and soon I’ll be leaving the trail for the shoulder of the road leading me to the park. Won’t you let me get closer?
As the trailhead ends, he obliges. I run abreast of him. This time he stays on the tree and watches me go by. This was trust based on history. I wasn’t going to harm him, to attack him, to chase him, I respected him. I wanted to see him, up close and personal. Look in his eyes. And, turns out, he wanted to see me, up close and personal, to trust me and look into my eyes. This is what it takes to build trust. Consistent action with no expectations. Mine, today, were to wonder at his beauty, marvel at his colors. Gain his trust with time and consistency, it was worth it.
“To live everyday as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live. …to say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something to aspire to.”
~ Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain
There she is again. The woman I saw earlier. The same woman I took for a walk. My eyes slowly adjusted to the glaring sun, it had been three days since I last saw daylight. Ah, the smell of fresh air, the wind in my face, I led her as quickly as I could down the sidewalk away from the shelter. I prance alongside her, no tugging, no pulling.
She now stands in front of me. I lunge towards her, my back end and tail waving in triumphant, staccato unison, rocking my front legs out of sync. Her hand presses the steel cage, the salty taste of her hand drowns out the metallic cold.
What? Why are you walking away? I took you on a lovely walk and tour of the place? Where are you going?
The lights in the shelter dim, an eerie quiet descends. This is the only way that I know the day is over. After two months here, the only reprieve to the endless barking is closing time. I lay my weary head on the concrete floor, close my eyes and listen, in a half sleep, all night.
I’m back at the shelter. This time, I’m leaving with a dog. I fill out the paper work and hand it in five minutes before closing. I’m nervous and I know it’s time to decide, yet, each and every dog I’ve met is racing through my head. I’ve fallen in love a little bit with each and every one of them. How do I decide? I know in this over-crowded shelter their time is short. But I can only take one.
“Can I walk back through?” I ask the woman. She wants to get home, to her life, and I’m this delaying her plans.
She looks at the clock and then at me.
I enter the kennel area. The dogs are speaking. Their deafening barks echo off the cinder block walls and concrete floors. Some remain lying on the floor, tired of the same greeting ritual day after day, their glazed-over empty eyes staring back, while others bark, each one telling me their story, pleading for me to listen.
Each dog I met had very little time left before being euthanized. Each one graciously taking me for a walk, hoping I choose them. They want me to see them. Fall in love with their one special strange perfection; a nose, their eyes, a marking, or a single errant ear. But I can only take one home and promise myself I will do everything I can to find it a permanent home. It can’t be with me. There are others I must save, one at a time. Now is the time to do something. But, how do I choose? I find myself staring at her.
My first foster dog.
Why didn’t Hollie come get me? I only ran down the street, I was curious, I was planning to come back home. Really. Then…the man in the blue coveralls grabbed me and put me in the truck. Every day I wait in my tiny kennel, but still no Hollie.
I don’t understand. How can she let me stay in such a frightening place? I know Hollie wasn’t well. The joy I brought into her life as a tiny puppy was gone. At first, everyone loved me, adored me. I still had so much to do in her life, in my life. I could have helped her. Where is she?
I look up, the woman in the black dress is back. She’s been crying. She takes the papers from my kennel door and quickly walks away.
“I have her. The puppy. The one with the yellow eyes.” I speak into my phone as I drive home.
“I don’t know how she slipped through the cracks. Amazing she’s still alive after two months, she should have been put down a month ago.” Inder says.
“Yeah.” The guilt creeped up again, I raise my free shoulder to wipe my cheek.
“Owner was called two months ago. Surrendered her. Never came to pick her up.” He says, his voice flat with detachment.
“Didn’t she know that was a death sentence?”
“Nope. Just irresponsible people. Happens all the time.”
“I don’t know if I can do this, Inder. I love her already.”
“This is rescue. You love them and then let them go. Their lives are saved. There’s so many others. Remember that.”
“Yes. I know.”
A man in a blue jacket comes to my kennel door. I eagerly greet him, my same routine since being here, still hoping for different results. This time, he opens the gate and puts the blue leash around my neck.
“Come on, girl.” He says.
Where is he taking me? Did Hollie finally find me? We all make mistakes, I forgive her. Just come and get me aready.
I lead him down the aisle, I know the way. I try not to look at the others as we leave the kennels.
We stop before reaching the back door.
Let’s go. I tug.
“Relax, little one. Patience.”
I oblige and we wait. A second later I see her. It’s not Hollie. It’s her. The black dress. She sits on the floor next to me, my eyes meet hers without looking up. The only human to look into my eyes in months.
This time, she leads me out. The man in the blue jacket helps me into her car. I sit next to her, she wraps her arm around my neck and draws me close, she’s whispering.
“It’s OK, gentle one, Andi has you now.” She starts driving.
I lie in bed, my mind racing from the day’s events with the little girl I named Chai sleeping on the floor below. I can’t sleep. I think of the others I left behind. I’ll be back. I close my eyes tight to press out the tears wishing sleep would succumb and take me away. I roll over and the little one is sitting there, her head resting on the bed, we’re eye to eye.
As if on cue, she slinks into bed beside me and with my arm under her, she nestles her head in the nape of my neck. We’re ear to ear and our breathing in sync. She doesn’t move and we immediately sink into a restful sleep.
Is she for real? We’ve just travelled 2000 miles to Zagreb, Croatia, and she has no idea where we are? I can’t help myself, I have to ask.
“Are you serious? You’ve no idea where we’re going?”
“To their country’s capital?” Patricia grins and points to the young couple who so graciously welcomed our accidental intrusion on to their property while in search of a restroom.
“Un-fucking-believable.” I smile.
After flying in to Zagreb, Croatia, we’d travelled into Slovenia on our way to Ljubljana, 60 miles northwest. I’d met Patricia once, 2 weeks prior to the trip, picking up snippets of a multi-faceted, carefree, and intelligent woman. This is going to be an interesting journey, I think to myself as our impromptu host rushes into his cellar, reappears and pops open a bottle of homemade wine.
“Na zdravje”, our host says.”To your health”, he interprets in his broken English.
“Na zdravje”, we repeat.
I gulp it down. Patricia winks at me.
And there I was, after two long flights, hopping in a rental car and starting a journey through Eastern Europe with three relative strangers.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I hit ‘ignore’ in response to a needy client’s call. “Fuck. Let it go to voicemail.”
It was June, 2012, the beginning of summer. Twelve months after leaving a successful architecture firm to start my own practice, bringing with it 80 hour work weeks, the overwhelming urge to run away torments me.
I’ve been avoiding calls all morning. The monotony and stress of another day is in full swing. I’m irritated by the never-ending barrage of unrealistic deadlines established by demanding clients. This is further amplified by the missed deadlines of ‘moonlighting’ interns, just trying to make ends meet with their full time jobs and the extra spending money that I supply in the form of ‘under the table’ wages. I find myself desperately seeking direction with the course of my business. I have only gut instinct and insight to go on, with no formal business training.
I pour myself a glass of wine. It’s noon. I’ve not eaten anything and eagerly anticipate the light-headed, relaxed state which an empty stomach and quick drink brings. In a few hours the kids will be home and I’ll transition my drink to an opaque, plastic cup, or make the switch to the ever-invisible vodka. Hints of alcohol abuse start to rear it’s ugly head. No, more than mere hints, this is full-blown alcoholism. I was arrogant in thinking I had beaten down the demons of addiction. At age forty, succumbing, via the expected roll-call pickup of the ‘ticket for escape’ that my strong, addictive genes have gifted me.
Alcoholism infested my family. My mother liked to drink. And growing up, it was like a quiet mouse in the house, padding softly, all of us hoping that it would go away on it’s own if never addressed. Eventually, it chewed it’s way through our lives. My father turned a blind eye to my mother’s problems, prompting many an out of town business trip or long-term out of town business assignment. And, upon his return, with my mother being on her best behavior, he somehow justified the planning of his next escape. I learned this art of escape, these tendencies being modeled throughout my childhood. I now put them into practice. And, here I was, the stress and pressures of a business I could barely maintain prompting another episode of “Run or Die”. The alcohol started out as a crutch to get me by, a temporary escape. I had always played with fire when it came to alcohol, but, never did I use it to escape, to temporarily numb. No more wrestling with my demons, these days, we just snuggle.
Now, I yearned for that drink, and counted down in anticipation of my blissful reprieve. This had been going on far longer than I cared to think. Alcoholism was sneaking up on me all along, just like the mouse who lingered my entire childhood. I was in survival mode. Not a brazen or adrenaline-filled, idea-rich survival, but more of a passive, defeat-laden survival crawl. I wanted to throw in the towel. Engage my auto-pilot flight mode. But I knew I had to stop the mouse dead in it’s tracks. I decided to take a leap, but this time, with proper planning and eyes wide open, I left the country in the company of three strangers, wandering in to a two week adventure of experiencing all that Eastern Europe has to offer. A loosely planned return was in order and the continuation of my practice was on the books with contracts waiting and a fresh new perspective upon my return. Maybe this time I’ll get the drinking under control. I hoped.
I had just started dating Luis. Two months into it, hardly an acceptable amount of time to know someone. It was simple, actually, we just liked to spend time together and had a lot in common, mainly through the outlet of sports and exercise, a lifestyle that was currently being rivaled by my penchant for alcohol. Of course I left out the ‘I can’t wait until happy hour, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere’ trait during this time of getting to know him. How was I supposed to sell him on my newly surfaced habit?
“Hey, Luis, alcohol may be the road to nowhere, but at least it’s the scenic route, let’s go!”
I am never telling him this.
Instead, I shared my wistful fantasies with him. I spoke of downsizing and minimalism. Luis lived it. My children were older and my career was blossoming, this kind of play was just what the doctor ordered. We weren’t your average couple. Our idea of a date was a three hour long tennis match on a Friday night, scarfing some food down on the run, and waking up at the crack of dawn for a sunrise run. There was no wining and dining, and what little expectations I had were immediately squelched. Pushy and restless by nature, Luis was an obsessive type, never staying still for long. A raconteur of travel, he was constantly seeking out his next adventure, his nomadic tendencies meshing well with my reckless tendencies of escape. His life was simple, and the more people that came along on his adventures abroad, the merrier. Striking, prime in my desperation to flee mode, I agreed to travel for two weeks with him and two of his friends. I looked forward to meeting his friends and embracing this journey to a region I knew little about and with people I knew even less.
Luis proposed the itinerary and immediately started planning our trip. Overly-formulated spreadsheets detailing the nooks and crevices we’d be visiting, foods we’d be experiencing, and detailed travel routes along with their exact pre-dawn time to be in the car with an occasional motor engineering formula sprinkled in. I was pretty sure he kept his own version as well, scheduling and keeping track of his daily bowel movements and calories consumed. It was important to him to crunch in as many countries as possible, so, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia became the destinations.
What organized, structured bullshit, I thought.
But, what the hell!
Just wait till I introduce you to my mode of travel, Luis. No planning involved except for the daily scheduled sleeping in, lounging, drink in hand.
A seasoned traveler, well-versed in the art of budget travel, Luis was the polar opposite of his friend from Houston, Patricia, my third travel companion.
I had met Pat one time prior to our trip for a brief itinerary discussion set up by Luis. Being an ‘inner looper’ and having ventured outside of 610 for this get together, she was running late and flustered due to her extended travel time to meet us. Her distraction and disinterest became more apparent when I soon learned that she had not so much as peeked at the itinerary.
Hmmmm, I thought, is she more open to the flow of where travel takes her than me? Does shereally not give a damn, is she just too busy? I couldn’t tell. As we talked, I learned that she was the owner of an expanding medical practice and was in the midst of the construction of her second office. Despite her busy life, she welcomed the opportunity to take off, fully aware that there would never be a ‘good time’ to do so. This self-driven passion and success along with her relaxed demeanor and nonchalant, unassuming character, drew me to her right away. And, after discovering her penchant for wine, I knew I had a companion who would be more than willing to cut loose from Luis’ tightly threaded spreadsheet. Exotic in her Guyanese beauty, with cocoa skin, ink black hair, manicured nails, she exuded an effortless class. She had an eloquent, relaxed, wistful way of articulately speaking. Her words pouring forth, smooth like silk, yet brushed with the confidence of a doctor. With an infectious, hearty laugh, I’d discover time and time again throughout our trip, and on in to our current day friendship, Patricia was a genuinely happy person.
Pat’s methods of travel and ideas of accommodations were quite different from mine and Luis’ budget-guesthouse-staying agenda. She travelled first class, was used to 5-star accommodations, and refused to share a room with anyone in order to cut costs. She felt no need to apologize or make excuses while in the presence of folks whose priorities it was to see as much of the world as possible with little time and little money spent in posh hotels. She worked hard, for decades, and finally postured herself to experience and enjoy the finer things in life. Whether she knew exactly what city she was in and location on a map or not, her mind was untethered and open. Leaving language barriers behind, she was always seeking out the locals, her humor and kindness luring all around to mix in, enjoying the present moment, the gifted company of others, and the sharing of good times.