Lovers and Loners, a Short Story Collection

Thanks to my publisher and dear friend Mark McNease at MadeMark Publishing, my second collection of short stories, Lovers and Loners, is now available on Kindle. Those with other types of electronic tablets can simply download the Kindle app to their device. The paperback edition will be out in just a few days.

The stories in this new collection feature female protagonists who struggle for footholds in a shifting world. “Parasites” involves a widow who agrees to have dinner with a man she believes is a killer. “Manatee Gardens” explores the relationship between a mother and daughter who discover common ground at a marine sanctuary. In “Chasing Zero” a woman with a mysterious illness loses her hold on the callous man she adores. “Odds and Ends” follows a woman running errands on the last day of her life.

Lovers and Loners is a study of the human predicament: our eagerness and despair, our hidden fears and stubborn hopes, the blunders we make and the ways in which we are salvaged.

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Our Younger Versions

Recently I watched a video, a movie my brother-in-law made of a family reunion three decades ago: my sisters and I, along with our partners. The video lasted about an hour. I did not take my eyes off it.

I had never seen myself from such a distance. There I was, along with my beautiful sisters, young again. Our hair! Our skin! Along with the physical disparity between my former and present self, I was struck by the tension in my movements and expressions: the diffidence of youth at odds with its daring.

Women at thirty are powerful. We have not yet reached the zenith of our bloom and we are aware of this. The mayhem of our teens and twenties is over, and even if we have not fallen in love for keeps, or made much money, there is time enough ahead. The best is yet to come, we are sure of it. Old age is out there, inevitable but not pertinent.

Ironically, this faith in the future makes us vulnerable to the present, unable to claim it. The feeling that we are unworthy, unready, seeps in like smoke. We spend our days trying to hide our fears, from ourselves and everyone else. We can’t be blamed for these doubts, or for squandering those precious years with bad bets and detours. Youth has its price.

Examining the girl I was in that video made me more compassionate than nostalgic, and I felt kindhearted toward my sisters as well. I’ve been practicing tough love on myself a long time now, forgiving my body’s cave-ins at the rate they appear. As our spiritual leaders tell us, pain is resistance. The bloom is off the rose, time to tend other parts of the garden.

When the video ended I felt altered, agitated, a confusion that lasted all evening. I was not the woman, I was not the girl; I was caught somewhere between the two and uncertain how to proceed.

I’ve always thought of memory as a portal. Nudged by a thought, a scent, an image, we can reenter the past, if only for a second. This fusion is unmistakable, delightful, reminding us that time is only a construct, a handy device for organizing our lives. The truth of our existence lies in these fleeting junctures, when we are back at a place we never actually left.

Joan Didion wrote:  “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

It wasn’t until the next day that I understood what had happened to me, why I felt so lost after seeing my younger self. I had not stayed on nodding terms with that girl, had all but abandoned her, figuring we had nothing left in common, nothing of any use. What a surprise to see her again, not behind me but beside me.

As if I could have managed without her.

Past Loves

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I just read a quote attributed to Vincent Van Gogh: “Love is something eternal—the  aspect may change, but not the essence.” It reminds me of the way I regard my former romances. Those powerful emotions are still out there—emotions are a form of energy and energy cannot be destroyed—but they exist in my wake. We molt out of necessity, just like other creatures who shed feathers or shells or skin in order to renew themselves.

Now, I am not talking about the sort of love from which we do not emerge, the people we cherish beyond time and reason. Many of us become so deeply involved in our partners that we cannot recover when we lose them. The subtraction stays with us, alters us; for the rest of our years we live with an absence. The grief subsides, allowing us to eat and move about, while the love goes on as if nothing happened. The love will not be denied or replaced. It is a bare fact. We remain alone, not out of faithfulness, but because we lack even the smallest interest in acquiring someone else. We are bound and free at once.

So what happens to the loves we do leave behind, the tears and vows and rages that fueled those erstwhile affairs? What becomes of the rampant need we had for someone who now brings nothing but a shrug?

When I consider my old romances, I picture neither their ruin nor their passion. I see these people in random snapshots that leave me curiously unmoved, aside from faint sympathy for whatever happened to us. Like the rags of the dream, the details fade away and nothing is left but mercy.

I loved these people, loved them to my marrow. Which I guess is why I keep them safe and tidy into eternity. I see them in the order they arrived, set some distance from one another, on the side of a winding highway. I see them as packages wrapped in brown paper and white twine, and each one has a name printed on it— no address of course. They are not going anywhere.

 

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/halfbisqued/2353845688/”>lemonhalf</a&gt; via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>CC BY-SA</a>

Excerpt from “Paradise”

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“Paradise” is included in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Here’s a quick look at Max, the star of the story.

Anyone who’s ever owned a parrot will know why I cherish my newfound peace and quiet. Parrots scream at dawn and dusk (ancestral behavior they can’t help), and at intervals throughout the day just for the hell of it. I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve been yanked out of, how much coffee or wine I’ve spilled on the carpet, all because of Max. And what really irked me was Kelly’s insistence that we never, NEVER startle him. Undue stress, she claimed, killed more pet birds than any other factor, and so we had to give a certain soft whistle—one high note, one low―every time we approached his room lest our sudden appearance disturb his reverie.

No captive bird has it better than Max. Back in Shelburne, in the farmhouse he shares with Kelly, Max has his own room, with jungle scenes painted on the walls and two large windows that give him a view of the dogwoods and the pond and the distant green mountains. He has a variety of free-standing perches to suit his rapidly shifting moods and a wire-mesh enclosure that takes up nearly a third of the room. Inside this cage are his stylish water and food bowls, several large branches from local trees and usually four or five toys Kelly finds at yard sales. These he bites or claws beyond recognition; if he is given something he can’t destroy he shoves it into a corner. Of course she must be careful about lead paints and glues. Captive birds are never far from peril. I learned that the first week I was there, when I heated up a pan to make an omelet and Kelly yanked it off the stove and doused it with water. Didn’t I know, she scolded, that the fumes from an over-hot Teflon pan could kill a parrot in minutes?

It was exhausting living with that bird, meeting his needs, second-guessing his wants. Kelly said I didn’t have the right attitude toward Max, which may have been true. I never did tell her what I really thought: that birds make lousy pets. Dogs and cats are pets. Everything else belongs in the sky or the water or the desert it came from. So right away I felt a little sorry for Max, even when I learned he was captive bred and able to fly, even when I told myself he was probably healthier and possibly happier living in his painted jungle, for what would he face in Guatemala but poachers and pythons and shrinking habitat? Even acknowledging their success―14 years of cohabitation―I couldn’t help seeing Max as a bird beguiled.

Maybe he sensed my pity and resented it. Or maybe he didn’t like the texture of my hair or the way I smelled. Maybe my voiced irked him. Maybe I reminded him of someone else. Whatever his reason, Max didn’t like me, no matter how hard I tried to please him. You’re probably thinking he was jealous, that he wanted Kelly all to himself; I thought that too, at first. Then I noticed how he welcomed the arrival of our friends and how charmed he was by Suzanne, Kelly’s former live-in girlfriend. I tried not to take it personally, but that bird was so shrewd he had me worried.

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/pokerbrit/9010421285/”>Steve Wilson – over 8 million views Thanks !!</a> via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>CC BY</a>

 

#lovewins

My partner and I have been together for three and a half decades. There were no cell phones in the early years of our relationship, and home computers were not yet commonplace. Imagine. No email, no Facebook, no text messages. We kept our eyes on each other.

We were living in Berkeley then, holding part-time jobs, because being separated for eight hours a day was inconceivable. I remember how we used to gaze at each other, in and out of bed, delighting in every gesture and freckle. Time went away, slid out the back door and left us in peace. While the rest of humanity continued somewhere else, we were locked away, immersed in a slow tease of mutual discovery. For approximately three years, until the trifling annoyances of modern living inevitably elbowed in, we were on our honeymoon.

Not an actual honeymoon. Marriage, honeymoons, wedding anniversaries—we were not allowed these celebrations, and, to be fair, we scarcely considered them. You don’t order what’s not on the menu, and we were too busy adoring each other anyway. Some of our friends were having “commitment ceremonies,” but these did not interest us either. We knew we loved each other—what was achieved by announcing it? There was something a little sad, we thought, about gathering in this way, exchanging rings and vows that meant nothing in the real world.

It was only later, when we began paying health insurance premiums and property taxes and school bonds, that we began to understand what we were missing. At the federal level, marriage confers at least 1,138 rights and protections; excluded from marriage we were disallowed these privileges. We could not adopt a child, could not file a joint federal tax return, could not draw one another’s Social Security or pension, could not get legal protection for inheritance rights, could not take dual advantage of a group health plan, could not make emergency medical decisions for each other, could not even be at one another’s bedside should a critical illness arise (same sex partners are not considered “next of kin”). We were registered as domestic partners, but that status was useless when it came to tangible benefits, and in fact only hindered the situation, making our tax preparation (one for the state, one for the federal government) more complicated and expensive. The only thing that domestic partnership actually did was illuminate its own inadequacy.

So there we were, multitudes of same sex couples, paying into a system that barred us from its benefits. Marriage, it was argued, did not belong to same sex couples. It was biblical. It was sacred.

I have always been astonished by the number of people who consider the bible a divine guidebook, who will not accept the fact it was written over a period of many years, by a dubious collection of authors. There is wisdom in its pages, and there is also stunning foolishness and spite. Trolling through this tome, one can probably find passages to justify any sort of bias. To leverage the law on this book, to define marriage in accordance with the bible’s arbitrary edicts, is impolitic and dangerous, a reckless mix of church and state.

The real history of marriage is far from sacred. Marriage was created, about four thousand years ago, as a means of guaranteeing that a man’s children were his biological heirs. In ancient Greece a father handed over his daughter for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring. Hebrew men could take several wives, while married Greek and Roman males were free to satisfy their urges with anyone of either gender. Wives were required to stay home and tend the house; if they failed to produce children their husbands could give them back and marry someone else.

By the eighth century the Catholic church stepped in and the blessings of a priest became a necessary part of the marriage ceremony. The church’s involvement did improve the situation for wives, forbidding divorce as well as infidelity, though wives were still expected to defer to their husbands in all matters.

Not until the Middle Ages did the concept of romantic love begin to alter the arrangement of marriage. Wives won some respect in this evolution, but the idea that a husband owned his wife persisted for centuries. When America was colonized by the Europeans, a husband’s dominance was recognized by a legal doctrine called “coverture,” whereby the bride relinquished her identity and surrendered her name.

The most dramatic change came in 1920 when women won the right to vote and were finally considered full and equal citizens. Women were the first victors in the battle for marriage equality. By the late 1960s, state laws forbidding interracial marriage were at last overturned. Now, five decades later, same sex marriage has received the same treatment. Fifty years. That’s a lot of opposition.

I came forward as a lesbian when I was twenty-two years old. The challenges involved, the ridicule I was headed for, did not deter me. This was what I wanted, who I was. My passage had been made a little easier by the gays and lesbians who preceded me, and now it was my turn to help. If we do not live our truths, how can we evolve? Living openly as a lesbian has made me tougher; it has also, conversely, made me softer, more achingly aware of the struggle faced by everyone who lives in an atmosphere of censure.

What surprises me still is the smoldering malice, the amount of time and money people have spent, are still spending, on stopping same sex marriage, as if their own lives are in some way threatened or diminished by it.

In 2004, when Gavin Newsome began allowing same sex marriages to take place in the city and county of San Francisco, my partner and I, anticipating legal backlash, waited. Sure enough, the Supreme Court of CA swiftly halted these marriages and voided the marriage licenses of four thousand same sex couples. In July 2008, a month after the court finally legalized same sex marriage in CA, my partner and I were wed, tearfully, surrounded by close friends and family. At that point we had been together twenty-eight years. It was our sweetest day, our greatest triumph. Our union was not recognized at the federal level, but this was a solid start.

I’ll never forget the night of the 2008 presidential election. We were jubilant, celebrating our first black president—how far we had come!—when someone said, “Prop 8 passed.” We stared at each other. What? It was true. Our rights had been put to a popular vote, and suddenly we were living in a state that left me and my partner, and thousands of other newlyweds, stranded. We still had our marriage licenses, they just didn’t mean anything. Not until Prop Hate, as we called it, was overturned five years later did we regain our legal married status.
We took Prop 8 personally because it was personal, as are all attacks against equality. To see the lengths that people will go to in an effort to deny others their rights, especially rights attached to an institution as benign as marriage, is to encounter hate, at a frightening bedrock level.

Laws of course do not change public opinion, at least not right away, but we’ll never get anywhere without a level playing field. This is where opposites attract, where “them” becomes “us” and “different” becomes “normal.” The biggest benefactors of the nationwide legalization of same sex marriage will be children. In making every household matter equally, in giving all parents the same opportunities, we have bequeathed our children an inestimable gift: the space to come together, the chance to be kind.

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