Butterflies and Bubblegum Lipgloss

My nextdoor neighbor slash best-boy-friend and I were playing in his backyard after school one day in fifth grade. Trees shaded us from the April sun. I sat on the swing and pumped my legs toward the branches of the tree above. He stood in the treehouse, teasing me for saying Fila like filet. Honest mistake for someone who has never owned a pair of name-brand shoes. But kids with money don’t get it.  

“Wanna kiss me?” he asked as he climbed down. He hopped onto the ground beside me with a thud.

“Huh?” I asked. He knocked the wind from my lungs with his question. 

“We should kiss. Ya know, just to see what it’s like.” He shrugged.

He was kind of cute with his curly brown hair and emerald green eyes. But did I like him, like him? Maybe? Maybe not. I hadn’t really thought about him that way until smack in the middle of that moment.

I kicked a rock beneath my feet and thought about running away from him. Last year, in fourth grade, that’s what I would have done — ran from the boy. Any boy. All boys. But so much changed in fifth grade. Girl friends in my class were curious. We stopped running and started batting our eyelashes. First and second kisses were all the rage at recess. The butterflies. The fireworks. The goosebumps. I wanted to share in those conversations with a story of my own.

I stood, and my knees slipped like spaghetti. “Sure,” I said. Afterall, our parents were rooms away, inside their kitchens making dinner. No one would ever know.

He leaned in to the left. So did I, so he adjusted and leaned to my right. He pressed his lips to mine and, before I could decide whether I liked it or not, his braces scraped my bubble-gum-glossed lips. Eww. And Ouch. But mostly Eww.

I nudged him away. No fireworks. No feeling at all.

“You’re blushing,” he laughed.

“Whatever,” I said as I wiped his drool from my chin. “We should stay friends.”

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

Living in Bushwick

I loved New York. The screeching subways, the sidewalk Mariachi band members wearing shoes made of real alligators, the shopping in SOHO, the twenty dollar drinks at the hole-in-the-wall pubs, and the high-paying jobs by Midwest standards, the good, the great, and the crazy: I loved it all, at least for the moment.

Our first place in New York was a railroad style apartment, which means one room follows the next in a very open style, long and narrow. The apartment had end-to-end original pine floors, exposed brick, twenty-foot ceilings, and it sat on a slant. Like such a bad slant that round things often rolled from one end of the kitchen to the other. The tile in the bathroom had little pink roses on it and was probably the worst feature of our apartment at first glance, other than the four kitchen cabinets we had to cram our things into.

Bushwick, where we lived, was predominantly a Hispanic area renamed East Williamsburg to gentrify it and attract more young, white people. I liked Bushwick better. East Williamsburg mocked the hipster-friendly Williamsburg, where posh restaurants shared walls with dive bars and boutique clothing stores, nestled under the famous blue Williamsburg Bridge. My neighborhood wasn’t anything like Williamsburg.

We bought our vegetables and fruits from cash-only stands on the side of the street. We walked our dog through Maria Hernandez Park where guys played handball and girls watched from outside the court, laughing and chatting. Hands slapped balls, sending them thumping into the cement wall. Back and forth, they played all day long. Sneakers squeaked. Dogs barked. Upbeat Hispanic music blared from boom boxes. 

A thin, elderly man with leathery brown skin who often perched himself on the stoop next to ours became my first New York friend. He always smelled like tequila and cigarettes. Originally from Puerto Rico, he vowed to teach me Spanish. 

“Say hola.”

“Oh-la?”

“Spanish for hello.” He nodded and pulled a Marlboro Red from his linen shirt pocket.

“Hola!”

He struck a match against the brick building and lit his cigarette, taking a long, slow drag. “Muy bien,” he said through a cloud of smoke. He reminded me of a gangster from an old movie: so cool without trying.

More often than not, he told me stories about Bushwick.

“They used to call this street Vietnam,” he said. “Garbage cans with fires in the middle of the street. Drugs. Killings. Muy mal.” 

“Moo-ey mal?” 

“Very bad.”

“I see.” I tried to imagine the streets of my new neighborhood on fire, but I couldn’t. Instead, I saw a stream of people walking by. Some on their way to work, others out shopping or on their way to the bodega: hard-working, middle-class folks trying to make it in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Dreams can come true in New York if your skin is thick enough.“Why’d you stay?” I asked. 

He shrugged and squinted his eyes toward the park. “It’s mi casa.”

Photo courtesy of Niv Rosenberg on Unsplash

The Cost of an Upgrade

Our house was recently upgraded. Friends and family love it. They say it’s beautiful. They tell us how nice all the new fixtures and counters and floors are. They say how lucky we are to have this free remodel.

Sure, birch floors are nice, but the remodel wasn’t free.

***

The whole unfortunate ordeal began when a line the size of my pinkie behind the toilet got disconnected while we were away on vacation. Two gallons of water gushed every minute for almost three days straight. Millions of water droplets assembled themselves in my house: a tiny army ready to obliterate anything in it’s path.

My just-got-back-from-the-mountains smile was quickly replaced with WTF when I climbed out of the car, eager for the comfort of my couch, and found water sneaking beneath the garage door. Liquid coming from places it shouldn’t is never a good thing. Water needs to be contained, or it migrates quickly. It seeps into cracks. It soaks, and it destroys.

The stream of water we found outside trailed through the garage and came from the door connecting the garage to the house. Confused about what I was witnessing, I watched my husband unlock the door. Water gushed out like Niagra Falls when he opened it. I thought this is not my house. What kind of cruel trick is someone playing on us?

On the first level, there was a puddle collecting beneath my kitchen table, the table my husband put together only weeks before. My cork floor, my cork floor that was installed only one year ago, was bowing at the seams and expanding like a sponge. Every rug was soaked. The living room carpet was soggy, squishing up water with every step.

Downstairs, the basement walls bubbled up with fluid trapped beneath the layers of paint. A downpour fell from the ceiling onto the concrete floors, collecting inches of water beneath our feet. The smell of mold stuck to the inside of my nose like putty.

My head was so discombobulated that I actually called a neighbor and asked her for a squeegee.

After the insurance company was notified by my husband, who was thinking much clearer than I, professional disaster specialists were summoned to help. They arrived at midnight and went to work immediately.

First, anything wet had to be removed. Floors were torn apart, sending splinters and screws spewing about. They wheeled in nineteen commercial fans. One by one, they turned them on, forcing bits of dirt to rotate around in the air.

Five dehumidifiers, each bigger than my washing machine, were scattered throughout my house to suck in water against it’s will. Hoses snaked back and forth, a trip and fall hazard to my kids and dogs.

During this time my house was nearly uninhabitable, so the insurance company placed my family of four plus two dogs in a hotel. There, we found a silver lining. A pool. A good insurance company. Someone else to cook us breakfast. I thought things could definitely be worse.

The disaster specialists and their commercial equipment finally convinced the water to leave after it dribbled along for five days. Then a second team of professionals replaced old things with new. New subfloors. New floors. New trim. New paint. New counters.

Every night we cooked dinner in an unfamiliar kitchen, slept in unfamiliar beds, and heard strangers through the too-thin walls. Every day I went  back home and met with contractors and salesmen and whoever else needed to be there to fix my house. 

The cost of my remodel wasn’t free. It was more like:

Roughly 8,500 gallons of water. 

Almost 30 days of normalcy.

25,000 dollars, paid by the insurance company.

And 1 lesson learned the hard way.


Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Her Bravery

I distinctly remember the day my mom first showed me her bravery.

We were in my parent’s Chevy Celebrity. I think I was five. The corduroy seats itched the back of my knees, so I kept tugging on my skirt hem. I played with the hand-crank on the window, turning it up and down repeatedly. Each time it was down, warm air seeped inside and got stuck in my nose. And despite the floor being out of reach, I kicked my feet back and forth trying to touch my toes against the carpet.

We were car-dancing to Madonna when my mom gasped and slammed on her brakes. Our heads flew forward then slammed against the seats with a thud. I stopped kicking and car-dancing. Stopped playing with the window. Stopped breathing for the shortest moment.

Everything stood still as our eyes connected in the rear-view mirror. There, I saw concern and love, then determination and strength. All before she blinked.

“Oh, God!” she shouted. I exhaled and the world rotated again. “That car hit the little girl so hard she…” her voice trailed off. I heard the clicking and clacking of the car going into park and her seatbelt being unbuckled, then the slapping of the belt raveling up.

She climbed out of her seat, slammed her door, and stopped in front of my window. “You stay here,” she said, using her voice that meant business. Perseverance filled each line on her face in a way that I had never seen before.

I gulped down a breath bubble and scratched the corduroy seat to feel the fibers under my nails. I nodded yes.

“I mean it, Danielle,” she said.

“Okay, Mommy,” I whispered to her, but she was already jogging away.

I craned my head up to peek out the window and the smell of exhaust fumes overwhelmed me. It was a busy street that felt close to home, but I couldn’t tell which one it was. I saw my mom approach a girl lying face down on the pavement. She wasn’t much bigger than me. And behind the girl was a car. Its windshield was caved in and shards of glass glittered against the street. I looked away, afraid and unsure of what was happening.

Time isn’t the same when you are a child, so I don’t know how long I sat there avoiding the scene out of my window, but it felt like hours. I heard sirens and voices just beyond our car. I saw the flashing lights, but I couldn’t bear to lift my head and watch.

Eventually everything slowed. No more sirens, lights, or commotion.

My mom opened her door, sat back down in the driver’s seat, and cradled her head in her hands. “I couldn’t save her,” she wept. “I couldn’t save the little girl’s life.”

Photo courtesy of Pexels

When Safety is on the Line

I back out of my driveway when I first see him. The stranger is meandering down the street strangely close to my property. He’s tall, white, and dressed mostly in black. In my rear-view mirror, I watch him get closer and closer to my house. It isn’t even lunch time.

My antique-white colonial sits on two acres of rolling Virginia hills in a small subdivision filled with dense, mature trees and a small creek that weaves in and out of the yards like a thread. We are several miles from the busy part of town, and I know most of my neighbors by face.

My van is halfway down the block when he glances in my direction. His face is unfamiliar. He dips into the woods, just over my property line, causing my heart to skip a beat, then quicken.

What do I do?

I’ve always been the kind of girl who chooses flight over fight. In gym class, I remember ducking every time that red ball came my way, and wincing at the sting on my skin as it bounced off my body.

I also remember getting in trouble during my years as a paralegal. I’d hide under my desk biting my nails, waiting for the lawyer’s backlash to ensue after transposing address numbers or misspelling names like Shwartzman and Agostinelli on important contracts.

In my rearview I see my toddler’s tiny hands swaying back and forth to the beat of “Let it Go,” as Elsa belts it out from her DVD player. This house is where my girls will grow to women.

Flight isn’t an option.

I stop contemplating it, and attempt a U-turn, but my palms are so clammy they can’t grip the steering wheel. I rub my hands across the tops of my thighs hoping the friction helps, and it does. Slowly, I press on the gas and my van turns, then lurches forward down the street.

In front of my property, I watch the stranger walk back and forth through our brush, just beyond the tree line. He keeps getting farther and farther from the street, and closer to my house. I almost can’t see him anymore. I can feel my stomach tighten.

I need a Tums. 

“Hey!” I shout. “Do you know you’re on private property?”

He pivots to look at me. His hood is tightly drawn, so I can’t see the color of his hair, but I know I won’t forget his face. He has a smattering of pink acne scars on his cheeks, and his light eyes are darting back and forth erratically.

He starts walking towards me.

Oh shit. Now what?

As the distance between us closes, I can see the muscles in his forehead twitching nervously, too.

He looks guilty!

I glance at his hands and check for any kind of movement that would indicate he might be reaching for a weapon. I’m suddenly quite fearless in my Grand Caravan.

“I’m looking for my phone,” the kid says. He appears to be in his late teens or early twenties. “My girlfriend tossed it in your woods last night. I was just trying to find it.” He puts his hands up defensively.

“Do you live in the neighborhood?” I scrutinize him. I keep my car in drive and my foot on the brake, ready to run him over.

“Yeah, I live over there,” he says, waving a hand in the direction behind me. There are only two streets in my neighborhood, a dead end cul-de-sac and a horseshoe shaped street that intersects the dead end in two places. He didn’t mention either street by name.

I don’t believe you.

“I’m calling the cops,” I say.

“I’ll leave,” he says. “It’s no big deal.”

It’s a very big deal, asshole. You’re trespassing!

I watch him hustle past my van before I roll down the window to take a picture of him on the sly. He turns left into the horseshoe and disappears. Once air returns to my lungs, I call the cops. Minutes drag before the sheriff finally arrives in his cruiser.

“Without a getaway car, a break-in is unlikely,” says the cop. “But you can’t rule it out. I’ll see if I can find him in the neighborhood for a talk right now. And we’ll start patrolling here more frequently.”

What if you don’t see him? What if he comes back?

I taste my morning coffee mixed with bile at the back of my throat.

That little shit.

My home is more than simple brick and mortar. It’s memories of my children racing down the stairs on Christmas morning. It’s sleepovers with friends and moms’ nights in. It’s kitchen dance parties and summer barbecues on the back porch, catching fireflies in a mason jar at dusk. It’s the place I walk barefoot and bra-less with yesterday’s eyeliner staining the skin beneath my eyes, and everyone accepts me just the same.

And some little jerk in a black hoodie is going encroach on that?

I don’t think so, buddy.

Maybe I’m a ‘fight’ kind of girl, after all…

 

 

Photo courtesy of Jordan Whitt/Unsplash

The War Was Over – A Micro Challenge

The War was over.

After deliberation, a patterned cotton dress was chosen to wear. Blond curls were begrudgingly folded into place and complaints were made against the necessity of clean teeth.

In the end, we hugged. I straightened her backpack and she boarded the bus joyfully.

When Anxiety Strikes Your Fruit Bowl

I’m typically an easy going person. I try not to raise my voice above speaking level. I volunteer occasionally.  I’m tolerant and understanding. I am, for the most part, level-headed and kind. But every person has her breaking point and, well, mine was the stupid fruit bowl.

It wasn’t an extraordinary day, by any stretch of the imagination. My one-year-old was teething, AKA not sleeping and mostly just screaming bloody murder. I skipped my shower when she skipped her nap. Then I opted for extra caffeine as I consoled her, which, in hindsight, was probably not the best idea.

When my five-year-old came home from school, we struggled to complete her homework. She would scribble and erase, scribble and erase until her letters were just how she wanted, making my blood bang furiously on my eardrums. All the while, I had a red-faced baby cradling my my left hip, as I tried to simultaneously throw a meal together. I could feel the lump in my throat getting bigger with each breath. Tears were brimming my eyelids and my hands starting to tingle. My anxiety was in full blown attack mode and I was on the defensive.

With homework finally finished, I served up my half-assed dinner at the kitchen bar, so we could eat. I opened a craft beer, savoring its bitterness as it touched the back of my throat. It was cold and delicious. Silently, I prayed for my heart rate to slow down, so I could enjoy quality time with my kids. I didn’t want the day to get any worse.

Almost immediately, my oldest started playing with something in front of her, a pencil, a stray gem from our jewelry making supplies, I don’t remember. Whatever it was, I took it away.

My prayers weren’t answered.

“Eat your dinner,” I said. I could hear the lack of patience seething out of my voice.  I checked out, done adulting for the day.  She didn’t listen. Instead, she picked up her fork and started tapping it on the fruit bowl.

Ding!  Ding, ding! Ding, ding, ding, ding!

She was willing to do whatever it took to get attention: good or bad, it’s all the same to kids.  I should’ve realized what she was doing, but my head was too clouded from exhaustion and anxiety.

“Enough,” I said through gritted teeth as the baby hurled a half-eaten nugget across the room.  “Please eat your dinner.  And no throwing your food,” My youngest swept her arm across her highchair tray, sending peas flying everywhere.  My five-year-old giggled and I snapped my head back in her direction.  “Your dinner,” I pointed my fork at her plate of food.  I took a deep breath, in through my nose and out my mouth.  I needed a moment, just one single moment, to-.

DING.

My peripheral vision went blurry and my hands started sweating.  Suddenly the only thing that my mind could comprehend was the fruit bowl and how much it always got in the way. I hated how gray it was. I hated how the bananas always bruised from touching the rough edges.  I couldn’t stand how it sounded as the fork gently tapped against it.  My teeth were grinding back and forth as I thought about how the events of the day had led me there, to the fruit bowl.

I needed that stupid bowl GONE.

Without any more thought, I picked it up and threw it on the cork floor.  Just like that. I thought maybe it would bounce.  

It did not.

The sound of the clay bowl crashing against the floor and separating into hundreds of tiny shards was enough to make all three of us jump.

I thought to myself, what have I done?

I swallowed hard, noticing the symptoms of my anxiety begin to dissipate. I blinked and my vision cleared, my shaking hands were no longer sweating, and the fog started to lift. I turned back to my children, both staring at me with wide-eyed bemusement.

They were frightened by me.

“I’m so sorry, you guys. Mom made a really big mistake.” I lightly kissed the tops of both of their heads, smelling their lavender shampoo.  Calm yourself.  

“Mommy will clean it up,” I assured them.

I grabbed the broom and dustpan, took a deep breath, swallowed my pride, and reminded myself that I’m not perfect. I’m only human and sometimes humans break stuff.

Photo courtesy of Sergey Zolkin