Bad At Small Talk

The Rabbit Goes Around The Tree…

My entire 20s are summed up thusly:

I was never going to get the tie tied.

I was standing in my roommate’s bedroom. Not my bedroom. I needed a serious mirror for what I was doing, and I didn’t really have one. My roommate, though, was the kind of person who of course would have a serious mirror in his bedroom. And boy I needed it.

I felt weird about being inside his bedroom, seeing as how he was at work and all and that bedrooms are intensely personal spaces. They’re where you sleep, and I think sleep is about the most intensely personal thing someone can do. I spend a lot of time thinking about sleep. Chances are, if you know me, I’ve visualized you sleeping at one point or another.

So I was an intruder in my roommate’s sleeping quarters. But screw it. I needed the mirror. No, check that. I needed a miracle.

I should have been in the car. On the road already. Leave for things early. Obscenely early. Always, always, always. Drilled into me from my dad. Yes, you’ll get there impractically early (bring a book if you must) nine times out of ten, but that one other time…when there’s a major traffic accident, you have to turn around because you left something at home, you suddenly get explosive diarrhea…you’ll be glad you left at 4 p.m. for a 6 p.m. awards banquet that’s 30 miles up the interstate.

This whole thing had given me an excuse to run out and buy a new suit. Here’s something you don’t know: I look great in a suit. Yes, I’m putting that on the green felt table. I. Look. Fantastic. Yeah, okay, so maybe remnants of a fat childhood make me still refuse to ever be seen shirtless, and my witty asides mask the fact that I really am sort of embarrassed about being the size of the average eighth-grader, and my inability to tan surely does me no favors…screw it. Put me in a suit, and I will go up against any man in any manly challenge of man confidence. I will bench more weight than you. I will uproot that tree stump before you. I will go home with your girl. I will fix the plumbing.

So here’s something else: I can’t tie a necktie.

Through college, where I had to wear a jacket and tie often (long story, not important,) I usually had a trusted friend tie my tie and then, ever so carefully, I would loosen it, loop it over my head and place it in my closet. Then, when it was tie time again, I would put it back on and carefully tighten it up.

No fuss, no muss. And after college, where my tie needs involved three seperate job interviews (all which led to jobs, thanks,) I would find someone to help me muddle through.

But alone, in my roommate’s bedroom, no one is helping me muddle through. My thinking seemed so clear earlier. I would go to the gym, work out to the point of feeling confident and in shape, return home, shave my face and head, shower, throw on my citrusy-smelling adidas aftershave (because when you think personal fragrance, you think adidas,) put on my suit and then simply type “tying a necktie” into Google, become instantly proficient, and then, then, arrive super-early to the university where (after sitting by myself in the parking lot and reading) I would walk into a banquet room full of journalists. I would have worked out, then put on the suit, so I would be radiating confidence, complete confidence, confidence enough to not even worry about the fact that none of these people know me, that even though I have been in their line of work and have worked in buildings with some of them, I’ve never gotten invited to their dinner parties and pub crawls and (at least when it comes to the journalists in their 20s or 30s) their ironic halloween costume parties.

It’s fine, because I am one of the winners, one of the honorees, someone who has single-handedly brought journalistic excellence to our fair state in the past year. And I want to look good and I want to radiate confidence and capability when I am introduced and receive my award, my award for simply being there when something newsworthy happened, and never mind the fact that what happened was terrible enough to make me not sleep, then drink in order to get to sleep, and then just drink whether I could sleep or not…I was going to radiate, dammit, show that I don’t need their dinner parties or their costumes or their grindingly boring conversations on free-vs.-paid content and the future of print and the rise of blogging and blah blah blah blah…

Those “How To Tie A Necktie” diagrams are just as impossible to follow online as they are in real life.

I break down. I fail. Because I know what I must do, and by doing it, I will lose my all-important glow of confidence.

I call my roommate. I ask for Help.

He is not at his office, as I thought he would be. No, no chance slipping in the back door, walking upstairs to his solitary, private office and closing the door while a man two years my junior has to, really, dress me.

No. He is breathing heavily on his cell phone. There are rhythmic whirring sounds in the background. He is at the gym. On the eliptical trainer.

Have you ever walked into a gym wearing a suit?

Bless his heart, he didn’t decide to tie me in the middle of the gym. No, he understands me, understands that I now feel very much like I’ve not accomplished anything, not truly, and that deep down I very much want to be invited to those dinner parties even though I find my job and just about everything surrounding it very mundane and boring and not worthy of off-hours re-hashing.

We go to the lobby.

And there, in the lobby, he places the tie around my neck and goes to work. And I’m sure it looks hilarious, especially because he is tall and I am not, and he is lanky and I am not, and he is in workout clothes and I am in a suit getting a necktie tied by another man in the lobby of a gym and I’m staring alternately at his Adam’s apple and my shoes.

(Okay, and also maybe it occurrs to me that my dad never thought to teach me this sort of thing. Not once. Nor how to make a bed, balance a checkbook, how credit works or how to cook rice. So at the end of the day, it’s not my fault that I am losing the confident glow that I was hoping would floor my colleagues. I can blame my parents.)

Why is he taking so long? Why is he taking so long? Good God, tie the thing already, I need to get on the road, people are staring, I’m sure, the whole night has been shot to hell anyway, it doesn’t need to be perfect anyway and…

“Doug Crise? Is that YOU?”

Of course. It figures. The only thing missing from this was a chance meeting with the mother of the girl I more or less pined for throughout college (and a year after), the girl who I could never get out of The Friend Zone with despite watching her go through dating failure after dating failure with men much more awkward than even myself…

“Oh, wow, it IS you, how are you doing?”

I have a man standing basically crotch-to-crotch with me. That’s about all that’s new on my front. How are you?

“Well, I’m sure you know that [DAD’S NAME REDACTED…ACTUALLY I FORGOT IT] died…”

I did know. He was fit, sinewy in the way that extremely fit older people are, ate perfectly, was a monster raquetball player and didn’t smoke or drink. Heart attack.

“But, better news, [DAUGHTER’S NAME REDACTED FOR OBVIOUS REASONS CONCERNING EMBARRASSMENT, MINE AND HERS, AND SHEER TERROR, MOST DEFINITELY HERS] is getting married!”

We’ve arrived at the Can’t Get Worse part of the tour.

“To a police officer!”

Whoops.

He finishes my tie after something like five hours.

“So what are YOU doing here all nice and dressed up?”

January 8, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lois

 I think my first memories of Lois were from when I was around four or five. The thing I loved about her was how grown up she seemed, far more grown up than even my parents. And I was one of those kids for whom adulthood was royalty.

 At the time, she lived on an upper floor apartment in The Plaza, an upscale eating-and-shopping section of Kansas City. She would often pay for things with money from her change purse, and that thing fascinated me to no end. I was too young to understand the concept of dollar bills (how could they be worth anything if they weren’t shiny?) but I was fascinated by coins. And when Lois snapped her change purse open, it would always have more coins than I had ever seen in one place. I thought she was extraordinarily rich.

 There were other things I loved about her, all of them having something or other to do with an aura of hyper adulthood around her. She worked part-time at Sacks Fifth Avenue, and while I didn’t understand why the store wasn’t located on Fifth Avenue and why it sold clothes instead of sacks, I knew she and the people she worked with had to dress nicely. One reason I admired grown-ups was that they dressed nicely. And I knew that grown-ups were supposed to smoke, and naturally, Lois smoked even more than my parents.

 But she was a kid where it counted with me: food. I, like most four-year olds, hated food. Lois did too. She dressed elegantly like an adult, but she ate like I would if my parents let me. Her favorite meal was always a slice of sharp cheddar cheese and half a can of cold Coke poured into a glass with no ice.

 When my parents moved from the city to the suburbs, Lois followed and lived in yet another apartment nearby. After a few years, a tradition was born. Friday nights with Lois. She would pick me up from Walnut Grove Elementary School (having a ride waiting for me at the end of the day, rather than getting on the school bus, always seemed awesome to me) and together we’d go to dinner. Not just any dinner, but Wendy’s. Lois would sometimes eat something, and sometimes she wouldn’t. I was well removed from my pre-school finicky eating at this point, and I enjoyed my cheeseburger, fries and Frosty. But the real treat was the salad bar (which Wendy’s had back then), because the salad bar had something called ranch dressing. And the salad bar had all my favorite things that tasted even better with ranch dressing: shredded cheese, ham, hard-boiled eggs, pepperoni. I eventually eschewed lettuce altogether, creating a kind of ranch-and-fixins soup. I would start dreaming about it usually by Wednesday.

 After dinner, I would spend the night at Lois’ apartment, usually watching ABC’s TGIF lineup. The anticipation of these Fridays was amped up considerably if that night’s programming involved the conclusion of a two-parter, as I was always keen to see if Uncle Jesse got his guitar fixed in time to jam with the Beach Boys or something.

 I would spend the night in the guest bedroom and sleep better and deeper than I would all week. The bed was bigger and firmer than what I had at home, but my favorite part was the smell of Lois’ apartment. It was a clean smell, a perfect smell. The perfect smell to fall asleep to.

 Saturday morning was breakfast and cartoons. Sometimes breakfast was peanut butter toast, but sometimes she’d spring some serious morning food on me…eggs, bacon, pancakes or the best homemade French toast to ever grace the midwest.

 Things happened after that. My parents divorced, which did not rattle me. My mother began demanding more from me in the way of hugs and hand-holding, which did rattle me somewhat. But more to the point, Lois moved in. And she brought her cooking with her.

 The first few years were good. Lois still made French toast from time to time (and spaghetti one would propose to), and she introduced me to things like grocery store paperbacks and afternoon talk shows. Because my mom was either working and constantly tired or unemployed and demanding hugs, Lois became my go-to person for the daily panic of pre-adolescence.

 Here’s when it started: I came home from school one day and, for the first time, found the front door to be locked. The door wasn’t supposed to be locked. It was supposed to be unlocked, I was supposed to open it, walk into the living room where Lois would be sitting, smoking and watching Donohue and I would yell “I’M HOME!” as if she were upstairs or in another room. It was a joke between us.

 Lois would unlock the door shortly before I got home. But not this time. Maybe she forgot. I rang the bell. No answer. And my 12-year old brain opened its limited file cabinets of possible scenarios, and found the one most logical. She’s hurt.

 Suddenly nauseous and sweating, thinking up worse scenarios by the second (cut herself in the kitchen…fell in the shower…choking on a piece of sharp cheddar cheese…a good old-fashioned heart attack) I ran to the backyard, grabbed a rock from the garden and smashed my way through the sliding glass door to our basement. I ran up the basement stairs, yelling for her, looking room to room, finally seeing her as she walked through the garage door with a bag of groceries.

 She’d been held up at the grocery store. She wasn’t dying. She wasn’t dead. But those three minutes that started when I found the front door locked opened an internal gate and let something out. Lois was a person. An old person. And she was going to die. She was going to die before my mom. She was going to die before my dad. Both of whom I also didn’t want to die, but not half as much as I didn’t want Lois to die.

 So of course the only thing left was for Lois to start dying. Which she did, year-by-year. The doctors took part of her lung, told her she needed to quit, took yet another part of her lung and told her that no, really, she needed to quit. The winters brought attacks of bronchitis so severe that she would wake up in the middle of the night, her room next to mine, and gasp “Oh…God…oh…God…oh…God...” Since my mother couldn’t hear the gasps down the hall, it was my job to walk to Lois’ room, calm her down, walk down the hall, wake my mom up (the phone was in her room), dial 911, go back to Lois’ room, empathize in the nicest way possible yet at the same time suggest that a cigarette would not help at present time, re-wake my mom up and wait for the ambulance.

 You would think I hate hospitals. Everyone hates hospitals. Yet the only good I could take from these post-midnight happenings was the subsequent trip to the hospital. Yes, she could be dying. I tried not to think about that. But here was the hospital, this brightly lit and moving thing existed and hummed while the rest of us slept. I had a bit of a childhood obsession with buildings at night, so circumstances aside, I loved being at the hospital.

 Eventually, I was afraid that if I didn’t hear Lois gasping when she had an attack, she would die. So I learned how to keep myself up in the winter.

 Lois was dying. She was also becoming old. There is a difference. Lois still cooked up a storm when feeling good, but she also began controlling my portions. I had become fat, she told me (nothing I wasn’t hearing at school,) and I needed to do something about it. Increasingly, she talked about Bruce, her youngest son, the Harvard grad, the eye doctor, the millionaire. Bruce was in good shape. I needed to be in good shape. Bruce played football starting in junior high. I needed to play football. Bruce made As. I needed to make As.

 Suddenly, my mom didn’t seem so bad anymore. She would cry, but she wouldn’t critique how I dressed. She, of course, demanded constant touching and physical contact, but she didn’t make me do sit-ups. She, middle child that she was, was also tired of hearing about Bruce. Lois was dying, Lois was angry and suddenly I loved my mother.

 We moved again. Now to Wichita. Now to start at a new high school. Mom working at Bruce’s medical clinic, the one with the family name on the sign. Lois in an apartment, rent paid by Bruce. Medical expenses paid by Bruce. Everything handled by Bruce. So my mom would resent Bruce more.

 Two years of bliss. Not much Lois. I wasn’t fat anymore, though I sometimes thought I was. For the first time in my life, I had friends, a social life. Awkward in junior high, I was finally given the pass key to the teenage world in this new setting. Gossip, girlfriends, drama, bad music…I was in with both feet. Lois still smoked. My mom had stopped demanding hugs, as well as a whole lot of other things. I was independent, popular, the kid who didn’t have a curfew and who wasn’t being pushed to do well in school. I was the kid who was allowed to do whatever the hell he wanted to do, and after over a decade with Lois, I was glad to find some new company. Some of my friends had houses that smelled even better than Lois’ apartment when I was in the fourth grade. Sometimes I slept at their houses, too.

 Lois had two days, give or take a few hours. On the floor with her own shit and wetness. I was in Kansas City visiting my dad. My mom usually swung by Lois’ on the weekends, but she’d just begun a new job, one at a high-end clothing store, and they were having a big weekend sale. Bruce was vacationing. So it took a while for us to realize we hadn’t heard from Lois. It was a stroke, and as for what triggered it, the doctors said it was one of those take-your-pick situations. The cigarettes? Sure. But don’t discount the diet, or lack of one. Cheese. Cokes. Chocolates. Point being, it hit and she was partially paralyzed. Couldn’t call for help.

 I still avoid doing much serious thinking about what those two days must have been like. Especially once the sun went down.

 I did not visit her in the hospital. [Here is where the author would place the moving, unflinching admission that he wasn’t scared, he just didn’t care. This is where he would be frank but charming in admitting that, yeah, in the summer of 1998, finding a girlfriend was a bigger priority at the time. Getting in shape for his senior baseball season was just a little more important. He’d find a way to say that the fun training-traumas of teenagerhood were just a bit more inviting than holding somebody’s palsied hand. He’d also concoct a way to point out that, remember, Lois had changed some, and those changes had done a real number on his self concept. And at 16, in no way was he able to grasp something so sophisticated as knowing that, well, sometimes old people just sort of GET that way, but that doesn’t change the years before they get that way. The ability to convey just that sort of thing in just that sort of way is part of why he started this very random blog which so far he has not shown anyone (though he certainly planned to, at least before this entry, so now he’s a little bit in vapor lock here, since he won’t better his writing without peer review, but would any of his peers really want to know that his whole response to his grandmother spending two wet-and-alone days on her hallway floor was to call his friends and tell them he was finally getting a car?), but he still has a pretty limited cache as you can no doubt tell.]

 Lois went from the hospital to a rehab facility to a nursing home (one of her biggest fears), and of course, all of this was handled by Bruce. For those interested in chronology, this all happened before the start of my senior year of high school. I did not visit her. I graduated and did not visit her, I moved in with my dad an stepmother in Kansas City and did not visit her, and I went off to college in Arkansas and did not visit her.

 I also never found an obituary notice. Not at first. Sometimes, when I wasn’t busy with Starting A New Life, I would do a Web search for Lois. Nothing. Nothing until 2003. All the cigarettes, all the rotten pieces of lung and for all of those two days, yet Lois lived a long time. Not just “longer than we ever could have expected,” but long, period. I had smashed a glass door to “save” her, and I had conducted sleepless vigils trying to listen for her telltale gasps, but it seemed my efforts were wasted. She didn’t need me. Or maybe she did. Maybe one of those nights when I did hear her gasping ensured she would live to see the 21st century. Whether or not she’d want to live that long given the circumstances is another question altogether.

 One thing about the obituary that I finally found, it listed the surviving family, including the grandchildren. My name was not included.

January 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment