Beluga Fever

Beluga Fever

My girlfriend has become obsessed with meeting a beluga the way most people become obsessed with yoga or British television shows, only she never took a beluga class or saw a dashing British-accented beluga on TV—it was genuinely out of nowhere and I have no idea what triggered it.

One morning, in that weird muffled dream space where she says the funniest things, she sang part of the song “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music and said, “Guess what I’m thinking of!” And I said, “What do belugas have to do with The Sound of Music?

She was thinking of elderflower macaroons, which she wanted to try at our local hipster tea house, but she got the name wrong.

Edelweiss flowers are actually poisonous and will kill you.

Most of her waking thoughts are devoted to “How can we see a beluga?” And not just one in an aquarium—actually encounter a wild beluga on its beluga way  to wherever belugas go.

She found out that if you can get to Churchill, a town in the far north of Manitoba known as “The Beluga Capital of the World,” you can take a boat excursion where they actually tie you to the boat by the ankles with a bungee cord and then they pull you along and the belugas follow you and you get to sing to them and talk to them (belugas really like human singing, apparently) all while being dragged behind a boat in freezing cold water.

A was all ready to book this trip and buy us matching wetsuits until I said, “Wait, how do we get to Churchill?” First, we would have to fly to Winnipeg, which isn’t exactly a daily route. Then the only way to get to Churchill from Winnipeg is a train ride that is only 47 hours—yes, just 60 minutes short of two days.

Not having that extra hour would make the trip really fly by.

“We could play card games!” said A. “I have a travel chess set with little magnets.”

“We would murder each other,” I said.

To prove it, I began to recited the 2002 Oscars ceremony, from memory. A counterattacked by rattling off all the finer points of contract law.

“And then Tom Cruise exited to a round of applause and Whoopi Goldberg descended from the ceiling in a Moulin Rouge costume,” I said. “This is what all 47 hours would look like.”

“I’m a contracts law expert,” said A. “I’d outlast you.”

“I’ve seen every Oscars ceremony,” I said. “Before YouTube, I taped them.”

After looking up the train ticket prices and realizing that if we didn’t pay for first class seats, we would have accommodations that did not include a shower, A grudgingly accepted that there are other ways to commune with belugas.

“We can go see the belugas at the Shedd Aquarium. But we won’t get to swim with them, and they’ll be incarcerated,” she sighed.

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We drove all the way to Chicago to see belugas at the aquarium, and we got up extra early so we could get to the aquarium the moment they opened.

Our cashier was somewhat lacking in the warmth and welcoming aspects of customer service. Actually, she was outright mean to us. Normally, I give people the benefit of the doubt, they’ve had a long day, the people before us might have been jerks, etc, but the aquarium had only been open for three minutes. I wish I knew what had happened in those three minutes to make this lady say, “Fuck everybody, I am done with this day.”

A proudly showed the cashier her coupon for being a teacher on her phone and this lady snapped, “You were supposed to print that out. That’s what it says.”

It took her fifteen seconds to take down A’s information by hand, but the entire time she just kept digging in, “You were supposed to print it out.”

A gets especially  stressed out when accused of not following directions, because 99% of law school is just learning how to follow increasingly complicated directions. She tried to explain that the directions to print out the coupon weren’t clearly stated and that most places don’t require you to print coupons out so she hadn’t failed to follow the directions at all, and then this lady barked at me, “Are you an Illinois resident?” and I almost started crying.

A valiantly defended me. “I brought her here! This is her first visit!”

I managed to choke out, “I’m from Michigan,” and the lady scoffed, typed something, and then barked a second time, “ARE YOU AN ILLINOIS RESIDENT?”

“I’LL TALK! I’LL TALK!” I cried.

The lady rolled her eyes and asked if we wanted to add any shows to our tickets.

A said, “Can we see the show with the baby beluga?”

The lady snapped, “The baby beluga is not guaranteed to be a part of the show.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I managed to stammer.

“We’d like to see it anyway!” said A, with giant Tiny Tim eyes pleading for mercy.

I wanted to say, “Lady, we’re lesbians, we know wild animals don’t exist for our entertainment. If the baby beluga isn’t up to performing, we totally understand,” but this point, I was prepared to hand over my watch in order to get these tickets, just to get away from this lady.

Finally, after a concluding scoff, she threw our wristbands at our heads and we booked it out of there.

A always assumes that if we get less-than-stellar customer service, it’s a homophobic thing, because she grew up Catholic, whereas I always assume the person isn’t being paid enough to care about their job, because I’m a socialist. But we agreed that this lady was neither homophobic nor underpaid, she was just over that baby beluga.

A hustled me past the turtles and the seahorses and even the bioluminescent jellyfish, and when the first beluga reared its adorable earless head, she actually screamed. We got to see the belugas do all their behaviors and vocalizations in the show (and the baby beluga was part of the show!) and then we got a front-row seat to watch their vet checks and training session. After that the belugas swam right up to us in the tank with their toys. They were so close we could’ve touched them.

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“The wild ones would never get this close,” I said. “This is a much better deal.”

A stared into the tank like Captain Ahab and said, “I intend to be dragged behind the boat.”

I insisted on taking a picture of the information placard with the map of the belugas’ geographical range to prove that they only live in Arctic temperatures.

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“It’s not that far from the rainforest,” said A. “The water wouldn’t be that cold!”

On our way out, we considered going back to that cashier and saying, “We’re in love and we want a joint membership! Can you take care of that for us?” but we were too afraid.

Mickey Mouse and Hurricane Matthew (and me)

Mickey Mouse and Hurricane Matthew (and me)

Now that Hurricane Irma has passed, and everyone I know who was worried about folks in the path of the storm can let out a sigh of relief, I thought it might be fun to reminisce about the time, almost exactly one year ago, that I got stuck in Disney World because of Hurricane Matthew. This past Sunday and Monday were only the fifth and sixth days in the forty-six year history of Walt Disney World that the parks have been closed, and my dad and I were there on the fourth day, in October 2016.

We try to get down to Disney every fall for the Food and Wine Festival (we don’t like the wine, but we sure love the food). We go for only two full days, and we have our schedule down to a science—no wasted steps, no detours, we spend maybe an hour in the hotel room every day and then only use it to sleep. We hit the parks early and we don’t leave until Jiminy Cricket comes over the loudspeaker to kick everyone out.

My dad is in his 70’s and has survived open heart surgery, and he is immensely proud of the fact that he can dash around the Magic Kingdom at 2 in the morning when teenagers are hitting the wall.

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So when we landed at the Orlando Airport on a Tuesday and  saw this cloud heading right towards our plane, we were undaunted.

“No ominous clouds can stop us!” said Dad.

We landed just in time, because we weren’t even off the plane yet when the rain began. I noticed right away that the airport was not nearly as crowded as usual, and the bus to the hotel was maybe a quarter full.

The sky was dark grey and it was pounding rain as the bus pulled away. Being a Disney diehard, I immediately checked my favorite message boards, only to see that the top threads were not about the new rides or the Food and Wine Festival at all.

“Hey Dad?” I said. “Did you know there’s a hurricane watch for Orlando?”

“Get out,” said Dad. “I checked the weather every day! The forecast just said there’d be some thunderstorms!”

“There’s a Category 4 hurricane coming right for us,” I said. “People have been canceling their Disney trips all week. That’s why there’s no one on this bus. On the boards, they’re saying they might even close the parks.”

“Oh, they’d never do that,” scoffed Dad. “Walt was prepared for this. Hurricanes never make it as far as Orlando. The entire state could be underwater and the parks would still open on time.”

I always take a picture of the official Disney entrance sign, but I couldn’t see it through the pouring rain. This was not your usual Florida cloudburst. IMG_2425

“I hope I packed the ponchos,” I said.

“It’s not stopping us from getting on Soarin,'” muttered Dad.

We got to our hotel, and were relieved to see that the 91-year-old man who greets people in the lobby was a) still alive and b) still working. He tipped his hat to us, and we stopped to say hello. He didn’t seem worried about the weather, so neither were we.

The rain let up just as we entered the parks. It was the perfect set-up to a trip. The parks weren’t crowded at all, we made great time getting around, and we got Dole Whips.

“Hurricane or bust!” said Dad, eating half of mine.

We started flagging just a bit before Epcot closed for the night, so we went to Morocco and split a chocolate baklava. I had my doubts that the singular Disney baklava could be improved upon with chocolate, but the chocolate baklava was kind of like having a firework go off by your head, in a delicious way.

Dad said, “That baklava made me feel like I could walk to Disneyland.”

We only had eleven minutes until the park closed, but now that our feet were attached to rockets, we walked on waves of euphoria to Nemo.

We were totally alone on the ride—there were empty clamshells as far as the eye could see. FullSizeRender-6Some cutesy hurricane-related signage in the aquarium area caught our eye. But surely this hurricane wouldn’t be a big deal, right? The dolphins were swimming around and the manatees were sleeping! They weren’t worried about this storm, and they live in the ocean!

Listening to the chatter of the crowd as we made our way through the exit, it was clear that people were already switching flights and telling family members from other parts of Florida not to make the drive to Disney. The message boards were ramping up—people were now fully freaking out about the Halloween parties on Thursday and Friday, while enterprising folks were grabbing all the dining reservations that had been popping up like crazy as people canceled their trips.

“Are you worried about this storm?” I said to Dad. He replied with a broad smile.

“It’s adventure time! Everybody’s going to be worried about us—this is cool!!”

Back at the room, we had a voicemail from the front desk informing us that normal operating hours were still in effect—for now—and that they were monitoring the hurricane situation and would keep us updated.

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I turned on the local news to find a lot of wide-eyed weathercasters talking about this storm.

Dad stood in front of the TV and said, “Where was this thing yesterday?! This wasn’t on my weather report!! Whoosh whoosh whoosh!!”

The next morning, I woke up to a frantic but cheerful voicemail from A about staying safe and having fun, but mostly staying safe.

On the TV, the governor of Florida said, “We have to prepare for a direct hit.”

There was a very nervous-looking bride in a wedding dress in the hotel lobby.

(more…)

The Muffin Lady’s Last Stand

The Muffin Lady’s Last Stand

The world is a very uncertain and frightening place. We all have our little things that get us through the day, or the week, or the winter. Mine was muffins. A certain kind of muffin, made by a certain lady. Maybe I took those muffins for granted, because even with my tendency to imagine the worst, I never imagined a world without a muffin-shaped vessel of sugar, flour, and pure home-baked comfort.

This Saturday marked the end of an era.

A woman named Mary (who my family has always called “The Muffin Lady”) has been selling the most amazing muffins the world has ever tasted at the farmer’s market in my hometown since 1982. My dad has faithfully bought muffins from her every Saturday since before I was born. Recently, he did some calculations, and came to an incredible conclusion.

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Ever since, his goal has been to get to 5,000 muffins. He talks about it all the time. Instead of “How’s the family?” or “What have you been up to lately?” his friends ask him, “How many more muffins until 5,000?”

When we were little, my dad and my sister and I had a ritual of going to see the Muffin Lady every Saturday, then grabbing a spot on our favorite bench in the park and playing the car game, you know, guessing what color car is going to roll down the street next. With a giant double chocolate muffin with extra chocolate chips slowly melting in your hands and the sun shining and the whole weekend ahead of you, it’s pretty much paradise, especially when you win because you know more people have blue cars than your idiot sister who always picks purple.

The Muffin Lady has always had a special bond with our family. She knew both of my late grandmothers by their first names. She welcomed A as a member of the family the first time I brought her to the farmer’s market, and last fall the Muffin Lady actually hugged me while we both cried over my parents’ favorite dog being put to sleep (since he was a faithful visitor every Saturday as well). We all thought the Muffin Lady would be there for us forever.

Well, the Saturday before last, I got there at my normal time, ready for my hardest decision of the day to be “Do I get one of my favorite muffin—cinnamon chip—or two? I should get two, because I like to stress-eat one during Game of Thrones,” and what do I see at the Muffin Lady’s stand? The same stand that she’s occupied in rain, shine, sleet and snow since 1982?

A sign that said, “Our last market will be next week. Moving to Texas. Thank you for 35 wonderful years.”

I was gobsmacked. I didn’t even notice the line forming behind me of fellow freaked-out townies, all asking questions like, “Can we order the muffins online? Will you be my Facebook friend? Will you ever come back?”

Mary’s assistant, Robin, said to me through tears, “How are you going to tell your dad?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not emotionally prepared for this.”

I never call my parents unless someone is dead, but I called my dad from the market.

“No more muffins?” said my dad. “Oh the humanity!”

“And your parents’ new dog just graduated from obedience school too,” said Robin. “He’ll hardly know us!”

My parents have always kept the Muffin Lady updated on everyone’s academic achievements.

I was so thrown off my game that I only bought one cinnamon chip. My dad went to the market later, and I asked him to get me one, if they had any left.

I did not tell him to say this, but my dad inquired, “Do you have any cinnamon chips left? Elizabeth needs one for Game of Thrones.”

“Do we have any cinnamon chips left?!” cried the Muffin Lady. “Elizabeth needs one for Game of Thrones!”

And Robin gasped, “We’re out of cinnamon chips! Will Elizabeth be okay for Game of Thrones?!”

No, Robin. No, I wasn’t.

So, last Saturday was the final farmer’s market for the Muffin Lady. I put on my sunglasses and my little farmer’s market bag like I was going to a wake.

My dad made the Muffin Lady a card with our family’s picture on it, along with pictures of all our family dogs that the Muffin Lady has befriended, and a letter thanking her for being a part of our lives and our town.

We weren’t the only ones getting emotional—people were posing for selfies with their muffins, taking pictures of their kids with the Muffin Lady, giving her lots of hugs and well-wishes.

In the midst of all the tears and the commotion, I grabbed the last five cinnamon chip muffins in existence, with all the stealth of Indiana Jones stealing a priceless artifact from a tomb. I mean, I paid for them, but still, what a rush.

My dad was only 42 muffins short of 5,000. He considered buying 42 muffins in one swoop, but immediately thought better of it, since that wouldn’t be fair to all the other people getting their final muffins.

He’s always put other people before himself. I really admire that. Did that stop me from grabbing the final five cinnamon chips? No way in hell.

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By Sunday, we were still grieving. My sister announced her plan to freeze two of her muffins—one for a year, “So we can eat it next fall like people do with their wedding cakes, and then we’ll freeze one muffin forever.”

“Why would you want to freeze a muffin forever?” I said.

“What do you mean?” said my sister, like this was a silly question.

“If you freeze the muffin, you can’t eat the muffin. That’s a wasted muffin,” said A.

“I know a guy with a vacuum sealer,” said my sister’s boyfriend. “We could borrow it.”

“I could keep it in the freezer,” said my mom. “Ooh, what if the power goes out? We’ll have to get a generator.”

“You could always bury it,” I said. “Worked for Otzi the Iceman.”

“And the mastodons!” said my mom.

“We’re not going to bury it,” said my sister. “Just freeze it forever. Why do you have to hate on my plans?”

“We should vacuum seal multiple muffins and put them in different locations,” said my sister’s boyfriend. “Just to be safe.”

“I don’t understand anyone in your family,” said A, later on. “Your sister wants to freeze a muffin just so she can hold it up in twenty years and shout ‘MUFFIN LADY!’ at the sky. But you can’t eat a frozen muffin!”

“It’s more like a symbol,” I said, mentally counting how many cinnamon chips I had saved.

“It’ll be a doorstop that takes up space in your mom’s freezer,” said A. “Until your dad accidentally eats it.”

“Then he’ll be closer to 5,000,” I whispered.

I have three cinnamon chip muffins left.

I shall guard them like I’m guarding the last three dragon eggs in all the known world . . . while my family is taking a different approach.

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A said, “They’re sacrificing my FAVORITE muffin to the muffin gods?!”

The Delightful Tale of Incest Karen

The Delightful Tale of Incest Karen

I should start with a disclaimer. No, this isn’t a dark story. It’s not going where you think it’s going. I’ve changed all the names purely for my own peace of mind, and in fact, the entire incest element was entirely assumed by the warped mind of yours truly.

I mean, everyone else in the class was thinking it.

There is a moment in every grad student’s life when you’re sitting in class and this feeling hits you, and its name is “I have made a terrible mistake,” or “What am I doing here?” or “Who are these people?”

And then there’s the class that hits you will all three, every class, for the entire semester.

This class, for me, was a class called “Inspired by the Visual,” that I thought would be all about the fine art side of writing, where we’d talk about great illustrators and graphic novelists or really get into the grit of how to visually describe a scene and make characters appear fully-formed in the mind’s eye of the reader. For someone who got into writing only because they realized that Disney Animation doesn’t hire people who can’t draw a proper circle, it sounded perfect. My friend Eleanor was taking it with me, so I was feeling great about it.

Until the first class, when it quickly became apparent that this was more of an art therapy type of deal, where we would be making dioramas out of Popsicle sticks and Starburst wrappers and then talking about how it represented our parents getting divorced. I’m all for using arts and crafts to improve one’s emotional well-being, but grad school is expensive, and spending thousands of dollars to do something that I could do for ten bucks at a craft store made me a little crazy.

And spending three hours a week listening to twenty other adults talk in depth about their Popsicle stick projects? No thank you. Most people half-assed it like I did—putting the minimum amount of effort into their projects, focusing more on their writing and what they were actually in school to do, so it wasn’t as excruciating as it could have been.

Except, of course, for Incest Karen.

Our first assignment for the class was to bring in an object and talk about it as it was passed around the room, as a way of introducing ourselves. I brought a tiny porcelain figure of a sumo wrestler that I had just bought, as a symbol of the feeling that I had to fight my way through grad school and the world at large in spite my own fragilities and lack of self-esteem (I didn’t say any of this, of course. I said “I have a tiny sumo wrestler in my heart,” and everyone chuckled politely).

And then this girl next to me, Karen, passed around a tiny wooden box with two razor blades inside. Blackened, crusty razor blades covered in grubby fragments of fingerprints. I didn’t touch them, but other people were inspecting them, holding them up to the light, you know, trying to be engaged as Karen described them in a monotone.

Eleanor was sitting on my other side, and I warned her not to touch them either.

“Why not?” she asked.

Without thinking, I whispered, “Those are cutting blades. I know it.”

Eleanor scoffed, “Don’t worry, they’re not cutting blades,” just as Karen droned, “I cut myself with these blades every day of ninth grade.”

Eleanor abruptly slammed the box shut.

“Told you,” I whispered.

Karen quickly established herself as that person in class who waits until just the right moment when the conversation is gelling and everyone’s in a good headspace with lots of energy to grab the wheel and just swerve the whole thing right over a cliff. If someone bravely shared a story about a traumatic incident or difficult time in their past, Karen had to top it. She couldn’t even let the woman whose son had just passed away have the floor for longer than a few seconds. Even the professor, who radiated good hippie vibes and praised my Spartan helmet made of chocolate wrappers glued to a cardboard box as “really inspired!” could not stand Karen and her personification of the sad trumpet noise, but there was no reining her in. And, as we learned on the last day of class, she was just getting warmed up.

For our final project, we had to submit and read out loud a fifteen-page document of our choice. It could be a story, an essay, a selection of poems, something we’d been working on for another class, rules and restrictions need not apply. I read a condensed conversation with my sister where she defended her views on fine art (I began with, “Remind me what you said when you first saw Monet’s waterlilies?” “‘Those don’t look like flowers,'” she said. “I mean, they really don’t”).

I got some solid laughs and a polite smattering of applause and suddenly I felt good about my decisions in life for the first time in a little while. Maybe taking this class hadn’t been a terrible mistake after all, I thought. Isn’t art wonderful?

And then, Karen cleared her throat and began to read. She had submitted a portion of her non-fiction thesis, which she described as “One hundred and forty pages about my relationship with my older brother and how it changed forever when he married my friend, who is also named Karen.”

I looked at Eleanor with giant eyes and mouthed, “Is she in love with her brother?”

Ever the optimist, Eleanor rolled her eyes at me as if to say, “Don’t be silly, I read a thesis like that every day.”

The professor’s voice had a tremor of trepidation as she invited Karen to continue. But Karen needed no invitation. She launched into page one of fifteen: “I love my brother Henry very much. He is the only soulmate I will ever have.”

The tiny sumo wrestler in my heart said, “Uh-oh.”

In short: Henry and Karen did everything together, told each other everything, and had all the same friends. They were only a year or two apart in school, so everyone—teachers, friends, and family—treated them like a unit. They were good friends with another girl in Henry’s year, also named Karen, and heretofore known as “Other Karen,” which everyone called her, even Henry, even after he and Other Karen started dating.

Other Karen and Henry went off to college together. Unbeknownst to Karen, they started getting more serious. One day, Karen was at her high school locker when she got a text from Henry. The text said, “I’m going to ask Karen to marry me.”

This is not a joke or an exaggeration. Karen described—in detail, her voice catching with tears—how her first thought upon reading the text was that Henry was going to propose to her, Sister Karen, and how her heart leapt with joy, and then shattered when a second text clarified that Henry was actually proposing to Other Karen, and finally crumbled into dust at the third text:

“She said yes!”

This all happened in the days before smartphones, so Henry must have been jamming a button three times for each letter, all in front of his newly crowned fiancée, but hey, his sister was his soulmate.

We were now about a third of the way though the fifteen pages. In deference to her importance to Henry, Other Karen asked Karen to be her maid of honor. Karen only accepted to make Henry happy. She described at great length just how agonizing the wedding preparations were for her, how she had to pretend to be happy even though watching Other Karen twirl in potential wedding dresses made her stomach clench.

Judging from the faces of the other students and the professor, it was a familiar feeling to us all.

Finally, the day of the wedding arrived. Karen paused for a moment to whip out her visual aide. It was a photo album—one of those cute little white ones with bows and plastic covers, that remind you of something in your grandmother’s house so they’re inherently comforting even when the plastic breaks and digs into your fingers?

Karen passed the album to Eleanor first. I was sitting on Eleanor’s other side.

“There’s going to be pictures of Other Karen with her eyes scratched out,” I whispered.

Eleanor scoffed, “You always assume the worst,” but she hesitated a bit before opening the album.

Fortunately, there were no pictures of Other Karen with her eyes scratched out, because there were no pictures of Other Karen at all. Karen had only included pictures of herself with Henry, smiling in the back of the limo, arms around each other in front of the church, laughing at the reception, all framed in such a way that it was clear that someone had been cut out to make a Karen and Henry two-shot. Was that someone a great-aunt, a cousin nobody liked, a friend invited out of pity? Or the bride?

As the album made its way around the table, Karen hurtled into the finale. She walked down the aisle ahead of Other Karen, and everyone oohed and ahhed and took pictures of her, and she was so happy to have all the eyes of everyone she knew in the world on her, as “Here Comes the Bride” started up on the organ. Yes, Other Karen was now behind her, but Karen didn’t notice. She had the floor. She took her place beside the bride as Henry appeared in the doorway of the church.

Karen’s falling tears were blurring the words on the page, but she was speaking from the heart now. I remember this verbatim:

“All of time stood still as I watched the man I loved walk towards me, with all the love in the world in his eyes, eager and excited to begin our lives together, and our eyes were locked in love all the way down the aisle . . . and then he turned slightly to the left, and it was over. He and Other Karen said their vows, and he wasn’t my Henry anymore.”

I mean, that’s one hell of a final paragraph. I wonder if that’s how the entire thesis ended.

The professor was blinking with one eye at a time, like a malfunctioning doll. Everyone else in the class just stared and cleared their throats as Karen tucked her pages away. I caught Eleanor’s eye and mouthed, “I told you.”

That night, I told our other friend Maggie all about our last day of class. She immediately accused me of embellishing, or flat-out making stuff up, both of which I do all the time, but not in this case. To my surprise, Eleanor, who had been silently drinking tea with a look of remembered horrors in her eyes, spoke up in my defense.

“It’s 100% true,” she said. “Elizabeth told me she was in love with her brother, and I didn’t believe her, and she was right. This girl is going to get the same degree as the three of us with a non-fiction thesis about being in love with her brother.”

And that was the day the three of us began to seriously discuss whether or not we should transfer schools.

Thanksgiving at the Feral Cat Colony

Thanksgiving at the Feral Cat Colony

I didn’t realize until I first watched Grey Gardens as an adult that sharing my childhood home with a platoon of feral cats might be something people find alarming.

I’d always thought it was cool.

As far back as I can remember, we had cats living under our deck, inside my plastic playhouse on said deck, and in the woods just behind our house. My mom put out dry cat kibble for them every day—sometimes I would help if my seven-year-old motor skills were up to the task. My toddler sister and I would sit on the deck, watch the cats eat, and try to pet them if they would let us. Sometimes, my sister would eat the kibble, taking handfuls with her chubby baby hands and shoving them into her mouth like cereal.

Don’t worry, she’s fine. Did not affect her SAT scores at all.

All of the cats had names, most of which were picked by yours truly. There were several Simbas and Nalas, Aladdins and Jasmines. I took my naming duties very seriously. The cat’s name and disposition had to complement each other perfectly.

The meanest cat, the one that always hissed and tried to bite us, her name was Barbara. I named her after my ballet teacher.

I didn’t think anything of the fact that I couldn’t use my plastic playhouse on our deck, because the feral cats were hunkered down inside. Sometimes a kid would come over and give me a weird look when they asked if we could play in the playhouse and I said, “No, that’s the cats’ playhouse,” but I never thought anything of it.

The cats’ playhouse was actually my second playhouse. The first one was picked up by a tornado.

Every Thanksgiving, we had a lot of leftovers, since we never had many people over, and I steadfastly refused to eat turkey every year. I ate a bagel with strawberry jelly instead.

Not wanting anything to go to waste, my mom would march down the deck steps and into the yard, holding the turkey carcass high in front of her like a sacrificial offering, and set it right on the boundary of our house and the woods, so the neighbors wouldn’t see.

My sister and I would watch from the window as the cats emerged from the trees and under our deck and inside my playhouse, followed by crows and ravens and hawks that would squawk from their perches on the power lines, waiting for their turn, and more and more cats would descend onto the carcass until we couldn’t see it anymore, just the fog of cats and the ring of cawing birds above them, and by the morning, the turkey would be completely gone.

We moved to a new house after I started middle school. It was in a nice subdivision, with manicured lawns and identical mailboxes and no trees higher than a few feet. Our cat colony had dwindled by then, most of its members taken to the no-kill shelter or given to friendly homes by then. My mom declared that she wasn’t going to feed feral cats at our new house. Our new neighbors would never stand for it, she said.

But there was a single empty lot at the end of our street. And even in the most sterile of subdivisions, we heard coyote howls and occasionally saw a scampering fox at night. So every Thanksgiving, as soon as it got dark, my mom would sneak down the street holding the turkey carcass high in front of her. The empty lot was a good quarter mile away, and she was always terrified that one of our neighbors would drive up and see her in their headlights holding a platter of meat and bones, but she got enough of a hustle going even with the heavy turkey to avoid detection. I usually accompanied her with a flashlight, which I was only allowed to turn on once we’d reached the lot and the coast was clear. She’d set the carcass down behind a pile of dirt or in a shallow hole to hide it, and then we’d run back to our house like we’d committed a crime. Before dawn, all the evidence would vanish.

Of course, after a few years that lot was bought and a house was built on top of it. We watched the construction through our window, and my dad said, “Should we tell the new owners about all the turkeys?”

My mom said, “Absolutely not. Don’t even speak to them. You’ll sing like a canary.”

So, my parents only wave to those neighbors.

And every time I go home to visit and drive past that house, and wave to the neighbors working on their perfectly manicured lawn or picking up the mail from their identical mailbox, I say to myself, “That house is built on top of at least seven turkey skeletons.”

 

My Fake Aunt and Uncle’s Real Exploding Waterbed

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Yes, that’s me. My parents took me to Boca because at four years old I acted like I was eighty-five.

I had a fake aunt and uncle as a kid. They only lived a few minutes away, but in the suburbs, in the early ‘90s, they may as well have lived in a different universe. They were “very California,” which was their compliment for everything. They loved wine and jazz and salad tongs. Their house had a lot of kaleidoscopes. They owned not one, not two, but three rainsticks of varying sizes. 

As a little kid, I stayed with them at least one weekend every month, and when I did, I slept in a waterbed.

If you’ve never slept in a waterbed, don’t.

If you are ever tempted to sleep in a waterbed, ask yourself if you’ve ever gotten a proper night’s sleep on a pool float.

My fake aunt kind of looked like Demi Moore, back when Demi Moore was the actress everyone wanted to look like. My fake uncle did not look like a movie star at all, but sometimes he wore a beret, and it looked terrific.

Sometimes he couldn’t hear very well because he’d just blown out an eardrum while scuba diving. We didn’t live anywhere near an optimal scuba diving environment, but he managed to find one.

They claimed they had a cat, but I never saw it. I think its name was Rainbow, which is an appropriate name for a cat that may or may not be imaginary. 

When I was five, my fake aunt got obsessed with Twin Peaks, like all the cool people did in the early ‘90s. “You’ll like it, it’s got little people in it, like The Wizard of Oz,” she said.

One time we watched Twin Peaks in the basement during a tornado, and I was afraid the house would be picked up and dropped, Dorothy-style, in Twin Peaks.

“That would be amazing,” said my fake aunt. “Let’s go outside!”

My fake aunt once let me take a bath during a thunderstorm, and I was convinced that I would die.

Their staircase had black spindles rather than white ones, and this was fascinating to me, because in every TGIF sitcom that I watched, the spindles were bright white, creating a sense of optimistic, comforting blandness as well as a nice visual whenever a small child inevitably got their head stuck between them. According to TV, a kid getting their head stuck between spindles was an average Friday night in the suburbs.

An average Friday night at my fake aunt and uncle’s involved a lot of wine and an attempt at playing one of their didgeridoos.

They had four.

“You have to cycle your breathing, like the Aborigines,” my fake uncle would say.

My fake aunt and uncle liked to ruin independent movies for me. In the early ‘90s, the heyday of Miramax, they were my version of Internet spoilers for films that I was way too young to see, but was still fascinated by, thanks to my daily devouring of the scintillating cinematic coverage in USA Today.

“We saw The Crying Game last night,” said my fake aunt. “It’s very good. You should see it … when you’re older, of course.”

I was only seven, but I knew what The Crying Game was because USA Today had run a pie chart called, “Do you know the twist of The Crying Game?”

“No, you should see it now,” said my fake uncle. “Before someone ruins it for you. The girl is a guy.”

My fake aunt yelled at my fake uncle for telling me the twist, but over the following two years she managed to ruin both The Piano and Pulp Fiction for me. My fake aunt and uncle loved Pulp Fiction. They dressed as John Travolta and Uma Thurman for Halloween. No one knew who they were.

When their daughter came home from college, she and her friend Kevin would read Magic School Bus books to me on the waterbed.

“The water cycle just blows my mind,” Kevin would say, with big wide eyes.

Kevin was very good at playing the didgeridoo. I bet he caused the waterbed explosion.

For my eighth birthday, my fake aunt and uncle took me to a Manheim Steamroller concert.

That same year, I lost a tooth while I was staying with them, and the Tooth Fairy left me an envelope under my waterbed pillow that was filled with loose change—most of it Canadian—and a note that said, “Thank you for the tooth! Love, Auntie.”

When I was nine, the waterbed exploded. Through a Rube Goldberg-esque chain of events, the waterbed explosion started a small fire as well as a major flood. A big silver cassette player shorted out from the water damage, and then melted.

The early ‘90s were quite a dangerous time. 

My fake aunt and uncle were the first people I knew who had one of those coded keypads for their garage door. They bought it because their garage door kept mysteriously opening in the middle of the night, even after they got the keypad. Finally, when my fake uncle went out in his John Travolta costume to confront the culprits, he found a trio of raccoons.