I penned this short story back in 1999 (literally penned — like, with a pen, on a pad). Set in the aftermath of a boozy Saint Patrick’s Day celebration, it’s a pretty accurate reflection of how the world felt as I made the transition from my late 20s to being old enough to appear on thirtysomething.
By Way of Clarification
You lean your head against the door, feeling the doorbell button making a round divot in your forehead but grateful for the support, as you fumble first one wrong key and then the next into the lock. “That’s not it…” you giggle each time, as you try the key to your parents’ car, the key to your best friend’s house, the key to your desk drawer at work, the key to your gym locker. “Got it!” you say when you finally insert the right key, and as the door swings open you call, “Hellloooo Ralph!!!” happily into the dark. You stand there for a moment, swaying uncertainly, your keys in one hand and your backpack hanging by one strap from the other. You toss your backpack in the general direction of where you think the couch is, and then your keys after it. You bend to unlace your boots. “Did you miss me?” you ask, your voice muffled by your knees. You can smell the beer in your jeans, and your sweater still feels wet with it against your back. You find it difficult to bend over, because having your head below your knees makes you feel a little nauseous, and so you straighten up and try lifting your foot within reach of your hands, but can’t balance long enough to undo the shoelace knot. You try this foot-lifted method a few times, thinking that alternating feet will help somehow, but you succeed only in hopping around in circles in the hallway. Dizzy, you finally sit down in the doorway, and with enormous concentration manage to untie the laces of your shoes. “Look at this, Ralph,” you say as you work the beer soaked laces. “This is sad. These were NEW, and look at them. Ruined!” You get one boot off and toss it over your shoulder into the apartment. “Marinated in beer. And they weren’t cheap, either! And beautiful! Chocolate brown. Suede. And I couldn’t even afford them!” You get the second shoe free and toss it over your other shoulder. You peel off your socks, ball them up together, and toss them over your head. “Nothing but door,” you say. For a moment you consider just crawling from the hall to your bed, but you reject the idea that you are that drunk, and so you take a deep breath and get to your knees and then, holding the wall for support, you get to your feet.
You take several steps into the apartment and stop dead in your tracks. For a moment you are silent, trying to understand what it is you are feeling under your foot, and then you start hollering. “Goddamn it, damn it, damn it Ralph! Ralph you damned cat!” You have stepped in cat puke. It feels like a big pile too. “Ewwwwwwww!!!!!” you whine, almost crying. Utterly disgusted, you pick up your foot and hop to the front door to slam it closed, and then you hop to the bathroom, still in your coat, and do a bad job of wiping off your foot with wet toilet paper, muttering curses at the cat the whole time. When you think your foot is reasonably clean you go back into the livingroom, hugging the wall to avoid the puke pile, and when you reach the lightswitch you flip it on. The room is at once too bright, too lurid with color, and squinting against the light you see the puke, in front of the couch. It is not as big a pile as you thought, and though there is a footprint in the middle of it, you did a good job hopping and so it is contained in one area rather than tracked all over the floor. You lean against the wall and sigh. The floor needs to be mopped anyway and it’s not on any kind of fabric — couch, rug, clothes on the floor — so you decide you will clean it in the morning. This would absolutely appall your mother. Appalling your mother was a hobby of your youth, but tonight the thought gives you no thrill and for a moment you are concerned that not only are you not relishing this small rebellion, you are actually kind of appalled yourself.
The cat appears at the door to your bedroom, blinking sleepily but not at all ashamed of himself, the way a good dog would be. He approaches one of your boots and after sniffing it carefully he settles down and begins to lick it. “Thanks for not throwing up on the throw rug, Ralph,” you say, without irony, as you stumble into your bedroom, unbuttoning your coat as you go. You listen to the sound of rough cat tongue on suede. You know if the cat gets drunk from sucking beer out of your shoes he’ll probably throw up again (maybe this time, just for spite, on your bed) but you are too tired to care. Before dropping your jeans on the floor you pull a business card out of your pocket. It reads: Ferris Gold, Counsel, Meshanger, Tolchinsky, Shulman and Franklin. Ferris is the reason you are covered in beer. He and some other guys were standing up on the bar dousing people as they approached, yelling about the luck of the Irish and the baptism of St. Patrick, and he dumped a stein over your head. Furious, beer running into your eyes, you reached up, undid his jeans and pulled them down to his ankles before walking away. He was wearing boxer shorts with green hearts, and people applauded. You chose to believe they were applauding your audaciousness, rather than his underwear. A little later he cornered you by the ladies room. He said he admired your spunk and gave you a beer, a French kiss, and his business card. In that order. “Spunk?” you thought, holding the beer in two hands as he licked the lower half of your face, “Who under the age of forty says a word like spunk?” This kind of thing used to happen to you a great deal, but it’s been a while since anyone admired your spirit (much less French kissed you) and so you were flattered even though he’s the kind of guy who says a word like “spunk” right before shoving his tongue down your throat. Chances are good he’s another moron to add to your list of not-very-well-thought-out-encounters. You think you might call him. You are sure he won’t remember you if you do; then again, you got doused several other times before coming home but no one else gave you their card.
You strip naked and wrap yourself in your old blue terry cloth robe, patterned with recent stains from dyeing your light-brown hair jet black. You walk to the kitchen, taking care to step over the cat, who has moved on to your other boot. “Take it easy with that stuff, Ralph,” you say. Nothing in the refrigerator but cat food, batteries and baking soda. You actually aren’t hungry, but you have a sudden craving for pizza. If you eat pizza at this hour of the morning you’ll have heart burn and you’ll have to do an extra fifteen minutes on the Stairmaster. If you go to the gym. Which you probably won’t since you’ll have to wake up in four hours to get to the gym and make it to work on time. You stand idly in front of the open refrigerator, shifting your weight from one bare foot to the other, thinking about how you danced with Ferris to an old Bruce Springsteen song and when Bruce sang, “I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight…” Ferris asked you to come home with him. And even though you could feel his clear intentions through your jeans you said, “No thank you,” and what surprised you was that you weren’t being coy, you really didn’t want to. Much.
You go into the bathroom, which smells of overused cat box and Anais Anais perfume, and begin your Clinique three-step skin care regimen. Your mascara has run down your cheeks from the beer and your own sweat, your curly hair has frizzed into a clown wig, and you look a little like a heroin addict. You suck in your apple cheeks to enhance the effect, hating as always the soft roundness of your face. As you soap up for step one — Cleansing — you think to yourself for the thousandth time that you really ought to switch to the Prescriptives two-step regimen like your good friend Alix has been encouraging you to do, because it might save you a minute or two in the morning and because Alix has such good skin. As you rinse you hear the cat scratching around in his litterbox, and then he burps. Your mother believes that Ralph is named for Jackie Gleason’s character on The Honeymooners, but he is named for the penis in Judy Blume’s book Forever.
You pat-dry your face as the lady at the Clinique counter instructed you, and begin step two — Clarifying. As you raise the dampened cottonball to your face you are a little shocked at how pale you are. At the dark circles under your eyes. At the dryness of your lips. For a moment you don’t recognize the face. “I’m just tired,” you say to your reflection. This face is reminiscent of someone, but you can’t quite place her. Some memory circles lazily in the back of your mind like a sliver fish, and you are about to shake it off when you realize it’s your mother looking back at you. Your mother when she had that terrible flu and stayed in bed during your sixth birthday party, and you were so sure she was going to die. You turn your face to the left and then to the right, glimpsing your profile and the slope of your nose. You are intrigued and a little pleased; everyone always says you look just like your father but here is your mother’s face at the top of your neck. You pose for yourself, pursing your lips into a kiss, raising your eyebrows, squinting up your eyes to form wrinkles at the corners. You are about to swab your face with the cotton when it occurs to you, quite matter-of-factly, that you are almost no longer young. You drop your cotton ball and lean on the edge of the sink to get a closer look at yourself. This face of your mother’s that you are wearing now is the face of a grown woman with a six-year-old child. But you are no one’s mother, and you have never really thought of yourself as one of the grown-ups. You are still…evolving. You grip the edge of the sink with such strength you think at any moment you will rip out two handfuls of porcelain. “This is ridiculous,” you say out loud to no one. “I’m young, aren’t I, Ralph?” you ask. You watch yourself in the mirror, you watch yourself shake your head from side to side, slowly, the way your mother does when she means, “NO, and don’t ask me again,” and it’s too late for rationalizations. So you stand there in the bathroom of your overpriced tiny one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at two-thirty in the morning staring at your so familiar and so strange face and you know things you weren’t planning on knowing tonight.
You know the only radio station that plays the music you danced to tonight, the Top-40 soundtrack of your youth, is the classic rock oldies station. You know you are no longer the bold girl who smoked real pot in your high school’s production of Hair. You know you aren’t the warm and ready sixteen-year-old who melted to molten gold the summer you met a green-eyed boy with sorcerer’s hands. You haven’t been a virgin in over thirteen years. You’re on your third diaphragm, and not once have you slept with a boy, a man, you would even consider having as the father of your baby. You know you are not the college sophomore who somehow convinced your three best girlfriends to road trip to Niagara Falls one Tuesday…at midnight….during finals. Getting your three best girlfriends together now requires organizational skills that are simply beyond your patience. Everything in your life now seems to be rescheduled twice before it just doesn’t happen at all.
You lean your forehead against the medicine cabinet mirror and close your eyes. You are not one for revelations under the best of circumstances and despite fervently not wanting to know anything else you are stripped bare to yourself, some poor unwilling creature on a dissecting board, your skin peeled back and your still warm still beating heart exposed to the chilly air and no amount of wishing will sew you up the way you were just five minutes ago. On the inside of your eyelids you see the words “paradigm shift” printed white against black, as if on a blackboard. You recall discussing this concept at length in some class, but what you remember most is the sea. Imagine you are standing on the shore with the ocean rushing in at knee level, you once wrote in a paper that earned you an ‘A’, back when ‘As’ were the only currency that mattered. You have always looked out at the horizon line and thought, ‘This is the sea. It is blue-green and flat. It has waves. The sun sinks into it.’ Then, one day, purely by chance, you happen to look down at your submerged legs. ‘Oh,’ you think. ‘The sea has dirt and fish and seaweed and grass and rocks. It’s full of bumps and things.’ The sea has always been more than just the horizon, has always been deeper and fuller than you could imagine. You had only to look down to realize. Paradigm shift. You look down and the world isn’t at all what you thought it was. You look down and what you see is the bleeding tangled breathing underneath, where things can bite. Now that you’ve looked you’re sorry, and you fiercely want to force your gaze back to the surface, to look only at the airless thread-narrow place between sky and water where everything is just about to happen, where potential is enough. But it is two-thirty in the morning and you are still not Clarified, so you breathe deep and look down to meet yourself at last.
You look down. You look down and part of you really would have liked to die on the streets with Ferris tonight, but you are no Jersey girl and he’s no guitar-playing poet and you both have work in the morning. And even that’s not the truth of it. The truth is submerged further. And so you reach, and you dive, and the truth twists in your hands and cuts your palms but you grasp it. The truth is a yellow taxi not long enough ago, driving cross town to bring you home, sticky and sore, at dawn. You alone in the dark backseat, crying as the cab drove through Central Park. The cab driver not letting you pay the fare. When you told this story to your girlfriends you left out the important part, the part where you couldn’t remember the name of the man you woke up next to that morning and didn’t know where you were. Instead you laughed about the money the taxi driver wouldn’t take, said the driver was flirting with you. But the driver was old enough to be your grandpa and you know why he refused to take your money. You know what he thought of you, your short skirt, your knotted hair and salt-wet face. You look down and you’ve been running scared ever since that night, running hard from that girl whose first dates end alone in a taxi at sunrise. Not that what happened that night was a date. You haven’t been on what you could truthfully call a date in a very long time. You rotate your forehead to cool one cheek and then the other against the smooth glass of the mirror. You look down. You go to the gym not because it makes you feel great but because you are afraid of what might happen to your body if you don’t. You don’t eat pizza at two o’clock in the morning for the same reason. But no matter how much pizza you don’t eat and how many stairs you climb to nowhere it’s going to happen anyway. For now you are only wearing your mother’s face but the rest of her awaits you, the sagging breasts, the softening stomach, the expanding hips and behind. You love your mother, you have always thought her beautiful. But you fear her, do not want to step into her comfortable shoes, do not want to don her support bra. You do not want to soften into a shape that feels foreign to your own hands. You want to call up a friend, but you no longer have friends you can call up in the early morning just to chat. You no longer have friends who are artists or poets or actors. Your friends are accountants who have passed the CPA exam and account executives and in-house counsel. Your friends are married to people who weren’t your friends before your friends married them. They own things, apartments and furniture that isn’t from their parents or IKEA and cars and pets with respectable, if pretentious, names like Falstaff and Bovary and Hemingway. They have guest towels and dishes that all match. Even the cups. They have dinner parties. They are sleeping. The cat rubs against the back of your calves and you recoil from him, stifle the urge to turn around and kick him in his round furry belly. You love the cat. Lately you’ve even been thinking it might be fun to get another cat so he’ll have company, but some nagging thought has stopped you and now you know it is a vision of yourself, years from now, alone, with cats. Two cats become four cats become six cats, and there you are with them all, your life spent and what’s left of it filled with selecting the perfect cat toys and buying large bags of Science Diet that you can’t carry up the stairs. You have the inexplicable urge to call up your mother and tell her you need new shoes for spring. This is ridiculous because your mother hasn’t bought you a pair of shoes in years. Your throat starts to hurt as you realize she said nothing at all when you dyed your hair black, which makes no sense because after all she went ballistic when you were nineteen and dyed your hair red. It is terrible, the worst thing, that your mother no longer cares what color your hair is and takes no responsibility for what you are wearing on your feet. And knowing all of this, seeing it all so clearly in this ordinary early-morning moment between Cleansing and Clarifying, it is awful that your house is dirty, that your cat is drunk, that your refrigerator is empty, and that kisses from strange men named Ferris continue to interest you even a little. It’s embarrassing that this is your real life. It is shameful you aren’t further along by now.
You lean against the mirror for a while longer. At last you stand up straight, release your death grip on the sink and stretch the tension from your hands. You take a breath that hurts in your throat and your chest. You dampen another cotton-ball to Clarify your face, and with it wipe away the few surprised tears that have run down your wind-blown and beer-reddened cheeks. While the toner dries you scoop the cat box and add fresh litter, mop up the almost dry cat vomit from the living room floor with Murphy’s oil soap and paper towels, and move your ruined boots into the hall. You scrub your hands with soap and hot water as if you have just come in from playing in the backyard dirt, and soothe your rough face with step three — Moisturize. As the rich cream soaks into your face you take a notebook from your knapsack and on the first blank page you make a list of things to do:
1) Prescriptives counter — two-step skin care regimen
2) Clean apartment
3) Meet a man I would consider having as the father of my children
4) Clean out closet
5) Shoes for spring
6) Night cream
7) Food shopping
You double lock the door, turn out the lights and carry the cat into bed with you. He settles into the crook behind your knees, and you are grateful for him, his warmth and company. You don’t sleep for a long time, and when you finally do you dream in vivid colors; first of black-haired, green-eyed boys who are too young for you now, of blood-red cars, of swimming hard against a sucking current in a purple-red warm ocean. But later, closer to sunrise, you dream of daughters with your light-brown hair and their father’s gentle eyes.