The life and times of an ethnically ambiguous little lady.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

Growing up, Valentine’s Day was never a holiday that my little adolescent heart yearned for. I never had a boyfriend when the dreaded holiday of Hallmark fell (well, except for fifth grade when I was dating Joel Spitalnik), and it was now my senior year of high school. Just once I wanted to get a box of candy from someone other than my parents, even if my parents were careful about my nut allergy. I wanted some cheap-ass carnations! I wanted to bask in the artificiality of the made-up holiday with someone that loved me or at least thought he did for a little while.

This year, I decided, would be different. I would go away, away to a different country where they still had Valentine’s Day. And if I found love, well, all the better. So I went to visit my friend Theresa.

“I think I’m going to go to Toronto for Valentine’s Day,” I announced to my friends at lunch.

“Really? Is there some guy you haven’t told us about?” Allie asked, with what felt like judgment.

“Maybe,” I replied, trying to sound mysterious.

Everyone just looked at me. “Fine, no, I’m just going to visit a friend I met on my trip to England last summer. But you never know. I could fall in love.”

“Well, I don’t think we have anything special planned, at least not that I know of,” Melanie said, but Melanie already had a boyfriend, so she didn’t count.

“Who cares about Valentine’s day,” Justine replied.

“Yeah,” Esther added. “All I’m doing this weekend is getting my wisdom teeth out.”

“You really know how to celebrate,” I said.

And so I bought my plane ticket. “So there’s one thing,” Theresa explained. “I kind of have to go to this big black tie benefit the weekend you come up. It’s for my dad’s Multiple Sclerosis Benefit, but you can come, too!”

It didn’t sound like that much fun, but maybe benefits were different and better in Canada. And besides, I liked to dress up. “Okay! Maybe there will be cute boys!”

“More like old men, but maybe we can get drunk, ay.” I was sold.

A month later, I was in Canada, all decked out on Valentine’s day night with somewhere to go. This was going to be great.

But Theresa was right. There were no cute boys under the age of 60. There was booze, but we couldn’t get our hands on a whole lot of it, so most of the night was spent plotting and playing Do, Kill, or Marry.

The next morning at breakfast, my parents called.

“Geez, you don’t have to check up on me, I’m fine,” I said, rolling my eyes at Theresa.

“Honey, I’m not sure how to tell you this.” My mom paused. “Esther passed away last night.”

I stood there, holding the phone, trying to understand. But Esther had been fine when I saw her on Thursday. Esther couldn’t be dead. “That can’t be true.”

“I’m so sorry, honey. I think you should come home.”

“I guess I should,” I said. “I’ll call you when I get a flight.” I hung up the phone, but kept gripping the receiver.

“What happened?” Theresa asked. “You look completely freaked out, ay?”

“My friend died last night. She had a brain aneurism when she was getting her wisdom teeth out. I have to go home.” A lump caught in my throat but I couldn’t cry.

Theresa reached out to give me a hug, and I let her but it felt strange. She’d never met Esther. She didn’t understand. “Let’s pack your stuff and we’ll drive you to the airport. My mom will call and see about changing your flight.”

I looked out the window; the snow was starting to fall. “But it’s snowing.”

“Yeah, it does that a lot here. It’s Canada,” she said. “You’ll be okay.”

Two hours later, I was at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, clutching my bag and my ticket. I sat at the gate. Theresa had tried to stay with me but I told her I’d be okay. I wanted to be alone.

My flight was in an hour, but the snow was starting to come down harder. And then I saw the announcement go up on the board. The flight was delayed. “That’s okay,” I mumbled to myself. “It’s just delayed twenty minutes.” I continued gripping my bag. Around me a group of what seemed to be about 30 people who were all together were also waiting for the flight. They groaned when they saw the time change.

An hour later, the flight was cancelled. Oh God, how will I get home? I thought. I’m in a foreign country (even if it is Canada). What if I miss the funeral? And that’s when I started to cry. And I’m not talking a few cute stagelike tears. I started to wail.

I wanted to be home. I wanted to reminisce about the time that we all went to see the movie Scream and we were driving home and it was dark and the highway was deserted and we were freaked out because of the movie and Esther screamed out “I’m so glad I’m a virgin!” because virgins never die in horror films.

I wanted to talk to someone about Esther trying out for cheerleading senior year and us teasing her mercilessly because she was small and stocky and all personality and no dance skills. But our cheerleading team wasn’t very good and they needed another member. And how excited Esther was to walk around in her uniform on game days and how she’d come up behind me and tickle my nose with her pom poms.

I wanted to tell someone how brave I thought Esther was when she found out she was diabetic. She said she felt better because now, she explained in her always positive way, “this explains why I can never lose weight!”

I took deep heaving breaths, all the while hugging my luggage. The tears kept coming.

“You okay, sweetie?” a woman said, kneeling in front of me. She was part of the big group that was waiting for our flight. She was probably in her 50s and was very blonde and very well dressed. I realized just about everyone was staring at me.

I took another hyperventilating breath and tried to get a hold of myself. “I have…to get to…Philadelphia.”

“That’s good. So do we.” I noticed she was looking at me both with concern and as if I was slightly autistic. “We’ll help you get there, sugar. There will be other flights. It’s not the end of the world.”

“It’s not just that. My friend just died. I have to get home,” I said quietly.

“Oh, honey,” she said, and surprised me by wrapping me in a big hug. I tried not to cry but I just lay there with my head on her shoulder, sobbing, soaking her shirt through to her shoulder pads. She hugged me until I stopped crying. It took a while. “Well, we’re all here for a family reunion. I’m Lisa and this is my husband, Phil, and my three kids, Justin, Sam, and Phil, Jr.” The boys looked embarrassed and Phil senior waved. “We’re from Manayunk. You know where that is? All these guys,” she gestured around us, “are family too, and they live all over. You want something to eat? A hoagie or wudder or something?”

“Manayunk is about 5 minutes from my parent’s house,” I said, wiping my face with the back of my hand. If I couldn’t be home, at least hearing a familiar Philly accent made me feel better.
And Lisa did indeed take care of me. She got me on the next flight out and I got home 8 hours later. If it hadn’t been for her, I might still be at that airport rocking gently. As soon as I got to my house Justine and Allie and Melanie came over and we sat and cried and hugged each other and talked about Esther.

After finally getting myself under control I looked over at Melanie.

“So what did you and your boy end up doing for Valentine’s Day?” I asked.

“I can’t even remember, it seems so long ago,” she said. “It doesn’t seem all that important either.”

It really didn’t.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Me, Lady Parts, and Mr. Matthews

While watching the Grammys the other night and I caught Dave Matthews’s performance. Seeing him brought back a lot of memories.

When I think about high school, I think of Dave Matthews Band. Sure, most of the songs sound the same. They sound like adolescence, like the hardest decisions I would have to make would be which boy I should have a crush on and whether I should wear my red hippie skirt or my Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls. I had not yet discovered the magic of hip hop or R&B or clothes that didn’t have previous owners. I hadn’t learned about real heartbreak or the frustration of being out on my own.

I went to countless Dave concerts and they were all awesome but all the same. The band would play and we would sing every single word because we knew them all by heart and they would jam for hours. It was like a Grateful Dead concert without the counterculture. I imagined if I ever met Dave Matthews that he probably wouldn’t fall in love with me—I rarely had that effect on people—but at the very least I would make him my best friend.

One summer my friend Jackie and I went to see Dave Matthews at the Mann Music Center in Philly right around my birthday. She had gotten tickets from a friend of hers who worked at the Mann and we were front row center. I remember swaying to the music, looking up Dave’s nose, and feeling like the luckiest girl in the world. If he would just play “Seek Up” I could die happy, I thought to myself. During the second encore he did and I can’t remember if I cried or peed myself a little bit or both. The song wasn’t quite finished when Jackie whispered in my ear, “come on.”

“But the song isn’t finished …” I said, exasperated. Was Jackie not the real fan I thought she was?

“Trust me,” she said, pulling me with her. And since she was several years older, and we had had some interesting adventures together, I let her lead.

“So I think we can get backstage,” Jackie said, laying out her very limited plan. “My friend who got us the tickets also got us catering badges. I think we can meet him.”

I tried to focus on walking but I had lost the ability to function. “Meet him? You mean Dave him? Oh my god! Oh my god! What will I say? What will…”

“Calm down, Em. We’re not backstage yet. But if we’re going to do it, I need you to keep it together.”

I took some deep, calming breaths. She was right. The only way Dave could become my best friend was if I could relax.

She gave me a badge to put on and I tried to look like a knowledgeable caterer. It was surprisingly easy to get backstage and we stood together in the back of the room, trying not to seem excited. And then Dave Matthews came out. And I was kind of awestruck. Jackie went to walk up to him and I couldn’t seem to uproot myself from my place. Apparently I was the only stationary one, because all the other people in the room flocked to him, squealing, chattering, arms outstretched with writing utensils and a dream. Jackie pulled me along again when she realized I wasn’t behind her and we wadded into the sea of fans, not getting anywhere. We realized that to the right of where Dave was signing autographs there was some space. So we stood to the side, just close enough to him that it wasn’t creepy and waited patiently for him to finish.

We stood there for a good hour. Every so often he would look over at us and smile and I tried not to faint, but we waited. And when the crowd finally thinned considerably, he turned to us.

“You girls have anywhere to be,” he asked, his strange southern twang drawing out his words.

“Just waiting for you,” Jackie said.

I just nodded, as my voice box had stopped working.

“Well, thanks,” he said. He gave Jackie a hug and she passed him something to sign. She was tall and he didn’t have to bend over to hug her, but he noticed that she jolted a little.

“You okay?” he said to her, as he leaned down to give me a hug. He smelled like sweat and patchouli. I tried not to attach myself to him like a blood-sucking leech.

“Well,” Jackie said, looking a little embarrassed, “I just had surgery, so I’m a little sore.”

“Oh, no! I didn’t mean to hurt you. Was the surgery serious?” he asked.

“Ah, sort of? It was a breast reduction.”

“Nice. Congrats,” Dave twanged. He managed to do this without giving her the once over the conversation called for, which made me like him even more. He leaned down to hug her again, this time around the stomach to avoid any sensitivity.

“If I tell you I had surgery, do I get another hug, too?” I blurted out. “Oh my god, sorry, that was assholic.” And then I was even more mortified because I had said ‘assholic’ in front of Dave Matthews. (Note: My mother argues that that was not the most “assholic” thing I have ever said in front of a celebrity. She felt that the time that Larry Brown, then coach of the Sixers, came into the Starbucks where I working and I told him that I “liked his work” took the cake for idiocy.)

“No sweat. I like hugs,” Dave said, and he leaned down to give me another hug.

And then we stood there for a while and talked about hospital food, and Dave’s time in South Africa, and his funky shoes that were made out of hemp. And I imagined Dave adopting me and we’d have conversations like this all the time.

“Man, do you girls have to get back to work?” Dave garbled, eyeing our badges.

“Not really,” Jackie and I said, exchanging glances.

“Well, I have to go, but it was nice meeting you girls.”

“You, too, Dave,” we said casually, like we hung out with him all the time.

And as we walked away I gave Jackie my own hug around her waist. “That was kind of amazing,” I said. “I can’t wait to see what you do for my birthday next year.”

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