I would have made a badass 19th century fight club socialite.
Soon after my 14th birthday, my family and I made a trip to Cairo to visit family. During the barren social wasteland that was the 3 weeks I spent in Egypt, I wanted nothing more than to make some friends. Not an easy task, given that the cousins who were with us were all significantly older or younger than my sister and I.
Most afternoons found my family attempting to cool down in our hotel’s swimming pool. I burned phenomenally within the first week, and from there browned like a rotisserie chicken left on the spit too long.
One day I was enjoying myself in the pool by imagining that I was a mermaid. Michael Phelps hadn’t been invented yet, but it was essentially his porpoise-like stroke that I practiced unsuccessfully in the busy pool, pretending that my legs were a tail and that my smile had the power to dazzle an underwater kingdom. I was enjoying myself immensely and felt very carefree, very Ariel.
Until BUMP, a rogue swimmer crashed into me. I surfaced, my face inches away from a big, spluttering black broom moustache. “Sorry,” I mumbled and swam away, shaking my head over the clumsy gracelessness of certain people Unfit for my imaginary cartoon drama.
Soon after, I was delighted when a friendly girl who looked about seventeen approached me where I rested at the pool’s edge. We talked, and she introduced herself. I felt in my bones that I was finally making a friend.
“I’d like to introduce you to my brother,” she said. I was game, so she left and came back with none other than Broom Moustache. Confusion crossed my face as my new friend quickly excused herself. It turned out that his name was Ramen (like the noodle), and he was a wealthy Kuwaiti waiting out the gulf war in Egypt. At a certain point, fairly soon into any conversation between a fourteen year old girl and a 30 year old man, one runs out of things to say. The fact that I was constantly looking over his head to catch sight of his sister, my New Friend, didn’t help matters. As soon as I could, I excused myself.
Poolside as I dried myself off, my mother was astonished to witness two 30 year olds, one scantily clad and incredibly muscular, and the other with a black moustache taking over his face, approach her daughter. I walked over to meet them, and Ramen and his cousin asked if I would like to “take a walk along the Nile” with them. I was still unimpressed with Ramen, but his ripped cousin was a different matter. I returned to my mother, “Mom, this guy Ramen and his cousin want to know if I can take a walk with them along the Nile. Come ON, Mom, please?! What’s the problem it’s just a walk and I’ll be right back and they’re right there waiting for me so come ON!” My mom just never let me do anything fun.
I walked back over and gave them the sad truth that I was a girl repressed by her family, destined to live behind a veil more powerful than the hijab. Ramen asked if he could have my address in America. “Oh sure,” I said, and wrote it down for him. “Yeah, we can be pen pals.” “Well,” said Ramen, “I’m traveling to Canada in a few months and so really I could just come by.” I was horrified at the prospect of entertaining Ramen on my home soil (his cousin had retreated and was no longer In The Picture at this point), and I was also struck dumb by the apparent riches that would cause anyone to consider a jaunt from Canada to California so casually. Despite my dismay, I utterly lacked the skills or the personal presence to give more than a half-hearted “Oh.” Not to be deterred, he also asked for my phone number at the hotel. I gave it to him, desperate to end the conversation…forgetting that our hotel phone number corresponded to our hotel room.
Back in the hotel, my mother gave me to understand what a 30 year old Kuwaiti man’s intentions are when pursuing contact with a fourteen year old girl. The formal introduction by his sister. The talk of bipping over from Canada for a visit. I nearly threw up when she spelled out for me that 30 year old men routinely marry teenage girls in many parts of the Middle East.
So you will understand why, when Ramen called the next day to ask whether I could join him and his family for a drive, I did not persist when my parents flatly denied permission. Half-heartedly I thought about his younger cousins, potential friends I might meet if I went. But no, it wasn’t worth it. Always marring the picture was the pesky image of a dad-aged man with a moustache so thick it was actually glossy.
I thought after the phone call that Ramen had really received the message, but I was wrong. One morning close to our departure date, my parents went downstairs to buy something, and my sister and I were left alone in the hotel room, watching Dances With Wolves dubbed over in Arabic.
There was a knock at the door. I went to the peephole and saw Ramen. “TURN OFF THE TV!” I exclaimed to my sister. “It’s RAMEN and he’ll HEAR us!” The amount of clamor we made, first arguing over whether to turn off the TV, and then laughing at his persistent knock, was enough to give Ramen the impression that I and about 20 young virgins were whooping it up inside, just beyond his reach. As his knocking continued, my feelings of vulnerability increased; so I did what any budding young woman, any prospective bride and potential matron of a Middle Eastern mansion would do. I hid under the bed, held captive by laughter in a fetal position, willing Ramen to go away before my parents got back. He did. And that was the last I heard of him.
This is a story about the day a friend of mine brought her brand-new moped to church (a favorite hangout for my friends and I when we were teens). “Anyone want to take it for a ride?” she asked. Always one to volunteer for something exciting that I am unqualified for, I put on the helmet, seated myself and a put-putted away. As I crested the slope of the church parking lot, a parked car, perpendicular to me, came into view. I suddenly realized that I had not practiced turning, and unlike the simplicity of a bicycle’s handlebars, this moped’s steering area was substantial and seemed, in my disoriented panic, a fixed thing, not something to be turned from side to side. Given that state of mind, you will understand why grasping the accelerator felt more manageable, more capable of producing directional change. Instead of swerving, as I had hoped, the moped gave one final burst of energy and lunged into the side of the parked car with a fantastic bang.
The bike bounced back a couple times as though startled, then began keeling over like a debutante in need of smelling salts. As it descended, I went with it, a funny vertical helmeted figure slowly going horizontal. The bike met the pavement, and I scrambled out from under it, assembling myself into a cross-legged position. I must have looked strangely Zen, sitting in meditative repose next to the scene of an accident as my friends ran up the hill to reach me.
In all, five or six teenagers with anxious faces were running up the hill while one remained behind, laughing a great big belly laugh. I felt resentful; the least others can do in such an unexpectedly foolish situation is refrain from guffawing in the face of one’s stupidity. My friends reached me, and I pulled off my helmet. “I’m ok, I’m ok. Yes, I really am. No, my legs aren’t broken, I just thought I’d cross them since I was already down here.” The moped owner looked the bike over and found that the plastic guard in front was cracked. Exclamations and moans followed; the moped was not insured yet, and she was not supposed to have ridden it until it was. She was in big trouble.
A mechanically-inclined friend asserted that he could fix the cracked guard, and began working with the plastic. I had no more notion of how a plastic crack could be fixed than I did about steering mopeds, but I prayed silently that he would somehow, magically if need be, maneuver that crack out of existence—which he apparently did. I had not actually seen the crack to begin with—in fact, the moped appeared to my dazed eyes very much like I think an infant views a television: a chaotic combination of form and colors that makes no linear sense. Thus, I have a very confused memory of that moment of triumph, but I seized the opportunity to tick at least one problem off my list.
As for the dented car, we did not know who it belonged to. The only option was to wait until the owner rejoined it, so we waited. In fact, we were having so much fun “waiting” that by the time the owner got into his car, we didn’t even notice. Someone caught sight of it pulling out of the parking lot, and we all ran en masse to catch up. The car slowed down in the middle of the street, and the bewildered driver rolled down his window. Gasping, I told him about his right back fender. He laughed and waved aside the twenty (!) I offered him as compensation. “One more don’t make much of a difference,” he said, and then drove off. I watched the rear of his car fade into the distance, the setting sun creating shadows upon its dimpled surface.
While we’re on the topic of living in the wrong century, I thought I’d share a little bit about the exaggerated sense of pride I fostered during childhood. Today’s topic takes us back in time to the feudal era, when lords were just a half-head below kings, and the average Joe would have been born a serf, destined to work for little more than rent in the dukedom.
See, there’s the problem. I’m no more special than your average serf, but somewhere along the line I acquired the desperate sense of pride and honor normally reserved for earls and princes. You’ll notice that I am using masculine titles, though I am a woman. This is partly due to the surprising fact that there is no feminine for “earl”, and partly because the only sort of honor a woman was allowed to earn back then was from never, under any circumstances, and at no point in her development, having sex. So, we shall stick with “earl” and “prince”.
To continue, this unearned, unjustified, and outmoded sense of pride was prevalent throughout my youth. I have a memory of being about eight years old, playing with a friend who had come over for the afternoon. My mother popped in to remind me about a chore I had promised to do and then had forgotten about. She was irritated, and this irritated me, but beneath my irritation was indignation. I was indignant that my mother had offered me so little dignity before my peer. Now, my mother had not been mean or nasty, but I was embarrassed by the way she so unceremoniously exposed her base annoyance, and beyond that, revealed me to be a sluggard. Which I was. I hardly ever did my chores. And so you begin to see what I mean about the “unearned and unjustified” pieces of this picture.
Had I actually been born during the feudal era, there would have been a code to follow, a prescription for this particular dilemma. I could have stood up with an erect carriage (that’s “posture”; get your mind out of the gutter), one foot in front of the other, with chest puffed out and chin held high. I would carefully remove one glove, then half-heartedly pat my mother’s cheek with it (smacking your mother across the face with a glove is clearly against the code), saying, “Thou hast questioned mine honor, and forsooth I shall require of thee thy blood. I challenge thou, my uncouth and indecent foe, to a duel!” My friend would have tied her hair ribbon around my arm, and then it all would have been up to the favor of God, or the respective years of fencing practice I and my mother had put in. If I lost, I would be forever shamed. If I won, my honor would be recovered. People would pass me in the streets, whispering, “See that girl? She’s the one who proved she didn’t have to do her chores.” Don’t ask me why superior swordsmanship justified a person’s point of view; this was the feudal way.
As it was, there was no code, and I had to make do with excessive politeness, while I maintained a position of injured outrage underneath. Fortunately, over time I’ve grown more resilient. Small matters such as this no longer damage my sense of dignity. That enlarged pride, which I picture like a mal-developed organ taking up more room than it reasonably should, has shrunken down to healthier proportions. Even so, every once in a while I find myself looking into the aggrieved eyes of a child who is valiantly trying to maintain her dignity. Perhaps a friend made a thoughtless comment. Perhaps her parent is treating her as though she is a mere child of nine when in fact she is ten. Whatever the cause, I always take the greatest care to address her gravely, respectfully; to communicate that I clearly recognize her as a girl of honor.
Since I’ve already referenced my trademark 19th century formality in my blog description, I thought I’d take the bull by the horns and expand on that a little. I was raised by conservative parents, who were suspicious of most forms of media that hadn’t already been around for a hundred years or so. Fortunate for me, this led me to fritter away most of my waking hours reading books. Not just any books, no; the tween chick lit that my classmates pored over was too worldly, so I was (again, fortunately) forced to reach back to a kinder time, a more modest time—the 19th century.
Louisa May Alcott (who, it turns out, was very feminist for her era), and L.M. Montgomery (whose ironic humor seems lost on most people who read Anne of Green Gables) were my favorites, but there were more. And, as a result, my formative years were spent reading and daydreaming in a different world than the one I existed in. A Courtly Word, where even those smitten by tragedy had the presence of mind to beg pardon for uncharacteristic displays of emotion, and small children used complex sentence structure. This is why, when I meet someone via a casual comment over the snack table at a party, I cannot shake the compulsion to offer my hand and tell them how nice it is to meet them…even if it’s 10 minutes into the conversation.
I have the uncommon ability to infuse even the most laid-back exchange with stiffness. The other day while on the phone with my sister, I uttered the following sentence, “I’d like to issue you an invitation to come down for a visit over Memorial Day.” This is my sister. We grew up together. Additionally, she happens to have nerves of steel. I could spit a centimeter away from her shoe and she wouldn’t bat an eye. “Issue you an invitation”? I suddenly see myself in knickers and tights, with a huge feather drooping from my hat over one ear. I hear the tap, tap of my horse’s hooves as I pull up in front of my sister and roll out my scroll. Reading from it, I continue, “Be it known to all and sundry, on the thirty-first day of the fifth month, in the year two thousand and ten of our Lord, We do herein issue an invitation for revels and merrymaking, and all manner of sisterly frolics, such that are appropriate, and in accordance with the laws of this land.”
The same goes for affectionate exchanges. In fact, it seems that the more touched I am, the more formal I become. A friend need only compliment me, and I can feel my jaw line rising from the invisible starched lace collar that pops right up. “Ahem,” I’ll begin, “I’d just like to say that your words touch me deeply, and may I assure you that the feeling is truly mutual. In fact, I have come to regard you with respect as well as the highest friendly esteem.” Only the confused look on my friend’s face, that big question mark that hangs in the air between us unsaid, alerts me that it is probably time to gather my fan and calling cards, loop my skirt over my arm, and exit.
If you are a friend of mine on facebook, where I originally posted the two pneumonia stories below, you may have noticed that there was never a follow-up after that last entry about terrifying my cats with my penumonia persona, and Emily’s resulting Catholic conversion. This is because around that time my life narrowed dramatically in scope, with a primary focus on phlegm. No matter how lively and entertaining I tried to make it, I knew in my heart of hearts that phlegm is not a topic that anyone wants to read about. Period.
Time has passed; I’m healthy and phlegm-free, and ready to tell you the events of this, the last chapter, let it be hoped, of my pneumonia story.
Today was the day of my follow-up lung X-ray, to confirm that the pneumonia is well and truly gone. I made my way back to the dungeon, carefully avoiding the parking lot, toll booth, and parking lot attendants in general.
I haven’t set foot outside my apartment in two and a half days. Long about midnight, I told M that I needed to get out of the house, even if just for ten minutes, and that I needed him to drive me somewhere—anywhere—even if just around the block. He agreed, and we commenced preparations. M gallantly let me wear his big blue hoodie, and produced a surgical-looking mask to protect my lungs from the night air. I donned the mask, pulled the hood over my head and wrapped a scarf around my neck. I was ready.
Armed with a Kleenex box, I took M’s arm, and with the air of a delicate grandmother, began the walk to our carport.
A little bit of context: I’m sick. Very sick. Went to the doctor’s today, and she was concerned about pneumonia. She sent me straightaway to an X-ray lab to have a look at my lungs. Now, the driver’s side window of my car doesn’t roll down, so when I pulled up to the little toll booth in the lab’s parking lot, I tried to get the attention of the man inside the booth to give me a hand. Unfortunately, he was transfixed by whatever he was watching on his portable TV, so I nearly had to yell, in a fake-sprightly tone of voice, “Excuse me! My window doesn’t roll down. Could you give me a hand?”