Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Moth

What is a migraine? A migraine is vitalized brain demons. It is a roofing nail behind your eye. A migraine is I hate everyone and everything. Every migraine is a moth circling the light and you don’t know how it got in.

The moth, standing

I swim up from the bottom of the ocean of dreams. I had been at a cocktail party, looking for a sewing bobbin in a highball glass, trying to corner the hostess to ask her, was she really Beth A., classics student, who ate only iceberg lettuce and drank mostly Tab and Kahlua, from my hall freshman year at that women’s college? Her freckles had given her away, but she looked so well -- far happier than at 18. But then I wake up.

The dreams I remember are never last night’s; they are always this morning’s, boiling in the wee hours, just as the sky pinkens after lighting, when the cat realizes he’s hungry and knows where I am. I am the food-giver, and sleeping poorly anyway. He embarks on his morning mission: to wake me. It isn’t tough. He leaps onto the bed already purring, walks along my body with feet that can exert the full weight of his 16 pounds in each silent step, crushing organs as he goes. Without him in my life I would not know the map of the painful pressure points of my torso, nor the joy and annoyance of him draped across my chest, cat whiskers tickling my neck and a drop of cat drool rolling down.

Migraines are the last thing about me I haven’t written about. Internal, immeasurable, intimate, mine.

Some days I wake up dizzy. Any day I am dizzy is shit and I like to wonder is it some sort of blood valve in my brain sprung a leak or an artery bulging and ready to burst and or maybe a tumor unfurling a tentacle around my parietal lobe or like a blood pressure thing or even just a migraine-ish moment? I’m allowed to worry about brain tumors because of my mom, and strokes because of her cousin; these are the permissions I’ve assigned myself. (No, I am not looking for your diagnosis.) The real reason is migraines.

If I leave the wrong headache unmedicated it grows; it has size and shape, texture and color. A purple pickle, a dark red railroad tie. A gray hotdog bun, an acid green sea cucumber. It’s usually on the right but it’s sometimes on the left. Some migraines feel like my brain is sizzling, steeped in acid. The big blue pill removes the pain but not the other feeling of unreality. Some people have light aversion and sound sensitivity. I have those and also sometimes an intense revulsion to smells.  If the headache is left unmedicated I can do certain things in an automatic way, packing lunches or driving to school, like holding my breath, moving without thinking. It is only briefly sustained, and then, tasks completed, I go to the dark and collapse again.

When I woke up this other morning the cat was purring and had put both his paws on the end of my nose. I didn’t know what cat he was or where I was.

I had woken several times in the night, and at least once because I felt a migraine coming on, but instead of doing what I am supposed to do, what I know is important to do, which is take a prescribed blue pill, I did nothing.

So that when the cat woke me up with his paws on my nose, I got up and teetered to the bathroom and choked down the water with the big blue pill and just barely didn’t barf. Those big blue pills are a miracle. But you have to take them right away: “A pill only works if you take it, you know.”

The snow that day was fucking terrible. It had a thick crust on top, thanks to first the snow and then the sleet and then the freezing rain yesterday, and the few hours above freezing yesterday afternoon. Overnight, everything froze anew.
The driveway was worse than ever, and just as scary to come up as it is to come down. The snow banked high on both sides, and I didn’t know why the plow guy wasn’t returning our calls. “Traction is overrated,” I said aloud to myself on the way up, fake brave and fake cheerful.

The younger dog amused himself running ahead, practicing his funny dino-walk on snow. With his shoulders hunched and a wide, bent-legs stance, his feet spread into his own little snowshoes, he only broke through the crust every ten steps or so. He did better than me out there. I struggled with every third step. And then when the crust broke free, the loose pieces skittered away down the hill, making a sound like a weird electronic squelch, or a squirrel’s scold, or something else, menacing and warning: you shouldn’t be out here, it said.

Meanwhile. The drugs worked.

I don’t like to think about or talk about migraines. I don’t like to listen to other people giving me advice about my migraines. If I’m scowling, I would rather let someone think I’m a huge bitch rather than know I have a migraine. When finally I went to a doctor to talk about them, he was grouchy about being Danish and me thinking he was Dutch, but he sent me home with six samples of medications, a list of foods that may or may not contribute to some people’s migraines, and a chart for keeping a headache diary. I tried all the drugs, and I never started a headache diary. I now have a prescription for a big blue pill, and if I take it in time, I don’t have migraines.

So there’s nothing to talk about.

I remember details about my first migraine aura, because my mother made such a big deal about it. And later, told the story. I was walking home from camp. It was (probably) the summer between 5th and 6th grade. I was wearing Dr. Scholl’s sandals. I liked to drag my feet along the sidewalk and make them clonk. I’d wear the rubber pad off the heel in a single summer. But I’d outgrow them anyway so who cared? Somewhere along Davis Drive just past Central, I noticed a shell-shaped blur in the upper right quadrant of my vision. It was cool and wavy and shimmering. It was still there if I closed one eye. I walked home slowly because it was interesting and I was unalarmed. I floated it there, in front of me, like a see-through balloon tethered to me by an invisible string. I came in the house and rested my face on the cool tile of the kitchen floor. We had gotten AC in the kitchen then, my mother had someone cut a hole in the wall for it; in other seasons it was closed behind a cabinet door. The cool tile floor was irresistible to my cheek.

By and by I had to explain what I was doing, the shell had morphed into a piece of bacon. My mother rushed me to the eye doctor. The alarm in her voice on the phone was incongruous to the experience I was having with my face on the floor. I think she thought my retina had detached. Dr. Joffe found nothing wrong with my vision and explained to my mother that it was probably a migraine aura.

My mother had headaches frequently. Sometimes, it seemed to me she’d have to have a lie-down on one of the matching loveseats in the living room every afternoon, her forearm flung across her eyes. You don’t think about whether a thing your mother does is normal or not when you’re a kid. It’s your mother. Everything your mother does is what all mothers in the world might do. The whole blue floral slipcover era she had headaches in the afternoons. They were hers, the headaches, and we left her to them.

I didn’t really start having migraines until I got to college. Some of them my freshman year were whoppers. As the darkness of a migraine closed in, I never sought medical help, I just slept them off. It was like period cramps or something. A thing that happened that you couldn’t do anything about, you missed everything you were supposed to have done, work, school, whatever and then a couple of days later you’d be fine.

Migraine sleep is the worst sleep.

I am dreaming. I have arrived at the red brick house I grew up in. Drifts of snow block the path to the front door, but there is a thinner spot, to the right, along the bushes. I go in the house through the side porch where the stinky pet alligator once lived and have a conversation with my living mother in the kitchen. It is the 70s kitchen, with the barn-siding halfway up the walls and brown bargello wallpaper. Then, I go to the bathroom upstairs. All the white tile is the same, as is the poster of the animals: “Extinct is Forever.” I am wearing gray.

I hear my husband’s voice say, “Hey, Maggie,” and I wake up, startled. I look around the room. I am alone. He is away on a business trip.

The cat was happy I was finally awake. He had tried to rouse me at the first sign of daylight this morning. He always knows when I bubble up to the surface of lighter sleep, between cycles of dreams.

I dreamed all sorts of things last night, but getting up to pee and texting my husband to say I heard him say, “Hey,” chased them out of my head. That, and rising dizzy to stagger to the bathroom. My balance is wrecked. My left ear is stuffed-up-feeling. Allergies don’t help; it’s a visit to the fun house. I must look drunk. I noticed we had a dusting of snow last night.

Things that can give you migraines: bright winter sun, hormones, red wine, storms, injustice.

I lived in Seattle 18 years, with migraines at least 3 or 4 days out of every month. That’s about 2 years of just headaches. Sometimes they were connected in that they seemed to be the same kind. It’s that moth circling the lightbulb; you see one once, and another one on another day, and you don’t think about how many there are until you have to clean out the glass bulb around the fixture and there are a hundred bodies, some the same, some different. When do you realize that it’s too many headaches?

The part about the moth:

It was flat on the windowsill, still and spread in the way moths do when they think they’re hiding, and well-lit. I wanted a picture. It was the color of sawdust, and the size and texture of pencil shavings and may have been liberated from a Number 2 Ticonderoga, and then bewitched by someone or something. Which fairy brings the pencil shavings to life? Which fairy sends the headaches?

I crouched to photograph the moth that looked like pencil shavings because the light was good: bright, but not too bright, and overcast, making it indirect. And just as I struggled to position my camera that is really just my phone, a spit of wind slipped through the window screen and hit the moth at the perfect angle to stand it on its end upon the windowsill.

It was not until after I took the picture that I realized that the moth had not made the movement itself, and stood in a pose for me or against me. Defiant, risen, mantled, shavings-looking moth. But dead. Still.

My head sort of hurts today but I think that’s from being so hard asleep, so deep into the dream that I had to swim up from the bottom of the ocean of dreams. It’s like the bends.

How do you cure migraines? With metaphors.

Saturday, June 20, 2015


I am standing on Church Street, in TriBeCa, trying to hail a cab heading uptown.  People (and by that I mean New Yorkers) have cab-hailing styles. One, casual, with a relaxed open palm and fingers. Another, taught, high arm, hand waving. Then, the Lunger, who seems prepared to die under the wheels of a taxi. Me, I raise my arm and try to believe I’m tall enough to be seen.

Tonight, I am dressed up, unsteady in high heels, feeling conspicuous in makeup, too warm to wear my fancy party overcoat so I’ve tried to drape it artfully over my arm, and now I’m sweating into it, or pressing wrinkles into it, as I strangle my tiny handbag.  The flow of buses and cars, black SUVS and so many yellow cabs. I want to check the time but I haven’t a free hand, nor do I have the confidence to look away. There is a configuration of rooftop lights I’m supposed to follow to know which cabs to wave at. My ignorance after three years proves to me once again that I don’t intend to stay.

More cars, more buses, more cabs. Every taxi is the same, on the outside, every cab the object of your purest desire. Come to me, yellow cab. Pull up to the curb by me, yellow cab, roll down your window and ask me, “Where to?” Please. I need you.

I give the driver the address of our first stop, where we are to pick up my husband, and then our second stop, at tonight’s event. I slide behind the driver, my outfit twisting around my hips. I sit off balance, my ankles crossed, periodically bumping around trying to straighten my clothes.

“Your husband. Is he a tall man?” asks the driver.

The majority of cab drivers in New York leave you alone. You get in, there’s some discussion of the destination, and you drive. Maybe one in ten has an axe to grind, a nascent worldview to expound upon, a philosophy he can’t resist sharing.

“No…,” I say, hesitating. “More like medium-sized.”

“See?” he says. “I’ll tell you. My daughter, she has a husband. An American husband. A tall man, her husband.”

It’s a work-related function, where we are going. One of those functions I was led to believe we would be attending regularly when he took that god-damned job and we moved to New York.  An awards show? A premiere? Who fucking cares? Most of the time I’m not even invited.

“They come to my house and leave their car in my parking spot,” the cab-driver continues. I ask myself what the hell he is talking about.  “I only get one spot, but they leave their car. I cannot move it because I have no key. She chose this man for herself, this tall man.”

It’s the end of the day. Rush hour. Of course in New York City rush hour is several hours, peaking just after five, I guess. We are on the backside of it, maybe six-ish. I don’t know.

“Your husband, is he smart?”

“Yes,” I say. “He is very smart.”

“My daughter’s husband? He is not smart. He is tall.”

TriBeCa in autumn, 2012

I want to tell you funny stories about New York. I want them to be calm, reflective, backward-looking, and hilarious. I did things in New York and you want to hear about the celebrities I saw there. Like Ian McKellen exhorting me to try harder at Pilates, or Patrick Stewart going incognito in a U.S.S. Enterprise ball cap on the subway. And my memories of the fancy events sparkle with celebrity cameos: Jennifer Aniston, looking skinny and normal and pretty at a premiere, or that guy from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, skulking around like a party-crasher, scarfing hors d’oeuvres and drinks, alone in a t-shirt in a corner. I want to draw New York for you the way you like it drawn for you, with cool old buildings and a vintage jazz record soundtrack. Not real pigeons shitting in your hair but cinematic pigeons, rising in a flock. Expensive TriBeCa lofts where, of course, the AC works. Glamorous skyline shots, the wail of sirens edited out. Cabs roaring past, but never buses running the red. No baked-on dog diarrhea on the sidewalk. No smell of urine in the subway.

The bland niceties exchanged by executives and their wives at work-related functions don’t make for many good stories. The HR guy is usually there. He always manages to remember my name. He knows I have kids and horses. Sometimes his wife is with him, looking like the saddest woman in America. Maybe she looks at me and sees that I, too, am the saddest woman in America. The HR guy asks after my kids and horses. I lie, and say everyone is fine. Always. No one wants to hear they aren’t.

It’s a struggle. I am still digesting, and there are many things I’m not supposed to say. I got smacked down by a Twitter troll last December, after I tweeted that I think New York is run by a bunch of mobsters. No names, no details. My troll made a new account to reply to this tweet, to tell me to get the hell out of New York and not let the door hit me in the ass. I blocked her, and she moved on to tweet at my husband, and at random people tweeting about my husband. I try to keep my Twitter world friendly and nice; I don’t spend my time there arguing with disagreeable strangers, and I block hostile people early and often. After a day’s worth of head-scratching, I realized who she was; I unblocked her, and asked her if her kids know she’s a Twitter troll. After this, she deleted her account.
The first time we get a glossy invite to a fancy event, I plan for weeks; I shop for a posh frock, with special occasion shoes and suitable foundation garments and two pairs of expensive hosiery in case I tear the first pair putting them on. I go on to buy my first and second tiny fancy party handbags, and one is so small I can’t fit a glasses case into it.

By the last one of these damned events I wear a cheap, red tulle dress I buy online. When a colleague of my husband’s turns to me and compliments my dress, I can’t decide if it’s out of politeness or sour dismay. Sometimes, she has to sit near me at these things. I think she thinks she has nothing to say to me. She is wearing a very expensive dress. Like the kind of thing you get at Barney’s, and it’s like $1100. Black. Asymmetrical. And those strappy, $1095 Jimmy Choos. I know what they are, I just couldn’t stand in them, much less walk in them. And besides, why would I when I can wear Fluevogs?  I am happy enough with how I look, in my funky shoes and my polyester party dress. I may never wear the dress again, but it was well under $100 so I really don’t care. You could spend that on lunch in New York with friends if you had friends. I say my thanks for the compliment, but I think she probably hates me.

I mean, what is that: “I like your dress…”? Somehow it communicates something else: “I see you’re wearing a dress.” Or, “I am noticing your dress, and your dress isn’t expensive like my dress.” Or,  “I think your dress is weird. I think your dress might have been cheap.” Or,  “What the hell are you wearing?” Or, even, “Who the fuck are you? Why do you even come to these things? No one here likes you or has anything to say to you. You should just stay home.”

Where do we get our ideas about others? That people care what I spend on clothes? That men are funny and women aren't? That people judge your intelligence based on your height?

But anyway, going back to whatever night I was talking about, after I’ve done my 3 ½ minutes with the HR guy and his sad, sad wife who sees into my soul, the night where I’m still chipper about a fancy party or whatever.

I want to tell you about this one guy, someone my husband introduces me to, and how blunt and hilarious I think I am, telling him like it is. My husband is polite and professional, always, like he was raised to be polite and professional. I am somehow in this moment incapable of either. Maybe I am always incapable of these things. A question is exchanged between the men without being answered, and I toss out my answer, overly strong and quite inappropriate, like a I’ve taken big slug from a flask of grain alcohol smuggled into church and belched.  This guy, he doesn’t care if I have horses or children. I say something else, trying to be funny.

There’s a flash of recognition on his face. At the time I take it for approval. “I’m on Twitter,” I offer. Today, now, I scream back at myself, “Twitter is free, you stupid twat! Any asshole is on Twitter. Go drink more and talk less!”  Then, I tell him who I am on Twitter. I have done this so rarely. Today, now, it makes me hate myself. 

Within days I am followed by the woman who becomes my Twitter troll. She is friends with this guy. They are professional contacts who flirt with each other on Twitter.

But getting back to the moment before I open my damned mouth, before my husband replies with his polite and professional words, before I volunteer who I am on Twitter: my husband introduces me to this guy. They walk up to me together. There is my smart, medium-sized husband with someone. It is unmistakable. He is tall.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Hot Sauce

There are two bottles. Hot sauce. Two bottles of hot sauce. One bottle is full. One bottle is empty. The empty bottle is your past. Your past is hot sauce you already ate. Or, someone else ate it. Hot sauce that is no more. Hot sauce that made the eggs ok. Hot sauce that made the burrito more awesome. Hot sauce that was essential to the tacos. The hot sauce of yesterday. It is gone.

The full bottle is full of hot sauce. Someone opened it already, so there won’t be any frustration with the little plastic seal if you need the new hot sauce. It is ready for you and your eggs. Or your burritos. Or tacos. You might even use the new bottle of hot sauce in a new way. You might put hot sauce on something you’ve never put it on before. You could eat outside. You might make a new friend, and invite her over, and serve her hot sauce. The full bottle of hot sauce is your future. It is filled with inspiration to do new things in spicier ways.

"Actually, it's 'Cholula.'"

There is something else: President’s Party. Properly punctuated. A sticker, on a water bottle. A label for a party that you were not invited to. A party that required stickers. And you weren’t invited, and you didn’t go. Do you wonder what they ate there? Do you think the music was good? You are pretty sure the wine wasn’t the cheapest wine, and the music might have been top-drawer, whatever that means. And the food was for the president’s guests, so the best this president had to offer. What partying president is this? A president of a nation? Of a club?

And whose water is that, anyway? And is there maybe a fly floating in that water?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Empty Air, and Filled

In my anxiety about traveling alone, I’ve come too early to the airport and must wait. Outside it is hazy, warm and humid, but inside the AC is blowing on me. I showed up carsick and unfed, and so bought food with a crumpled ten I found wadded at the bottom of a purse pocket. I eat a greasy, not nice, slightly desiccated pretzel and drink an ice-filled, sugary lemonade tasting strongly of dust and citric acid and regret. My stomach protests.  I shiver in my seat.

The carpet is supposed to be blue but you know it’s more ratty and stained than blue. I sit in an empty row of connected chairs, facing the window. Two of those retractable hallways block most of my view, stretching away from the terminal but reaching no planes-- empty, like rigid sleeves.  I watch a little jet tooling around out there through the gap.  I am not inside my thoughts. The sound of voices. The people who work at gate A23, to my right. The couple directly behind me. The sigh of the woman with a styrofoam clamshell of beef teriyaki over white rice. Is that a TV? People on their phones. Why didn’t I bring a raincoat or sweater? I’d have them both on if I had them now.

I buy two books in the Hudson News; I’ve read them both, and liked them enough to recommend them, but they are not for me. I will take them to my aunt in the hospital, just as soon as I land. I consider buying a giant pink I-heart-NY hooded sweatshirt, for the irony or because I’m cold. I feel like I’m an asshole for even considering it.

We passengers fill the little jet quickly, and the captain tells us with surprise that we are next to take off. I can feel the acceleration, I think, and wonder if I’m going to be airsick, too. My father, in the middle of his career, traveled frequently, but liked to brag about St. Louis being so well situated, out there, smack in the middle of the country. It was the perfect hub to travel from. A two-hour flight to New York. Back then he would time his drive to the airport so he could park his car and walk straight through the terminal, and through the open doors of the jet-way onto a waiting plane, about to depart.

The slightly stooped flight attendant is almost too tall for this little plane. He asks, “What will you be drinking on our flight today?” I look stunned. “You’ll want something,” he continues. “It’s a two hour flight.” I consider a beer but settle for hot tea.

The turbulence. The squeals of a baby. The two coughs. Repeated. The tinkle of the hollow ice cubes in a real glass in first class. The roar of the plane. High, light, loud, white noise filling all the air inside the plane. Making the atmosphere inside seem almost visible. To be inside and high. High and moving forward.

The woman in 1D is too loud and too chatty. She wants to know if they have Jameson. The flight attendant doesn’t know. She’s on her way to Bonnaroo. She is starting nursing school and changing careers after 6 years in a psychiatric program. She settles for a Jim Beam and ginger ale. She says didn’t even vote in the last presidential election because she didn’t like the guy. And not voting is her right, you know. She seems too old for Bonnaroo.

I try to read. Another pair of squeals. The man in 2C is tapping his toe arythmically.

The sky above the clouds

Bonnaroo heads to the bathroom. I am offered more tea. 1C struggles to return his folded tray table to the arm of his seat. It is folded, but somehow still not fitting. The flight attendant is not going to help him; he is busy, behind a curtain in the galley, fetching my tea.  More table-wrestling from 1C. The curtain moves as 1C loses his temper, and begins bashing the folded table into the slot it doesn’t fit into. As the flight attendant dances around the curtain, 1C calmly refolds it. This time, it fits.

2C leaps to his feet and bolts to the bathroom.

Bonnaroo orders a cranberry-apple juice with Tito’s, and a water, on the side.

The book I’ve brought to read is too good and too rich to read more than a few pages at a time. I think about writing. I can’t get the crusty tick bite I found on my horse’s tail out of my mind. I tell myself to write about it anyway. “You have to write beautifully, even if your subject matter is the crust on your horse’s tail,” I write to myself. It is a joke. Asshole.

I find more money in a bank envelope in the back of my notebook. How high are we? 30,000 feet? I am up here, high in the air, finding money and thinking about my mare’s asshole. She is a gray, and melanomas are common in grays. But this is the cancer that killed my dad. It acts differently in horses. Grays. Horses, of a color, known collectively by that color. We try not to refer to people this way, when we don’t want to be assholes.

Chestnuts have a reputation of being nutty and opinionated, on account of their red-headedness. My chestnut is a beauty, and sometimes naughty when you ride. Or, should I say, when I ride, because he saves his worst for me?

Thinking about needing to pee when the seatbelt sign is lit. I write that secretly I think St. Louis gave my father cancer, not the sun. Or bad luck.

1C has noticed me scrawling. I resolve to develop a more inscrutable handwriting.

Another invisible bump in the air. From here I imagine we bounce all the way to the ground. Bouncing down the sky. The ground will be smooth. The captain calls the flight attendant. He listens at the handset, his eyes rolled up into his head, blinking.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the captain is advising us we can expect some rough air going in to St. Louis.”

He tidies the curtain under neat straps.

Bonnaroo returns her bag to the overhead bin, crushing mine underneath it.

I never did get up to pee. We will bounce down the air, to the ground. The captain himself announces, “Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin for arrival.”

I look out at the farm pattern of the green and tan squares below. Neat, straight roads interrupted by dark green bits of forest remaining and then the wandering water of a mud brown river or creek. I ask Missouri silently to take care of my aunt. It’s in the mid 80s out there.

I see the Mississippi. Downtown. The new stadium. The Arch. I see Forest Park, Clayton. What does it mean to be from here? Who am I now? We are low above highways. I used to know all their names. I learned to drive here. Bump. We are down.